Mistakes & Lessons Learned in my Graphic Design Business (Part 3)

 

NOTE: This post is the third and final in a series covering the history of my business, lessons learned, and mistakes I wish I’d avoided. Click to read or watch Part #1 & Part #2.

I'll never forget this day. I was in my office working late and my husband, Todd, came in, leaned into the doorway said, “We should adopt. We're ready to be parents. It's been long enough. What do you think?”

This journey of trying to start our family had been going on for about seven years. The entire time that I was building my business this was something that Todd and I were pursuing and struggling with. We were so excited to be parents and it just wasn't working out. So this decision to adopt was life-changing. 

Going through an adoption process can be a long, very raw experience—heartbreaking in and of itself. But we were so ready to start this next chapter of our lives.

But I also knew that things were going to need to shift in my business so that I could put the time and attention into being a mom that I knew my children deserved and that I wanted so badly. 

So, at this point in my freelance graphic design business, I was full time and business was very busy. I often turned down work (reluctantly). I remember this time being quite stressful in business. I was so “busy” that I was missing family functions, didn’t have much of a life, and was letting work run the show.

I had not yet learned how to say no, how to choose the right projects for me, or how to thoughtfully schedule my projects to avoid overloading myself. Like many freelancers I know, I would work long hours and weekends and do whatever it took to deliver projects on time. Now, this, of course, caused a lot of stress but at the time, I didn't have a compelling reason to fix any of it and I was honestly a bit addicted to the hustle. I told myself I was blessed to have plenty of work and that this is just how it is. I was so afraid of being fired or earning a poor reputation that I stuck it out and did what I had to do. 

This sense of burnout and overwhelm coupled with our plan to adopt were what made me pause and think about the future of my business. I came to the realization that if I'm going to be a good mom, by my definition, I was going to have to get a handle on my workload and how I'm running my business. 

This moment struck me as the first time I stopped to think about how I would define success in my business and how my business could support the life I wanted. I knew I wanted freedom to spend time with my growing family. I didn’t quite know how to fix my situation but I was committed to figuring it out. I was done letting my business be in charge of my life.

My first decision was to switch to a 4-day work week, Mon-Thurs, and I would be closed on Fridays to catch up on paperwork and to prepare our home for a family. This one small step was significant because it proved to me that I could take control of my business and (contrary to the story in my head), it did not implode. Clients didn’t decide to fire me because I wasn’t available on Fridays. In fact, many of them reached out and congratulated me on my decision to do what was best for me and my family.

I think for many of us, it takes a big thing happening in our lives to force us to think more deeply about what our business truly needs to look like in order to support the life we want. I know so many business owners like me who pour much of our lives into our work, and we forget that there’s another option: our work can support the LIFE we want instead of sucking the air out of it! 

We started the adoption process in the fall of 2007. By May of 2008, we were officially “ready and waiting" for a placement with a child. In July we experienced incredible excitement and then devastating heartbreak over a failed adoption. But on September 16, 2008, our identical twin boys were born, placed in our arms, and entrusted to us by one brave and amazing young woman. Our "forever family" was finally a thing. It was the most joyous and terrifying day of my life. After years of struggle, we were now responsible for not just one, but two, small perfect humans. (Gulp!)

Our dreams of starting a family were finally realized when Max and Davin were born.🧡

At the time, Todd was still working full time at an ad agency so I was home with the boys. Luckily these babies were great eaters and sleepers. This allowed me time to still get work done during naps. And two days a week, I would pack up my computer and both babies and drive to my mom and dad’s house where my mom was able to help me out. 

When the boys were about a year old, Todd was laid off from his job and we found ourselves at a crossroad. Should Todd look for another job or perhaps join me in my business? It was a scary decision but in the end not a very hard one. Todd hated being away from his boys so much and with the work I was turning away, we were confident we could make it work. So in 2010, we formed times2studio (the number two holding special significance of course). 

Giving life to times2studio 

With Todd on board full time, we juggled projects and double diapers. It was a crazy time but we were in it together, making it all work somehow. As those “little years” are for most new parents, life was a blur.

Most of our projects came through former coworkers and when Todd joined up with me, even more work from his connections came in. Once again, our workload started to pile up and that familiar feeling of “this is too much” started to creep in. But this time, I was determined things would be different.

Todd and I had many conversations about the business we actually wanted and the clients and projects that fit best into that vision. We discussed the future and how our business could support the life we wanted.

At this time, our income (though we had constant work) was pretty much month to month with some put away for taxes. We felt like we needed to say yes to most projects just to pay the bills so we started to explore how we could flip this. How could we create more margin in our business and keep it sustainable for the long term?

I made it my mission over the next few years to learn as much as I could about pricing for profit, matching the right clients to our business, and effective marketing.

I spent time putting processes and solid contracts in place. As the primary salesperson in our business, I worked a lot on my money mindset so I could feel good about charging more for our work and actually making a profit, not just breaking even on our time and overhead.

These new learnings lead us to break off a few client relationships that were not serving us well so we could pour more energy into the ones that were. We crafted our messaging and website to match the types of clients we wanted to work with and the ones we could help the most.

Of course, none of this happened overnight. Spoiler alert: it’s not easy to do this work and it’s never truly done! It was and still is, a refinement process—something I still improve upon today as life and business evolve. A major lesson I’ve learned (and took me a long time to accept) is that business is never “done.” BUT, I choose to see this as the exciting part - there are always opportunities to try new things, optimize what’s working or eliminate what’s not.

Have an "I GET to..." business.

I look at our business as a project in and of itself—full of levers and gears to be turned, tightened, and reconfigured. It’s my world that I get to shape to fit the life I want and this helps me to truly enjoy the process and not stress as much over the unpleasant parts. Problems happen (all the time), but if I can look at those problems as things I GET to solve in my “world”  then I tend to enjoy my business more and feel less stress and overwhelm.

To be fair, I don’t think the stress will ever totally go away. But I do have control over how I interpret and manage it. I choose to put practices in place that help me approach my business with intention, focus, and productivity. There are whole books written about this but it starts with simple things like planning my ideal days and weeks, allowing enough time to complete projects well, limiting distractions like my phone, meetings, and social media, taking breaks throughout the day, and scheduling real time off for vacations and holidays. Enjoying my business has become a priority because is it a huge part of my life and I want a life that I thrive in, not one where I’m merely surviving!

Lessons learned:

  • Hustle has its place but can’t be forever. It's NOT the way to build a sustainable business
  • I get to take charge of my business, I choose to operate it to fit my life, not how I think I “should” or how others might tell me it has to be.
  • There is no substitute for getting clear on my vision and the types of clients I want to work with.
  • Pricing for profit must be learned and directly leads to my revenue goals
  • Setting up my business how I want to is completely within reach
  • The problems that come up in my business are opportunities to learn something new!

I hope that sharing my story helps you to see the possibilities in your business to design it so you can make a good living, doing what you love while enjoying the journey. It really is an amazing privilege to run a business on our own terms, isn’t it? Enjoy, my dear creative friend!

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