One Designer’s Journey: From Freelancer to Agency Owner to Solopreneur

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Freelancers come in all shapes and sizes and ages. And these days, many of you are over 40 and not exactly just starting out. I am calling you “Experienced Newbies” and I’ve noticed there are more and more of you out there lately.

So I’ve started a new series of conversations, posts and podcasts to address the particular issues and challenges you face, from the emotional, such as a lack of confidence in your new area, to the logistical, like how to build an email list of old and new contacts.

This first post is from a podcast interview I did with Lisa Mullis, who recently left an agency she built to start Paraphrase Communications, which, for now, is just her and her network.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation…

Lisa: I had a design communications firm for about 16 years. It had evolved over time. About six years ago I brought a partner into my business. We had a lot of success and a lot of fun with the work. Then we, more recently, got to a point where my partner and I had some different ideas about the vision and direction for the company and we very amicably parted ways. I sold my ownership in the business to her.

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Now, I’m a couple of months in to my new business, Paraphrase Communications. My shift is moving more towards written communications for clients. I’ve done a lot of that in the past but now, under Paraphrase Communications, I can more explicitly make that a service offering. I’m really excited about that.

But I don’t have a deep portfolio in that realm. In that aspect of starting a new business and starting over, I’m feeling a bit like a newbie all over again. Everything feels pretty new and fresh. I think that there are probably other people out there who have a similar experience, a similar journey: you’ve been in operation for a number of years, had a lot of success and are making a major shift — maybe even starting over, starting afresh.

Ilise: In your history it sounds like you’ve been a partner, you’ve been a solo, you’ve had staff, and you’ve had contractors. I’d love your take on the pros and cons of those different ways of working.

Lisa: I started out, like most people do, with just myself. In fact, it was a pretty typical story of doing a lot of freelancing on the side, having a regular day job and then that evolved into a full-time business. I got to a point where I had too much work to do; there was just too much.

There were a couple of years when I felt I was working non-stop. Certainly going through that psychological phase of, “Oh gosh, I’ve got to say yes to everything because when is the next gig going to come?” Then I did get to a point where I thought, “Enough’s enough. I really need help here. Because I do want to grow this and I want to be doing bigger projects than a single person can handle.”

So I started out with an intern. Actually she ended up being my partner eventually. She’s a total rock star designer and a great businesswoman too. For many years it was just me and her and some contractors.

[Related: A 10-Point Marketing Checklist for a Successful Creative Business | The HeART of Design Business: Motivation]

I really enjoyed finally having some support, beyond mentors or other solopreneurs in Mastermind groups. I really enjoyed having other people in the business. I felt the work we produced together was better because we were all collaborating on it. It was both having the emotional and physical support, but also making the work better.

The flipside of that was a lot of stress to earn enough to make payroll. We were fortunate to never be in a dire situation but it was a constant source of stress. Now that I’m back to just being myself again, that stress is gone because I only have to worry about myself.

I have a real fear of going back to those days where I was working non-stop, which I have been doing the last couple of months. But I think that’s a combination of making the transition and trying to get this new thing started. I don’t want to relive those days again. Yet at the same time, I’m not ready to bring more people on to the team as staff.

Ilise: You’re saying that part of your plan is to grow and hire people so that you can delegate? That the stress to make payroll is more tolerable than the stress of having everything on your own shoulders?

Lisa: That’s a good question to ask because I don’t know yet. I don’t think that I want to grow at this point; I think I want to stay small. Even when I was with my other company I had never aspired to be a big agency or a big team. I’m not attracted to that path. At the same time, the vision for the work that I want to do and the kind of content I want to produce really does require some help.

And I do have help; I’ve got some great people that I’m working with on a contract basis. One of the more challenging aspects of the “people” side of the business is developing relationships with really good contractors and employees, people that you can count on.

Ilise: You’re saying that it’s more important to find the right people and make the best arrangement that works for everyone. As opposed to, “I need someone in my office who I can walk over to their desk and say, “No, do it that way.” or, “Yes, do it that way”?

Lisa: Yeah, I do think it’s more about finding the right kind of people and the right mix of work for them.

In this podcast interview, we also talked about whether you need a web site to get started or if another type of online presence is sufficient, and how to present past work and past clients in a transparent way.

Listen to that here on the Marketing Mentor podcastAnd find Lisa online at paraphrasecomm.com and connect with her on LinkedIn.


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