Have you ever wondered if there are right and wrong ways to start and grow a business?
My experience of being a freelance graphic designer since 2005 and finally taking the step to build a team and a real business in 2015 was a wild ride.
It’s been a life-changing journey of self-discovery and business exploration.
Having 2 kids to nurture at the same time added more spice to the flavour.
Taking many years to figure things out for myself was a great learning experience, but if I can share them with you, maybe it will help you shorten your time to success.
That said, as of anything, not everything here will work for you.
Most of them are mindset issues that were changed for the better. Some I
Here are my 9 expensive mistakes to avoid when growing a business:
This could be a sign of being a perfectionist.
What’s the problem with overthinking?
Thinking and making decisions take time.
I used to take days and weeks to decide on things like: whether to send an email to followup with a customer, which is a better app to buy to help my business or whether to buy at all and whether to publish a post on design tips.
The list goes on and this is a complete waste of time.
The same situation may happen again and I can dish out a process to make the decision quicker than before.
That was a life-saving idea!
#2 Focussing On Tools
I love techie apps and tools.
Especially those that are designed with user experience in mind, it’s so easy and fun to browse and play around with.
Problem is, I take hours and sometimes days toying with these tools when I don’t necessarily need them to move the business forward.
So many apps claim to be help bring leads and profit and their free trials do not help steer me aways from spending time checking them out.
In the earlier days of my business, instead of thinking I can work less and find a shortcut using these tools, I should do things that do not scale and build upon it.
Not that tools are not useful, but I got to know later that different tools are useful at different stages of my business.
An expensive tool may help someone bring in millions of dollars, that does not mean it will work for me if I were still looking for clients to keep the lights on.
#3 Delivering The Work Thinking It’s Faster
As a freelancer, I did everything, from cold calling prospects to the actual designing of deliverables to sending an email to every client to show them my design drafts.
This process went on for so many years, it has been ingrained in my system on autopilot.
The habit is not only hard to kick, I’d rather do all the work than to sit and not do anything.
Doing nothing became harder than getting busy.
Four years ago I learned that to free up time for myself yet serve my customers at the same time, I must hire a good designer to take over the work I’ve been doing.
You must be thinking this is easy, since there are easily millions of designers all over the world.
This step took me 3 years to overcome and in between, I struggled.
There were self-doubts that I was not a good leader and I had thoughts that the designers I’ve hired are fakes and not good enough.
None of these are true.
Then why did I think I wasn’t doing right or that the designers were not.
Every time I assign a design brief to them, each came back nothing what I wanted.
I had to take 4 hours a day to redesign everything they have done.
That led me to conclude that I might as well do the work on my own.
Truth is, it’s all in my muscle memory that I had to work on them to tell myself that I’m useful and helping the customers.
It was all in my head.
This was frustrating because I was at a stage where I knew I had to set aside time to be in the Queen Bee Role that is most important to grow my business.
But there I was paying designers and finding myself doing all the work, still having no time to work on promoting my business.
That’s when I knew I had to do something.
With this awareness, I decided to do a test.
I submitted my designer’s work and my version to the customer and waited for the feedback.
The result? The customer preferred my designer’s work over mine.
I did this test a few times and realised, it’s not about my choices or design eye.
It’s about the customers and the designers. It’s not about me.
This also made me realised I was worrying about my customer’s judgement of the design and that they may despise me for passing work off to my designer instead of me putting time and effort to do it myself.
Truth is, the customers just needed something to work well for them and my designers just wanted to become better designers, improve their lives and make ends meet.
With that, I started to invest about 1 hour of my time daily to create guides, curate resources and develop a micro learning centre for our designers to train themselves to be better people and designers.
This mindset shift helped produced better results for both clients and designers and freed up more of my time to focus on sales and marketing. This in turn helped to grow the business.
#4 Focussing On Solutions
Thanks to Sean D’Souza’s book: The Brain Audit: Why Customers Buy (and Why They Don’t), I became more aware and curious to customers’ problems more than solutions.
The more I think of solutions, the more my services become just like anyone else’s.
I commoditised myself.
When I focussed on solutions, these are the only things I thought I could offer:
- Quality — my designs have to be nicer
- Speed — my turnaround got to be within the next minute
- Cost — really cheap and free designs
In short, I battled myself to become better than others in the wrong way.
It’s a short-sighted view that the world only needs me as their designer.
It’s also the wrong mind-set that requests will start flooding my inbox with these solutions.
Here are my inflection points:
When my customers criticised my work, I thought my designs were bad. Truth is, they just don’t work for them. It’s like some people don’t like the design of a BMW car while some love it due to their personal reasons.
When customers asked “When can I have the drafts?”, I thought they wanted it fast, but in fact they are afraid of the unknown.
