Articles about running a business, resources, finances, and organization.

The Impact of Small Actions | Some thoughts on Starfish Casters and making positive impact through small acts | Jenn Wells Design

“…And this is my way of dealing with all the sh*t going on that is our world.”

This is how a friend explained his sudden desire to give blood. Here in the US, I think it’s an understatement to say our current administration is a bit chaotic and controversial. It’s hard to know what to do or where to focus our efforts or whether we even matter. My friend has chosen to donate blood. It may have nothing to do with politics, but there’s always a need, and hey! At least it’s something.

My first reaction to his explanation was to note the seeming unrelatedness of this action to the things that were upsetting him. But after thinking it over, maybe that doesn’t matter.

I went to Tapp’s Social Summit last week and the theme was social change. Scott Michaels, founder of Starfish Casters and The C.A.U.S.E., told us the story that inspired his organization. Quick recap:

Dead Starfish Beach

There’s a beach that is known as “Dead Starfish Beach” because every year, hundreds and hundreds of starfishes wash up and die. It smells, it’s unattractive, and can’t be used for anything but everyone ignores it because “that’s the way it is.”

One day a little girl is out on the beach, picking up starfish one by one and tossing them back into the water. A passerby asks her, “Why are you throwing the starfish back? This is the way it is. You won’t make a difference to the world.” And she, precocious youth that she is, holds up a starfish and says, “Maybe not, but I can make a world of difference to this starfish.”

Making a Difference in Our Sphere

Michaels went on to talk about how our actions do matter, even if our sphere is small. We impact each of the people we come into contact with, and those impacts ripple out as they impact their circles and so on. We can choose to share our negativity or we can share positivity, even if it’s something as little as a smile.

So with that context to it, I feel like my friend’s chosen solution is as valid as any other solution. We can’t all be the ones making world-changing decisions. But we can all make small choices that spread something positive.

I’ve been helping out a bit with the League of Women Voters, I occasionally donate to charities or political organizations, and I went to March for Our Lives. But in my head it wasn’t enough. None of it was enough. What was the point? My actions won’t change anything.

But maybe I’m looking too much at the big picture. Maybe I should be looking more at the small impacts in my local sphere.

Small Actions I Can Take

As a business owner, I can feature and work with and support other businesses who are doing good things. As an individual, I can speak up when I hear statements that I believe to be wrong and immoral. As a friend, and even more as a mom, I can role model integrity and a loving attitude. And for my poor, poor dogs, whose lives are so short and who live solely for my approval, I can get off the computer and go for walks a little bit more often.

Starfish Casting

At the end of the speech, the speaker had us write the name of a loved one on a circle of paper. He then took all the pieces of paper and pressed them into buttons with a magnet on the back. We didn’t get them back because we had to “cast our starfish into the ocean.” Instead, we picked a random button and got someone else’s starfish.

Starfish button created by Starfish Casters to represent someone's loved one

This exercise is supposed to give us a tangible reminder that everyone is someone’s starfish, and if we expect other people to be good to our starfish, we need to be good to theirs. It’s cheesy, but I think it was a good reminder of how often I let my negativity run away with me in public. It’s small things, like getting angry in traffic, or being mentally judgy to people I haven’t even talked to after someone else was rude to me.

But their things that can ruin my entire day, and those small ripples might be spreading to other people. And why? What’s the point? If I get to choose the impact that I have on the world, do I really want it to be one of frustrated impotence in the political world, and actively rage-y driving?

Probably not.

So my takeaway is to look for the small acts I can do, and to take better care of my own mental health so I can leave a more positive impact on everyone else.

What small actions do you take to make the world a better place? Do you have a way to remind yourself that small actions matter?

Business Ethics Interview with Olivia Brinton | An interview with the owner of Little Goat Coffee Roasting to talk about business ethics and the challenges of running an ethical business | Jenn Wells Design

“Capitalism isn’t ethics based.”

– Olivia Brinton, co-founder of Little Goat Coffee Roasting Co.

