On 10 Years of Running a Design Agency

Paper Leaf turns 10 years old today. I’m bad at stopping to recognize a moment, never mind celebrating, so I’m making an effort to do that here.

When we started PL, we were as green as they come. We had no real idea or plan for where the shop would go, what it would become, or all that would change in a decade. We went from 2 people running a business with annual revenues of $40k in year one to 17 people with annual revenues nearing $2M. We went from designing business cards for $50 to building six-figure software applications. We went from working out of a bedroom to, at present, our third office. We went from no benefits to benefits. We went from unheard-of to recognized both regionally and nationally. It’s been fulfilling, and it will continue to be.

But, real talk: it has also been the most challenging and consistently stressful endeavour I’ve personally ever endured.

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3 Fundamental Traits for Success in your Creative Career

The following is an edited version of the commencement speech I gave to the Edmonton Digital Arts College 2019 grad class. I swear it was way more hilarious and inspiring in person.

When Jeremy approached me and said, “Jeff, I’d love if you could give a talk at the EDAC grad ceremony”, I assumed he wanted me to impart some wisdom or something. Then he said, “Yeah. Everyone else is really busy.”

When asked to speak, I had two immediate thoughts. The first: he really could have left that last part out. Second: of course, it’d be an honour to. I really am excited to be here, and excited for each of you. Because 10 years ago, I was right where you are, and I remember what that was like. I graduated from a small private college, same as you.

Right after I graduated, I started an agency called Paper Leaf because I was too dumb to know any better. Today, Paper Leaf is probably considered a success. But back then? My partner & I started working out of a house. Super small time. I mean, I had a Skype meeting one time with a client where my two cats started fighting on the bed in the background. Real professional.

That first year in business, we did a total of $40k in revenue – revenue, not profit. When you split that between two partners, we were far below the poverty line. I couldn’t afford fancy dress hoodies like this one.

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Use This Paragraph In Your Proposals And Say Goodbye To Scope Creep

Scope creep is awful. We struggled with how to handle it for years at Paper Leaf. It’s a tricky balance, isn’t it? We don’t want to be total doormats, but we’re also terrified to nickel-and-dime the client, or damage the relationship. In my experience, though, most agencies – including us, for a long time – end up on the doormat side, at the expense of our profits and our culture. After all, scope creep places stress on both those things, while also placing stress on the relationship side. Ultimately, scope creep is damaging in every regard in the long run – and running an agency is hard enough already.

Luckily, we’ve come to a good method of handling scope creep, and it’s super straightforward. Here’s how we handle it, so you can handle it too.

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5 Simple Rules For Better Project Communication

Every job posting in the world has “good communicator” as a requirement, and we all think we meet that requirement. We all think we’re great communicators. We cross our Ts, dot our Is, and use proper punctuation. It isn’t that easy though, is it? Being good at communication, especially when it comes to complex projects, is like playing the bass: relatively easy to pick up, and really difficult to master.

The starting point in getting better at project communication is evaluating the effectiveness of your communication efforts. The simplest way I encourage our team at Paper Leaf to do that is to have them ask themselves, Did whomever I was communicating with have follow-up questions or clarifications? If they did, there’s room for improvement. And trust me: every one of us has room for improvement. Except for me because I’m super prefect.

The other side of getting better at communicating is being respectful of people’s time. When we communicate ineffectively, a 2-email chain turns into a 10-email chain plus a phone call – or worse, something gets missed or done incorrectly, and then we’re in rework land. I mean, we’re all busy and that kinda thing drives us nuts, right? When we communicate effectively, we’re more efficient and respectful of people’s time, and our competency shines through.

So let’s talk about how to do that.

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The Simple Change that Helped Our Agency Increase Client Satisfaction and Designer Happiness

I love design.

I love being able to work with smart people to diagnose and solve problems with a dose of creativity. I love the interplay between all the core principles of design. I love constantly needing to learn new things, and put them in to practice. But let’s be honest: design isn’t perfect. Like any industry, along with design come common frustrations – often, frustrations big enough to drive many of us out of our industry.

Think of all the issues that exasperate us as designers – the things we get together and vent about over a pint. How many of us have had clients start playing art director? Delivered something that wasn’t good enough, a product we didn’t want our name on? Built something that has sat there unused? Or had a relationship go sour because of how a project turned out?

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