Over the past couple of months, I’ve had different people ask me questions about how I got into what I’m doing. I don’t always share what’s going on in my business because it’s slowly grown into the stage it is now, and the change has been gradual. But I thought it’d be fun to open up a little more about how I got here in this post and hopefully encourage you if you’re considering starting your own business.
First of all, let me say that I have so much farther to go both on paper and in my head. ‘Five figures’ here is closer to four figures than six. Haha! However, that mark felt pretty significant in my head because it proved that this could actually be practical as a career option in the long run and not just be as a hobby.
Throughout high school, I thought I had plan in place. I was going to teach piano, do photography and have a blog of some sort. That was it. (Life is really simple when you’re 16 going on 26 in your head.) For a variety of reasons, the right doors didn’t open at that time. While I still love music and it will always be a deep part of who I am, God had something else in mind for me.
Due to my Mom’s chronic health issues and the fact that I have a lot of younger siblings, my parents encouraged me to find a way to earn money on a flexible schedule that could happen–most of the time–at home. So I started reading a lot of business books. Mom thought maybe I should try selling an direct selling product. It was actually a really great product but I’m hate ‘selling’ people things. I basically tell people at our family garage sale why they shouldn’t buy our stuff. (My Mom is the complete opposite. She worked in bridal retail for a long time and had someone remark that she could sell screen doors for submarines if she wanted to. We–are not the same in that way.)
Finally, I did explore the possibility of getting a part-time job at one point, but I know that I become very dissatisfied when something is wrong or inefficient and I can’t fix the issue. My Dad strongly encouraged me that I would not know my full potential if I settled for a random retail job when I had the time, energy and passion to pursue other options.
Fast forward a few months. I had spent a lot of time playing around in Photoshop during high school because of my love for photography and my skills had started to improve. I especially loved combining type–but didn’t even know that was one of the foundations of good design. And that it had a name–typography.
A friend emailed me to see if I would be interested in doing some small design projects for their music studio. I figured I had nothing to lose so I agreed. Little did I know what was starting as something really small would start to blossom.
Here and there, I started to pick up some random clients for small design projects. I started spending hours a day looking at design, figuring out what I liked about it and then trying to recreate what I liked. My interest in business, design, and marketing was also beginning to grow exponentially.
As I continued to grow my skills, I also joined Facebook groups for freelancers and creatives. The connections I made there have been invaluable and the friendships formed and created have helped shape my business.
About a year ago, I decided that the niche of design I loved the most was visual branding and styling. I love the big picture of design and using the different elements of a brand like the colors, texture, pattern, and layout–to tell a story and evoke emotions.
I love the fable of the tortoise and the hare.
Fast doesn’t always win. Slow and steady does. You CAN make money with your photography, or your design, or your art, but it’s going to take persistence, time and a willingness to adapt.
What has helped me the most tactically?
- No debt
Not only have I completely avoided student loans by not going to college but I also have been able to make purchases debt-free.
College is an personal choice for everyone, but to be graphic, brand or web designer like I am, college is not a prerequisite. I’ve been able to completely immerse myself in a way I might not have had time for otherwise.
Most importantly, my parents have always stressed the importance of not buying what you can’t pay for, and so I don’t buy anything if I can’t pay for it–not even ‘investment’ purchases like education. Not having monthly payments and living at home has allowed me to work less so I can be more available for our family and still save aggressively for purchases. If you do have debt, I’d encourage you to look into Dave Ramsey’s books on getting out of debt.
There were times when I wondered if this would work out. Month to month as a freelancer or small business owner is always different and you constantly grow and adapt. This business has shaped my character and been the biggest study in knowing myself that I could have ever imagined.
- Guarding my time
There are SO MANY resources, webinars, podcasts, videos, magazines, Instagram feeds, infographics, and courses that compete for attention. Some of them are great and truly helpful.
But I realized that if I was going to get anywhere–I needed to do something myself! Turn off my WiFi and Facebook feed and go make something, photograph something, write something or connect with someone. When you’re busy creating and growing you also have less time for comparison and fear.
Be generous in relationships, but also realize that if there’s someone who is always just coming to you for free advice, you’d be wise to reconsider how much time you are spending on answering that person’s questions (especially if it can be answered with a simple Google search.)
So–what would I do differently looking back over the last two years?
- I would invest in skill-specific courses.
Most of my learning came from the Internet, lots of Googling, and Pinterest. But for some topics, a structured course can make a world of difference and looking back I would have spent more money here at the beginning. Plus, investing an amount of money gives you a reason to stay focused. CreativeLive is one of my favorite places for engaging, high quality courses, but I also love courses sold independently by people I admire, like Kelsey Baldwin’s InDesign Field Guide.
If you’re not sure if a course would be a wise investment, try to find someone who has taken the course and carefully read over the details to see if material covered is what you’re hoping to learn.
- I would price my services at a level that feels like I’m being compensated properly.
You should not start by charging minimum wage. Freelancing often has a lot of other expenses associated with it, like software, subscriptions, equipment and higher taxes if you’re working as an independent contractor. There’s nothing wrong with working for free if you really need exposure–but otherwise find a reasonable rate to start out at. Don’t discount drastically because it will leave you feeling sorry for yourself after a hard project and make you seem like the ‘cheap’ option.
If you don’t know how much you’re making an hour, track a project from the first email to the final file delivery or whatever marks the end of the project. Like I said, there are expenses associated with running a small business that one would not have at a 9-5 job and those need factored into your pricing.
- I would break out of my circle earlier.
As soon as I started to get more involved with online groups and communities of creatives, I started seeing a difference in my business momentum. When I started making real friends who did something similar and could relate to what I was doing, I felt encouraged and like I wasn’t alone anymore. It made the climb a little less rugged. :)
But here’s the biggest thing.
You can 100% believe in your idea and pursue it without putting it on a pedestal where no one can touch it. Let other people in. Get feedback from as many sources as possible. Be objective. When you become so protective of your passion that no one else is allowed near it, you are walling yourself off from the very thing you want–success.
Some specifics from this year:
What did I do right?
- I spent less time ‘selling’ my services and more time building long-term relationships.
- I focused on jobs that would allow me to build my skills and work with people who were ahead of me.
- I got better at turning down jobs that were not a good fit.
- I started an email list.
Where did my income come from in 2016?
- One-on-one branding projects
- Monthly retainer clients (biggest source of income)
- Affiliate income like Amazon Affiliates (This is only about $30-40 a month but completely passive.)
Where do I see my income potentially coming from in 2017?
- One-on-one custom brand & website projects
- Passive income products (like–dare I say it yet–a shop with resources!)
- Affiliate income
What business growing activities do I plan to focus on in 2017?
I’m planning an extra post about this, but here’s a quick overview:
- Growing this blog and my newsletter into an incredibly valuable resource for my readers.
- Continuing to connect with other creatives and grow relationships
- Streamlining the non-essential parts of my business so I can spend time on more valuable tasks.
If you’ve stuck around to finish this article, I hope you have enjoyed this look into my business and how it’s growing! If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you.