My name is Louma Bardawil and I have founded and run my own graphic design business for many years in the fabulous city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
I have taken the exciting step of starting my own business, an adventure I always wanted to dive into entrepreneurial world. I was previously an employee working as an art director in advertising, unaware of the roller coaster I was getting myself into.
Six years into my journey, I now look back at all the learning, successes and drawbacks, and I think surely my experience will be useful for someone who is getting himself/herself into the same business or is already living it.
Do what you love
I studied graphic design and I have always been fond of printing. I used to collect many wedding invitations my family would receive and cherish all the production “finesse” behind each invitation. One day, when opportunity arose, I decided I will get myself into the business of designing and printing wedding invitations with the hope of making them better than what others have done so far. In the Middle East, weddings are big social events bit too lavish to my taste, but a business opportunity nonetheless for all wedding suppliers. What a great way to celebrate the bond of 2 soulmates, or even to show your social circle how grand your event can turn out, any reason is a good reason to impress:
My own business on my own terms
I setup my business while I was reaching the end of my maternity leave, I realized that I was not ready to go back to a very demanding full time job and leaving my new born with a stranger was not the ideal option for me. So, I setup my company as a freelance part-time business with flexible hours in the mindset to balance my new mom role and keep doing what I love which was graphic design. Looking back at it now, it was everything but part-time, it took a lot of hours and weekends, but it was flexible in the sense just like clients can choose your service, you can choose your own clients too.
It does take a while to put the word out there, with the help of social media and word of mouth, I started to work with many wedding planners or couples directly on figuring out their ideal wedding invitations, I focused on the custom part of designing invitations, being a graphic designer myself, I felt less of a designer if I worked with ready-made solutions from China or India (the local market was swamped with that type of invitations). I favored making everything from scratch to encourage local UAE production and of course to have my unique edge. That said, I have worked with wonderful suppliers who are passionate about what they do. I was involved mainly in managing the whole process: from meeting a bride, to designing the invitation, to printing it, packaging it and sending it for delivery.
I have gathered some useful guidelines and tips for those of you embarking in this field, I hope you will benefit from my experience:
• The Golden Rule: “Failing to plan is planning to Fail”
Cliché saying I know but it works so well in the wedding industry: due to the nature of the weather in the UAE, there’s a wedding season that stretches from October till April where most events/weddings are happening. I am not saying there are no event outside that time frame, but as a wedding supplier you are usually very busy in that period, and you want to make the most of it in terms of revenue and work/family balance. It can be overwhelming if you didn’t prepare for it during the quiet months. Best is to anticipate what your bride would like to see in terms of design, refine your process to make it more efficient when the season starts, meet new suppliers that could be your backup when your preferred supplier fails you, update your marketing materials (flyer, website, social media etc), meet new prospects that could bring you new revenue. In general aside from the wedding season, prepare yourself mentally to work frequently on weekends and after hours as this is the time when brides want to meet when they finish work. And add to that your usual working hours to attend to design and production requirements. As you can see, you will be working all time, full time.
• Design expectations (visualizing your and your bride’s ideal invitation from sketch to reality)
- It all starts with the invitation sample:
Brides hire you to be creative for them, although they come with ideas, often they need to start with an existing invitation to explain their idea; it’s important you invest in printed wedding invitation samples that reflect your style/brand. Have the same invitation printed in several languages as it will help to sell better and widen your target audience. UAE market is a melting pot of different nationalities.
You will be asked to copy invitations of your competition, just because brides think it’s okay to imitate someone else’s design, doesn’t mean you should. I choose not to copy and advise them to either create a new design with me or go ahead with the designer behind the invitation they brought forward with them. On the longer run, you will gain more respect from all parties involved for saying no.
- Price list
Have your price list ready for each invitation and all its variables (different options of paper, colors, special techniques, sizes, quantities). It’s quite a tedious process as pricing varies on a lot of factors not in your control (and always double check your price list every 3 months with supplier) but it is necessary, actually crucial.
- Your next sale
I found word of mouth and having your printed logo on the invitation is the best selling tool. Make sure you have a good and professional relationship with your bride and groom, as it’s highly likely one of their guests will hire your service when they get married.
- Last minute order
It seems this happens to all the suppliers in the wedding industry, and this is not specific to wedding invitations only. My advice: don’t offer custom made solutions rather revamp an existing invitation design (it will save you time on sourcing a quotation as dimensions , papers and printing techniques have not changed); it does take minimum 24 hours to source an accurate printing quotation
- Making a sale
You know how many times I heard: “but the invitation will be thrown in the bin after the guest reads it, why does it cost so much?”
I mean this is a lousy argument to negotiate pricing, If I want to fire back at the bride or groom, I could say: do you know how much you are paying for flowers and they will go to waste a few hours later? Beautiful things require time and effort to make, you get what you pay for, there are always cheaper options and no one is forcing you to select the expensive one.
Visualize who is your ideal client and target for them, don’t broaden your audience if you don’t want to change your terms.
• Printing Production reality
- Build a good relationship with your account manager
(my production manager is on my favorites mobile list, right after my husband’s number, that’s how often I talk to him)
It’s primordial you build a good relationship with the account manager as he will help you get priority. He will allow you to visit the site to check production at the oddest hours, he will throw in some freebies (if available), he will give you preferential or deferred payment options etc… Actually ideally work with several printers, therefore several production managers to cover uncertainties and unexpected scenarios like holiday rush hours. For example in December, most printers are busy printing yearly calendars, business agendas and chocolates favor boxes to welcome the new year, your wedding invitation job is not really a priority.
