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Things I’ve learned from my first year being self-employed

After celebrating my business birthday on 3rd October, I thought it would be great to evaluate my first year of working for myself and write about all that I’ve learned. It has been a testing, challenging, exciting and mostly fun learning curve and I’m not sure I would have realised any of the following things if someone had told me at the very beginning. Some things you have to learn on your own but if this helps someone, then I’m glad.

You can’t do absolutely everything

I look at other creatives who are self-employed or running businesses online and a lot of them are on facebook, twitter, have a large Instagram following, they keep up with Instagram stories, have a youtube channel, they’re on Patreon, hold in-person classes and workshops, they run a blog, promote their blog, they are pinning on Pinterest, they’re on Etsy and not on the high street as well as having a selection of amazing clients and are magically able to eat and sleep!

In reality, no one person is actually able to do all of the above and if they are, how? The internet is truly amazing in allowing us to do all of these things. I’ve just got to carefully choose which things I want to do as I can’t do it all.

This also applies to design work that I do, I can’t be everything to everyone. I can easily think that I’m a failure because I can’t design or illustrate like *insert artist’s name here* but I’m not them, and they’re not me. So I’ll carry on doing my thing. In fact, one could say that I’d be more of a failure if I didn’t do my thing and simply copied someone else.

Keep it simple

This almost ties in with the previous point but I have a tendency to over complicate things. I want to do all the things, and always have big plans but I’ve found recently that the key is to keep it simple. Right at the beginning of this year, I spent a lot of time thinking about my skills, what I could offer, what I’m good at and what I enjoy. There are a lot of things that I enjoy, for example, painting, hand lettering and I have a background in graphic design, I wondered how I could strike a balance where all of these things could feature in my shop. I found that I was fighting to keep all of these things together all at once and it meant that I just got confused and nothing seemed to work or make sense. Equally, I had plans for Wedding Stationery but how does that fit in with the Penguin Calendars? How does it all fit together? I panicked a lot about my shop and business being a little bit of a mix n match of different things but I learned that that was ok. The thing that ties it all together is me and my style. I aim to be a helpful and approachable designer and offer colourful, cute and personal design and illustration to you lovely people. As soon as I realised that, I’m a lot happier with my shop.

Do what you’re good at…at all times

Short story: Earlier on in the year, I started work on what was a small project. A Groom asked me to design some envelope liners and source some gorgeous envelopes for his Save the Dates. This was a project that I absolutely loved, starting work by looking at all the lovely paper samples was my idea of a perfect day! I went back and forth a couple of times with different paper and envelope samples. Every time I would send a paper sample in the post, I included a small hand-written note to explain what kind of paper sample I was sending. After a while, the Groom asked if I would hand write the addresses on his envelopes as he liked my handwriting so much. I have had a few comments on my handwriting before and make sure I put a little effort in whenever I write a note to someone, making sure it’s neat but I hadn’t considered offering handwritten envelopes as something I do. If you have something that you’re good at, keep doing it because someone will notice and one day you’ll be addressing 70 envelopes. I will be adding envelope addressing to my Etsy shop really soon.

Everything takes time

Drawing takes times. Improving takes time. Editing, printing, photographing all takes time. Healing takes time. I’d get frustrated earlier on in the year that I wasn’t growing as a business as fast as I’d like but these things all take time. I’m actually glad for the slow and steady growth because all this is a huge learning curve and there is a lot to learn. The slow and steady growth has helped me learn along the way.

Momentum

This brings me to momentum. I’m glad that things have taken time but at times I could have got things done a lot quicker. A lot of the time I’ve felt like I’m catching up with myself. I’ll write down ideas, finish what I’m doing (fret about that project, delay actually finishing it for a little while) work on the next priority and over time the enthusiasm fades for that idea or I never get round to even giving it a try. The experts would say that if I lose the enthusiasm for that idea, it wasn’t meant to be anyway but I’ve learned the importance of keeping up momentum and creating when the idea is fresh and it seems to be working at the moment.

Photography & Lightroom

As I said in my year roundup, I’ve learned so much about photography. I took the product photos of the Wedding Stationery samples about 3-4 times before I was happy with them, get the right background, getting the layout right, then learning all about lighting, exposure, white balance, and focus. Product photography is still the most difficult part of running my shop for me but I definitely see an improvement. It’s a lot quicker to create a photo that I like now and I no longer have to battle with my camera to get the right effect.

My photography life also changed the day that I downloaded Lightroom, a photo editing software from Adobe. It is seriously amazing for quick edits and I highly recommend it. I even have the app on my phone which has changed my Instagram life too!

Drawing & Layers

My drawing style has definitely changed (improved?) over the last year. I have done a lot more drawing than ever before, which has given me more confidence in my style. Over the last year, or even the last few months, I’ve started to use layers of paper to create the illustrations that I work on. I do this by using thin paper (not quite tracing or layout paper but cheaper pads of paper that I’ve found in a local stationery shop) sketching out the main shape of the illustration, then laying other piece of paper on top so that I can see the original illustration through and add the details, if it doesn’t work it’s fine because I haven’t had to erase the whole thing losing the original illustration! This has become especially useful in the Christmas card and Calendar designs that I’ve worked on recently. I layer up the drawings so that I don’t ruin the original pencil drawing by trying different details that may or may not work.

I carry this through to my work on illustrator and put the scanned pencil drawing on the first layer, roughly draw out the initial shapes on the second, add shapes of colour on the next, brush strokes to outline and add details on the following layer, then finally add a background behind it all and hide the original scan and rough shape layers. This may sound like such a simple thing but it’s a simple part of my workflow that keeps me organised and means it’s a lot easier to create and edit afterward.

I’m not dreadful at what I do

I was really struggling with my work before I was made redundant a year ago. I became so unsure of everything I worked on. I thought I had been progressing over the 6 years that I worked in the job but was still referred to as a Junior Designer, which knocked my confidence. I had worked so hard but was still seen as a Junior. Then over the last year, I have worked on some relatively small projects with clients who have been over the moon with the work that I’ve done and have been really complimentary of my work, which has been really great to hear. Not only that, I’ve had the chance to work on the projects that I’ve wanted to work on, in the style that I’ve wanted to use, through my Etsy shop and it hasn’t been dreadful.

Calm

I underlined the word calm on my list of things that I learned. All of these things are a complete work in progress and none more so than to keep calm. I remember many a day of fretting over my style, worrying about my ability, am I doing enough? Am I trying to do too much? Am I even cut out for all this? But I’m slowly learning not to worry about all this and to breathe, go for a walk, hide my phone and just get on with it.

So that was quite a lengthy list! I probably could go on for a while with everything I’ve learned in the last year! It has been a great year and I’m so thankful for the opportunity. Is there anything you would add to this list that may help others?