I'm often asked how I manage to balance a full-time career and a design business (and until recently school as well). It's a difficult question to answer. Honestly, I think for the most part I JUST DO IT. I set my mind and I just do it. Yes, it's a lot of sacrifices and a lot of work, but ultimately I know it's getting me closer to my goals. One thing is for sure when I began I was dead set on doing it well. Today I'm sharing a few tips that have helped me successfully operate in essentially two worlds, simultaneously.
Well, when I first decided to start a business on the side, it really began as a creative outlet and a byproduct of the blog. While I wasn't exactly doing it for the money I knew that if I was going to be "official" I had to do things right. You only get one chance to make a first impression and I didn't want potential clients to see anything less than my best, which leads me to my first point.
1. DON'T operate as if it's your side hustle.
From day one I've worked hard to be viewed as a professional, even when I was a total amateur. Things like investing in professional (amateur) photography, blog/website design, etc. work to create a professional and polished public persona that positions you as a design professional, not a hobbyist. This is where my perfectionism came in handy. I mean, you can't have someone coming to a site that's "coming soon" or "under construction". Not acceptable. Presenting a professional image that is on par with other industry professionals is critical. This is likely the single most important thing that I did from the very start and it continues to pay dividends today.
2. Invest in yourself.
Yes, it was my side hustle but I made early investments in developing professionally in my area of interest. I followed other designers to help identify the best events, workshops, and conferences to attend. Again, I didn't wait until I was established, I invested early. One of the best moves made in this area was the decision to attend the Design Bloggers Conference in LA in 2013. I flew clear across the country, knowing absolutely no one, to attend what I'd heard was one of the best design conferences at the time. Best decision EVER!! I met some of the biggest names in the game and established personal connections and lasting friendships. The information I learned and probably, more importantly, the networking was priceless.
3. Social media levels the playing field. Use it!
Social media is the best money you'll never spend on marketing your small business. It completely levels the playing field in terms of access and exposure. Businesses and publication's that may never answer an email or call from you will almost certainly notice you on social media; especially if you're supporting or publicizing their product or brand. Use this to your advantage. The key is consistency and this is where most drop the ball. You need to establish a frequency and stick to it. We're all creatures of habit and we like when we can count on things and people. This is particularly important if you don't work full time in the industry of your side hustle. Social media allows you to live in both worlds at the same time. I established a pretty regular weekday schedule from the start. Instagram is my social media of choice and I post before work, during lunch and late in the evenings. This requires some forethought but provides the perception that I'm working in the design world during the day although I'm not. While Instagram is my favorite, I have a presence on all of the major streams and post regularly (but not as frequently) on those as well. Remember perception is reality and if you want to run with the big dogs, you've got to get off the porch. ; )
4. Steal best practices from the day job.
If you're fortunate to work in a large or well-established company, there are more than few best practices that are likely transferable to your business. From HR processes, strategy implementation, project planning, communications, sales and even marketing. There's a reason successful companies are successful. Take a look at your employer with fresh eyes and think about what practices might work for you and your business. I do an annual strategy meeting that was born out of an idea from work. Additionally, when I have a media appearance, I totally use the process I learned in media training at my company. (Be sure to keep things ethical of course) Instead of viewing your day job as a burden, think of all of the transferable skills you've learned and can continue to learn.
5. Use your vacation or PTO wisely.
Seems like a weird tip but you essentially have two careers and just because you have "off" from one, doesn't mean you'll be off from the other. Early on, I realized that PTO days were design biz gold. They allowed me to attend conferences, make media appearances, prep for installs, etc. Yep, that meant I had to sacrifice real days off but it was worth it to be able to have time to do what I really wanted to do. So think before you play hooky on a random Monday. You may need that day for an awesome opportunity that happens during regular business hours.
The bottom line is to do both you've got to be able to balance. It's a delicate balance, but it's totally doable. My goal has always been to operate with excellence in both roles. My name is on both and I want to ensure that my employer and my business get my very best.
Lest I give the impression that it's easy, I should probably state that this is HARD. It takes up a lot of time and is likely not sustainable forever. At some point, you're going to have to make a choice. However, having real experience running your own gig just may help make that choice a lot easier.