The one thing I wish I’d known before my first client 13 years ago

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It’s truly amazing what getting knocked down 4,873 times can teach you.

I mean honestly, if you knew how hard it would be to run a successful design business, would you still do it?

In the early days, I remember feeling so sick with fear drumming up my first 20 clients, that I almost threw up every time I knocked on another door. Over the course of three days I physically visited 100 businesses, each one not knowing whether I’d be greeted with a friendly smile or an arrogant, cold stare. It was crippling.

I’ll never forget how sweaty my palms would be when I shook their hand, embarrassed, my heart racing like I’d just run a marathon and a lump in my throat the size of a basketball, I pushed on.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

It was the first time I became intimately acquainted with panic, fear, uncertainty and self-doubt — all at the same time — and to be completely honest with you?

I hated it.

But I pushed on.

The first 10 years for me was hard.

I’d put on a brave face and say everything was going gangbusters, but on the inside I felt like a failure.

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No matter what new goal I set, it wasn’t good enough.

I kept raising the bar.

Every time I’d get close, I’d raise higher again.

“When I just get a $20,000 website client I’ll feel….”

“When I just turnover $500k I’ll feel…”

“When I just buy myself a new car I’ll feel….”

This invisible bar kept moving.

Up. And up. And up.

But I pushed on.

And at the end of a decade of sacrifices, long nights, weekends filled with work and missed opportunities with friends and family, if you asked me to answer honestly if I felt like a success?

Even though I owned a brand new BMW X5?

An amazing house?

A helicopter!?

Even though I was turning over more than $1.5m in revenue?

Had over 1,000 clients?

A great brand?

A bangin’ business?

Even though I had a huge team of amazing people to support me?

Even though on the outside I looked like I had it going on?

I would have to say “No”.

Every day was a battle.

An internal battle.

About not being good enough.

Doubting whether I was doing things “right”.

Questioning a better way.

Battling with imposter syndrome.

Recovering from perfectionism.

Feeling like I had never done enough.

Comparing myself to everyone else.

Always pushing.

Fighting.

Punching my way through business.

Like it was some kind of sick 485-round boxing match and I had to fight to the death.

And by the end of a decade of pushing, clawing, sprinting and bashing my way through the business battlefields searching for “success” — bruised and bloodied from the fight — something started to shift.

I was sick of the suffering.

I started to realise that every really freakin’ terrible situation actually had a silver lining.

And that it’s all part of the journey.

That messy is okay.

80% is good enough.

And although it’s cliche, the failures really do take you one step closer to success.

That I am already successful NOW.

The failures are gifts.

The struggles are normal.

The fight is felt by everyone who takes the plunge.

No matter how others on Facebook were sugarcoating it?

Business is hard.

And it’s meant to be.

I realised that it’s okay to fail.

Or lose.

Or feel defeated, bloodied and bruised most days.

To the point where I didn’t get bothered by things any more that would usually, in the past, turn my world upside down and make me into a blubbering mess.

I almost looked forward to them.

If something bad happened, where I’d normally want to curl up under a million rocks and die — I embraced it and looked for the lesson.

I started to realise that business is like riding a tiger.

You just gotta jump on knowing it is one feisty helluva beast, know what you’re getting yourself in for, and go for gold!

It will try and eat you for breakfast. It will chew you up and spit you out. It will try and buck you off like a bull. You name it.

But you gotta feed it, love it, accept it and just roll with the punches.

But you know what I really wish I knew 13 years ago?

I wish someone had said to me:

“Enjoy the struggle.”

Just those three little words.

Enjoy the struggle.

So I’m writing this to you…

Enjoy the struggle:

Every time you’re beating your head up against a wall confused as hell as to how to get sales.

Every time you feel like curling up in a ball and crying for a week when you look at your bank balance.

Every time you question your ability and say all those horrible things to yourself about not being good enough.

Every time you compare yourself to others.

Every time you’re about to hit ‘send’ on a campaign and become paralysed with fear.

Every time you step up another level and feel like an imposter.

Every time you feel like giving up.

Let fear, uncertainty and doubt be your guideposts.

And just…

Enjoy the struggle.

Nothing that comes easy is worth having.

It’s the good times and the bad that make us who we are.

And business is about who you ARE, not what you DO.

You are the 1% of the 1%.

You’re already a winner.

And winners don’t win without a struggle.

So embrace it.

Love it.

Nurture it.

Thrive on it.

And own dat shit 100%.

Now go chase down some of those dreams of yours and slap those bad boys into reality. 🙂 

But quickly, before you do, drop me a comment and let me know if this rings true for you.

