Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Colleen Gratzer, Founder of Creative Boost, located in Frederick, MD, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
One of my businesses is Creative Boost. I started it in 2018 to help freelance graphic designers gain confidence, clarity, and a competitive edge in the crowded marketplace of the design industry. I do this through hosting the Design Domination podcast, mentoring, and providing accessibility training and other resources.
My consulting business is Gratzer Graphics, which I started in 2003. I provide graphic design and web design services to nonprofits. Six years ago, I changed my focus to accessibility—accessible design, documents, and websites—so that the work gets better results and is inclusive of individuals with a disability.
Tell us about yourself
I've always wanted to work for myself, so after working a full-time design job and freelancing for seven years, I started my own business, Gratzer Graphics. I have made a lot of good business decisions over the years, but I have also taken on some really bad clients, and I found it hard to get new clients, which caused me to start questioning my business after about 13 years in business. I was always busy and made good money from repeat clients, but my business wasn't where I wanted it to be.
I was doing every kind of design work you can imagine. I was constantly switching from design to technical or back and forth. I didn't have the best processes, so a lot of times, a project was like reinventing the wheel. It wasn't efficient or profitable. I had clients who paid late. I had clients who were cheap. I had clients who sucked the life out of me. What were seemingly business issues led me down a path of self-discovery.
Over the next few years, I joined different online communities and worked with a few different coaches to address some of the business issues I was having, such as my marketing, late-paying clients, and getting new clients. I was afraid at first to implement policies and enforce them with clients. I didn't think they'd stick around. Some didn't. In fact, I fired one bully client over not paying a few bucks in late fees because he constantly paid late, which is a sign of disrespect. I got tired of it and put my foot down.
I came to realize that the bullying I had dealt with as a child and the fact that I was a people pleaser were holding back my business and causing me to put up with things I shouldn't. I put up with a lot of abuse (late payments, ignoring late fees, standing me up for meetings, etc.) from a client because it was business. Even family members and friends would tell me to suck it up and deal with it! But then I realized being in business for yourself does not need to be this way—and it shouldn't be! Even though it was hard at first, I started putting my foot down. I started screening clients. I started getting so much more respect. I gained a ton of confidence.
In 2016, I got into accessibility, and that just changed my business for the better. My business had a focus. I was much more confident. I eliminated 99% of my competition. I got more respect. I got less pushback on pricing. In 2018, I decided I also wanted to help other graphic designers and share with them what I had done right and hopefully prevent them from some of my client horror stories. That motivates me because I don't want to see other designers struggle with the issues that I did. So I started the Design Domination podcast under a new brand, Creative Boost.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
My biggest accomplishment was definitely changing my mindset to change my business. I didn't even realize the two were related. I had to dig deep to understand where these seemingly surface-level business problems were really coming from. It took a couple of years, but things gradually presented themselves to me, and I started putting a lot of pieces together. The new mindset really reset my business.
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?
One of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner—especially as a freelance designer—is realizing that you are a business. If you don't think of freelancing as having your own business, things will be difficult. So many designers are people pleasers by nature with a lot of empathy. They want to sit back and just do the design work. I get it! I did too, for some time. But then you've created another job for yourself, not a business.
As a freelance designer, you wear all the hats. You're the designer. You're the marketer. You're the salesperson. You're the billing department. You have to set and enforce business policies. These are vital to having a successful, profitable creative business. If you don't do these things (or pay someone else to), then your business will suffer.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Specialize, whether that's a particular service you provide or the audience that you serve. Being a generalist designer will only get you so far.
- Screen clients before you work with them so that you do not take on bad ones.
- Never let clients run your business. YOU make the rules!
- Get money up front!
- Always use a contract!
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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