How I Started My Design Business While Working a 9-5.
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my story: part one
Let’s rewind back to the spring of 2015. I was a senior in college, prepping for both my senior art show and design show while simultaneously trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. If I’m being honest, I always knew that I wanted to have my own design business, I just didn’t think it was possible until I had the years of experience and the funds to make it happen. (Lie I believed #1)
Long story short, I decided to take a design and marketing job at a car dealership in the town where I grew up as a way to save up some money before I decided where I wanted to live. Guys. Car dealerships are known for being, well... terribly designed. I’d like to think that I helped to give them a bit of a glow up, but it’s safe to say that I was left pretty creatively unfulfilled. This led me to pursuing design apart from my 9-5. I took on random freelance projects and offered to design wedding suites for some of my friends getting married.
Below I am going to share some of the things that worked for me and the things I wish I did differently during that time.
Things that worked for me:
I made a new Instagram account and started sharing my work daily. How did I have work to share? Well, sometimes I didn’t! I had some projects in my portfolio from college, but in the beginning I often shared work that was made just for fun. This was a great way to feel creatively fulfilled, while also showing my (tiny) audience that I knew how to design. As I started to pick up a few small freelance projects, I made sure to showcase them all on Instagram, complete with behind the scenes, un-used concepts, mood boards and collateral materials.
Posting daily, using the right hashtags and frequently engaging with others helped me to grow an audience and start attracting clients.
To this day, Instagram is still my #1 form of marketing.
I think that I saw the biggest increase in inquiries that I was excited about once I added fictitious projects to my portfolio. I dreamt up the types of brands I would love to attract and created 3 different make believe brands around them. Creatively, this was SO fun but more importantly, these fictitious brands connected with my people. If you aren’t sure how to start attracting the type of clients you want, I encourage you to dream up 3 different make believe brands and build an identity around them. Then be sure to showcase them on your website and social media channels!
When I first started freelancing I had a lot of people reach out to me asking for “just business cards” or “a flyer design” or other small projects. While there is nothing wrong with those type of projects, I knew I wanted to focus on branding; specifically branding for creatives. Besides fictitious projects, one of the best things that I did to attract those clients was making a simple brand statement and clearly displaying it on my website, Instagram, and Pinterest. This made talking about what I do easy and it helped potential clients find clarity in what I was offering (aka, attracting the brands that I wanted and finally started to repel those who I didn’t!). While my brand statement looks a bit different now, at the time it was:
My name is Morgan and I create branding design for small creative business.
Your brand statement provide clarity on three things: Who you are, what you do and who you do it for. The more specific you are, the more you will attract the right people.
Soaked up all of the free content I could.
These days, you can learn just about anything online. In the beginning, I was like a sponge and soaked up just about every free piece of content I could get my hands on. I remember listening to free webinars on my lunch break, podcasts to and from work, constantly signing up for free challenges and YouTubing just about everything else. I joke that during that first year of freelancing, I learned more about design than my whole college career.
Disclaimer: taking advantage of all the free content I could helped me to learn and grow, but I do think we need to be careful about constantly consuming (more about this below)
Things I wish I knew:
You don’t need years of experience
If I had known it was possible, I truly believe I could have had my own business straight out of college. It makes me sad to see so many talented creatives struggle to find a job out of college or even settle for a job outside of their field just to make ends meet. I truly think I could have been building up my portfolio and putting my work out there during school so that when I graduated, I had a steady income to fall back on. I think this approach would be a game changer for those who are about to graduate and dream of doing their own thing or just need to make a bit of money while searching for their first job.
Go with your gut
Like I mentioned above, In the beginning I had a lot of requests for small design projects. Before I sought clarity on who I wanted to market to, I took on so many small random projects that I wasn’t excited about out. This was partly due to not knowing how to say no, and partly out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet. 9 times out of 10, my gut was right and the projects that I wasn’t excited about ended up causing me a lot of frustration and anxiety. Looking back, I wish I had said “no” more so that I could focus my time and attention on projects that I really was excited about. Over time, I have learned the importance of listening to my gut and kindly referring those projects to someone who might be a better fit.
Keep your head down
In the beginning stages of my business, I hadn’t quite discovered who I was in my design work yet. It has taken me years to step into my unique style and voice as a creative. Because I was inundating myself with so much free content and looking up to others who were already successful business owners, I think I sometimes had trouble keeping my head down. I would get distracted by what other were doing and started losing touch with what makes me, me. This led to some confusion and a lack of clarity within my brand.
Trust me when I say that your unique style, gifts and voice is going to be what ultimately attracts the clients you want. Figure out what they are and don’t lose track of them.
Get an accountant from the beginning
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but in the beginning I was a big DIY-er when it comes to well... just about everything. Hiring someone to help me set up my business and book-keeping from the beginning probably would have saved me both money and peace of mind.
I ended up spending about a year at that car dealership and even though it was not my "dream" job, I am so thankful for my time there. I learned a lot of helpful things about marketing, healthy work cultures and how to essentially juggle two jobs. If you are currently working a job you don’t love, I encourage you to seek out the lessons and the good out of your job as you actively pursue your passion.
Next week I am going to be sharing about how I made the transition between my 9-5 and full time freelancing. If you have any specific questions about that process, feel free to drop a comment below!