How To Scale Your Creative Business from One-Person Show To Small Team

Imagine this: you’re a small maker, designer, or creative biz owner.

Scaling your business from one-person show to small team

Pondering how to scale your business from solo act to small team?

You’ve built your business up from nothing: from unformed idea to rough outline to struggling start-up. And now, the day has come: your Inbox is overflowing with orders. Your phone’s been ringing off the hook. Someone from a Big Magazine wants to interview you — you! — and feature you and your handiwork in their glossy pages.

As the proud owner of this dazzling little creative enterprise, you’ve always worn 50 different hats: from CEO to copywriter to studio janitor and everything in between.

But it just isn’t going to be possible to do that any longer. You can’t work 24-hour days, 7 days a week. You can’t process all the email and send out purchase orders and design your booth for tradeshows and schedule and publish the blog posts. You need a team.

Or maybe you haven’t yet had what feels like your ‘big break’ yet, but you spend each day whirling around in circles trying to get everything done and feeling, at the end of the day, as if you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing. You love what you do and so do your customers and clients, but you can’t keep going on like this. You need a team.

So how do you scale your creative business from one-person show to small team?

As Creative Director of The Voice Bureau (a boutique branding, copywriting, and marketing agency specializing in brand voice development for creative microbusinesses working on the web), taking my business from one-woman show (me!) to small team (me + Tami + Katie + Melissa + our coterie of copywriters) was one of the best decisions I ever made. My expanded business model allows me to serve more clients more holistically and in greater depth. It helps protect my time and creative energy, allowing me to expand into the work that is my sweet spot. And it helps me make more money in less time without carrying the whole world on my shoulders. I get to share the load, help other freelance creatives thrive in their businesses, and workshop ideas with trusted peers.

But making the transition from one-person show to small team isn’t easy. It’s a process with several important steps and a built-in learning curve you just can’t leap over.

I want to help you make the transition easier.

Here are 10 steps you must consider as you scale your creative business:

  1. Know what you want to spend most of your time doing. Be it web design, digital product creation, or hosting workshops, ideally, these should all be activities that you (A) are uniquely brilliant at — you’re truly working in your sweet spot when you’re working on this stuff, and (B) you love doing.
  2. Know what activities in your business you want to outsource. This is the stuff you tend to procrastinate around, dread doing, or just plain suck at. For me this is money stuff and designing systems and workflows. For you, this might be packaging and shipping your goods, creating graphics for your website, or sourcing photos. These are the types of activities your team of one, two, three people or more can do.
  3. Know your monthly or weekly budget for the support you need. Can you spend $200 a week on support? $200 a month? This is also the best time to consult your accountant and/or attorney. You want to make sure you know how hiring employees or subcontractors will affect your business from a tax and legal standpoint.
  4. Identify what type of person should handle the tasks you want to outsource or add on. Do you need a Virtual Assistant (a VA)? A Project Manager? A customer service specialist? A seamstress? A copywriter on retainer? Know what you need done but don’t know what kind of person can do it? Ask your community. Ask on Facebook or Twitter, “Hey, everybody. What do you call a person who does X?”
  5. Ask for referrals. Tap into your community. Ask Facebook, ask the Twitterverse, ask on Google+. Ask your business owner friends locally, and far and wide (especially if you run your business all online). Check out the Oh My! Vendor Marketplace. Don’t be afraid to get really specific about the type of skill set and personality you’re looking for. If you want a perfectionistic taskmistress with a heart of gold, say so. If you want a laid-back idea person with creativity in spades, put it out there for the Universe. The more specific you are, the likelier you are to attract your ideal candidate.
  6. Interview some peeps. If possible, experience them in writing (via email), as well as over the phone or Skype. Get right to the heart of things as you talk with these people. Make sure you ask the tough questions (i.e. ‘What would you do if you didn’t know how to do something I assigned to you?’ or ‘What would you do if I asked you to do something you think is unethical?’), and invite them to ask you tough questions back. For some support roles, willingness to learn and eagerness to please can often count just as much as experience (i.e. customer service). For other support roles, expert or specialist status is preferred (i.e. bookkeeper or copywriter).
  7. Go with your gut, and hire on a trial basis. Depending on the volume and nature of the work you’re having this person do, a trial period of 30-90 days is reasonable. Sign contracts and leave both parties (you and them) respectful “out” clauses. Hiring a team member isn’t like getting married. Nobody is promising anyone forever. You’re promising to work together as long as it’s mutually agreeable for all parties.
  8. Be prepared to teach. Also, be prepared to learn. You can’t expect a new hire to intuitively understand exactly how you want things done. You have to teach her, show her, model it for her, make her a screencast, do a screenshare demo, draw diagrams, provide written examples, create a list of steps to refer to, etc. On the flipside, in some cases, you’re hiring someone to help you do something you don’t have experience doing. For example, pre-Voice Bureau, I’d never before designed project production calendars to the level of detail we’re currently using, but I knew we’d need this sort of systematized and highly documented approach to keep track of all our client projects. Fortunately, the person I hired to be our Project Curator has years of experience doing just that. I teach her what she needs to know to take care of my business, and she teaches me something new every week.
  9. Expect iteration. It’s a part of growth. Be open to the idea that systems, tasks, and workflows will shift as everyone settles into their roles, and as you grow into your business in new ways. Ultimately, you may decide to expand the scope of what your business does, or you may decide to hone in on a rarefied specialty. You and your team are together in the learning curve as you build out the very best way to run your business, keep your clients and customers happy, and become more and more profitable every year.
  10. Praise your team often. This is the last and most important step. Notice what’s particularly great about each team member’s contribution to your business, point it out, and thank them for it. The occasional snail mail note or small gift picked out from a My Favorite Products board on Pinterest is a nice touch, too. Remember to keep the people happy who keep your customers happy, and you’ll be a happier business owner for it.

Scaling your one-person business to a small team is no small feat. It requires thoughtfulness, planning, and the willingness to be vulnerable and ask for help. But the rewards can be great. You just might see your great little business making a much bigger impact than you’ve ever dreamed possible.

Are you thinking about scaling your creative business from one-person show to small team? What challenges are you facing? Or, if you’ve already done it, what’s your best tip for how to make the transition successful?


    • Abby Kerr says:

      Hey, Colleen! Thanks for reading & engaging. Excited to hear you’re entering a season of change in your business. Would love to hear how things evolve for you! (And Brandi: just so great. I’m going to see her in concert — again — in Portland in November.)

  1. Jen Havice says:

    Terrific post! I’ve just gotten my business going and I’m trying to stay focused on what I do best. It’s so easy to say you’ll do something that’s not part of your core strengths to get the business. I’m making an effort to stay in my wheel house and farm out work to others when it makes sense.

  2. imperfctconcept says:

    This is a great post. I am at the point of scaling my business for growth and hiring a staff. I have two interns right now and with them focusing on their projects it helps tremendously. Was hoping the post covered more how to scale your business for profit but this helps me for when its time to actually hire. Never thought of trial hires.

  3. Pingback: Link Hype 4-26-13

Comments are closed.