This is completely normal and human. It’s great if they can receive it sooner, but the question is not asking for delivery to be faster as a solution.
When customers tell me they don’t have the budget to pay for my service, I thought I’m charging too high. I thought that lowering my costs will tempt someone to choose my service instead of the other expensive option.
Point is, focussing on solutions took my mind away from problems my customers are facing.
It made me think of what I can offer to give more people.
Instead, I should be focussing on what people are looking for before coming up with something to help them.
#5 Not Setting Boundaries To Please Everyone
This could be a mindset or self-esteem issue.
I loved making everyone happy.
I used to try really hard to please everyone but I was the one who ended up losing it.
Everyday of my life used to be like this:
The first thing I jumped out of bed was to go to my computer and work on the next design for the next client.
I was so reactive that I responded to emails the next minute I received them.
That was all I have been doing really, hiding behind the screen working hard for clients.
The best I’ve ever become was a good technical designer and people pleaser, that’s it.
In those days, my life did not include things like scheduling or blocking time off for myself and was simply reactive to any client request.
The problem seemed to be time management.
But it’s not.
Self-awareness alerted: the issue was lack of boundaries.
I thought clients will stick with me if I do anything and everything for them.
I thought I need more clients to have regular income, more money and more security.
I used to wonder why some designers had to charge clients after three rounds of changes and why didn’t they provide a 24 hour 7 days a week service.
Not many people did that, so I let that happen, thinking it was the best thing ever for people looking for design services.
I did not articulate this to my clients, instead when they called me at 12AM to make a change, I did what they say.
When they emailed me a change at 7AM, I responded and delivered right away.
Once a client sends an urgent request, I would drop everything I was doing and give that client my full attention.
Eventually, every request became urgent.
I thought being quick to react is a good thing to do.
There’s nothing wrong building a business that provides 24/7 unlimited design service, but can I handle the workload round the clock?
Shouldn’t I start hiring and bringing more sales to support this promise?
But what if I don’t have more sales for the week?
If clients asked me for help anytime, shouldn’t I say “yes” because a “no” may disappoint them and that seemed like chasing them out the door?
I hated to disappoint anyone.
Any feedback from clients that was negative pushed me to do anything to please them.
Hence they asked for more, I gave them more, and the cycle went on…
I was the best designer anyone could ever have.
And so I thought.
In 2013 I gave so much that some I became so tired and burned out, I blamed every client on how I felt and walked away from the design field.
I tried dabbling in the food and beverage business, helping sports athletes and many other shiny objects that have nothing to do with design.
Little did I know it’s not the industry that tired me out.
What I didn’t know was I had to be intentional in everything I do.
The clients have no fault at all.
I gave them the freedom to take mine away.
On hindsight, I could have communicated how our working relationship would be to set the expectations right from the get-go.
The reason for my existence should not be to please people to feel good about myself.
I should be helping my clients as much as I can with my cup full.
In order to do that, I need to take well-needed breaks rather than to snap at anyone because I feel tired and unappreciated. This did not happen before, but I was almost there.
I also need to set aside time to build new relationships, build the business and help more people.
With more revenue, that’s when I have more resources to hire great designers and then move towards expanding the boundaries to offer things like 24/7 and same day services.
For me to have time to do all that, I need to set the time myself and communicate this set of time to my clients and make this happen.
In fact, clients appreciate boundaries more than not because, without them, they feel unsafe, thinking that if you can help them anytime, you can also help your 100th client anytime.
There’s no need to be super smart to understand this concept that they will wonder if you are able to put in 100% of your time in their work.
They know you may be spread too thin to withstand another round of request from them.
If they don’t feel safe working with you, the trust in you may be eroded and by time, they may walk away to find someone else.
I took awhile to let this sink in and finally in 2017, my life changed. Client work used to take up 7 days of every week.
Now, weekends are reserved for myself and family time, nothing to rush and more time to recover and do better the next week.
Same with the designer I am working with now. I’m very blessed that she’s always working really hard and still putting in the hours after stipulated work times.
But I set the boundaries for her to only work 8 hours a day, no more.
Anyone who works with us will always have their weekends free, thanks to setting boundaries.
#6 Hiding Behind The Screen
As mentioned above, I loved hiding behind the screen to just do, do and do only client work.
Mainly because it’s really easier to work on things that are given to you.
In my case, I was lazy, to just take and do, take and take, rather than produce or create my own stuff.
Hence, that’s what I had been doing and that gave me the illusion that I was useful being busy.
Then one day my first child came into this world.
I had to care for him, but my hands were full — Well, my mind only knew to react to my client’s urgent requests.
I used to multi-task a lot when I was alone, but somehow it’s different with another person in tow.
I couldn’t do it anymore.
That was when I realised, I needed help.
