James Kape is the founder of Omse, an independent design studio focused on branding grounded in strategic and conceptual thinking. While the company is based in Shoreditch, London, its name and logo are inspired by the Swedish word “ömsesidig”, meaning like-minded. Since its inception in 2016, Omse has created campaigns and design systems for brands like noodle chain Itsu, London nightclub Printworks, and, perhaps most famously, St. John at Hackney, a 200-year-old church. Here, James shares his advice on how to thrive in your early years of running an agency, or any kind of creative business, from winning work to growing a team.
Movers and Makers:
Why building your business is a team effort
1. By doing good work
No matter what the brief, brand, or budget, there will always be a way to make the most of it and show off your skills. “Any organization can look good and have an impact, whether you're an up and coming tech company or an eclectic music venue – or even a 200 year old church,” says James. You can also self-initiate projects by thinking of ways to solve problems that you are passionate about.
2. Through referrals
This is when you are recommended by someone you worked with in a previous role. To boost your chances of this happening, let your networks know what you’re doing and that you’re available.
“Referrals might come from someone who's seen the work, on Instagram for example, or it might come through a client you've worked with,” says James. “A lot of the work that we got in the early days came through a referral from someone who knew the client. Obviously, in order to get those referrals you have to deliver on point one – doing good work – which is why it’s so important to invest in your case studies.”
Promoting your work
Unless people see the great work you create, you won’t get anywhere. It’s important to document a project as you go and develop a narrative. Whether you use social media, the industry press, or networking groups to promote the work, being able to tell a project’s story will garner people’s attention.
“Spend some money getting good photos or renders of the work,” says James. “But bear in mind you’ll likely win the same type of work as whatever you promote, so be mindful of the work that you want to attract. You should focus on things that you want to do even if it means you have a smaller portfolio, otherwise you will end up doing what you don't necessarily want to do. It’s better to be curated.”
Growing a team
Working with freelancers
Working with freelancers can be a great way of expanding and contracting your team according to your workflow. But relying too heavily on freelancers might not be sustainable.
“At one point, we had an intern in China, a UX designer in Sydney, and a graphic designer in Brazil,” says James. “It worked well for a while, but then it became too hard to manage and we were having to turn down opportunities because we didn't have the capacity to take them on.”
James realized he needed to bring people in on a more permanent basis: first, a creative director to help him lead the team and then a 3D designer. “Now that we have more core capabilities in-house and more hands, we’re able to say yes to more opportunities,” says James. “And I don’t miss the stress of having to recruit for every project!”
Learning to let go
If you’re the founder of a creative business, you’ll likely be working on every aspect of its output in the beginning. But as your business and team grows, you have to learn to hand over control to others.
“You’re used to things being done a certain way, and it can be tough to take your hands off the wheel or let others step in your shoes,” says James. “The advice I’d give is to remember that you’re working with great people, and that it’s okay to have different approaches to solving problems. In fact, it’s a really good thing!”
Delegating tasks frees up time for you to focus on areas of the business that most need your attention, whether that’s supporting employee development or finding projects that will enhance your portfolio.
Balancing responsibility and purpose
As your team grows, your overhead can go up. This can make it harder to accept lower-budget work that might be valuable in other ways. For example, a project might represent the kind of work you want to do more of and help you attract clients in a new field. “As much as possible, we're trying to continue working on cultural projects where the budgets might not be as big,” says James. “We’re trying to find the right balance”.
Words of wisdom
- Trust your gut.
- Don't be afraid of asking for help.
- Be proud and confident. “Clients buy confidence,” says James. “If you don't believe in the work, no one else will.”
- Pick up the phone. “When problems arise, it's much better to talk to someone about it than to send emails where things often get lost in translation,” says James.
- Build relationships with clients that go beyond the work. “In our industry, ironically, if you do a good job the relationship often comes to an end — you create the brand and you’re done,” says James. “But you never know if the client has a friend they can refer you to. Building a strong relationship can go a long way.”
Kate Hollowood is a freelance journalist covering a range of subjects — from mental health and female empowerment, to art and design — for titles like Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, the i paper, and It’s Nice That. Based in London, she also creates copy and content for brands like Flo, Nike Run Club, Laced, and Ace & Tate.