What I’ve learned after a year of business

My humble little design enterprise turned one year old a couple of weeks ago. I celebrated the date of my layoff on June 23rd and the start of this crazy, exciting chapter of my life.

I have to say that going solo is one of the most challenging and yet most rewarding things I have ever done. But I’ve made it one year and I’m not broke and I’m not homeless, so something must be going right!

I feel very fortunate in that I found great friends, colleagues and resources along the way. I have been inspired by my fellow solopreneurs and creatives and would not be here without so many people’s support and faith in me.

You usually learn a lot in your first year of business, and this was no exception! I hope to help others as I have been helped, so here goes (in no particular order):

Learn to love the business side.

As a wise person once said, “If you don’t treat it like a business, it’ll always be a hobby.”

Business is hard work. It’s also not always fun. We’re creative folks. We’re all about the drawing, the thinking, the concepts, the colors, the fun stuff. Thinking about marketing and money and taxes and other business-y stuff makes us cringe. But this is the heart and soul of having a sustainable business. Solo folks don’t have marketing departments or accountants behind them. So suck it up, become smart about your business, know how much money you’ve got and that’s how you’ll keep being able to do all the fun stuff.

Organization is a must.

If you ever walked into my studio, you would look me in the face and call me a liar for talking about organization. But really, it’s all about keeping things straight in a way that is comfortable for you. Do you know what all your outstanding projects are? Who you have to follow up with? Where all your reference files are? What all the passwords for the 10 billion sites you’re developing are? What invoices have to get sent out?

I do, despite the fact that my studio is an atrocious mess. I may not look organized, but I know where all the important stuff is. You don’t have to get all OCD about it. Again, find what works for you. I have a nice folder system for all my client work, and I have some checklists on my computer to keep me on track. You know how you think, so take that and run with it.

Put everything in writing.

I learned a lot of expensive lessons because I didn’t put things in writing. Write you proposals and your creative briefs! Make sure your clients understand them! That way, when scope goes out of control or you’re not sure what you were supposed to do weeks later, you have a roadmap (and you can show it to your out-of-control client and try to mitigate some disasters).

Share your knowledge and help others.

I’m not saying you have to give away all your trade secrets. But being helpful is always a plus. First off, you’ll put something in your karma bank. Second, you’ll usually learn something along the way . Third, you can position yourself as an expert in your field and people will come beating down your door if they feel you know what you’re talking about.

I have gotten jobs because someone e-mailed me and said, “I saw you were talking about X on this message board and you really sounded super knowledgeable. Would you be interested in working on this project, doing X?”

Besides, people like working with friendly folks. Helping others shows you’re open to collaboration, which can lead to awesome projects.

Don’t be shy. (Though it’s really hard not to be.)

Most people who know me would scoff at me if I ever said I was shy. But really, I am. I have a confession: I am terrified of the telephone. Nothing gives me the heebie-jeebies more than the thought of making a cold call. (And you wonder how I survived as a sports reporter for five-plus years with this fear of the telephone!) I also feel awkward in a room where I don’t know anyone.

But guess what? You have to swallow your fears and just put yourself out there. How is anyone ever going to know what you do or how awesome you are if you don’t talk to anyone else? Besides, once you find one person to talk to, it doesn’t seem so scary anymore.

I know you don’t want to sound like a shameless self-promoter, but you have to do some promotion. You don’t have to be arrogant. Be friendly and talk about yourself a little. It will get you further than being a wallflower.

Always carry business cards! You never know when your next potential client is going to show up!

True story: I was once at a local event here in Sacramento, volunteering at a booth with my husband. This was not a design-related event at all. But a photographer came up to our journalism-related booth to ask about shooting for small local publications. And he mentioned he was hoping to get a portfolio up. And my friend and my husband who were both in the booth pointed to me and said, “Hey, she’s a web designer.” I didn’t have my new business cards on me (d’oh!), but I luckily had one old one left in my wallet. He contacted me a week later.

You also never know if you’re going to share an elevator with someone important, so be prepared!

It’s going to be hard sometimes. Just accept it.

It sometimes irks me when people say, “Oh, you’re so lucky … you get to roll out of bed and walk 10 feet to your office and work from home. You have such an easy life.”

