Recently, I finished a book that completely changed my views on running a creative business. It was written back in the 1980s, but the content is more relevant and inspiring than ever. I frantically filled two notebooks full of ideas, and in the midst of dreaming and reimagining the biggest pain points in our studio, I regained my passion for creative entrepreneurship.
In the days and weeks that followed, I’ve looked through every nook and cranny of our studio to find out where we can improve. I’ve gone through our more difficult client projects to see how we could have avoided miscommunication. I’ve gone through our services to see if there is anything that our clients don’t find valuable, or if there’s anything that we need to add. I’ve thought through how our studio can best support our dream clients in a longer, lasting way.
The biggest lesson I learned reading The E-Myth Revisited is the importance of acting like the company you hope to become.
It seems so simple, but honestly I’d never considered it that way. And if we’re being really honest, I didn’t know what that company looked like. I had the hardest time figuring out what my 3 year, or even 6 month, goal was. I didn’t know how much I wanted our studio to make, how many people I wanted to work with, or the kind of greater impact I hoped to have. And for awhile it was ok because I knew I was a good designer and could always find work to pay the bills. But recently, it hasn’t been enough. I was losing my initial passion for our studio and motivation to keep putting in the time day after day. And even worse, it was almost impossible to say no to good opportunities. But too many good opportunities becomes a bad situation.
That’s why things are changing.
Right now, it feels like the beginning again as I rethink our process from the inside out. My love of branding is still there. Just sitting down to write about it has sparked so much inspiration for how I can translate my passion in every single thing I do. I love this feeling! The beginning is always the best part - even when it’s stressful and unknown. Even when the growing pains are a little uncomfortable. There’s a lot of excitement and passion for making great things happen. And it’s shown me how important it is to find this legitimacy in the beginning. Even though we’re technically a few years into the game, there are still outlets that we’re experimenting with as total beginners.
So today I want to share with you four ways to act like a killer brand from day one - how to start attracting ideal clients, land profitable projects, and launch into your dream future. I’ve created a worksheet to help you find clarity in your own start-up as I share what I’ve learned.
Charge Your True Value
So often, creatives who are just starting out charge a price much lower than the value of what they’re offering.
The mindset makes sense - charge low enough to land some initial projects and build your portfolio so that you can charge what you’re REALLY worth. But here’s why that doesn’t work:
First - just because you don’t have experience running your own creative business doesn’t mean your value starts at zero. Think about it - all of the experiences you’ve had along the way building up your skill is just the credibility you need to be able to do it for someone else. Even if you’ve never run a business - you have (hopefully) had some experience doing your craft. You may not be at the level as those you want to compete with for work, but you shouldn’t undersell yourself.
Every story is different, but I’d like to propose a new way of thinking about pricing:
Go ahead and charge what your services are truly worth. And yes, it will be a lower price point than your more experienced competitors because process matters, but it should at least be comparable. You will work longer hours for every project in the beginning, but you won’t be able to run your business for very long at a financial deficit. Charge what you need to sustain yourself and your business because pennies just aren’t going to cut it. And then do strategic trades.
There are a few reasons why charging too low can be detrimental to your brand:
It tells your client or customer that they are receiving a lower quality product.
You don’t want to accidentally communicate to your brand new client that they shouldn’t find value in your creative work. You don’t want to set the precedent that you shouldn’t be taken seriously, or are a cheap alternative. It will start a frustrating relationship where you always put in more work than you will ever be acknowledged for. But on this note, I will say - if you decide to charge an hourly rate, be ruthlessly efficient with your time.
It prices you out of your ideal client or customer.
Yep, you heard me right. You’ll find that you can repel the very people you want to work with by charging too LOW. They will immediately categorize you as someone who isn’t taking their product seriously or doesn’t have the skill level to get the job done.
If you absolutely cannot charge what you need to make in a month at the beginning, then start diversifying your revenue immediately. Can you sell digital products or stock photos?
Second - I encourage you to only offer to do trades with TRULY DREAMY CLIENTS. Not the lady who used to live in your old neighborhood, or the obligatory family friend. Instead, seek out the kind of project you can’t believe actually exist, or the person you’ve admired for ages and would pinch yourself to work with. What if you did a personal project as if you were your own dream client? Go after your own trade opportunities instead of just waiting for them to come to you. Offer collaborations with those you admire online! These projects will build a portfolio you are proud of and give you experiences that fuel your inspiration.
Here’s how I plan to do this: since we’ve been in business for awhile, our prices aren’t going to change very much. However, I’m excited to explore new branches of our studio and different ways we can serve the business owners we work with. There’s nothing worse than handing over a brand we are so proud of and then just wishing our client luck along the way. There are so many other ways to continue to work together in different ways, and I’m excited to explore them! I'm also going to be looking for awesome opportunities to test out our new products and ideas on the kind of people we really want to use them. It's a win-win and will help us know if we're hitting the mark!
Let Your Passion Shine
Oh man, have you ever come across a brand that just feels dry?
In the beginning, especially when you are just starting out - let your passion for your work shine in everything you do. Talk excitedly about it online. Look for ways to learn more about your line of business. Seek out others who are doing the same thing. Ask people what they want to see in your services. Show behind the scenes of making your product.
You are a start-up business. You are blazing the trail of the unknown adventure. You are in control of your time and taking ownership of your future. You are doing what you LOVE - each and every day.
