This Is My Deal :: My First 3 Years of Business
This is the first in a new series I’m jamming on, taking a bit more of a look at what it takes to run a business, how it works for me (and some friends of mine), and what I’ve learned along the way.
Last year when I sent out a survey to get some thoughts on what you want more of, this kind of 'behind the scenes' content was SO damn requested, I figured I had to get amongst it. It's also something that got me stoked to share more of too!
I don’t want to focus too much on the past with this series, but I’ve had a quite a few requests to talk a bit more about how I got to where I am now so I wanted to kick this off with a look at the first few years of my business.
To make this whole thing easier + more fun to read I’ve broken it up a little into sections —
- How Everything Started + How I Got Clients
- How I Made Money
- The Awesome Stuff
- The Failures + Not-So-Awesome Stuff
How Everything Started + How I Got Clients
My whole business pretty much started when I decided to get amongst blogging. I had a 9-5 job as a Graphic Designer, but lets just say it wasn’t exactly creatively fulfilling, so I wanted to do something on the side that would be fun for me… So I jumped online and started a blog (I can’t even remember what I called my first website to be honest).
Around this time I was getting more into social media too — mostly just Twitter and Tumblr (you know, back in the day when Tumblr was the coolest). It was through blogging and social media that I started meeting people like Rach MacDonald and Vienda Maria, both of which were pretty much my first evah legit freelance clients. I think we might have found each others blogs somehow, and we were friends before I started working with them, but the way they approached the world and their lives inspired the shit out of me and I started to realise that I could work with these amazing people 1-1, and maybe even have my own business.
Previously these kind of clients had never even crossed my mind… For some reason I thought I’d only ever work with corporates or just random creative agencies and bigger companies, but it was when I started working with small businesses in this health + wellness arena that it opened my eyes, and I realised I could use my skills as a creative to do some really cool shit with some fucking rad people who had this really different outlook on life I’d never experienced before.
So over time my client base grew, 100% through word of mouth. As far as I can remember I never paid for any advertising or any kind of promos, because I was so damn focused on just doing the work (even though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time).
But shit felt as though it started to get real when I met Jess Ainscough (through Rachel).
As some of you might already know, Jess passed away in early 2015.
Not long after me and Jess started working together, it became clearer to me that I had to leave my 9-5 job to give this self-employment thing a shot, so it was the promise of future projects with Jess that pretty much allowed me to leave my job when I did. It’s so crazy to look back on this time now and realise how big of a part Jess played in the early stages of my biz, and I’m so damn grateful that I had the chance to get to know her, and work with her.
It was also through my work with Jess that I found at least a good 80% of all of my clients I would have from that point on. It blew my mind how many people would contact me and mention that they found me through Jess, but I think she was just so damn real and kind and straight up that she attracted the coolest tribe of people.
Around those first few months of running my own show I also took on a bunch of random jobs with creative agencies around Sydney (where I was living at the time), mostly just for the money. They weren’t the most creative of jobs, but I found it pretty rad that I could get these gigs that would last for a few days, go into an office and jam with cool people, get paid fucking good money (compared to what I was getting at my 9-5 job), and then move onto the next place. You’re not locked into some crazy contract. You just come, do your thing, then leave.
So that's the basic story of how this shit got started! It's still kind of crazy to think that self-employment NEVER occurred to me until I started getting those first few clients — even though almost all of my fam does (or has had) their own business too.
I always knew that even when I was studying design — the idea of being chained to a desk in a 9-5 job did not get me stoked, but I just never knew what other options there were so I just assumed I'd have to deal with it. But NOPE! The Universe had some other goodness in store for me.
How I Made Money
As I said above, random freelance gigs with agencies were the best for making some bank. I worked with a few different agencies and had a pretty decent time. I remember one of the first jobs I ever got was with this random video company — the work was not creative at all, I was just designing some weird slides or some shit — but in 3 days I made the same amount I’d make in like 3 weeks at my old job. Thats when it really had me open my eyes and realise maybe I could do this for real, and that I was 100% in control of how much money I could make.
And then obviously I was managing my own clients at this time as well, and building up more of a client base.
But you know how it goes... When you're starting your own business and you have fuck all experience, you gotta start somewhere. My prices were pretty low in those early days as I was still gaining experience and knowledge — so although I was doing okay with client work, I was just scraping by sometimes. I remember there were a few days where I wouldn't even drive my car when it was low on petrol because my bank account had literally no money in it (until I got paid), and I was too scared I'd get stranded somewhere and be totally fucked.
But about 6 months into self-employment, living in Sydney, Australia, I made the decision to move back home to New Zealand to live with my family for a bit. I was making money in my biz, but not enough to really live on... And with most of my fam being self-employed I knew that at least I'd be around people who got it (something I didn't experience when I was living in Sydney).
The Awesome Stuff
Man... The people I met in these first few years had such a huge impact on where I am now. Both my clients and also collaborators and friends I met through the world of blogging and social media and online business. I went from not even knowing this world existed, to being thrown right into the middle of it — and I'm so bloody stoked to still be here now.
I look back on some of the projects I did in those first few years, and they're still some of my faves of all time. I was so fucking in the zone and I was pumped on the work I was doing, and it showed.
Cause duh... When you go from working a 9-5 to being 100% on your own schedule, that shit is somethin' else. It was so scary in the early days because you kinda feel like you have to be working 24/7, but you also want to get amongst LIFE because now you can spend your days however you like.
I just remember how fucking rad it felt to be able to pick up my laptop and go hang at Starbucks or the beach — and be able to call that 'work'... And now that's just life to me.
So many people still find this lifestyle so interesting and awesome, but I think there's still some big misconceptions that we have it easy, which is most definitely not the case. Living this life requires taking some big risks, and putting in the damn work (and this is something I still gotta remind myself of some days).
The Failures + not-So-Awesome Stuff
That one time I got bullied by a client, and I had to make the choice between handing over all of my working files, or hiring a lawyer and fighting it
Yeah… This was not pretty. It was literally the worst situation I’ve ever had to face in my business. It was maybe just on 3 years in, so although I'd had some experience under my belt none of it came close to this.
Here’s the short + sweet version ::
A client wanted my working files to make their own changes to some PDF workbooks.
I said no, as the contract said that working files were not part of the price (usually you have to pay a lot more to fully own all of the working files from your designer). I quoted a price for me to edit the files, or for them to buy the working files outright.
Reading the contract over it wasn’t 100% clear that this was the case, so they lost their shit and basically bullied me into handing over the files.
In the end that’s what I did — because I knew fighting them would literally suck the life out of me and cost me a fuck-ton.
The lesson :: Pick your battles. Also, get proper contracts written up. Also, sometimes people are just jerks and it's not worth your time trying to figure it out.
Not managing my money properly
In all honesty this is still something I struggle with a bit, but I have gotten a hell of a lot better over the last few years.
My biggest mistakes came with me not saving my tax money properly — which I had to screw up way too many times. I think it was around my 3rd year of business, my income had almost doubled from the previous year, I had a $10k tax bill, literally fucking nothing in my bank account, and only a few months to figure it out. I was still living with my fam at the time so all I did was work and spend not one god damn cent until I had the money to pay it. That's one way to learn ya lesson, huh?