September 1st 2015 was the second anniversary of me going out on my own and becoming a full time freelancer. On occasions like this, bloggers usually write recap posts where they share about how their business has grown, the goals they’ve achieved, how much money they’ve made, and what their newsletter list growth was like…
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that’s not the focus of this blog. (If you’re new and need an introduction to my world, I recommend starting here: This is the main reason behind everything I do.)
I’ll be frank and admit that my numbers are nowhere near where I’d want them to be, and things have been getting on track only in the recent months because of some changes I’ve made to my business. So there’s that.
I’m not living a six figure dream working 4 hours a day. I don’t have an Amazon bestseller, or a course hundreds of people have gone through. But there are other things I value, that have improved so much in the past 2 years, and that’s what I want to talk about.
Some of my friends who are thinking about starting their own businesses tell me how they’re not really sure they have what it takes, and that I seem like the sort of person who’s just good at this stuff. “You understand all the business and all the legal stuff, and I’m just so overwhelmed by it”, they say. As if I crawled out of the womb with this knowledge. I didn’t – I struggle as much as you do. I had to work hard to learn it, and then put it into practice. I don’t have a special talent you don’t – it’s been a matter of showing up every day.
Things don’t change overnight
For the longest time I thought I was stuck in the same place, not making any progress. I was frustrated as hell because I’ve worked so damn hard. I’ve been reading the books and blogs, paying for courses, planning how I’ll implement it in my business, making gradual changes here and there… Yet, for a while I haven’t seen any difference.
I thought it was all in vain, and got into a pretty bad depressive episode. I felt discouraged and like it just wasn’t fair.
But then almost “magically”, things started to shift. I started seeing the results of all the hard work I’ve been putting in – first really small and subtle, and then more noticeable and significant. I went through serious shifts that I was able to identify, and I had no idea when and how they happened.
Except that’s not entirely true – I actually do know.
All that work I’ve been putting in without seeing any results? Apparently the results did come, only not when I expected them.
Little by little, some facets of my personality changed, and I became better at what I do. From a fearful newbie with low self-esteem, I grew into a person that looks at a serious challenge and says “I can handle this. It’s going to be fine.”
Two years ago I had no idea I had it in me. The only reason why I even dared to go down this path is that I saw no other alternative. I was prepared to do anything but to go back to a job where my passion was extinguished.
Some “thought leaders” like to say that having your own business is the best personal development and spiritual advancement tool you can ask for – much more effective than living in a monastery. I haven’t tried living in a monastery so I can’t be the judge, but I can attest that by choosing this way of living, you choose a life of intense growth.
Personal growth is on the agenda today. I will list some of the changes I’ve observed inside of myself, and what a difference it made in my life and my business.
I got better at saying no
This is a total cliche, but what can I do, it’s true. I won’t say I’m good at saying no, but compared to what a people pleaser I used to be, I’ve made tons of progress.
I used to say yes to every demand on my time, and had no idea how to form a polite sentence that would inform the person I’m not willing to do that and not have them think I’m selfish. I was so desperate to give the impression of a nice person, that it was interfering with my well-being. I was regularly burning out because I kept taking on too much.
Now I’m comfortable saying no to people who want me to work for free. I don’t feel guilty anymore, because I know that almost every time I say yes, I end up broke and resentful. I’ll take the “selfish” label over “broke and resentful” any day.
I have also started limiting the number of meetings I’m willing to attend in any given week, and when they will happen. My response used to be dependent on whether I had a free time slot in my calendar or not. This meant that whoever got to me early enough was able to meet with me practically whenever they wanted. Then I realized that I just can’t have more than 3 meetings per week, ever. On weeks when I’m super busy with projects, it’s down to 2. I got to this number through experimenting and writing notes in my planner and I’ve accepted that this is just how I work right now. I don’t care if other people are able to do more. We’re not all the same.
I’ve identified where the real value of my work lies
This should be one of those things you do before you even start a business, but many of us don’t, and begin with a completely wrong premise about what we do for people.
In the beginning, my positioning was lame and boring, and I had no idea how to differentiate myself from other designers. I thought the quality of my work is supposed to be enough, and if people would just look at my portfolio and see how good of a designer I am, they will want to hire me. I was wrong about that.
It was only in 2015 that I figured out how my personal values and my mission play into my design work, and changed my branding and my positioning accordingly. As a result, I rediscovered the passion I had lost and dug out a host of topics that I can talk about, which lead me to finally starting to write about design again.
By identifying the real value of my work, as opposed to the cosmetic value of design that most people perceive, I realized that I’m able to help people charge higher prices for their work and work with clients they really want to be working with.
This change lead me to another one that creative business owners struggle with, because it makes us feel “icky”.
I’ve learned to state my prices with confidence
I think this warrants a separate post where I’ll share some tips, because it’s something people tend to struggle with a lot. The first step is of course, to claim the value of your work. Unless you’re 100% sure in the value you deliver, you won’t be able to stand behind your prices.
