If there is one question I get asked most by designers and other creatives thinking of starting a business, it is “How did you do it?” Wow, that’s a big question and can be taken so many ways. There is the “business” side of things…a trade name, a bank account and a LLC. The financial aspect…budgets, projections and business plans. Finally, there is the emotional side…taking a leap of faith, trusting your instincts and learning to depend on yourself for everything. WOW! It’s a really big question, huh?
Honestly, I started slow. I’m cautious by nature…conservative…and some may say a bit of a pessimist. My husband is a “dream bigger darling” kind of guy and I actually leaned on him a lot when I started ABD. I did leave my full time job — not necessarily to start the business — but because I knew I wasn’t happy or fulfilled in any way, shape or form. While I loved the people I worked with, I hated everything else. Not a way that anyone should live…
So, I started back at a part time job I had in college, and I created ABD…well, it was Handmade by Allison in those days. I was lucky to have a hubby with an accounting background, so he helped me set up the nuts and bolts of the business. That left me with the rest. So, I started small — I had a handful of clients my first year. But, those clients told their friends and family and my business grew and after a couple years, I had my own studio, employees and hundreds of clients — and rebranding to Allison Barnhill Designs! That evolution sounds easy, but don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work.
So, if you are ready to do the work, here are a few first steps to get you get you going.
Do the “Nuts and Bolts”
Apply for a trade name through your state, set up your business as an LLC and get a separate business bank account for your new business. DO NOT skip this step. Yes, there is a bit of an investment to make these things happen, and it might seem daunting, but there are a lot of resources out there to help you. It is worth it in the long run to ensure you are a legal business and can account for your finances properly. Having a small business accountant can help with this process and I highly recommend Tom Barnhill Accounting Services (aka, my hubby). While I’m biased, he does work with many small business owners in the wedding industry, which is a huge benefit.
Do the “Research”
Part of being a small business owner is having the guts to jump both feet into the fire and make things happen. But, the most successful business owners have done their research. They know their industry, competition and market. If you are starting a stationery design business, then you need to investigate the best suppliers for cardstock, envelopes and ribbon, so you know their costs to you. You need to find a printing company that fits your needs. You should also see who the other stationery designers in your market are, what they provide and maybe even their costs. All of this information will give you a better understanding of how you can market yourself to potential clients and be competitive too. I’m not counting out your education, natural talent, personality or other intangibles that can make or break a business. Just saying that by doing your research, you have a better chance for success.
Make a “Plan”
When you are starting out, it is easy to just want to jump right into designing your logo and setting up a website….honestly, that’s the fun part! But, I think it is just as important to make a plan for your first year. Some creatives will use the term “goal setting”, some accountants may call it a “budget”, but honestly, it is just a plan. I think most people know that a plan is the right thing to do, but sometimes it seems easier to just run into the fray and hope for the best. But, if you don’t know what you want to accomplish, then how will you ever know if you are successful? Define your success. It can be based on a financial goal — stopping your part time job in a year and going full time with your new business. It could be getting contracts for 15 new clients or maybe it’s just going to bed on a Sunday night, excited to start your Monday. So, make the plan now and then you can always go back and measure your success and regroup if needed.
In the long run, starting and running your own successful small business gives you a sense of empowerment that is unlike any other. You drive your own destiny and can take it wherever you want to go. Don’t be afraid to start. Embrace the journey. And, then, you can answer the question, “How did I do it?”