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Marketing

5 things that helped me survive the first five years of my new business

We’ve all heard 60% of businesses fail in the first three years of operating and three out of four fail within five years. The message is clear: getting through the first five years of a new business is TOUGH.

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I’ve officially been self-employed for over five years now. I’ve never been starving and have managed to do quite a lot in that time. I didn’t have to work 60 hour weeks to get by. In fact, my average is probably closer to 30 hours-per-week (although admittedly some weeks are 50 and some are 20).

So, to those of you who are starting out in solo-town, there is hope! Here’s what I did when starting my new business:

1. I changed what I was doing when my passion waned

Sometimes you’re just not feelin’ it. And that’s ok! It took me a long time to accept that it was perfectly fine to go through periods where there was no oxygen in my fire for design, running a business, dealing with clients, or all of the above.

Shifting of moods and desires is just part of being human, and I have no interest in being anything else (although humans do kind of suck at times). The problem was, a loss of passion often meant a loss of creativity, which isn’t ideal in my line of work.

"Was there some discontentment or doubt in my personal life that was eating away at my desire to be a productive, passionate business owner? "

Whenever this happened, I never allowed apathy to take over. I went straight into analysis mode and worked on editing something until I’d retraced my steps along the footpath of indifference and back to my happy place.

Was there some discontentment or doubt in my personal life that was eating away at my desire to be a productive, passionate business owner? Or was some of the work I was doing not aligned with my values and thus, slowly eating away at my soul?

Perhaps ironically, I often found the answer within a transformation of my own preconceived idea of how things should be. In other words, it’s not you, it’s me!

For example, I’ve always been proud of my wide-reaching skillset, feeling that I had a lot to offer as I could tackle any design problem that was thrown at me. A few years ago, I found myself working on a lot of website projects. I love web design, but when I had my head buried in code day after day I started to feel frustrated. I could do the coding work, no problem, but I realised that I didn’t really enjoy it because it wasn’t designed. I felt passionless on the days that I had to work on these projects, resulting in procrastination and general unhappiness.

So now whenever I get a web project that needs development work, I collaborate with a developer who loves code. I realised the thing that was getting in the way was my tendency to want to control everything. I had to learn how to let go.

Takeaways: When you lose your passion, you just have to say to yourself, “If I don’t like care about that anymore, that’s ok. But what DO I care about?”

2. I got rid of the people who didn’t use my abilities to their advantage

A year ago I had to say goodbye to a client for the very first (and hopefully last) time. He was the first client I ever had. But the simple truth was that I’d changed, and so had the kind of clients I now worked with.

In the beginning, when I was a bit desperate for work, I spent a lot of time with him, often having pointless meetings in his office that lasted hours while I helped him work through a range of things. I sucked it up because he was paying me and woohoo! I was finally doing it! After all, he was fabulous enough to believe in me from the beginning (for which I’m eternally grateful). Plus, part of my job is to be a dutiful listener, provide lots of reassurances, and jump when someone says jump, right?

But after a while, I realised I’d become a total pushover, and pushovers just don’t do good work.

This guy wasn’t really valuing my time, and he also wasn’t valuing what I could offer as a professional. He was never open to new ideas, which I felt was sabotaging his potential to reach a wider audience.

I realised he’d only picked me because I was simply too nice to say “Sorry, but it looks CRAP and OLD”. It was too late to change things, so for both our sake, I moved on.

Takeaways: Don’t be a pushover or people will treat you like one. Work on your boundaries and stick to them.

3. I worked on my ego

This must sound completely hypocritical after the last point where I had a sook about not being valued. But, hear me out.

Keeping your business chugging along and having customers come back comes down to a beautifully synchronised dance of knowing when to provide input and when to let someone else speak. It’s choosing the perfect moment to shut up and stand back while another person does a lovely little twirl.

Designers are notorious for being egotistical and pushing back when a client doesn’t like the work they do. But I’d like to think I’ve mastered the art of admitting when I’m wrong, even when it’s probably more often than I’d like.

People appreciate when you can take critical feedback well, with minimal ego or need to explain yourself. It’s important to know that you’re not perfect, so don’t pretend to be – customers and clients will see through it.

Take this imperfection as an opportunity. There are always things to be learned, and most of the time, even though you know your art, product or service inside-out; your judgement alone often isn’t enough to produce the best result.

I believe that perfecting this dance has meant that my opinions and input are much more valued by the people I work with because I also highly value theirs. Thus, mutual respect has been established and we can be honest with each other with no knickers getting twisted.

Takeaways: Only when you value others, will people truly value you (and surprise, surprise, they will return because you’re awesome).

4. I never stopped learning

This applies to learning about new things in your industry, honing technical skills, and just learning in general.

I completed an entire postgraduate course in Design Anthropology, for no other reason than the fact that I love to design and I wanted to understand how it affects humans and shapes the world we live in. Sounds wanky, and it was. But also amazing.

Have I used it much in my actual business practice? Not really. But it was an incredibly exciting thing to learn about and sparked a 2.5 year working trip around the world. I have no doubt it has made me better at what I do and a much more confident and capable business owner. It helped me to understand the psychology of what makes us tick, as well as broader cultural nuances that made me a more conscious designer that helped shaped a unique philosophy about sustainable design.

This philosophy has resulted in more interest from potential clients who share these values – opening up doors for me to do work I truly love and care about.

Takeaways: It’s probably better to learn new things without the sole intention to make a quick buck, or you might be sorely disappointed. Learn new things that will ensure your business stays relevant and present in a rapidly changing world. Keep up with the personal – as well as professional – development if you want to be at the top of your game.

5. I stopped comparing myself to others

This one took me a while to work on and I suspect that’s pretty common. It’s really tough looking at the amazing work other people do and the success they’ve had without feeling envy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away with my tail between my legs thinking “I’ll never be that good”.

But as I started to build my client base and get repeat business I realised something: that these particular people were coming to me because I was unique. Not in like a “I’m the BEST because I’m SPECIAL, mwuahahaha” kind of way. But in the “Everyone is unique in their own way” kind of way.

I realised that if I focused my attention on the work that I love and am good at, and on the kind of business I want to run – rather than trying to be the best and most successful designer in the world – then I will continue to attract people who are looking for that specific thing.

And I’ll be the best at that specific thing.

Now when I look at other people’s beautiful work and their success, I feel happy for them. No doubt they have worked very hard to get to where they are, and if I work hard at my unique thing, I can too.

Takeaways: Look at what others are doing, but don’t feel disheartened when you try to mimic them and then struggle to find success. Instead, decide what sort of work YOU want to do, and then focus all your energy on that. Let people see what makes you shine.

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I’m very happy with my little 30 hour-per-week business. I value the flexibility, having more personal time, and the fact that what I’ve created is manageable and comfortable enough for me. Right now, I’m sitting in a cafe in Koh Phangan, Thailand, typing this. Yes, sometimes I question why I don’t try to grow my business and make more money when that seems like the ‘normal’ thing to do, but then I remember that I don’t have to do what’s ‘normal’ if it doesn’t feel right to me.

There’s no right or wrong. Whoever you are and whatever you’re creating, these points should help you stay true to yourself and what you value, and hopefully help you make it through the first five years and beyond: as a happy and successful soloist!

Has your new business made it to the five year mark? What did you do to get there?

Sonja Meyer

is a graphic and brand designer who works in print, web and user interface design. She works with an holistic approach that leads to more human-focussed and sustainable design outcomes.

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