I’m a firm believer that job titles on a resume don’t tell the whole story. The reasons we make the decisions we do say as much (or more) about who we are – our passions, values, and strengths – than the bullet points full of formal technical language that tend to grace the blurbs of our LinkedIn profiles.
And so, here is my story. It is as truthful about the ups and downs I’ve experienced getting to where I am today as I could make it given I’m writing from a personal reflection.
Freelance Graphic & Web Designer
SEPT 2019 – AUG 2011
Imagine you are graduating from college as the solo parent to a one-year-old. And it’s the tail end of the Great Recession. Obviously, life is boring and you need a little challenge. Right?
Evaluating my options for starting my career as a designer, I saw three paths:
- Keep my in-house co-op job. Great company culture. Boring and repetitive work. Some opportunity for growth, but hard to see an appealing future role. AKA the ‘safe’ option.
- Work at an agency. Exciting work with well known brands. Learn from senior designers. Highly competitive, with long hours expected when starting out (bye-bye baby).
- Start freelancing. Agency to own entire design projects early on. Higher hourly rates and ability to set my own schedule = perfect work-life balance. #livingthedream
Ah, youthful ignorance. How I miss you.
Using the knowledge I gained from my undergrad in Visual Communications, lots of Googling, plus a little fake-it-till-you-make-it confidence, I hung out my shingle as a graphic designer for hire.
This will be easy, right?
I served small and medium local businesses (primarily referrals from family and friends) with brand design and advertising collateral. I also learned web design (a combination of self-taught and night classes) to offer design packages that included a brochure-style website.
Did you know you can charge more for websites when the clients can self-manage them?
I jumped into learning the world’s most popular content management system, WordPress. It took me so many hours to learn and start implementing in those early days. This was the first lesson I learned about listening to the market. And by that, I mean approximately none of my clients ever actually managed their own content.
Business was great when it was great, but I learned quickly about the feast or famine cycle of being a service-based entrepreneur offering one-off design projects.
I like to think of this period of my life as a trial by fire entry into the world of entrepreneurship.
Boutique Communications Agency | Principal
SEPT 2011 – SEPT 2014
Listening to the needs of my clients, I added additional services to my original service offerings. Copywriting, social media management, ad-buying, SEO. My clients wanted me to do EVERYTHING.
But I didn’t know how to tell if I was actually getting results.
Driven by my love of learning and utter lack of confidence, I enrolled in a graduate program in Corporate Communications Management. I learned tactical skills but found my passion was developing strategic plans that pulled everything together to achieve a specific aim.
Upon graduating, my client base began to shift.
Using marketplaces like Freelancer and Upwork, I expanded to projects with businesses outside of my network. Recognizing that I didn’t want to be in a race to the bottom, my bidding strategy was simple:
Bid 10x the top competing bid accompanied by a strategy-focused proposal that outlined why the project as requested wouldn’t achieve the client’s goals, and how I would restructure the project to ensure ROI.
I would usually complete one or two projects with a new client to build up trust, and then put them on a retainer to help avoid the ups and downs of project work.
Because of my initial client-building strategy, there was very little overlap in the industries of my clients. I worked with a consumer electronic retailer, an HR consultant, a tech startup founder with multiple projects spinning, a design agency, and a print-on-demand publishing service.
I got busy and grew a team of contractors to assist.
…slowly things started to fall apart.
Missing or delayed invoice payments. Clients closing up shop. A monthly burn rate which quickly outgrew the income as a result.
After years of hustling, both my bank account and my spirit were too burnt out to keep going.
I made the difficult decision to take an in-house marketing contract and keep any additional freelance work to small projects I could manage by myself with little overhead.
This was the start of making myself smaller. Taking fewer risks. A trend that, sadly, continues in this story.
(to be continued…)