How and when to grow your design studio’s team, with thoughts from Bielke&Yang, Oddity and Parker
Running a design studio can be likened to spinning lots and lots and lots of plates. It’s not always what the creative-minded among us would have hoped for, especially in the early days; with managing every aspect from clients and creative, to admin and workflow, proving to be a huge ask. We only have so many hours in one day, so if the goal of your business is growth, it may be time to consider a helping hand. But what role should you hire first, and how do you know if you can afford it? To find out how they did it, we spoke to three experienced studio founders from around the world; Bielke&Yang’s Christian Bielke, Oddity’s Alice Mourou and Parker’s Tyler Eide.
What triggers growth? What are the key factors that drive the decision to expand a team? For the studios we spoke to, workload and timing are major catalysts. Tyler Eide, Principal & Creative Director of Parker, describes hiring a new employee as “an investment in the long-term health of the business.” For the Seattle-based design studio, this feeds back to trends that have some legs. “Are projects coming in at a rate that requires a full-time employee?” Eide asks. “Are you in enough demand to raise your rates and afford supporting roles or other creatives?”
We never wanted to grow for growth’s sake, we built our company slowly.
“At a certain point,” Bielke&Yang Co-founder Christian Bielke tells us, “not growing your team is harder than growing it.” In the beginning, the Norwegian studio hired to account for an increase in workload, “but then we learned that the better work we put out, the more projects will come in,” he adds. Turning this around and saying “no” to things allowed them to build the studio that they wanted to build, “a place where we choose what clients and projects we want to work with.” However, as Bielke candidly points out, “saying no to things is very hard,” and is something that they try to be better at every day.
Likewise, predicting your future revenue or workload isn’t easy either. In order to avoid “looking into the crystal ball and taking guesses,” Eide reveals that Parker hires people on an initial 3- or 6-month contract period, which in turn provides enough time to gauge the fit “from a cultural, skillset, and pipeline standpoint.” If all goes well, the transition to a full-time contract is an easy one. Regardless of timeframes, embracing the unexpected can lead to exciting hires, as Oddity’s Alice Mourou exemplifies. For the Hong Kong-based studio, the best hires arrived “during a crisis” when the team weren’t looking for extra hands. “When a great talent becomes available, regardless of the situation,” she tells us, “I would do all I can to get him or her on board.” In comparison, during the periods of advertised hiring, Mourou felt that there weren’t as many successful candidates. “Talents are rare, don’t miss your chance,” she emphasises.
It makes sense to hire strong people with different types of skills.
There comes a point when a studio, growing in workload and reputation, needs an extra set of hands. You get to the point where the workload is becoming constantly overwhelming. But this invites the question, what roles do you hire first? At Oddity, Mourou opted for creative roles with a different skill set to her own as her first employees – bringing in two front-end developers. “It makes sense to hire strong people with different types of skills to complement each other,” she explains. Whilst the team at Parker realised that they were in need of support for their growing workload, there was also a desire to keep the bulk of the creative responsibility centralised. “With that in mind,” Eide recalls, “we hired a studio/project manager and a design intern.” As a result, the creative team could remain focused on delivering their work at a consistently high level. Their contributions proved pivotal for the studio’s growth; cleaning up operations and ensuring delivery became more streamlined and efficient. “They freed up brain space to focus on quality over hustle and made business much easier to predict.”
Bielke concurs, from the studio’s early days, having office managers has been invaluable to the running of the company. “This way we can focus on building a healthy business, growth and development, company culture, etc.” For studios founded by designers, as the majority are, non-design roles appear to bring organisation and space for creativity to thrive. Furthermore, efficient hiring can also lead to increased business, but as Eide notes, this depends on the role you hire. “We haven’t seen an increase in revenue or business growth upon hiring new designers, producers, writers, etc.” However, following investment in operations, business development, and sales, Parker has, albeit with a lag time of about 6-9 months, seen an increase in business. At Oddity, stable revenue growth over a few months allows salaries for their existing team to grow as well. Rather than individual arrangements, their principle is to have consistent, inclusive salary increases for the entire team.
We hired a studio/project manager and a design intern.
To answer the question ‘how do you know if you can afford to hire?’ we return to the idea of investment. When considering senior-level positions, the team at Parker consider long-term trends, asking themselves what is the business able to invest into the future. “If we hire a talented senior designer who can handle the bulk of a brand project,” Eide continues, “it frees up leadership to pursue conversations with new businesses and other leads, and invest in internal projects. When making a decision, Bielke tells us, the risks are always weighed up and discussions are always had at board level. However, having fun and producing high-quality work will always win over size. “We never wanted to grow for growth’s sake, we built our company slowly, brick by brick, and our focus has always been the people, the culture, a healthy work/life balance and great clients,” he concludes.