Today’s release of our small business success series features Matt Hannigan, the principal and creative director of the Pennsylvania-based design company, GoodThree.
Matt purchased a repositionable wall decal for display in the GoodThree office.
The GoodThree logo displayed using a repositionable wall decal on a smooth wall (note: wall decals are not suitable for display on brick walls).
Tell us about yourself.
I am a designer and creative director based in Lancaster, PA. My passion for graphic design really took root through experimentation and independent studies while majoring in graphic design at Messiah College. Exploration and my inability to settle has allowed me to develop my personal and professional character, allowing me to enjoy what I do on a daily basis. From my perspective, I’m in a small percentage of the most fortunate individuals who get to do what they love for a living.
Matt, the Principal and Creative Director of GoodThree
What is it about design that intrigued you and keeps intriguing you enough to do it day in and day out? Is it something you knew you always wanted to do, or was it in college where you got to really experiment with it?
What has always intrigued me about any form of design is that you can find it in anything. It can be good design or bad design but it’s everywhere you look and that is a very powerful realization. Knowing something that started as a blank white rectangle in my sketchbook now potentially has hundreds of thousands eyes.
Even when I was younger, I can remember exploring design at some level, whether it was creating a t-shirt design or examining an ad. I guess I’ve always known I wanted to be a designer. I only seriously started pursuing it as a career when I realized that I could actually make a lasting impact doing what I love.
What does GoodThree do?
GoodThree is a branding and design firm in Lancaster, PA. Our capabilities range to include anything in the areas of branding, print, digital, illustration and strategy. We cultivate a “design thinking forward” process, allowing us to create work that builds meaningful connections between us and our clients, as well as between our clients and their customers.
When it comes to your clients, how do you know what will resonate with their customers (besides the obvious consultation)?
For us, we always like to meet our clients in person first. That way we get to learn their culture first-hand. Since they know their customers best, it’s crucial to be able to apply our process to their target demographic. From there, we dig deep into their goals for the project (or projects), the content they’ve provided, comparing it to their previous pieces and others in the industry and provide our concepts based on research, discovery and experimentation. Our results stem from what resonates best within our internal team and from our individual experiences as consumers of other companies.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
When I started GoodThree with a good friend of mine, we both held our design values and work to a high standard that we always worked relentlessly to achieve, regardless of the project size. After dissecting our process and obsession for detail and concept, we were able to place any piece of successful graphic design into three layers.
Along with our meticulous practices, we both highly valued efficient use of materials and pursued using only environmentally-friendly materials. Therefore, we implemented green graphic design practices into our business model from the start, allowing us to do good with our design work beyond benefitting our clients.
It’s really neat that you had a friend with the same mindset start a business with you. What took place that made you push the button on starting GoodThree? Was it an idea that was always in the back of your mind or did an event occur that made you take the leap of faith?
To be honest, I had never really considered starting a design firm until we started shooting ideas back and forth. Up until then, I was pretty set on pursuing my career as a freelance designer. The seamless collaboration, similar design-thinking and constant energy between us prompted the switch. Taking the leap of faith was always the intention, it was just a matter of when.
What sets you apart from your competition?
Our process and design thinking. While GoodThree isn’t the only design firm that values a close relationship with our work and our clients, that trait of our business does tend to stand out with organizations we do work for.
One of the most valuable steps in our process is collaboration. We don’t always hit the nail on the head. In fact, it would be boring if we did. Going through the motions of visiting a client’s office, learning their culture and presenting vision boards enable a strong connection to happen between us and the work.
What is one strategy for gaining customers that you have been successful with?
Network and be genuine. Going to a mixer with an elevator pitch and the hope of collecting as many business cards as possible may work for a few industries but I’ve found it very rare that it works when laying the foundation for a sustainable small business. People want to feel like their time is valuable to you when you’re having a conversation and, if your goal is quantity over quality, it’s likely their impression of you won’t be good.
You mention networking. What kind of functions would you take advantage of attending? Without giving away any secrets, how would you approach potential clients?
What’s really worked for us is taking chances. If we know about an event and can make it, chances are we’ll be there, simply because you never know who you’ll meet where. When we approach potential clients, we treat them as partners. The difference here shifts the tone drastically and it becomes a conversation, not a sales pitch. Like I said, when you’re out at a mixer or a conference be genuine and you’ll gain more positive exposure.
Is there an area that you’ve struggled with in regards to customer acquisition that you believe is critical to future success? If so, how are you overcoming that?
Acquiring new clients is always somewhat of a challenge small business owners mind, but frequently receiving projects from a repeat client is a clear sign that you’ve gained their trust and they see the value in working alongside a company that becomes an extension of their team. The struggle is some clients don’t realize that value and only keep you on for one or two projects, regardless of how much effort you put in.
