It feels like just yesterday that I started running a creative business full-time….but it’s already been nearly three years! Time flies.
When running a business, beyond the usual ups and downs, I’ve noticed a specific trajectory over the last few years and wanted to talk about that today in the hopes that if you’re thinking of starting a business of your own or in the early stages of running one, you can start imagining what the future will look like. The more you can visualize and plan, the better.
Your first three years in business will probably look like this:
Year 0: The Preparation
Year 1 :Work, Work, Work
Year 2: Attract and Repel
Year 3: Diversify, Baby
Let’s dig in…
Year 0 — The Preparation
This ain’t gonna be easy.
Leading up to starting your own business, you have to prepare. Ideally, six months to a year in advance, you’ll be tallying up your monthly expenses and visualizing what your working environment will look like.
Do you plan on working from home, in a co-working space or in an office that’s all yours? What do your rates need to be like to afford your new lifestyle? How will you find new clients? And….what’s your plan if it takes a few months (or longer) to land that steady stream of clients?
I first started freelancing on the side back in 2006 while still in school. While my side business steadily grew, I began freelancing at agencies and worked a few full-time design jobs in-between to pay the bills.
This went on for years….and looking back, there was no balance in my life whatsoever. To be completely honest, I had no life. I held out way too long because I was afraid of how I would pay my mortgage without a steady gig. I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough clients. I was afraid of what would happen if things slowed down. Fear kept me hanging on by a thread, even though I was completely exhausted.
The tipping point came in the form of a small business class about 6 months before I left my full-time job. Our teacher asked us to write our worst case scenario on a piece of paper if our dream didn’t work out.
As soon as I wrote mine down, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought. My plan was to find a corporate gig for a year and then try my dream out again. The writing was on the paper, literally: I had to push the fear of the unknown aside for good because my lack of confidence was holding my dream up.
After that class, I slowly built momentum through trademarking my business name, working on the branding, building a media kit and designing a very basic website.
A few months later, I gave my notice and walked into my new life which was set up in a spare room across from my bedroom. My dream was 5 steps from where I woke up but the best decision I ever made.
Advice: Only prepare as much as you need to….and then go live your dream. Gaining life experience is infinitely more powerful than sitting around and reading about it.
Year 1 — Work, Work, Work
Work all day. Work all night.
The first year in business tends to boil down to taking on any and every project you can get your hands on to gain some stability.
When it came to bringing on clients, I definitely went for quantity over quality because I just wanted to keep working and build a cushion. If I wasn’t working, I felt guilty, like a backwards slide was imminent. In this case, the irrational fear wasn’t all bad because it kept motivation strong. But once again, I was exhausted. So many small business owners burn out because they’re afraid to give themselves a break.
The first year went well but in hindsight, I worked way too hard for too little because I was still figuring out what made my business unique and how to actually convey that. Easier said than done, right? Still, I felt relieved making it through and supporting myself. Because man, that first year is scary.
Advice: Don’t overthink things. Do good work for good people, stay true to your ethics and word of mouth will spread. Reliability, honesty and friendliness are everything.
Year 2 — Attract and Repel
Make what you want more of crystal clear.
The first year in business was all about doing the work (and doing a good job) while the second was all about getting clear on who I actually wanted to do work for.
I’d grown Branch just enough to finally feel a sense of stability which led to me signing a lease on an office space. I was on the fence…but my mom convinced me to do it and moms know best. Getting an office changed everything for the better because I felt like I had a home life again.
Even better, having a space to show up to every morning and set up however I wanted created an ideal working atmosphere and the good vibes drew in more clients.
As the business grew, I quickly learned the value of attracting and repelling. There weren’t enough hours in a day to be everything to everyone and I found that path mentally and physically exhausting. Instead of trying, I re-wrote sales copy. Reworked packages. Focused in on creative small businesses. Brought in a design assistant to help out.
The clearer I got on what I wanted the studio to work on and the more effort I put into our portfolio, the better the fit new clients were. It was really as simple as that.
Advice: Figure out who you are, reflect that in the work you produce and share it consistently.
Year 3 — Diversify, baby
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Year three for me has been all about diversifying.
By now, you’re going to be more established and have a core client base that appreciates what you do and keeps coming back for more.
While I am super happy with the mix of clients I’m working with, the biggest issue with running a service-based business is that your income is directly limited to what you can produce in a set amount of hours.
A reality check came earlier this year when I ran a report and realized my #1 client was my own product. Project Prescription held the top ranking, even though I spent 90% of my time on client work. Moving forward, my goal is to maintain current client work while slowly diversifying offerings through digital products.
Diversifying in your business is smart because if one area drops off, you’ll still be okay. I’ve learned from some personal experiences that panicking about how you’re going to pay the bills destroys creative mojo in a second flat.
Advice: Find ways to diversify so you can work smarter, not harder.
It’s your turn:
Do you run your own business?
Is it something that you’re interested in doing? Any questions for me?
Let me know in the comments!