How I have tied my discovery process to HolaBrief

During the years, we have accumulated a bunch of questions that help us get to the bottom of the real problem we are facing...

Designers and studio owners REJOICE! We finally have a briefing system that is visual, modular and customisable. We have gone through our process with HolaBrief in hands. During the years, we have accumulated a bunch of questions that help us get to the bottom of the real problem we are facing. The first step of the engagement with a prospect is to find out what is their real issue (let’s be fair, they rarely need what they say they need). In order to set up a proposal and a pricing, we have a talk with the prospect — and it is this talk we will cover here.

  • Discovering your value to the project
  • Finding out about the business
  • Let’s talk goals
  • Competition is great, but positioning is even better
    • Direct competitors
    • Indirect competitors
  • Personas
  • Brand Voice (and image)
    • Using the comments area to write down THE WORD
  • Inspiring brands and questions
  • Conclusion

If you are familiar with Value Based Pricing, you know that questions like “What does this project mean to your company?” are common. There are a few sections of HolaBrief that can help us get started... and remember, NO one said you had to follow the order that is given to you by the tool! Whether or not you will be pricing on value, these questions can still be relevant to guiding your prospect and finding out whether you are a good fit for each other.

If you would like to learn more about VBP, I strongly recommend to listen to episodes number 08, 145, 146, 147, 331 of the SeanWes Podcast before you continue to read this.

The way we approach the “briefing” in Truu is by adding the perks of VBP to our process of talking to the client before the actual briefing part. Most designers approach the briefing phase as a discovery phase, and they aren’t even being paid for it. The solution is then to position the conversation around Value, which is what Sean teaches in those episodes. The process of discovery, or briefing, comes after we get paid.

Value based pricing only works B2B (Business to business). Since we price based on the value that the project has to the company, a “passion” or “personal” project can not be priced this way. IF there is no profit, VBP does not work. We do not just ask for the budget, we ask the profit realisation as well. That is a key question with VBP: we will have to uncover the real problem the future client is facing, what their expectations really are and what kind of value we can bring to the project. It might turn out that prospect’s problem is somewhere else and the solution is different than they have in mind. It’s actually most likely it is.

Warning: whenever you jump into a discovery session, make sure you are taking to the decision maker(s) of the company. Anything else is not acceptable. For this post, we will be looking at a branding case, so expect some jargon related to that.

Discovering your value to the project

The truth is, you are not the only one prospecting. The prospect is most likely doing the same to you. There is a big, big chance that they are talking to multiple studios and designers, and whilst you do not want to PITCH, you still need to find out whether you would be a good fit in first place. Most of the times the deciding factor is pricing. Other times, you will find out you just are not a good match for each other, whether because of timelines, values or skills required for the project

So, when prospecting, you need to show that you care and discuss what you can bring to the table. One thing you should remember is that these conversations never happen via email or a form. We like to joke around here that the H2H (human to human) is a decisive factor. Whenever possible we do it P2P (in person) which is the ideal situation.

When we open HolaBrief, we go straight to the rational questions section. After we introduce ourselves to the prospect, we ask the unusual, very subtle question that helps us determine the reason why they chose to speak with us in first place. This gives us a lot of insight towards what the prospect is looking for and what kind of expectations (s)he might have.

Why me, and what are my special attributes? And how did you hear about us?

Sometimes, people answer that question even before you ask, when they reach out to you. But in case they do not, always remember to ask! The reason you should ask those is to gauge the perception they have of your own brand and where the gig is coming from. Those important sales and marketing questions to better your business. 

Finding out how you specifically contribute to the project is step numero uno to start measuring success.

The second and third questions help us measure the timing and urgency of the project. It is also an opportunity to find out if there is a crisis going on in the business, or some other sort of scarcity. This is important to determine how much the client actually values and needs the (or a) solution. 

Why are you looking for [project name] now? What makes you think you need [project goal]?

At this stage, you might be able to uncover certain red flags — hopefully not!

Our next step is to find out a bit more about the business itself and the person you are talking to. It is helpful to also keep a little notes app or actual pad to write keywords down, just in case the prospect says something relevant that you might want to remember later but that is not related to the question you have just made.

Finding out about the business

I might be a wacko of some sort, but I like to know what my clients are trying to achieve with a given project before anything else, and of course, their history. For more experienced designers this stage of the discovery process is a given. In order to best serve your client, you will need to know the hows and whys. Really digging deep in the motivations helps you better understand their company’s goals.

[tip] There are two types of prospects: the ones that give you a good overview of who they are and what they want, and the ones that straight up asks for pricing. The second type of prospect we normally turn down. Firstly, we already know they are bidding. They might not even necessarily be looking for a close — and let’s be honest, it is a lazy way to approach someone you want to work with. Secondly, we have an instruction that asks for detail on who they are and their business or else their project will not be quoted. We have a canned message that kindly turns them down.

