6 years ago, I would’ve never thought I’d be a business owner, a homeowner and would be supporting my wife and little golden retriever all with In Transit Studios. Graphic design and website design started for me as a hobby, then led to doing some work on the side, then to more steady freelance work and finally into a legitimate business that has helped serve over 200 clients across the U.S and abroad. It’s been a wild ride so far and there have been many lessons learned, so I thought I’d expand on the top 6 lessons I’ve learned in 6 years:
1) Care about your clients
Most people care about their work, most people care about their product, most people care about their company but in 6 years, I’ve met few who truly care about their clients. I think the success I’ve had so far is largely due to the fact that I truly care about the success of my clients and I let them know that from the get go. It’s important to care about your work and your product as it will all equate to serving your client, but I believe above all else needs to be a genuine care for your customer.
In the web and graphic design business in particular, I see developers and designers focus intensely on the project itself but often overlook how the client feels, what the clients wants or think out how their work can help grow or benefit their business. The work is important, but not more important than figuring out how it’ll help your client. No matter what industry you’re in, your success will largely depend on how much you care about your customer.
So practically, what does care look like in the business world? Well for me, it’s detailed questions in the beginning of a job proposal. It’s getting to know the business, finding out their “WHY” and figuring how my services can better their company and help them succeed. It’s giving them the best possible experience possible while working with me. And one other word I try to live by is encouragement. It goes a long way. Even in the business world. There’s no better way to express care than encouragement. One nice comment about your client or their services can really add a nice human element to a work relationship.
“It’s not about how much you know, it’s about how much you care.” There are numerous iterations of this quote and albeit it may sound corny, but it’s the most truthful statement to live by if you’re wanting to grow a client base, build a successful network and to have success.
2) Be ready to adapt
Technology, no matter the industry you’re in changes faster than ever before. To have any success in business, I’ve learned that you have to be able to adapt, and quick. For me, that means I can’t get too comfortable with the tools, processes and technology I current use because I know it’ll constantly change. And in the web industry, it’s perhaps faster than any other. One reason online learning for graphic design and website building is so popular now is because by the time a technology is introduced, published, printed and applied in colleges and most traditional education, it’s often obsolete.
So don’t get too comfortable with technology, it’ll change quick. Am I the only one who feels like I’m just getting used the current iphone version I’m on when the new one drops? Aside from technologies, you have to adapt to personalities as well. Remember, business is people. And people are different. No matter how you slice it, selling a product or offering a service involves people and personalities. I’ve found that I often can’t handle one client the way I handle another. Though you don’t have to become a completely different person, you may need to adjust how you talk or approach certain people. Someone who is high energy, vibrate and loud will more than likely want to work with someone who is of a similar energy. So you may just try and match some of their mannerisms when you interact with them. Likewise, if someone is slow going, soft spoken and gentle in their gestures, it’s best to try and match their tone. If you’re loud and fast paced, it may wear them out and they probably won’t want to work with you. I’ve learned that adapting to different personalities is just as if not more important than being able to adapt to new technologies and processes.
3) Learn to say no
As a self-admitted people pleaser, I can say that this is tough and is a skill that must be practiced, especially if it’s your nature to please everyone and say YES to everything. There is much value in pleasing your customers and when you’re starting out, you can say yes to much more when life isn’t as complex but eventually, that must change.
There is a line that must be drawn between who you can afford to please as your business grows. If you try and please everyone, you’re destined to put too much on your plate, produce half-ass work or simply burn out. How do I know this? Because I’ve fallen victim to all three as some point. As business grows and life gets more complicated, saying yes to every opportunity will simply spread you too thin. I’ve found that more success = more opportunity, so it’s better to learn to say no before you make a habit of saying yes. To be clear, I’m not implying that you should say no to absolutely every opportunity, but if you find your business growing rapidly and you’re having success, you’re going going to have to choose more carefully what you say yes to. We only have 24 hours in a day and we can only do so much if we’re going to be successful at what we’re committed to and expect to have any hair left.
The way I see it, we all have 100% to give and we need to decide how we’re going to divi it up. So if you have a growing business, a family and any sort of hobbies or social life, that’ll just about take up 100% of your time. There will never be “more time,” you need to reallocate where your time is spent. It’s important to prioritize what’s important to you and once you know where you want to spend your time, opportunities will very easily fit into your “yes” or “no” category. The new modo I try to live by is that if it’s not a “heck yes!” then it’s a “no.”
