This story is part of a movement – the Busting The Overnight Success Myth: Community Blog Tour, where 21 ladies who have made their dream business a reality (in a variety of different niches) share what it really took for us to make this happen. Including the not so pretty stuff.
When Allison Braun (The Business Joyologist) shared her vision for this blog tour with me, I knew I wanted to be a part of it because starting a business can feel so damn isolating. So here is my story. It’s raw, real and includes things I’ve never shared before!
Table o’ Contents (since this article is over 3,000 words long):
Once upon a time, I was a terrible employee and decided that I didn’t want to continue down that particular path of destruction. Other people are well suited for timetables and micromanaging… but not this gal.
All I wanted in the whole world was to call the shots in my life, from waking up to going to bed and everything in between.
… in actuality, such insanity.
Let me introduce you to my kindergartner: violetminded.
I’ve been at this for five years. Five years of ups, downs, incredible failures, and whirlwind successes. Five years of revenue bouncing, facepalms at tax time, and not actually knowing how this money business works. Five years of wonderful clients, horrible clients, and astounding projects that rocked me to my core.
Starting with starting: August 28, 2009
I had $50 on my credit card when I started violetminded, and probably less than that in my chequing account. My husband and I had just moved to a new apartment close to his work (after a long, insane summer of being apart). I was out of options at that point. It was either start freelancing as a web designer or go work at McDonald’s.
(I did that for three years. Probably wouldn’t have killed me.)
The truth was this: if I didn’t start my business, I would have ended up at another software job, which would have been mind-numbing and soul-sucking all at the same time. I’m not meant for coding 16 hours a day, especially if it’s not a project that I don’t get to see from start to finish.
Crossroads: food services or freelancing.
Ultimately, freelancing won out and I started violetminded.
At the start, I knew nothing. I knew how to make websites, but even then, that was pretty fucking dodgy. I taught myself WordPress, started scouring jobs on Craigslist, and did my best to not throw up in my mouth every time I looked at that $50 dwindling faster and faster into nothingness.
Rent was paid. We had food on the table (and in the fridge). But at the time, my friend was living with us and was also just starting up a freelancing career.
Dicey. As. Hell.
In the first six months of my business, I earned a grand total of $100.
I sweated and hustled and learned my face off for that six months, cramming a new language (PHP) and a new technology (WordPress) into my Microsoft-addled brain.
To say that the first year of my business was hard would be doing it a great disservice.
The first year of my business was one of the hardest years of my life.
I found myself spending between twelve and sixteen hours a day doing underpaid and unpaid client work, just to establish a name for myself.
You can’t avoid that growth period. Until you craft a solid reputation for yourself, you have to do the free work, the shitty work, and the underpaid work. Establish yourself as exemplary. Wow them with your customer service. It’s not just good karma: it’s good business.
[Tweet “Wow them with your customer service. It’s not just good karma: it’s good business.”]
I thought a lot about quitting. I also thought a lot about the abuse I was taking from my early clients — as in, “What in the hell did I do to deserve such animosity?” In actuality, I had to learn a hard lesson: just because I’m a nice person, doesn’t mean that anyone else is going to be.
Made me feel a bit cynical in that first year. (A bit? Okay, a lot.)
Year 1 Stats (all numbers are rounded and/or approximated)
Revenue: $11K (after leaving a salaried position of $45K)
Money lost: $500
Money invested: $500
Hours Per Week: 80
The Second Year: 2010-2011
Somewhere in the midst of 2010, I caught pregnancy. Pretty sure I caught it from a couple of women friends that I knew who caught it from some chick they knew… that’s how that whole thing works, right?
October 2010, I was pregnant with my first child. (Yep, another one shows up. But that’s later.)
I was not only pregnant, I was rounding out my first year in business with a lovely breakdown. I would spend hours sobbing myself to sleep on the couch in the living room, impatiently watching the same documentaries and dramas over and over again on Canadian Netflix. (It was awful back then.)
I hated my business. I was afraid of my clients. I just wanted everyone to go away and leave me alone.
Pass the chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream, wouldja?
Mostly, I felt alone. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about business, other than this copywriter friend of mine… but she was insanely unreliable when it came to emotional vicissitudes, so I was on my own.
This was before I started forming communities and long before I had a community of any kind in Vancouver.
It was isolating as hell.
But, thankfully the first trimester of my pregnancy subsided and I got my brain back. I had lots of energy and a whole lot of drive to get my freelancing business to go from where I was to where I wanted to be.
So I wrote down my goals for 2011: chill out, have patience, make $30K.
To some, that number is paltry. To me, it was triple my previous year’s earnings. It was nothing to scoff at.
Off I went into the great blue yonder of the internet. I let myfriends know in December of 2010 that I was restarting violetminded in earnest and that they should send me their web design clients.
I spent so much time on Twitter that it became an Olympic sport to keep up with all of the conversations I had going at one time. This was the year that I really began to build my network. I got serious about the kinds of people I wanted in my life and in my business. I reached out to powerful and connected women… and then made myself invaluable.
