I can’t really believe it.
I’m just about to wrap up my first full year being self-employed and working on my business.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, from 2014-June 2017, Quirky Paper Co. had always been a side hustle, and it was only in the last year that I made the transition to leave my full-time design job to focus on growing the business. The past year has been filled with so many new adventures and milestones, as well as learning lessons. I took some time to look back on the past year and reflect on what I've learned on my journey so far...
1. It’s not just about designing a business, but designing a lifestyle you want to have.
Over the year, I met with a few other entrepreneurs in the stationery & greeting card industry and it was so interesting to hear their perspectives and how they chose to run their businesses. I met one business owner who mentioned that travel was her main priority, and that she had a trip planned almost every month. I met another business owner who blatantly told me that I can’t go on vacation now, and that she will still work while on vacation. Both of them had very different perspectives on how their businesses and lives should be run. Each person has their own set of priorities and definition of success for themselves. While listening to others can broaden your perspective and there’s something to learn from everyone, at the end of the day, you will need to choose what’s right for you and that will require you to figure out on your own.
2. The better you know yourself, the better you’ll be able to run your business and life.
The more you know about how you work best, the more you can set yourself up for being the most productive and happy while you work. Some people need their workspace to be quiet, some work better at night, some need lots of breaks….it’s all about what works for you. In the first few months, I really enjoyed the freedom of running my own schedule. But I started to feel like I didn’t have clear boundaries of “work time” and “personal time” - it all started to blend together, and I didn’t yet know how I wanted to run my days. It took me a while to realize that I worked best when I had a consistent schedule and daily routine - that structure gave me peace of mind knowing what I should be doing at each time of day, giving me the energy to focus on the important tasks at hand. Understanding this about myself, I continually try to set up systems and streamline routines and processes as that’s how I work best. So besides my daily routine, I block out time for recurring tasks weekly and monthly, and I also have a release schedule for my new collections.
3. Having the right tools, systems and processes will save your butt every time, but keep in mind that these tools and systems may change as your business evolves and grows.
In my past design job, our studio was always paying attention to the tools and systems we were using, and then checking in and adjusting as our needs changed. In my business, there were definitely some key shifts. At first, I was taking wholesale orders by email, sending Square invoices, keeping track of inventory in another program, making a Canada Post shipping label for the order...there were so many steps and it was quite inefficient. It was a big step for me to streamline this process and launch a wholesale shop on Shopify for my retail partners, where they would be able to order and pay in one step, and where I would be able to view orders, keep track of inventory, and print shipping labels on one platform. Getting the right systems and tools definitely does involve a big investment of time and energy to research what works best for you, then to actually implement and use the system, and communicate any changes to the people who will be using it. But if you choose the right system for where you’re at in your business, the investment will be well worth it, as it will truly help to streamline your processes, making your workflow much more efficient.
4. Ask for feedback often, especially when you work by yourself.
My husband and I started a bi-monthly group, Crit Club, to share our work and get feedback from our peers. It was a great way to get together and see what everyone was working on, and get honest critiques. It was great for me to bring my in-progress concepts and designs each time, I loved getting honest feedback from fresh eyes, and it really helped to improve each new release. I also gained feedback from some amazing store buyers and sales reps that I work with, who offered suggestions on new designs to create and what their customers are looking for. Oftentimes when we work by ourselves, we can get stuck easily, or create work that perhaps we “get” but everyone else doesn’t understand (I’ve totally made cards in the past that I thought were funny but no one understood…) so it’s great to get feedback often from people whose opinions you value.
5. Getting help is AWESOME. It’s fun to invite others to join you, and they want to help you.
Prior to this year, I pretty much took care of every aspect of the business. It can really be overwhelming. I knew that the first thing I wanted to get help with was packaging my cards. It was something that was time consuming, and I knew that time could be better spent growing the business. I reached out to my friend Makiko to see if she would be interested in helping. It has been a great partnership and Makiko has also helped me with photography as well. Most recently, I’ve reached out to my former co-worker, Maddie, to assist with copywriting and brainstorming new card ideas. I realized that with each person I reached out to, they were so enthusiastic about helping, and I realized that inviting people to join you on your journey is incredibly fun.
