Why Graphic Designer Scott Santoro Doesn't Use the Term "Freelance"
Now almost 30 years into his career as a small business owner running his own design studio in New York City, Scott Santoro has learned a ton about how to find new clients and what it takes to run a business with all the right pieces in place.
We asked Scott to share his top tips for identifying the right people who can help you succeed and why he loves using LinkedIn ProFinder to get new project leads.
I formally studied graphic design at the Pratt Institute. After school, I worked for about five years and then went back to school to get my graduate degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art. The chair of my department asked what I planned to do after graduation and I said, ”I think I’ll freelance.” Luckily, she suggested that I not use the word freelance, but instead set up my own small company so that I could literally jump into starting my own design business.
By creating a brand around my own company, rather than just "freelancing," I was able to have more control over the kind of design work I wanted to do. I hired a bookkeeper, registered my business name as Worksight in New York City, and that was it.
How did you get your first client?
My first client was a furniture company in North Carolina. Previously, I'd done a small project for them while I was in grad school, and that came in as a referral from a friend. They were happy with the logo I made, so they contacted me to do a really big project: a brochure and catalog for their furniture company.
I sat in my little apartment in Brooklyn and designed the whole thing myself with paper and pencil — this was 1988 so it was pre-Mac! I didn't even have my own computer yet. I even got to go down there and art direct a photoshoot on site.
A month after they sent out the final brochures and catalogs, Knoll Furniture called them up and offered to buy their company. They declined the offer, but was thrilling to know that my designs and all the work we put into that brochure worked! That was my very first project, and it started small but ended up blossoming into something much larger.
How do you find most of your clients today?
I find a lot of my clients on LinkedIn ProFinder. I respond to a number of proposals and briefs that are out there, and I hear back from some. Usually, after I do a project, it often turns into something bigger.
For example, I just did some work for the Pace School of Education in New York City and I found them through LinkedIn ProFinder. I responded, they responded back, and I've ended up doing quite a bit of work for them.
Otherwise, a lot of it is word of mouth and a lot of it is hustle. I've learned that you have to be flexible and you have to go with the flow. Sometimes, even when you have a giant client, something could suddenly change. The marketing director leaves, or the company moves. All that means is that it's time to get back to hustling so that I can find another client.
How do you price your services?
There’s an equation I use that starts by deciding what you want to earn per year. Then, I add in additional labor that I will pay for and overhead costs like rent, electricity, application costs, etc. for a total of X dollars.
Next, I add up all the days I will work minus holidays and vacations, being sick, playing hooky, etc. I divide that total number of hours into my X amount. And voilà!
What does a typical day look like for you?
I have two sons, so I get up with them, make them breakfast, then send them off to school. Two days a week in the morning I teach a class at Pratt. Otherwise, I head straight to the office.
I start by going through my agenda for the day, and I decide what I want to work on first. The phone starts ringing around 9:30am, so I'm also juggling calls and appointments. If I need to meet someone in person, I'll jump on my bike and ride there. Because I'm in New York City, I can get anywhere.
I work until 6pm. Even though I work from my home office, I try to quit working at 6pm. However, I love what I do and I often find that I'm drawn back to the office after 8:30pm.
Even when I'm not working, I'm jotting down little ideas on my iPhone or in a sketchbook that I carry around with me. Then, I pop back into my office when I have a little bit of time to mess around with ideas.
What are some of the biggest surprises that you've encountered after almost 30 years of having your own small business?
I've learned that work hardly ever lands in your lap. I thought that with all my experience, clients would find me. I quickly realized that you have to work for it. You have to be constantly hustling for that next great project.
Is there anything you would differently if you were just starting out today?
I would have learned the language of business much earlier by taking classes and going to events like the AIGA Gain conferences. There’s a kind of protocol that business people have that I didn't learn in design school. It involves doing the proper amount of research for a project and explaining that in your proposal. I also wish I had learned more about having an efficient time and cost schedule, as well as how to handle phone and email etiquette.
What are you working on mastering next?
I want to learn how to be a better writer. I earned my chops writing a 360 page graphic design textbook for Pearson Education, but what it did was cause me to appreciate writing even more. Writing is becoming even more important and being able to do it with ease is a gift.
Do you have any tried and true tips for your fellow small business owners that you can share with us?
1. A lawyer whom you can turn to for legal advice on leases, overdue invoices and the basics on liability. A lawyer’s hourly fee will be much higher than yours, but it will be worth it.
2. An accountant to help you with bookkeeping practices and government tax requirements. An accountant will be able to recommend whether you should start your business as a sole proprietorship (a business owned by one person), as a partnership (each partner being liable to the other) or as a corporation (the business as a separate entity from the individuals who compose it). I also prepare my end-of-year-taxes by book keeping with QuickBooks.
3. A bank specialist to help you create a business checking account and suggest ways to handle day-to-day transactions.
4. A professional printer or programmer who can guide you through production processes such as file preparation and finishing techniques (trimming, folding, binding or programming languages). Nurture loyal relationships with your collaborators who will be there for you as you grow your business.
5. A service that helps you find potential clients. For example, LinkedIn ProFinder can help take some of the hassle out of the constant hustle. For a relatively small fee per month you can to respond to client leads, with a total of five proposals offered back by LinkedIn members. The nice thing is that even if your proposal isn’t accepted, you can still stay connected for potential work in the future.
What do you want to learn from our community of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
I'm curious to hear how others here feel about retirement. What do they want when they get older? Is there an ideal retirement age for people who have their own businesses, or do they just keep going on and on?
I don't mind the idea of not having a set retirement age for myself as a designer, but I'm curious how others in different professions feel about it. Do they want to retire if they can? When they do, do they find that they are missing that spark that they loved about having their own business?
As I get older, I'm not sure how I feel. Right now, I'm okay with not having a retirement age and just working until I die. But is there another route to take? Is it possible to find other activities that you love to do just as much?
How are *you* thinking about retirement as a small business owner or self-employed professional?
If you have similar questions to Scott's — or if you already have a well-defined plan for retirement — we want to hear your story below!
Share with us below how you're thinking about your retirement age as a small business owner or self-employed professional. We can't wait to hear your thoughts! :-)
Why Graphic Designer Scott Santoro Doesn't Use the Term "Freelance"
What Scott is suggesting is so important to small business owners and anyone contemplating retirement. The reality is everyone should contmeplate retirement because sooner or later it will happen. I retired a few years ago and quickly learned I was not as prepared as I should have been. I had a pension, savings and eventually social security which was good. But I was not prepared for the taxes that come in retirement nor with the distribution rate to ensure the "pot" keeps providing.