In 2019 I did one of the best things I’ve ever done for my business. It seems like a simple thing but I literally can’t express how much it helped with my growth as a designer and as a business woman this last year.
After the end of 2018 I was feeling stuck in a slight rut and I was going through some major changes with my business. I was finally going full time just focusing on Sweet Horizon, with no other side hustles, but I was feeling a tad lost and lonely. I told Mike how funny it was that I knew of so many fellow freelancers from following them on Instagram, and we would keep in touch through leaving the occasional comment back and forth, but I didn’t actually know any of them. They felt like acquaintances you’d meet once at a party, have a ton in common with, have a ton to talk about with them and then you’ve never get to hang out with them.
So I decided to reach out to people, just one or two at first just because it was a little intimidating. Yep, I was 100% sliding into people’s DM’s with a “Hey, we probably have a lot in common, both being women Graphic designers and I’d love to chat with you sometime, just to talk work with someone who really gets it.”
You wouldn’t think the simple act of asking people to have a virtual coffee break with you would affect your business or personal life in the slightest, but sometimes things can surprise you. In total I talked to 9 different freelancers throughout the year of 2019, all at different stages of their businesses, and I learned something new from every single one, even if the major take away wasn’t super obvious at first glance.
The biggest lessons were sometimes things I didn’t see coming, but I think all of them are important takeaways that each of us running a small business can benefit from.
1. It’s so important to network with others within your industry
Something no one tells you about owning your own business and I mean literally no one talks about this is how dang lonely it can be. Even if you’re an introvert like myself you have to be totally fine with going hours everyday of the week being totally alone with just your pet for company. The first thing I ask people when they want advice on what it’s like to work from home and if it’s the right fit for them is “ are you comfortable being alone most days and are you fine going days sometimes weeks not seeing another person other than your spouse?” It sounds intense but that has been a very real thing I’ve had to get used to.
I can honestly say that one of the biggest takeaways from meeting these other designers is how important it was not only for my business but for my own well-being that I surround myself with like-minded people that truly understand what it’s like to run your own business, especially a design business. I know I’ve talked quite a bit about the fact that Mike helps out more and more within this business but the fact of the matter is that he still goes to his 9-to-5 job every day and I am here at home hustling to make this all work. And even though he hears me talk about the business constantly and is always up for giving me advice, I still struggle with feeling like all the decisions are ultimately my choice. So if I do well it’s on me and if I fail it’s on me. It can truly be a daunting and sometimes suffocating experience.
So while reaching out to fellow designers I usually started with something along the lines of “I know that working from home can be a tad lonely sometimes so I’d love to just sit and talk shop with you if you are up for a virtual coffee date.” In almost all cases I got a resounding “oh my gosh yes I so need this!” A response that tells me that this is a super common feeling among people that work from home. After years of working by myself every day I realize how important it was to find people that truly understood my day-to-day workload, what it’s like to wear all the hats for your business, and what it’s like to turn a passion into a career.
Talking to these women throughout the year has given me such insight into my own business, shown me what an incredible community of people I have found through social media, and has proven to me that I am not alone in my journey of entrepreneurship. When you surround yourself with people that do what you do, that truly get the path that you’re on, this whole entrepreneurship thing feels a lot less lonely.
2. Different things work for different people
When I first started my business I had in my head that there was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. Whether it was how to market myself, how to attract clients, or even how my own branding and imagery should look, I always felt like there was something but I should be doing to put myself on the level of all of these designers that I admired so much. I read every blog post, I listened to every podcast, I read any book I can get my hands on it Barnes and Noble that I felt like would give me the answer to success.
Because of this somewhat twisted notion that there may be a wrong way to market myself or to improve my business, I spent so much of my early years second-guessing every little thing that I did. OK full disclosure I still kind of do that, but I’m getting better at realizing there is no right and wrong way to run your own business. Sure there are the obvious things like taking care of your customers and going above and beyond with your products, but when it comes to finding your voice and how you show that to the world that is 100% unique to you.
I didn’t fully realize this until I had talked to maybe four or five different designers. The first person I talked to I picked their brain about all that they had going on; how they promote themselves, how they reach out to clients, how they onboard clients, you name it, I asked it. Again I was thirsty for any knowledge that I could get, for any secret that they may have that I didn’t yet know. When I talked to the second designer I was shocked to find that they actually told me the opposite of what the first designer told me. It wasn’t so much that she disagreed with what the first person had said, heck I didn’t even tell her that she was semi-contradicting the first person, but she was being real and honest about what had worked for her and that just so happen to be the opposite of what had worked for the first person. From there the more people that I met with the less “thirsty” I was, instead I was just curious about all the differences and different paths the people within the same industry can take and all still be successful.
Ultimately I came to realize that literally all of us had different experiences, all of us had different ways to reach our ideal audience, and yet here we all were running successful businesses, side-by-side in the same market. It suddenly dawned on me that one size absolutely does not fit all when it comes to business. We all have things that we’ve become known for, we all have ways of engaging and attracting dream clients, and we all managed to find work that makes our hearts sing.
