From the outside it may be hard to really grasp the hustle and grit that goes into starting up and running your own creative business. Those of us taking that leap into doing our own thing will know how scary it can be and how impossible it can feel alongside the financial realities and start-up costs. I had a pretty unconventional path into self-employment, though I’m so glad it’s the road I've now found myself on. So many of us (myself included) talk often about the importance of ‘following our dreams’ and ‘doing what we love’, yet we can shy away from really sharing the nitty gritty of our journey so far.
To say I started my creative business on a shoestring budget would be an understatement. After graduating in the summer of 2013, I picked up a full time job in retail to keep myself going whilst I found my feet in post-graduate life. Unfortunately due to health reasons I had to quit that day job and, with just a few months savings in the bank, I moved back up north to live back with my parents so I would have the space and support to look after myself and my health. After spending a few months just taking care of my health and my recovery, I started to take some very tentative steps into the world of self-employment. Over a year later, here I am almost four months into running my creative coaching business and enjoying every single minute of it.
Starting a creative business without a day job and almost no budget may seem impossible, and I know for many it’s not a situation they will ever find themselves in, but today I want to open up and share with you some of the behind-the-scenes realities of how I’ve managed to build my own career from scratch with hardly any start up cash or the safety-net of a day job.
I moved back home: Hands down this has been the biggest factor in having the opportunity to start and build my own creative business. Although I moved home due to health reasons and with every intention of getting another day job once I was back on my feet and moving out as soon as possible, I found myself with a recovery that was much longer than I first imagined and the realities of a chronic illness that just couldn’t be ignored.
Throughout this time I discovered two things - working for myself, having freedom with both my time and my schedule, and doing work that feels purposeful is one of the only ways I will be truly fulfilled by my career, and secondly that the only way I can live freely and as full as possible alongside my illness is to have the freedom to build my career alongside it. My parents have been so supportive during this time in my life, and not having the commitment of rent every month has given me the financial freedom to take a leap into self-employment and find my feet with it along the way. For a long time I felt so much shame around the fact that I am living back at home in my 20s, though I’ve learned just to be grateful for this opportunity and make the most out of it every step of the way. Although I’m very excited to hopefully be moving out later this year, I couldn’t be where I am now without this space and time to live back at home.
I keep my living costs low: I also live back at home with my better half Alex, and although we don’t pay any rent we do take care of our own bills, expenses, and living costs. Keeping our living costs as low as possible has been essential for us to have enough money to pay off any outstanding debts from our student days (not including our student loans), and keeping our head above water each month financially without going into any more debt. Alex has a full time day job and freelances on the side, so that stability has been huge for helping us feel a little more stable month to month. Being savvy with how much we spend on food and our monthly expenses has meant that we have enough money left over to invest back into our work.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is to not increase your outgoings just because your income increases. If you’re still in the early stages, your income will probably fluctuate month to month, and the only way to survive the feast and famine of self employment is to save during the busier months so things don’t feel so tough on the quieter ones.
I invested wisely: The majority of my outgoings each month, apart from food and general expenses, are business related. You’ll rarely find me buying new clothes or personal items these days, as I’ve made a commitment to myself to invest wisely in my business instead. Whether it was buying a new laptop last year, or a new phone this year so that I could work more efficiently on the go, or even just investing in software and web tools, I consider each and every purchase in quite a lot of depth. When money is limited you’ll probably find yourself with more incentive to spend wisely, though my biggest advice would be to not shy away from spending money on your business. Every time I’ve spent money on equipment, or web tools, or further learning opportunities, I’ve always found an increase in either my earnings, my productivity, or my personal fulfilment - and sometimes a mix of all three!
I started small: We all have those big five or ten year plans of where we would love our career and business to be, yet deciding to start small has been a huge factor for me in starting my own creative business. With little, to almost no, startup cash, everything I’ve built I’ve paid for myself and giving myself permission to start small instead of feeling this huge pressure to be a big and bold business straight away was the perfect starting point for me. Every time I reach a milestone or little goal in my business, I find myself having the opportunity to take more and more steps towards my bigger long-term goals, yet this wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t allow myself to keep things simple in the beginning.
I live by this motto: start small, because it’s better than not starting at all.
I developed some grit: This one was key. This stage has probably gone hand in hand with the grit I’ve developed in learning to come to terms with and manage my mental health illness, but it’s also played a huge part in how I deal with all the many struggles that come with being a self employed creative. Those months when I hardly made any money, and those weeks where I felt like my work had no worth and no value, and those days when I just wanted to quit and give up - the only way I’ve got through them is thanks to some serious grit and determination.
Starting your own business is tough. You’re wearing so many hats - some you’re not even comfortable in yet - and there’s all this pressure to grow, make money, and be ‘successful’ straight away. Digging deep and finding some grit is what gets you through those nights when you really do believe you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life, and it’s what you’re most grateful for when you have those days when you book a dream client or reach an income goal sooner than expected.
My biggest hope with this post is that it can shine a light on the fact that many of us who are self employed and running our own creative businesses don’t get to where we are without some support and sacrifice along the way. Without my very patient parents opening up their home to Alex and I in our hour of need, and both them and Alex believing in me when I told them my big crazy business idea, I wouldn’t be where I am today earning more most months than I did at my day job that made me oh so miserable. There’s no shame in having some help along the way, and it’s also not impossible if you’re doing this completely solo either. If I’ve learned anything so far, it’s all about taking the life circumstances we have in front of us and using them to the best of our ability, instead of just giving up because things feel harder than we’d like them to be.
I know general consensus is that starting a creative business without a day job is a little crazy, and if I didn’t find myself out of work due to health reasons I probably wouldn’t have been brave (and crazy) enough to do it. However, I’m so grateful life has taken me down this path so far and that I stuck it out and believed in myself enough to be in the place where I am now. I have definitely in no way made it in my career, and this really is just the starting point for me, but I’ve found in myself the drive, direction, and grit that I need to keep at it and see it through.
If you run a creative business, I'd love to know a little bit about what your beginning looked like? And if you're thinking about taking the leap, I'd love to know more about what's holding you back from getting started?
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