“Instead of seeking clients, we will selectively and respectfully pursue perfect fits – those targeted organizations that we can best help. We will say no early and often, and as such, weed out those that would be better served by others and those that cannot afford us. By saying no we will give power and credibility to our yes.”

This is an excerpt from A Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns, a book I often quote and recommend to designers and studio owners alike. It is a must read for any creative professional who is looking to be an expert and a general badass.

Why we are talking about all that stuff if we are just trying to turn the prospect into a client?

The foundation of our process is not Design. Our ability to think through solution is. 

Design is a by product of our thinking, the bridge between the real problem and the client’s goal. The solution to the client’s problem is a series of processes that we have put in place during years — and the reason why we are called experts. Since we are experts, we want to be selective. The discovery process is the route being selective, the first step of a process that we so passionately defined over the years.

Thus, I find it more helpful to leave the overview part of the project for last, so I just go on asking basic questions that will help us engage and sympathise with our prospect’s current situation:

What is the history of your business? What has motivated you to do what you do? How do you feel like [insert project] will impact your business’ future?

This last question is a good introduction for the goals section, and it helps the prospect into thinking about impact. The Rational Questions section of HolaBrief is just the perfect to place the answer for such questions. You can add customised questions and rearrange the ones that we present here as you desire.

Let’s talk goals

Our studio is strategy first, so we need to understand the business goals to effectively bridge the gap. The catch is understanding that your design decisions aren not based on what your (hopefully) future client loves, but on what the prospect’s clients love. No, the customer is not always right.

“We are hired for our expertise, not our service. It is a mistake to believe that the service sector mantra of ”The Customer is always right“ applies to us. Like any engagement of expertise, we often enter into ours without the client not truly knowing what he needs, let alone recognising the route to a solution.” - another quote from The Win Without Pitching Manifesto

That, my friend, is what I try to explain to every single designer that I get in touch which. That is the sort of mindset you will need when dealing with business people: they know the destination and the result, they just don not know how to get there. And if they think they do, you might want to learn to take control of the situation, show the right way or else walk out. It is up to you to make the decision whether you are indeed a good fit. Remember that there is no such thing as clients from hell — only bad decisions and bad systems.

There are two types of goals, long and short term. Not all business goals will reflect on the project, depending what it is. However, since there is a huge chance they do, you might as well be aware of them.

Goals are SMART: - Specific - Measurable - Attainable - Rewarding - Time Sensitive (which I like over trackable).

I get that “measurable” is a weird one. When I first looked at it, I was also con‐ fused. Measurable means a certain percentage or number that you want to have as a return. It could be the prospect wants 28% more sales — and that is what falls under the measurement. Combined, a goal could be something like “12% more sales on our new hoodie in the next 3 months”. The goal is attainable, has a time frame and is specific as well as measurable. This make it clearer for us to what direction to take with our project, if such was the case.

Some questions to ask are:

What are you trying to achieve? What specific aspects are bothering you the most? What are the three (3) top priorities that need to be handled right now?

By asking those, you will start getting hints of what the long and short term goals might be. Depending on the person, you can just right away ask:

What is your long term business goal? What is your short term business goal?

Now, as we said, goals are time sensitive and measurable. It is possible that the client will not give their timeframe and their assessment methods right away — they might think it is either not relevant or that you will not understand. There is also a possibility they are not ready to share that with you just yet.

So, I normally ask:

How would you know these goals have been accomplished? Who will be accountable to measure this success and how will they measure it? What would it look it if the project is successful? What’s an ideal improvement to your current situation? What happens if you do nothing now?

In order to “qualify” a goal to put in your brief, you will need to listen to the prospect’s clues about priorities and timeframes. The goals that are long term, I generally put it on “low” — but it does not mean it is less important, it just means it is less time sensitive. I normally include any timing information as well on the “Why this goal is important?” section.

Competition is great, but positioning is even better

Yes, “competition” is great. It depends what you define as competition, too. Is there someone doing exactly what you want to do? Then you need to position differently. It is not an “or”, it is a “but”. Positioning is about specialisation and offering something else that has not been offered before. See? That is why it is great. Something else that has not been offered before. A new angle to doing things. You do not need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to have a different and at times unexpected mix of elements that makes the business special and appealing to a specific audience. That hyper-niching is called Long Tailing, there is space for everyone as long as there is a possibility to build a tribe around that niche.

Often times, businesses do not know why they are different. That is a real pain. And I mean pain as in, something business owners struggle and need help with. Loads of small businesses do not grow because they are only watching what competitors are doing and not what they can be doing to improve their sales and marketing. Others because their leaders are not, well, leading. They are too enthralled in working in the company instead of focusing on running the company.

