August 11th was my first business birthday – exactly one year since I shared my brand new Etsy shop with the world. Since then, I’ve hit nearly 1,300 sales on Etsy, got over 300 5-star reviews, built my own website from scratch, become a Not On The Highstreet partner and had my cards stocked in multiple shops. It’s been far from an overnight success story (at times it’s felt like dragging myself slowly up a big hill) but I’m still incredibly proud of what I’ve achieved in a year. I’ve learnt more lessons than I can count along the way, but here’s a few of them!
1. Life is unpredictable
After years of working as a teacher, I decided to take the plunge in the spring of 2020 and hand in my notice so that I could pursue some other career options. And believe it or not, NONE of them was running my own design and illustration business. But Covid threw those plans out the window and, stuck at home in a lockdown, I started painting again. I’ve always been arty – I love crafting, and I’ve made my own Christmas cards for years, but I hadn’t really done art in a serious way since I was a teenager. But I fell right back in love with it, and from there I decided to start a little business – just for fun, as a hobby. It was never something I was really going to seriously pursue. It wasn’t until January 2021, 6 months later, that I thought ‘Hang on…I’m not sure this is a hobby anymore! It seems to have turned into my job!’
I still get surprised friends asking, ‘So have you always wanted to be a designer? Did you quit teaching to start this business?’ and I have to answer, ‘Nope! It just sort of…happened!’ But I’m so glad it did.
2. It’s amazing what you can teach yourself
I have zero formal training in anything that I’m doing right now. Not in art or design, or in business. I am 100% making it up as I go along. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that training isn’t worth it or trying to downplay its value. People who have done design or business qualifications definitely know a lot more than I do and I am full of respect (and envy!) for them. If anyone walked into a classroom and claimed that they could teach just as well as me with zero training, a) I'd be pretty annoyed and b) well, they'd be wrong.
But on the flip side, don’t let lack of formal training put you off having a go. You’d be amazed at how much you can find online – I’ve learnt half of what I know from YouTube, and a lot just from following other businesses on Instagram! Just be open and ready to learn wherever and whenever you can, and then get ready for a lot of winging it and trial and error – you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
3. Self-employment is the best – and the worst
The best: being my own boss, choosing flexible work hours, the enormous satisfaction from knowing that every achievement is yours and yours alone – earning just £3 for a card sale means a hundred times more than just getting my monthly paycheck from my old job, because I feel like I earned every penny of that £3 myself!
The worst: all the pressure falls on you, you need a lot of self-motivation, there’s no one there to hold your hand and tell you how to do things, and worst of all…FINANCES. I’m so used to my taxes and pension just being handled for me! Excuse me while I continue researching accountants because I’m terrified of doing my tax return...
4. You will make mistakes – and that’s OK
I’ve already mentioned that I have no training. One of the main ways I’ve learnt is just by getting it wrong! Again and again and again! Losing money and time and possibly my mind a few times, but picking myself up, dusting myself off, saying, ‘What have I learnt from this?’ and then MOVING ON. I’m an obsessive people-pleaser, so in past jobs, whenever I’ve had a boss to answer to, I’ve been terrified to make mistakes. Knowing that I haven’t let down anyone but myself makes it a lot easier to take a deep breath, take the hit, learn the lesson, and get over it.
5. Respect the ebb and flow
So, I knew that Christmas would be the busiest time for sales…but then January, February and March definitely lulled me into a false sense of security! Callisto continued to do really well over Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, and I thought, wow, I’m just going to make great sales all year round! WRONG. Along came April and away went my sales. They dropped off a cliff. First I panicked, then I researched. Turns out this is totally normal. And this year, coming in and out of lockdowns has increased the impact even further. Depending on what your industry is, there are always going to be high and low seasons, and in 2022, I’m actually going to be ready! I’m going to hold back money in the winter to pay my salary in the summer, I’m going to get signed up for more markets, I’m going to increase my wholesale stockists, I’m going to do some wedding stationery, and most importantly, I’m not going to panic. Sales will go up and sales will go down. That’s OK.
6. Independent business people are my kinda people
What a gorgeous bunch of supportive, kind, creative, interesting humans! What a wonderful community I’ve had the privilege of joining! They’re just the best. End of story.
7. You’ll need to spend some money
When I first got back into watercolour, before I started my business, I kept trying to follow online tutorials and my paintings turned out rubbish every time. I kept thinking, ‘Why doesn’t my paint behave like that? I did what they said and it just didn’t work!’ I was about to give up, and then I realised that maybe the problem wasn't me - maybe it was my primary school-style watercolour palette and the pad and brushes I bought from The Works. One week and a bunch of research later, I had a small Winsor and Newton palette, one DaVinci brush and a pad of Archer’s cold pressed paper. And suddenly, I could actually follow the tutorials.
To work at a professional level, even for a small business, you’ll need to invest in some professional-level equipment. Your budget may be small – mine certainly was – but you don’t need a ton of stuff to get started (I painted a lot of my earliest designs using a two brushes and a 6-colour palette). But it is worth investing in quality. The same goes any materials or equipment you use for your business – as they say, you do need to spend money to make money!
8. Imposter syndrome and comparison are your worst enemies
But they affect every single one of us. It takes a lot of confidence to put your work out there and ask other people to spend their money on it, and when you’re surrounded by other people who seem SO confident and professional, and whose products look absolutely incredible, it can be really hard to ignore the voices that say you’ll never be as good as them and that you don’t deserve a seat at this table. You see huge follower accounts and Instagram stories of big heaps of sales and your heart sinks.
I still feel this way all the time but here’s how I cope:
1. Remind yourself that everyone is just showing the best stuff on social media. You never know what’s going on behind the scenes.
2. Get into the habit of celebrating other people’s wins – comment on that photo of a huge stack of orders to say ‘Wow! That’s incredible, well done!’. Trust me, it’ll make you feel great and them feel great!
3. If it’s really getting you down, just step away from social media. It’ll still be there when you get back, I promise.
I hope you found these interesting, or even useful, especially if you’re in the early days of your own business.
Thanks for reading!