March 7, 2022
If you had told me in 2019 that by 2022 I’d be running a profitable design business alongside my performing arts career here in NYC, I would have said you were insane.
And yet here we are (just one month out from my 2 year biz anniversary), so I’m feelin’ nostalgic, grateful, and reflective.
When I first started on this crazy endeavor, I thought the hardest thing was going to be finding clients and marketing myself. And while that part of the business has definitely taken some time to nurture as well, the “hardest” growth has been within myself.
Here are 4 lessons learned (so far) from 2 years of running a freelance design business.
Lesson #1: Expensive doesn’t exist.
It feels like such a privilege to even be able to say this, but, expensive is relative.
I’ve talked about this a lot before (specifically in this vulnerable blog post I wrote about pricing) but it’s so important that it bares repeating.
Before entrepreneurship made its way into my life, I was working in a restaurant and auditioning full time as an actor. I had a very specific and static idea of what “expensive” was, because my income had basically stayed the same for the better part of 5-ish years. And not only that, but every single person around me was making ~around~ the same as me—unless of course they’d had their big breaks.
“Expensive” was mutually agreed on amongst my peers and within myself. And I didn’t think I deserved to be expensive because I hadn’t achieved my Broadway dreams yet. “Only the stars get to be expensive,” I’d tell myself. And unfortunately in the theatre world, that’s true.
Wouldn’t you know… that mindset spilled over into the rest of my life as well. Until, of course, I found design and started surrounding myself with internet creatives who not only charge their worth, but also expect to pay people their worth as well.
“Expensive” is a lens through which you see the world based on your lived experience. (And it’s something I’m still working through every single day.) But expensive is just that—a lens. It’s hard work to undo, but as a millennial with student loans and living in late-stage capitalism, I’m so grateful for the shift. Abundance is everywhere.
Lesson #2: When you run a service based business, your process is the product.
People think they’re buying a beautiful new website from me. And yes—they absolutely are. 😉 But more than that, they’re buying my process. AKA, the overall experience.
Here are some of the things that go into the experience:
- Skill: my specific design styles and the past work that I showcase on my website.
- Professionalism: the way I propose projects, make it easy for them to say yes, easy-to-read and understand contracts, offering payment plans… etc
- Organization: my project portals & communication
- Hype-Woman Vibe: tailored-to-them advice and encouragement along the way, because website projects can bring up a ton of uncertainty and imposter syndrome
Over the last 2 years, I’ve realized that the process is what makes people refer you to their friends, leave stunning testimonials, and pay the premium prices. The website itself is usually just a bonus.
Lesson #3: You have to spend money to make money.
I feel like I’ve always known the value of investing in quality materials—in the days when I was solely an actor, I always paid for expensive headshots, beautifully produced media reels, premium memberships to actor websites, etc.
But in the business world, these investments are on a whole other level. And the gag is: they’re pretty much always worth it.
Among these list of extremely worth-it investments from the last few years include:
- Brand photography and videography
- Platforms that help you streamline contracts, invoices, and finances
- Calendar schedulers
- Email marketing platforms
- Courses—and particularly ones that help you get organized & make more money
- And if you’re like me, your biggest (and best) investment might be in a coworking space. I adore mine.
Every time I spend money on my business, it pays back tenfold. (And it also counts as a business expense, which we love.) Don’t be scared to spend!
Lesson #4: You can’t serve from an empty cup.
2021 was honestly hell in terms of burnout and I can’t believe I made it out alive.
Of course, here in 2022, I am glad that I overworked myself—because it serves as a great reminder to never do that again.
Unlike any other kind of employment, the problem with entrepreneurship is that there is no floor or ceiling. So in the busy seasons when you’ve got inquiries left and right, it’s incredibly easy to say yes to too many things in favor of your bottom line.
Take it from me: just don’t. You may find yourself waking up at 4am to start work for the day and not shutting it off till 7pm. You may find yourself having a mental breakdown at noon on a random Thursday after it has all caught up to you. And you may find yourself chipping away at beautiful relationships with family and friends—all because you over-promised but refuse to under-deliver.
This year, I set myself up for success: I raised my prices so that I could make more, take less clients, and go deeper with the clients I do have. I promised myself I would take weekends off. And I’ve been saying no to the projects that don’t light me up, which is a major improvement from last year.
You will do more damage to your business by burning yourself out than you ever could by moving slowly. The online creative entrepreneur space will have you thinking everything is a race, but it’s simply not true.
The most painful growing pains in business are always within yourself.
I really believe that.
And if you’re anything like me, you can’t just take someone’s word for it—you have to experience the bad to know why and how to never let it happen again.
It’s not quite my 2 year business anniversary (yet) but thank you regardless. For being here, for reading, for inquiring, for referring, for following along, and for supporting. It means the world.
Hi, I'm Sarah Kleist.
Brand & web designer, personal brand strategist, and marketing educator obsessed with the power of connecting with audiences.
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