Freelance Life: A Peek Into The First Two Months Of Relaunching My Business
This isn’t a “10 Steps To Starting Your Freelance Business” or “How To Make $10,000 In Your First Three Months Of Freelancing” kind of post. It’s not even a “3 Things To Avoid When Starting Your Business” kind of post.
Nope. This is just an incredibly transparent look into EVERYTHING that went into my business in the first two months of getting it up and running (again): my struggles, strategies, successes, reflections and goals moving forward.
I’m not here to tell you how to do anything. But I do want to share what all I’ve been pouring into my business if there’s a chance it will help you in even the smallest way.
This post is divided into five sections in case you want to skip around to what’s relevant for you: (1) client work + revenue streams, (2) social media + content marketing, (3) tools + apps I’m using (or trying out), (4) collaborations, outreach + community, and (5) miscellaneous. Then I’ll conclude with my final thoughts.
I'll keep that same 5 section break down each month. This one will be MUCH longer, but it's because I want to take a little more time to lay out the foundation for you, plus it recounts the first two months instead of just one.
To briefly set the stage: I started designing back in early 2012 while running an incredibly scattered design + lifestyle blog (under the same name, My Billie Design Studio). I shared sewing tutorials, Photoshop tutorials, drink and food recipes, portfolio work, photos of my dog and boyfriend and about a million other things. I sold pre-made Blogger templates in addition to custom designs and was in the process of opening up a shop to sell clothes I didn’t want anymore. I was all over the place!
Before shutting my blog and website down in late 2013 (because of burnout), I had managed to attract the tiniest followings on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. With the exception of past experience and probably too many ideas, those followings were all I started with in March 2016.
So. Are you ready for an ultimate behind the scenes peek of how I’m resurrecting my design business from the dead?
01 | CLIENT WORK + REVENUE STREAMS
In the middle of trying to perfect my website, having a slight breakdown about social media strategy/email lists and wondering why “free, value-driven” webinars were really only there so people could pitch their product at the end (and what that meant for my business model), I totally forgot that client work needed to be my #1 priority.
That’s what I was already good at. That’s what I knew I could leverage. That’s what was going to pay the bills.
After a few aimless weeks I was able to shake off the distractions and I felt a lot better about refocusing my efforts. I really only had one new client during this time so I was able to put a lot of attention into that project (which was much-needed, because structuring your day when you work for yourself ended up being quite the challenge for me).
Once I took the pressure off of myself to start implementing a bunch of other crazy things in my business, the ideas and path I should take actually started coming naturally.
This was when I started brainstorming and outlining a super cool course (with the help of a workbook + videos by Regina, of course)! It’s still only in the outline stage, but I’m going to let it stay there until June probably, as I’ve got too many other exciting things I’m working on in May! You know, like finally getting around to setting up my business bank account.
By the way, that links to a tutorial on creating a short, miniature free course - but I tend to go balls to the wall and turned it into a full-blown course!
Okay, I really do need to set up my business bank account in May. But the real project I’m working on is an extensive and genuinely helpful resource library for creative entrepreneurs, which is an endeavor I’m calling The Vault (launching at the end of the week!).
I mulled over opt-ins and email marketing plans and just got really overwhelmed with how other people were managing it, so I decided to have all of my opt-ins feed into one place. Maybe I’ll have an opt-in for every blog post I write, or maybe not.
But this is how it will work: if you opt into it, you automatically get access to everything that’s ever been put into The Vault, plus anything that will ever be added to it. I’ll be updating it weekly to include workbooks, guides, resources, checklists, brainstorming sheets and much more (including design-related extras) - all relevant to creative entrepreneurs trying to set up, run and manage their business.
I’m pretty stoked about this project!
(Side note: the Vault is now live! Sign up now and get a bonus 16-page workbook to help you brand (or rebrand) your business!)
02: SOCIAL MEDIA + CONTENT STRATEGY
I really tried to hone in my focus on the kind of content I want to be delivering. It can be SO overwhelming to start out. You’ve got blogging and a million social media platforms out there, not to mention the big emphasis everyone puts on your email list. Plus you have to test a million different things and you have SO many ideas, but they’re all over the place. As the first month went on I gained more and more clarity on how I want to move forward, and having that clear direction has given me more peace than anything else in my business.
