How to build an agency like 3drops

It took me close to a decade to get us where we are now. In this post, I’m sharing 10 steps you need to follow to start and build your own studio. This is basically everything I wish I knew before I got started.

Farzad Ban
Founder/CEO
10
min read

I started my career by designing blogs. By designing I mean I was stealing a few CSS lines from here and there, and then spent hours, sometimes days trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Little did I know then, that it was basically what I was going to repeat for the rest of my career. Just trying a bunch of things to see what works, what doesn't and figure out the why. Very similar to how we used to learn new skills when we were kids. We just kept trying until we got it right. That's how I learned how to design, code, hire, manage, lead, negotiate, systemise and more. By learning what not to do first.

But for a long time, I thought I was doing it wrong. That it can't be this hard. All these people that I follow on Twitter make it look so damn easy. What am I missing out on? But then years went by and with some luck, I got to know many of these people personally and realised one thing. Nobody really knows what they are doing. They are just figuring it out as they go. And all of them saw failure as a mean to an end, but part of the process. Failure is a sign of progress. So the sooner you make it your friend, the easier this all will get.

Here are my 10 steps to start and build an agency just like 3drops. Along the way, I'm also sharing pieces of my story to make it more interesting for you.  :)


Mastering your passion

Bet on yourself.

I started spending almost all of my awake time learning how to design and code right after high school. I didn't have any big plans on starting an agency back then, I was just trying to do something useful with my time. I liked making stuff, so I thought if I learned it well enough, I would be able to make money from it one day. To many, making that jump from following what you are told to what you are passionate about is hard. Luckily, I didn't have that since I wasn't allowed to go to university because of my visa situation. So there went my parents dream of me becoming a dentist like my sister. Luckily, that turned out for the best : )

3 reasons why I believe choosing your passion as a career raises your chances to succeed:

  • I believe passion is your strongest ally to endure the bad times to get to the good ones. Without it, you will give up much sooner.
  • I believe with passion, work becomes play. So spending almost all your time learning how to improve your skills is just fun.
  • I believe networking becomes so much easier too. It's easier to talk and build relationships with people that think like you.


Building a body of work

Fake it til you make it

Once I learned the basics of photoshop (the dark ages before Sketch, and now Figma) I started building my first portfolio. That was even before I had anything to show for. My first portfolio was a few fake projects that I designed while learning. And because of my limited HTML/CSS skills, I had to go with the simplest design possible otherwise I would get stuck in code forever. Turns out, it was all I needed to land my first real project.

3 tips on creating your first portfolio:

  • The outcome matters more than the input. Today, you don't need to learn how to code to make a good portfolio. Use tools like Carbonmade, Dunked or even Cargo to get your first portfolio out.
  • Present your best side. All you need is just 1-3 projects that resonate with the type of work you want to get. Don't overdo it.
  • And at last, a few lines about what type of work you are interested in, your process and a picture. And please no skill charts. You are killing me with those.


Finding your first client

Create your own opportunities

My first few clients were local companies. I got my first client by emailing local businesses with horrible websites. Time was my friend. So I just mocked up a design and emailed it to them. Back then, it wasn't really about who has the best messaging or user experience, it was just about having a functional website online with all the necessary information. Today, it's a little bit different.

3 tips on how to approach your first clients:

  • Sell your tomorrow, not your today's skills. Communicate as if you've already done this type of projects bunch of times before and got great results. Confidence speaks for the lack of experience.
  • You are equals. Your clients' age or their experience shouldn't overwhelm you. When you are on a call/in the same room together, you are equals. Communicate as if you are friends.
  • Failure is granted. You are going to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Know that up front. Don't let it discourage you from making progress. Failure is the seed of growth. Failure is progress.


Growing your client list

Build relationships, not portfolio pieces

I've always prioritised relationships over money. To me, money is just a tool, that if invested well, it might take you close to where you want in life. Just might. But with the right relationships, it's guaranteed. It's that 20% of the business (80-20 rule). Nothing I've done in my career has brought me as much work as knowing the right people, in the right places. People that have already reached where you are going. People that can guide you. Help you skip the common pitfalls. Your mentors.

3 tips on how to grow your network:

  • Start with your existing relationships. Somebody you know might know someone that knows the person you are trying to reach. Start there.
  • Your last project is your best sales pitch and your last client is your best sales agent. Treat them accordingly. Walk that extra mile to make something memorable for your clients. Overdeliver.
  • Start a newsletter. Build a list of all of your clients from the start and send them to follow up emails and updates to keep them engaged.


Staying on the right track

Always have the end goal in mind

In just a year or two into freelancing as a remote designer, I started getting job offers from household companies like Facebook, Spotify, Heroku to just name a few. But not for a second, I considered their offers. Regardless of their pay or titles. The same goes for acquisition offers for 3drops later on or investment offers in our products, Roadmap & Slim. To me, all of those "opportunities" were just like those shiny signs on the side of the highway, that if you stare for too long, you will crash your car. See them as good reassurance signs that you are on the right track, and keep going.

3 tips on how to keep yourself in check:

  • Start from the end. It might sound cliche but where do you see yourself in 10-20 years. Sure what we want in life changes from time to time but where we would like to end up, that picture never changes. It only gets clearer with time. So let that become your Northstar and never settle until you reach there.
  • Make your own path. I don't believe working at a company teaches you anything about how to run yours. Don't waste your most precious years (your 20s), working for somebody else. Not getting brainwashed by others way of work is your greatest advantage.
  • Freedom above all. Always prioritise staying independence and flexible over the short-term win.


