Just over 5 years ago I was getting ready for my last days in my cushy full-time job as a graphic designer. Was I ready to chuck away the security of a guaranteed payday every month? Hellll no. Did I think I was? Absolutely. Was I in for the shock of a lifetime? Hellll yes.
How it all began
I always knew I wanted to be some kind of a designer… before I knew what designing actually was. I spent any spare time I had as a kid creating my own magazines (complete with back pages packed to the brim with early 00s style sales pages for overpriced ringtones 😂) and crafting anything I could from paper scraps and glitter glue.
At 14, right around my ripping-pop-punk-tunes-off-limewire-and-overplucking-my-eyebrows phase, I was introduced to graphic design and I thought THIS IS IT. This is what I’m gonna do when I grow up.
The way you can shape the way people connect with what’s in front of them with a simple font change or the *right* colour. That was and still is magical to me. The idea I could do that AND get paid? I had to be dreaming……
Starting a small business
When all my mates were swanning off to uni, there was no chance I was missing out on the fun so I grabbed my partner Jack (now our SEO Specialist) and we pissed off to Australia and South East Asia for a year. Standard early 20s behaviour!
I ran out of money fast – also standard early 20s behaviour – and started freelancing to earn my keep. Ahhh, forever wanting to live to the beat of my own drum, or something less douchey than that.
That freelancing was my first proper taste of bringing in my own money and my god it tasted good. The feeling of knowing I DID THAT was far better than suppin’ a bottle of Chang with the sand between my toes… although I enjoyed that bit too.
So, when it was time to move to Manchester, I thought sod it. I might as well give being my own boss a go, right? And 5 years later here I am. Granted, I am more haggard for the pleasure. There have also been a few too many late nights bawling into my laptop, but I’m still here, mostly loving it, all the same.
From selling logo designs on eBay for a tenner at 15, to running a Studio department and a small team of designers, to starting a branding and web design collective. I’ve made a butt load of mistakes and learned a tonne!
But here’s what I learned about business in my first 5 years…….
Lessons learned from starting a business
When I first got started with my business, it was scary. You are never 100% sure if you are doing the right thing and are constantly second-guessing yourself. You have to make mistakes to learn from them. But, maybe if I share some of my lessons learned from starting a business, you won’t have to make the same mistakes!
As a recovering people pleaser, I’ve had to work hard to implement proper boundaries in my business (and general life). When you work daft hours and are available for your clients 24/7 – there is no way you can do your best work.
Without boundaries, you’ll burn out fast and honestly, you’ll start to resent clients and just about anyone that seems to be slightly less overwhelmed than you are.
When you set boundaries around the hours you work, which clients you will work for and when you’re available for work and communication… you’ll thrive. You’ll enjoy your life and work much more and have much-needed brain space for productivity and creativity.
Being “professional” isn’t as important as you think it is
I started my business at 22 and spent the first couple of years deeply petrified that I’d get “found out” and sent back to a “proper job”. How dare I charge people money for my skills?
Imposter syndrome became my middle name and I did everything I could to look as professional as possible. From agonising over the *perfect* business card design to attending networking events I hated and saying yes to just about any job that came my way. There is no way that I would have dreamed of chatting breeze on Insta stories about getting accosted in my local Tesco’s for accidentally stealing a carrier bag.
I worked for a lot of bad clients on a lot of low-paying projects (hands up if you’ve been there 🙋♀️) before I figured out I needed to work on my own personal brand and bring in the people I enjoyed working with. I got braver in my messaging (it still wasn’t anything like the That’s Her Business you see today) and tested the waters.
I’m reliable, considerate, creative and skilled. But I’m also loud, and extremely honest, I wear all the colours at once and I love to dance about like a dickhead and not take myself too seriously.
The first sentence makes me very good at my job. The second sentence is the reason clients get in touch with me in the first place. The thing is, many people would call it unprofessional.
Not me though. See, the clients you land through being totally and utterly yourself are your soulmates. And the more you show up unedited every day, the more of those clients find you.
This year I’ve worked with a Sex Coach, a Dr helping women and girls understand their periods and a queer-friendly Personal Trainer – three absolute dream projects that NEVER would have found me if it wasn’t for the way I show up online.
Don’t try so hard to be “professional”. Be yourself – you won’t regret it.
Don’t be afraid to mess up
I read a quote on this from Jessica Ekstrom recently “when you fall, make it part of your dance” – don’t you just love that?!
And I totally agree with Jessica. Don’t be afraid to mess things up… and when you do, don’t have a meltdown, just go with it! Because if you live in fear of getting something wrong, you’ll never do anything at all.
