4 Years in Business: What I’ve Lived and Learned Since the Start

March 6, 2018

If you asked me if I’d be in business 4+ years when I first started, I would have said, “I don’t own a business, I’m just designing websites for some people”. I had no faith in myself and the potential I’ve tapped into since that first year of doubt and worry. Sometimes it is essential to toot your own horn. I’m proud of myself and my business because where it is today is never what I could have even imagined when I first started.

A huge reason for that is probably because of the reason I started. I didn’t get a big “I went full time!” moment or even an official “my business starts today” date to mark on the calendar. I mark the beginning of my business as the day my life changed and went through the biggest change that I’d ever experienced. It’s how I got here today and it’s my beginning. Let me bring you back to 2014 on a deceptively warm March 11th morning…

How I got started

It was a typical morning. I put on my scrubs and skipped breakfast because I always stalled getting to my case manager job for as long as I could. It was so routine at that point, I never asked myself, “How did I get here? Why am I working a job I hate so much?” I headed downstairs from our 3rd floor apartment and walked towards my car, unlocking it with the remote. Then I was looking at the branches of a tree.

When I realized I was on my back on the sidewalk, it also hit me that I could not move my neck or back. They felt heavy. I was so scared and blacked out. I woke up to a man’s face, asking me if I could move. My best friend from work Jessica had called an ambulance because I was able to call her before I blacked out, since my hand was already on my phone. I explained I couldn’t and he brought me to the hospital feeling some of the worst pain I’d ever felt, but unfortunately not the worst I’d feel that year.

I ended up losing my job after 15 long weeks of physical therapy 3 times a week, doctors visits all the time, and severe vertigo making it almost impossible to leave my house for any other reason. I was able to focus sometimes and not get dizzy when I’d sit on my couch and I was asked by two former high school alums of mine to design their websites, since I had done that my senior year for the drama club. I accepted and charged an amount of money that makes me ill to think about. But bringing in any type of money was a relief since Chris, my husband, was the only one working and we were sinking deeper into debt.

I loved creating the websites and thought to myself, “I wish I could do this all the time”. I’ve been coding since I was 12 and the passion had always been there, but life happens and you need a job that pays just about anything to get by.

In August, after completing those 2 websites, I started looking into other freelancers and business owners that offered the services I wanted to do. I was getting in the right headspace when I shattered my ankle and ended up having blood clots fill my lungs soon after my surgery. After waking up from my weeklong medically-induced coma, I felt completely lost. Chris and I had to move home to my mom’s. We lost almost everything. I ended up being hospitalized for 2 months, not getting out until October. It felt like my world had crumbled around me.

The first years of struggle

I jumped into doing whatever I could to try and make money creating websites and brands for other business owners. I educated myself, took jobs that didn’t align with my goals, and booked so few clients, my tax preparer would just look at my “income” and seem confused. I was not making enough to contribute anything to my family and I went through this difficult period for 3 years. Yes, 3 quarters of my time as a business owner. I felt like I was missing some secret formula that would make me successful like everyone I followed online. I wanted pretty pictures on my Instagram. I wanted to be booked up. Heck, I even wanted client issues like my friends around me. I didn’t have clients to even have an issue with!

I started 2017 (yes LAST YEAR) not booking any clients at all. January through March were dead quiet and I truly asked myself, “When is pushing and trying and failing enough? Have I hit the point that I should give up?”

The shift

When I had gone to round 2 of Creative at Heart when I first started this whole journey, I met some amazing creative friends that kept me sane during this time of difficulty and only a handful of clients. I shared my heart in a Facebook Group that was full of brand designers who let me vent and cry and question why I was even going through this when I could just stop. A now dear friend reached out to me and we began working on the issues in my business. We began our weekly chats in March and by April, I had booked my first couple clients of the year. I was so happy and kept thinking, “I hope I book more!” May was even better, so was June!

I ended up being booked consistently every month since last May and I felt like a real business owner. I am now working with business coaches that uplift me and push me to try new things. I have seen my business grow faster and more beautifully than I ever thought it could in those first years of hardship. I stuck with it and have never been more proud of myself to be here just shy of my 4th anniversary since taking control of my own life and making it through the most difficult years of my life.

My most significant lessons

During this time as a business owner, there were certain truths that I found that still carry me to this day. They are steadfast and I remember those first few years and know I don’t want to go back there. These are the things I learned that changed everything.

Don’t change how people identify with you

I’ve worked under multiple names. I thought one of my problems was that I could not settle on a name or brand design. What I’ve come to find out is that you should change your brand design and strategy sometimes in your business. It’s most important when your message shifts. Name changes and rebranding are essential when you want to reach a new audience. For instance, all of 2016, I worked under a name I no longer use. I was becoming known to do work that didn’t truly make me happy. When I chose the name Stefani Jessica (although it’s my name so I guess it chose me), I picked it because I wanted a more personal experience with each of my clients. This change, while elevating my brand rather than change it, was a huge turning point for my business and the type of work I create now.

Create good content first

You will have to create so much content when you’re a business owner and I’ve found that when your content is good, you don’t need as much. Blogging can seem scary until you limit your posts to 2-4 times a month. But creating relevant and helpful content will keep your audience interested, which is the entire goal of creating content, from blog posts and newsletters to quick bites of information like Instagram captions.

Keep yourself open to new opportunities

Going to Creative at Heart laid the groundwork to my business growing into what it is. Although I struggled another 2 years after the conference, if I had not connected with the creatives I did, I wouldn’t have had a mentor or friends who understood my difficult moments. Growing your circle and going to events that may seem scary (especially to introverts like myself) will open doors and that’s where your business has a chance to become more than you ever imagined.

Invest your money and time in the right place

If you use an app that works perfectly for your business, don’t jump into the shiny new ones that launch and make a lot of promises. If there is any area of your business that is lacking or sucks away your time, outsource to free yourself up for more of the work you love. Hire a business coach if you’re stuck. It may seem like a huge investment, but with a good coach who you connect with that understands your goals, you will make your money back and then some. You must put money back into your business to have more come out.

Aim to help other with your email list

Too many business owners do not have an email list. It can seem daunting to create more content or think that people would be interested in what you have to say. You are an expert in your business and how you run it. Your way is unique and could help another person struggling like I was. So long as you aim to truly help your audience, even promoting your services and products will be a solution to a problem they are facing.

I have a true email list now and I’m so excited to share a guide I created with you all for free. Are you missing out on potential clients? Your website can be optimized to convert visitors into inquiries with 5 simple action steps. Sign up below to receive your guide.

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  1. Jennifer says:

    As someone with a young business, this really speaks to me. Thank you for showing me the light at the end of the tunnel.

    • Stefani says:

      I’m so glad I could help anyone with this post. 100%, you can do this. I know I literally sat there crying at the beginning of last year. In business 3 years and I’d never made a true profit. It was so hard to push forward but my business has transformed. I know the same is possible for you! Stick with it and reach out if you’re ever having one of those difficult days.

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