Oy. As a blogger I’m not supposed to admit this, but writing is SO hard for me! I’m still struggling with how to incorporate it in a more effective way, but I know I’ll get there. I’ve noticed that I start getting a little more motivated and inspired when I see other designers talking about their blogging process, so I’m going to try to harness that motivation any way I can, even if it means watching that freaking video every week on the days I set aside for writing blog posts.
I decided early on that this is the main social media platform I wanted to be on.
General thoughts + strategy: I opted out of turning it into just a business account and thought WAY too much about visual strategy. I wanted to post graphic design stuff in a way that non-design people who were already following me could appreciate, but I also knew the crowd I wanted to start drawing in.
I really wanted to figure out a way to bridge the two (I’m just stubborn like that), so I decided to make my post captions more about life and reflections on being a creative person in general, which I knew would resonate with my friends who were already following me and the creative entrepreneurs I wanted to attract.
Coming up with my visual strategy took the longest time ever, but I eventually decided to go a super simple route by alternating blocks of color with blocks that are predominantly white. To begin with, I’m also challenging myself to curate 3x3 squares in certain color schemes (example here). I’ve done it with pink and green so far and will probably to 4-5 more colors before moving to just color/white/color/white/color. It’s been fun to stretch myself this way!
More strategy: I did a lot of research on hashtags and am focusing a lot on engagement. I’m also using Iconosquare Pro and scheduling my posts with the Later app.
Numbers: My base count of followers was 566, so I’ve grown my IG following by almost 10% in just 6 short weeks (with my first “real” strategized post happening on April 12). At the end of April I purchased Instagram With Intention and am shooting for a 40% increase by the end of May (that equals 800 followers) and 100% increase by the end of the 2nd quarter/June (which is 1,132 followers - double what I started out with). We’ll see what happens!
Side note: I’m thinking about sharing some Instagram specific posts in the future. Strategy tips, photography tips, prompts for captions and that sort of thing. Let me know if you’d be interested in seeing those on the blog or if you have any specific questions on the topic!
Pinterest is definitely my second in line when it comes to social media strategy.
Thoughts: I use Pinterest like a search engine, not as a place to collect inspiration images, so I’m operating as if everyone else is using it that way too.
Strategy: I purchased Pinfinite Growth, edited my boards to only relevant content (meaning I beefed up my design related boards and made my irrelevant boards secret - aka home decor, jewelry, food + drink, etc) and started using Board Booster (GAME CHANGER GUYS!).
I’m set up as a business account on Pinterest so I get to see really cool analytics. I’ve got some strategy that I want to implement over the next month to increase the sharing of my blog posts and website click-throughs, so I’ll report back on that at the end of the month.
Numbers: I didn’t record my base # here for the beginning of the month, but I think it was around 545. At the time of this post that means a 9% increase or so. There’s definitely still a lot of room for growth and strategy here, so we’ll see what I can do with it this month. I honestly think a game changer for me will be joining group boards, but I haven’t had any luck when I’ve reached out to people to join their boards! (What the heck!?!? I’m cool, guys! Give me a chance, ha!)
Thoughts: Almost no effort has gone into my Facebook page, though I have managed to gain a sprinkling of new followers without trying. I attribute that to being in Facebook groups.
Which is a whole other point to make: FACEBOOK GROUPS! These are so fun y’all! You can go there to get questions answered, ask for feedback, advice, referrals, promote your work (sometimes) - even find new clients or biz friends! My favorites are Blog + Biz BFFs and For Love + Money, if you need some good ones to try out.
One cool thing that happened on Facebook last month: I randomly shared my graphic design services on my personal page and 13 people shared it with their facebook friends!! That was like, almost 10,000 people that my post had the potential to be in front of!! I got some pretty good leads off of this.
The coolest thing though was how many people believed in what I was doing enough to share this random post I put out. I didn’t ask anyone to share it, I just asked them to send people my way if they knew of someone who needed graphic design services. I felt like a million bucks!
Strategy: Be more intentional about posting at least once a day, though I’m not sure that alone will do much. I’m also planning on posting helpful, non-spammy things to group boards (without any links to my website or social media accounts) on a weekly basis, with a relevant graphic + link to my blog on my business page (in the hopes that people will click through to my business page after seeing how helpful I am).
Numbers: 137. I don’t really have a solid goal with this, so we’ll just see what happens this month.