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About Bianca Board

Co-founder of Web123, Australia’s small business web specialists, creator of ‘The Ultimate Web Business Bundle’, and CEO founder of Foxley, a new designer-only SaaS platform that puts all her web, UX, strategy, design, marketing and business experience in the one place, Bianca is passionate about reinventing web design for small business. If you’re wondering how to start a damn good website business, or you’re ready to give the middle finger to mediocre web design — register for Foxley’s Mountains of Clients here.
Foxley-Website-Software-Logo More about Bianca’s Business: Bianca is co-founder of Foxley, the world’s first universal system for building an awesomely profitable web business. Deliver high value sites for clients that capture the leads, make the sales and bring in the dollars – a lot of dollars. Get the 411 on Foxley here.

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Comments

  1. Great post, stumbled upon this when reading about winning new business. Its funny because I’ve been a designer 13 years too, 3 of which I’ve run my own agency and in all those years I’ve experienced all of these things. People would tell me as a freelancer that it will all work out, and it did, but for a long time it felt like it would never get easier. These days I enjoy the challenge of running a business. I hope some young designers read this post and take this on board.

    • Hi Brett, thanks for reading and sharing your story to provide some hope for those who are just few steps behind us. I used to think the only way to learn was the hard way but geez I’ve taken some hard knocks along the way — I’m sure you have too! Together I’m sure we can inspire hope in those struggling now and pave a path that’s maybe just half as hard, instead of the full slog like you and I have done it. 🙂

  2. Brilliant! Those hard ‘struggle’ parts only strengthen our abilities as business owners, decision makers and creatives…if it becomes all to easy then you should ask yourself if you’re doing it right 😉
    Enjoy the struggle, the perks, the project approvals and the happy grateful clients.

    • Thanks Justine! Couldn’t agree more! We should embrace fear and use it as a guidepost like you suggest — it’s where the magic happens!

      Have you got a Happy Folder? I put all my gushing client emails in that and refer to it on the tougher than usual days to help me keep going. We should celebrate the wins more I say and stop being so hard on ourselves!

  3. Thanks for the sympathy Bianca, lol. I am there now. And I wish I had someone to tell me exactly how to open that door for me. But I guess sometimes it’s a matter of Nike’s old slogan… ‘Just Do It’. Is there another way?

    • We’re here with you Darren, hang in there. And yes, if you can’t see a door right now, build one! Just keep moving forward and making progress every day, even if it’s the tiniest thing, and try your best to enjoy where you’re at right now. The darkest hour is always before dawn. If you’re feeling confused now, you could be on the verge of a major breakthrough. Keep going! 🙂

  4. Victor A says:

    Bianca,

    This article is very useful and confirms what I am currently going through in my fight to break through in my start up venture. I relate to some of the examples you mentioned.

    Drawing from your experience and sharing it through the master piece – The one thing I wish I’d known before ………” will encourage many people going through business battle field.

    Thanks

    VA (London, England)

    • Hi Victor, thank you so much for reading and your words of encouragement. I really appreciate it.

      I’ve made it my life’s mission to help designers suffer less in business so if it helps even one designer, I’m a happy gal!

      All the best with your startup! Exciting times! xx

  5. Amazing post, I can relate entirely! You never feel like you will be good enough, or are working hard enough, or are putting in enough effort, or pleasing your clients enough, making enough money, doing things right. Your words prove that no matter how big business gets, that feeling never goes away, so its best to learn to deal with it as you have! Excellent read for this Monday!

    • Great post. After 15+ years as a designer I feel many of the same things; every rejection still hurts, no matter how tough my skin should have become, there’s still a soft spot somewhere . I could maybe add one other thing, it’s okay to feel like we don’t know what we’re doing. Nobody knows what they are doing. I feel like an imposter all the time— shhhh! That’s our secret. Thanks again for sharing, Bianca.

      • Shaquanda says:

        lol … I like that! #PaidImposter

      • Thanks KJ, however if it didn’t hurt you’d probably be a robot and clients wouldn’t love you like they do. 😉 Don’t beat yourself up that you should have a thick skin, any rejection hurts on any level and that’s okay.

        And yes, I’d be weary of anyone who proclaims to have it figured out in business, at any level. Half the fun is being curious and figuring it out. Once I figure anything out I move onto something else because I get bored.

        Thanks for the laugh about imposter syndrome! lol you too huh?! 😉

    • Hi Tamara, I can totally relate! I had a conversation with one of my good friends who is a life coach the other day about how nothing I do is ever good enough. Like nothing! I have to journal stuff out of my head all the time just to get rid of the thoughts. It’s a hard habit to change!

