Starting a business

Now that I’ve acquired a substantial amount of design and letterpress gear, I really want to start a small design business. I’ve been a freelance designer off and on for a decade, worked in various print shops, etc. I have the skills, a small clientèle to market to and the motivation.

THat part that daunts me is the business financial end. I need some solid guidance from some experienced designers/printers/small business owners. Here are the questions I need answers too:

1. How do I keep my business organized? What systems work best for keeping myself aware of deadlines, overlapping projects and invoices due?

2. Do I need a business plan and how extensive should it be? I’m not planning on taking out any loans to start.

3. Are there any proven formulas for figuring costs, i.e. materials, labor, equipment wear, etc? I’m not confident in my ability to figure these things.

4. TAXES! Ok, I’m downright intimidated by taxes. I have an accountant, but I just need someone to tell me it’ll all be ok..

Thank you for any advice. Its such an exhilarating and terrifying process.

Log in to reply   5 replies so far

It will all be OK :)

I have never printed commercially, but I do own a small business that I run part-time. My insight is probably not much, but here it is:

2—Have a business plan. This doesn’t have to be so extensive that you feel like you are capitalizing at millions of dollars, but do plan. Plan your equipment needs, depreciation, other expenses, potential customers/income streams, and potential problems. Estimate and establish your cost structures in your business plan. You might want to bounce that off of your accountant.

3—The costing should be fairly simple. Your materials cost can be directly attributed to each project. You know that for a stationary set, for instance, you use $X in paper, X ounces of ink, and X time. It seems like you know what you are doing. Depreciation is harder. You need to estimate how often you will need to buy type, rollers, and perhaps a press, then attribute this cost across the estimated number of projects you will do over the equipment’s life. Or, just wing it, but be aware you need to save up money.

It might take a bit of time to become really good at estimating how much time a given project will take you. Remember, the most valuable thing is your time. Hourly, an expensive windmill or Kluge is a good deal compared with a hand-fed C&P and the needed operator.

1—I don’t know how complex your projects are, but I know a lot of people who just use dry-erase calenders to block time for projects. It seems to be standard in small film production/post production houses. You can block your time spent on different operations in different colors. Red for business management, green for design time, blue for meetings, black for compositing/print time, etc. Keep records of it for future planning.

I keep folders of past jobs with production notes, deliverable specs, hours spent on various segments, etc. This lets me cost future projects more accurately.

4—Just talk with your accountant about which structure you want to use. Do you want to be a sole proprietorship, or an LLC? You can tax an LLC as just a part of your income, or as a sub-chapter S, which could potentially lower your tax liability.

I hope I was some insight. Best of luck!

Jenny -

First, this is too complex an issue for easy answers in a simple forum. But that said, I’ve done this for over 40 years and here are some pointers:

#1 Work orders - Job tickets.

Use file folders, or better yet, get some 9x12 open-end envelopes. Make notes on the front, keep all documents, samples, etc inside. Punch a hole in the center of the top and hang them on nails on the wall until the job is done and delivered. Move them around on your wall display as schedules and priorties change.

I have maintained shedule on as many as 100 simultaneous jobs in my shop using this technique. I used to have 5 columns of literature racks filled with job tickets on walls. For 10 -20 jobs at at time, some wall space and a few nails will do for a start.

In any case, keep them visible.

Keep them in front of you for a quick glance and easy access at any time. Don’t hide them in a drawer where they may be forgotten or lost. File them by date or customer name in a box after the job is done.

Keep the system simple and it will take care of itself.

On the front -
1. Customer name & phone #
2. job ‘name’
3. Date in/date promised/ date completed.

Don’t over-organize, but do make notes regularly - especially on any customer requests or changes. Write them on anything, but be sure they are either ON or IN the job ticket and can be found in less than 30 seconds.

Include records of the time you spent on each aspect of the job, the paper & ink used and where it came from and what it cost. store 5 samples of each job in these envelopes after the job is done.

This information will be invaluable in not only managing repeat orders, but pricing similar jobs as they come along.

#2. Adjust your system as you figure out better ways to manage the information, but keep it as simple and efficient as possible. Don’t waste time trying to invent and manage complex systems. .

#3 To figure your cost (not necessarily your price, which may be market driven), establish an hourly rate based upon your fixed cost of overhead and how much you need to earn to pay the bills.

