I’m a firm believer that you learn more from your mistakes than when things work out perfectly. I wasn’t always this accepting of mistakes though, early on in my business I suffered from perfectionism and wanted to do everything right, have every single one of my clients love me and pretty much be the perfect graphic designer that ever dared to walk the path of being their own boss. It really didn’t take long for me to be knocked down from my naive dream cloud into a place of humble modesty. The mistakes I made when first starting out were plentiful and you better believe that there are more than 10 mistakes in my arsenal, but in an effort to keep this post readably concise I decided to share the top 10 in an effort to keep you from making them yourself. Ready? Let’s dive in.
1. I WORKED WITH EVERYONE
I think this happens to pretty much every designer out there, you start your career as a freelancer, and your tagline is something like “I work with everyone and anyone and will make you look great!” When I first started out I had just come off of a stint as an assistant to a top-performing real estate agent. I had spent the last year using my graphic design experience revamping, redesigning and refining his marketing strategy. Needless to say, the offers from other agents came tumbling in. I couldn’t keep up with the demand, but instead of seeing this as the opportunity to thrive in a niche market, I was determined to work with everyone and anyone that needed design services. So it took me a good four years, YES four years to firmly state I DESIGN FOR REALTORS. If you’re new to design as a profession, I’m going to let you in on my number one tip for designers… find a niche, one that you are passionate about and then market yourself to that niche, because friend, the more niche you get the better your sales will be. I wish I had embraced the real estate thing earlier, and really rolled with being THE designer for realtors, instead of the designer who was kind of familiar (mostly not) with your industry and needs.
LESSON: Niche down early, find where your passion and skills intersect.
2. I WORKED WITH EVERYONE
No that’s not a typo, and yes you read that right, but in this instance, we’re talking less about niche and more about personality. Once I had embraced the real estate niche, I still worked with everyone. Every realtor that is. I had no method of figuring out if someone would be a good fit, and assumed what every new designer assumes, “I can work with everyone!” Here’s the thing, it’s 100% ok to say no to someone who your gut is telling you will make your life a living hell, it’s ok to say “no thank you” to potential clients who you know don’t share your vision for their business. Every designer I’ve ever met has had a distinct style and their style, and yours and mine isn’t for everyone. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that it’s ok to say no to a project in order to make room for better projects that won’t make you want to tear your hair out and that are more aligned with your style. I know you might be thinking “but I’m just starting out I need to take on all the projects” and I’m here to blow that right up, because every single bad fit I worked with, ended up costing me money. I spent countless hours, sleepless nights and what felt like a million revisions on projects that when tallied up by rate per hour… well let’s just say I might as well have been paying them for the work.
LESSON: Be discerning. Ask questions, don’t say yes unless they feel like the right fit.
3. I UNDERVALUED MYSELF
I used to feel unbelievable guilt for charging any amount of money for what I did. I thought I was a new business and should be giving all my stuff away for free. I’m ashamed to admit that I underpriced myself up until a couple of years ago (10 years into my business) I thought the lower my prices the more clients, the more clients the more money, the more money in my bank account that happier I would be. Eight years into my business I was making what I thought was six figures and was burnt out. I was working 7 days a week, 14 hours a day and didn’t see an end in sight. It wasn’t until I sat down with my accountant who kindly informed me that after all my expenses, my client costs and taxes my business wasn’t making much money at all that I realized something had to change. So I upped my prices, ditched the endless stream of clients and started marketing my services with confidence. The next year I made more money than I ever had before and didn’t have to work myself to exhaustion to get there.
LESSON: Don’t be afraid to charge, remember you are providing a valuable service and offering up your time, it’s worth charging for.
4. I DIDN’T SET BOUNDARIES
This one is a biggie. In the beginning, I was all about being available 24/7. All my clients had my cell number and I would respond to every text, call and email in a matter of minutes. This might sound like a great and dependable business but it was more like a living hell and quickly proved to be just that. Imagine trying to find some peace after a day spent dealing with revisions, clients who wanted just one more tweak, and endless emails, just when you’ve got your tea, the remote and are seconds away from indulging in your favourite show for the next hour, your phone dings and you see a client’s text with the words “URGENT.” I don’t know about you, but I’m the type of person who likes to solve every problem and get things one sooner rather than later, so anything alert that came through on my phone was a cue to get myself to a computer and solve whatever problem existed for my clients. It wasn’t until one Thanksgiving day when I was elbow deep in stuffing the turkey that my phone dinged and the words URGENT (it wasn’t, is it ever?) popped up on the screen that I decided something had to change. I mean Thanksgiving people… give it a break! The very next day I ordered a separate business line, changed my cell number and reserved it only for friends and family. I didn’t stop there, I made it clear in my contracts that my working hours were Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm (for design work and communication with clients) I didn’t work holidays or long weekends and stopped answering the phone, or answering emails while I was in the middle of a design project. I can’t stress enough how setting these boundaries changed my life and my sanity. If you’re afraid of setting boundaries and losing clients, just ask yourself why? I can guarantee the clients who aren’t up for respecting your boundaries are exactly the ones who don’t respect you or your work.