I interviewed Olivia because I wanted to get to know ethical business owners, and learn how they incorporate their personal values into their business models. Besides being insanely quotable, Olivia was knowledgeable, insightful, and had some tips for other entrepreneurs who want to build ethical foundations for their businesses.

Like our conversation, I’d like to start this post at the very beginning…

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My 3 Biggest Business Mistakes | The top 3 things I did wrong in my business and how to avoid them | Jenn Wells Design

It’s easy to forget that success is all relative. Sometimes I feel like my business is so tiny it barely counts as a business. I compare myself to the business owners whose blogs I read or podcasts I listen to, with their 6 figure income and 7 figure goals. It sounds impossibly distant and unreachable.

But then a friend or acquaintance will offhandedly say something about how impressive my business is. They congratulate me for taking the leap and quitting my part time job. They’re impressed when I host a class or speak on a panel. Somehow, in my head, each of those achievements is a one-off. It’s a stroke of luck, or a fluke, or not really THAT big of a deal. But I think we all think that about ourselves and it helps me stay grounded to hear from business owners who are still in the side-gig phase. I’ve come a long way.

My business has gone from 2 or 3 side projects per year, to several projects a week. From a tiny trickle of revenue that the IRS didn’t care about to headaches at tax time. From 3 total clients to 3 monthly clients, a handful of annual or sporadic clients, and too many one-offs to count. In the past couple years, it’s grown a TON and I can tell you why. But it’s more fun to talk about failures, so instead I’ll tell you the biggest mistakes I made and how overcoming them led to where I am now.

Mistake #1: Inactivity

Starting out, I was thrilled whenever I did get a new client. But I didn’t know how to get more. I tried networking – once. I had a website. Magnets on my car. And then…

I read a lot of books. I made a list of marketing things to try maybe one day. I waited. People would find me, right?

After 3 months of inactivity, I finally realized this was a losing strategy. I started poking around to see what opportunities there might be. I applied for a mentorship. Learned how to code responsive websites. Researched marketing and decided to give networking another go.

I didn’t always pick the right action. But doing something is always better than doing nothing. You can’t learn from your mistakes if you aren’t making any, and by doing nothing, you sure as heck aren’t doing anything right either. Inactivity is the surest way to stagnate.

Lesson: Do something. Even if you don’t know what to do. Research, ask peers for suggestions, try new things.

Mistake #2: Inexperience

What? But everyone’s inexperienced until they get some practice in. True. My mistake wasn’t just that I was inexperienced, it was that I didn’t take steps to rectify that.

When I said I read a lot of books up above, I’m talking fantasy. Fluff books. I didn’t read anything related to business, or research, or follow experts in my field. I tried to just work with what I had and learn the rest on the fly.

This is a huuuuge mistake! Think about the number of small businesses that fail. 80%. Each of those businesses failed for a reason and that’s a lesson you could learn and avoid. The much smaller number of small businesses that succeeded have even more important lessons to share. By learning things secondhand, we can save ourselves massive amounts of time and effort.

Lesson: Be a sponge! Read business books, listen to podcasts, follow blogs. There’s so much free information available.

Mistake #3: Introversion

You can be an introvert and run a business! But you’ll have to do a lot of things that push your comfort zone.

The book Networking for People Who Hate Networking (see? reading) taught me that fear of “being pushy” or “annoying people” is an introvert trait. We try to respect other people’s space because we don’t like having our own space invaded.

But introverts can take this too far. If you’re going to run a successful business, you will have to do some form of sales. It can be cold calls, or content marketing, but you’ll need to be comfortable telling people who you are and what you can do for them. You’ll need to be comfortable leaving humility behind to elaborate on your strengths. And you’ll need to talk to people. Probably a lot more often than you want to.

You don’t have to network. It works for me, after a lot of practice and forcing myself to get comfortable small talking strangers. But you have to do something. I hated networking the first several times I did it. It made me feel stressed and anxious and I felt like we all just traded business cards and accomplished nothing. It is now my 2nd biggest generator of new clients, after referrals.

