Founder Stories: Lewis Jenkins On Percept Brand Design

In today’s Founder Story, we feature Lewis Jenkins, the Founder of Percept Brand Design!

Read on for lessons he has learned from launching and marketing his branding agency.

1. Please introduce your business and share your role.

Hi guys, I’m Lewis Jenkins, Principal and Founder of Percept Brand Design, a strategic branding agency in Sydney, Australia.

Percept is a branding agency specializing in Strategic Branding, Brand Identity, Packaging Design, Visual Communication, and Website Design. We work with clients of all types, across many different industry sectors from corporate to retail, helping them to amplify their business performance. Basically, we transform good companies into great brands.

2. How did you prepare for, and go about your launch? 

26 years ago, I was a fearless and naive 20-year-old who wanted independence and something of my own in my chosen career of design. Since then, not much has changed, except for my age, and I’m glad I made that brave decision at the start when I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. My idea wasn’t an invention or an app or a gadget, it was a decision based on lifestyle and what kind of future I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be a designer, it just felt right for me.

I was highly inexperienced (although I thought I knew way more than I did), but had experienced success across several roles in a relatively short period of a couple of years in the industry, after being lucky enough to be offered an opportunity early on that allowed me to bypass tertiary education.

So basically, I was always younger than my peers and this helped build my can-do attitude and the self-belief that’s required to make any vision come to fruition. I wanted to be my own boss in a career that I loved, having the control to build a business model that worked for the work/life balance I was looking to achieve.

In 1997, I brazenly walked into my local bank and asked for a $20k personal loan to buy a car. I had no intention of replacing the Mini I was driving at the time, but I knew no one would approve a loan for a 20-year-old in baggy pants and bleached hair to start up their own business!

A week later, the loan was approved and I went straight out and bought everything I needed to kick off my own design studio. An Apple Mac, laser printer, scanner, software, tools, books, office supplies, furniture, etc., and set up in the spare bedroom of the unit I was renting with my now wife, Fiona.

For some unknown reason, I overestimated the number of staples required for a start-up, because there are still a few boxes left in our current studio from that first supply purchase! The main idea that drove me to want to do things my way was to build a branding agency where unpaid overtime was not the norm as it had been in places I’d worked and the creative industry as a whole. I wanted to have control over my real life outside of work and hoped that this would be appealing to employees too as my venture would grow.

Additionally, placing less importance on where we were physically allowed for more productivity. I’m sure the fact that we weren’t based in the city as expected cost us reputation-wise, but that was compensated for by not having to commute. This maximized work time as well as family and social time.

So I guess the decision to start up was more focused on internal company culture rather than trying to change the external service offering. Although the business was not remote at first, this ethos was key in the evolution to remote work, which has become normal practice for Percept and its employees as we have developed as a company.

So that was it, a self-employed, sole trader started the design agency, EyeScream, which has since gone on to rebrand to a more mature, Percept – Brand Design, growing and learning as a business at the same speed as I myself have developed as a professional.

The past few years have seen us grow, with the transition from adolescence into a more mature business model a continuing process. Percept has successfully shifted our market position from being one of the thousands of design agencies in Australia offering aesthetic deliverables to Percept being among a handful of strategic branding agencies with a far more refined offering of actually improving the businesses we work with.

One of the most notable things that allowed this was our change in the pricing structure. Basically, we got to a tipping point where we had the runs on the board and it was time for a brave move to realize the profitability potential of our brand agency. 

We increased our typical project price 10-fold and tripled the time we’d spend on that particular strategic branding project. Effectively tripled the quality of work we were delivering and tripled our time billing rate at the same time.

The brand repositioning for our own business has enabled us to produce far better work than we had previously created due to the shift in hourly rate enabling us to spend more time developing robust brand strategies and brand identities. This in turn improves our reputation and attracts more important projects and larger budgets. 

The transformation is paying off financially, as well as in terms of our stature within the design industry and positive publicity in the commercial world.

In recent history, we have won a few awards and received some great industry recognition for our branding design work. Percept is thrilled to have won Silver in the Australian Design Awards 2023 as well as achieving Silver in the Sydney Design Awards 2022 too. These accolades were for branding projects in the Graphic Design, Identity, and Branding categories. See our work.

In additional good PR news, Percept has been named in the Clutch Report of Leading Branding Agencies in Australia for 2022. Agency Spotter also ranked Percept in the Top 30 Global Branding Agencies for 2022 and TDA crowned Percept Branding Agency Of The Month for January 2022.

