A letter to those just starting their online business

This is a letter to new freelance business owners and creatives sharing everything that I would do differently if I could start my business over.
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The virus has pushed a lot of us to be more creative than ever. We’ve had to think on our feet and find different ways to make it online, whether that’s been starting a new business or pivoting your current offerings to be more timely and relevant.

I’ve been working online since 2014, and though I’ve had to weather many, many things, I’ve made it through thanks to my family, my clients who always came along at just the right time, and a collection of fellow business owners and online courses that helped educate and support me. I’ve been able to meet and work with lovely people and take on interesting projects that have stretched my creativity. 

But to be honest, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve realized that in business, like in life, there’s no roadmap, and that building your brand is a lot like a “choose your own adventure” novel (except, hopefully you won’t get mauled by a bear or taken away by aliens in the end).

For those of you who are just starting out or wondering how to make at-home work your full-time thing, I’m going to share what I’ve gleaned after 6 years of hard work so that you can hopefully make your business and life! successful sooner, rather than later.

This post contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a commission if you purchase through my links.

My Most Important Lesson: Follow Your Dreams (And Ps, It’s OK to be Self-Taught)

When you start out online, you might have to just choose what you know and go with it. But it doesn’t mean you’ll have to stick with it.

I started out in copywriting just because I could but soon decided that sales letters and endless revisions weren’t for me. I took a lot of online courses, practiced my design skills that I left behind in childhood, and eventually transformed myself into a web and graphic designer.

Had I just followed my inclinations from the beginning, I would have had a graphics degree and naturally progressed to learning business skills instead of doing something that I thought I should do.

What I did learn in the going is that no matter what you do, you will always go back to something that you love (unless you just want a big paycheck and don’t mind being miserable for the rest of your life). And what’s more, your passions (interests) can earn you decent money, but you will have to work hard for it. 

If you find yourself really loving a career path but you don’t know how to get there, don’t let your lack of formal education hold you back. Go for it and find a way to make it happen. 

And if you happen to be a creative person, I’ve written a post on the best course sites for creatives. You can read it and learn where to improve your skills from the exact places I used to transition into graphic design.

Related: The Best Course Sites for Creatives

woman painting

Think of Yourself as a Business Owner Rather Than a Freelancer

This one is also ULTRA important because it’s the one mindset shift that will help you gain confidence and get your finances in order so you can make it. 

When you’re a freelancer, it’s easy to go along with the stigma of working a side hustle, or to think that it’s OK that you work for nothing. These kinds of thoughts hold you back from being 100% committed to what you do. And if you don’t treat your side-hustle as a business, you won’t be able to turn it into a full time thing very easily.

Thinking of yourself as a business owner will immediately help you see the seriousness of your work so that you can prepare yourself for success. 

For example, as a business owner, you’ll be aware that you need to abide by certain legalities. You’ll take precautions to have proper contracts so you don’t get cheated (as often, at least), and that you have a legal name to work under so you don’t have to rebrand later on.

You’ll also want to invest in your growth and professionalism from the start (which will help you land better clients who pay more). You will also know the importance of showing up every day and doing your best work. 

woman calculator finances

Learn to Manage Your Money

‘Nuff said. There will be no business without a consistent, reliable income. Manage your money. Save for taxes. Get a finance tracking tool. Keep money aside for taxes and an emergency fund. Find your minimum hourly rate and double it! Start out pricing reasonably – make clear boundaries. Don’t underprice yourself. Spend time creating a great experience and product so that you can charge more.

You’ll also need to keep a reserve so you can reinvest in your business… oh yeah, and keep money aside for taxes. I’ve read enough sob stories from people who were hit with huge tax bills when they had been living hand-to-mouth with their paychecks. 

Taxes are usually about 20 – 33% of your income, depending on your business structure. You might also have to pay taxes quarterly instead of once per year. Using a good accounting software will help you keep things together and lessen the end-of-year freakouts. (I use Quickbooks Self-Employed which tracks both personal and business expenses.)

