10 things I Learned in my First Year of Self-Employment

Natasha Shaw
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March 31, 2022

It was June 2018 and I was sat in my attic office, in a raging heatwave, 8.5 months pregnant, learning to code my new website from scratch and taking my mind off of the fact I was about to give birth.

The journey to motherhood was unexpectedly hard (but thank you IVF) and so was finding a job that actually fulfilled me.

I'd been thinking about working for myself for a few years, and now I was at the very early start of the realization of taking that journey properly...but first I was about to give birth on top of it all.

Was it all daunting? Yes. Was it all very exciting. Heck yes!

Fast forward to June 2021, I'm sitting in my hot attic office, feeling all reflective and stuff.

Going self-employed is a leap of faith in a lot of ways and the first year isn't meant to be plain sailing...a bit like the first year (at least!) of motherhood.

The combination of motherhood and going self-employed 'properly' has been hard at times but also so so liberating. I've been thinking over all the things that I've learned so far (there has been A LOT), and I thought I'd share 10 of the biggest takeaways for me personally.

#1 - Just do what you can

The juggle is actually real. When my daughter was a few months old I started to get back into the swing of things by updating my portfolio with personal projects.

It was hard.

If I wasn't knackered, I was seriously doubting myself and struggling to focus properly.

Oh, and the guilt!

"Shouldn't I be spending every single second with my baby and not on the computer?"

"Should I even be thinking about work?"

Basically, I felt like a bad mother at times.

The reality is though, we are all human and everyone needs a break. And having something else to focus on, actually made me avoid completely lose myself in nappies and sleepless nights.

Doing something creative was doing something for me. Eventually, what I was doing would pay for itself, so my family would benefit too.

Over the last 3 years, I've often felt like I was in some sort of 'rush' to get stuff done, to achieve certain goals in a specific time frame. I've almost felt obsessed with working on my business to get it going, every night glued to a screen for weeks on end. It has been mentally exhausting at times.

Plus, I have a small child in the mix on top of it all!

While having little goals has actually helped me move forward, I've recently realised...What is the actual rush?

You just need to do what you can, in the time you realistically have. Stop putting the pressure on and enjoy the work you’re doing and the extra time with the little people.

Pressure just leads to procrastinating, and procrastinating leads to nothing!

#2 - Set yearly and quarterly goals

Rather than doing things on the fly, I've discovered regularly committing a set time each week planning my social, blog, and email posts in particular have helped me stay consistent and organised with getting my business out there. I manage it about 80% of the time!

One thing I've done is to set some reasonable, not too lofty, yearly goals for 2021 and breaking down how I need to get there through quarterly goals. I'd never really done this before properly, and usually, I'd set expectations far too high and fail miserably.

I've found setting a couple of overarching goals, then breaking them down and working towards them with short daily tasks really helpful. Taking action, ticking off to-do lists, and seeing tangible results have been a real game-changer for me.

#3 - Make time for 'you'

I'm an introvert, so finding time for myself is crucial in keeping my sanity.

I notice if I don't get that bit of time to exercise, read, relax and watch Netflix or quietly brainstorm ideas concerning my business, then I get pretty stressed.

It's not easy, but usually, it means I have to get up pretty early to fit things in...that's just the way it goes, but it works for me!

An invigorated mind and body are productive and happy ones in my book.

#4 - Don't be afraid to tweak your offering

When I first went self-employed, I was offering standalone logo design and both WordPress and Squarespace website packages.

I was also working with any small business that needed my services.

I soon realised that WordPress, whilst it is an amazingly versatile platform, just caused me far too many headaches. Squarespace on the other hand seemed to really win over clients by being easy to use as well as super easy for me to add some unique customisations too.

I stopped offering standalone logo design completely and moved to offer better, more comprehensive branding identity packages. Having a logo is just not enough for a serious, growing business so it just didn't feel right offering standalone logo work anymore.

Now, I work with primarily female founders of small businesses and brands helping them to launch authentic, professional websites without the overwhelm.

It took a little while, but focusing down has definitely helped my business.

#5 - Be social…get yourself out there!

Again, being an introvert I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a social butterfly.

The thought of getting myself more visible on social media was pretty scary at first....I'm far too awkward for video!

