I Bootstrapped My One-Man-Show Branding Agency To $1.2M/Year

Lewis Jenkins
Founder, Percept
$100K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
10
Employees
Percept
from Sydney NSW, Australia
started July 1997
$100,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
10
Employees
772K
alexa rank
1.71K
followers
372
followers
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hey guys, I’m Lewis Jenkins, Principal, and Founder of Percept Brand Design, a branding, design, and creative agency in Sydney, Australia.

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Percept is a creative agency specializing in Branding, Packaging Design, Visual Communication, and Digital Design. We help good brands become great with our strategic creative work.

I’m not a multi-millionaire but have a self-sufficient business that improves other businesses. I am rich in terms of quality of life because I’ve built my business to thrive without too much of my time.

In terms of numbers, the business turns over approx. $1.5M/year, employs 10 staff and has worked with high-profile clients such as Unilever, Dulux, Toyota, Sennheiser, and The Australian Government. These things are all great and yes, I am proud of them, but what satisfies me most is that business doesn’t run my life and that has been by design.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

24 years ago, I was a fearless and naive 20-year-old who wanted independence and something of my own in my chosen career of design. Since then, not much has changed, except for my age, and I’m glad I made that brave decision at the start when I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In a service-based industry, your people are the key. Their skills, capabilities, attitudes, and personalities will make or break your business.

My idea wasn’t an invention or an app or a gadget, it was a decision based on lifestyle and what kind of future I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be a designer, it just felt right for me. I was highly inexperienced (although I thought I knew way more than I did), but had experienced success across several roles in a relatively short period of a couple of years in the industry, after being lucky enough to be offered an opportunity early on that allowed me to bypass tertiary education. So basically, I was always younger than my peers and this helped build my can-do attitude and the self-belief that’s required to make any vision come to fruition.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

In 1997, I brazenly walked into my local bank and asked for a $20k personal loan to buy a car. I had no intention to replace the Mini I was driving at the time, but I knew no one would approve a loan for a 20-year-old in baggy pants and bleached hair to start up their own business!

A week later, the loan was approved and I went straight out and bought everything I needed to kick off my design studio. An Apple Mac, laser printer, scanner, software, tools, books, office supplies, furniture, etc., and set up in the spare bedroom of the unit I was renting with my now wife, Fiona. For some unknown reason, I overestimated the number of staples required for a start-up, because there are still a few boxes left in our current studio from that first supply purchase!

I hated the idea of cold-calling and I didn’t want to pound the pavement. The thought of attending events for networking purposes also made me cringe.

The main idea that drove me to want to do things my way was to build an agency where unpaid overtime was not the norm as it had been in places I’d worked and the creative industry as a whole. I wanted to have control over my real life outside of work and hoped that this would be appealing for employees too as my venture would grow.

Additionally, placing less importance on where we were physically allowed for more productivity. I’m sure the fact that we weren’t based in the city as expected cost us reputation-wise, but that was compensated for by not having to commute. This maximized work time as well as family and social time. So I guess the decision to start up was more focused on internal company culture rather than trying to change the external service offering.

Describe the process of launching the business.

So that was it, a self-employed, sole trader started the design studio, EyeScream, which has since gone on to rebrand to a more mature, Percept – Brand Design, growing and learning as a business at the same speed as I have developed as a professional.

There was no formal plan or launch strategy, I just knew I needed clients. I initially used my social network (verbally, because there were no social media back then) and relied on word of mouth to build my client base as friends of friends would bring their projects to EyeScream through recommendations or referrals.

As most people do, I hated the idea of cold-calling and I didn’t want to pound the pavement. The thought of attending events for networking purposes also made me cringe. I wanted to work with people who wanted to work with me. This idea of mutual respect and growing organically through reputation was idealistic and perhaps pig-headed, but I knew I wanted to do it my way, building slowly and with integrity.

As a result, in the first few months, times were lean, so toast was eaten for many meals, and my client work needed to be supplemented with freelance projects that I was lucky enough to be given from a previous employer who had more on than they could handle.

I didn’t have a website, there was no Google, it was just more a case of who you know rather than what you know, but this led to clients such as SMP Clothing and Wakakirri. The main breakthrough that got me established with these clients initially, was personal relationships. One direct with the owner of the company I knew as an acquaintance and we got talking in an elevator (my first elevator pitch – literally!). And the other was a friend of the IT guy I bought my computer through when setting things up at the start.

From small opportunities, bigger things developed and that has been the theme of our evolution since.

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Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

In the early days, when a new client came along, everything was done to impress them. This meant underquoting and over-delivering. A great deal for them, and at the time I thought it was good for my business too because as word got around, the client base was building, the projects were flooding in, customers were happy and a good reputation was built.

Although after a while it became hard to sustain. There was only 1 of me, I was working long hours without great financial compensation. To meet demand, I took on an employee, and then another, which meant I had to lease an office. We got more work, even many projects from Toyota, meaning more staff and a bigger studio.

