How I Turned My Passion For Puppers Into A Thriving Design Agency
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey, Fur Friends! My name is Kaila Piepkow and I am Owner and Principal Designer at Dox Design, and dog-mom to three spoiled dachshunds. I’ve been a (mildly) crazy dog lady my whole life, so naturally, when I started my own design agency I decided to niche down and focuses on pet businesses and animal lovers.
At Dox Design we put the spotlight on exceptional pet businesses and products with drool-worthy branding, website and packaging design. Our bread and butter is branding and graphic design. We do everything from logos, to postcards, to tradeshows, and more. Dox Design aims to ensure your aesthetic is in-line with the message you want to portray to your audience. By taking the time to build a relationship with our clients, we make the most strategic decisions to develop top-notch brands.
We strive to make great design accessible to everyone—even brands starting out with a low budget. That’s why we’re very excited for the upcoming release of our online store. This is where brands will be able to go to purchase templated designs, ranging from business cards to stock photos, to upgrade their branding. Be on the lookout late summer for the launch here.
Since launching my design agency in 2016, we have grown from around $4K in monthly sales to roughly $12K a month. In our highest month, we had over 12 clients and did $22K in closed business.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Dox Design was kind of a happy accident. I had the fortunate experience of working in the agency world after I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in graphic design, getting into one of the top design agencies in the Midwest and working with some pretty cool national brands.
I was on the fast track to working in a big city like New York which I thought was always my dream… but I quickly realized that working environment wasn't for me. I hated leaving my dogs every day and working a lot of long nights to meet deadlines for projects that didn’t totally inspire me. So here I was, still a fresh post-grad and thinking my career path isn’t what I thought it was going to be.
Identify where your sales are coming from and put your focus there. In today’s world, it’s really easy to fall into the comparison game and feel like everyone else has it figured out—when in reality, that is far from the truth. Stick to what works for you and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing!
To combat my lack of inspiration, I started freelancing here and there on the side doing “passion projects”. Naturally, being a dog mom and engrained in Grand Rapids’ dog community, most of my first clients were dog-walkers and pet-sitters. I quickly saw there was a gap of beautiful branding in the pet industry—every company used the color palette, the same iconography, and the same, premade logos! Woof (literally).
This sparked a passion in me to educate pet businesses on what we have coined “drool-worthy design.” I didn’t just want to be another design agency— I wanted to be something special that really spoke to a group of people I understood. So, I saw a gap in the market and filled it.
Lucky for me, everyone in the pet industry knows each other, so I was quickly introduced to several Facebook groups and amazing “petprenuers,” which was my ah-ha moment that I could actually make a business out of this.
After about 6 months of freelancing under my own name, I filed for an LLC Dox Design (named after my doxies, of course) and before I knew it, the business took off! I was being invited to speak on branding to pet businesses and groups—a subject that wasn’t being tackled and really needed to be.
Take us through the process of getting started.
When first starting out, I didn’t plan to open up a studio... I thought freelancing would be my thing. Like any person first starting their business, it was a side hustle. So it was all trial and error in the beginning, from pricing, to software usage, to billing—it was all very unknown to me.
Fortunately, working in the agency world provided some insight into how the business side of design worked, so I was able to use that knowledge to fine-tune Dox Design upon launch.
My biggest struggle was figuring out my service offerings and how I wanted to present it to potential clients. There are SO many freelancers and design studios who all do things a bit differently, so at first I was a bit overwhelmed deciding where I fit in. Ultimately, I found my sweet spot by just getting out in the real world, directly asking what people wanted and what they were willing to pay for.
I quickly realized the four things I was consistently asked to design were:
- Branding and Print Design
- Website Design and Development
- Packaging Labels and Design
- Social Media Graphics and Support
Packaging and Website Design Services By Dox Design
Once I was able to get into the groove and have a consistent flow of clients, I was able to slowly raise my prices and get to a spot where I felt I was operating with a purpose and no longer winging it.
The startup costs for me were super low (besides my four year degree… ha!) I already had my computer and design software so the only other costs I had to take on were billing/contract software. That is the nice thing about offering a service over a product to start: the overhead is super low.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I actually ended up launching my business the day after I got married (crazy, I know). I planned it for about 6 months leading up to make sure I had everything in place.