Lesson: Sell, sell, sell! Pick the sales tactic that makes you feel least uncomfortable, and then become an expert at it. True introverts will probably be more comfortable with soft selling.

What mistakes have you made in your business and how did you overcome them?

Operations Manuals: a How To | Creating clarity and efficiency in your business by creating an operations manual | Jenn Wells Design

 

Full disclosure, Kelli is my BBF (business best friend). I would be sharing her stuff with you regardless but this post I specifically requested because Kelli’s video on setting up your operations manual made a huge difference to the way I organize and run my business.

Here’s Kelli…

Your business is starting to gain traction, and you’re stoked. You’ve learned all about business finances, email marketing, and sales funnels. You’re hitting your business goals each month, and you can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Does Race Have a Place in Marketing? | Pros and cons of using traditional demographics | Jenn Wells Design

I recently read an article from ProPublica explaining why they “had to” buy racist ads. After my initial reaction, it ended up being a really eye-opening look at the marketing segmentation options on Facebook.

Did you know Facebook allows you to select custom audiences for ads and promoted posts? Makes sense – an ad for baby shower cupcakes isn’t going to be very effective if it’s sent to people who aren’t expecting. But the fact that these selectors include things like religion and ethnicity is a little disturbing.

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Business vs "Busy-ness" | Ditching busywork so you can get more done with less effort in your life and business | Jenn Wells Design

Everyone is busy.

It always shocks me when I come across someone who seems to think “busy” is a novel way to answer the question, “How have you been?”  We’re slowly becoming aware of the drawbacks of being constantly busy, but it’s still often seen as a badge of honor.  It makes us feel important, or special, or deserving of praise and sympathy.  But the truth is, busy is a choice that the majority of us are constantly making.

Parents are busy, students are busy, people who run clubs or organize societies are busy.  I know literally one person who has ever told me that she’s not busy.  And it was a very deliberate choice on her part to avoid the constant temptation of activities and invitations.

So, fellow business owners, we are far from alone in our levels of “busy.”  But that’s not the main point I want to make today.

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Multi-Level Marketing | My objections to the business format and sales tactics used by MLMs | Jenn Wells Design

“Isn’t that a pyramid scheme?”

You can imagine how enraged a coworker was, after I naively asked this question about his wife’s new business.  He gave me a rundown on multi-level marketing which, frankly, left me a little confused about the difference between the two, but gave me the verbiage I needed to not offend other MLMers.

My personal opinion has wavered.  Initially I was wary, and maybe a little frustrated at the explosion of advertising in my Facebook newsfeed by family and friends.  Then it started to seem like a good opportunity to get into entrepreneurship for people who might not have the initiative or capital to strike out on their own.

And now…

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5 Misconceptions about Working for Yourself at Home | Annoying things people assume about you and your work when you work for yourself at home | Jenn Wells Design

“But you set your own hours, so you can do whatever you want.”

If you work for yourself, you work at home, or you’re self employed, I’m sure you’ve heard this. Along with other, equally annoying, misconceptions.

It can be frustrating, as a small business owner, to explain what you do and how you do it. You have to explain that working for yourself is still a job, and not every task is enjoyable, even though you choose to do them.

Sometimes you feel like you can never complain. After all, you chose this…

So let’s address some of those misconceptions and how to explain them to well-meaning friends and family.

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Business Ethics Manifesto | The values and beliefs behind our business | Jenn Wells Design

People often say they want to make an impact, make their mark, effect change, etc.  But what does that actually mean?

The actions each individual takes may differ but the underlying desire is the same.  To leave the world better than we found it.  People who want to create change in the world see a problem and then take steps to improve it, instead of complaining and continuing on about their day.

I recently read an amazing article over at Yes and Yes about building ethics into your business.  I’ve had some vague ideas about values that were important to me, in and outside of my business, but I’ve never vocalized it or built it into my mission statement.  Remedying that now!

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An Honest Look at Business Finances | A peek at my business finances, income, expenses, and future goals | Jenn Wells Design

I’m never going to be one of those people that publishes a monthly income report. Both because I feel like it would be really dull… (I spent the same $5-$50 dollars per product on all the same products that I spent last month!) And because I feel like a lot of income reports don’t feel very relevant to other people.