- Printing Production Drama
Although your printing supplier has only but the best intentions towards your business, chances are, on many occasions he won’t meet your expectations and here’s why:
- You are not his ONLY client, he will prioritize based on the volume of the work involved, your complicated invitation job (of only 300 copies) is competing with the likes of supermarket flyers printed in 50,000 copies
- The printing machines break down or are due for maintenance: expect delay
- Paper suppliers take longer than promised to deliver the paper (yes, special luxury cardtock stays in warehouses in Sharjah, even Ajman not in your local Dubai press)
- The team underestimates production time: Special colors need to be hand mixed and tested (remember Tiffany Blue?), intricate laser cutting requires testing to avoid burn marks on the paper, special color foils (remember Rose Gold Foil?) need to be ordered overseas, satin ribbons are stocked in warehouses, often not away from sunlight, the rolls need to be checked one by one for color consistency in big orders.
- Basically what you assume as a machine automated process, most of time it is a mix of manual and machine work, hence the necessity to leave time and room for error.
- Great production requires the input of several key persons in the process, allocate more time and don’t rush them
Technical Stuff/ Watch out for the following:
- When you work with paper, although you have a variety of paper catalogues, not every paper you choose might be suitable for printing your invitations.
For example printing with a digital machine, the thickness (or gsm) should not be above 250gsm, you might consider to swap printing technique to screen printing or offset printing if you want to use thick paper.
- Paper comes with texture and while printing colors, the ink absorption reaction will differ on each paper. Some colors become lighter a day later after drying, if you are printing large color surfaces, the paper will take longer to dry and in some case doesn’t dry at all.
If you want an envelope in full black color, it’s more efficient you purchase black paper and make envelopes out of that, instead of purchasing white paper and printing full black color. But that means both sides of the paper will be black.
- When you use “recycled paper”, expect discrepancies on each sheet, the paper doesn’t come flat clean, it has very little “dirt look-a-like marks” and in random spots, and each batch of paper comes different.
- When you use “translucent paper” to make envelopes, glue or transparent tape will be used, and these will be visible. Best is to print a heavy dark artwork to hide those.
- When you want to have an invitation card that is very thick, you can either use thick gsm paper like 700gsm (pricey), or wrap a thinner gsm paper on thick cardboard like paper (more affordable, triplexing effect needed), or paste several sheets together (affordable as well, but that might make the card bend over the edges).
- Choose your artwork size wisely to avoid paper wastage so you can print many samples on each sheet.
- Ask the printer to provide you with all the extras, while you are quality checking each piece, you might refute many and have to replace them
- Special color papers are not always available, the paper companies stock mostly common colors like cream, snow white, ivory and black papers. The same goes with the foils.
- Laser cutting technique is the process of burning paper with a laser beam to have intricate designs, beautiful technique but expect brown edges on light papers, looks better on colored dark papers.
- Embossing and Debossing techniques, leave impression on the reverse side of the paper, you can hide that by pasting another sheet of paper. That pasting process can flatten the embossing effect a bit as the 2 sheets are passed through a pasting roll.
- When you are packing invitations together, add an extra loose paper between each invitation to avoid the wax seal to “sweat” on the invitation on top of it
• Hiring freelancers for extra help
In crunch time you might require an extra sets of hands to help out in the design: remember they are not YOU, so it’s best you give them a recap of the style of invitations you are known for (with visuals backup) and a clear brief written in an email (visual reference, style of fonts, Pantone colors, what the couple is like) to inspire the graphic designer. Remember agree on deliverable and time frame before starting the project to avoid misunderstanding. Personally, I prefer to work with someone who is less creative but reliable, over someone who is very creative and totally unreliable.
• Build a strong reliable team around you
The process of creating the perfect wedding invitation usually requires an account manager, a graphic designer, a calligrapher, a production manager and good printing press team. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, ask them for their advice not just give them a brief to execute, forward praise and criticism in a positive constructive way; and accept that sometimes you can’t force someone to be creative on demand.
• Accept your failure and offer alternative
This is a difficult one, sometimes as a business owner you find yourself in a tricky situation where a mistake happened (often beyond your control) but you have to acknowledge and find a solution for it. Accept the failure, face your client and be upfront with him/her and agree on a solution. Once it’s sorted out, look back at that situation and try to understand what went wrong and address it to avoid a repeat. Easier said than done, but I had to let go of one of my long time suppliers as the invitation deliverables where not up to the usual standard. This brings to my next point, have everything on paper (business paperwork).
• Business Paperwork
There’s a minimum paperwork that as a small business you can’t go without: be on top of your game with templates such as Quotation, Invoices, Terms & Conditions, Agreement, Receipt etc… don’t rush into a signing a project over a whatsapp conversation, you and your client deserve to have a healthy professional relationship, why jeopardize it with a hasty verbal agreement, that could incur misunderstandings in the future? Another golden rule is to take a deposit to start any project, you decide the percentage of the quotation; if you don’t, you are taking the risk of wasting your time and having to pay yourself the full production costs. If the printing press is taking a deposit, you will be held accountable for the full amount, so why would you take a chance to run this risk?
Some of my Wedding Events got cancelled for these reasons: death in the family, couple breaking up, loss of jobs therefore wedding event was put on hold… make sure to have a detailed Terms & Conditions Cancellation clause.
• All good things come to an end…
These are some of the major learning I can share with you, I am sure there are many more and every scenario brings in a new challenge/opportunity. The process of creating anything from scratch is beautiful. There’s something exhilarating when your sketch turns into a tangible piece, this is what I loved the most while creating with customers. Learn to accept criticism as much as praise, treat your client and staff like you want to be treated, and remember that every challenge can be overturned to an opportunity to shine.
Best of luck if you are embarking on this journey.
Drop me a line if you have something to say/add/comment, would love to hear from you: email@example.com