How I Got Started: 4 Years in Business

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Today, we're doing a little something different. Several of you have asked how I got into freelancing and since we're coming up on the 4 year mark (!!!), I thought it would be a good time to look back and share how it all started.

I enjoy reading posts like these, because it's a reminder that there is no template for online business (even though it can feel like everyone is trying to sell you one!) 

In reality, there's a million ways to go about it, and folks find success down all sorts of avenues. If you have one takeaway from this post, I hope its this: whatever you're day dreaming of: a side hustle, a full time gig, a new career...get started now.

Show up and do quality, focused work and each week you'll get closer - sometimes it feels painfully slow, and then suddenly you feel like you're taking long strides. Take the first step, and pivot as you go.

I know you might not feel ready (you never will be), that you need to sharpen your skills (you don't) or keep planning (it never goes the way you plan). The best way to learn is to stumble along and figure it out as you go!


in the shop

 
 

HOW IT ALL STARTED

After graduating college, I landed a job as graphic designer for an e-commerce company. I loved the variety of projects I worked on...Everything on the site, social media, print materials.

Eventually, I started taking on a marketing role and from there collaborated with the web developers and started learning more about UX research and testing. 

I enjoyed my job and get excited about learning new things and testing them out. I would take what I was learning at work and started applying them to a series of side projects. 

I would tell my friends about what I was up to and then one day a friend asked if I could design a gig poster for her friend's band. At the time, I happened to be visiting family out west and I think it was a magical combination of designing a fun project on a sunny afternoon out in Arizona that lit the match and suddenly I had this intense desire to start freelancing and have more flexibility and control of my schedule and life.

After I setup a website and put a portfolio together (half of it was "dummy" projects). I implemented a very simple marketing plan. I would post articles about design on my blog and share on social media channels (at the time this was mostly Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn). I also started interviewing entrepreneurs and bloggers for my site, which helped expand my "network".

Related: How to display your portfolio projects

I committed to this plan for a few weeks until I landed my first freelance job. It was totally messy, I got underpaid and was stuck in a loop of never ending revisions. But from there- each time I took on a project, I gained confidence in raising prices, I implemented better processes and kept working at honing my skills.

My business mostly grew by referrals and setting up retainer programs with clients. But I continued posting on the blog and doing interviews with people and landed clients that way too!

There were random opportunities along the way too - once, I was at some small business trade show, and I overheard a guy talking about needing a designer and just walked up and introduced myself - his company turned into one of my bigger clients that year! 

The first couple years I took on every project that came my way, I worked with lifestyle bloggers, agencies, corporate companies and small businesses. Over the years I've learned there's not necessarily a specific business for me, more like there's just personalities I really jive with. I love collaborating with people, sharing ideas, testing and iterating. 

Anywho, about 3 months into freelancing I had landed some bigger longer term jobs and decided to take a risk, and asked my employer if I could switch to part-time. Thanks to setting up those retainer clients, things just kept getting busier and another 3 months later I decided to "take the leap" full time. 

I know that makes it sound so simple, trust me it wasn't! I remember the day I put in my two weeks noticed my stomach was in knots I was like trembling at my desk all morning and so unsure of what I was doing. I made a lot of "what's the worst thing that could happen" lists and "how would I deal with it". 

There have certainly been ups and downs. I definitely don't have it all figured out, but here are some of my lessons so far!

  • Consistency is key. I know it can be hard to maintain "balance" across everything you need to be doing -  but if you can get in a rhythm, my business always does better when I'm on filling each "bucket" - client work, admin stuff, marketing, networking. 
  • Manage yo' money. I was one of those freelancers that didn't do the quarterly tax thing and got a scary surprise that first year. Invest in some sort of bookkeeping program and make sure you're paying attention to your finances each month - what you spend your time on and what gives you the best return.
  • Share SOME kind of content. You need to find ways to connect with people, and a great way is "content marketing". It can be blogging, videos, podcasts, instagram posts - whatever you like best. It's just important that you are building a platform for yourself that provides value and connects with others.
  • If you don't like how it's going, change the script! It's easy to get swept away with everything you "should" be doing. Sometimes, I'll find myself feeling disenchanted with the "online business sphere" and then I remember "oh wait! I'm steering this ship! Let's go this way instead!"
  • Experiment with strategies and stick with not only what works, but what you actually enjoy doing! 
  • Adapt! Finally, I'm going to leave you with a (transcribed-ish) quote I picked up from one of my new fave runner podcasts: "Every time I think I can’t do something, every time I think 'that’s not gonna work' - always, something great happens. Usually [you just have to] keep going, but not just bash it open, it’s being like water - find a way through."