What I learned my first year in business

17 Jun What I learned my first year in business

This is crazy to say, but I’ve officially been in business for a year!! I still don’t see how that’s possible- it feels like just yesterday I left my full time job to strike off on my own. I wanted to write this blog post to share all of the things that I’ve learned my first year in business. I have many friends and followers that have have expressed interest in figuring out how I made the leap and made it it work. Today I’ll share that with you!

Are you wondering how to actually make the leap and cut the cord? First, a little background to how I got to where I am today. Since graduating from college, I’ve worked a long line of jobs that weren’t the right fit for me and I’ve had some pretty terrible bosses. I worked for one company after moving to Raleigh that I loved, and then things turned bad after the company restructured and left a lot of us employees, who felt like we were a family more than a company, broken hearted. I began to realize when I was job searching that I was never going to find the right job for me because it didn’t exist. I had to make it. I wanted to make wedding invitations and let my creativity run wild- that’s where my passion was. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of companies hiring for that. I didn’t plan on starting to freelance and I did no marketing, but people kept asking me if I could do invitations for them because they heard from a friend I was a great designer or if I could do logos and websites for them, because they were starting their own company and really liked my work. I decided I would take these clients, and someday, when the time was right, and I no longer had enough time in the day to do my freelance work and work full-time, I would make the leap.

Be patient, because the time does come. Those days of working full-time, then coming home and working until 2 in the morning to meet a deadline, and then waking up at 6 a.m. to be back to your full-time job will be worth it. Want to know the real secret? For many (or most!) people, the timing will never be right. But, if you’re passionate enough, you’ve built a good support system, and you can pay your necessary bills to survive, you make it work. You won’t be right, but you will be happy.

For me, the time came when I finally got all the cards to stack right. It took patience, but the “right” time finally presented itself. I was lucky enough to have a husband with a great job with great benefits, and a wonderful former boss at Duke that made a job for me where I could work as many hours a week as I wanted and offered support and flexibility so I knew I would have at least some steady source of income.

Did I mention I also hated the job I was at? That makes things a lot easier for making the leap!

Ok, so I did it. I made the leap! And what did I learn?


