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10 Lessons I Learned In My First Year In Business

In November of 2020 I walked into the Principal's office and handed in my resignation letter. I was in my 13th year of teaching and was ready for a big change.

If you're new here, I'm Úna Méabh and in January of 2021 I became self-employed. I left a permanent teaching job in the middle of a global pandemic and I haven't looked back. 

What started as a hobby grew into something much bigger than I could have ever imagined and here are 10 things I have learned in my first year working for myself. 

1. 9-5 Is Not The Only Work Schedule

I spent so long in the rat race that my brain became conditioned to believe that 9-5 was work time. This schedule just became part of me after almost 13 years teaching. Even a year on I am still trying to get used to not having to work to that schedule.

Now I don’t have fixed hours and that has both good and bad points. I work from home and most days I’m up, ready and starting work around 8:30. Somedays it’s earlier and some days it’s later. Some days it feels like the creative part of my brain is switched off so even if I’ve blocked off time for designing, instead of forcing it I go to the gym or go for a walk or just sit down with a coffee and take 30 mins to chill out. I could never do that in my teaching job so it’s definitely a big advantage of this new job.

I can now also schedule my tasks to suit myself. I find that my designing brain works best in the afternoon/ evening so I generally will print and package orders in the morning and do creative things after. This new way of working is extremely refreshing as we naturally ebb and flow during the day and my work day can now reflect that. It’s one of my favourite things about being self-employed. I vividly remember a day back in February last year when I was feeling a bit foggy in the brain so I downed tools, put on my coat and headed out for a walk to clear my head. At one point on the walk I felt a wave of pure contentment run through me. I knew I had made the right decision in resigning.

There were days at the start when I felt a sense of guilt for finishing up ‘early’ if everything I had planned for the day was done. But that only makes me think how much of time spent at a place of work is actually spent on-task, doing work and how much time is spent just filling the work day with things to do because we are contracted to be there.

If I don't have tasks to fill my day, I don't try to create any for the sake of it. Making my own hours, while quite daunting, has been one of the best parts of being self-employed.

2. Your Hobby Will No Longer Be Your Hobby

This all started a few years ago as something I liked to do, I got good at it, I started to get asked to do doodles and designs for my job, I enjoyed it, I realised it could be something I could earn money from, I started selling my designs, I got busier, I still enjoyed it, I got busier, I had less free time, I still enjoyed it…This has been the pattern of the past few years. 

What started off as a hobby turned in to my full time job. I made the choice to make this my source of income and that’s a big responsibility. Now don’t get me wrong, I really do love my job and I’m lucky that I don’t resent any of the time I spend working but I have realised that it’s now no longer a hobby.

One of the best things to come out of leaving the job I didn’t love and making my hobby my full time job was that I have found a new hobby - well, more of an old one; I found my love for training again. I was sporty and very active my whole life and as the designing started to take up more and more free time I spent less and less time training. Time training switched to time designing but now that my free time is free again I am really enjoying getting back to the gym.

If you do something on the side/ in the evenings/ in your spare time as a hobby and are considering taking that forward as your job be sure that it’s something you are truly going to enjoy doing and that you understand there will be other parts to the job that you may not have previously considered. This leads well into number 3.

3. A Creative Business Is Not Always Creative

Creative business is not all dreamy and idyllic and it’s definitely not how it appears in the movies. I don’t float out of bed in the morning and spend my day on a creative cloud dreaming up new products, producing beautiful illustrations and making money easily. I maybe only spend 1/4 to 1/5 of my time actually designing. 

There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Emails, keeping my website, wholsale site & Etsy store up to date, printing, packaging & shipping orders, creating content for social media, managing stock, ordering supplies, bookkeeping, planning, education, dealing with suppliers and stockists and clients…the list goes on. 

It’s a lot of hard work and definitely something to consider if you're thinking about turning your hobby into a job but for me it has been 100% worth it. There is not a bit of me that regrets my decision to leave teaching.

4. Be Smart With Your Money

Leaving a permanent job with a guaranteed wage at the end of the month to become self-employed was definitely a risk. Now money is not guaranteed but in a way that drives me to do better. I’m solely responsible for what I make! 

I’ve never been a big spender and have always lived below my means so I thankfully haven’t had to make many changes since becoming self-employed but I definitely do think more about what I spend money on. Like, do I really need the coffee to go? I have a good coffee setup at home so the answer is almost always no (except for the odd time when it's a nice wee treat).

There are however some things for me that are 100% worth spending money on. I use my Spotify account every single day, so I was never going to cancel that subscription, but my Audible and Netflix accounts, on the other hand, were binned a long time ago. 

If you plan to go self-employed look at what you spend your money on and be very honest with yourself - Do you need it? Do you use it? Why do you want it? It's also worth doing this and making changes before you actually make the jump if you can. 

5. Be Social

Being self-employed and based at home (through choice) is great but it does have its challenges. I live and work at the office and I’m now no longer part of a team. I don’t see people in a staff room and I’m not part of work group chats. I am the whole company! Humans are social beings and even though I’m naturally a quiet person I feel the need to be around people.

The restrictions have made it difficult to socialise personally let alone try and be social professionally but it’s something I want to work on this year. I have met lots of lovely small business owners through social media and built virtual relationships but I look forward to restrictions easing and being able to meet people face to face. Meeting like-minded people and building a network is pivotal to driving a business on.