Now that I do, I have no issues giving a proposal even face to face, no matter who asks. I state my rates without a hint of apology – that’s what I need to make in order to stay in business. If there’s someone else charging half the amount, that’s not my problem – I don’t have to compete on price. My clients know why they choose to work with me.
I’ve found that having a table of standard rates (even if you do totally custom work, like I do) is helpful because when you’re put on a spot, you can just read the number and say it without thinking twice. Where we tend to screw ourselves over is when we start thinking too much, and then hem and haw and put in little disclaimers… no. Stop that, it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. When you state your price with confidence, people believe you.
I’ve learned how to gracefully pitch my services
Version 1.1 of my website didn’t even have a mention of my services on the homepage. I never invited people to work with me in my blog posts or my newsletter. I never offered to help other business owners I met in person. I never followed up after they gave me their business card and asked me to contact them. I never sent pitches. I never made up-sells of additional services in my proposals. I never contacted my former clients to check in with them and see if they need any more help.
In short, I was terrible at selling.
After discovering the real value of my work, I had less and less qualms about saying “Hey, this is what I do, and if you want it, you can get it here.”
It wasn’t a quick and easy process, but I’ve gotten over the initial discomfort, and gradually, very gradually, gotten myself to a point where I can, and do a lot of the things I mentioned above, and I’m still able to look at myself in the mirror. Just last month I sent two e-mails (on the same day!) that made me realize what a huge shift I’ve made with this.
The first e-mail was a pitch to an organization for a workshop on brand strategy for freelancers that I want to do for their members. I just woke up one day and thought it would be a good idea, made a nice PDF document with the details and outline of the workshop and wrote an e-mail. I sent it without even a twinge of questioning like “What if they think I’m an idiot? What if they think it’s a stupid topic? What if they already have someone who wants to speak about branding?” I just didn’t give a damn. I know the value and I’m ready to deliver it. It’s their choice of whether they want to take me up on it or not.
The other e-mail was about my work the Phoenix. I get at least one e-mail every month from people inquiring if they can buy the rights for this image or use it for free. Each time I replied before, I said no (because it’s already licensed to a client) and offered some links to stock photo websites and wished them luck. This time I did something different. Instead of sending them to someone else’s website where they can get a stock graphic for a few dollars, I offered to create a custom design for them and linked my newly redesigned logo and brand identity design services page.
When I did that and sent it, I wanted to bang my head against the wall for every such missed opportunity in the past howevermany years. But the reality was, before that, I simply wasn’t in the mental space to make this offer. I was ashamed of offering my work when they haven’t explicitly asked for it. Except they were asking for my work. I just hasn’t made the connection between what they needed and what I could give them, because I was so focused on what they said they wanted.
We seem to wait for some kind of special permission to sell, and it will never arrive. I freelanced for years without ever having to sell hard because people sent inquiries on their own. (If you want to know how I do it, read my article Stop chasing clients: 4 effective alternatives to cold pitching.) It’s wonderful when that happens, but why wait to be picked? If you don’t ask, you won’t get it. And when we’re on that topic…
I started to ask for what I want
This goes both for personal and professional life. I’ve been so bad at asking for things. The problem is that when I get assertive, I get really assertive, and sometimes my requests seem like demands. The reason this demanding behavior happens is that I expected people to know what I want without me having to say it, and when it doesn’t happen, I get angry.
“Well, of course I wanted you to pick up laundry, can’t you see how busy I am?”
“Why does nobody offer to help me with this project, can’t they see how much work I’m putting in?”
That’s a totally unrealistic expectation on my part. People will naturally avoid doing more than they really need to, not because they’re evil, but because it’s how humans work. I’m the same way, and I’ll keep a blind eye on that pile of clothes waiting to be folded until it’s called to my attention.
Another tripping point is that we don’t want to impose our needs on others, and think that if they want to help us, they’ll find a way themselves, and we’ll never need to ask. Again, we’re making people do the hard work of anticipating our needs that we haven’t explicitly stated. Asking the question makes things a lot easier for them – they can answer either “Yes” or “No”. They’re free to say no just as we are. We’re not imposing by merely asking.
Now I’m able to make a request without sounding demanding (reading “Nonviolent communication” helped me learn how to do that). People respond very well to that, and we can skip the whole failed-mind-reading-resulting-in-angry-demands ordeal.
I started writing more openly and unapologetically
I’m no stranger to being vocal about my personal beliefs. (Some people from the forums still remember me as “Nelchee the hater” – long story, I was 16.) However, writing on the forums and personal blogs is one thing, and writing on your business blog is a whole other matter. I was a bit wary when I first started this blog, and didn’t want to offend anyone. I still didn’t fully believe that people would be willing to hire me if I show my humanity.
