This is my first post in the Bravery Blogging series.
I’ve decided to write about something that has been on my mind lately, and it boils down to this: There is no shortcut.
There is no shortcut to take you from struggling freelance designer to professional. You don’t become a small business overnight, and you (in most cases) won’t be able to charge a premium for design projects when you don’t have experience under your belt.
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hours concept, that Malcolm Gladwell coined in his book the Outliers. The idea is simple: the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.
Now this is obviously an over-simplification of success, as there are so many other variables that contribute to a person’s individual success. Everyone has a very different starting point; different ethnic backgrounds, geographic factors, exposure to ideas and concepts, wealth, etc. But you can’t ever escape doing the work.
“Hard work trumps luck every time.”
– Ash Ambirge.
A lot of people will happily disagree with me on this, but I believe that as business owners, we all must “pay our dues.” I’ve been told by others that they believe this phrase is bullsh*t. How long do we need to hustle? To be abused by demanding clients, to undercharge for our work time and time again?
The short answer?
As long as it takes for you to learn what you need to learn, and to gain the experience you need to gain.
Am I saying designers need to get abused in order to gain experience? No, of course not. But gaining experience is essential for building your business. Client experience, Project Management experience, and just general life experience.
Often designers ask me how it is possible that I always have a steady stream of client inquiries, and never seem to “run dry.” In a nutshell, I’ve put in my 10,000 hours, and I’m totally willing to do whatever it takes to succeed – no excuses.
I spent my early years doing favour projects and work for trade. This involved a lot of late nights and evenings of figuring things out as I went along. I went to conferences, talked to other business owners, and mirrored those who I admired and who seemed to have it figure out. I under-promised and over-delivered. I sacrificed my social life for many years while I worked on building my business. There’s lots I wish I could go back and say to myself in my first year of business… I’d probably have recommended a few of the following:
- Find a mentor
- Find a supportive peer group
- Don’t avoid talking to someone face-to-face or on the phone
- Put aside MORE than you think you need for taxes
- Figure out a system and process for all parts of your projects
- Don’t take on clients whose first or only question is about the cost
Aaaand the list could go on.
It’s so easy to look back and say “OH, man if I only knew x/y/z 3 years ago!” But when I really think about it, I know I wouldn’t have been ready, and it wouldn’t have stuck. I needed to do the hard work and learn the tough lessons I needed to learn in order to run a more successful business. I needed to experience clients who were easy-going, rigid, awesome, uptight, inspiring, rushed, inquisitive, experienced, micro-managing, and everything in between.
I needed to under-quote on projects and get burned (many times).
I needed to work with clients that gave me a funny feeling, so I would know to trust my gut when something seems off. I needed to learn about what works in my process and what doesn’t. Every project I’ve done and every person I have worked with has shaped me into the person I am today, and I have learned incredible lessons from every single one of those experiences.
I know part of the reason I always had clients from the beginning was likely because I was under-charging – though I never realized, of course (hint: when you get every single project you ever quote on, you’re charging too little). I also never spoke up when a client was asking for more work than they were paying me for (I’m still working on this one).
If you are really struggling to find clients right now, today, here are a few things to consider:
- If you’ve got time, but no clients… consider doing some pro-bono work for a local charity that you feel strongly about. Negotiate some creative freedom, so at the very least you’re working on your portfolio
- Consider doing some work for trade with a business coach or mentor
- Is there a personal project you’ve been thinking about working on? Why not make up a project for yourself (like these crazy artists)?
- Start blogging. The more you share, the more people connect. The more you connect, the more likely you are to meet people that can benefit from your services.
- Put yourself out there. Tell all of your friends, family etc that you are looking for new clients. Make the ask.
- Can you follow up with a past client and offer them a discount on future/ongoing work?
- Check your website copy. Are you really using the right words for the right people? Do people really understand what you do, and what you’re capable of? Are you making it PAINFULLY easy for people to get in touch? Do they have a clear idea of how you work?
You can’t escape doing the work. If the work isn’t coming to you, it’s time to step up your game with a side project. Get a mentor, build your Authority Capital (another excellent/related post by Illana Burke, who started this whole #braveblogging thing), and hustle like your life depends on it. The first few years are the toughest, but I promise it gets easier.
There’s no shortcut. No magic formula. You wanna build a business that flourishes?
You’ve got to do whatever it takes.
Are you willing to do whatever it takes?
I know I am!