Somehow, I managed to blink and TWO YEARS have flown by.
The 11th August 2017 was my last day in the corporate world, and a month after, I wrote a blog about my initial observations. I thought it would be fun to revisit that blog post 2 years on!
The original post can be found here, and these are the key things I observed after one month:
- Decisions are hard, exhausting and never-ending – and guess what? You have to make all of them
- Time is a finite resource and you’ll never have as much as you think
- The importance of understanding how and when you work best
- The importance of looking after yourself
- Tighten your belt, but not too tight that you suffocate
- Strap in. The roller coaster of emotions is a wild ride
I can pretty much attest to all of the above being very true two years on, but reading back that blog, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself! I was so naiiiiiiive. I had no idea what I was truly in for, and I totally lost sight of most of those things I was so blasé about.
I definitely have a more accurate picture of what working for yourself is really like two years on, and if I were to give advice to someone now… it would be a little different!
Before I jump into that, I thought I would point out for anyone who doesn’t know me, what I’ve been up to in the last 2 years. This is not a brag-list, but I need to list it out for my later sssssssavage points to make sense:
- Started Penultimate Magazine, a bi-monthly magazine
- Wrote my first published book
- Spent 2 weeks road-tripping down the east coast of Australia with another calligrapher, hosting meet-ups
- Started an online watercolour school
- Became an ambassador for Winsor and Newton and Princeton Brushes
- Became a Top Teacher on Skillshare
- Travelled to Singapore and Malaysia (trip with a friend, but worked and had a meet up)
- Travelled to New Zealand (tagged along with a friend but worked most of the time)
- Travelled to the US, Europe and Hong Kong for a month (ran a workshop, had business meetings, a one week intensive calligraphy course, and met up with some industry peers)
- Got a puppy (this isn’t business related, but it’ll tie in, wait for it)
- Started The Watercolour Factory
- Moved house (and office)
- Rebuilt my online watercolour school as The Watercolour Academy
On one hand, I look back at that list and think – wow-wee! What a crazy bunch of achievements, I should be proud.
Yet on the other hand (my left one obviously), I think: you absolute idiot.
If you’ve followed me on social media, you’ll know I had a pretty major meltdown earlier this year. It seemed out of the blue to me, and it has totally changed my life. For the best? I’m not sure yet. Sadly, I’m still not over it, and it is entirely my own fault.
I wrote in my last blog post that I thrived on high-pressure, fast-paced environments. That was true, but it isn’t anymore. I completely botched my work-life balance and it has been a complete struggle to regain control ever since.
Unfortunately, I still have a few months of struggling through my own self-inflicted over-scheduling, but I’ve had a plan in place since the start of the year and I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
SO! Based on the ridiculously long and stressful list of things no normal person should ever aim to fit into two years, here are my observations after two whole years of self-employment:
Get clear on who you are and what you stand for
Not long after that first blog post, I sat down and thought about my mission, vision and values. It was a very corporate thing for me to do, but it was good. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep any of that at the forefront of my mind further down the track. Eyeroll @ me.
Back when I was more sensible, I made a list of every possible thing I could do with my art (lettering for businesses, lettering for clients, making online classes, running workshops, making digital downloads – EVERYTHING).
Then I decided on a couple of pillars I wanted my biz to be about. I settled on Create, Educate, Collaborate. Loves a good rhyme. I used these pillars to cull down the list of ‘all the things’ I could do, and only kept those on the board that fit the three categories. Penultimate Magazine? I created it, and it encouraged creation. It educated others. It was a collaboration project with myself and others, and it connected others in the community. Three ticks.
I also used these pillars to assess new opportunities and if they didn’t fit into all of them, I’d think super hard about whether I should take it on. Sometimes it was still a good opportunity, but I had to make sure I wasn’t overloading myself or sacrificing the other facets of my business that I had kept on the board.
These are not mandatory pillars for every creative, so please don’t think yours need to be those. I was never huge on doing client work and instead wanted to focus on teaching others, which is why Educate is a pillar. This isn’t the case with all creatives, so think long and hard about what YOURS should be. It’s a really helpful tool, if you use it.
No is the most painful word to hear, and the most satisfying word to say
A huge problem for the self-employed is saying YES to everything, which is what spurred me to create my pillars. When we get started, we can fear opportunities disappearing, or view opportunities as being more valuable than they turn out to be, so we just say yes to all the things and nek minnit we are overloaded.
Saying no is scary. What if they think I’m a jerk? Eek, I feel guilty, I can probably squeeze it in. What if I never get this opportunity again? What if sales are down next month and I kick myself for not taking the extra cash while I had the chance?
It’s really effing hard to say no sometimes. Living in this mindset though is limiting. It’s a scarcity mindset. That everything is running out and you’ll never get enough. That’s not true, it’s just what we tell ourselves.
