Case Study: Designjoy, the solo design agency making millions

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In this case study, we’re going to dive into the basics of the process (from what we know) of how Brett from Designjoy has built an almost $2M solo design service. First, the business model.

Designjoy Business Model

Unlimited design for a fixed monthly price. Clients add unlimited designs to their queue and Brett works on them one-by-one with a 2-day (or less) turnaround.

Pricing in 2017 was $467pm to $849pm and is now (as of 2022) at $4,995pm to $5,495pm – see current pricing.

Clients would compare this monthly cost to the cost of hiring a full-time or part-time designer. As Brett notes in his first FAQ “Why wouldn’t I just hire a full-time designer? Good question! For starters, the annual cost of a full-time senior-level designer now exceeds $100,000, plus benefits (and good luck finding one available). Aside from that, you may not always have enough work to keep them busy at all times, so you’re stuck paying for time you aren’t able to utilize. With Designjoy, you can pause and resume your subscription as often as you need to ensure you’re only paying your designer when you have work available for them.”

Services include:

  • Websites
  • Mobile apps
  • Logos & branding
  • Design systems
  • SAAS
  • Wireframes
  • Stationery
  • Pitch decks
  • Slide decks
  • Direct mail
  • Infographics
  • Brochures
  • Signage
  • Brand guides
  • Social media graphics
  • Billboards
  • Trade show banners
  • Email graphics
  • Resumes
  • Business cards
  • Packaging
  • Blog graphics
  • Digital ads
  • Icons

Add-on services, for a per-project price, are animations, custom illustrations and 3D design (coming soon).

 

Designjoy Sales Process

Usually from word-of-mouth, potential clients land on the Designjoy website, a single page, interlinked Webflow website that outlines what the service does, the benefits of the process, recent work completed, the scope of work for the service, the price of the service, FAQs about the service and a portal login page using Memberstack.

Side note: Clients can also be referred to the business through Brett’s Rewardful partner program where the referrer gets paid 5% of the monthly fee ongoing. This doesn’t add any cost to the client package.

Clients can choose a pricing plan or book a 30-minute pre-sales call with Brett (currently Tuesdays, open for 1.5 hours or Thursdays, open for 3 hours).

 

Current Designjoy Onboarding

As I’m not a client (yet), I’m basing the process on how Brett has described the process through his Twitter account and through his IndieHackers podcast interview:

  • Client generally books a 30-minute pre-sales call with Brett using Calendly
  • Following the discussion, both the client and Brett will know if the client’s expectations can be met by the service
  • Client signs up via MemberStack
  • Using Zapier, a Trello board is created with instructions on how to use the board, information sections for design links (Figma) + Branding (stored in Trello) + Subscription management (MemberStack link) + columns for workflow
  • All ongoing client communication is via comments on Cards in Trello
  • Brett also uses Intercom for website chat and for a knowledge base

 

Designjoy Service Delivery (client experience)

I am, again, piecing together the client experience but would see the process as:

  • Create new Trello cards at the base of the Backlog column. Cards include title for type of work, a description of the work and any attachments
  • Potentially move around the cards so the more urgent ones are at the top
  • Drag across the first design task for Brett to the Active Request column
  • Get an email notification when Brett comments on the card
  • Back and forth of any changes via email or Trello notifications
  • Happy with the design? The card gets moved to the Approved column

 

 

Designjoy Service Delivery (staff experience)

Let me take a guess at the experience for Brett:

  • New sign-up notification! Woohoo!
  • Some type of reminder to check new client accounts to ensure they’re doing the basics of onboarding (adding brand assets, adding backlog cards)
  • When the client moves their first card to Active Request, a Zapier zap pushes across the client name, card URL, description wording and a delivery date (request date + 2) to Airtable and sets a status as Not Started.
  • As Brett works on the requests, filtered by delivery date in Airtable, he updates the status to In Progress, Awaiting Response, Revisions Needed, Awaiting feedback. Airtable can be set up to filter and sort based on multiple columns into specific views
  • Brett handles the workload in Airtable and adds comments in Trello for the client.

 

 

What I Love About The Process

There is plenty to love about this process. Brett has mastered his craft of design but also knows how to offer an abundant, unlimited design service with constraints. The constraints, like no ongoing phone calls, unlimited meaning one design at a time etc, aren’t deal-breakers and don’t adversely affect the value-delivery to the client. Here are a few of the many things I love about this process:

  • The sales onboarding is simple and matches Brett’s branding choices because of his use of Webflow and MemberStack.
  • The client experience is simple because they’re using Trello (generally on their desktop) to load up their design queue, see progress and also clearly see the long column of work already completed. They can download the Trello app to see design work, comments and progress when out of the office. Using email only wouldn’t have these benefits – as a client, you send your request into the abyss, get a response, forget where the process is up to and end up doing the quickest thing possible to get an update, make a phone call. This leads to needing customer support who are contacting the designer all day with expected completion times, revision requests etc.
  • FAQs are simple, direct and on-point
  • Using MemberStack features of being able to pause and resume subscriptions. I could imagine someone needing a resume, business cards and a website could use this.