Our businesses are different and our expenses and income will differ wildly.  But beyond that, even if you happen to be another graphic designer, your idea of a profitable month will vary wildly from mine. If you make tens of thousands of dollars a month, you won’t be able to empathize with my penny pinching for $15/monthly subscription services.  If you’re struggling to get up to $1,000/month, you’ll think my networking group expenses of over $500/year seem excessive.

That being said, I don’t think money should be the taboo topic that it is. There’s very little to be gained by keeping the subject hush hush and not educating ourselves properly about money. I also enjoy social experimentation, which means I’m the one at parties who will deliberately bring up an awkward topic to see how people react.

I remember asking a friend how much money she spent on a new (sporty) car. Another friend jumped in with an appalled, “That’s so rude!” But sports car friend didn’t mind, answered my question, and I gained a better feel for vehicle costs. This was good for me because at the time I’d never purchased a new car and had no concept of the relative costs of a flashy new car vs the used, economy version.

To bring this back around to business finances, I often wonder what other people’s financial goals are, what they need to live on, how much they spend, and what kind of return they get on those products. I also wonder if I’m underselling myself and if I’m trying to restrict myself to an unnecessarily tight budget.

The Story Behind My Price Hike

In 2017 I’ve already raised my prices from $30/hour to $60/hour. This was not a decision I made lightly. I agonized over it. I was reluctant to do it. Scared.

But two people in similar creative fields had urged me to do it and I trusted and respected their opinions. So up the prices went!

The first two calls with potential clients ended in haggling and eventually losing those projects. I started to get nervous. And then… life and business continued on. No one since has blinked an eye at my new prices and I’ve been working nonstop for the last couple months. Several people have told me to continue to raise prices, to which I said, “I’m not ready yet.”

It’s uncomfortable to raise prices. To demand more for your time and to announce to the world, “I have value!” I’m glad I did it and business is better than before (for several reasons) but I also want to sit at my current level and get comfortable with it before I continue up that incline.

How Raising Prices Improved My Customer Relations

Seems counter-intuitive, I know. Landing and retaining MORE clients was the last thing I expected. But I have a couple of theories on how raising prices benefited my clients.

  1. I can spend more time talking to my clients and on other customer service related non-revenue-generating activities because my new prices cover that time. No more “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” mentality.
  2. Charging appropriately gives the perception that I have confidence in my own abilities. Pricing doesn’t always accurately affect quality, but it does (and should) often enough that if your prices are too low, people will wonder why.
  3. I appreciate my clients more. I’ve always appreciated my clients but in the past, it was easy to feel resentful if someone took up too much time because my pricing simply didn’t cover any extra time for revisions or communication. I also had more clients who were looking for a deal rather than looking for quality work. So there was a lack of appreciation all around.

Walmart is amazing and serves a definite need. But no one wants to be the Walmart of their field. (For more on that topic see my post on Fiverr and other bargain businesses.)

Profit and Loss

So you’d think I’d be super profitable now that I’ve essentially doubled my prices.  But it’s been a weird year.  2016 was the first year where I cut my full-time job down to 2 days a week to dedicate more time to building my business. The first half of the year was record-breaking (for me) and I brought in between $1K and $2K each month. Not bad for a “part-time” gig.

In August business died. I hadn’t diversified my revenue streams so when the work from my 2 primary clients dried up, I had nothing else to fill that gap. I also had no idea how to go about marketing or finding new clients and so the second half of the year was more dedicated to learning about business and networking.

Long story short, I’ve learned a TON since that little debacle and this year I have a good mix of new and old clients. (For me networking and building a referral network has been the most effective but I know a lot of people who do really well through social media. Either way, you need SOMETHING.) So when I checked out my P&L, I was expecting to see better numbers than the previous year.