I turned to online groups, forums and communities to see how they do what they do and the world just opened up right in front of my eyes.
I’m still behind the screen literally, but the work is different this time.
The work has more connections and friendships involved.
Networking isn’t about just selling anymore — I used to think that selling is just to trick someone in giving me money.
It’s about building relationships, partnerships and helping one another.
It’s not about who’s better but about being different and supporting each other.
With these relationships, I learned many things from many awesome founders.
These communities live on facebook and I read many posts by them, absorbing and asking questions based on what they wrote.
Each day of immersing myself in these communities taught me more than I’ve learned from reading books and hiding behind my screen of Illustrator and Photoshop.
A big lesson I learned from these founders was to set aside some time everyday to work on myself, my own business assets rather than putting 99% of my time on client work.
Working hard on client work is great, thinking about clients is the right way to do business. But these should take only a percentage of my time, leaving 80% of my time on building my own assets.
This may sound selfish, but this has a purposeful meaning tagged to it.
This has to be done so that my business can grow, free up my time to lead the lifestyle I want and in turn show up everyday with more motivation and feel happier to serve all my customers better.
I could have been part of these communities this much earlier.
#7 Focussing On Processes Too Early
Processes and systems are drivers that can help your business grow and scale.
But I found out the hard way that these are only required at a stage where my sales system is in place such that I understand what works in my case for customers to buy from me.
I’ve been a member of the Dan’s Mastermind Group since 2015 and love the people there. They are always willing to help without asking for anything in return.
One issue for me was, I joined the group when my business was at it’s infancy and the rest of the cohort were many steps ahead of me.
At that time, they discussed a lot about tools, processes and systems.
With that, I got the impression that these are what I needed to move faster.
Nobody talks about sales being the most important thing for starters because they were already past that stage.
Processes are important, but coming back to prioritisation, if the stage I was at called for sales, I had to do that as much as I can first and spend 80% of my time on sales rather than processes.
In retrospect, here are the steps I would have taken to grow a business from scratch in order of priority:
- Beta offer — free or introductory price
- Sales — building relationships and selling
- Hiring — building a team to support growth
- Marketing — partnerships and network
- Processes and systems — creating a ‘well-oiled machine’
- Products — Improve solutions and product offerings
#8 Copying to succeed
Many people have succeeded in all kinds of businesses, so I thought, why can’t I?
For many years, I thought the way to do this is to copy what others have done to also find success.
While successful people are not selfish and share what they have done and labelled them as secrets, I figured that we won’t actually know the real “secrets”.
A lot of times, success is different for everyone and different people are living in different circumstances.
There’s no way one can 100% carbon copy the steps of a successful company and make that his or her own.
Even if that is possible, what’s the purpose to have a couple of the exact same business?
Simply Google and you’ll find too many people offering this. Anyone can just set up a website and say they offer unlimited designs.
I’ve never charged extra for changes since I started freelancing in 2005, doesn’t that make my services unlimited right from the start?
Yes, I’ve actually been offering that, but would my way of working work if I removed myself from the day-to-day design tasks?
Would that work if I have hundreds of clients?
Copying is easy because we can see what’s on the surface.
Anyone can copy, but after this experience, I realised there’s more to just telling people what I do and my services.
It’s fine to copy a segment of another business and build upon it, nothing wrong with that. But there’s more to just putting, “First Unlimited Graphic Design in the World” on my website.
In 2015, there were many subscription businesses popping up. It’s a great pricing model, but there’s more to just creating a retainer offer.
There are so many factors that affect the end results, not just what I say about my business.
The biggest secrets lie in oneself. Look inward often enough and you’ll discover them.
#9 Not Working Out the Finances First
After many failed ventures these past decade, I realised one big mistake made was rushing to start something without first checking the financial feasibility.
As mentioned above, I focussed so much on solutions that all my ideas seemed to work.
Jumping right into it may not be wrong, since I had to act fast.
But not taking into account the costs to get things going led me to spend as and when I wished.
That may dangerously lead to what happened to Billy McFarland who founded the Fyre Festival.
Not to the point of cheating, but it teaches us that our imagination can bring us so far that realistically it may not be possible.
It’s always good to first double check if things will work out on paper or not before investing in time, people and infrastructure.
Checking financial numbers right from the start helps to figure out how much to pay myself, my team members, all the marketing activities and production costs.
That in turn helps to determine how much I should charge my clients to take back the right amount of profit to keep my business thriving and sustainable.
Putting the numbers down on paper can be done right away and feasibility can be known on the spot!
What Have You Learned?
As mentioned above, these are what I’ve learned as I went from solo freelancing to growing a team.
These may or may not work for you.
At some point I hope this will help you avoid as much mistakes to in turn make new and less expensive ones and succeed soon.