My friends and family thought I was very successful. So did I. But the more I thought about why I started, which was to have independence and a good work/life balance, the more I realized that success was not achieved yet.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We designed our first website in 1999, after 2 years in business, and had our friends Ben and Dave (who went on to huge success with their company Campaign Monitor) develop the site for us in a service-swap contra-deal.

Although all things internet were new at that time, we identified early on that having a really good website is the best way to showcase your work to potential clients. And having those potential clients be able to find your website is even more important. That way you are visible to those in search of the services you provide and essentially all your website needs to do is convert the warm lead that comes through a Google search.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and our NBD method remains the same, but a lot of other things have changed. Now known as Percept – Brand Design, we are a fully integrated branding, design, and creative agency. Our clients include Unilever, DuluxGroup, Rio Tinto, and the Australian Government, as well as many lesser-known names that value strategic design and allow us to produce good work because they trust our advice.

So what changed at that time? Plenty. It certainly wasn’t an overnight transformation, it’s taken a long time to get where we are now as a business and for me as an individual, but I have finally achieved that get the rich plan I had at the start, rich in time and quality of life. I own my business, it doesn’t own me!

One of the most notable shifts that allowed this was our change in the pricing structure. We got to a tipping point where we had the runs on the board and it was time for a brave move to realize our agency’s profitability potential. We increased our typical project price 10-fold and tripled the time we’d spent on that particular job. Effectively tripling the quality of work we were delivering and tripling our time billing rate at the same time.

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We’ve grown in many ways. Attitude, positioning, offering, headcount, reputation, and value that we offer.

The biggest change has been getting the right people in the right roles. To do so we had to work hard, wear various hats and do a bit of fake it until we made it. But all this is a way of earning the right to become what you set out to become. Our pricing structure change enabled us to employ better staff as we were able to offer competitive salary packages that attracted the industry’s best talent.

This, in turn, raised the standards of work we were able to produce, which in turn, attracted a higher caliber client with larger project budgets. This cycle continues to snowball to this day, with our momentum ever-increasing.

Our entire existence has morphed from a graphic design as a commodity, to a consulting agency that improves the performance of larger businesses. Those who value strategic design and importantly, have the budget to do things properly.

This happened in incremental shifts through lessons learned. To be honest, we couldn’t have moved to any next stage without having experienced the previous stage. That’s how you progress and that’s how a business develops, well my business at least. I guess every story is different.

The transition from a design studio that carried out customer requests, to a creative agency partner that helps transform organizations with strategic advice and problem-solving with design thinking has been our journey. This transition from adolescence into a more mature business model has only taken place over the past few years. It has moved our market position from being one of the thousands of design studios offering aesthetic deliverables, to one of a handful of competitors with the far more refined offering of actually improving the businesses we work with.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have been taught countless lessons over the years, and in most cases, I’ve had to learn the hard way, but my main takeaways are:

Get your business model right. Know why you started and try to build backward from there.

In a service-based industry, your people are the key. Their skills, capabilities, attitudes, and personalities will make or break your business. Employing the people you know will be the difference, even if you can’t quite afford them. Good performers are good investments.

Reputation is everything.

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What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Google for us is king in terms of marketing. It’s where people go when they’re ready to buy. Nobody likes cold-calling or the hard sell. We put our efforts into being prominent with SEO and put the budget into GoogleAds as well as LinkedIn for a more qualified target audience.

Social media platforms are also a part of our marketing efforts these days. We use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. These avenues are used to tap into a variety of audiences. For example, we post about our healthy agency culture to attract new talent, we post feature work to demonstrate our abilities to potential clients, and we post about the awards we’ve won to raise awareness within the industry. All these examples improve our reputation among sub-groups and complement our traditional marketing push.

Individuals are better than software or apps. Technology is only the tool, you need thinkers and problem solvers to get the most out of their tools. For the record, we use Adobe Creative Cloud as our weapons of choice.

An open-plan studio is most important to our business. It enables clarity of communication, awareness, collaboration, and perspective in our work.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

To be honest, I’ve never been a big reader. I was given The E-Myth early on in my solo venture and put some of those principles into practice in my way. However, I feel the best resources for learning are the experiences of yourself and others.

Understanding comes through trial and error and speaking with others in a variety of situations helps cross-pollination in my opinion. Not only in your industry or the business realm but even things like sport or social learnings can also be applied to your business.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Do it.

It will be hard, don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be easy or quick. If you are prepared to do whatever it takes and have the passion to follow it through, you will be rewarded in the long run.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Even when we’re not advertising specific roles, we’re always on the lookout for talented individuals that can help Percept be the best creative agency possible. Go to the Careers page of percept.com.au to submit your information for consideration in your desired role.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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Lewis Jenkins, Founder of Percept
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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