      I was practicing self-awareness around food last week as I’m trying to lose a bit of weight and I’ve been eating so freaking healthy for weeks now but every day I find something to pick about. The other day it was that the super healthy protein balls I made (like so healthy!!) had dates in them and so that was bad because I shouldn’t have had sugar that day. Like OMG, I can’t even enjoy a healthy snack I made — I still keep finding reasons why it’s not good enough! Blah blah I do it with everything.

      I’m getting better but I often wonder, if I wasn’t like that, and I didn’t push myself so hard, would I be where I am today? I guess one I might ponder today but you’re totally right. No matter what the size, just add a few zeros to the turnover but the feelings are always there. Bottom line is we just need to learn how to be kinder to ourselves. xx

  6. Wow! Needed this on a Monday morning. Absolutely true, the struggle is real, but worth it. A little hard to swallow 80% is good enough – but I get it. Thanks for sharing, you hit the nail on the head.

  7. “Own dat shit 100%”

    Best article ending ever.

  8. This is so motivating! :’)

    I’m curious about what happened after your first decade that made you realize this? Any interesting anecdote?

  9. Great article, this couldn’t have come at better time.

    Thank you!

  10. Oh yes. 30 years on…

  11. Thanks I needed that!

  12. #EnjoyTheStruggle – so elegant and honest. Stealing that one away for my thoughts. Cheers!

  13. Shaquanda says:

    I don’t really take time to read blogs, but I do enjoy the few I read here. This one has dredged up suppressed emotions from 6 years of working and not really seeing what I want to see, dealing with some of the same issues, learning seriously hard lessons as I go (no fun at all) and wondering, is this it? Yesterday, someone who is mentoring me got on me about my incorrect title and too low pricing. She said, “For what you did, I would charge a minimum of $500.” I left the meeting thinking, “Am I good enough to charge that much for a brochure design?” (I took some scraps of paper given to a guy in an mlm company and turned it into a cohesive looking brand with a brochure and business cards) … This morning, I’m frustrated because WHY WHY WHY do people think it’s okay to DRAG out projects and use stall tactics, but expect the world from you? I’m tired of being frustrated, under-appreciated and sacrificing the lining in my pockets … I’d really like to get back to when I enjoyed pushing myself, insane completion dates and feeling excited when the client was done.

    • Hi Shaquanda, thanks for sharing and being so vulnerable with your thoughts. Big hugs to you. <3

      Please know that what you're going through is totally normal and happens to the best of us. Unfortunately we have to endure the pain to see the light at the other end. I was burned so many times by people taking my ideas and going to someone else cheaper before I realised it was all because of me and how I let my clients treat me. Once I wised up and made my clients beat to my own drum, EVERYTHING changed!

      Instead of looking to your clients that drag out the process and pointing the finger, look inside yourself and ask yourself what you can do to change it? What can you control? Where did you go wrong? What can you learn from it? What systems aren't in place? What process needs to change?

      Managing client expectations is as much about showing them how YOU work, by YOUR rules, by YOUR schedule, with YOUR boundaries as it is a partnership. It's scary at first but trust me, they will respect you MORE. Way more! And if they don't deliver what they promise on time, what's the penalty? 10% or 20% surcharge on the entire project? Make it hurt if they do wrong by you. Remember, this is your stage.

      Although you're feeling like this right now, it's the perfect time to step back and change the rules. Increase your rates, get clear on what you want from your business, define who you want and don't want as clients, and rewrite business on your own terms. Like I mentioned in a comment above, the darkest hour is always right before dawn. If you're feeling like this now, you are most likely on the verge of having a major breakthrough with your business so get curious and get excited! And #enjoythestruggle

      And YES, you are absolutely worth it!! If you don't value yourself, why would anyone else? Take the bull by the horns and make it the business you always dreamt of! I promise you, you're at the tipping point! You were born for this! xx

  14. This article makes me want to keep my day job, lol. I don’t mind struggle, but good Lord, I would like to continue to enjoy my life!

    Bianca, I am hoping that perfectionism and lack of satisfaction was a personality trait rather than “this is what is going to happen to you if you open your own business” scenario.

    A while back, I interviewed a couple of design freelancers to see if they enjoy it over full-time work. I thought they would, but what I discovered is they were frantic and frazzled out… either not finding enough work or working 14-hour days with severe anxiety disorders, trying to do too much by themselves.

    Thanks for the warning! I’ll see if I can avert it somehow… try on different business models, or something 😉

  15. Wow! i was just thinking about how hard is to begin and pursuing the freelancer path, i just want to thank you for this post is really inspirational! and from now on i’ll enjoy the struggle:)

  16. Thank you so much for writing this! I am still taking it all in, but I didn’t want to leave the page without saying thank you <3