As a designer, I was able to easily create my company’s branding, website, and social media ads all on my own. Again, my start-up costs were little-to-none since I had already been freelancing, so all I needed was to get my business name out there with a few budget ads and outreach to my current pool of freelance clients.
I slowly started joining a bunch of Facebook groups that targeted pet business-owners and would post design tips on there at least once a week so that people would start to see my name. Meanwhile, in the back-end, I was getting everything set up for my business: filing for an LLC, opening a bank account, building my website, photographing my portfolio, launching social media accounts, etc.—all while also planning a wedding, so it was a crazy time!
I ended up launching my business by creating a video that captured my story and business. The day I launched, I activated all my social media accounts and posted the video while sharing it to all these groups I had been a part of. One thing led to another and people started sharing it, which in turn led to my website. That week I had signed on three clients for website redesigns.
I wouldn’t change a thing about my launch (except maybe the timing—moving into a new house, getting married, and launching a business were EXHAUSTING). But that is part of the entrepreneur lifestyle: work and life are mixed. :)
See video here:
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
This is a constant stressor for me as an entrepreneur—we’re bombarded with so many “experts” telling us to do this or do that to grow your business. My first year in business I felt like I needed to do everything but quickly realized I was spreading myself too thin.
My biggest advice is to focus on yourself and your business only—don’t compare yourself to your competition. Social media makes it ridiculously easy to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome and think you need to live up to what everyone else is doing
Within Dox’s first year, I relied solely on social media advertising including a mixture of Instagram ads and Facebook groups. This worked for a bit, but I quickly tapped out of my network this way, so I decided to really fine tune my strategy my second year in business, outlined below. I am a huge believer in organic growth and personally, didn’t see a huge return on investment in paid advertising.
At the end of 2018, I wrote down all of my marketing efforts and identified what was working, what wasn’t, and retooled my strategy from there.
I was getting a ton of click-throughs to my website, but no inquiries.
Facebook Lives and Webinars
I was able to do guest spots on a ton of Facebook groups to speak on branding. This would usually convert about 30%. For every Webinar/Facebook Live I did, I usually got 3-5 paying clients. I quickly realized that when I had someone’s undivided attention, I could more easily get them to pay attention, which was a big part of helping my audience realize they needed to revisit their brand.
Pinterest Posts + Blogs
I was writing a ton of blog posts with no strategy in my first year of business. I would post them all to Pinterest which accounted for nearly 25% of my web traffic… but I quickly realized these efforts were attracting other designers and not the clientele I needed. Live and learn!
Cold Calls & Emails
This was something I spent way too much time on in 2018. I did my research and pulled list on list of pet businesses to contact via cold calls and emails, and in turn, got little-to-no response. I realized that establishing a relationship first before they would trust me with their brand… don’t blame ‘em!
The number-one way I got business was by referrals from past clients. As I mentioned earlier the pet industry is very connected, so one pet store would refer me to another and so on. Thankfully, this would bring a steady flow of clients each month!
Once I realized what was driving people to my site and actually signing on for a project, I was able to put a plan into place. Now,I take these steps monthly to retain and attract clients.
Once I realized that Instagram and cold emailing were a waste of my time, I took them out of the equation. I still use Instagram for fun but it isn’t a serious way I attract or retain clients.
- Each month I pick a service to focus on.
- Then, I will write four blog posts that relate to that service with a clear call to action to hire Dox Design for that service.
- Next, I will post the blogs to Pinterest and boost them. I realized in 2018 this is where people were finding me but they weren’t finding the right content, so I fixed that.
- Each month, I also partner with a pet consulting group and do a webinar on the service of the month. In 2018, I realized that I would get potential clients interested but they wouldn’t pull the trigger. I quickly saw that I needed to educate them on what good design was so that they could identify their areas for improvement. Once they understood what design was and how we actually could improve sales with our services, clients immediately signed on. Webinars and Facebook Lives now play a huge part in our sales.
