1 March 2021

_design business insights

Avoid these 7 mistakes when starting your own business

Leaving corporate life can be terrifying. You’re saying goodbye to a stable salary, predictable work hours, and a sounding board for your creative ideas. But there are significant benefits to creating a start-up. Your time is your own. You can come and go as you please, sleeping in until noon and working late into the night if need be. If you’re good at what you do and find great clients, you can make a lot more money. As an added bonus, you also get to pick and choose which projects you take on.

By Storm Wiggett

Sound amazing? 

Now let’s talk about some of the realities of owning your own business.

At 27 years of age, I was tired of working for other companies. I put in long hours and earned barely enough to pay my bills. So, I decided to go it alone and founded Creating A Storm. But the journey from employee to business owner has not been without its challenges. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt over the past nine years.

1) Stay on top of your finances

While university teaches us how to be creative and think out of the box, what it doesn’t cover is how to set up a business and manage your finances. Get this wrong and your company will fail. You need to be disciplined and establish an effective cost sheet up front. Make sure you price yourself competitively. If you’re too cheap, you’ll work yourself to death and never make enough money. I’d also advise that you charge for reverts on the artwork. Clients don’t always know what they want. It’s up to you to provide clarity and manage expectations, otherwise, you’ll spend hours on a job that you can’t recoup. 

Hire a great accountant. You’ll want someone who will save you money, not cost you. And remember, when you start your own business you’re not just a designer now, you’re client service, strategy and finance all rolled into one, so make sure you factor those costs in.

2) Get everything in writing

I cannot stress enough how important this is. Earlier this year I made the mistake of sending through an incorrect quote. I’d outsourced an illustration job and misread his quote. After noting the error I phoned the client to discuss the matter. She was travelling on business, and at the time I felt she was a little distracted, but as she verbally agreed to the new amount I never gave it a second thought. 

My mistake was in not sending a follow-up email with the new quote. The work was delivered on time, and the client was thrilled. But when I sent through the final invoice the client was a little baffled. This was not the amount that she had signed off, and, unlucky for me, she couldn’t recall ever discussing or agreeing to the new amount. As a result, I had to pay over R50,000 out of my own pocket. At the end of the day, it’s just business.  

3) Avoid taking after hour calls

At the beginning of your start-up journey, you’re so grateful for having a steady client that you’ll do anything to keep them happy. They are your bread and butter, and so you don’t set boundaries. But you’ll definitely encounter that client who abuses your always-available attitude.  

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take after hour calls, but I had clients who used to phone me at ten o’clock at night asking me quickly do this and quickly do that. They’d even come over to my house on weekends to see how my progress on a job was going. This is not healthy. Before you know it, you’ll be shackled to your phone and computer, and wondering how in the hell you stop the madness. State your work hours upfront and stick to your guns. Make sure you switch your phone off at 18h00. Yes, your client may be busy, but that doesn’t excuse regular last minute requests. If you notice a pattern beginning to emerge, it’s time to have a little heart-to-heart with your client.

4) Everything is not urgent

This is a personal favourite of mine. It’s amazing how many clients’ deadlines are urgent. I’ve worked through the night and all weekend long to deliver jobs that were seemingly urgent. I’d nearly kill myself to get a job done on time. And without fail, I’d wait days if not weeks for feedback or a confirmation email stating that they’d received the work. Funnily enough, once they did get back to me there were always changes. Remember, every job cannot be urgent, that is just poor planning on the clients’ side. 

5) Don't miss deadlines

It goes without saying, don’t miss your deadlines. This is the quickest way to earn a bad reputation and lose a client. If the brief changes, then I’d advise renegotiating the job deadline, but only if the brief changes. If you have to work through the night, do it. If you feel like you’re not cracking the brief, call in help. Just don’t miss your deadline. Happy clients are often willing to refer you to other clients, so make sure you stay in their good books.

6) Don't let non-payment slide

I’m going to say this very clearly, “You’re not a charity!” You’ll be amazed at how many clients don’t pay, particularly if you are a freelancer or small business owner. There are those who I’ve had to fight with for months to get payment out of. I can’t tell you how many emails I sent which were never responded to, and phone calls that were never answered. 

Some battles I’ve lost. I’ve also written off a couple thousand Rand here and there, but on principle, you should take these clients to the small claims court –even if only to stop them doing it to the next person. Cover your arse and get 50% up front. If you can, get an extra 25% on delivery. Losing out on 25% is better than receiving nothing.

7) Get rid of clients who bully

This can be tough for any entrepreneur, particularly if you need the money, but really your health is more important. Clients who bully typically don’t pay on time and will question every little detail. They’ll agree to a quote, sign it off and then refuse to pay the invoice because it costs too much. They can be rude and aggressive and are really unpleasant to work with. I’ve dealt with a few in my career and I can tell you from experience that it’s just not worth the money you make. My health would take a turn for the worse. I’d be anxious and feel physically ill any time I had to submit an invoice. And this is no way to make a living.

If you absolutely cannot get rid of a bullying client my advice would be to have everything in writing, to never ever respond in anger, to sleep on an aggressive email if possible, and to always portray professional calm. When you reach a point where you don’t need this client, do yourself a favour and cut your losses. 

A brief recap

Having your own business can be so rewarding, but in order to be successful, you need to be firm about how you run your company and what you are willing to accept and what you are willing to let slide. Don’t let clients take advantage of you. Don’t be a people pleaser. And don’t ever give up. If you’re striking out on your own I wish you the best of luck. For more advice on running a small business or creating knock-out packaging designs, opt-in to my newsletter.

If you felt this article was helpful or have other lessons you’d like to share with me, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a mail at storm@ginger-storm.co.za