Mistakes & Lessons Learned in my Graphic Design Business (Part 1)

The past can be a great teacher if we pay attention.

The business world is very different now from when I started my business more than 20 years ago, but there are many valuable lessons and universal principles to learn from. In a series of upcoming posts, I’m sharing some of the history of my business, along with key takeaways and lessons that I learned during each phase: the early years, the messy middle, and the later years. 

Some lessons I learned quickly, some I still struggle with. My hope is that you can implement these lessons and save yourself some stress, confusion, lost revenue, and enjoy tons of creative fulfillment in your business.

Because if you’re not enjoying your business, at least most of the time, what’s the point?

If you’ve been in my world for a while, you’ve learned a bit about how I got started in my graphic design business. But for anyone who isn’t familiar, here’s the brief version:

From 1998-2001 I was living in Portland, Oregon, and worked for an exhibit design company as a graphic designer. It was a good job. I learned a ton, met great people (several of whom I still work with today). But, after a few years, I felt a pull to do my own thing, to start my own business and branch out into different types of work. 

At my job, I was doing mostly large graphics, trade show signage, and museum or exhibit signage for companies like Microsoft and US Fish and Wildlife. It was an excellent experience but I wanted to explore traditional print design and logo design and I thought it would be cool to manage my own time and schedule...and get some laundry done while working from home. Seriously, that was a big motivator for me! 😂

I had no idea where to start so I searched online and found a project bidding site called elance.com (I think it’s upwork now) and I bid on tons of projects until I finally landed a logo design for $35!!!! I then received lots of additional work from this first client as she was getting her quilting business off the ground.

She then referred me to her husband who was starting a plastic surgery business with a partner. I created logos, print ads, stationery, and more. Long story short, those two initial client relationships lasted almost a decade.

For the first 2-3 years, I did all of this work while still in my full-time job at the exhibit design company. Sometimes it was tricky juggling both but I enjoyed spending my evenings and weekends on my own projects. It was creatively fulfilling and I loved it!

After moving back to my hometown in Montana to be near family in 2003, I kept working part-time in my freelance business. I received some new referrals from people at my old exhibit design job and I worked part-time as a designer at the advertising agency where Todd, my graphic designer husband, worked full-time. 

In 2005, I had built up enough business to be full-time in my business so I went for it. At the time, our household expenses were very modest, and with Todd’s income, I knew exactly what I needed to bring in every month to make ends meet. It was a little scary making the leap but I felt secure in my ability to bring in the minimum amount needed.

Looking back, I get the warm fuzzies thinking about these early years and I can clearly see the many lessons I was learning. Let's dive into those lessons...and some mistakes I wish I'd avoided!

Lessons learned in the early years of my design career:

  • Honing my design skills came unexpectedly through designing hundreds of tradeshow signs for Microsoft. I got really fast at setting bullet points and making last-minute changes.  
  • Having a job early on was more valuable than I could have known. Those connections became a huge source of business referrals for me later. 
  • Getting started in freelancing didn’t take much. I did create a logo for myself, made a business card and a few forms like an invoice and an estimate in Illustrator. I also purchased inexpensive bookkeeping software to keep finances in order. At the time, having a website was rare but I did start learning Dreamweaver and built a basic site.
  • I loved being my own boss and working from home. Though I felt some stress, it was worth it to me at the time.
  • The relationships I built with co-workers and clients early on still fuel my business 20+ years later.
  • Clients are likely to stay with someone they already know and like (it’s far easier for them than going out to find another designer who’s a good fit)
  • Paying attention to my numbers and running a lean business and household allowed me the freedom to build my business without the constant stress of having to find enough business to pay the bills. I wanted to charge more in the beginning - but at the time, I was happy building up my portfolio, honing my design skills, and learning a lot about business. After about a year, I increased my prices to something I felt good about.


  • I let clients tell me what to do. Tight, sometimes unachievable deadlines caused me some crazy hours, stress, endless revisions.
  • I had a contract but rarely implemented it. I was afraid clients wouldn't work with me if our arrangement was too “formal”  - FYI, check out this book for basic contracts and ideas for setting pricing. HOWEVER, make sure you tailor it to your business.
  • I charged hourly for everything. Hourly pricing has its place but getting to a place where we can price our work based on value and in packages is much more beneficial to you and me, our clients, and the graphic design industry as a whole
  • I didn't seek tax advice soon enough. With my additional freelance income, we had to come up with a way to pay those self-employment taxes and this was a complete surprise!

Do you recognize any of these lessons or mistakes in your business? What other lessons have you learned by being in business? Share in the comments and let's discuss!

Join me for my next post where I’ll dive into the next chapter of my business and life starts to get very interesting.


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