Interview with John Emery

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

Out of high school, I wanted to go to art school. I specifically remember a conversation with my father in which he said, “What about graphic design? It’s an art major that you can probably make a living with.” So I decided to go to Endicott College: School of Visual & Performing Arts, which was still an early program at the time. The small classes and inventive professors really allowed creativity to be present during my education. They welcomed whenever we “reinterpreted” the assignments in clever ways.

After college, I got hired as a full-time designer at a church called Harbor of Hope. For the next 4 years, I designed print materials, branded sermon series, worked on video projects, built websites and worked with different ministries as their in-house designer. Thinking back on it, it was like a bootcamp for learning to understand the dozens of different facets of running a creative agency. Timelines, multiple clients, thinking inside the box (embracing limitations), and carrying a strong thematic message through it all.

In 2014, our freelance clientele grew to be substantial enough that we wanted to file to become an LLC (to protect us from any future disgruntled lawsuit)…

And Emery Creative was born.

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

After we officially launched in 2014, we were committed to being “all things to all clients.” Like all newbies, there’s a strong temptation to serve everyone with a need. And in some ways, I think it’s a very refining season for young designers / agency owners. You can’t niche down if you don’t experience the breadth of project types out there.

It’s basically impossible to clarify which hurdle has been the “biggest”… But two specific ongoing struggles come to mind.

First came the balance (and eventual transition) from full-time work at the church. At first, my time was basically split 95% at church and 5% on Emery Creative. I would work during evenings and weekends on client work. In 2015, it transitioned to 75% Harbor of Hope and 25% Emery Creative. I began spending a week day at home. In 2016, it was around 50/50, and now it’s closer to 20% Harbor of Hope and 80% Emery Creative. This was a long transition, but it was handled very graciously by the church’s leadership, and if it had been any faster we might not have been able to support it from Emery Creative’s side. Now the work I do at church is all passion-driven, not paycheck-driven, and I’ve fallen in love with the “bi-vocational ministry” life.

The second struggle we’ve faced has had to do with niching down. I alluded to this earlier. We started out as a broadly focused creative agency for all business types. I kept hearing podcast episodes say “The riches are in the niches!”… But we didn’t have clarity about how to niche down. Lo and behold… All it takes is a few nightmare projects in a row to begin to get a clear picture! The first layer of niche that we recognized was clientele. We recognized that a vast majority of the projects we were working on were with Startups (and/or solo entrepreneurs). So we began focusing our messaging on serving Startups. We trademarked “Your Startup’s Best Friend,” positioning our company as a one-stop shop for all creative elements a Startup would need.

After a year or so of this focus, we recognized projects coming in that were way outside of our strength areas. We’d have clients want websites with very robust membership functionality or video projects that were more like documentaries. Again, we had a moment of clarity around a second layer of niching down: project types. We realized that we loved the branding projects (both strategy and visual identity), and everything else we could take or leave. We decided in later 2016 to primarily focus on being a ‘Branding Agency for Startups.’

Here we are, just a handful of months into it, and we’ve seen great alignment on our team. We know the projects to say yes to, and which ones to stay away from.

Do we still take projects that are outside of this niche? Absolutely. But those choices are calculated. If they’re not a Startup, we want to make sure they have an entrepreneurial attitude. If it’s a rebrand, the client must be willing to put everything back on the table (like a Startup) and essentially start from scratch. We keep what works, and scrap everything else. No sacred cows. Likewise, if a Startup needs something outside of the “branding” wheelhouse, we’ll try to accommodate (within reason). If we can swing into liminal space and serve them above and beyond expectations, great! If not, we’re comfortable pointing them to a specialist outside of our team.

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

This is a great question… And one that I don’t have a sexy answer for. The most successful way I’ve found to land clients is to make it really easy for people to contact me. The most powerful tool I’ve used is the phone call. I probably have 3-5 phone calls a week (a strict 30 minutes in length) with prospective clients. We have this incredible little scheduling tool on our website called Calendly. It links directly to my Google calendar and only shows times that I’m available as options for people to schedule calls with me.

Once they schedule a call, they get sent a link to our “speed dating” form, which is our way of qualifying leads. Why do we have the client qualification after the scheduling of the call? Because growing a business is all about relationships. If they don’t have a budget to work with, they’re still worth talking with. I’ll point them to cheaper resources like 99Designs or trying to build a website themselves using Squarespace. If our quick phone call ended up blessing them and pointing them in the right direction, they’ll remember us… And they’ll tell their friends.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

There was once a visitor at a cattle ranch that was amazed by the endless miles of farming country with no sign of any fences. He asked the rancher how he kept track of his cattle. The rancher replied, “Oh, it’s simple. Out here we dig wells instead of building fences.” We take the same approach with our clients.

Some agencies rope clients in and sign contracts that end up feeling like fences. We believe in having clear beginnings and clear endings to projects (outside of our few annual retainer clients). For web hosting, we plug the client’s billing info directly into the registrar and hosting company. We don’t want to be the middle man.

Instead of being territorial, we regularly make suggestions to our clients that refer them outside of our agency… Which counter-intuitively promotes their trust of us.

It’s a dance. We let them know we’re very interested in working with them, but we hold the relationship with open hands. People love the freedom, and they typically end up sticking around.

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

We’ve been very lucky to have very few clients raise issues with payment. It’s been very helpful to have clear standards for payment schedules, and to honor them, even when you want to just jump into the work. We require 50% deposit on all work before we even schedule the kickoff call / meeting. Then we require the next 25% halfway through the project, with the final 25% required before we hand over final deliverables. If it’s a website, we don’t give them login information until they pay the final 25%.

The few times we’ve had trouble clients, we’ve gently flexed our power over the project, and they’ve responded well. We once had a landscaping company that went radio-silent for months, refusing to pay the final amount. We simply logged into their website (because we hadn’t given them access) and put up a splash page that said, “Our page is under construction, please check back soon!” and the client paid that evening. This isn’t a place to be brutal, but to be stern. We once had a client pay us to implement some specific code to their website, and when they didn’t pay for the work, we went back in and removed the code. We have the code saved internally, and we’re ready to copy/paste it back in whenever they send us payment for it. (We’re still waiting :))

Most clients deserve grace. But a few require challenging them. Take 30 minutes today and build “standards” around payment schedules, then talk about them with clients like someone else made them up. “Yeah, this is how we do things.. It’s how it’s always been!”

6. What does your typical work day look like?

Oh man… Which day of the week?

They’re all different, but they follow a similar pattern each week.

Sundays: Speaking or leading worship at church.
Mondays: E//C Team huddle via Google Hangouts, afternoon at church for staff meetings.
Tuesdays: Full day of E//C work, doing client work and talking with prospective clients.
Wednesdays: Morning is E//C work, afternoon is at church to meet with our Teaching Team.
Thursdays: Full day of E//C work, wrapping up the work week.
Fridays: Sabbath.
Saturdays: Open.

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

A few random things come to mind:

Don’t compare your “behind the scenes” with everyone else’s “highlight reel.”

“Eat the fish and leave the bones.” You can learn something from everyone.

Don’t be afraid to double your hourly rate. We more than tripled ours from $50/hour to $165/hour and the next client didn’t bat an eye.
If you hate certain types of projects (or type of clients), don’t agree to work on them. What’s the point of running your own gig if you can’t choose what to work on?

If it’s not a “Hell yes!”… It’s a no.

Be generous with your designer friends. Refer people to them. Share the wealth.

Prioritize your soul.

Connect with
John Emery

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Interview published on: Mar 16, 2017

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