After a few years, I’ve noticed something about myself – I was most attracted to bloggers who were not only vocal about their personal beliefs, but were also completely comfortable with people not resonating with them. They had plenty of experiences with haters, and made it clear that no matter how uncomfortable it gets, it’s still so much better than keeping quiet and watering yourself down.
Being surrounded by folks like that gave me all the encouragement I needed to start writing more openly about how I really feel about art, professionalism, branding, design process and even mental health.
I’m dedicated to finding people who are open to the ideas I share here, even though these ideas may not be very popular.
I started trusting my own judgement
When we start freelancing, we’re painfully aware of how little we know about business, marketing, sales, law and other things unrelated to our expertise. This leads us to eat up all the advice that’s offered to us and we keep searching for more, more and more.
After months of that, you start feeling a bit crazy. A never ending stream of information. Conflicting advice. Best practices changing due to technology changes. New stuff popping out that you never knew even existed. Fear of missing out on the pricy, premium program that presents itself as a solution for all your problems.
Usually when I feel this happening, I go on a mind detox retreat to flush it all out of my system. After a few rounds of those, I realized that no matter how much I learn, this will go on as long as I allow it. There is no point at which you feel you know “enough”, so you’re no longer tempted by the shiny, new things that pop up all the time.
I realized I’m getting tired of the crazy, and I’d just rather become more selective about what advice I listen to, and how often I tune into it. I’ve figured that with the current knowledge I had, I could be implementing new solutions for at least a year, with no other input on the side. I could completely stop consuming all the blogs, podcasts, videos, and courses and still have plenty to go off on and grow my business. Once I realized that, the pressure to learn more and consume more subsided.
When I hear about a new marketing tactic, I weigh it against my values and my current strategy and quickly decide if it’s something useful for me or not. I’m comfortable completely ignoring certain types of advice, no matter what results it promises. (For example, I believe in people over numbers and I’ll never have pop-ups on my website.)
I’m quicker to unsubscribe and unfollow when I feel like I’m not getting what I need from a certain source, even if everyone else thinks they’re awesome and smart and worthy of listening to.
I’ve learned to accept my unique way of working
I spent way too much time reading productivity advice, and sometimes it has left me feeling inadequate, because I wasn’t able to put some of the advice into practice. Later I realized that not all advice is created for all people. We all have our quirks, and the point is not in squashing them, but using them to our advantage.
- Some people say it’s best to write your to-do list in the evening for the next day. I have better results when I check in with my own energy in the morning and then decide what to work on.
- Some people sit down to work with a cup of coffee as soon as they get up. I prefer to start my day gently with yoga, meditation, journaling, and sketching until I’m fully awake.
- Some people love to chip away on a project day by day and make consistent incremental progress, while I love short, intense campaigns and launching fast, before I lose momentum.
I used to think as these things as weaknesses. Now I accept that it’s the way I am, and that I don’t need to change it to become “more productive”. What I need to do is learn to use it and plan for it.
This also means that I no longer think I need to apologize for my way of working.
I know that not reading e-mail until noon means I get to be fully focused on my creative work, and this is better for my clients than me responding to their message within 15 minutes.
I know that taking my first day of period off when it’s particularly rough means that I don’t have to spend the day frustrated because my body refuses to cooperate, and that I’m more energized the following day.
I constantly battled inner voices that told me it’s indulgent and not normal for the culture we live in, and I had to learn to stand up and say to these voices “and that’s the problem with this culture that we’re here to change”.
I became more accepting of imperfection
I wrote about fear of failure and my inability to finish projects because of perfectionism before, and this is the top reason why I don’t publish as many things as I’d want to. Like many creatives, I have unreasonable standards of quality, and expect myself to do single-handedly what other people have entire teams for.
Luckily, several bloggers in my online circles spoke to this problem on many occasions, and it has somehow managed to wiggle its way through my thick skull.
I haven’t overcome this completely and probably never will, I even think that there’s a positive side to perfectionism that we should harness. I’m much better than I was before, and no longer lose sleep over whether something I did was “good enough”. I’m aware that my own perception of quality is overcritical (and I know why that is), and that the majority of people won’t even notice all the flaws that I see.
That isn’t to say that I lowered my standards – it means that I’m now aware that the only path to living up to my own standards is to make more attempts at reaching them. If I never publish and see how people interact with my creations, I’ll never get a chance to improve.
Thank you for being with me on this journey!
These past 2 years have been all but easy, and your kind word of encouragement helped me keep my focus on my dreams, instead of getting discouraged that I’m not making progress as fast as I wanted to.
It’s an honor to have your attention and I intend to use it wisely, and provide as much value to you as I possibly can.
This is just the beginning, and I can’t wait to see into what sort of person I’ll grow into in the years to come.
If you feel inspired, share some of your own stories and lessons from your own self-employment journey in the comments. Let’s keep supporting each other to the top.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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