 

What I’d Look At Changing

The process definitely works but I’d look at a few ways to change the process to help with scaling:

  • Using forms for specific design request types – will help if Brett decides to outsource and will get more structured design requests, cutting down on communication
  • Have checklists for processes – can be embedded in current process and this will help with potentially growing a team
  • Add a field for “In the hands of” – this will help visually show whether Brett is waiting for a client to give more info
  • Add a design audit process as an add-on – this will help clients who struggle to fill their backlog and will increase the length of client engagement
  • Ensure that clients have simple ways to add teammates – having more people using the system can increase the client’s engagement
  • Consider even simpler systems – there are a few tools that could work like a combo of Trello and Airtable. These tools would provide more structure for design requests, would allow for a Trello-like Kanban view, would have automated workflows triggered based on stages or actions, could show reports to clients, could allow for free guest access for clients & colleagues and would allow for cloning of spaces for easy client onboarding.

 

The Elephant In The Room: Scaling

Brett is an agency of one who has done a phenomenal job providing a service that nailed a client’s brief. The only problem in an agency of one is when little blessings like this come along:

…which can lead to this:

Brett has mentioned in his comments how hard it is to find designers to extend his agency. For some businesses, this doesn’t make sense as there are often 100 people who could take on parts of the process and allow the owner to work more “on the business” instead of “in the business”. In Brett’s case, I can see how he has distilled design trends, mixed them with his experience, refined his craft to deliver quickly and ended up being the most valuable part of his business.

How do you scale a business like Designjoy?

Some of the main ways to scale a business like Brett’s business are:

  • Clone yourself (ok, not really possible)
  • Streamline client interactions using tour videos instead of onboarding calls (takes away from the vital first client connection and leads to potentially mismatched clients)
  • Outsource certain design scopes like pitch decks, ads, icons etc (a possibility)
  • Have staff or freelancers build the frameworks for certain projects i.e. Brett recommends a style for a resume and then a freelancer does the data entry part before having Brett finish off (a possibility)

I’m sure there have been many freelancers who are disillusioned when they realise that their business isn’t a saleable asset because “they are the business”. I can see how Brett wants to deliver ongoing value to his clients but he can’t scale himself (plus he has the slightly demotivating factor of keeping clients grandfathered in on lower-priced legacy plans). What’s my advice for scaling?

Recommended Short Term Option – outsource the most productised, low-touch offering

From experience, Brett would know the requests with the lowest number of comments (let’s use the example of resumes). If he set up his Trello boards using Labels (categories) or Custom Fields, he could have clients select “Resume” and this would automatically, via Zapier, push the request over to his outsourced resume designer who has access to another of Brett’s Airtable bases. The design completes the request in the Resume base then changes the Status column that triggers a notification so Brett can check the work and then add to the client’s Trello board.

This keeps the communication between Brett and the client intact but could add friction if there is back and forth around the design. I’d recommend this option as the easiest way to keep the systems going as-is but add a layer of support.

Recommended Long Term Option

To scale this business you need 10 Bretts…or you need to transfer Brett’s skills to others. But would Brett want to become a manager as his main job? It is a common challenge to have a designer who doesn’t want to be the manager as they love their craft. I’ll finish out this case study with some alternative options for the future of Designjoy:

  • Add the outsourced option above – takes off some of the pressure and could be scaled to $5M ARR before the checking process becomes too much. Set up even simpler systems to streamline this.
  • Sell the business – it seems too early as Brett is the key person in the business and the main asset
  • Partner with other agencies willing to come under the unlimited design business model with Brett handling the vetting of new agencies and manages the systems of scaling this – a major part of buying a business is the set of systems that make up the business. This option gives room for a buyer to take over the business and follow a process to keep scaling the business
  • Add the outsourced option above but use the extra time to teach other agencies how to build their own agency of one via a paid community, cohort-based course or regular online course – this has a huge ability to scale as Brett delivers the value of how to create great work, work fast and manage clients

 

Final Thoughts

Excellent work by Brett in creating this process and refining the skill he has created over many years. I hope he finds a way to get his time back so he can spend more time with his family, teach others how to build their own agencies and grow his business without taking over his life.