Some people swore that showing up on Instagram multiple times every day, showing off every single detail of their process was the absolute best way to attract their dream clients. Some swore that posting only their best and finished work occasionally to Instagram while using it as a platform to engage with their ideal clientele was the best route. Others swore that you shouldn’t show up as a designer on Instagram at all but rather show up as your dream client themselves. Their thought process was, for instance, that designers follow other designers. So by showing your work you were only attracting fellow designers that would potential never buy from you. In the case of their dream clients, bloggers follow other bloggers, so they were choosing not to show their work on Instagram but rather to show up as a blogger to attract the people they wanted to work with. I talked to people who’s bread and butter was Pinterest and they rarely ever used Instagram or Facebook. I talked to people who only saw clients come from Instagram and hardly touched the other platforms. I talked to people that worked with every facet of business owner under the sun and others that specialized and catered to a much smaller niche of people.
What’s truly incredible is that at the end of the day none of these differences actually mattered. Like I said, we all were finding things that worked for us, and we all had business, and it really didn’t matter what worked for someone else. There is no right or wrong way to do any of this. I can’t tell you what a liberating feeling that was to finally not feel like every step that I decided might be the wrong choice or might cause me to lose out on business. Instead this knowledge gave me the freedom to explore and create and understand my own business and what works for it a little bit better. I’m in awe of the range of platforms that we all get to use every day and seeing how other designers are using these tools to their advantage is incredible. And how wonderful it is that we don’t all have to be the same!
3. Cheap pricing does nothing for anyone’s business model
When I first started my business I felt like the only way I was going to attract any potential new client was to undersell literally everyone else around me. I figured that since I didn’t have a portfolio to showcase my work that being as cheap as I possibly could somehow would get people in the door.
Looking back I can say this did absolutely nothing for my business other than make me resentful of the work that was actually coming my way, because I was getting paid pennies and working myself to death. I would put months into a project and get paid little to nothing for my time. I also found the clientele I was attracting wasn’t exactly valuing my opinion or my design aesthetic either. And why should they? I clearly wasn’t!
When I started talking with other designers I remember one in particular saw my pricing and said “Stop this nonsense right now! There’s no way that’s working for you!” I was so embarrassed because she was right! It absolutely wasn’t working for me but I honestly had no idea what to do. When I approached the concept of pricing with another designer, she informed me that raising her prices actually caused her to be booked out faster for the year simply because of something called perceived value.
Perceived value is when physiologically we think things that are more expensive are better quality. Take for instance shopping for clothes. Say you see a cute top at Anthropologie but it’s a bit pricey. You know it would be a great addition to your closet and you justify the price because you know it will last you for years and you’ll get to wear it quite a bit. Now compare that to buying t-shirts in bulk from Walmart. Sure, they are way way cheaper than the Anthro top but you know getting a pack of t-shirts for a few bucks means the quality will not be as good. They will likely stretch or shrink and may even fall apart after a few washes. Now looking at my design business I had to ask myself, do I want clients to see me and my work as a cheap throw away or as an investment into something lovely and noteworthy. Am I the pack of Walmart tees or am I the coveted Anthro blouse?
Furthermore, it was pointed out to me in one of these talks, after I had raised my prices and was feeling better about my own self worth, that low pricing doesn’t just lower the value of that one designer, it lowers the value of everyone’s work. People start to think that what we do is easy and a downgraded commodity if they are only used to working with designers that are underselling themselves.
The way I look at it, there will probably always be newbies that charge way less than they are worth, but as someone who’s more comfortable with her pricing now I can say that doesn’t bother me. At some point they will realize that those figures are not a sustainable business model and they will either throw in the towel or raise their pricing as well. At the end of the day it’s more important to know your worth and acknowledge all you bring to the table. Only then will your clients see that as well!
4. We all are figuring it out as we go
This one also was kind of like a slap in the face but in the best way possible. Again, if we back up to the point where I was feeling like some people just had it all figured out, I think I started this whole process of reaching out to people in hopes that I could learn from them or that someone could look at my business and say “aha! I know what you’re doing wrong and I know how to help you!”
Surprisingly enough I found out that in some ways we’re all kind of winging it. Thank god because I literally thought I was the only one figuring it out as I go. When in reality no matter if they had been in business for a year or 10 years, everyone was still learning and changing and adapting their business as the industry ebbed and flowed around them.
I talked to people who haven’t yet gone full-time in their business, who were still testing the waters and getting their footing as an entrepreneur. Some of them I was surprised to find out had not actually gone full-time because their social media accounts seem more productive than my own at times. But it was wild to have meetings where they wanted to pick my brain, soak up any knowledge that I had on the industry, and it somehow never got dull to see the shock and horror on their faces when I told them how I just decided to up and quit my job one day and do this full-time without much in the way of planning.
I talked to people who are right where I am, 3 to 4 years in, getting a handle on everything, feeling more and more comfortable in their business everyday, but still in some cases learning the ropes and testing the market. It was so comforting to acknowledge the triumphs of sticking with it this long and to talk wacky client stories, things we’ve learned the hard way, and what our future goals and plans are.
