I'm a big fan of trial and error. And boy, have I had some missteps along the way. To anyone starting out, getting ready to go bigger, or considering make a business out of a side gig or hobby...you need to hear these things. Consider me your well-seasoned big sister in business.
If you know anything about me, you won’t be shocked to hear me say that I am a planner. I’m also a perfectionist, which means I can easily spend YEARS dreaming and plotting out details before letting anybody in the world see it.
I know I'm not alone. These kinds of thoughts are so common with women who are high-achievers. Really, the only thing that changed for me was that I accepted that I may never feel totally ready. But the only way to move forward and become a true expert was to get started and figure out the lessons along the way.
I was fortunate enough that I landed a bunch of clients right away, and each experience has taught me something new about myself, the way I work best, and the direction I want my business to take in the future.
If I could go back, what would I say to myself? What lessons would I save myself from learning the hard way? I’m laying it out here today, for the benefit of anyone who might have hopes of achieving big things and is worried about getting started.
I stay at home with my kids full-time. When I first started designing for clients, I had to learn to manage that along with client needs and deadlines. I tried to go with the flow and fit it all in whenever I could. But each day was a mess, and I found myself getting completely derailed if anything unexpected happened. (A new request from a client, a sick kid, etc.)
How I work best: I need a plan in place ahead of time, and I need it clearly communicated to all parties so that we can stick to that plan.
So I mapped out what my schedule and my process needs to look like. I created a solid client process and a whole bunch of onboarding materials that I now send to new clients as soon as they hire me. I also now use Asana as a project management tool, because it allows both clients and me to see where we're at and what is needed from either of us at any moment.
It also allows for project-related conversations to take place within Asana. No more sifting through emails. Everything important is in one place, and not lost in my texts or Facebook messages or somewhere else that is easy to lose.
A beautifully simplifying work hack that I should have implemented from day one!
I actually did pretty well on this my first time around. I didn’t want there to be confusion about what was being paid for and delivered, so I did get pretty detailed in my first contract. And I’m super glad that I did, because getting specific saved me from a lot of hassle when clients inevitably did ask me to do things that were outside of what I had been paid to complete.
Having those expectations defined ahead of time gives you confidence to say, “That falls outside of the agreed scope of this particular project. If you’d like me to work on that for you, we can create an additional project for it, or my hourly rate will apply.” Because I am not doing surprise extra work for free. And neither should you.
Know your non-negotiables and communicate them.
Also, don’t assume that your clients know anything. You may think something goes without saying. But if a client isn't familiar with your line of work or standard practices, they may not have a clue that certain things are typically done or not done a certain way.
I made this mistake once, and it landed me in a three-month-long revision period. But guess what—I hadn’t spelled these things out from the beginning. I hadn’t directed the process the way I should have from the beginning.
The client isn’t the expert. You are, and it’s up to you to lead them through the whole process so you can create exactly what they need.
I don’t take a backseat in any part of my business anymore. I lay out my terms ahead of time. Clients get homework so that I’m certain we’re both on the same page with what we expect from the final result. These things are in place to protect my time and my creative integrity. They also ensure that the client is actually getting everything they're dreaming about.
If a prospective client doesn’t feel they vibe with it, I now know that it’s a clear sign we’re not a good fit for each other. No shade. I’m happy to let those people find other designers who will better suit their personalities.
DO IT. Or risk quickly burning out. I’m serious. Figure out what time you need off (for me, it’s evenings and weekends) and guard that time for yourself. You need time away. You need rest. Overcommitting, stress due to constant busyness, and lack of self-care are not cute, and they are not noble pursuits. (And I think we all need to reexamine our attitudes about being busy for the sake of being busy. It's not glamorous; it's a waste of energy.)
I have had really great clients that have been generally respectful of my time. I don't get a lot of "urgent" requests. (There is no such thing as a web design emergency. People know that...right?) Even so, there have been times when I’ve received an email at 7 pm (or even 10 pm) and I have felt pressure from myself to respond quickly. This is all my own stuff and had nothing to do with my clients. They were actually all super grateful I could help them out so quickly. But that should have been my personal time, and those clients would have understood if I'd waited to get back to them.
Now, to assuage my own guilt and the pressure I put on myself, I do spell out the hours I make myself available to clients. Sometimes I may choose to reply to an email after hours, or catch up on some work after the kids are asleep. But that’s always my call. Telling them all this upfront makes me feel better and again, more confident, about owning that time for myself.
I also took my work email off my phone—because really, anytime I’m working I’m at my computer anyway. And if I’m at the kids’ schools or out grocery shopping, I don’t want to be distracted by work emails and what I'm going to say in response.
I no longer do the whole still-working-while-not-really-working thing. My work time is my work time, and my own time is all mine. I don't feel bad about that.
Very occasionally, I will work from the couch with my kids playing next to me. Most of the time, I’ll put the toddler down for her nap and set up my preschooler with a game she can play quietly by herself. Then I go to work, and it’s time to power through my tasks the best I can while I have that time to myself.
It’s no different than if I were going to work at an office. I have all the files and notes I need in front of me. I’ve usually just eaten lunch and have a bottle of water ready, and I turn my phone on Do Not Disturb. That time is my best chance to be productive, so I need to not get distracted.
The beauty of working for myself is that I can move things around or take time off if I need to be present elsewhere. As an engaged mom and generally busy lady, that flexibility is essential for me. But most days, my afternoons are for my work. As long as I maximize that bit of time every day, I can stay on top of all my projects.
Note that I did not say hold on tight to all your thoughts and opinions forever. There are times it’s better to adapt, to be quiet and listen. It’s important to know when to take a stand and when to consider other points of view. But when you know your stuff and you know you’re on the right track, don’t let comments and “helpful suggestions” derail the magic you’re making.
Good design is what I am meant to do. And good design usually looks...natural. Effortless. But trust that a lot of thought and intentional action went into each decision.
If a client wants to make changes that don't fit the aesthetic or our goals, I'll let them know. And usually, there is something deeper behind what they're asking me for. I'm always willing to listen and consider other ways to achieve the same overall goal. But I take my work seriously and don't take any design choice lightly. You won't find me switching a brand color from blue to orange just because you asked me. #designsnob #whatever #becauseyesitreallydoesmatter
I'm willing to speak up for the things I strongly believe, and you should be, too. You are being hired for your knowledge as much as anything else...hopefully! Do what is on your heart to do. Say the hard thing, when the situation calls for it.
My growth game has been strong the last couple of years, but I am ever-evolving. I've accepted that I'm in flux, that I may never be at the level of mastery I feel I should be. But it doesn't mean you can't create some seriously gorgeous things in the meantime.
Go on, get to work, love. You've got this.