With half a million dollars in debt, I was lost. This was my own doing: getting married, having a baby and getting our own home shouldn’t all come together at one shot, but they did. Especially in Singapore where housing isn’t cheap (you’d be lucky to find an 800 sq ft HDB flat at US$180,000), I must say we could have been smarter about our lives.
Back then, my husband and I were both freelance graphic designers. The thing about freelancing is this, you may be able to work for many clients and earn as much as you deserve, but there is just that many clients you can serve in a day.
Also, as a freelancer, my clients were free to stop working with us anytime. Well, this can happen in any business as well. But our mistake came from our negligence to get the word out about our service so as to maintain the incoming flow of new clients.
Somehow in 2013, the year my first son was born, suddenly all my clients stopped working with us. It wasn’t about the quality of our service, it wasn’t because we were unlikable or shy. Just so happened they didn’t have anything that needed design help.
At the same time, I was so burned out from our previous work and babysitting that I wanted to give up freelance designing altogether. I was at a place where I didn’t believe in the graphic design industry anymore and that it was the toughest job ever.
We were kind of doomed in a way. Picture this: We had a huge mortgage loan, credit card debts, a baby to feed, ourselves to feed and we had no job. One blessing for us was, we had a roof over our heads, a credit card, a laptop, internet connection and each other. That’s it!
I was a desperate cow and the first thing I did was to hit Google to search for “ways to earn quick cash”, and the results I got were to buy products promising millions. These business people were ridiculous! People like me doing such searches are already so poor, where do we find the money to pay them to make them richer, and to find ourselves nothing to eat for the day?
If you are in a similar situation, you probably only have enough to get by on a daily basis and not even enough to keep the lights on. Yet you may have seen advice around to tell you to pick up this new skill, that new skill or run some advertisements or hang around people smarter than you. I’ve been there, I get you that it’s hard to pull yourself out of something that feels like quicksand.
These gurus may say the right things, but their circumstances may be different. Some of them I knew are successful and went around to say they started with nothing. But when I asked one of them how did she start a business when she had no money, she said her husband was working for a huge corporation and that helped support her entrepreneurial aspirations. I thought if I were in her situation, it could have been so much easier.
There was simply no cookie-cutter advice. But with the internet and a laptop was good enough to start and I had to do something with what I had. The first thing I did was to spend a week reading books, blogs and listening to podcasts about those who were in the same boat as I was.
That week, my credit card debts rose, but I knew where I was heading having immersed myself in good content to feed my brain with ideas to workaround our dire situation. These content included interviews done by John Lee Dumas on the Entrepreneur On Fire podcast and books by Tony Robbins and Jim Rohn.
At that time I wasn’t fully calm at all. While taking action on my life, at the back of my mind was a wild panic mode in top gear. Thoughts were racing in my head such as:
What if we don’t get clients soon enough?
What if things just don’t work out?
What if our families get worried and force us to find a job?
What if we had to declare ourselves as bankrupt?
We were living in fear and insecurity. Not just because we didn’t have money, it was partly due to my desire to prove to myself that I find success in my own terms and also because we didn’t know if what we did would leave us worse off.
Next, I did tons of exercises as mentioned on the books and blogs mentioned by the successful people I followed. Listed below are those that worked for me out of the massive bulk of advice you see out there.
Find your genius zone
This is a place where your skills and passions intersect with the marketplace. In other words, ask yourself, out of all the things that you enjoy doing and do really well, what are those that many people are asking for?
In my case, I’ve been freelancing since 2005, but that was when I was fresh out of school and raring to go. Though I got by for many years, I didn’t really know what I was doing then. In 2013 when things were in disarray, I was disillusioned about where freelance designing was bringing me. Hence, this exercise was short enough to convince me if I should carry on to do business in design or not. I listed things like graphic and web design, sports and fitness, mental toughness and gaming and food. Two things came up tops for me and they were indeed graphic design and mental toughness.
After this exercise, I started my own podcast on mental toughness to scratch my own itch in the athletic world. Thanks to John Lee Dumas’ advice, I joined a couple of Facebook Groups and simply joined in the conversations. After a few days of connecting with the members, I realised there were a lot of them asking for opinions and votes to select the best podcast artwork, logo and other graphics. A lot of them also needed advice on what kind of design works well to stand out. That was when I started to voice out what I know to help them out.
