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Reflecting on My First Year as a Full-Time Designer

June 5, 2023

I read Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon earlier this year and on one of the first pages, it says:

“All advice is autobiographical. It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.”

This is exactly that. 

I left my five-year career as an elementary teacher on May 27, 2022, and I’ve been running my brand and web design business full-time ever since. One year in, this is the advice I would have given my former self.

So to tweak Austin’s words ever so slightly, 

This article is for you. Whoever you are and whatever type of business you’re pursuing.

Writing this, a full calendar year after leaving teaching, I can’t help but think how brave (and truly naive) I was. 

Running a business is one of the most rewarding and challenging things I’ve ever done. In this single year, I’ve invested in:

  • Therapy
  • Coaching
  • Courses
  • Conferences
  • Software
  • And more fonts than I can count

I’ve advanced my skillset as a designer and a business owner. And while I believe there is no other way of learning quite like the act of doing, I hope these insights resonate with you.

Alright now onto the list…

1. Everything takes longer than you expect: projects, setting up software, making decisions. All of it.

This one I can’t stress enough. 

It’s probably the area I struggled with the most this year: time.

Here is a brief overview of how my business structure evolved over the past year:

Near the end of the summer and going into the fall I was juggling 12 projects. As grateful as I was to be booked out, I felt like I was drowning and I constantly told myself that I was letting people down.

I thought I was giving myself enough time, but I was honestly just guessing. A brand design, website, or really any sort of creative work, is nothing like teaching. I remember during that time feeling so discouraged because when I used to accomplish approximately 12,986 in a given day as a teacher, I was now completing 3-5 (MAX). 

It was hard and this was where some of my big “unlearning” had to happen. Creative work isn’t as simple as “changing the date on the whiteboard.” Which for the past five years had been a standing item on my to-do list as a teacher, and however small that task was, when you couple it with 50 other tasks, it adds up to feeling like you accomplished a lot.  

I remember a Sunday in October when I was working a 12-hour day thinking to myself that this was not why I started this business. 

So I decided to change things. With every new client that signed on I told them that I would be working with them on an intensive basis, one-on-one. I saw tons of other designers offering these fast timelines and thought that must be what business owners would want!

For a project or two, this worked really well. Until it didn’t. The thing I learned pretty quickly is that this model wasn’t leaving enough flexibility to work on my own business or allow for random life things to happen for either me or my clients. So when one client got pretty sick it threw my entire design calendar off and left me back to working on multiple projects at a time again

So what am I doing now?

I’ve landed on a sweet spot somewhere between 1 and 12.

I have lengthened my timelines to anywhere from 8-16 weeks depending on the project and currently stagger my start dates and work with 3-4 clients at a time.

This style seems to work best for me and allows everyone I’m working with enough time to still work inside their own businesses. And this gives me time to work on my business which is something I notoriously cut from my to-do list over the past year. 

2. Do the deep work.

When I tell my clients that I know that answering my questionnaires can be hard, I say that from experience. Writing about yourself is tough! Putting into words why you are unique is challenging. 

Which is why I skipped it.

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but the thing I’m really good at helping others with, I couldn’t do for myself. I seriously hated my visual branding and was embarrassed to send people my website. I didn’t even want to create content because I hated the way it looked. Not a place you want to be if you want to look like an authority in your industry!

I work with business owners with this story all the time: Slap together a Canva logo and DIY a website to get the business up and running. And while I knew my story wasn’t unique, I also felt like I was finally ready to define my business’s mission, vision, and values. 

So around February of this year, I joined a group coaching program with Jess Jordana. I knew I could use the accountability and a separate set of eyes on my business. 

And while so much came out of my time in that program, the most valuable part for me was that I finally sat down and defined some of the foundational items I skipped in the beginning. I was asked to do some of the work I have my own clients do and while it was some of the most challenging work, it helped me create the version of EBB that you are seeing today. I’ve never felt more aligned with my brand than I do now and am more confident than ever that hiring a coach, or branding expert ?, to help you is worth every penny. 

3. You don’t have to offer everything.

Excuse me, what? I don’t have to add new deliverables to every package? 

This is something else that came out of the coaching program that I’d heard before but hadn’t really absorbed until somebody was saying it straight to me and about my business. 

If you’re anything like me, you like to overdeliver.

Well, early on I was doing everything shy of putting a client-shaped mask on and posing for their brand photos. 

And please hear me when I say that I don’t regret doing all the extra stuff it took to get those projects finished. I was writing copy, I was setting up forms, I was designing extra graphics, I learned new website platforms, the list goes on and on. And it wasn’t even because the clients asked… I OFFERED! 

I assumed if I didn’t just do it all that my clients wouldn’t be satisfied with the end result (more on that later).

I told myself I was “multi-passionate” and I enjoyed doing all of those things. 

And while that is true… I love learning and I’m good at many things. I’m not an expert at all of them and I don’t have the capacity to be an expert at every website platform that exists. 

That was a hard pill to swallow. Carving down my offerings to just design work felt a little bit like a step backward. And it also felt like I was letting my clients down. If I could help them with way more stuff than just brand design, why shouldn’t I?

But on the flip side, it has also meant that I have gotten to focus more of my attention on my brand design offer and make it truly exceptional. 

So this advice is more about giving yourself the permission to pick the thing you like best and go all in on it. I don’t regret doing all of the other things because they helped me determine how I serve people best. So don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different things in the beginning, but you can cut out the stuff you don’t love, too.

4. Find a circle of friends.

Being a solopreneur is lonely. No point in sugarcoating it.

I don’t have the collaboration that I once had in my past W2 jobs which is challenging sometimes. 

So last summer I set up a handful of “coffee chats,” or connection calls, with people that belonged to a course I was in. 

From those calls with strangers, I now have friendships that I cherish. I talk to some of these women weekly, if not daily. 

I show up on Marco Polo to share my wins and I show up crying like a baby feeling so insecure I want to throw in the towel. 

I don’t know if I would have gotten through the past year without these women. They encourage me and challenge me and give me the confidence to keep showing up every day. And that all started with having the courage to say “yes” to an invitation to form connections. 

*Mind you, not every call has turned into these types of friendships, but the ones that have stuck are invaluable.* 

Oh, in addition to the virtual calls, I went to a lot of networking events! I don’t have a ton locally so I would often times drive up to Colorado Springs. If you don’t have groups where you live, I encourage you to find your closest big city and try to attend some.

So whether it’s virtual or in-person, I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to have people in your corner who get what it’s like to work for themselves. 

5. Be kinder to yourself.

I can’t be the only person who tells themselves that they are the worst, right? I know I can’t because I just read the article, The Confidence Gap, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.

Stop telling yourself your clients hate you. Stop telling yourself that they are unhappy with your services. 

I’m not saying we can’t strive to improve our craft, but as the sole operator of your business, give yourself some grace. 

I’m sure I could keep going on and on, but those felt like my big life lessons from the past year!

So if you’re in the beginning stages of your business, remind yourself your business isn’t going to look like somebody who has been running theirs for 5 years. Heck, take this blog as an example. It’s been on my to-do list for 3 years!

Lean into making your business as fun as you possibly can and if any of this resonated with you at all, I would love to connect with you over on Instagram!

And if you need any help with the foundational branding of your business, I’m just a contact form away.

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