It’s not easy. There are lots of terrific things about going solo, but lots of things that suck about it. Accept that for what it is and move on. And make sure you have really good friends who don’t mind it when you vent occasionally (or a lot).

No (wo)man is an island.

Having a great support system is key. Whether you need moral support, or have a question or whatever, always remember that you’re not the only one in your boat.

Like the motto of the Creative Freelancer Conference says, “You work solo, but you are not alone.”

Related to this …

You are not Superman (or woman), nor do you ever need to be.

Sure, some of us know how to do a lot of stuff and do it well. But you don’t need to do everything. Some of the best projects I’ve worked on have been with a team. It’s nice to not have to worry about everything for once. It’s also nice when you’re not the main point of contact sometimes. :)

There’s nothing wrong with collaboration. You might learn a lot of new things along the way. You might push yourself in one skillset because you suddenly don’t have to worry about 10,000 other things. You might wind up with bigger and bigger projects because you don’t know how to do one thing that’s essential to the contract, but you’ve got a buddy who does.

Which leads me to …

Don’t say no immediately.

I’m not saying you should never say no. There are times you have to or you will go insane. But the key is not saying no immediately.

I have a friend who always says, “I can’t do web design.” Bollocks, I say! I always tell her that she can design a website — she’s got solid design skills –  but she just doesn’t know how to code it and put it on the internets. That doesn’t mean she has to say no. She just needs to find a web guru (as I wave my hands wildly). You see what I mean? Saying no off the bat just shut her off to about a million possibilities right there!

A teacher of mine once said, “Don’t say you don’t know how to do something right off the bat. Chances are that when it comes time to actually do the project, you’ll know how to do it … or you’ll know someone who does.”

But on the other side of the coin, be honest about your limitations and that of your partners. If you’ve thought about it and it’s truly impossible, then say no. But if there’s a fighting chance that it is possible, then don’t say no until you’ve explored all the options.

You won’t like everyone you work with, and vice versa. But always be nice about it.

I’m here to make friends sometimes, but not all the time.

If you encounter someone you don’t really like, don’t make it more miserable than it needs to be — for both your sakes. Just smile a lot, always be professional and then go vent to your friends later.

And don’t be offended if someone doesn’t like you. It’s not like you’re working with that person every waking minute. You’re not everyone’s cup of tea. I know, I hate to burst your bubble.

Smile a lot. Be a good person. Be the person you want to work with.

Let’s face it. No one wants to work with Debbie Downer. Or a consistently negative person. Or a consistent slacker.

But if you’re upbeat and friendly and approachable, people will flock to you. I still think one of the highest compliments I have ever received had nothing to do with my design skills or web skills — it was a client who called me and said, “We really enjoyed working with you on a previous project, and we really want to work with you on this bigger project because we just love your attitude and helpfulness.”

Staying positive is not only good for business, it’s good for the rest of your life, too!

Always keep learning.

Read a lot. Talk to your fellow designers. Ask questions. Take a class. It’s the only way to grow as a designer / businessperson / regular human being.

Have an unwavering faith in yourself.

It’s not easy to go solo. Sometimes things go horribly awry and really, there’s no one else that can fix your situation. This is when you have to dig deep down and trust that everything will turn out OK. It’s one thing to have people tell you it’s going to be OK, but you have to truly believe it yourself. So yeah, always have faith in yourself. When you have nothing else to hold on to, at least you’ll have that. And then things start turning around. Honestly.

Enjoy the ride.

Well, there was a reason you went solo in the first place, right? Savor it! Enjoy the good stuff, learn from the not-so-good stuff. You’re already ahead of the game because you decided to ditch working for The Man, so whenever you get down, just remember that and I guarantee it will bring a smile to your face.

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2 Responses to What I’ve learned after a year of business

  1. Great Post. I just celebrated one year of being a business owner in March, so I’m right there with ya. My list of pointers would be a little different, but a vast majority would be almost perfectly overlapping.

  2. Geoff Sakala says:

    Great points. Yes, the first year is a huge learning curve. Lots of valuable insight you’ve got here. Thanks Jenn for sharing.

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