Really great points about repeat customers and also not knowing the value in how much effort was spent. So how has GoodThree been able to acquire new clients and keeping that momentum going or is it still a struggle?
As our client base grows, the struggle has diminished. It’s been really great to engage with clients at a level where they want to refer us to another business or send a new potential client our way. Making connections through a happy client, as you can imagine, is a lot easier than cold-calling.
How do you compete with the bigger competitors that are similar to yours but have a recognizable brand and large marketing budgets?
Our business model, and process mentioned before, revolves around staying true to our values and running a principal-driven studio. This means our clients work directly with us, allowing us to develop a closer connection to their brand and allowing them to receive work of a higher creative caliber that will resonate more with their audience. Housing a smaller team means we get to keep our focus on the quality of our work, right where it belongs.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have had with your business and how did you overcome it?
When GoodThree began, both of us had two or three clients each that followed us as we transitioned from freelance designers to start-up design firm principals. While that got the ball rolling for us, working full-time jobs during the day and fulfilling incoming projects by night meant long hours, little free time and limited availability for new clients. Shifting into full-time, normal business hours was probably the biggest challenge so far. It’s been a hard one to overcome but was also the easiest. You just have to go with your gut, give it 110% and never look back.
From a financial standpoint, would you say your funds reflected a great time to take that leap into full-time? A lot of entrepreneurs still have full-time jobs and are waiting for their businesses to take off before leaving their employers. Was this the case for you?
Our shift happened a bit sooner than expected, so we dug in and really focused to keep our ship on course. Doing that played a huge role and we learned a lot. I’m a believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason.
If you could rewind time is there anything you’d do differently? If so, what?
If anything, I probably would have done a bit more research on the administration end. However, mistakes happen so that we have the opportunity to learn from them.
Can you give us one specific example and how you overcame that?
Nothing too specific stands out. They’ve all been relatively small oversights like Statements of Work (SOWs) that were a little too vague and needed clarification or updating the contract date for a revised agreement. Thankfully, ours have been minor so far (knock on wood) and our clients have been very understanding.
If you had advice for other SMB owners, regardless of the industry, what would it be?
Your strategy and your brand are two of your most valuable assets to form a solid foundation. Don’t shy away from seeking advice or contracting the right people to ensure you’re taking the right steps towards a prosperous future for your business. After that, an abundance of drive and hard work with a bit of patience will go a long way.
Hiring the right person to do the job and fit the company culture can be challenging. Since you’ve already done some hiring before, how do you go about making the right decision on hiring the right employee?
As with most interactions, the first impression is crucial. For us, the hiring decision goes beyond the way someone is dressed or how impressive their resume is. The two things that hit home are the face-to-face interaction throughout the interview and having a physical portfolio, possibly accompanied by a tablet or laptop for digital pieces. Even if the portfolio is digital-heavy, seeing pieces mounted in a portfolio case shows care and craft, both of which are essential to the work we put out. The face-to-face interaction allows us to see how they’ll fit in with our team and our office.
How do you “WOW” your customers?
When we meet with a client for the first time, we like to show our passion for design from the get-go. That’s proven to be more inviting than off-putting time after time. We then strive to deliver on that passion through concept experimentation and variation, attention to detail and an effective end result. Our clients have always loved our enthusiasm and drive for great design.
What do you think the future holds for your business?
At least for the foreseeable future, GoodThree will remain a small team, based in Lancaster, PA, with our focus on having a beneficial impact on both start-ups and well-established organizations of any size. As our team grows, we’re going to aim to house exceptional, passionate individuals of different capabilities but who all come with a strong eye for design.
Without sharing detailed financials can you speak to your growth to this point and why you think it will continue?
The past year has been really great to us. We moved into a new office in Lancaster, hired a new employee and started working with a lot of exceptional clients. We have a lot more to look forward to in the next two years as well, so, yes, we are seeing a pattern of continued growth.
Where can you be found online?
We can be found on the web at www.goodthree.com or followed through @goodthreedesign on social media:
Editor’s Note: We’d like to thank Matt for spending time with us and providing us with detailed insights into how he created a design firm from the ground up. Matt took his talents as a designer and added business knowledge to develop GoodThree. The “design thinking forward” process of the company allows for a close-knit connection between GoodThree, the client, and the client’s customers. This unity drives constant collaboration with clients to create the best design product. Quality over quantity gives GoodThree – and any small business – the opportunity to foster a lifelong relationship with customers. The ability to adjust your business pitch and tone according to potential clients is another factor that has helped Matt bolster the clientele of his firm. Flexibility, while holding true to your brand and strategy, is an excellent way to build a reliable business foundation. Matt, thanks again for the knowledge you provided; we wish you and GoodThree the best of luck in creating exceptional designs and building a reputation for your clients.