Pricing

Present your future-self

Let me start this by saying that the majority of us are not charging enough. By majority, I mean a good 97% of us. The other 3% is a handful of agencies and some freelancers that never showed up when we were all standing in the line to get our Imposter Syndrome injection. Between you and me, I never liked that word. Imposter Syndrome. In fact, anything with Syndrome attached to it, I'm allergic to. It makes it sound permanent. It's not. Nothing is. Well, most things aren't. For years, people kept telling me that I should charge more, that I didn't know my worth, that I was selling myself for short. And they were right. It's hard to realise these things when you are always head down, focusing on the next step.

3 things to know about Pricing:

  • Fixed -> Hourly -> Daily -> Weekly <-> Fixed. That's the pricing ladder. You start by selling your work for a fixed amount to gain the experience you need to learn how to estimate projects. Then you can slowly move to daily, weekly and at last, the glorious value-based pricing model.
  • Always ask for an upfront payment. I would say the lowest amount should be ~30% and highest ~50%, depending on the project size/risk you take on. And to keep yourself and your client accountable, aim for at least 3 payment milestones to ensure a smooth process.
  • Communicate your MEF first. Set a minimum engagement fee as early as possible to avoid wasting time on estimating projects for clients that can't afford it. And chances are, they will reply with their budget so you don't miss anything.

* Bonus: Raise your prices after every quarter to raise the bar for yourself and the people you work with. As long as your clients agree with your pricing without too much back and forth, you are probably not charging enough yet.


Negotiating

Looking for a win-win

I've never let a bad day ruin my tomorrow. I don't care how badly I need a project, or how much I liked the brand. I always act as if I've already got it. That way, I get the confidence necessary to negotiate a better deal. One thing I've noticed that almost all creatives share is that they let their creative self take over their business owner self. Don't mix the two. Even if your favourite brand contacts you, your objective should be to get them to a win-win. Some brands know this. And they try advantage on this. I've turned down projects with brands that I always dreamed of.

3 tips on how to tilt the scale to your side:

  • First off, to hell with all RFPs. You are better off investing that time into delivering more value to your existing clients than wasting it with these brands. A relationship that starts with an ask with no return, is not worthy of your time.
  • Skip the formalities right from the start. What matters is What, when, why and how much. Don't shy away from talking about numbers. Lead with numbers. Only when the numbers match, you can start scoping the project. This is why MEF comes so handy.
  • If they can't afford it, lighten the scope. That's how you negotiate. Something has to go. Or they need to offer something else in return. To have a productive conversation, make sure you are talking to the decision-makers.


Hiring

Bet on characters, invest in potentials

A couple of years have now gone by and I've been able to make a comfortable living for myself as a remote freelance product designer. The decision of hiring a team finally become real when I had enough work in my pipeline. I think at that time, I had 1 full-time gig, 2 part-times and a few smaller fixed projects on the side. It was more than necessary but it was just my way of forcing myself to make the jump. I had already established trust with my clients, so I knew with the right pitch, they wouldn't mind a couple of extra eyes on their work.  

3 tips on hiring your first member

  • Hire a younger version of yourself. You can't afford someone just like yourself, and honestly, you don't have yet the leadership skills to make it work yet. But the younger version of you is faster, more open-minded and more driven to help you build the right team.
  • Interviews don't work. Hire based on results. The best way of testing someone's skills is by giving them a test project. Create 1-3 days paid project with a brief that matches the type of work they would be doing if they get the gig. Run it with at least 3 people before you hire someone for a project.
  • Your first few hires might not work out as well as you thought. Just like your first few client projects that didn't go as smoothly as you planned. But that's expected. Just have an honest conversation with the people you hire to learn what needs to be improved next. That's the only way you can grow.


Delegate

Enable your team to succeed without you

3drops suddenly started growing like a startup that just raised money. We went from just me doing all the work, to almost 20 full-time members in less than a year. But even with this size, I was still feeling like I was doing the most. All due to one mistake. I was having trouble letting go of things I thought I was good at. I was still making a lot of the decisions which became the biggest bottleneck in our processes. My team could only go as fast as I could make decisions.

3 tips on how to delegate

  • Start by delegating what you don't like doing to people that like doing them. That frees up your time to do more of the things you like doing.
  • Next, delegate what you good at to people that are better than you. So you can focus on what you need to learn to take your company to the next level.
  • And at last, once you've learned what that last thing is and how it needs to be done, delegate it to someone you respect and trust. That should give you the peace of mind so you can finally work on your business rather than in it.

* Bonus: Write your manual/handbook. Write it as early as possible. Write down everything you do, why you do it, and how you do it, to make it easier for others to do the same. The more details, the better the results. Then give them the ownership of that part of the handbook so they can update and improve it without you.


Remote work

The only way forward

Because of my visa situation, I had no choice other than building a remote organisation, from the start. Everything had to work without meeting or sitting next to each other. In fact, I've only met a couple of people I've worked within the past decade. And for the most part, it was long after we started working together. Same goes for our clients. I haven't met any of our clients in person, yet they trusted us with their 6 figure projects. This is what I'm most proud of. Our reputation.

3 tips on how to work remotely

  • Transparency over silos. Trust your team enough to tell them everything. Good or bad. Personal or not. Communicate everything and on time and you will never have any misalignments in your team. That also makes up for the gap in remote work.
  • Get insanely organised. Everything needs to be super easy to find. Everyone should know where to go to find what. All of these should be documented and monitored. The more organised your team is, the more they will be able to get done, in less time.
  • Use the right tools. I believe tools influence our processes and shape our cultures at work. Not the other way around. So pick the right tools for the job. Luckily, we've made a thing for you to make it easier for you. We also made a tool specifically designed for remote team collaboration. Take a look.

I hope you find this post insightful. Advising startups and studios is something that I'm currently enjoying so feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @farzadban if you need any help or just want to chat. See you there.

Up next

Tools we use to run our remote team