Confessions of an Accidental Business Owner

Full disclosure: during six years of art and design school, I never studied business or finance.

At the start of my career, I worked in my dad’s large commercial art studio in Milwaukee, doing grunt work and slowly working my way up to senior graphic designer. When my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease it became apparent that someone else would soon have to take the reins, or else the business would shut down.

I’m not sure if it was because I was a single mom at the time, or because my dad was worried about how it would look entrusting his 30+ year-old business to his daughter (a girl!) who clearly had no business experience. But he tried just about everything – including trusting a long-time, equally unqualified male employee – to avoid having me take over.

When there really was no choice left, and the business was heading seriously south, he finally caved and asked me to take charge. I immediately hired a business advisor, a new accountant and lawyer, and pared our staff down to just six. About two years later, I was approached by a large prepress firm who was interested in acquiring our business and I became their internal design director.

Fast forward to 2009 when the economy tanked. I was now living in Atlanta and working remotely as the Southeast US office for the prepress firm, establishing new clients here and occasionally traveling back to the main office in Milwaukee. When it became obvious that the economy could no longer support an Atlanta office, we parted ways very cordially. I set up my new business LLC, bought a new Mac, and continued working with clients here.

Over the past ten years, I’ve worked with many small businesses, non-profits and schools. For you independent business owners out there, accidental or otherwise, here are a few nuggets that I hope will help you in your daily efforts to see your passion become profitable.

1. Being busy doesn’t mean you’re being profitable.

Pay attention to what makes money for you and which clients are both respectful and profitable. Weed out the small, difficult, demoralizing clients who can be more demanding, and certainly less enjoyable, than those who offer respect and ample budgets.

2. Showing gratitude is very rewarding.

Paying vendors promptly, and showing your thanks to colleagues or suppliers who go above and beyond, is very much appreciated. People will be motivated to work with you when you are respectful of their time, and show appreciation by sending gift cards or handwritten thank you notes.

3. Having processes, systems, and documentation isn’t sexy, but it sure is effective.

Offering clients online payment and estimate approvals is so easy now. Proposals can be quickly and easily customized for email approvals, using online apps like Harvest and Proposify. I’m working now on Change Order documents and revising my current contract, based on client feedback and my own experiences.

4. Developing a community of trusted professionals is crucial.

If you work alone, it can be very isolating. Attending Meetup groups of your professional peers, going to networking events and attending seminars is essential. Over the years, I’ve collaborated with other creatives I met this way, and together we’ve produced some wonderful work.

5. Building a referral network can bring you new clients.

Following up with happy clients right after a project ends can reward you with positive Google reviews and referrals. Referrals are always better than cold-calling or pitching a hard-sell message. You may land a client right away. And even if you don’t, potential clients now have your information when they are ready to hire a professional.

Contact me for a free 15-minute consultation to talk about your graphic design or web design needs.

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