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Why the directors of DesignGel are giving away their business

Posted 5 years ago in Small business by Anna Curzon
Posted by Anna Curzon

Most people would laugh at the idea of giving away a business for free. But Sloane Dougherty and Denny Ford, co-directors of Wellington-based design firm DesignGel, are doing exactly that.

Why? It’s the DesignGel way.

The DesignGel story

Sloane and Denny aren’t the first to pass on control of DesignGel. They’re the third generation of owners to have taken over as graduates – Denny started in late 2013 and Sloane joined her in early 2015.

DesignGel was started in 2011 by Deborah Paterson. A student at the time, she wanted a way for design students to gain practical industry experience to aid in job hunting.

“DesignGel brings on students and recent graduates as contractors,” Sloane says. “This gives them practical design experience. And the cool part is, we can pay them for the work they do.”

Since taking over directorship of the business, Sloane and Denny have been steadily carving out DesignGel’s niche in the Wellington design scene. They’ve focused their efforts on small businesses, non-profit organisations, community groups and tertiary education providers.

“Our mantra is small helping small,” Denny says. “We gravitate towards passionate clients who are willing to make the most of an opportunity with young designers.”

Ensuring a personal touch with every client

DesignGel’s clients get access to fresh talent without the risks usually associated with hiring inexperienced designers. Sloane and Denny personally manage every project and supervise all the art direction.

“We’re liable for the quality of all the work we hand over to clients,” Sloane says. “They can rest easy knowing that although a student or recent graduate is doing the work, experienced designers are overseeing the entire project.”

DesignGel also offers a level of personal connection that many business don’t have the resources for. Sloane and Denny prefer to meet their clients in person – it helps them understand the individual they’re designing for.

“Not many design agencies can offer the opportunity to have meetings with the co-directors,” Sloane laughs.


DesignGel’s pay-it-forward model

DesignGel’s mission is to provide a sustainable source of paid work for students and graduates. The owners aim to keep the business in the hands of recent graduates to help foster the next generation of designers.

“Each time DesignGel gets passed on to a new generation, it becomes more established and stronger as a brand,” Denny says. “We’ve grown the business to where we wanted, so we feel it’s time for some new leadership and fresh creativity.”

The new directors will take on the responsibility of carrying on the DesignGel legacy – but they won’t do it alone. Each generation of past owners mentors the next. Sloane and Denny are joining the DesignGel advisory board, along with Deborah and the other previous owners, to carry on the mentorship tradition.

“With the handover process, we’re not employing grads to manage the business,” Denny explains. “We’re actually giving it to them. Legally it’s theirs – it’s up to them to put their own mark on DesignGel. If they want to totally change the business strategy, they have every right to do so.”

Leaving the finances to Xero

In addition to mentoring grads in design, Sloane and Denny make sure to teach them about the financial realities of running a business.

“We’re teaching them how to be commercially viable as designers. This is how an invoice works, this is how you should keep financial records – that kind of stuff,” Denny says.

“But we’re designers – we don’t come from a business background,” Sloane adds. “So the financial side of running the business didn’t always come naturally to us. Thankfully it’s all handled by Xero – it’s one less thing for us to worry about. It means we can get on with what we want to be doing.”


Max Perez
September 23, 2016 at 12.19 am

Love The Pay Forward

Chris Boniface
September 24, 2016 at 5.11 pm

It’s exciting and perhaps a sign of the times that the old business model is no longer true for all. I love this example.

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