Strategy: My Twitter game has been off and on, but my initial strategy was to post 5 times a day with only one of those posts being about my work, and the rest being about other people. I did this so the more popular people I’m tweeting about will start becoming more familiar with my name, but also because there are a lot of cool people talking about really helpful things!
I’ve gained a good bit of followers this way, as some people have retweeted or tweeted back at me if I pulled a super cool quote from their blog post.
I promoted a sale I was having on my design services, making sure to use specific keywords (though I’ll be honest, this is all trial and error for me right now), and started getting notifications about people adding me to “lists”. I have NO idea what lists are or if there’s some way I should try to leverage being on them, but regardless, I still think it’s pretty cool!
I also became real-life buds with a girl who kind of turns out to be an internet superstar in the world of online creative entrepreneurs. She hosts a Twitter chat every week so I participated in my first one at the end of April. That was QUITE overwhelming but also a lot of fun. I got to meet some really cool and smart people and even had some new friends/followers after. You can find out more about the Twitter chat here.
Numbers: My following grew by almost 13%, whoo!
Conclusion + goals:
I started a growth tracker at the end of April, which is something I wish I would have started way sooner! It of course includes my social media followings, but also clients, email subscribers, revenue and site analytics (and will eventually include how many course students I have).
I’ll get more specific about follower goals, engagement and strategy as I experiment more - but I’ll make sure to write about it all at the end of every month!
03: TOOLS + APPS I’M USING OR TRYING OUT
17hats - This is supposed to be a crazy contact/project management system but I only use it for invoicing and contracts. Not sure if I’ll keep using it after my subscription is up, but it is really great for invoices and signing documents!
Trello - I’m currently set up on Trello but haven’t used it much. My goal was to use it as a way to collect and organize all of my thoughts and ideas, but I find that I like pen and paper way too much : ) I’m still interested in using Trello to help organize my business, but I probably won’t worry about diving into it more until 3rd quarter.
Quickbooks Self Employed - I LOVE how it spits out your estimated taxes!! I’ll admit, I’m behind on bookkeeping and still need to set up my business bank account (the shaaaaaame!), but I know that this software was a good move. Getting on top of this tool is just as important to me as my social media and design work, so I’ll definitely be making this a priority in May.
Since there’s more I need to dive into with this program, use the product comparison chart on this page to see if it’s a good product for your bookkeeping needs.
ConvertKit - I’m in the middle of a 30 day trial but haven’t had much time to experiment with it. I knew up front that I wouldn’t be doing much with an email list in April, but am rolling out my opt-ins this month. It will get a lot of action from me moving forward and I’ll be able to tell you more about it next month! :)
Skillshare - I’ve got a premium account with Skillshare so that I can learn and experiment with things that I want to be better at! Hand lettering and making patterns are the absolute top of this list!
BoardBooster - This has been an absolute game changer for my Pinterest strategy. It schedules and loops pins for you, even to group boards. If you’re on the fence, just yes.
Buffer - I’ve been using this to schedule out my Twitter posts. I’m thinking about switching to Edgar because it recycles your tweets, but Buffer might do that too so I need to research more!
Iconosquare Pro - I use this for Instagram analytics! I honestly got it because that’s what big name IGers were telling me I needed to get, but I don’t see what it’s doing for me at this point. I’m going to keep at it though and see if it’s something I should continue with or cancel, as I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not using anything to it’s fullest potential at this point.
Later - I’ve only used this app twice, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the “labels” (hashtags) post automatically. I immediately went back to emailing myself the caption and labels I wanted to use for each post, but probably need to give it another chance.
Adobe Creative Suite - I use this day in and out for pretty much everything I do! That probably went without saying…
Google Docs (+ Sheets) - I use Google Docs to send out my client questionnaires, plan out blog posts, organize other content ideas, document miscellaneous business things (my customer avatar, cold email pitches, workflows, etc) and so much more. I also use Google Sheets to track my progress on various things and store all of my passwords.
Pen + paper - Probably my two favorite tools! I have two notebooks: one is a sketchbook and one is a little journal. I use both to jot ideas and sketch projects, and I pretty much always have them with me! My plan is to tear out the sheets and organize them into tabs in a binder once I get more organized. For now though, flipping through until I find what I need is working juuuust fine :)
04 | COLLABORATIONS, OUTREACH + COMMUNITY
One of the scariest things for me to this day is to face rejection. It really messes with my perfectionistic tendencies, because rejection must mean I’m not doing something right, right?
