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.

Read the Full Post →

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.

Read the Full Post →

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.

Read the Full Post →

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.

Read the Full Post →

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?

Read the Full Post →

False Hustle

It’s easy to be busy; it’s hard to be productive, and the two terms are different. Raise your hand if you’ve spent entire days answering “quick” email after “quick” email; spent hours in your task manager organizing your tasks for productivity; spent a half-day organizing tidying up old design files; or looked back on your week and realized you worked your ass off… but you’re not really sure what you actually accomplished.

Bad news, those with raised hands: you’re a victim of false hustle.

Don’t worry… I have been too; everyone falls into the false hustle trap at one point. It’s not intentional – after all, there’s a lot of work to do in a day – but false hustle can torpedo our business goals and ultimately our motivation at work.

Here’s what I mean by false hustle, and how to avoid it.

Read the Full Post →

Why You’re Losing Proposals

Losing proposals, and the potentially lucrative contracts that come with winning them, just plain sucks. You know you can do that job – knock it out of the park, even. But for some reason, the prospective client went in a different direction, leaving you, your proposal, and the hours that went into it in the good ol’ reject pile.


We’ve been there. I write a ton of proposals at Paper Leaf; some we win, some we lose. Over the years, though, we’ve refined our proposals and learned a lot about why we win the ones we do – and conversely, why we lose. And guess what? The reasons we lose proposals are likely the same reasons you lose yours.

Here’s what those reasons are, and how to fix them.

Read the Full Post →

What’s Your Proof?

What do messages like “We create beautiful websites that grow your business”; “We help businesses succeed online”; and “Canada’s leading digital post-secondary institution” all have in common?

All those statements are vapid and empty; there’s nothing to back them up. There’s no proof.

Standing by themselves, these messages just plain don’t work. You can find this type of communication everywhere you look, too – and there’s a good chance that your messaging is suffering from the same fate.

That’s a problem.

Read the Full Post →

Inside the Black Box of Web Design Pricing

Web design costs come in a huge range of shapes & sizes. Thanks to that range, clients can struggle with understanding why websites cost what they do, and freelancers/shops can struggle with how to price their services.

That’s what we’re going to uncover: the thought processes, variables, logic, and math that goes into pricing web design. I’ll focus on one specific end of the spectrum: custom web design and development. While DIY web platforms like Squarespace definitely have their place, their pricing models are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. The custom side of web design & development? Not so much.

So buckle up, and let’s get our learn on.

Read the Full Post →

Understanding & Benefiting From Content:Audience Fit

There are two pieces to the content pie. The first is the content itself – websites, blog posts, articles, ad campaigns, brand messaging, etc. The second is the audience interacting with that content. Those two pieces? They need to fit like they were forever meant to be together.

You know. Kinda like me & Scarlett Johansson.

I’m talking about a concept called content:audience fit. If the content you’re creating isn’t resonating or getting traction, you can boil the problem down to one of two things: either your content isn’t good enough – not unique enough, not well-written or designed, not providing enough value, etc. – or your audience for that content isn’t right.

Read the Full Post →

The Blunt Realities of Running Your Own Design Business

My wife Andy and I started Paper Leaf in 2009. We were not bad at design (I think we’re pretty damn good now), and really green at business. In some ways, our naivety was a bit of a blessing; had we known what we know now, we probably would have talked ourselves out of starting the business. And that would have been a mistake – we love what we get to do.

Regardless, there are a number of blunt realities we faced (and still do face) – and things we’ve learned – in running Paper Leaf that we either never anticipated, or never really bought in to if we read it elsewhere. Here are some of the big ones.

Read the Full Post →

Your 60-Hour Work Week is Not a Badge of Honour

Your 60-hour work week is not a badge of honour. It is a problem.

There is a sense of pride over being able to state that we worked an exorbitant amount of hours this week, last week, or last month. I know because I’ve done it in the past, and probably still do it *sigh*. After all, saying you worked a 60 hour week is indirectly telling the listener how busy your design firm is; how successful your product is; how important you are to your employer.

It’s essentially a humblebrag.

Read the Full Post →

Authentic Content Still Works – Here’s the Proof

All I wanted was a place to write. A place to write on topics I care about; ones that don’t fully fit under the Paper Leaf umbrella. Mainly, I wanted to talk about business & strategy, as Paper Leaf’s content is more focused on design. That was the point of launching this site.

The stats, and benefits, from just having a place to write for one month? Surprising. Let me explain, and share with you the actual numbers behind my personal site’s first 30 days.

Read the Full Post →

Your Business is a Ship and You Are the Captain

Your business is the ship, and you are the captain.

When it was a small ship, you could do it all: maintain it, plot the course, steer it, and even take a few people along. You were happy just to be sailing, a solo captain of your own vessel.

When the ship got a little bigger, you could still do it all – but barely. There were more people on board, a larger ship to maintain, a small crew, and longer travels. You were happy but stretched thin.

Read the Full Post →

Startups, Business, and the Value of Doing Good

A few years ago, my father-in-law went to Canadian Tire to get his car’s flat tire patched. When he got it back, rim and all, he took a look and realized the guy – whose sole job it is to fix flats and put tires on rims – had put the tire on the wrong way. It was the end of the day, so my father-in-law just took the backwards tire, threw it in his trunk, and left. He’d deal with it another day.

That other day came.

Read the Full Post →

Stop Networking

Here’s the deal. Networking sucks and you’re probably bad at it.

I say that because I believe it too: I hate networking, and I’m bad at it. So I don’t do it. But that doesn’t stop me from meeting new people, in a business setting, who sometimes refer projects to Paper Leaf.

Wait a minute… isn’t that networking?

Not in my mind, and I’ll explain to you why. But first a little story.

Read the Full Post →