Pursuing Local Clients

Small businesses need design, but do they know it?

Titus Smith


Several months ago I had a conversation with my pal Isaac Ali, a designer in rural Maryland who’s been attempting to connect with local businesses. While we commiserated about the struggles of encouraging mom and pop stores to buy into websites and branding, I jotted down a few notes. I’m no expert, but since I’ve had some success working with local businesses this year I wanted to share my takeaways from our conversation. Thanks to Isaac for prompting the topic!

Note: My hometown (pop. <5,000) is my frame of reference, so keep in mind anytime I write about “local clients” it’s directed at designers working in small, rural areas.

Small town woes

Since starting The Hideout, the biggest change to my process is the way in which I qualify clients. My number one criteria for all new projects has become whether or not a potential client has heard of The Hideout or seen our work before. If someone says, “I reached out because of [past project],” they have my full attention.

Quick reason why this is so important to me: Of all my projects, the best ones — that go smoothly, that pay well, that lead to more work, that result in excellent design, or any combination of these results — have come from clients who saw my work and sought me out specifically. Whether that’s in-person referrals or social media DMs, it’s 100% true. My strongest client relationships are with those who wanted to work with The Hideout because we’re The Hideout.

At the beginning of the year, I accepted everything that came my way. (I also accepted payment in the form of baked goods and soap.) Business has steadily improved — both qualitatively and quantitatively — so now I get to be a little more selective. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of seasons where I take on less exciting work because things are slow and money is tight, but right now I get to say “no” a little more often. It feels great.

However, one of the downsides of getting to pass on work is missing out on potentially strong client relationships. I don’t reject everyone who hasn’t heard of The Hideout, but it’s tough for me to overlook that now. Still, if the reason I end up saying “no” is because of my biggest criteria, I tend to second-guess my decision. Since I’ve put so much stock in having my reputation precede me, I’ve struggled objectively identifying profitable and meaningful projects, especially at a local level.

Local vs Global

For me, the struggle is finding a balance between:

  1. pursuing clients in my area who value working with local businesses AND
  2. being okay with them not having any frame of reference for what I do.

When it comes to clients understanding “what I do,” I mean my specific discipline (brand identity or web design). I usually default to something about logos or websites and that’s generally enough to explain how I work. It’s not like I need every local client swoon over my portfolio before I consider a partnership (although it would certainly help).

If I strike up a conversation with a local business owner and mention what I do (with the intent to win their business) I make sure to check my ego. Even if they know me personally, I can’t expect them to be familiar with my latest post on Dribbble. After all, I don’t know what their latest post on [whatever the equivalent of Dribbble for hamburger restaurants] is.

Posting work online is never a sure thing, but I’ve decided it’s by far the easiest part of being a designer.

Online, it’s so much easier. If someone reaches out to you, it’s because they’ve seen your work and liked it enough to inquire. By simply existing on the internet, you’ve bypassed the frustrating practice of explaining what you do — often a prerequisite for small town business clients.

Online, you’re capable of attracting clients from all reaches of the earth. In person, your reach is literally your arm’s length (or however loud you’re willing to shout).

Online, your “storefront” gets action every day without you doing anything more than making sure you’ve paid your domain registration fee. Locally, you have to pass out cards, explain what you do, and summon the courage to approach complete strangers to be noticed.

Online, you have reference to your past work. In person, you get asked if you do wedding invitations.

Is it even worth it?

So, then: if context is so important, and local clients in Ruralsville, USA don’t have any… is pursuing local clients even a good idea?

I’m painting with a broad brush, but in my experience local businesses usually have less money, contribute fewer ideas, and require a lot of education about the value of design. If those are deal-breakers for you, then maybe hold off on pursuing local clients.

On the flip side, local businesses also usually grant more creative freedom, show greater enthusiasm for the results, and lead to more work through referrals. If those sound good to you, and you’re okay working with people who may need some proof to value what you do, then absolutely pursue those local clients.

We’ve all got to figure out our own balance between the value we place on local businesses and the importance of our work being recognized.

If you’re interested in working with more local businesses and need some tips for how to get those feet in the doors (literally), check out additional entries on The Hideout Journal that have the Local Clients label.

Titus Smith runs The Hideout from his garage in Vinland, Kansas. If you’re interested in working with The Hideout or discussing more about working with local businesses, please feel free to get in touch.



Titus Smith

Design Dad. Running things at The Hideout Design Company LLC. If I were a typeface it would be something heavyset.