The year 2011 is coming rapidly to a close, and with it my first full calendar year of running my own business.
It’s been a good year, if not a straightforward one, and I’ve learnt many lessons along the way. It’s amazing what you need to go through to make your business provide an income and a sustainability that will allow you to build for the future.
Some lessons will be more specifically useful for other designers or creatives while others may be easily applied in a more general sense
Without wanting to sound at all like I know it all now I thought sharing ten situations or scenarios I’ve encountered in this, my first full calendar year that offer lessons I learned would be a valuable resource – both for myself as I evaluate my year and for others beginning their own journey in self employment. Some lessons will be more specifically useful for other designers or creatives while others may be easily applied in a more general sense.
No. 10. Look for work in agencies
Design and advertising agencies have been hit by the recession and it’s often a case that they want to keep their overheads low by reducing full time staff. The result being that they don’t have enough hands on deck when it gets busy. Hiring in a freelancer solves this problem – and this worked to my advantage in a big way this year as I picked up a lot of work through a large agency in North Devon.
Not only did the money I made from the freelance work I undertook with them cover a large percentage of my turnover for the year, the experience I gained working with top drawer creatives for top level corporate clients gave me valuable strings to my bow and names for my CV.
No. 9. Get feedback from the experts
Ideally, you might have some kind of design/business mentor who you can bounce ideas off and get real life advice and feedback from. If you’re not fortunate enough to have that, and especially if you work in an isolated workspace it can be a lonely life. Sites like Dribbble and Logopond are teeming with experienced pros who are often willing to offer their critique and help you out when you’re stuck. Just make sure you give as well as take!
No. 8. Develop partnerships
Having close contact with other complimentary service providers (printers, photographers, illustrators, web developers etc.) can be priceless. Working regularly with these trusted contacts gives your business a larger offering and becomes a more attractive proposition for clients.
And as well as offering their services to your clients, they will be able to offer your services to theirs – even more potential work!
No. 7. Submit work for publishing
Keep an eye out for calls for entries by publishers. The books you read and flick through for inspiration are full of work by people like you – why should your work not feature as well? I had my first taste of success in publishing this year with two logos featuring in the latest edition of the popular Logo + Letterhead Design book series, as well as another two logos chosen to be included in the new IHeartLogos book. By submitting your work you could find yourself featured and seen by thousands of people world/nationwide, raising your own profile and reputation in the process.
No. 6. Work where you’re comfortable
If you know me or have been keeping up with my blog recently you’ll know that this Summer/Autumn saw me move from a tiny, constrained box room into a much larger room and custom built workspace. Whilst I still work from home, I was able to move into a spacious office where I have much more space to spread out, feel inspired and be generally more motivated to work.
If you don’t have the luxury of custom building your ideal workspace, there are always things you can do to make your workspace work better for you. Get creative and think about how you can make improvements.
And if it helps to get out of your usual workspace, take your laptop and work at a café with wifi! The benefit of being where people are can be something you miss while working alone, and a good cup of coffee won’t hurt either.
No. 5. Don’t (necessarily) turn down a job because the fee isn’t high enough
It’s always tempting to get in an indignant huff when someone ‘devalues’ your skills and offers below your valuation of the work.
Often you will need to play the hard line and turn down the work to preserve your standards and give yourself enough time to complete the work to an acceptable level. But don’t do so without asking the question (to yourself!) “what other benefits are there to me if I accept the work?”.
A couple of prime examples from this year are my logo for Oodles Bakery and the welcome pack for Mutley Baptist Church. Despite a very modest budget the Oodles logo has been my most talked about logo on Dribbble and Logopond (making the front page gallery on the latter) as well as being one of three logos to be published in the second IHeartLogos book book. It gave me opportunity to experiment with a new style of logo design and gain new skills in the process. The welcome pack, likewise, gave me chance to experiment with some creative packaging ideas resulting in a high quality printed portfolio piece that is of great value to the client and has gained me more exposure.
Think strategically about what you turn down before dismissing low fees out of hand.
No. 4. Sometimes it doesn’t work out
I’ve had two jobs that turned out to be fairly big disappointments this year. One of which was completed but not in a way I was fully satisfied with (and that gave many headaches along the way), and the other was never completed at all – the project was mutually cancelled and taken elsewhere.
As hard as it is when these things happen, it’s important to take the positives, act in a professional and respectable manner and learn from the experiences. Admitting where you have failed is an important part of growing and the sooner you get to do so, the less of a shock it will be thereafter.
No. 3. Be active online
Twitter, Facebook, Dribbble, Behance, Logopond and many others – the online world is enormous, on the pulse and fast moving: only a fool would discount its usefulness to a small business such as mine.
Keeping up to date on every site out there is an impossible task so choose wisely what you are going to pile your time into and make sure you do it well.
Being active on a site called Creattica has let directly to several thousand pounds worth of repeat business for me from a company in America in the last 6-8 months, and Twitter helps me ‘meet’ new people every day – potential clients, real-time feedback, web traffic and maybe even collaborators (see point 8 )
My blog, particularly my Alphablog series, has also been a great tool for me. It has forced me to keep on my toes and think creatively every two weeks on a variety of subjects that I wouldn’t necessarily have researched, analysed or evaluated otherwise. Good and regular content changes are good for SEO too – hopefully the Google-bots have noticed!
No. 2. Be shameless
It might be embarrassing and feel quite uncool, but hand your business card to everyone you can! Word of mouth, friends of friends and chance encounters can often provide work, even leading to long term business relationships!
Don’t miss an opportunity to promote yourself – if you don’t, no-one else will!
No. 1. The client is always right. Kind of.
One of the jobs I mentioned in the point ‘Sometimes it won’t work out’ led to much frustration, anger even, at the way a client acted during a job. But with time and space to look back I realised that a key lesson for me to learn was that, despite the fact I don’t believe they WERE right, the client had a right to their opinion and if I couldn’t educate them and change their opinion, as the bill payer, their view was the one that counted. Sometimes you need to swallow your pride, deflate your ego, suck it up and do what they tell you. You don’t need to show the work to anyone else or even mention it – think of it as a job rather than a portfolio piece and, as long as you can honestly say you did your best, hold your head up, pay in the cheque and move on.
See my guest article ‘Compromise is King‘ on Dennis Salvatier’s blog where I go into a bit more detail about this subject. There are some excellent responses in the comments section.
I do hope you find some of these lessons helpful. Maybe you're just starting out or have been working for yourself for some time. Let me know which of these tips has been most helpful.
Have you learnt any big lessons this year? Feel free to let me know.