But I’d forgotten that I had a baby a mere 7 months ago. So my averages were a little low because the first 2-3 months of the year were more focused on the learning curve of working from home with an infant. According to my accounting software, I was making an average of $600/month and I was spending $400 of it.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t live on $200/month. Even with a part-time job. I actually need to recalculate this, but I’ll be honest, I’m waiting for several current large invoices to be sent and/or paid because I want to see the more accurate (and flattering!) numbers.

What I Spend My Money On

According to my P&L, I’m spending 2/3 of my income. At first glance that seems ridiculous, but after breaking it down with the help of my awesome VA, I know where that money is going.

The biggest expense? Taxes. And that’s a huge, huge expense that my previous pricing didn’t factor in at all.  1/3 of my income goes to taxes now that I’m married (vs the 1/5 when it was just my own, more modest salary).

Outside of that, I’ve spent quite a bit on design software (Adobe CC is $50/month) and networking groups (another $50/month). I’ve purchased things I later regret (join.me premium which was $18/month when I could have used zoom for free) and I learned that monthly payment plans aren’t a bad idea to at least try something out before committing to an annual plan that will “save” you money.

Quick confession here: I’m actually floating a balance on my business credit card at this moment. I hate having that debt, but I don’t regret my purchase (a laptop) and I use it every day. I will feel much more comfortable when my current invoices come in and I can pay that card off. Credit card interest is NOT what I want to spend my money on.

Things I do think are worth the expense:

  • Trello Gold (I use this for tasks, project management, business organization, and on and on)
  • Freshbooks (Time tracking AND invoicing in the same place!  But Wave is a great option, too, if you want free invoicing.)
  • Networking events and coffee dates (anywhere from $50 to the cost of a cup of coffee)
  • Networking groups (BUT with the caveat that you have to find the right ones – I won’t be renewing all my memberships)
  • Buffer (or any social media scheduler!)

Things that haven’t returned my investment:

  • Paid ads (I tried Facebook and Google and probably won’t use them again without hiring someone or taking a few classes on how to use these tools effectively)
  • Zapier (SUCH a cool idea!  But ultimately IFTTT is free and I really just don’t have that many tasks I can truly automate.)
  • Feedly (I don’t know what I expected, honestly)

Design-specific things I spend money on:

  • Adobe
  • Stock photos
  • Fonts
  • Microsoft Office (I pay $7 for one month at a time whenever a client needs a specific thing and I don’t renew until the next Office-based project)

In addition to learning that paying month-to-month, while more expensive in the short run, is actually a smart idea for trying something out, I’ve also developed a definite preference for services that offer a freemium model. It’s a lot like the concept of content-marketing. They provide a sampling of their services for free and then if and when you want to take advantage of additional features, you can start to pay for it. It saves me from regret a month or two later if and when I realize a certain service isn’t actually that helpful.

My Finance Goals

While it’s possible that I’ll find more ways to spend my business income as I make more of it (I have started hiring people to delegate work to and I sometimes daydream about going to business conferences), I don’t anticipate my expenses increasing THAT much. So my goal is based on my current expenses, taxes, and the lifestyle I’d like to be able to afford.

When I mathed this out, I got about $5,000 as the amount I should be making per month. This seems like a lot to me! Wildly ambitious even. But it does include the income from my part-time job, which drops the amount my business needs to make down to $3,500, which seems more doable.

I’ve been struggling to keep up at my current level of $1,000 or so per month, but a big part of that was trying to “do it all” and be a stay at home mom while also running a business. That is exhausting and stressful and after some long heart-to-hearts with my husband, we decided it wasn’t sustainable or contributing to anyone’s happiness.

So now that baby is safely ensconced in daycare and I have reliable work hours (that don’t involve staying awake all night!) I’ve got a few plans to make this happen.

  • Networking, always networking
  • Make more effective use of my “funnel” (I set this up and it technically runs about once a month but I don’t promote it at all)
  • Monthly promos (see above)
  • Expand my offerings (I’m planning on partnering with a few different people to hopefully start offering SEO, PPC, and reputation management!)

What business expenses do you feel are money well spent? Have you ever published a finance report?