If that isn’t enough to light your soul on fire - what is it going to take? That’s the dream! The rest of business is just finding how to do that thing longer. It’s just about finding the people who are going to be just as amped as you are over what you’re creating.
But seriously - have fun from the beginning. If you don’t enjoy it, why would your customers? If you don’t find joy and enthusiasm in your work, it’s just going to feel dry. If those same customers can’t see the sparkle in your eye when you talk about your business (or the exclamation points that are just dying to come at the end of every sentence in your email) then you’re going to lose them in the sale. They won’t see the beauty of your brand. They will merely be a customer, and not a fan.
Here’s how I plan to do this: we’re first taking a look at our whole process to see how we can have more fun in everything we do. We’re going to create enough margin in our schedule to create for the sake of creativity. I’m excited to invest a larger chunk of time in creating awesome content for this blog. It’s been such a creative outlet for me that I want to give it more time and attention!
I want to urge you to shift your perspective on relationships when you’re starting your business. At this point - there are two main categories that people will begin to fall into: your freelance friends and your personal life friends. And the two can often mix, which is lovely.
Let’s first talk about freelance friends.
The essential ingredient of a successful startup is a strong network. You need people, and especially people who are interested in your business, in order to grow. You need those connections, referrals, and hopeful clients. You need friends in your industry who will testify to your talent (and also support you when the journey is hard.)
I would encourage you to see the business playing field like the lunch room table - you just never know what amazing hidden gems are sitting by themselves, away from the popular kids. Look at it this way - if you only aim to get a seat with the cool girls, you’re going to constantly be changing yourself, signing up for things you don’t want to do, and saying the right things in order to fit in. You’ll end up merely blending into the crowd instead of standing out and shining on your own. Plus, it can be hard to develop sincere, strong relationships that way.
Instead, reach out to that quiet person in the corner who’s just doing her own thing, and doing it well. Befriend those who have similar interests or want to work with a similar type of person. Attend a workshop or conference, go to a calligraphy class, join an online course and get involved in the community - reach out and don’t underestimate the potential of an unknown person. They may just open up a world you weren’t aware existed!
And then there are the personal friends.
Those friends who have been by your side as you started dreaming about your big idea. Those who encouraged you to quit your job, start your Etsy shop or go after a dream collaboration. DO NOT FORGET THESE FRIENDS.
Do not get sucked into the buzz of a new business. Don’t neglect the friends who have been there from the beginning. They may not understand the new freelance jargon you’re learning, but they do understand YOU. And they are crucial in helping you to maintain perspective and your sense of self as you explore your ideas. Make time for them, and nurture those relationships first. I can’t tell you how necessary it is to be disciplined about this, and how tempting it will be to rely on the security of old friends when you’re so excited about the new ones you are making. Your friends deserve to keep your friendship even when your dreams are coming true.
Here’s how I plan to do this: starting this fall, we’re going to start hosting Work Sesh in our studio! I’ve come to love and value my freelance friends so much (with my business bestie becoming my business partner!) and I want more women in our community to get the chance to find that kind of support. I’m also dedicating certain evenings to spend with friends outside of my business, doing cool things together and showing up for the things that matter. No more “busy days” that keep me from enjoying the truly important things in life.
Refine Your Product
And finally, let me tell you the story of a restaurant that had much bigger dreams than their humble beginnings.
Chik-fil-A started as a humble diner called Dwarf Grill in Atlanta in 1946. Eighteen years later, after testing hundreds of recipes, the Original Chicken Sandwich was created - with merely a chicken breast and two pickles on a toasted butter bun.
This sounds like a simple enough, easy-to-create product. However, notice that they didn’t settle for the first iteration or even the twentieth. They tested hundreds of options over EIGHTEEN YEARS. And the end result is a simple sandwich that continues to have household recognition fifty-three years later.
I think that is fascinating.
This company grew so slowly, but out of that slow growth came a powerful empire. They focused on making one really great product and let things grow from there.
I know it’s tempting to see opportunity all around you. And sometimes you have to do what it takes to keep the lights on. But I urge you to make your one great product your pet project. Be in the practice of analyzing how it could be better, where you can improve, and if you’re really giving your customer what they need. Are you being essential with your offer or adding in a lot of fluff just to make it sound better? Are you just walking in a role that the market has created, or are you being innovative with your services?
Here’s how I plan to do this: This month I’ve been taking a fine tooth comb to our services and refining everything. Nothing is getting by without standing up to the test of our studio philosophy. If it doesn’t prove itself to be essential, it’s getting the cut. We’re in the business of less but better, of intentional white space instead of cluttering up our schedules. We know we’ll be a better design team and a better business because of it
After working with so many people who are also starting creative businesses, I see how vital the first year is to setting the tone for your business. The first year will blindside you with all of the things you don’t know. There have been so many times I’ve sat in a kickoff meeting and wanted to scream,
“You don’t know what you don’t know! You have not figured this out! You have so much to learn!!”
And that initial spark, it’s shifted over time. My business today looks nothing like I thought it would when I started. Some dreams I had to lay by the roadside when I found they were not realistic, and other ideas have replaced them once I realized what was possible. It’s an amazing, incredible, unbelievably fulfilling journey that is reimagined constantly.
The point is to start taking yourself seriously today. Not tomorrow when you’ve got your first project under your belt, or two years from now when you begin to find your groove. It doesn’t matter how small the project or the audience. Start bringing your A-game the minute you say ‘yes.’
And then come back and act like a start-up again from time to time. Ask yourself those questions and see if you’re living up to the standard you set for yourself.