But what if I do fuck it up? Yeah, you probably will at some point and that sucks. Making a mistake or failing at something hurts. A lot. I’ve messed up more times than I could possibly count and I hate that stomach-in-your-throat-can’t-talk-might-puke feeling as much as the next gal…
Hell, in the early days, I even took on a few projects that I ended up stopping and giving the client their money back when it turned out not to be a good fit.
Best believe those projects shaped my business far more than my fav clients with the 5 out of 5 gold star results! They taught me how to set boundaries. What I wanted my business to look like. How much to charge (and when to up my prices). When to chuck it all at something and figure it out, and when to say enough is enough and take a step back.
Sure, making a mistake is totally gut-wrenching but you’ll be a better business person for it. And the only way you can avoid making mistakes is by never doing anything at all! So you might as well make good with your choices!
Collaboration is your best friend
Ok, so it might seem obvious that the owner of a freelance collective thinks collaboration is the best thing since thickly sliced sourdough slathered with salty butter. BUT collaboration is everything.
When I first started my business I was trying to do it all myself. It turns out that if you pay other people to do what they’re good at, you get to focus on what you’re good at – and do it better.
Let’s face it, just because you can stick up a half-decent post on Instagram, doesn’t mean you should start managing client social media accounts. Let someone who understands wtf hashtags are for handle that.
Meeting other business owners is not only key to your business but to your sanity too. Freelancing is a lonely job. Ever caught yourself talking to the washing machine?
My freelance collaborators have quickly become my business family. We lean on each other for support with anything from proofreading emails and feedback on our latest design work, to whether or not a doctor’s appointment needs to be booked for a downstairs problem (true story – I booked the appointment).
Collaboration over competition
You don’t have to hire people to build those kinds of relationships either. It never hurts to make friends with your “competitors” (we don’t really believe in that word around here – there’s plenty of work to go around).
Learn from each other. Refer work to each other. Swap stories of nightmare clients and project wins. Make Friday night drinks or mid-week walk plans.
Your community will make you stronger and bring more work your way. PLUS the bond you make with someone who just “gets” going it alone is super super special ❤️
THIS is one of my most important lessons learned from starting a business.
Saying no is a superpower
If I’m getting bad vibes from an opportunity, I say no.
Too many times I’ve ignored that niggling voice in my gut telling me to run away. I’ve then found myself mid-project thinking why have I done this to myself yet again? Or worse, having to turn down an opportunity I’d love because I’m jam-packed with work that completely turns me off.
Ask yourself… Do I have the capacity to take this on right now? Is the money worth it? Does it light a fire in my soul so hot I’ll lie awake at night thinking about it for an eternity if I miss out?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, your answer should be too.
And no, saying no doesn’t have to burn bridges! It can mean “no, not right now” or even “not this project, but maybe the next one!”
You can still be polite and say no. Thank them for the opportunity and stay in touch (if you want).
And get this, something mind-blowing happens when you say no.
When you close doors to the shit – even more magical far from shit doors start to open. Like somehow drawing a line in the sand and saying I won’t settle for anything less than this helps you figure out how to both find and attract the good stuff.
Trust your gut.
BONUS LESSON: Money really isn’t everything
Making a living means we need to earn enough money to live, right? And by live, we mean really live, not scraping through the month wondering if your card will get declined during the weekly shop.
But I’ve come to realise financial goals are anything but encouraging. And yes, this is a bonus lesson because, in all honesty, I’m still working on it.
The thing is, the more money you have, the more you spend. And once you start spending your extra money, it’s not extra anymore. You feel chuffed seeing the random number you deem “successful enough” on the screen for a fleeting moment, and then it’s gone. You move the goalposts and you’re aiming higher yet again.
Not to mention how utterly miserable you feel when you don’t miraculously hit the financial goals you’ve set yourself. Been there many many times.
When you set your sights on how you want your life to look (instead of how you want your bank balance to look), not only do you feel UNREAL when things start to click into place… you can actually create proper plans for how to get there.
Want to take Fridays off? Think about how you can start moving your workload around. Put systems in place to give yourself more free time.
Want to spend more time outside? Start with a lunchtime walk and buzz off the afternoon fresh air creativity boost.
Want to travel and work? What can you do today to make your business more flexible?
And the more you take steps toward a more fulfilling life, the more you’ll ooze the joy and all-around sense of “hell yeah I’ve got this” into your personal brand. Those dream clients will flock to you and you’ll find yourself hitting the financial goals anyway. Win bloody win.
More like what I learned about business in 5 years
If you enjoyed reading my lessons learned from starting a business, you’ll love our upcoming businesswomen interview series with some of our collaborators, clients and friends we’ve made along the way. We’re talking tips for a healthier and happier business life and there may be one or two spicy stories thrown in there too 😉
Also, if you would like to share any of your lessons learned from starting a business, get in touch! What have YOU learned in business?
Read more: Why we’re selling our house and moving into a bus, 30 blog ideas you can write right now