Plus, I'm pretty private and don't like to broadcast every aspect of my life to strangers, to be honest.

There is still room for improvement but I can honestly say letting people get a glimpse of you is so important for that know-like-trust factor. People like to get to know you, not just see what you do.

LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook Groups, in particular, have been fantastic for connecting with other businesses and for referrals, but I definitely underestimated how much time I'd spend on these platforms. I'm still trying to find a bit of balance there!

#6 - Just say no

I've been really lucky in that I've worked with some brilliant clients in the last couple of years, but there have been a number of times where I've had to say 'no'.

Setting boundaries are important and necessary. I don't automatically just work outside my stated hours and I very rarely accept haggling over my rates.

While I'm flexible and happy to accommodate, I'm running a business and have a family - so I need to run my business on my terms.

Overall one big reason that I went self-employed was to find a work/life balance that worked for me and my family. If I work weekends and evenings just to accommodate clients, that defeats the point! However,  I do have the choice to work extra hours and change when and where I work if I have to - this is the beauty of being your own boss.

#7 - Put up your prices up

Setting your prices is tricky. I don't really believe in the 'charge what you're worth' idea - your personal worth shouldn't be tied to an arbitrary monetary value.

I got to the point recently, where I knew I wasn't charging anywhere near enough for the transformation I was bringing my clients, so I raised my rates.

And I raised them again.

And again.

Will they go up again? Most likely!

I often see that people view websites in particular as something they should just do themselves because they can (and platforms like Squarespace and Wix make it fairly accessible). Hiring a designer is just an unnecessary expense.

But why waste precious time doing it yourself when you could hire an expert who will do a much better job of getting your business visible?

I only now work with serious female founders that:

  • Value the expertise I bring to the table and how it can transform their business.
  • Want to stand out in their niche and wow their clients.
  • Don't have time to waste.
  • Don't want their website to be just another thing on the never-ending to-do list.
  • Know when they need help or support and are ready to invest in their growing business.

#8 - Start an email list

Starting an email list is an important part of a marketing strategy. I've seen a few horror stories about putting all your eggs in one basket on social media and that is not a great idea! If you have 1000 followers on Instagram and none of those are on an email list, what happens if your Instagram account gets shut down? Not great.

I moved my list from Mailchimp to MailerLite* and I can honestly say it was a great idea. The fact that it is much easier to use means I actually am more consistent with my email marketing now!

#9 - Organise your systems

Recently I realised I needed to streamline my client process to save myself admin time and improve the onboarding experience for my clients.

I was using FreeAgent for invoices and quotes, Adobe Sign for contracts, and Asana for project management....it was working fine until it wasn't!

Moving to Bonsai* was something I was more than ready for this year and it's already better for me, prospects and clients. I can do all the things I was doing but from one place! Less time on admin means more time for creative work - perfect. If you want to check out Bonsai, you can get a FREE month on me :)

#10 - Keep on learning

Fortunately, I'm pretty motivated, and improving my skills is an ongoing process. Do we ever really stop learning?

Moving from print design to digital design, I've had a lot to learn over the past few years and I've taken a number of courses to help with the transition (and yes I've actually all of them, except one about Javascript which gives me small nightmares).

Not only have I taken courses but I have actually applied a lot of what I've learned in them, into client projects.

My top 3 favourite courses:

  • Rebecca Harpain's Custom Code Academy. - Squarespace-specific, and brilliant if you want to create custom Squarespace sites.
  • Nguyen Le Process Masterclass - Being a self-employed designer, I miss having a mentor and it's inspiring to watch and learn from someone at the top of their game.
  • SuperHi - this is where it all started. I first learned code from these guys, and they made it really accessible. Such a great set of courses for creatives!

A lot of what I've learned over the past couple of years has been trial and error but that is part of being a small business owner....and I actually feel like I can call myself that now.

What things did you learn in your first year of business? I'd love to know, and if any of my 10 things above resonate with you. 🙂

  • full disclosure: these are affiliate links, at no extra cost to you though of course. I only recommend things I use and love.
written by
Natasha Shaw
I focus primarily on UX and UI design to help impact-driven businesses grow, with a healthy side dish of yoga and hot chilli sauce 🧡