When you ask your prospects which competitors they are mostly aware of, ask them about a brand they would like to collaborate with and ask why.

Whatever the answer, I put it on the “brands to look out for” section of the competitors map. They aren’t necessarily competitors, but they are brands that could add value to my prospect’s business and help them position away from direct and indirect competitors. They either learn they can do something different by collaborating, or the collaboration itself becomes a competitive advantage. If they handle it well, it is a win-win.

Direct competitors are businesses in the same niche as them. It is more likely that a business will have less direct competitors if they are in a super niched category. For example, web designers who use motion to express the architecture found in New York. It is very unlikely you will find many of those that are an exact match.

However, most people do not have such niched businesses, and therefore identifying at least 3 direct competitors is helpful. Before engaging on a discovery session with my prospect, I will ask them to think about competitors and brands they like / hate. This the time in the discovery when those names start popping up.

I like to think of indirect competitors as those that are in the same industry but not in the same niche. They also do Design, but instead for architecture they do it for real state agencies and know all about these industries. Same, same, but different.

If the prospect has distinct niches or sells products AND services, make different maps. HolaBrief makes it super easy to organise all the information you need to keep in mind.


I have found that asking my prospects about their clients is a 100% biased answer. This is a tricky one, and will require some iteration later from your part. If it is a business that has already been running for a while, you can try finding out if they have had any real feedback from real clients. The closer you get to the reality of the business, the better. If it is a new business, however, we see the personas as “ideal” clients, but not necessarily who will end up buying their product or service. That is up for the market to decide.

In the cases where the prospect is starting out, being as detailed and close to the ideal is important to give you clarity on how to proceed design-wise. Communicating the importance of this step with the person you are talking to helps them engage in the process better as well.

Some businesses owners will have the answer in their heart. In the book Shoe Dog, Phil Knight was passionate about running, and then Nike was born, the goddess of Victory, helping runners swiftly cross the line.

Brand Voice (and image)

This step allows us to choose 5 keywords that will inspire the brand’s perception. When communicating with the prospect, I like to play the “if your business was a person, how would it be like?” game. It is a fun way to approach this subject and looses the meeting a little bit, since they tend to be lengthy. Typically, we offer our prospects a 1h–3h discovery-briefing-session with key stakeholders.

Depending on the project and the nature of the company, I separate the brand voice in two: B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer). The brand IS the same, but in no way in hell the sales team will effectively communicate with the consumer the same way they do towards other businesses. The way I do that separation is by simply stating what the two look like and their disparities when writing the comments.

The difference between voice and image is simply what they represent in B2B and B2C cases.
When we speak of voice, we speak of what words and tone a brand strategy needs to consider. When we speak of image, we are talking about a visual hierarchy and feeling. Bright, dark, etc. It helps us choose what kind of images and colours we will use on our stylescapes and (company internal) moodboards.

A great way to understand this is by watching Apple ads with Jony Ive’s voice. Pay attention to the words they choose and how the images shown look and feel like. Your challenge is to pick words that you can translate into a feeling and then to an image.


In the book The 22 Laws of Branding, there is a whole chapter about THE WORD. It is in caps, yes. THE WORD.

THE WORD is, well, a word that represents the brand in the mind of the consumer as awareness grows. BMW, secure. Xerox, copy. Mc Donald’s, fast (questionable here in Finland).

I normally start here, but this is a new concept for many a brand designer. This might be something you add to your process or not since it will require further studying.

Inspiring brands and questions

To continue with the bit looser approach of this last leg of the discovery, we ask our prospects to tell us about brands they are inspired by and why. This helps us gauge their taste and get clues about what kind of people they are. When we create the stylescapes, we want to increase our chances of success by showing the client 3 strong options. It truly depends on what kind of person we are dealing with here, since not everybody is able to remove themselves totally from the process of branding their companies.

We also like to ask:

if you could have a pet animal at your office, what would it be?

You may uncover some really detailed information on this one. Some people have exotic tastes and will tell you specifically of a certain animal — which you could later study and pull traits from. It adds personality to the brand and again appeals to who your client is. This is just an inspiring question to make, and by no means you have to include it in your process... You never know.


I hope to have helped you with the little introduction on Value Based Pricing and how we have begun to tie it with HolaBrief. We understand that VBP is not everyone’s pricing method of choice since it requires a totally new process and a shift of mindset. We do believe that HolaBrief is a great tool to help you get started with VBP by just making a few adjustments that we have shown here. In the end, you are your own professional and we just merely give you the tools and techniques to create methods and process of your own. After all, that is what Design is about, is it not?

What other questions would you ask your client that could lead to a better project result? Let us know! Thank you for reading.

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