“How did you get your business off the ground?”
It’s a question I get asked pretty regularly by creatives who are in the beginning stages of starting their business.
They want to know how I grew my audience, how I was able to book clients, and how I made the leap to full-time.
I have to smile as I attempt to answer it, because the irony of it all is that I never set out to start a business.
As a matter of fact, I swore up and down that I would never, ever own a business, because I grew up seeing firsthand all the things a business required.
(For those of you who’ve heard this story, you haven’t heard the whole story. Keep reading.)
My dad owned a gym in our small hometown from the time I was 5, and I couldn’t understand why he would put so much extra time and effort into that facility that smelled like sweat and chlorine.
Or why he would spend the weekend cleaning bathrooms and checking the levels in the pool when he could be playing golf or watching a football game.
Or why he would choose to put up with frustrating members who found any and everything to complain about (like the brand of toilet paper in the restroom).
I didn’t want any part of that.
Instead, I chose to pursue my lifelong love of design.
While Dad was giving gym tours and making protein shakes, I sat in his office for hours on end with blank sheets of paper and a jumbo pack of crayons, perfectly content.
I signed up for every art class, art show, and after school art program I could get my hands on. Take a look at this gem:
Untapped, raw talent (kidding).
By my senior year of high school, everyone knew that I would go on to get a degree in visual arts and eventually pursue a career in graphic design.
And that’s exactly what happened.
I landed a graphic design position at a startup in my college town right after graduation in 2012. In a struggling economy where jobs were hard to come by – especially as a new graduate – the job seemed ideal. I had a good salary, great benefits, and the potential for upward mobility.
But I hated it.
The projects were monotonous. There was no direction. And the brand I worked with day in and day out was orange, techy, and masculine (and if you’re familiar with my colorful, feminine design aesthetic, you know that’s a stretch).
My boss was also a pro at running everyone off. Over half the people that worked there when I started weren’t working there by the time I left.
It reached a head when he chewed me out in front of the entire company about one of my designs for a presentation. I’m not normally a crier, but I cried everyday on my way to and from work for at least 3 months.
It was bad.
My love of design was quickly fading due to the frustration of my day job.
So I created a little outlet for myself on the side.
I designed wedding invitations for friends, I started an Etsy shop selling prints, and I took any and every design request that came my way.
(No judgement, guys.)
For the first time in a long time, I felt a renewed sense of hope. A design career didn’t have to look like my current 9-5.
And that’s when I had an epiphany.
Working as a designer for another company sucked the creativity right out of any work I was doing. I was always being told how, when, and where to design.
Freelancing, on the other hand, allowed me to express my own creativity, design on my own terms, and work with clients who appreciated my work.
No more crying on the way to work. No more directionless projects that bored me to tears.
Freelancing meant total freedom and endless possibilities.
That’s why my dad started his gym. Running his own business allowed him to pursue his passion – helping people get healthy – on his own terms.
For the first time ever, I began to dream about starting a business, too.
But there was one HUGE problem standing in my way.
I knew how to design, but I had no clue how to run a business. (Design school failed me in that area.)
I didn’t know how to grow a following and attract clients.
I didn’t know which services to offer.
I didn’t know how much to charge.
I didn’t know how to differentiate myself from other designers.
I didn’t know how to manage multiple projects at once.
I didn’t know how much to set aside for taxes.
I didn’t know how to market my services…
…and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
I wanted total creative freedom but I had no idea how to make a full-time income off of my love of design.
Entrepreneurship was my biggest dream, but my greatest fear.
I was petrified of not bringing in enough money, falling flat on my face, and being stuck in my awful day job for the rest of my career.
I wish I could tell you that I kicked those fears to the curb, quickly found success, and high-tailed it out of that awful 9-5 job a month or two later, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.
In fact, the opposite happened. Every single one of those fears came true.
I didn’t bring in enough money.
I did fall flat on my face.
And I was inches away from throwing in the towel and giving up on freelancing altogether.
I was offering all kinds of different services. I was charging pennies for my work. And I thought that if people just got to know me, I would land more clients.
I was trying to mimic what others in the design industry were doing, and I was failing miserably.
Oh, and did I mention that I decided to start Elle & Company when my husband started seminary full-time and I became the sole provider for our family of 2? I think I left out that tiny detail.
A lot was on the line here. I could either give up and go back to a regular 9-5 desk job, or I could ditch my current approach and make wiser business decisions.
I’m a tad stubborn, so Option #1 wasn’t really an option.
I had enough passion to start a business; now I needed strategy to keep it going.
So I looked outside of the design industry, studied the strategies of other successful entrepreneurs, and put my own spin on them.
I discovered content marketing and saw an amazing opportunity to attract and build trust with potential clients (other creative business owners in need of a brand and website) by the content I shared on my blog.
Instead of treating social media like a popularity contest, I started viewing Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as funnels that could drive traffic back to my website.
And rather than follow the industry standard and book multiple clients at a time, I came up with my own 2-week process and worked with one client at a time.
I was working 60+ hour weeks, sharing in-depth blog posts every weekday, and learning a lot by trial and error, but I was gaining momentum.
Within 6 months, my blog following grew to nearly 50,000 unique blog visitors a month.
Within 9 months, I completely booked out my client calendar for over a year in advance.
And within 1 year, I had 250+ prospective clients on a waiting list for my design work.
And while it all stemmed from my love of design, it was during this time that I developed a passion for helping and teaching other designers and creatives start, launch, and grow their businesses, too.
So while I continued to offer brand design, I made it my mission to transparently share every strategy and process that worked for me on the Elle & Company blog.
Fast forward 2 years, and this business continues to evolve and grow in ways I never would have expected.
I do less design work these days, but I fill my time teaching online (and in-person) classes, hosting free weekly webinars, adding new templates and workbooks to my online Library, and coaching.
I’ve also been blessed to bring 2 amazing part-time assistants on board.
While there continue to be challenges and I’m constantly learning and adapting to this crazy business world, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
It’s incredibly rewarding to build something out of nothing and see the impact it can have on other people.
I’m so grateful I went back on that promise to never start a business.
What’s your story? What fears do you have about starting and growing your business? What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned along the way?