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Introvert designers: stop pushing your business uphill

Mediocre work requires constant sales and marketing to maintain momentum. Exceptional work sells itself.

Would you rather have an average product with excellent marketing or an excellent product with average marketing?

Off the top of your head, what would you pick?

The perfectionist in me would choose the latter, and I would usually be wrong.

The answer to this common business question frequently refers to the battle of Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison. Tesla was undoubtedly an exceptional inventor: alternating current, radio, radar, x-rays, wifi, and all kinds of other crazy stuff that was way ahead of his time. But he died penniless with little success.

Edison was also a good inventor, but a great businessman and salesman. He understood the power of IP and marketing. His inventions were less visionary but he knew how to package them for commercial success.

Tesla was an excellent product with poor marketing. Edison was the average product with excellent marketing. History says that Edison won that battle easily.

Does that mean that marketing is always more important? For some products in certain markets, yes. But for the service of design, no. In fact, if your service is good enough you don’t need marketing at all.

Do you feel like you have to constantly sell yourself?

Like you’re struggling to push a ball uphill, against the grain, to keep finding more new clients all the time? Does your freelance “design” career feel like the design work has become secondary to the marketing and sales that keep your business afloat?

For introverts — which many great designers are — this is a stress that puts people off entrepreneurship completely. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

You feel that way because you're offering an average product. And the only way to make an average product success is to market the hell out of it.

I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. It doesn't mean you’re an average person, just that you haven’t yet reached a mastery in your field that elevates you from a commodity to an expert.

Stop running in front of the boulder

There’s a very simple way off of this tiring treadmill. You’re not stuck in the classic movie trope of running in front of a rolling boulder. Just step to the side and let it roll past. If the rules of that game are rigged, play a different game.

The solution: spend less time marketing and more time mastering your craft. Your business problems aren’t solved by selling them better. That’s the treadmill you need to step off; the boulder you need to bypass.

When you become exceptional at what you do, your work will sell itself.

This isn’t an airy-fairy self-help success story. It’s a simple fact of business backed up by my 20 years of personal experience. I’ve spent $0 and very little time and effort on marketing for the last 5–10 years, yet I’m constantly turning down quality design projects because I’m too busy to take on new work. My work — and the reputation it beings — sells itself. New clients come looking for me, not the other way around.

This is the power of an excellent product. Your customers become your marketers, so you don’t have to.

This doesn’t exempt you from quality communication

In fact, quite the opposite. To be a great designer you must be an excellent communicator and collaborator. You must know how to sell your design solutions to your clients and project stakeholders. There’s an aspect of sales and confidence needed to reach a high level of design leadership. But it’s a very different requirement — with a far more personal scale — than the mass-market sales required for constant client outreach.

Mastering collaborative communication and problem-solving lets you bypass the need for public marketing nouse. It lets the trust and respect you build through your work speak on your behalf. It turns your accomplishments — not your mouth — into your sales machine. It’s an introvert’s dream.

So if you’re looking to level up, forget the marketing and sales courses that make you cringe. Look and the mirror and figure out what will make you an exceptional designer. The rest will take care of itself.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.