I taught myself iMovie in a weekend, just so I could teach it to Danielle LaPorte in a hipster cafe on Commercial Drive. I did the first year of the Right Brain Business Plan Telesummit… and wrote my first business plan in its entirety. I worked with some of my favourite people, many of which are still my clients today. (Or, at the very least, my friends.)
2011 was an amazing year for me and for my business.
In spite of the fact that I gave birth to my son in July, I still managed to keep up to speed on all of my work, right up until I went into labour. I was so damn dedicated that I launched two websites in between contractions.
I started developing what would become a signature part of my process: the Creative Insight, which is still evolving. It’s still one of my favourite parts of the work I do for my clients.
Not so great thing: being abandoned by my business partner at the time and then being fired by our mutual client. I don’t blame said client at all for the way things went down, as much of the fuck-up was on my end. I hadn’t figured out boundaries yet. I slammed up against those issues a lot in the early years.
I would continue to fight through those sticky, interpersonal issues for a long while after. I learned that you have to teach people how you want to be treated within a working relationship. Expecting someone to just know your expectations is the quickest way to communication failure.
Year 2 Stats (all numbers are rounded and/or approximated)
Revenue: $26K (missed the goal by $4k)
Money lost: $1000
Money invested: $1500
Hours Per Week: 56
The Third Year: 2011-2012
Though I’d been making websites for a long, long time (12 years at that point) and I took my craft very seriously, I wasn’t really taking my business seriously. I was still treating it like a freelancing career, instead of a living organism that needed to be cared for as separate from me.
Learning to uncouple myself from my business was really difficult. I’d become so tied up in my identity with violetminded that identities became interchangeable. Tara Gentile would often remind me of the dangers of that during our work together. (She and I started coaching work around the beginning of 2012.)
She got me to sit down and really think about the structures that made up my business. I started looking at violetminded like I should’ve been all along: as something separate from me. I began to untangle my business model and really understand how to run it like a CEO would.
It was also the year I began to hire subcontractors and experiment with systems. I’m still in the habit of revisiting systems each month to make sure that I’m not becoming numb to something. Back then, I would revisit processes and systems every single day that I worked through my client work.
It was a huge year for violetminded from 2011-2012.
I made enormous leaps and bounds in my pricing structure, thanks in part to Tara, and learned how to position myself as a strategic partner, instead of “just” a web designer.
I also caught that pregnancy thing again. This time, the pregnancy was very difficult and instead of having lots of energy, I had very little. Chasing a toddler around, being pregnant, doing client work, and moving apartments is really not how I recommend people living their lives or running their businesses.
At the time, I took care of my son during the day and then jetted off to work 4 hours a night, almost every single night. (And especially on weekends.)
It was insanity.
I spent a good chunk of 2012 hazy. I wound up working with a client who treated me like I was most abject failure she’d ever encountered, but still wanted to pay me money. The back and forths became so abusive, in fact, that I simply had to distance myself from the situation. The interactions began to put serious stress on my unborn baby.
I learned a lot from that project. I learned why it’s important to sense first and think later, especially with client intake. I learned how to guide a team from start to finish, even when morale was six feet under. I learned the depths of my patience and compassion, which I often took for granted.
That year, I experimented with offering the Creative Insight (the foundation work I do for each client that comes through my digital doors) as a separate deal. It didn’t take off. In fact, no one bought a single session of that. I got rid of the service six months after I began it, though I continued to build the process
I walked away from drama in my business that year. Or so I thought.
Year 3 Stats (all numbers are rounded and/or approximated)
Revenue: $49K (missed the goal by $1k)
Money lost: $4500 (projects that didn’t pay & lost revenues because of sickness)
Money invested: $7500 (coaching, courses, and conferences)
Hours Per Week: 36
The Fourth Year: 2012-2013
The tail end of 2012 (which was the first quarter of my fourth year) was a lesson in letting go. I knew that I was going to be too tired and too strung out from giving birth in December (yep, my girl was born on December 16) that I hired a wonderful human to look after my business.
She helped me tighten up my email practices; introduced me to even more tools and systems that would eventually become the backbone of my business in 2014; and was the warm, compassionate glow in my clients’ inboxes while I was away. She looked after absolutely everything.
It was like having a concierge for my business.
After I came back in early 2013, projects dragged out for months longer than they should have and client interactions began to take on lives of their own. Mentally, I’d checked out from being a business owner. Most of the time, I was barely keeping my own head afloat.
Client after client was dissatisfied with my customer service, which made me more and more depressed. In spite of my growing depression (we’ll get to that), there was a handful of clients that I really enjoyed collaborating with, including a long-time friend of mine, Nikki Groom.
For the first time in four years, I contemplated shutting my digital doors.
I cried every day.
It was the most hopeless I’d ever been in my entire life.
I wanted to believe that it would get better… but every moment of my life was awful. My business was falling apart. I was entirely apathetic toward the state of my biz, in lieu of my home situation.
