Ten-member design team closes out 2020 with $1M in revenue

Intentional hiring pays off as firm is able to take on more Hispanic clients.
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Well Design Studio has seen unprecedented growth in 2020. Since opening its first studio in 2015, the company has grown from two partners to 10 full-time employees and is on track to be a million-dollar company by the end of this year.

The Grand Rapids digital design studio had steadily grown its work in the nonprofit space over the years, but 2020 was the year Well Design truly tailored its services and honed in on what nonprofit and municipal clients are looking for to get their messages to the public.

Josh Leffingwell

“We call them public brands, the brands being utilized by our public agencies,” co-founder and partner Josh Leffingwell said. “This was the year where, because we were tapped for some of the highest profile campaigns in the region — the 2020 census, the 2020 elections, COVID — when you think of everything that has been 2020 … we’ve had a hand in almost all of it … in terms of trying to take a bad situation and make something that can really drive change.”

For the census, Well Design was given a plan to work with libraries and other community organizations to host events and develop advertising for billboards.

The plan was set up in January, and by February the team had to scrap everything in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Obviously you couldn’t go anywhere, so there was no need for advertising,” Leffingwell said. “Libraries were closed, so we had to pivot that. It forced us to think, if we’re going to have to get serious about helping organizations and municipalities focus for 2020 on creating new solutions to get the word out, what do we need to do to build a company that can serve them well?”

Well Design had enough work queued up to bring on new employees that could help it grow in a way municipalities needed, including expanding its design team, expanding its services to include public relations and offering all of its work in both English and Spanish.

The Business Journal previously reported Well Design doubled its team in the summer. The studio also hired its first copywriter, Amanda Toala, who is bilingual in Spanish and English. As a contractor, she assisted Well Design with the “Get the Lead Out” campaign it did with the city of Grand Rapids and Ingalls Pictures to spread awareness about lead in old homes, especially for the Spanish-speaking populace.

“When Kent County Health Department realized they needed support with their COVID communications, they were able to come to us, and we were able to do all of that work in reaching out to refugee populations … and getting new advertising campaigns up in English and Spanish … and making sure all of the communications coming out of KCHD were bilingual,” Leffingwell said.

The constant stream of work also meant Well Design was able to bring on new clients who were interested in taking advantage of the studio’s language, design and public relations capabilities. The small team is in track to more than double its yearly revenue, going from $480,000 in 2019 to $1 million this year.

Tyler Doornbos

The achievement goes way beyond the studio’s expectations, Well Design co-founder and partner Tyler Doornbos said. The team’s original goal was $650,000 with maybe an $800,000 “stretch” goal.

“We beat our goal by a lot, so that’s cool,” Doornbos said.

The $1 million is a nice, round number for a small design firm that began in a cramped, 390-square-foot office, but what really hit home for Leffingwell was the ability of the studio to double its team and more than double its revenue during a pandemic.

“To onboard five people during a pandemic, I would never advise it, but what we were excited about is every client we have that was with us through us onboarding five people has only asked us to do more work,” he said. “It’s something we’re really proud of when it comes to keeping our staff going … and the folks that we’re working with have recognized that.”

Well Design definitely hired with intention, which Leffingwell said was one of the big reasons why it grew so rapidly, but another reason is because municipalities had so much to talk about in 2020.

“It’s weird to talk about success right now, because a lot of folks are really struggling,” he said. “There are folks in our industry who are struggling. I don’t want to sound gloating … but with all of that, we were able to develop a niche for ourselves by serving clients who weren’t always served with good design or good communication.”

Doornbos said Well Design has worked to position itself to serve the needs of municipalities since day one, and that positioning is really paying off now, given the need for good messaging.

“It’s something that’s taken time to grow, but it’s been worth the wait,” Doornbos said. “Our work with the types of folks we’ve positioned ourselves for is speaking for itself … we feel like we’re being trusted with work that is incredibly, deeply important.”

“In addition to that positioning, it’s more than just the design work we do,” added Amar Dzomba, lead designer. “Over the years, we’ve really grown strong in the strategy work … so in the end, what we build with our clients is a level of trust and efficiency that lets us understand the ideas behind the committees that need to approve everything … we don’t see them as a barrier. We understand why they exist, how to work with them and pass things through quickly and easily.”

For 2021, Well Design is working to build its client base for further growth. The studio now is partnering with the Grand Rapids Economic Development Department and Mobile GR to expand their work, as well as reaching out to Hispanic businesses, like Soldadera Coffee and Tamales Mary.

“Those are both delicious clients to have,” Leffingwell said, laughing, “but they’re also seeing incredible growth, so we’re super excited to share in that growth with them.”

Well Design also is working with the Heart of West Michigan United Way on its Making Ends Meet app and is launching an alpha version of an app for the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan that helps users track indoor environmental hazards in the home.

Well Design’s flagship product Featherlight, a cash-flow-friendly website builder, also saw growth in 2020. While most of the studio’s contracts are with municipalities and nonprofits, business is still a big part of its network, and a major goal for 2021 is expanding the platform to help more businesses.

“Since a lot of those businesses realize you need an online presence during this time, we’ve seen huge growth in our Featherlight business, and we imagine that’s going to continue as we continue to grow the outreach for that program,” Leffingwell said.

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