Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Percept is an Australian branding agency specializing in Strategic Branding, Brand Identity, Packaging Design, Visual Communication, and Digital Design. We work with businesses in all industry sectors, helping them to amplify their performance. Basically, we transform good companies into great brands.
What's your personal history and the inspiration for your business?
26 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.
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.
I wanted to be my own boss in a career that I loved, having the control to build a business model that worked for the work/life balance I was looking to achieve.
Describe the process of launching your remote business
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 own 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!
The main idea that drove me to want to do things my way was to build a branding 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 maximised 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. Although the business was not remote at first, this ethos was key in the evolution to remote work, which has become normal practice for Percept and its employees as we have developed as a company.
So that was it, a self-employed, sole trader started the design agency, 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 myself have developed as a professional.
What has worked to attract customers and earn their loyalty?
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 brand design projects to Percept 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 own 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.
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. In fact, 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.
Knowing what you know now, are there things you would have done differently when first starting out?
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.
Employ the people you know will be the difference, even if you can’t quite afford them. Good performers are good investments.
Reputation is everything.
What has been the best part of starting a remote business?
A remote business model means that your work can enable the life you want to live, rather than the other way around.
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, networking groups, podcasts, or other resources you've found?
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 own 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 build a remote business of their dreams?
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 there any positions or internships you're hiring for 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 branding agency possible. Go to the Careers page of percept.com.au to submit your information for consideration in your desired role.