Watch the clock as you work and don’t stop or get distracted. Record the time. Record the time. Record the time…

Consider the cost to buy and stock paper & ink.
Record the time it takes to perform each task involved in the job and learn as you go.
Add a percentage of all calculable costs to allow for errors, profit and the cost of new equipment & supplies you will need to stock. Buying in bulk can be an advantage, but storage is not free. Neither is capital. Figure that in as well.

#4 Don’t be too cheap, but never gouge your customers. Be fair to your customers and to yourself. A good price to one may not be a ‘good’ price to another.

A high price may cost you a customer now and then, while low prices will cost you your business…

A formula I have always used to great success is to always be sure that the jobs I print are worth more to the customer than what they cost them…

- And don’t be afraid to tell that to your customers - especially while you are discussing the price, their budget and your costs to produce the job.

#5 Don’t ever compete with cut-rate prices by competitors. Learn your market, but don’t be the cheapest in it. You will be doing both yourself and your customers a service if you manage to do a good job for them and stay in business so that you’ll be there next time they need you.

#6 Don’t try to do every job you are asked to consider or quote on.

#6a Let annoying or demanding customers find another printer. Work for people who are likeable, reliable and solvent. Repeat customers can be the best of all - as long as they are good customers and their work supports your business profitably. Good customers are willing to pay a fair price and work with you as a business partnet…

#6b GET A DEPOSIT before beginning any job. 1/3 is usually considered fair. Make sure you at least get enough to cover your materials. If you “go out on a limb”, be ready for that limb to break….

#6c Never let a job leave your shop before it is paid. If a corporate client wants 30 days to pay the balance, be sure to charge them extra for that convenience.

#7 Avoid trying to make your equipment do more than it was designed to do. If there is a better technology that can be used to produce what they want, let the job go to someone who can offer it. Or else, cut your labor cost and realize that you are likely to take a beating. Take on the wrong work too often and you will certainly go out of business.

#8 Before you submit a quote, visualize every step in the process and make an educated estimate of the time it will really take.

#9 Never guess at materials costs. Get prices from your vendors before you submit a quoted price to your customer. Material costs can fluctuate.

OK. That’s enough for right now - but not enough to fully answer your questions. A proper answer would require a lot of questions about the sort of work you intend to do, the equipment you have, the market you wish to support, etc. It would take a full day’s consulting to come up with meaningful answers and a workable plan tailored to your situation, market and competion.

Best of luck

- Alan


Excellant answers. It is guys like you who have been there and learned by mistakes, and are willing to spend a little time to encourage new folks, who preserve the craft and trade.


Please note that Alan has given you good general information (some very specifis also) and it is a place to start. He or someone else would need lots more information from you in order to give more specific advice.
Remember when you learned to ride a bike? You fell off a couple of times. That was part of the learning process.
You may wish to tell which side of the earth you live on and may find a local mentor.


THANK YOU! Those are some fantastic guidelines. I’ve been talking to a lot of people and really getting great encouragement.

I am currently in Chicago, moving to St. Louis in March. I’ve been asking around St. Louis and checking out a great letterpress shop (with whom I hope to establish a relationship) about the letterpress market. It seems like a good idea and I’m going to give it a go, but i want to make sure I have most of my bases covered. The details are where I get a little overwhelmed.

Alan, those organizational techniques are just the kind of idea I am looking for. i’ll try that and modify as needed. Keeping a stiff upper lip during customer negotiations is where I will need more discipline.

littlerubberfeet: i’ve got the dry erase board already! :) its counting down the time till the move with lists in order of importance what I NEED to have accomplished by when in order to have a good marketing strategy and product to distribute.

inky: I’m sure I’ll fall off the letterpress a few times, but hopefully my research and preparation will be the pillow tied around my waist:)

Thanks again and I welcome any other comments!

Updated. Jenny,

I hope this doesn’t sound like a stupid thing to ask, but since you’re moving to St. Louis, have you contacted the St. Louis Letterpress Society? Sky Shipley of Skyline Type Foundry is its founder, I believe. Here’s the link to their listing here:

(Again, sorry if that was an obvious thing to mention!)

On another note: As a freelance writer/designer, I strongly recommend you do establish yourself as an LLC in the state you’re moving to. DO NOT establish your LLC in IL, otherwise you’ll be considered a “foreign” business in MO. As for taxes, MAKE SURE you discuss the benefits of filing as an S-Corp with your accountant. (Doing so saved me $3,000 in taxes last year!)

Lots of luck!