Out in the Sticks: The Joys & Challenges of Running a Design Business in a Small Community

I led an hour-long morning roundtable at the recent Creative Freelancers Conference in Boston (part of HOW Design Live) called Out in the Sticks: the Joys & Challenges of Running a Design Biz in a Small Community.

Designers from PA, MI, TX, Cape Cod, NY, CAN, and even AK discussed our location-based issues while acknowledging that living in the sticks can lead to a higher quality of life (low cost of living! access to nature! it’s quiet & peaceful, there’s no traffic, pollution levels are low!) helping balance work life with personal life. Here’s some highlights from our conversation:

  • We’re always encouraged to narrow our market and focus our services. But can we still do this when we have a limited pool of prospects to choose from? If we did that, we might never have any local clients – there aren’t enough appropriate prospects in any one market. Is a design business only appropriate in more urban areas?
  • The readily available industry may have no money to spend on marketing services (ex: mushers in Alaska, or wineries in the Finger Lakes region of Central NY, where I live)
  • Prospects do not understand the value of design. Is it our job to educate them? A useful tip that came out of the conversation in response to this challenge is try networking with a young professionals group (in my area, this group is called IGNITE, where they are more likely to “get” what designers do, value our services, and make qualified referrals.
  • Participant Amy Caracappa-Qubeck‘s unique challenge with her locale on Cape Cod, MA is that it is a vacation destination – so the population, at least during the summer, isn’t interested in business relationships.
  • How do we network with others in our industry and nurture our design community?
  • Perception obstacles abound: clients may think you don’t have the same design chops as those in a metropolitan area (Laurel Black describes this phenomenon in her blog article, “Urban Refugee Syndrome” ); while prospects from your small community  – if you’re from “away” like I am, having started my business in New York City – may assume you’ll be too expensive.

If you were you there, what else did we talk about? What did you take away from our talk?

Finally – designer or no, do you live or work in the sticks? What are your unique joys & challenges?



3 thoughts on “Out in the Sticks: The Joys & Challenges of Running a Design Business in a Small Community

  1. Sounds like the roundtable was great – sorry I missed it! Having worked in “the sticks” since 1980, I can attest that all the discussion points mentioned above are ongoing challenges. For instance, the limited prospect pool: I have never been able to specialize in a niche. I think of myself as specializing in my community. Over the last 30 years I have come to understand how to communicate and market here – what flies and what bombs, what will resonate and what will turn people off. This comes from being deeply embedded in the life of the community. If you want to earn local business, you can’t hold yourself aloof.

    The smaller the town, the shorter the feedback loops. Relationships are everything, but they take time. When I started, I was coming out of a studio position and didn’t bring any clients with me. They all had to be developed from the ground up, and that meant I didn’t make much for a long time. If you are contemplating a move to the country, try to retain your current client base so you will have work while you reach out to local clients. If you serve a particular niche, that can sustain you while you learn to apply your expertise to local needs.

    I have been able to learn about many different kinds of businesses and have found the diversity of clients fascinating. No project is ever the same and every day is different. Many educated, interesting people have chosen to move to the country, and working with them one on one is highly rewarding. My only regret is that up until a few years ago, I was too isolated professionally. Thanks to forums and blogs and things like CFC, it’s easy to reach out to colleagues and stay current.

    Thanks for the post, Julia – I hope you will continue to post on this subject.

  2. Laurel, you bring up some points that I can definitely relate to. That was my tact when I moved to the country – I tried to retain my current client base from NYC – now, 5 years later, I’ve had some luck and some failure. I do try to keep current with NYC prospects by keeping my toe in the water there.

    I love my new community and have worked with several wonderful clients and great projects. But I’ve decided that i need to pull my client base from a larger geographical area in order to make a living, and will be focusing my marketing efforts on that soon (including a re-branding and new website). Your point about being considered aloof in this small community – that concerns me. I can see this as entirely possible, and should consider taking part in activities that might counteract this perception (for instance, participating in local fundraising activities).

    Also check out this same post & convo on the CFC blog – https://www.creativefreelancerblog.com/designers/are-you-running-a-business-from-the-sticks/#comment-67651

    Thanks again Laurel!

  3. Hi Julia –

    Thanks for the links to the Small Town Designer group and the Biznik article! I have joined and read. I think the biggest mistake I’ve made as a designer in a (very) small town was to have allowed myself to be so isolated for so long. Thanks to the Digital Age, that is a thing of the past.

    To elaborate on being perceived as aloof: we have to be careful not to be unconsciously influenced by small-town sterotypes ourselves, just as we hope we will not be judged by them in turn. Many times when I have made assumptions about a person or client as to their levels of understanding, budget, etc., I have been wrong. The seedy-looking guy tooling around in a beater pick-up could very well be a millionaire several times over, who has gone completely “country” after making it huge in real estate. Or he could also be the guy who fixes your drainfield. Either way, he could probably use your services, and it takes a bit of patience to figure out the best approach for any given prospect. Keeping an open mind sets a good example for the client who will be judging us as well.

    I am interested to know how you are going to retool your brand and web site. Can you elaborate?



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