business advice | Dec 26, 2019 |
11 top tips from business coach Sean Low in 2019

As the year winds down, we’re looking back at the best stories of 2019—including some essential strategies and sound bites from Business Advice columnist Sean Low. Here, his pointers on getting hired or promoted, starting your own firm, running a design business, and managing client relationships with ease. (Want to read more from Low? Start here. Have a question of your own to ask? Drop us a line.)


On what to expect from your first job: “Please show up wherever you choose to go with the idea of planned obsolescence. No one expects your first firm to be the only one you work for in your career; there is nothing wrong with coming in with an idea of what you want to learn and contribute and knowing you will be moving on later. The key is knowing what you want to learn and contribute. The power of self-determination is an awesome one if you choose to exercise it. Your employer does not owe you anything other than an opportunity—the rest is up to you.” (From “What firms should I apply to for my first design job?”​​​​​​​)

On adding value to a new firm: “You are no longer the student receiving an assignment—you are there to add value, and that means you have to stretch. The best firms have idiosyncratic (iconic) processes that they rely on religiously. This is their Kool-Aid, and you have to drink it. You also need to know that you can help them change flavors if it would be a better version of what they seek to be for their employees and clients.” (From “​​​​​​​I just got a new job. How do I put my best foot forward?”​​​​​​​)

On how to get promoted: “No one is going to bestow the opportunity to prove your capabilities—that is, and always will be, up to you. The question you have to ask yourself is where you want to be indispensable and how you can solve a problem nobody recognizes (or even thinks is a problem).” (From “​​​​​​​My firm values my admin skills, but how do I show them that I’m capable of more?”​​​​​​​)


On how you’ll know when you’re ready to go out on your own: “To quote Mike Tyson, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ And make no doubt about it, you will be punched in the mouth as you navigate launching your own business. There is no guarantee of a safe landing, let alone a safe trip. So, to answer your question: You will know you are ready to go when you are confident enough to know you are a little bit nuts for wanting to leave.” (From “​​​​​​​I think I’m ready to start my own firm. How do I know if the time is right?”​​​​​​​)

On what’s off-limits from an old firm after starting your own: “Your old firm paid you to do work on their behalf, and as a result they own whatever it was that you did; any project that is midstream is definitely off-limits. That said, unless you have a non-compete agreement (which are notoriously hard to enforce), you are free to use anything that is in your brain or that is public knowledge.” (From “​​​​​​​I’ve recently started my own firm. Can I reach out to past clients and vendors?”​​​​​​​)


On a fair ROI on taking your team to a trade show: “If you are paying for your employees to attend, it is only fair that you should reap the rewards of the investment. To me, that means deliverables—for example, a written report on the most interesting trends, styles, products; a list of contacts made; or a summary of educational topics presented. To be even more specific, I would suggest that you ask your employees to share at least two viable opportunities you can put in place in your design business that will reap a return, financial or otherwise, in the next six months to a year.” (From “​​​​​​​Do I pay my team extra to come to High Point Market with me?”​​​​​​​)

On whether or not to give an end-of-year bonus: “The key point to grasp is that while bonuses are a way to communicate success, they are not, in fact, communication. You have to be invested in why the money is being paid and its relationship to the success that you alone have determined has happened. Without that commitment to the conversation, bonuses more often than not do exactly the opposite of what you intend—hurt morale, not help.” (From “​​​​​​​The right (and wrong) ways to give your team a bonus”​​​​​​​)

On successful succession planning: “The point of legacy is not just to carry on the name you started, it is to ratchet it up to new heights. Consciously creating a fire in the belly of the person you choose to do that work is a great way to ensure success.” (From “​​​​​​​Is it too early to start thinking about a succession plan for my firm?”​​​​​​​)


On why every designer should take an improv class: “Improv teaches you that once you say no, the act is over; there is no place to go after no. In the context of your design business, it is the client who gets to decide whether or not you are the right designer for them—but once they do, clients do not get to decide on your willingness to be a chameleon. You have to be willing to say, “I have thought about what you are asking of me and my firm, and even though it isn’t how we usually work, here is how we would consider taking on your project.” That’s the yes—but on your terms.” (From “​​​​​​​Clients’ demands don’t align with my process. How can I find a way to work with them?”​​​​​​​)

On how to negotiate with a client asking for more options: “Imagine the client gave you a lump of clay and you were confident you could sculpt something amazing with that lump. Now they want to double the amount of clay you have. Is that the same sculpture, or do you have to start over? It’s certainly much easier to do if you have not started sculpting yet. If you have already started, you need to be paid to start over. The further down the road you are in the process, the higher the price.” (From “​​​​​​​My clients willingly go way over budget. What should I do?”​​​​​​​)

On believing in your work: “Integrity is being capable of doing the hard thing. No, you do not want to fire your client—but it is your art, your vision, and your client needs to know that you will walk rather than endure substandard work.” (From “​​​​​​​My indecisive client is driving me nuts. What should I do?”​​​​​​​)

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