Six things I’ve learned from a year in business

Sep 28, 2021

digital illustration of Kat Potter celebrating her first year in full time business

Read time: Ten to 12 minutes
TL; DR: You’re doing great, trust me

My wins, WTFs and wonderings after a year of running my own design business.

Most people indulge in a glass of wine or a long bubble bath after a hard day at work. Me? I wrote a resignation letter to make myself feel better.

I wasn’t even sure I was going to hand it in. I thought about it. Re-read it 100 times. Tweaked a word or two. Then decided, “F*ck it. If there’s a right time to start my own business, this is it: Smack bang in the middle of a pandemic.”

(Yeah, even my inner voice is a little sarcastic.)

And so, on that fateful day in September 2020, I strolled into part-time job at a printer for the very last time.

But despite preparing to take the entrepreneurial plunge for years (six, to be exact), I had no clue what to expect … But I knew, whatever was to come, it’d involve a whole lot of learning.

I was right.

Graphic Designer holding colourful balloons

Six lessons I’ve learned from a year in business

Lesson #1: It’s not all about the money

I mean, obviously, it’s a little bit about the money. A lady’s gotta live, and that means getting some digits in the bank. But, over the last year, I’ve learned that money shouldn’t be the main motivation for my business.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t meet my financial target this year. But. As my amazing accountant pointed out when she saw my face at tax time, the work life balance I’ve gained over the last year is PRICELESS.

For the first time ever, I’m in complete control over my schedule. I can rejig my calendar around my commitments and build in quality time with my family. And, for me, that’s worth way more than any money in the world.

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to say “no”

When you’re starting out, it’s scary to contemplate going without clients. So, naturally, you’re tempted (or, at least, I was) to say “yes” to every Doug and Daisy that comes through your virtual doors.

… This is the wrong move. Not every potential client will be the right fit for you. And working with them can cause both of you more stress and struggles than its worth.

These days, if a client approaches me with branding from a business – or style – that isn’t my niche area of expertise, I happily say, “No.” (But, y’know, a little kinder than that.) ‘Cause even if I’m not the right designer for them, I always try to be helpful, so I like to pass them on to someone who can help them better than I can.

Lesson #3: Choose to cultivate relationships

As a start-up business, you’re often told to focus all your energy on winning over new clients (and ignore anyone who isn’t ready for you). Except … sometimes you shouldn’t.

Something I’ve learned over the last year is that even though someone might not be ready to invest in design now, that doesn’t mean they’ll never be. I’ve had clients spend months stalking my stuff, and then, just when I thought they weren’t ever going to convert, they became a new client.

Which is why I’ve learned to invest in creating value for my audience – via content marketing and social media – without expecting anything in return. Yep, nothing. Not even a click. By adding value without ulterior motives, you’re not only helping other humans succeed, but you’re building a genuine relationship with your audience. And even if they might not be able to work with you, they could always refer you to someone who does need you. Consider it creative karma.

Lesson #4: Reach out to others

While I’m grateful I no longer have to deal with the pits and perils of human co-workers, there’s no doubt that running your own business can get a little lonely sometimes.

For a while, I resisted the urge to socialise and tried to revel in my newfound solitude, but it wasn’t long until I realised the truth: We need others.

That’s why I remind myself to reach out to like-minded people who inspire me. If you’re unsure where to start, have a look at business FB groups where you can learn from and help other business owners.

I’ve been a part of a few paid groups, one that’s industry specific (shout out to the DBL Squad) and others that are full of business owners just like me who are also growing their own businesses. It’s allowed me to bounce ideas off others and soak up inspiration and support when I’m feeling stuck – invaluable when you’re going it alone!

Lesson #5: Outsource what you suck at

Reluctant to hire help? I get it. At first, I thought I had to do every little thing in my business – especially the stuff I hated. It was a kind of entrepreneurial martyrdom. The less I invested in my business, the better I was meant to do.

“You’ve just started up, Kat, you can’t go blowing your budget on stuff that isn’t vital for your growth.”

But here’s the thing: You’re wasting your time, energy and money if you’re working on anything other than your area of genius.

The moment I committed to outsourcing the crap I dreaded, my work life became SO much easier. I no longer struggled to summon up motivation for the shitty tasks. Instead, I had support that allowed me to get laser focused on creating awesome designs for my clients.

So, if there’s stuff you hate, outsource it. If you’re not good at something, bring in an expert. And focus on what you do best.

Lesson #6: Don’t resist the rollercoaster

From my very first day as a small business owner, I had a clear vision in mind for what my life would look like.

… Yeah, I got it totally wrong. Instead of the stable, serene existence I envisioned, I was treated to an abundance of ups and downs. There were slow months, low months and high months that I hoped would last forever (spoiler alert: they didn’t).  

Which is why I’ve learned to track my results so I can be prepared for my quiet months and work ON my business by marketing, planning, improving my skills and book-keeping. Emotionally, I came to understand when I needed to take a break (Common signs, fyi: Can’t sleep, zero motivation, negative thinking, difficulty concentrating.)

I’m nowhere near mastering the science of the design entrepreneur life. There’s stuff I’m still working on – hey, “proper” clothes, spending less time on Instagram, getting to bed at a decent time, and dragging myself away from my desk to exercise (apparently walking to the pantry doesn’t count).

But no matter what, I’m so grateful for the things I’ve learned in the last year. I’m sure there’s lots more to come – and maybe a new update next year – but here’s hoping these six lessons help you in your path too.

You’re doing great.

Was “design” on your list of, “Pleaaaase, don’t make me DIY it”?

If so, I can help! Remember: Outsourcing anything that’s outside of your zone of genius is good news for your business (and even greater news for your productivity.)

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