Do free work and freelance first
Getting known in a small group that you are good in something actually helps to get your name out there. I was not an expert in podcasting and just happened to start a podcast out of moving away from design for a while and looking for something to help me earn some cash, possibly via advertisements or affiliate marketing. I ended up helping people with their design work once again and actually getting paid once again and loving it.
But I did not get paid at the beginning.
I was desperate but did not seem like one. I started giving away free information on what I know based on the problems people already had in the Facebook Group. Start giving away your service for free just for a while to build trust. It can be morphed into a business later on.
You may wish to start as a freelancer first by creating offers based on your genius zone. In my case, this means tailoring my services based on clients’ requests. This means each request may be very different and you have to customise it to the specific client.
When I first started freelancing, bringing home an income was the first thing in mind. Hence I did everything from logo design to packaging to illustration. So long I was able to use a software that I’m an expert in (ie. Adobe), I would charge someone in exchange for work. If you wish to start off the same way, know that it’s similar to being in the first year of art school. That’s when you will be exposed to many things in the artsy world like sketching to photography.
While freelancing, you have to cover everything from your finances to work on the designs and final delivery. It’s a great starting point to find a firm footing for yourself to make a decent living, pay up your bills and basic needs first.
Besides joining Facebook Groups as mentioned in the first step, the next thing I did was to visit a few of my favourite podcasters’ websites to have a look at what they have, such as lead magnets, workbooks, ebooks, cheatsheets or anything that I can provide in the field of graphics. Then I got to work on these items without them having to ask me in the first place. All I wanted to do was to improve on their designs.
Once done, I sent them a message with the artwork and let them use it in any way they want. That’s all. However, be prepared that not all of them are willing to buy. Sometimes timing plays a part. I have received responses that they are happy to do it themselves or they don’t need better designs. They are appreciative either way and we still keep in touch.
People work with people they know and trust. When I first started, prospects did not know me, giving away my time for free allowed us to know each other better. After I got my foot in the door, that was my chance to know what works for these people. Then, I learned as much as I can on what makes me different from other designers.
This is one good way to build up your professional portfolio, build trust with more people and then transform into an ongoing profitable business.
See yourself at the end in mind
In other words, answer this question first:
Where do you see yourself in 90 days, 12 months, 24 months and more?
Though this is where most self-proclaimed success gurus would suggest we start, and they usually would have said something like “start with the end in mind”. Don’t get me wrong, this is a necessary step, but I intentionally placed this last and rephrased it differently.
Why? I don’t want to lie. I read tons of books in the hopes of starting a business without money, yet, people are telling me to see through my pain when I can’t get past putting food on the table. How could I bring myself to think of the future when I seemed to be at the end of the road? In fact, I only started with the end in mind after I had a few clients working regularly with me and paying me enough for me to eat and live in peace.
A lot of times starting with the end in mind made me overthink and spent more time wondering if I started with the end in mind the right way or not. If you are in a similar situation, you wish you had a coach to tell you this. I’m sure you hear advice everywhere to hire a coach. But without the money, how are you going to hire one? Without a coach, who is there to tell you if what you are thinking is going the right direction or not?
That said, in my case, once I knew I was covered for at least a month of food, shelter and utility bills, my emotions were calmer and my mind was clearer to take my time to “see” what I wanted to be and where I wanted to go in a few months time. Based on my experience, there’s no need to complicate this step. It’s easy to come up with any goal from earning one million dollars in 6 months to things like travel the world in 30 days.
Arbitrary numbers are necessary, but the most important part of this step is to imagine yourself already arrived at the point you’ve always wanted to be. For example, if you wish to build a profitable business, visualise yourself where you should be when your business is already profitable. You have to see yourself right at the end of the tunnel where you are already successful and visualise what you are doing at that point in time as detailed as possible.
Put yourself out there
In summary, the best way to start is to put yourself out there first, no matter how desperate you are, there’s no need to show it. Put out your helping hand to someone you know can make a good friend. Once they need help that’s within your genius zone, serve them with as much information as you know and imagine yourself where you wish to be on a daily basis. That’s when you are off to the races.