3. Since launching, what types of marketing campaigns and designs have worked best to attract and retain customers?

There was no formal plan or launch strategy, I just knew I needed clients. I initially used my social network (verbally, because there were no social media back then) and relied on word of mouth to build my client base as friends of friends would bring their brand design projects to Percept through recommendations or referrals.

As most people do, I hated the idea of cold-calling and I didn’t want to pound the pavement. The thought of attending events for networking purposes also made me cringe. I wanted to work with people who wanted to work with me. This idea of mutual respect and growing organically through reputation was idealistic and perhaps pig-headed, but I knew I wanted to do it my way, building slowly and with integrity. 

As a result, in the first few months, times were lean, so toast was eaten for many meals and my own client work needed to be supplemented with freelance projects that I was lucky enough to be given from a previous employer who had more on than they could handle.

I didn’t have a website, there was no Google, it was just more a case of who you know rather than what you know, but this led to clients such as SMP Clothing and Wakakirri. The main breakthrough that got me established with these clients initially, was personal relationships. 

One direct with the owner of the company I knew as an acquaintance, and we got talking in an elevator (my first elevator pitch – literally!). And the other was a friend of the IT guy I bought my computer through when setting things up at the start. From small opportunities, bigger things developed and that has been the theme of our evolution since.

In the early days, when a new client came along, everything was done to impress them. This meant underquoting and over-delivering. A great deal for them, and at the time I thought it was good for my business too because as word got around, the client base was building, the projects were flooding in, customers were happy, and a good reputation was built.

Although after a while it became hard to sustain. There was only 1 of me, I was working long hours without great financial compensation. To meet demand, I took on an employee, and then another, which meant I had to lease an office. We got more work, even many projects from Toyota, meaning more staff and a bigger studio.

My friends and family thought I was very successful. In fact, so did I. But the more I thought about why I started, which was to have independence and a good work/life balance, the more I realized that success was not achieved yet.

Of course one of the challenges for us more recently has been navigating through, and bouncing back from all the effects that Covid-19 has had on the business world. Obviously, we’re not alone here, so no need to go into too much detail except to say that these challenges have taught us to be more resilient, making us stronger and more flexible as a company.

If you are prepared to do whatever it takes and have the passion to follow it through, you will be rewarded in the long run. The economy has also thrown its fair share of challenges at us too, with our overheads increasing significantly.

At the same time, our potential clients are looking to tighten up their own spending to ensure their own security during these trying times. This had us questioning whether it was the right choice to stick with our new pricing structure because we were struggling to convert a lot of new business due to clients’ budgets. We decided to stick strong with our position on this and trust that the projects we win, will validate this choice.

Google for us is king in terms of marketing. It’s where people go when they’re ready to buy. Nobody likes cold-calling or the hard sell. We put our efforts into being prominent with SEO and put the budget into GoogleAds as well as LinkedIn for a more qualified target audience.

Social media platforms are also a part of our marketing efforts these days. We use Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn. These avenues are used to tap into a variety of audiences. For example, we post about our healthy agency culture to attract new talent, we post feature work to demonstrate our abilities to potential clients, and we post about the awards we’ve won to raise awareness within the industry. All these examples improve our reputation among sub-groups and complement our traditional marketing push.

Individuals are better than software or apps. Technology is only the tool, you need thinkers and problem solvers to get the most out of their tools. For the record, we use Adobe Creative Cloud as our weapons of choice. An open-plan studio is most important to our business. It enables clarity of communication, awareness, collaboration, and perspective in our work.

4. What have been the most influential brands for your business? Whose branding and marketing do you aspire to and why?

To be honest, I’ve never been a big follower of other brands or competitors. This means we remain independent in our thought process and don’t get caught up in trends. We can focus on our venture and put some of those same principles into practice for our clients, with a truly unique approach. However, in the same breath, I feel the best resources for learning are the experiences of yourself and others, and that includes those in the design industry, so we’re not operating in a silo. 

Understanding comes through trial and error and speaking with others in a variety of situations helps cross-pollination in my opinion. Not only in your industry or the business realm but even things like sports or social learnings can also be applied to your business.

5. What are your favorite marketing platforms/tools?

Although all things internet were new at the time the branding agency, Percept, started, we identified early on that having a really good website is the best way to showcase your work to potential clients without having to be physically present. And having those potential clients be able to find your website is even more important. That way you are visible to those in search of the services you provide and essentially all your website needs to do is convert the warm lead that comes through a Google search.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and our NBD method remains the same, but a lot of other things have changed. At Australian branding agency, Percept, we are a fully integrated, strategic branding, design, and creative agency. Our clients include Unilever, DuluxGroup, Rio Tinto, and the Australian Government, as well as many lesser-known names that value strategic design and allow us to produce good work because they trust our advice.