I talked to people who’ve been doing this for 8 to 10 years and you would think that I would have learned the most from them, and in some cases I certainly did learn a lot, but I also found out that when they started almost a decade ago the industry as a whole looked totally different. This makes total sense because of course it looks totally different! The world looks totally different! But hearing them talk about how they’ve had to adapt and learn on the fly as things change really made me realize that in this type of unpredictable industry you have to be fine with just going with the flow and taking changes as they come your way.
It’s OK to not always know what you’re doing, because we honestly all have days like that. We work and we create and we strive to be the best that we can be everyday, but some days just showing up is half the battle. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with figuring it out as you go, because each new challenge just makes you a better business owner in the long run.
5. We all get imposter syndrome and struggle with comparison
I swear I have the world’s worst imposter and comparison syndrome. If Mike is listening to this right now I’m sure that he’s nodding in agreement. I mean I have a degree in design and I still feel like I sometimes don’t belong as a professional designer, mainly because I have this horrible habit of comparing myself to others that seem to be killing it in the industry. Rarely does a week go by when I’m not saying something like “Holy cow, such-and-such designer is so creative! How in the world does she create the work she does??” Yes, the world is full of incredible designers but I also know that I can’t beat myself up, or doubt my own portfolio and abilities just because someone else had a great idea.
After talking to all of these incredible women, some of whom I’ve admired for years, and most of whom I’ve said that very sentence about, I realized that we ALL have people we look up to and admire and we ALL have moments of feeling like, why am I not as creative as this other person. It’s silly really when you think about it because we’re all in this industry together and should be able to lift each other up without tearing ourselves down. But with creativity often comes a deep sensitivity and with sensitivity comes a desire to be great at whatever you do and often that leads to comparison or feeling like you aren’t good enough.
In the current social media climate that we’re in it’s absolutely impossible to avoid what other people are doing and creating on a daily basis. But I was shocked when I met up with a designer fairly recently and she said something like “This past month has been extremely slow for me. I haven’t had a new client in a while.“ I was SHOOK. Her Instagram made her seem like she was so busy all the time so I had no idea that she was actually sitting there posting older work and wondering why the heck everyone else was seemingly so busy. I could’ve hugged her in that moment because I have felt like that so often, especially in my early years. We get so caught up in trying to prove something; prove that we’re staying busy, prove that we’re being successful, and sometimes that does more harm than good.
Why do we play these comparison games with others and with ourselves. We all have times that work has slacked off a bit, we all have times when we don’t feel our most creative, and how wonderful and brave of this friend to admit that to me and be totally vulnerable about the fact that it was weighing heavily on her.
The fact is, we all can create beautiful and authentic designs that are truly unique to us and we all have something to offer this market, which brings me to my last point:
6. There’s room for all of us
I’ve always felt like the competition online just shouldn’t exist. This is totally the INFJ in me talking, but I firmly believe that we all can be successful and that we all have room in this market. OK so people like to throw in the argument that the design market is oversaturated. Look around on social media. Every market is oversaturated these days which is actually a great thing for designers because that means there’s so many more clients to spread amongst ourselves. Let’s face it, everyone needs a brand and website, and there’s so many new platforms popping up every day there’s plenty of areas to specialize in.
Throughout all the conversations I had, the people that seem the most at home and comfortable in their business were the ones that weren’t concerned about the “saturated market“ and were actually the ones helping other designers and encouraging others to take the leap into entrepreneurship. How awesome to be so confident in what you do that you’re willing to share with others. And this networking with these other designers has in fact boosted our perspective businesses. i’m able now to send clients to dear friends of mine when I’m fully booked and I know that they will be more than taken care of. I’ve also gotten business from friends in the industry now when they themselves are fully booked. Looking out for each other and making sure their businesses are all succeeding makes for a stronger and more well rounded industry as a whole.
While I’ve learned a ton from talking with some absolutely amazing women last year and hearing their different approaches to business, I’ve found that I’ve become so much more confident in my own process and what I bring to the table, now more than ever, and that’s a truly wonderful place to be. I’ve made some true friendships, learned a ton about the industry as a whole, have learned that it’s OK to not always have it all figured out, but I’ve also learned to value myself and what I can give to other people, all while solidifying that there really is room for all of us.
I feel extremely fortunate that some of these designers have become close friends of mine and we’ve made it a point to video call each other every month or so just to catch up and talk about what we are working on.
I want to encourage you, no matter where you are in your business journey, to reach out to others in your industry and see if they would be up for a virtual coffee break with you. If that’s terrifying, then start with reaching out to me! I would absolutely love to connect with even more creatives and spread my growing network even further! Send me a message or an email and we’ll make it happen. If you have someone you look up to that’s in your industry, drop them a line and see if they’d be willing to chat for even 30 minutes. You’d be amazed at how receptive people can be to the idea and how willing they are to connect. There’s no telling what you could learn and you may establish some pretty great friendships along the way.