- After I realized that referrals were my primary source of sales, I put a referral program into place. My current clients were giving me business out of the goodness of their hearts (bless them) but once I actually gave an incentive (20% off a project or a free month of social media graphics), the referrals doubled.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today I am making my old agency salary each quarter, so I would say we are doing fantastic! We are steadily growing but still have a long way to go. The biggest change we plan to make with Dox Design is passive income streams.
I currently serve as the main designer at Dox and have been able to build up a nice bank of independent contractors (ICs) to help on projects when needed. The only issue with being a service provider is you are the key to your own business growth.
So for the future we are working on programs, downloads, and templates that can be produced once and resold. That way I am not dependent on one of projects each month for income.
We tested the passive income route this year by launching our monthly social media program. Our monthly graphic pack program allows clients to choose from six style-pack base templates we have created for social media graphics. There are some for Instagram, Instagram Stories, Facebook Cover Photos, Blog Graphics… pretty much everything digital. When someone signs up for our program, they send us all their brand information like colors, fonts, etc., and then they select a style pack that starts as the base.
Once the client chooses their style pack, we completely customize those base templates to match their brand. We change all the colors and fonts, find images that go with the brand’s standards, and plug in the appropriate messaging. The best part is the program is only $150 a month!
Offering this templated service at a lower price point has allowed us to create graphics at a faster rate and easily onboard more clients. Instead of me depending on designing custom graphics every day (which keeps me at my computer all day), I can have an IC work on these and it allows me more freedom. We get around 5-7 people signing up for this program every month, which brings in an extra $1,000+ of guaranteed income monthly.
Implementing this program has significantly changed my income and freedom. We plan to launch more programs like this in the future.
Our monthly Graphic Pack program will save you time, increase the value perception of your brand, and is likely to increase your product or service sales.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The biggest lesson I have learned is that you can’t do everything solo. I remember before launching my business, I thought I needed to be doing more and doing it all. Once I actually stepped back and looked at the data, I realized I was wasting so much of my time on platforms and marketing tools that weren’t providing any benefit, and I was missing out on the tools that would present higher ROI.
My biggest piece of advice is to identify where your sales are coming from and put your focus there. In today’s world, it’s really easy to fall into the comparison game and feel like everyone else has it figured out—when in reality, that is far from the truth. Stick to what works for you and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing!
Kaila and one of her three #officeweens Ferb working on holiday social media graphics
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Email Marketing: MailChimp
- Customer Management: HoneyBooks
- Design Software: Adobe Creative Cloud
- Social Media Templates and Graphics: Canva
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I live by Podcasts! There are so many great ones out there for startups and entrepreneurs. I love hearing other people’s stories and how they started their businesses. A few of my favorites are:
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My biggest advice is to focus on yourself and your business only—don’t compare yourself to your competition. Social media makes it ridiculously easy to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome and think you need to live up to what everyone else is doing! I just recently unfollowed all other designers and agencies because I would constantly fall in to the pattern of thinking I needed to do everything they were doing or get as many followers as them.
When I see competition now, I try to uncover opportunities we can both use to mutually benefit one another. In reality, most people you idolize are actually just like you, trying to figure it out day by day. By seeing my “competition” as friends rather than enemies, I’ve gotten some of my best clients on their referrals. And sometimes, it even works out that we can collaborate and provide the client with the best experience and result possible—which, at the end of the day, is everyone’s goal.
Ultimately, don’t be afraid to really put yourself out there. Believe in community over competition and don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to every other entrepreneur out there. There is only one of you and that is what will make your business thrive.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We currently aren’t hiring but I am always looking for creative individuals to collaborate with or send a referral. I love hearing from other service providers that may be experts in areas I am not so I can have a reliable, reputable partner on my short list. If you’re in the design or digital space, reach out to [email protected]—we’d love to connect!
Ferb is the Chief Security Officer of Dox Design, Ferb ensures that not a single squirrel or human can get into the office on his watch.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Business Website: https://dox.design/
- Personal Website: https://kailapiepkow.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dox.designstudio
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kaila-piepkow-91476b68/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dox.design/
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/doxdesign/pins/
- Blog: https://dox.design/blog/
Dox Design has provided an update on their business!
Almost 3 years ago, we followed up with Dox Design to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Almost 2 years ago, we followed up with Dox Design to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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