So what changed at that time? Plenty. It certainly wasn’t an overnight transformation, it’s taken a long time to get where we are now as a business and for me as an individual, but I have finally achieved that get-rich plan I had at the start… rich in time and quality of life. I own my business, it doesn’t own me!

One of the most notable shifts that allowed this was our change in the pricing structure. Basically, we got to a tipping point where we had the runs on the board and it was time for a brave move to realize our branding agency’s profitability potential. We increased our typical project price 10-fold and tripled the time we’d spent on that particular branding job. Effectively tripling the quality of work we were delivering and tripling our time billing rate at the same time.

We’ve grown in many ways. Attitude, positioning, offering, headcount, reputation, and value that we offer. The biggest change has been getting the right people in the right roles. To do so we had to work hard, wear various hats, and do a bit of fake it until we made it. But all this is a way of earning the right to become what you set out to become.

Our pricing structure change enabled us to employ better staff as we were able to offer competitive salary packages that attracted the industry’s best talent. This, in turn, raised the standards of work we were able to produce, which in turn, attracted a higher caliber client with larger project budgets. This cycle continues to snowball to this day, with our momentum ever-increasing. Our entire existence has morphed from a graphic design studio that offered a commodity, to a brand consultant in the form of a strategic branding agency that improves the performance of larger businesses. 

Those who value strategic branding from their design agency and importantly, have the budget to do things properly. This happened in incremental shifts through lessons learned. To be honest, we couldn’t have moved to any next stage without having experienced the previous stage. That’s how you progress and that’s how a business develops, well my business at least. I guess every story is different.

The transition from a design agency that carried out customer requests, to a strategic branding agency means Percept is a partner that helps transform organizations with strategic advice and problem-solving with design thinking has been our journey. 

This transition from adolescence into a more mature business model has really only taken place over the past few years. It has moved our market position from being one of the thousands of design agencies in Australia offering aesthetic deliverables, to Percept being among a handful of strategic branding agencies with the far more refined offering of actually improving the businesses we work with. 

Employing remote creatives allows us to assemble best-of-breed personnel, meaning Percept can provide the best branding services possible, regardless of where we are based. This increases the quality of our offering and opens up our market globally.

6. Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

Our plans for the upcoming year are to consolidate on the successes of the past 12 months, continue to deliver top-class strategic branding outcomes for our clients, and see their businesses prosper as a result.

We also intend to grow the Percept team of brand designers by 20% in approximately 6 months’ time, so please keep an eye on our socials to see what roles we will be offering. We’re excited about working on new projects and working with new clients as our design agency grows. Variety is the spice of life and it keeps us on our toes creatively!

Over the next 5 years, Percept aims to be considered among the top 10 branding agencies in Australia. We intend to push boundaries with our strategic branding work and help the business performance of our clients in the process.

Percept’s vision for the next 5 years is to balance our growth to a $2M yearly turnover, with better working conditions for our team so they can enjoy quality and fulfillment in their work/life balance. Part of this plan includes the promotion of an inclusive and positive studio culture that gets the best out of everyone because they enjoy working at Percept Brand Design.

7. Who or what inspires and motivates you?

God, family, friends, and life in general.

8. What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way that you would share with entrepreneurs hoping to launch or who have just launched? 

I have been taught countless lessons over the years, and in most cases, I’ve had to learn the hard way, but my main takeaways are:

Get your business model right. Know why you started and try to build backward from there. Sticking with the change to our pricing structure enabled us to win better projects and deliver better outcomes on them because we now have the time to invest in creating top-class work.

This has also had a positive knock-on effect because we are able to employ better staff as we can offer competitive salary packages that attract the industry’s best talent. 

Furthermore, embracing the working-from-home culture has improved our situation further. Now we are employing remote creatives, allowing us to assemble best-of-breed personnel, meaning Percept can provide the best branding services possible, regardless of where in the world potential clients are located, even though our design agency is in Sydney, Australia. This increases the quality of our offering and opens up our market globally.

9. What do you believe are the qualities of a good entrepreneur? And what makes a team successful?

Any entrepreneur will need to keep at it and stay positive! It is hard, don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be easy or quick. If you are prepared to do whatever it takes and have the passion to follow it through, you will be rewarded in the long run.

In regards to the team around you, your people are the key. Their skills, capabilities, attitudes, and personalities will make or break your business. Employ the people you know will be the difference, even if you can’t quite afford them. Good performers are good investments. Reputation is everything.

10. Let us know where we can go to learn more!