Tuesday, October 16, 2018

How I started my creative business // Reflecting on 7 years of being a creative entrepreneur // The first steps

Times have changed, instead of doing interviews about my designs I get asked to talk about running my business and how I started as a creative entrepreneur more and more often. Instead of replying to all those individual messages I thought it was about time to sit down and write a little something about the start of Little Smilemakers Studio.

My E-mail, Instagram and Facebook inboxes are filled with questions like; how did you start your business? What tips do you have for a starting creative like me? And you know, the questions seem so straight forward but the answer’s not that simple. So here you can ready a little something about my own experience as a designer.

The first steps
In 2011 I registered Little Smilemakers Studio as a new business. But things started way before that. When I was in design school I had so many ideas and projects I wanted to work on, and by the time I started out as a graphic designer here in The Netherlands (2004) I was working on all those projects at night after I got home from my job, which was less fulfilling then I had hoped it would be.

After two years of working full time I decided I wanted to specialize in Graphic design and Typography and went back to school. With a full time design job and classes 4 nights a week I still had this itch to create my own thing. I always felt I needed to find a way of expressing myself, pushing my boss and teachers boundaries time and time again. Because I didn’t have much time in between work, classes and school homework, I did not have much time to create my own stuff. I always needed to create, so carrying a camera along was the way to keep creative and true to myself. I always carried along a camera. First an analog Minolta, then my Lomo and after that the digital camera’s came. I captured everything in images.

A passive income
I worked at a design firm in The Netherlands where I had the chance to create the most amazing things, but sometimes, budget and time was restricted and we had to fall back on stock images. I started selling my first photographs on iStock. Images of Rotterdam and The Hague. Typical Dutch street scenes but also raw textures and details, rust, paint, decay. My photography finally had a purpose and it’s the balance between creating from the heart and making a living that challenges me, keeps me energized up until this day.

During my studies on the art academy I started freelancing. One of the first jobs I took on was creating Back-to-school items. Working on school accessories for kids was the start of my career in print designs. I started creating illustrations and surface pattern designs. All sketches and left over creations that didn’t make the final cut were added to my stock portfolio. This created a passive income for me. The foundation on which I could later on built my company.

The leap
After working for another design company for a few years I realized working for a boss was not for me. I missed the freedom to put my all into the job. I started as a graphic designer when things were all peachy but in 2010 the industry was one big mess and the graphic business pretty much collapsed. The design agency struggled with anxious clients and budget cuts. And the job got so stressful my fibromyalgia got so bad I couldn’t sit, stand, sleep, I was in pain 24/7. I knew it was time to leave and take the leap. I had gathered enough experience to know how I did not want to work so I though, what the hell, let’s do this.

You have to be a little naive to start your own business. At least you need to have the courage to think you can figure out, even though you’ve never come across so many challenges you’ll have to believe you can do it all. And so I did. And yes, I did have a lot of experience to take with me. But there was also so much I had yet to learn. And I was not healthy. I was struggling with my joints. But the decision to start my own business was such a relief. I never had to cross that line of physical exhaustion again. So I thought.

Taking on the first projects
Looking back I believe I was a pretty clever one starting out. I had a plan A, B and C. A passive income stream that was growing and now was enough to cover my basic expenses: mortgage, utilities and such. And the stock websites turned out to be a pretty handy tool to show businesses all over the world what I had to offer. I didn’t have to spend too much time on my own website because all my work was already out there to see. The first year I started working with companies from 18 different countries. I has to hire help every now and then. Pretty amazing when I look back on it. I worked with companies in home decor, textiles, kids fashion brands. The first year was definitely exciting! But it hasn’t been all easy.

The first year I was definitely high on the excitement of doing everything for the first time. New jobs coming in. new collabs. New finished work. But with 18 different countries comes 18 different cultures. 18 different ways in which to approach my clients. Working in the creative field is fun, but it’s also being your own accountant, design strategist, trend watcher, you have to become a writer, content manager, communication specialist. It’s a job allright. The creative field is not one to become rich over night. And that was never the goal anyway. I am not a big spender and want to know everything I need to run my business. I am very reluctant to hire help. I want to know what it’s about, and try to teach myself whatever is needed to resolve the problems that I come across.

The ultimate tip
Over the years I have done writing courses, online marketing classes, sales and business coaching sessions, I spend hours and hours on researching copy cats to fight giant corporations using my work without paying. An ongoing investment for my business. It’s been fun but mostly it has been hard work. With determination and time you can do it! The only quick tip I can give you here; if you’re not up for the task, don’t start. If this seems like a hassle to you; keep working for your boss and let him take care of it all. Sometimes the rough and the rude gets to me. But one thing I know for sure: I will always keep creating. And if you have this all consuming itch for creation like I do. You’ll be fine. Trust in your skill and create from the hearts and there will be no one like you. And that’s exactly what the world needs.