Behind the Creative: Starting your own creative agency
In this edition of Behind the Creative, we chat with Teya Shannon, founder and Creative Director of FriendsOf.Studio about how to build your own creative agency from scratch. So if you’ve been thinking about doing something similar, keep reading to learn how Teya went about it.
Teya, tell us a bit about your career and how you got into design.
I actually started in-house at a property development company, Thirdi Group, based in Sydney. I was in a marketing manager role, and found myself assisting the graphic designer a lot. I loved it – every time I was passed any creative to work on, I would prioritise it over my actual work. I decided that’s what I wanted to do, so I sent myself to night school to improve on my pretty basic graphic design skills.
I graduated and the creative manager and I decided we would like to switch roles. Somehow, we convinced our boss, and all of a sudden I was thrown in the deep-end, running the creative on full development projects, end-to-end, as a junior designer. The development world was fast and exciting, and I am so proud of the projects I was able to create and roll out – I still reference some of them today. However, I knew there was more to learn, and I had some bad, self-taught habits that were slowing me down. I realised I needed to be in a design agency to work and learn again, under a senior designer.
I got a mid-weight designer role at Brand&Co., a brand agency that specialises in high-end property and luxury brands. I was lucky to work under some incredibly talented designers and I learnt so much more than just design. I learnt to liaise with the clients and suppliers, I built connections and took note on the ins-and-out of setting up your own studio – some I would take with me, and some that I would leave behind.
Did you always know that you wanted to go out on your own?
Yeah, I think it was always a part of the plan, mostly because I had always wanted to be a freelance designer who worked and traveled. I slowly built up a few clients on the side and after a few years at the agency – when I was feeling a lot more confident in my design skills and abilities – I decided to take the leap and go out on my own.
Was it scary?
It absolutely was, but I also think I had youth behind me, and a mantra of ‘just have a go’. I knew that I could always go back and get a job in a studio again if it didn’t work out, which I considered at times! At the end of the day, I was more scared of not trying it, which gave me that final push to do it.
How long were you freelancing for?
I freelanced from 2018 until 2022. It allowed me to have the freedom to travel, work and live in another country for four years. It was an amazing experience – I was able to fully support myself and build my little business, all while having the flexibility and freedom to do things on my own terms. You still have to put in the hard work, but there is something about it being your own business and building on your own dream that makes it more enjoyable, and less like work.
When did you decide that you wanted to scale up and become your own agency?
I started feeling a little restless and ready to grow in early 2021. I sent myself away on a solo ‘work retreat’ on the coast, and I forced myself to really sit and think about what I wanted to do next. What did I want this new stage of my business to look like? Who were the clients that I wanted to be working with?
I knew I was ready for the next step, but I just didn’t know how that worked or what I needed to do to get there. I did a lot of things the hard way, and it took me a long time to start asking for help. I eventually reached out and hired my first business coach, Kaylene Langford from StartUp Creative, and that really helped me move into that next phase of my journey.
That’s when FriendsOf.Studio was born. I shifted my focus and messaging towards the businesses and brands that I aligned with and began to build out my business structure and my offering around this.
Did you face any challenges establishing your agency?
Even though I had rebranded, and thought I was doing all the right things, I was still acting like a freelancer. It took me a while to start seeing some real change.
I more recently started working with The Agency Mentor, who run a great program that specifically helps freelancers become agency owners. Having access to tools and insights, and consistent weekly catch ups has really helped me to keep the ball rolling and keep me accountable.
I really believe in the saying ‘What you focus on expands’. It’s a work in progress, I am still going through it and I think there will always be a part of me looking for ways to grow and develop my business. It’s important to trust the process – and enjoy it too.
What was it like hiring your first employee?
I started with a design assistant from Toolakea, an agency that provides design assistance for creatives to help with overflow of work. This was a great stepping stone for me. I had a dedicated designer work with me a few hours every week. I learnt to brief, to delegate and let go of control – especially when it came to design.
That, and the workload, gave me the confidence and confirmation that I was ready to bring someone on board full time. I had planned as much as I could, but there are always going to be some areas that you just can’t plan for, and you just have to trust that things will work out. I met Lucca at The Design Conference in 2022, and we became good friends through our similar interests in design and culture. He was an amazing designer, and when I heard that he might be looking for work, I took a leap and asked him if he would consider coming over to FriendsOf. as our new lead designer.
Has there been a moment where you felt, “yup, I’ve made it. This was the right decision”?
I feel like this is just the beginning but it definitely feels right.
I have been able to give myself back my time to focus on growing the business, while Lucca looks after all the client deliverables and roll-out. I am still involved creatively, overseeing the projects, which keeps me sane – for now.
Any tips or advice for creatives wanting to create their own creative or marketing agency?
Write yourself a plan, think about what you want for your life and your business and work back from there.
Ask for help! Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know everything. I would highly recommend finding a business coach or mentor like The Agency Mentor, listen to podcasts like The StartUp Creative, or read books like John Warrillow’s, Built to Sell and Dan Martell’s, Buy Back Your Time.
What’s next for you?
Lucca started with me a few months ago and having some extra on board has already been a game changer. We have some amazing projects with some really exciting clients in the pipeline, and internally we are spitting out so many ideas we can’t keep up. Who knows, maybe we will be talking at the next TDC!