  1. You still won’t have enough time- My most naive assumption when I quit my full time job was that I would have all this free time to do what I wanted! WRONG! Somehow..someway..your time quickly disappears. Time flies when your having fun! The thing I learned the most was to set a schedule for myself, use ToDoIst so I can track what I really need to do vs. spending hours on something that might not be the best use of time. That way, when Friday sneaks up on me, I know I can feel like I’ve accomplished what I need to rather than saying “what did I even spend all my time working on this week?!”
  2. What you think you know, you don’t- I had a decent amount of experience freelancing as far as I was concerned when I left to start my own business and thought I had learned most of what I needed to know and made the mistakes I had to get out of the way as a newbie. I was wrong! You can prepare as much as you want for the leap, but no matter how much you prepare, nothing can truly prepare you for what owning your own business will really be like! There were lessons I learned that I never even knew I needed to know, and some things were a lot harder than I thought they would be. So my advice to you if you’re thinking of taking the leap- learn everything you possibly can while working at your full time job and just know going into your first year of business that there will be many, many more lessons that you’ll learn (some the hard way!) The way you think you’re going to run your business will change the first year, so be open to change. Embrace it, grow, flourish. It’s a good thing!
  3. Two Years- kind of in sync with my last point, I discovered this past year that your first year in business is really about learning and growing (sometimes in directions you never anticipated). Every day, you’re learning something new and trying to adapt to make your business better for your clients and customers. I realized recently, after listening to podcasts and speaking with other business owners, that it really takes two years to truly establish your business and get into the swing of things. Based on how quickly the first year went, I’m sure I’ll be doing a blog post at the two year mark feeling like time just flew by!
  4. The Shotgun approach may not be the best– there’s different theories on how you should start out when opening a business. Some people say that you should just try a bunch of things, and see what sticks, and other like to plan everything down to the tiniest, smallest detail and won’t launch until everything is 100% researched and thought through. I wholeheartedly jumped into the shotgun approach when I kind of just put a whole bunch of things out there in hopes of hitting on something that would work. My greatest example of why this approach may not be the best was through my experience with the Visual Art Exchange (VAE) Launch Program. The Launch program has been such a wonderful experience and I have learned A LOT through it (to say the least)! The Launch Program was my first step into the retail world, and as I discovered, retail is a whole different animal! I came in with a bizarre mix of items I wanted to sell, from candles to mason jar soap pumps to cards and fill-in invitations. As the program progressed, it became apparent that some of my items were selling, and some weren’t. Customers were confused by my brand, Autumn Glow Design, because I had no real brand consistency or style when I tried fitting the brand into a retail market. I was having a full on identity crisis in the retail world! The good news? I learned! I’ve officially ended up forming a completely different brand, Chocolate Chippy, that will offer witty & “waggish” treasures for animal lovers.  How cool is that? So, in closing, the shotgun approach may not be the best, but in my opinion, neither is the over-planned, rigid approach. I think somewhere that falls in the middle of the two would be a good place to aim for.
  5. The 80/20 Rule- Check out this blog post by Yaro Starak. Summarized, the 80/20 rule means that 80 percent of your outcomes come from 20 percent of your inputs. The important thing to understand is that in your life there are certain activities you do (your 20 percent) that account for the majority (your 80 percent) of your happiness and outputs. The thing you start to realize when you own your own business is that your time really is money. When I first started out, I was producing all of my invitations in house. I would spend hours printing and cutting and trimming invitations. When I sat down and thought about the time I was investing in these projects, it was quickly apparent that spending hours doing this was not the best use of my time or money. I found a good local printer to partner with, and I let them do what they do best, so I can get back to doing what I do best!
  6. Recognize your weaknesses. Work on them! When you work for yourself and you’re the only one producing work for your company, your weaknesses will become more apparent then ever. The best thing you can do is to recognize them and face them head on. If you ignore them, they only create huge headaches in the future. For me, I’m terrible at organizing. I’ve been working on it for years. It became a problem when my email inbox spiraled out of control and I started spending more time looking for supplies when producing invitations than I did actually working on producing the invitations. It was slightly comical when I got my Timehop notification on New Years and my timehop for the past 5 years were posts about my New Year’s resolution to “finally get organized!” This was the year that, damnit, I was going to do it!! Annnnnd….. I am? I listened to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up while organizing my office and it made a huge impact on my environment. I also took a Skillshare class, Get Stuff Done Like A Boss: Design Your Workflow and Double Your Productivity in 21 Days, that really helped me!
  7. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just because you fail doesn’t make you a failure. One thing I’ve noticed by talking to a lot of other designers and business owners is that they’re hard on themselves! It’s so easy to get down when you feel like you could have done something better or you could be better or you should be as good as that guy and have as many followers as them. You’re new at this! Stop being so hard on yourself! It’s easy to get discouraged, but don’t let those bad thoughts in. At Creative South this year, Jen Mussari shared that insight about failure. This is an important lesson because each and everyone of us has failed, and it’s so easy to just say “I suck at life” and take it so devastatingly hard and look at yourself as a complete failure. One thing I need to constantly remind myself of is if I have failures, that it doesn’t mean I’m not talented, it doesn’t mean I suck at life, it doesn’t mean I’m a failure- it just means I failed. Simple as that. We must learn and move on and remember we’re here for a reason.
  8. Being your own boss is great! Sometimes. Being your own boss is awesome! I can work strange hours if I want to, I don’t have this guy hovering over my cubicle and annoying the crap out of me. I get to hang out with my dog all day and work outside on my deck if I want to! But honestly…some days it’s hard! You need to be strict with yourself, stay disciplined, be your own project manager, set your own goals and your own deadlines and your own initiatives. You have to get yourself out of your super comfy bed in the morning and get to work. Being your own boss is amazing, but you still need to get sh*t done!
  9. Network! Find a community! When I tell people I work from home, they often say they don’t think they could ever be trapped at home all day every day without going crazy. The funny thing was, I never felt like I was trapped at home. The reason for this is that I have such a great network of people that keep me busy that I feel like I have coworkers and a community. Being the Communications Director for AIGA Raleigh keeps me plenty busy- usually with two or three meetings outside of my house a week. It’s great to be surrounded by other designers, all who share the same passion I do for design.
  10. Constantly be learning and inspired. This kind of goes along with networking and finding a community. When you own your own business, you have to constantly be learning and stay inspired so you can continue to grow in a healthy way. Some of this inspiration comes from being around others in your community. Just get out there, talk to people, learn new skills and new things. It doesn’t hurt. Some of the things I did this year that helped the most was my involvement in AIGA. Just attending meetings and Dine & Draws and I had the honor of attending the AIGA Leadership Retreat. I also went to Creative South with a great group of AIGAers and friends that was an amazing experience! I went to the Ignite Conference.  I read some books, such as The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion. I listen to some great podcasts, such as Hack The Entrepreneur, The Fresh Rag Show, and the Deeply Graphic Designcast. Just keep you eyes open for opportunities and don’t be afraid to stay open and learn new things.
  11. HAVE FUN! This is supposed to be fun! We’re getting paid to do what we love! How many people can say that?! I have to say, the past year I have been the happiest I’ve been since I joined the corporate world. It was kind of crazy when I realized that I could actually be myself. I can wear my rainbows and pajamas all day if I want (although I do get dressed in halfway decent clothes when I go out in public 😉 I can have my piercings back in my ears. I DON’T HAVE TO SIT IN A CUBICLE! I get to design beautiful wedding invitations and I get paid to do it, how amazing is that? You may not be rich the first few years in business, but I swear, when you’re doing what you love, you learn to do without some of the things you used to spend money on, and honestly? Most likely you won’t even miss them.


In closing, THANK YOU to all my family and friends who have supported me and offered me encouragement. Thank you to my AIGA family, who welcomed me with open arms and support. I wouldn’t be here today without you! And especially thanks to my husband Tom who has been more supportive of me then I ever could have hoped for. I’m actually working on developing a course for AIGA now for people interested in starting their own creative business so stay tuned!