As I was closing in on the end of year four, my doctor diagnosed me with postpartum depression (which I’ve talked about on my personal site a couple of times). It was the greatest gift she could have given me at the time: a name for how I was feeling. After that, things started to get better for my emotional state.
But not after I ruined a fair number of connections with clients.
I slipped out of touch with processes and systems in lieu of survival that year. I became insanely disorganized and distracted. The quality of my work was through the roof, because after four years of really taking design seriously… I was finally able to deliver work that was truly exceptional.
I opened and closed the Digital Artisan Collective, which I’d been dreaming about for years. I wanted to have all of my favourite subcontractors and collaborators in one place and then go after big business for all of us to work on together. Ultimately, the experiment failed, mostly due to lack of commitment on my end. (There’s that depression again.)
My lessons from my fourth year in business were numerous. Get comfortable with failure. (That one will always be hard for me.) Be gentle with yourself when things fall apart. Find allies and build community.
Year 4 Stats (all numbers are rounded and/or approximated)
Money lost: $3500
Money invested: $3000
Hours Per Week: 15
The Fifth Year: 2013-2014
The first month into my fifth year, I had one of the most profound experiences as a designer. Though I was fairly numb most of 2013, one particular client unintentionally broke me out of my rut. She presented me with a unique business model, with a unique point of view.
I was so damn inspired that as soon as I finished the initial concept, I cried. Big tears of relief. In all my years of designing websites, that had never happened before. Design isn’t art: it’s science. But that business and that wonderful woman running it grabbed onto my heart and still won’t let go.
I was back.
After almost twelve months of barely existing, client after client wowed me with their humanity, creativity, and joyousness. I fell in love with every single one of them, just like I used to.
Well-meaning folks over the years had told me to distance myself from my clients. It was more professional and people would take me seriously… in theory.
You can’t scale love.
I stopped trying to.
The first quarter of 2014 was the slowest it had been since I started violetminded back in 2009. I scrambled to pay bills, had to reign in all the unnecessary components of my budget, and went into overdraft month after month. I panicked a lot the first part of 2014.
But instead of becoming paralyzed, I took control of my business and took it apart piece by piece. With the help of my community of designers, developers, and business owners, I rebuilt my business. I began to use processes and systems again, which cut my development workflow in half.
I became the only team member in my business, due to cash flow.
It was incredibly freeing.
I now have my hands in every part of the design & development process, which is exquisite. I learned new technologies for the first time in three years. Though I’ll be building my team again towards the end of this year, it’s been wonderful to see how much I actually can accomplish on my own.
I gave my services away: websites, Creative Insight sessions (which I’m now offering again), business development calls, and anything else that I thought would delight my audience. I wanted to remind people that I am an exceptional designer and that, more than anything, I wanted to serve them.
I did just that.
After a phenomenal time at the Instigator Experience in Los Angeles (and almost not being able to afford to go), business exploded again. I reformulated my payment structure (which had been 25%, 10%, 15%, 50%) to be monthly payments, in order to keep the cash flowing and my stress levels down.
I now have 8 months of guaranteed income, freeing me up to really get into my work and not worry about where my next cheque is coming from.
In the first three months of this year, I made $2500. Total.
Since March, I’ve made $18K.
Changing my payment structure, redeveloping my systems and processes, and giving everything I could think of away to my people, I’ve welcomed love back in. I’ve never been more satisfied with my work and I’m deeply in love with each of my clients and their work.
I’m moving into a new realm of business this year, with a Super Seekrit Project that I’m only sharing with three people. (In order to iron out the bugs.) It’s going to take my Creative Insight work to a whole new level. Stay tuned for that.
Overall, this is what I’ve learned
- Running a service based business is extremely difficult, especially when your cash flow is dicey.
- You can’t scale love, which is awesome.
- Always focus on your people first. Your purpose is to serve them, not yourself.
- Be patient with growth. A slow evolution is better than a wildfire any day of the week.
- Doing everything yourself isn’t sustainable. Invest in a great team.
- For that matter, invest in great coaches. I recommend Tara Gentile’s 10K Feet program. It’s life-changing & paradigm altering. I went from working 40 hours a week to 15. Sandi Amorim’s Freedom Sessions turned my emotional state around and is ultimately responsible for pulling me out of my postpartum depression. It’s powerful work. Highly recommend.
- Build a community of people to bounce ideas off of.
- Don’t settle for mediocrity.
- Stay unsatisfied and always keep evolving.
- Cash flow will make or break you. Get a handle on it early on so that you can get back to the work you really enjoy.
- Be open to failure and look at it like just one more thing that doesn’t work so that you can get to the stuff that does work.
- Find the joy in learning and evolving. It sucks while you’re in there. But you’ll be happy you were in it for the long haul.
If you’ve ever felt alone on your journey or like you weren’t as far as you “should” be, I invite you to check out more of these real-life stories by going here to join the Busting The Overnight Success Myth::Community Blog Tour. I know Rebecca Beaton is up sharing her journey tomorrow.