Wrong. How’s a girl supposed to grow her skillset, find clients and make new business friends if she doesn’t put herself out there? So that’s exactly what I did, and I tried not to care about how that outreach was met.
Guess what? It wasn’t all that bad! Sometimes things look a lot scarier in your head than they should. And sometimes (probably most times), people are much kinder than you’d think. So guys! Put yourself out there and do something scary!
What all did I do?
I reached out to a very popular designer to see if she’d refer me to her wait list. It took a couple of weeks, but she eventually responded with a gracious and resounding “yes”! (To her credit, she was in the middle of a huge launch when I emailed her!)
I joined Facebook groups and asked for help. (My favorites are Blog + Biz BFFs and For Love + Money.)
I participated in my first Twitter chat!
I reached out to another big name internet star about a collaboration of sorts. (Still no solid reply, though her assistant was super sweet.)
I cold emailed clients. (I’ve yet to receive a response from anyone, so I’ll probably revisit my approach and the types of businesses I’m contacting - maybe I didn’t profile the right people?)
I accidentally became real-life friends with another internet superstar (and total sweetheart)!
I mentioned it in the social media section, but I also reached out for join Pinterest group boards. (With no positive response haha).
On a super real level, one of the hardest things I’ve dealt with so far is the loneliness and isolation I’ve felt from my friends and family. It started getting really painful and discouraging to have so many eyes glaze over when I talked about blogging or my sales funnel ideas. Or for my excitement about a client loving her moodboard to be met with apathy and a yawn. And the one person who would talk to me about business stuff ended up being a toxic person in my life for other reasons.
So I kind of started shutting that side of myself off with the “real” people in my life, which has been extremely hard because I don’t feel like I can share the thing I’m most excited about with the people I’m closest to. When I let myself, I start to get really envious of the successful people who have wonderful partners who help them with their business. I crave that kind of shit!
But you know what? I’m fucking smart. I’m determined. I have good ideas. And I can adapt. I’m proud that I’m able to engage with people on things they’re interested in, even if that can’t be reciprocated all of the time. Plus I’m slowly finding the support I need elsewhere.
05 | MISCELLANEOUS
I registered my business with the State of Minnesota! Feeling legit, guys!
Me (and my dog) took an extended road trip back home! Working for yourself is not for the faint of heart, but getting to spend extra time with my family and not have any deadline for getting back to Minneapolis felt so wonderful.
AND, because I could, I dyed my hair pink/purple! #selfemployment
01 | Pay attention to when things don’t feel right. It’s easy to get caught up in what other people are doing, and maybe feel envious of their success. Those people are successful because they carved out a path that hadn’t previously been laid out yet, not because they copied what someone else was doing.
I’m a really smart and creative person, and I’m betting that you are, too. We don’t need someone else’s ideas to be successful. We should be putting our own new and exciting content out there any making the “successful” people mad that they didn’t think of our idea! Wouldn’t that be super cool?
02 | Put yourself out there. I’m a perfectionist and don’t like to show that i’m not good at something. I don’t like rejection and I want to make good (no, GREAT) first impressions. I did some things that would normally feel very scary, like posting design work into my personal IG feed. I just knew the unfollows and mean comments would start rolling in. Not only did I do that, but one of my first design posts were handlettering and patterns I had created, which are both something I feel kind of self conscious about. I also approached people and threw out ideas that had the potential to be scoffeed at or rejected (I’m looking at you, Pinterest group boards :P).
03 | BALANCE! I honestly kind of want to be working on my business 24/7. I’m not even a “live to work” kind of person, I just love having a good project to work on.
Before going full time I spent months being at my day job for 9+ hours, then using any time I could after (and on weekends) to get my business ready. I quit hanging out with friends, didn’t work out, quit going to church as frequently and stopped doing pretty much all of the other things that made me a more interesting and dynamic person.
Actually, I would try to hang out with friends but always ended up thinking about how unproductive I was being!
Oh, it was so horrible.
I had to have a total mind shift and stop letting my work define me as a person. I had to stop letting it be more important than my friends or being active and healthy. And I feel so much better now because of it.