4) Know your WHY
Over the past 6 years, I’ve often heard “It must be awesome owning your own business and working from home.” And it is. It truly is. But I have my days. There are times, as a business owner and web developer that my mind is running a million miles an minute, I’m exhausted when handling web code issues or client problems and I’m dealing with different personalities that challenge me in a variety of ways. There are times where I feel simply done. What get’s me through that? It’s not what I do per say, it’s WHY I do it.
Now that I have a wife, a home and a growing family, those are all factors that easily help me keep going when I feel down or frustrated, but the other big factor is the impact I feel I can have on my clients. It’s not just about creating a nice website or making good design, it’s about helping my clients businesses grow. That has been a continual pull for me. I don’t often feel like I need to push through a project, I feel like the drive to help my client is pulling me to do the best job I can. So find your why, it’ll be the thing that get’s you through the bad days, the down times and is the key to perseverance.
5) Take care of yourself
Your health (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) is the most important part of your business. All of it plays a major role in how you operate and how productive you are. The constant bombardment of email, social media, tasks, to do’s and communication in our modern day is enough to drive anyone crazy. After 6 years in the freelance life, I’ve learned the value of just slowing down, reflecting and thinking. I feel like these habits are all but lost in our modern work days and busy schedules. It will constantly be a struggle, the balance between being productive and staying or getting healthy, but it’s one that we must constantly challenge ourselves to work on. Here are a few things that I try to do regularly that have helped me stay balanced and sane after 6 years of growing a business:
• Enjoy the small stuff – as is in life, when business gets busier and more complex, the little things that used to make us happy wear off. I used to love learning new tricks about web stuff and graphic design. New technologies or little tips and tricks would fire me up. I lost that for a while, but I’ve tried more recently to let the kid in me out again. I try to enjoy the small stuff as if I was just starting up again.
• Celebrate and reflect – every time we launch a new website or big project, my wife and I will celebrate by going to dinner or doing something to reflect on how it went and to cheers to a job well done. All my projects overlap so it can be very easy to get one done and be consumed with something else that’s on my plate. But celebrating is important, it brings a sense of satisfaction and closure after the hard work of a project is complete.
• Exercise – our bodies were simply not meant to sit in a chair and stare at a screen for over 8 hours a day. In our digital age, it’s more important than ever to get moving. If we’re out of shape, it will have a detrimental affect to our biz life. The better you feel, the more productive and more creative you are. I’m continuing to learn the value of staying active and setting a routine of some sort of fitness. Walking, running, sports, whatever you can do to stay healthy will lead you to being a better you for your clients.
• Take a time out – get off social media and email for a bit. Sounds funny to even have to say that, but technology addiction is a real issue these days. We all have a certain amount of cognitive load and I know that those 2 things in particular will leave you feeling drained and exhausted. It’s easier said than done, but I’ve tried to make a habit or replacing those every once in a while with reading or doing something other than constantly being glued to a screen. Particularly in the morning, checking email and social media first thing is a great way to zap creativity and take your mind from 0-60 without giving it time to warm up. A good morning routine can really set you up for success during the day and can keep you from feeling burnt out by 2pm.
6) Plan for detours and delays
What I mean by this is that when you plan out a project, there are going to be detours, delays and bumps along the way. Almost every project I’ve ever worked on has either grown legs, presented some unforeseen problems or ended up being a little more complex than originally thought. Now, I plan for that and nothing much surprises me. Whereas in the beginning of my career, I was caught completely off guard when things didn’t go according to plan. Planning a project out in detail is important and laying out all of the deliverables/processes in a contract is a good way to keep the project running as smoothly as possible, but inevitably, no matter what industry you’re in, a project will more than likely end up being more than what you originally bargained for.
Ever worked on your car thinking it should just take 1/2 an hour? Or ever worked on a house project that “shouldn’t take too long?” I’m sure I’m not alone. So in order to save yourself some strive, unneeded stress and frustration, plan for detours or some bumps along the way. I do this by often giving myself a little buffer room or extra time allotted in my proposals. I will also take in to consideration when the project should go live and look at what else I have going on during that time. Though many of my projects take 2-3 weeks, some can take 2-3 months depending on all the variables involved. I try to account for that to avoid surprises.
Now, when something happens that I wasn’t planning on, or the project grows legs, I’m not surprised, I’m prepared. Josh 6 years ago would’ve appreciated being warned and advised about this and may have a few more hairs left 🙂
Well I hope these lessons have proved valuable to you! Again, I feel like no matter what industry you’re in, these can be applied. It’s been a wild first 6 years and I’m sure I’ll learn many more important lessons in the next 6. As always, if you enjoyed reading this – I’d love to hear some feedback! You can zip me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheers!