When you first start a business, it's like moving to a new school; you're willing to take any poor sap that comes along who wants to be your friend.

You're basically consumed with surviving and not failing. So you truck along, taking every job in the hopes of finding those sweetheart clients who will not only ensure your survival, but also grow your business. Along the way, you should have a veritable cornucopia of experiences ranging from smooth, rewarding work to the most-heinous of nightmares. But remember, no matter how difficult, every one of these jobs puts dollars in your account: vital, life-sustaining dollars that every new business needs. This gunshot approach not only sustains you, but also gives you a broad base of customers and experience which helps you find the best customers.

My new production manager, Jeff - who is working out beautifully, by the way - helped me realize where our business was. At the end of his first feverishly paced week, we were catching our breath from a barrage of business that blindsided us. We were lining up our orders to plan the next week of production and, as we discussed the jobs and their due dates, we looked wide-eyed at each other. Having that much business feels good, but it was getting to the point where it got scary. Then Jeff said, "Looks like we shouldn't accept any more jobs for a while."

I blinked my eyes rapidly as I processed this strange comment. Then there was singing, clouds parting and all that jazz, and I said, "You know, you're right!"

Shazam! We made it to the next level of business, and to survive and grow here requires different strategies than I had when I was a start-up.

Every shop has a finite amount of business it can do, and once you've reached that point,

you have to grow or prioritize the kind of clients who will be the most profitable.

I've created some categories of clients: Easy-Beautiful, Production Class, Difficult, Nightmarish, Poison and Retail (this really does need a class of its own).

Let's start with Easy-Beautiful, by far the most-precious and sought-after client. This is typically a professional design or marketing firm, or an ad agency. Jobs from these clients are characterized by perfect art and large-quantity orders of duplicate graphics.

They should be your first priority. Nurture and protect them. Then there's the Production Class, also resellers, but their jobs are smaller, more-numerous and more-complicated. One of these clients sustained me through my critical first six months. They are often times the key to good cash flow.

As we descend the client food chain, we reach Difficult. Here's where your profit margin starts to suffer if you're really busy. Sizing has to be triple-checked and the art usually needs work.

These clients are disorganized and don't know the right questions to ask their customers. You really have to work hard to manage these projects, and they take time away from everything else.

Nonetheless, if you're willing to become their project manager, you'll earn their loyalty-and they'll be afraid to go anywhere else. With this type of customer, you'll inevitably eat some redos that aren't your fault.

Now let's look at the jamboree of redos that makes up the Nightmarish class. These clients' file sizes will never be right, no matter how many times you ask them. They'll have you bid a job that they haven't even conceptualized.

Their jobs quickly outgrow the original bid, and when you finally reconcile what you bid with what you actually did (and adjust the bill accordingly), they will pull out the original bid. You end up arguing and justifying yourself to collect money you worked too hard for in the first place.

These clients make more mistakes than seems possible, and they have no penchant for taking responsibility. When you're really busy, one of these jobs can bury you.

I would also include in this class of clients, "office workers/would-be designers" who think PowerPoint® is a cool program. The very mention of this program makes me cringe; its use is also symptomatic of other design evils. Word Perfect® is looming somewhere nearby, and beside it are some 200K digital photographs and perhaps a PDF file just dying to be converted.

These office designers are what we in the design world call "a couple of sandwiches shy of a picnic." You end up inevitably having to stare at some hideous design for an hour while recreating it.

Also included in the Nightmarish class are the emotionally needy clients. They really like you and really want to be your friend. They'll yak away for hours about their personal lives, which eventually means you have to expend energy to be polite while nudging them back to fact that, although you find their lives fascinating, you are extremely busy. I have gotten so good at this that I can have these clients in and out of my shop so fast it makes their heads spin. I sometimes picture them sitting in their cars clutching their new graphics wondering what just happened.

You have to be polite and smile a lot, though. It may sound cold, but-I'm telling you-you have to nip those overly personal ramblers in the bud.


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