Invest in Your Business 

I just mentioned how you should earn enough to invest back in your business. Through my experience, most of my first- and second-year earnings went towards learning new skills and purchasing tools to run things smoothly. 

When I was working with clients, I used a CRM for creatives — first Dubsado, then Honeybook. While they both had their plus points, I preferred Honeybook for its clean user interface and simplicity, but Dubsado has more powerful workflows to automate everything. (They even have an affordable workflow setup service that will save you so much time!)

Along with good accounting software (mentioned above), you might need spreadsheets to help you keep track of all this stuff. I keep things organized in GSuite.

You don’t have to go crazy at the start. In fact, please don’t! Your business will grow and change so much, and you need to start by managing your money well, so don’t invest too much into your business or you won’t be able to keep afloat!

Once you start making a decent income with extra, that’s the time to invest. PS – You can see what I now use and recommend on my Resources page if you’re interested.

See My Favorite Business Tools and Resources*-

makebe laptop mockup

But Don’t Waste Too Much Time or Money On Your Website and Branding

When you’re just starting out, you just need something that looks professional and gets the job done, not the design of your dreams! You’d be surprised by how many people make bank with ugly websites because they spend most of their time and resources on revenue-generating activities

You might not even need to invest in custom design. Get a logo from Creative Market. Buy an affordable theme. Take a free class on how to set it up and edit it. 

But don’t let it get in the way of your work!  You’ll be changing it up a lot in the future, anyways.

Redoing my website and branding was one of the biggest time wasters I’ve ever done in my business. It’s a much better use of your time to refine your offerings and create digital products or do anything else on this list!

Constantly work to up-level your skills

One of your major investments throughout your business journey should be improving your skills and processes.

There are many ways to do this including taking a few targeted courses, attending summits and events (online or otherwise), and working with a business coach. If you can, find a mentor or get an accountability buddy because two heads are always better than one, and you can learn so much from others who have gone before you!

This also falls into the category of investing and as with everything, it can get expensive! One of the best ways to keep costs down is to invest in a platform like Skillshare, or purchase digital courses and product bundles. You can read my experience with bundles from the link below.

Related: A Year Full of Bundles

Work On Your Business

There’s a lot of talk about working on your business vs working in your business. Simply put, in the beginning, you need to make sure you get processes down right and learn how to manage things well. For example, if you’re a service provider, you should spend extra time refining your client process. 

Making your clients happy is the #1 goal of a service provider, and creating great work is just part of that! Communication and smooth processes are equally as important because it’s the experience that stays with them. 

When you have a smooth, A+ client process, people are happy to refer you to other people and you get glowing testimonials. Not to mention that satisfaction in a job well done and continued happy client relationships!

two women on couch illustration

Find a Supportive Community (Or Two or Three)

Facebook isn’t just for your parents.It’s full of creative communities of smart, active women who help each other out with advice and referrals. So while word-of-mouth is the best referrer, the next best might be your creative community.

Join a few Facebook groups with those in your niche and similar niches. Make some genuine friendships with people and help others out! You might even form partnerships with people this way!

And even though your friends and family might be enthusiastic about supporting your big dreams, you might need to rely on your community when you have a question regarding the nuts and bolts of your business.

And, as 2020 has taught us, as people, we all need a community of like-minded creatives to learn from, share with, and grow with!

The Edit

I write this letter 6 years into my creative journey and it’s only with hindsight that I see what I could have done better.

For some of us, business comes as a new skill — hey, maybe everything we’re doing is new to us! And it can be a jungle out there, but with a lot of forethought, dedication, and even some friendship and fun, you can turn your creative ideas into a profitable business.

Have you started your own creative business? If so, what do you wish you would have known at the beginning? Leave a comment below to share your journey!

Don't waste time DIY-ing it without a roadmap!

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Hi, I'm Kari

I teach female creative entrepreneurs and bloggers how to design a brand and business that they love through my blog, and easy-to-use templates and design tutorials! Follow me to learn how to improve your brand, too! 

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