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5 Keys to Growing Your Design Business Exponentially

You’re a successful design professional, and naturally, you want to grow your business. There are three primary assets you need to grow a design business or any consulting business for that matter: 

  1. A great reputation
  2. The time to work on your growth plan
  3. The money needed to execute it

But what can you do if the latter two are not in great supply? A lot, actually.

Image metaphor for growing a company out of coins - image shows coins in 3 stacks with varying degrees of growth (shown as plants) coming out of them

I’ve spent my career growing service and product businesses, small and large.

Having bootstrapped startup businesses, to having the luxury of a $30 million marketing budget, I’ve learned that certain fundamental growth strategies offer far more power than the time and money needed to execute them. 

For this post, I’m going to assume you have fewer resources since that’s the reality of most small businesses. In that light, here are five strategies you can consider to get some real traction without breaking the bank, or burning the candle at both ends.

I call them "multipliers".

1. OPM

No, I don’t mean "other peoples’ money". I’m referring to leveraging other peoples’ mouths.

Seagull yelling "Spread the word"

When I ran a regional retail bank, I used to tell my branch managers, “You can either grow your business by talking about our products and services to everyone you meet (known as one-to-one marketing), or you can create a program that encourages others, or even entire organizations, to do the promoting for you (think about it as, “one-to-one-to-many” marketing).

Leveraged marketing is simply the process of creating a system whereby others do much of the work for you, because they see a benefit in doing so.

For example, my bank managers were responsible for growing banking relationships, usually through getting new checking account customers as they walked into a branch. But that’s a very slow way to grow a business.

Instead, OPM means they needed a way to talk to one or two people, who would, in turn, communicate our message to many, many more. So we encouraged them to go to local businesses, and other affinity organizations, and offer to provide something special they could offer to their employees or members (one-to-one-to many), which also made them look good.

In many cases, that single sales interaction resulted in someone else promoting our company to tens, hundreds or even thousands of employees or members.

While design firms are not banks, the rules work the same way. 

As a designer, you know people that may be willing to promote your services if you offer something special to their membership, customers, and so on.  Think about that for a few minutes, and the lightbulbs will start to go on.

 Lightbulb drawn on a sticky note and pinned to a cork board with a red push pin

For example, does one of your clients belong to an organization where you can help them feel special to their fellow members by providing a free hour of design consultation?

Ahhh, that could be a door opener, couldn’t it?!

Or maybe there’s a local real estate company with a couple dozen agents who can point to you as a go-to person for their clients in exchange for your referring clients to them.

Or even better, start by offering your time to present “The Latest Trends in Design” at the realty’s weekly sales meeting. And if you get a lead or a job, celebrate it with that group to show your appreciation.

It's just a matter of getting creative with the groups most likely to have an overlapping interest in working with you. 

2. Find Something New to Add to Your Offerings

New Sticker - Orange, Red, and White

We can get so involved in what we are doing that we don’t realize there are other opportunities to generate new forms of revenue with little or no more effort. 

While in banking, I saw the data breach trend mounting, and the identity theft risk to my customers was becoming increasingly real. To make a long story short, my team created a partnership with LifeLock® to become the first bank, anywhere, to sell Lifelock products right on our bank account opening system.

That single collaboration added a new product, that we didn’t have to create, to our revenue stream. It was there waiting to help our customers all along. We simply had to recognize the need and begin offering it.

Profit grid upward trend

I brought that model to my current company, ExactMats®, and again saw the potential of offering something to designers, cabinet manufacturers, car dealers, and others who were in a position to promote our products in a way that would genuinely help their clients, without having to develop a new product or service themselves. 

Car Dealers

Car dealers knew their clients would dirty or damage their car floors. They also knew that there were protective mats out there to help prevent that from happening, and saw an opportunity to bring that aftermarket revenue into their dealership.

Our product happened to be clear and fit perfectly, and savvy dealers adopted the product as a way to add revenue to each car sale while offering something they knew the customer would genuinely need.


We’re seeing even more profound results in the design space, particularly when it comes to protecting cabinetry and furniture.

It turns out that the majority of consumers use some kind of protective liner (often kitchen and bath shelves and drawers, desk drawers, on tables, etc.) to keep their vulnerable surfaces from becoming damaged. We knew that if we could get the word out to designers that they could offer clear, made-to-order protection to their clients, we would at least get some nibbles. And here I am doing it again. 

So we now have designers across the US and Canada providing our products to their clients, with little or no work on their part. They generate extra income on each design job, because they discovered something new and relevant to offer to their clients.

3. Be Known for Something

Do you see your self as a designer, or do you see yourself as a design guru with a unique expertise, skill set or ability?

There are a lot of designers out there, but like any business or artist, those who excel have a reputation for something. Think about it. If you don’t have a reputation for being special in some way, you probably have a reputation for not being very special.

Exactly what you develop a great reputation for isn’t as important as that when your name is mentioned, something specific will come to mind about who or what you are.

Are you known for always keeping your promises, without exception? Or are you known for having a special flare for kitchen ergonomics? Perhaps you are able to get ridiculously good pricing for your clients or have access to products most others don’t. Whatever it might be, select something where you can stand out. That’s your brand we’re talking about.

ExactMats®, for example, is known for making the finest clear, exact-fitting surface protection – with a customer service ethic that’s earned us a five-star Trustpilot score. You can be known for more than one thing, but you must be known for something.

5 star rating 

4. Broadly Position Yourself As An Expert

Who do we view as “experts?” Experts are the people who really know their stuff, right? Well, sort of.

Experts are those people we read about, or those we hear speaking, or those who win awards, or those whose name keeps coming up in conversation. Notice I didn’t mention knowledge, because we view people as experts, in a reputation sense, as those who have a platform for recognition.

This is a dynamic you can create by finding opportunities to speak, opportunities to write (if even in social media posts), opportunities to be interviewed by the trade or consumer publications, and opportunities to enter your work into competitions. 

Each of us builds our reputation. But hard work, and quality work, are slow-growing snowballs. Instead, getting yourself/your name out there not only provides great exposure; it provides a platform you can use as further credentials that you are considered an “expert.”

5. Leave Something Behind

When I promoted checking accounts, I would always give customers a free gift. Why did we do that? 

Well, without getting into the details, a George Foreman grill or Igloo cooler was a take-home reminder to our customers about the bank each time they look at or use the item. 

Really though, try combining this tip with tip #3 and see what happens to your business. For example, perhaps you’re the designer who always ends a project by giving the client an unusual Swarovski crystal sculpture, or a really cute set of dish towels, or a nice vase.

All you need to do is slip in the comment to your client that if anyone asks where you received the item to tell them about you and how wonderful you are. You can do this “tongue-in-cheek” with good humor, appreciation, a wink and a smile. 

Whatever it is you leave behind as your signature gift, make sure it’s something that is different.

 black and red gift boxes with ribbons

So there you have it. Start with those five ideas. In fact, start with just one of them if you’d like, and you’ll see each impact your business in ways you could only imagine.

Ken Olan is Cofounder of ExactMats and speaks on growth and innovation strategies across the US and Europe.

For more information on ExactMats, please visit



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