LESSON: Set clear boundaries, decide when you want to work, and how you want to communicate. Your sanity and time off matters.
5. I DIDN’T HIRE HELP
I regret not hiring a virtual assistant for my business sooner. There are so many tasks that are 100% doable by someone other than me that would have freed up my time for doing the things that actually moved my business forward. Having someone to post blogs, edit videos, proofread content, respond to emails and do research for projects is invaluable. I spent years telling myself I didn’t have the money but the truth was I didn’t want to relinquish control and thought no one would be able to answer emails the way I did, or no one could possibly post my blog as well I could (seriously?!). Once I gave up control and hired a VA my life opened up, I was able to focus on things I should have been focusing on all along like growing my business. Once I hired a VA, my time was freed up so much that I was able to open my Etsy Shop, a dream I had had for years without any time to make it a reality.
LESSON: Even if you have a small budget, start small and hire help for 1-2 hours a week and imagine what you could get done with those extra hours.
6. I WORKED TOO MUCH
I was working 7 days a week, and sometimes 14-hour days. It got to the point where I felt unbelievable guilt going to my sisters for a BBQ, or to a friend’s birthday party. I thought any time away from my desk was unproductive and useless, if I wasn’t working I was wasting my time. I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety and thought that’s what it meant to run a business. When I realized how unhealthy I had become (drinking too much, smoking, gaining weight) I realized something had to give, so I started setting boundaries in my personal life, I began taking days off just for me, created a killer morning routine and the moment I began to do this my brain had time to come up with new business ideas, my body had time to chill out, and my work became sooooo much more fun!
LESSON: work less, play more, your business will thank you.
7. I ADOPTED BAD HABITS
This is a hard one for me to write about, I hate to admit weaknesses and this one is a big one. When things get tough, I am the master of the self-soothe and sabotage. Because I didn’t have any healthy outlets for my stress in place, I began watching too much TV, eating horrible junk food, smoking, drinking way too much and spending a little too much time playing angry birds on my phone. When I realized all these habits were a direct result of my supreme unhappiness and lack of control In my business, and none of them would ever help me reach my very very big goals, I made some really big life changes that I’m still kind of in awe of to this day. I stopped drinking and smoking (on the same day…p.s. this was brutal), turned off the TV, deleted all the games on my phone and created a healthy-eating plan.
LESSON: Saying goodbye to bad habits is essential to your business growth, just ask any successful person, ever.
8. I FAILED TO SET UP PROCESSES
Way back in the beginning of my business I didn’t have processes for new clients, I didn’t have a process for design, I didn’t have a process for paying bills, I didn’t have a process for ANYTHING. I was flying by the seat of my pants and hoping things would just all work out and until I set up processes my business suffered. If processes scare you, let me simplify it for you. Processes are just a point form system or checklist of how you like to get the job done. When I started getting systems and processes in place my time and creativity opened up because I wasn’t trying to do ten things at once, or trying to clarify a vague process to a client. I had a system and that system was detailed and organized and it helped me move things along like my design process, invoicing, and blogging. These processes or SOP’s (standard operating procedures) are essential for your sanity but are also great to pass on to a VA when you are ready to make that hire.
LESSON: Set up process early so you can streamline your business, outsource and save valuable time and energy.
9. I DIDN’T INVEST IN EDUCATION
Investing in online courses was my saving grace. About 3 years into my business I had no direction, like zero. I didn’t know how to improve, I was literally doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. But, as soon as I began to invest in myself I began to grow. I bought my first online course in 2015 and fell in love with the world of online learning. You could learn at your own pace, and fast track your success with step-by-step methods experts had laid out for you. I was hooked and since then have invested in hundreds of hours of education, and plan to do more this year.
Lesson: learn learn learn and then learn some more. It’s really the best way to grow yourself and your business
10. I DIDN’T SEE THAT VALUE IN SETTING GOALS
Up until a couple of years ago, I was just chugging along, hoping for the best when it came to my business and more importantly my business growth. Don’t get me wrong, I had dreams, big dreams…but they were more like “one day I’ll have an Etsy shop” Or “One day I’ll limit my client intake so I can focus on bigger things” Because I never put them to paper to create goals and tangible steps, nothing ever changed. Then I took an online course that pretty much made me see how impossible it was to do big things without creating a timeline with tangible steps to get to your big picture goals. I started creating awesome quarterly and yearly goals for myself that were well planned out and included bite-sized steps that were completely doable and not overwhelming. The trick I found was to work backward. Think of what you want to accomplish in a year, then break it down into quarterly goals, then break those down into monthly, weekly and daily steps. BOOM you’ve got an action plan for the year. Nothing has been the same since I started doing this and the earlier you start the earlier you can get ahead in your business.
LESSON: Create big picture goals for yourself every year, then break them down into tangible steps.
There you have it, a vulnerable tell-all insight into my top ten business mistakes. It’s my biggest dream to share all the mistakes I’ve made in an effort to give other creatives embarking on the entrepreneurial journey a roadmap of pitfalls to avoid. Hope these helped. Made any big mistakes in your business? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.