My 10 Tips for Starting a Successful Creative Small Business
I can't say I even feel qualified to write a blog post like this, I still feel like I am fumbling my way through the dark some days, but here goes! These are my own thoughts and opinions on how I did things (and how looking back, I would do somethings different) and my top 10 tips I would give anyone starting up a small business.
01. Have a Game Plan
It doesn't have to be a hard core 5 year plan with the all the ins and outs, but I definitely recommend sitting down either by yourself with a bit of paper and a pen, a business advisor, or, grab The Daring & Disruptive Playbook and really flesh out your business plan, your target audience, and your goals for your business.
02. Define your Niche
This is a tip I wish I had taken on board from the start, but like many of those starting out, the mentality to offer everything and anything just to start bringing in the $$$ was strongly appealing. While at the time it can seem like a great idea to offer your creative services for every job, in the long run you may start to feel a bit burnt out and even resentful about the services you provide but aren't passionate about. I definitely recommend defining what offerings you are most passionate about, marketing for this niche, and removing any parts of your business that just don't light your soul on fire.
As a bit of a background story, my first offering that I culled was one-off logo designs. You know the ones, the 'I just want 1 x logo, nothing else, as it will be cheaper and all I need'. I just found that those clients tended to only want a quick fix logo, weren't committed to the process, were after a cheap job, and would end up coming back any way for submarks and icons and patterns anyway. So I said BYE pretty early on to that service!
03. Set up a Business Bank Account + get a Business Credit Card
Oh gosh, this one is important! I know it may seem like a massive step before you even have an established client base or regular income, but setting up a separate biz bank account from the beginning makes it so much easier in the long run! It makes it easier once you start earning properly in terms of tracking and reconciliation and means when you use the business bank card that it is strictly for business (instead of the lure of buying personal stuff). Finding a bank that specialises in small businesses is also a plus as they can help steer you in the right direction for your needs and offer support and encouragement along the way.
Why is this so important? Another mini story - when I first started January Made Design, I used my personal account. Now, even though I have a proper business account + remind my clients to pay in to this one, I still find payments popping up in my old account. So a big lesson learnt here!
04. Outsource/Refer as soon as possible
This sorta builds upon Tip 2. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and yes definitely up-skill where you can - but if there is something within your business that just sets your teeth on edge and you dread having to deal with it, then it may be time to suck it up and outsource. While it can seem like a big expense, back yourself and remember it actually works out better for your time and productivity levels. Outsource a process and use that time on the parts of your business you are passionate about!
I refer all my copywriting to Anita over at Wordfetti where possible, because I am not a word wizard and even though I could probably take some classes and learn (I do love writing, just not for other people), it's just better to pass stuff to the experts and you'll get better content back that actually makes sense and is professionally done. I do this for photography, business mentorship and comprehensive website development as I know my skills lie in branding and website design, and there are professionals I can send my clients to for specific needs like these.
I also outsourced my books to the wonderful team at Sidekick Accounting, because numbers are BLEGH and I am 100% not a math or money genius. I can sleep easy knowing I am paying my tax, am operating a fully legal business and have Xero actually working for me not against me. So go see a local accountant today if you hate numbers too!
05. Be Authentic
This one is probably a bit of a 'duh, of course' tip, but honestly when I first began my little business, I had every website, blogger, Instagram star, business coach telling me to do this, this and this for success. It was both overwhelming and saddening as I just didn't think my style of running my business was correct as it didn't match theirs. It took me a while to see what while having spiffy marketing tactics or by the books sales pitches may work for some businesses, they won't work for everyone, and best practice I have found is just be authentic to you and your business! If you want to overshare and use lots of smiley emojis, do it! If you want to write short stories when post content or do business in pjamas, do it! Don't feel like you need to put on a facade to succeed, as people will see through it, and it will wear you out trying to maintain it on your social media, on your website, and via email.
06. Invest some time into getting your systems and process in to place
Take some time to sit down and map out your business processes and systems, focussing on the important core ones that make your business go round.
Think about what systems/processes you might need in place from the start, and try and clarify them. Steps like:
What will you do when someone enquires about a project (quoting, payments, timelines etc)
How you plan to wrap up a project with files and off-boarding information
Project numbers and how many clients you want to take on a month
Storing client information and project timelines
By setting intentional systems early on, it just guarantees that your clients won't get confused on the process, you'll be confident to take on anyone as there is a clear way forward, and it's just more time you can actually spend working on actual projects!
07. Find some business besties
It can be a super lonely road when starting up a new business, especially if you are launching straight in to freelancing and working from home from the get go. While I am all for alone time (hi, INFJ-T here), I do find surrounding yourself with like-minded business besties (they don't have to be in the same niche as you) helps you to spring board ideas off, vent to, share highs and lows, and pass on/gain knowledge from, leaving you feeling motivated, inspired, and supported.
Joining a supportive community online like a Facebook group can be a great place to start, as it takes the pressure off face to face meetings if you can't find a business bestie in your home town, and you can connect with people from all over the world (this is how I met my copywriter!). Or turning up to local networking events or conferences. Even if you are like me and HATE networking, even going along to listen to the speakers and eyeballing some of the people in the room and then grabbing a few biz cards can be the start of a great friendship (this is how I met my accountant!).
08. Play around with 'Personal Projects'
You've just started your new business, you know who you want to target, you've set up your website, you've set up your social accounts, you know you are dang good at your job, but...crickets. You have no work to put up, especially if you are coming from a 9-5 and don't have anything to add to your portfolio, does this sound familiar? This was me at the start! I had just come from uni and the work I had done I was proud of, but it wasn't where I wanted to head any more design-wise. So I started creating a few concept/personal/passion projects (fancy names for faux projects essentially). I set the brief, chose the biz name, made a fake persona and began creating designs that I both loved, and hoped to one day use for real-life brands and websites.
By doing this, you begin to bulk up your portfolio and show the world that this is the style you love/are good at/want to do more of, and soon people will begin getting in touch!
09. Invest in quality design (website/printed collateral/branding etc)
Okay, I may be biased, but if you are backing yourself to be a real life profitable professional business, I recommend investing in quality design all round. It doesn't have to be expensive! But do your research, look around for a designer who will take your vision and bring it to life for your target audience. The investment will pay for itself as your ideal clients will e rolling in after seeing your gorgeous design, knowing you mean business.
If you are designing for yourself (hello creatives out there) - treat yourself like a client! That means don't be airy fairy, stick to a brief, give yourself a deadline, and nail your target audience.
10. Charge What You Are Worth
This is an easy one to say when looking back, but I know how hard it is to set your pricing for the first time and feel that sharp jolt of imposter syndrome and anxiety at the figure staring back at you. Who are you to think you can charge people for your time, how could you ever think your skills are worth that much? Better just drop it it down to $50 for a logo, that looks better. NO! No matter what background you have come from, what skills you have, you have taken the steps to start a business and put blood sweat and tears into learning your craft. Don't let the fear of rejection or less clients put you off charging your worth, as the people you lose aren't the clients you want.
Elle & Company's No Fuss Formula for Pricing her Services
And I think that just about wraps up that terribly long waffle about my top 10 tips for starting a successful creative small business! I hope some parts of this are helpful, and if you have any questions about any of these points, or your own tips, leave me a comment below :)