The most important thing is respecting yourself, your boundaries and your time. Most small businesses tend to give in to clients, but for me it’s been other brands and businesses. I’ve had my time wasted over and over again with businesses who can’t make up their mind about what they want, just spew out ideas to me and never follow through, expect really short turnarounds, or want the world from me for nothing.
Towards the end of 2018, I just started saying no. If I was being asked to do something huge for exposure, I’d say no. If I was being asked to turnaround a project in a couple of days after they had gone MIA for months, I’d say no. If I simply couldn’t see the value or the fit with what I stand for, I’d say no. I’d feel terribly guilty at times, but I knew I had to put some boundaries in place.
Get on top of your books, from the get-go
Everyone says this, and no one does it – me included. I took way too long to sort out my accounting and I could still be better at it to this day. It was a huge relief to finally have a proper understanding of my financials, and it was silly to think I could still manage it alone or go through a white-collar tax accountant. The best thing I did was find someone who understood creative businesses and could do their magic on my maniacal spreadsheets.
Leaving things so long cost me a pretty penny, they had so much crap to sort through and get straight! Try to get this sorted in the first financial year you’re running your biz. Keep all your receipts, file them as you go, run your expenses and income every month or at least every quarter. Get prepared for tax time.
I spent way too long not actually knowing how my business was performing. If I still had money in the bank, my brain told me I was doing fine. This is a classic form of start-up-bank-account-accounting that so many of us fall into, but it doesn’t help you grow, just survive. So sort that shit out! It might cost you to get someone to do it, but at least you’ll be compliant and know what to do moving forward.
You cannot run on deficits forever
Sounds like more financial advice, but this time I mean health! For the last 2 years I have been pushing myself hard, just look back at that ridiculous list. I heard it all the time, “how do you do so much?”, “how do you do it all?” and if I’m being completely honest, I NEVER thought I was doing enough. How insane is that?
I think this is a trap for entrepreneurs. Quit your 40 hour per week corporate job and go work 100 for yourself instead. It’s so destructive.
For the last two years I had messed up sleep patterns, terrible eating habits, and absolutely no work/life balance. I never saw the signs, I just kept going and pushing, assuming I could carry on like this forever.
I’m currently in what I would call the early recovery stages of burnout. The panic attacks I had in February should have been a big fat wakeup call to stop, but unfortunately there was more stress to come that I couldn’t stop, like moving house and office, having a puppy to raise, having regular products due for release. Then I rebuilt my online school. Then I did 800 other things that I assumed I could just push through, but you can’t push through burnout.
So while I can’t really give advice right now on how to avoid it or overcome it, I can at least warn you of burnout. I never thought it would be something this devastating, but if I look back at the way I treated myself over the last 2 years it’s no surprise. Take care of yourself.
Social media is not the be-all and end-all
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs before, I’ve talked a lot about social media and how it’s been amazing for my businesses, and it’s true. But you don’t need to break yourself trying to stay on the content hamster wheel.
About a year ago I ran a free Instagram challenge to help creatives grow their following, and I have to giggle a bit now because some of the advice I gave was to just post, post, post. Twice a day, like I used to. Then I look at my own habits since then, and I’ve posted about 3 things over 3 weeks, haha.
As much as I hate to admit there’s an algorithm, there is, and things on Insta have definitely changed over the last year, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t need to break myself trying to keep up with it. Following decreases? Doesn’t matter. A post bombs? I’ll still wake up tomorrow. It can be discouraging, but we just have to look past those vanity metrics. It has taken me a long time to accept that I don’t need to keep up with this stupid standard I had set myself, and you don’t either.
If you’re still getting orders or commissions, don’t worry about it! That’s the biggest lesson I learned this year. I can take a break from social media and still have a fully functioning business (or four). A big part of that is that I learned to take my customers off social media, by having their emails.
This was totally unintentional at first, until one day I realised the thousands of students I had in my online school and how I could just keep dropping into their inboxes every month with a new class.
So rather than run yourself ragged trying to build a social media following and post post post every day and night, get an email list together. In order to do this, you need to have something to offer. Whether they’re signing up to your blog for new posts, signing up to download a freebie, or registering as a customer on your online store where you can now let them know about new products – try to get emails. The main reason? You own that information. Social media? It could disappear tomorrow.
There you have it! There are 5 updated things I’ve learned since working for myself over the last two years.
Running my own businesses has been the hardest, most rewarding, most difficult, most fun, most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Despite the setbacks I’ve experienced this year, it’s still the best thing ever, and if you’re up for the ride, can set yourself some good boundaries, and can remember to look after Number One (that’s you), then I encourage you to get around it and chase those dreams.