6. Saying No Is Essential

It is ok to say no to certain jobs and potential clients. You don’t have to take on a project just because it’s work. There are projects I have regretted saying yes to. Sometimes the money at the end is not worth the stress of the project or dealing with a particular client. When I started out I followed the narrative of saying yes to every opportunity but I quickly learned that not all opportunities are beneficial or worth your time and it's perfectly ok to say no.

I'm not sure about other small businesses in the same field but I frequently receive messages from people asking for my supplier information. I used to skirt around the topic when responding but I honestly now just say no. I have spent a long time building relationships with suppliers and going through a long period of trial and error to find what works for my business. It's an important part of the process and I always recommend people do the same. I'm not hiding or gatekeeping a magic formula; what works for me may not work for another business.  

I also now say no to many of the requests I get for freebies and products for giveaways. Lots of people reach out to small businesses requesting prizes for fundraisers and giveaways but I have started to say no to these cold DMs and emails more frequently. It’s not because I’m cold hearted but because this is my full time job and it costs me money to do it. I will always try to work with the requests from people who already support my business but a cold email or DM telling me I will gain followers and exposure from donating products almost always results in a polite no. 

7. Guard Your Time

One of the most beneficial things I did last year was turn my phone into a brick and mute all of my computer notifications.

Email notifications used to fly in at the top of my computer screen and a sound would ping to let me know I had received an email but even if I continued at the task I was working on, the sound and notification were enough to break my focus. I decided to turn the sounds and notifications off and it has made a notable difference to my focus and productivity. I check my emails twice a day and I have never missed anything that was an emergency.

My phone is also constantly in ‘do not disturb’ mode. No sounds, no vibrations and no screen lighting up; it’s essentially a brick until I decide to use it. 

I appreciate that we have to move with the times but I don’t like the expectation of being constantly available. It’s unhealthy! I like my little bubble of productivity and my own time and I protect it as much as I can.

To date turning off notifications has been the most effective thing I have done and I absolutely recommend you try it.

8. Invest In Yourself

At the start of the year I was trying to do everything myself but quickly realised that it was not an effective use of my time so I spent money on services and programmes that would make my life easier. I do enjoy being able to do things myself and also the process of figuring out how to do things but I’m not an expert so I had to be happy to outsource. Not only did this save me time in the long run but outsourcing some things and paying for services has improved many areas of my business. 

I’ve also had a lot to learn this year and I made a focused effort to spend time learning. I attended webinars and on-line classes to improve my knowledge in some areas. There are plenty of classes and webinars on every aspect of business you can imagine. Have a look at your local councils and marketing agencies and you'll probably find some free courses. Be careful with the classes and webinars you choose though as not all are as useful or good as they make out. 

9. Know Your Worth

Pricing is a tricky area to navigate and it’s an area in which I still have a lot to learn. Having confidence in your own worth and placing adequate value on your own time is super important. Not pricing one particular job appropriately caused me to learn this the hard way. I lost out on thousands of pounds on the design project because I didn’t have the confidence (or pricing knowledge at the time) to quote a price that reflected the job and all it involved. I learned a lot from that project and I consider it an important learning opportunity but I would approach it in a completely different manner if I were to do it now.

There are lots of thing to consider when pricing a project and your base line price for a particular service may still be out of an individual’s personal budget. Just because your price is out of that person’s budget it does not mean that your service is over-priced. There will always be someone who can do it cheaper but that does not mean you have to lower your pricing. I will always try and work to a client’s budget but there are certain services that have a fixed base price. 

I’m still learning lots about pricing and will make many more mistakes but my confidence in my own worth and ability has definitely grown.

10. Don’t Sell Yourself Short

At the beginning of the year I found it hard to describe what I did in a short sentence. When I was a teacher it was easy: “I’m a teacher”. General job titles like teacher, plumber, nurse, lawyer, electrician are widely understood and don’t require any further explanation. But I didn’t have an official job title. 

“I make cards” was how I used to describe my job but truthfully, I was actually afraid to say ‘design and illustration’. I have realised now that back then I was thinking too much about how other people would perceive what I said. But that was down to me doubting my abilities and not thinking that I actually could call myself a designer and illustrator. I wasn’t qualified or talented enough so there’s no way people would believe me. Now, however, I say it with confidence. ‘I design and sell my own range of greeting cards, art prints and stationery and I also do freelance design work’.

Nobody is the finished article and we are all constantly learning and improving. I am a designer and illustrator and while I may not possess the talent of some of the artists I look up to I have come a long way since starting to doodle a few years ago. 

So don’t sell yourself short or let your own sense of imposter syndrome take control. You are what you do and if you don’t start believing it how can you expect other people to believe it?

 

3 comments

  • Your stuff is excellent and I found them unique I saw your design on another’s mantle piece and had to get the brand and check out the website I ordered a few cards at Christmas and your handwritten note with delivery was such a special touch! Absolutly lovely stuff!

    Rebecca
  • Brilliant loved your story best wishes for the future

    Geraldine Lawless
  • I feel like this was written exactly for me! I have taken a career break from my job and have turned my hobby into my business! I’m still very much in the early stages so this advice is excellent. Thank you

    Orla McKeever (crochorla)

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