The first year of business is like the first year of marriage: lots of excitement; lots of learning. Starting an Austin web design company is competitive, but that also means I’m also surrounded by mentors. There’s no one way to start your own company; it’s going to be different for everyone, but we can learn from each other. Below are the most important things I learned in my first year of running Design It Please.
1. Don’t do it alone.
Can anyone do this alone?? Short answer: not for long. I’m not an introvert, so I knew I needed to find a coworking space. I tried two different spaces before finding Orange Coworking, and it’s the best coworking experience I’ve ever had. At so many spaces, people work next to each other, but they don’t really help each other. At Orange, the attitude is truly one of helping and collaborating and referring and mentoring. It is a community of entrepreneurs, and they’ve supported me immensely. It’s also the strongest group of female entrepreneurs that I’ve ever met, and that’s inspiring.
If you’re struggling on your own, check out some spaces. Give each space at least a month and see if they’re the people for you. When you find your tribe, you’ll know.
Additionally, the community of the Texas Freelance Association has been another piece to the puzzle of my first year.
2. Network authentically. Do you.
“Networking” exhausts me. I hate walking into a group of people and thinking: is there anyone here who will need me? is there anyone here who will buy from me? how many people are going to ask me to buy from them? I actually like people, and I don’t like using people or being used. For me, I have to frame networking as a low-pressure, relationship-building activity or I’ll go crazy. When I meet you, I want to get to know you for who you are and not just for what you do. This is not the way that most networking events are setup, but they should be. Business tries to replace our humanity for a bottom line, but that doesn’t work for me.
3. Stop caring so much about sales.
See #2. I hate treating people like commodities, and I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m only out for my interests. There are a lot of things I can work on when it comes to selling:
• Don’t be afraid to bring up pricing early. It builds trust and confidence.
• Describe the value of what I’m selling in a way that connects to my prospective client.
When I’m afraid of losing the sale or worried about money, I am more focused on my own needs and sticking up for myself, and I lose focus on and empathy for the client. It’s a hard balance to maintain.
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts recently. One story has been repeated multiple times from multiple actors: the auditions they went into not caring about were the best ones they landed. Sometimes, they didn’t care because they didn’t know what they were actually auditioning for. Sometimes, they didn’t care because they’d reached rock bottom. In both cases, they stopped “acting” and, instead, had the freedom to truly bring themselves to the table. They allowed themselves to react in a more authentic way, with little thought to whether or not they’d get the gig, and, surprise, surprise, it turned out well.
At the AIGA Member Party, James Victore spoke about how our unique life experiences have grown in us a unique perspective and set of skills. At the point we figure out how to bring those skills to the table, that’s when we’re truly effective and at our best. I, especially, need to remember this when it comes to sales. There’s so much written about sales strategy and conversion strategy that it’s easy to get caught up in the how-to and the technique and forget who we are and what makes us unique. I need to stop caring so much about selling.
4. Communication is hard. *sigh*
When I started freelancing, I didn’t think I’d have many communication issues. I considered myself an exemplary communicator (though, not perfect) and assumed that communication was one area of my business that I could do better than other freelancers. Nope. Turns out, in the thick of things, I make the same mistakes as everyone else. When I’m bogged down in work, I don’t communicate often enough. When I’m disorganized, I forget things. When I don’t take notes, I miss things. When I’m focused on sales, I forget that relationships take work and consistency.
I need to ask better questions. I need to use more analogies to help people understand the scope of a project. I really need to map out a typical sales call to make sure I remember to ask about whether or not someone needs hosting.
5. I made mistakes.
I dropped the ball. I got lazy on some projects. When clients got frustrating, I got frustrated. I lost empathy. I made matters worse. Turns out, I’m an imperfect human.
6. It’s a hard balance to “Be the Expert” and actively listen.
As designers, most of us were taught to Be the Expert. We’re taught that design is really about problem solving. We’re taught to have the answers, but clients aren’t taught how to speak to designers or how to talk about design or what to expect from the process. It’s two people speaking a different language at each other. In the hustle to Be the Expert, it’s really easy to stop listening to and interpreting what the client is saying. I don’t have a solution for this yet, but it’s something I’m aware of.
7. Protect your work/life boundaries.
“You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” —Lucille Ball
You’ll hear different things from different people. Some will tell you that you don’t get the privilege of work/life boundaries when you start a business. Others will tell you that you must prioritize work/life boundaries. When I started the freelance thing, I knew I didn’t want to be responding to emails at 10pm on a Saturday night. As much as running my own business is my dream and it can get very enmeshed with my identity, it is not my life. I work to live; I don’t live to work, and as much as I want my work to bring life, I don’t want to work all the time. 9 to 5 or 6, Monday through Friday, are my business hours, and I’m stickin’ to ‘em. If I’m in the zone or there’s an emergency, of course, I’m going to work outside my regular business hours, but the point is that those times are the exception, not the norm.
8. Ask for help.
There’s a lot to do! I don’t need to list out everything that an entrepreneur or small business owner has to do. Suffice it to say, it’s a lot, and not everything is going to be in your wheelhouse of expertise. That’s ok. That’s normal. You’re going to have to pay some people to do some things. Bookkeeping and taxes are two of those things for me.
On an emotional level, you’re going to need emotional support, too. Most people won’t be able to read your mind when you’re struggling, so you’re going to have to be brave and tell them. As my therapist says, you won’t have to talk about hard things all the time, but you will have to talk about them some of the time.
9. Save money now.
If you think you don’t have anything to save, start saving with Digit (<—use that link to start out with $5 in your account). You connect Digit to your bank account, they do some analysis and save for you. I didn’t think I had anything to save, but in four months, I’ve saved over $300.
The other app I’d recommend is Acorns (<—you’ll get $5 with this link, too). It’s an investment app and saves your spare change by rounding your purchases up to the nearest dollar.
Things I Still Can’t Figure Out
- Keeping track of mileage. (Update: I downloaded MileIQ.)
- Blogging/social media/e-newsletters. What do people even want to hear? What can I offer that’s different? How do I present myself as an expert and thought leader? How do I prioritize blogging and client work? How do I write when I don’t think I have anything to say? Is it making any difference?
- How to network & get work done. Read: time management and priorities.
- If I want to/should have one target audience. Should I? Do I? How do I pick one? How do I find them?
There will always be things for me to learn and relearn. That’s part of what makes this whole entrepreneur thing attractive to me in the first place. If I’m bored, it’s because I got lazy. Perhaps, I need to embrace not doing everything right, not knowing everything, not being the best. Maybe that’s when things will function the best.