My Small Business Journey
Today officially marks ABC&D's second birthday! I remember 730 days ago shouting to the world (well, it was more of a whisper back then) that I had officially launched this little ol' design studio — and I haven't looked back since. I never imagined that this would be my career path and I didn't exactly plan for it to happen, but I couldn't be happier. Of course the journey hasn't always been easy and it certainly hasn't happened overnight, but I was looking for a challenge when started my business in the first place.
In the age of social media, where we are constantly exposed to other's highlight reels (and seem to miss some of the messy parts), I wanted to be transparent and share my journey with you. Whether you're reading at the office and day dreaming of starting your own business one day, or you're wondering why I do what I do (and why it matters so much to me) — this post is for you!
Way, Way Back
To get the full picture, you have to go way, way back. I've always been a go-getter and a big dreamer so naturally, I put together my first "portfolio" in elementary school with dreams of being an animator (I just knew future employers would be really impressed by my sketches from decades ago). Once I reached middle school, my dream shifted and I decided I would one day study journalism as the University of North Carolina. And yes, I was about 12 years old when this happened.
UNC was my absolute dream school and pretty much everything I did from that point on was to make it a reality. I took participated in the International Baccalaureate program in high school while working as an editor for the yearbook. With some hard work and a bit of luck, I was selected to participate in the Chuck Stone Program for Diversity in Education and Media and that trip to Chapel Hill sealed the deal. I was in love with the campus, the professors in the journalism school and practically never wanted to leave. The next time I visited Chapel Hill was more than a year later for orientation.
Throughout college, I explored potential careers in journalism. I wrote for the school newspaper and pretty much any publication I could. I joined clubs for future magazine editors and worked on public relations committees for groups across campus. At that time, students in the j-school were require to select a specialization from broadcast, reporting, advertising, and public relations, among others. I dabbled in each but nothing really clicked until I took introduction to graphic design. I was enthralled by the balance of visuals and storytelling, creativity and information, and spent hours in the basement of Carroll Hall perfecting projects. In 2013, I graduated with a specialization in editing and graphic design from my dream school — talk about making your dreams a reality.
I was reluctant to leave UNC to say the least. Graduating from UNC had been my primary goal for most of my life and I wasn't sure what to do next. I put my all into finding a job that I was passionate about and three months after graduation, I was hired as a contracted assistant designer for the Denver Broncos. Yes, it was a pretty sweet gig. I learned a lot about design that I hadn't in school and was pushed to meet tight deadlines while creating highly-public designs. When the team lost the Super Bowl in 2014, it meant that my position would not be extended and it was time to move on.
My next role was as a designer for the digital department of an organization that owned several professional sports teams and venues in Colorado. I loved working in sports, creating graphics and websites for large audiences, but over time, it started feeling like something was missing. The most glaring issue was I felt like the work I was doing lacked purpose. Marketing materials, especially on social media, tend to have a short life-span, and combined with some larger issues across the organization, I simply wasn't happy. On top of that, as the only designer in my department, I didn't feel challenged and missed the mentorship and sense of community I had in my previous position.
A peek into the freelance life
By chance (or fate?), I was introduced to another freelance designer who was looking for some extra hands to balance her workload. And so began my freelance journey. Each day, I would head home from the office and start working on freelance projects. Yes, the days were long and it was a lot of hard work, but I was getting more fulfillment from my work after 5 p.m. than anything else I had done earlier that day. The graphics I created told clients' stories while sharing their mission and values, as well as had the power to impact their business for the better.
At the time, I was also dating my now husband who was serving in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Whidbey Island, Washington. After our relationship survived (and thrived) during a 10-month deployment, we were both tired of the long-distance thing and I began looking for jobs in Washington. While I had a couple of interviews, nothing ever came to fruition and I had a tough choice to make: I could stay my job — unhappy and unfulfilled professionally, and letting my personal life suffer — or take a leap of faith and go out on my own.
Year 1: Humble beginnings
In October of 2015, I quit my job and moved to Washington. I spent a couple months prepping behind the scenes and learning about the world of entrepreneurship — a world that I pretty much hardly new existed. On January 11, 2016, ABC&D was officially open for business.
The first year of business was totally about getting my bearings. I pretty much had no idea what I was doing, but I poured my heart into my business — working late nights to get my systems set up, driving 2 hours to the nearest Rising Tide Society #TuesdaysTogether meeting every month to grow a network, and bending over backwards for clients. I also continued to work as an associate designer for the freelance designer I first started with when I was working full-time, and was beyond thankful for the steady-income that role provided while I continued to grow my own business.
Year 2: Pivot
In November 2016, the owner of the other company I worked for completely disappeared, leaving myself, clients and other contractors in a terrible position. While it had always been my goal to decrease my reliance on that income (contract work was about 75% of my total revenue the first year in business), I was forced to do so much quicker than I had anticipated. After this abrupt and drastic change, I focused on growing my own business and connecting with new clients.
While it was pretty stressful to essentially change my entire business model, I was definitely happier having more control of the work I was doing each day. In my second year of business, I decreased my reliance on contract work (less than 22% of my total revenue in 2017) while increasing my total revenue. More importantly, I was able to connect and collaborate with some amazing clients. I feel so honored each and every day that I get to learn their incredible stories and be a small part of their journey.
So, what's next?
If my first year or two in business was about figuring this whole entrepreneurship thing out, year three is about continuing to grow and improve. I truly love the challenge that comes with running a business and I’m always pushing myself to be better — be a better designer, provide my clients with more, and build the best business I possibly can. I never thought this would be my journey, but I am continually thankful that it is, year after year.
Happy birthday, Alexa B. Creative & Design!