6. There is no magic course, magic partnership, or big break - it’s all about continued hard work.
In the beginning of the year, I kept thinking... once I did that course, once I got that partnership, I’d be set. Ha! I look back now and smile at how naive that was! Like everything else in life, you have to keep putting in the work to keep it moving forward. Just like how signing up for a gym membership doesn’t mean that you’ll be fit, and you need to continually put in the effort, running a business means you consistently need to show up and put in the hard work.
7. If you’re going to be disciplined about working hard, you should be disciplined about taking a break.
As creatives who build businesses we love, it can be hard to stop working, because we absolutely love what we do. I realized that if I didn’t set boundaries, I was going to get burnt out pretty quickly. I tried my best to be really conscious about how I felt each day and would make adjustments. While I had a schedule for myself, I was also very flexible about it—some days I could feel that I hadn’t gotten enough rest...and needed a nap. So I would take a nap. Revolutionary, I know. It was really important for me to give myself the rest I needed, because I wasn’t going to be productive if I was exhausted. What’s the point of a flexible schedule if you can’t take a nap?
8. You might get disappointed. You might have bad days. Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, take a break, and then get back to it when you’re ready and have the energy to move forward.
Over the year, there were plenty of times that I was disappointed. Some things just didn’t go the way I would have wanted them to. There were definitely a few days that were especially rough. During those days, I would just take a break, call a friend, and allow myself to just feel disappointed. I found that for myself, if I allowed myself to go through the feeling rather than brushing it off and continuing to work, I could process it a lot better, then allow myself to see it from a new perspective (could there have been something I could have done differently? Am I taking this too hard? Am I overreacting?). I started to be more conscious about how I was reacting to the situations I was faced with each day, and to take things with stride.
9. People can relate to you. Share your successes and failures and learn and grow together.
I’ve found that as business owners, we may sometimes feel like other people who aren’t entrepreneurs themselves won’t be able to relate to what we’re going through. The truth is that we usually aren't the only ones dealing with the problem at hand. After chatting with two friends who work in the clothing industry, I started to realize that the companies they worked for operated on pretty much the exact same business model as mine. There were a lot of issues I was going through that they understood because of their role or by observing other team members. When my parents-in-law asked me how things were going in my business, I commented about my challenges, and they immediately mentioned that they go through the same challenges (even though they are in completely different industries), and it was to be expected for any business. It really started to click for me that my challenges weren't something I struggled with alone, and there was a lot of relief knowing that actually this was completely normal. The more you can be open and chat to others who are open and supportive, the more you’ll realize that they can usually relate to your struggles and you are totally not alone.
10. We are ALL just figuring things out. You will never really “figure it all out”.
One of the awesome things I got to experience over the past year was attending Paper Camp in September 2017. It was a two day workshop focused on the stationery & greeting card industry. We had a great panel who shared lots of information and advice. While listening to one of the panelists explain how she was figuring something out in her business—it occurred to me—OMG! Even she (with a very established, successful business) is still figuring things out!
I realized that at every stage of our business, we learn and level up to a new stage which we don’t have any experience in—so while we have the knowledge and experience of our past, we still feel like a newbie or beginner in our new level. I started to realize that feeling like a beginner was actually a good thing, because it meant that I had grown and was willing to start embarking on the next chapter.
And so, I am still figuring things out. I am still a beginner.
But I’m excited to start entering Year 2 with a renewed sense of wanting to keep moving myself forward both creatively and as a business owner, while also making sure I’m building both a business and lifestyle that I love. Thank you so much for joining me on my journey so far!
Questions for me? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to reach out to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org