Design seems to be an intangible thing that can make us feel very lost as solopreneurs.
When we are stuck creatively, we feel very guilty for not being productive, cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel, while being absolutely clueless about what to do next.
Here are a few common situations I experienced myself, along with ways to overcome them. I am not going to include tips like taking a deep breath or working on multiple projects — as I have tried them before, but they did not seem to help me solve my burnout problems from the origin.
Problem: Not getting results after spending months on the project
“I’ve tried everything, but nothing seemed to be working. I’m seriously burnt-out!”
“I quit my job half a year ago for a dream of having my own design agency. I have set up my website for three months already, but I haven’t even got a single client! I have tried Facebook ads, Google AdWords, and even ads in magazines. Still nothing! What have I done wrong?”
A lot of creative solopreneurs come across these moments of burning out. The root of such problems is not knowing what our customers really need — all the fancy promotional efforts will not work if our products are not delivering high-quality value to potential customers.
While we work on our own, it is easy for us to wander off from the most important things — to serve our clients’ top interest. Without a clear goal in our projects, we have no direction to follow.
As we are our own bosses, there is no one to tell us what is the right thing to do. Nobody is crossing out our homework with a red pen and telling us to redo it, like was the case in school. We have to build a system for ourselves — a roadmap to a meaningful design business by providing valuable solutions to clients.
Step 1: Know our clients’ top three pain points.
So, what is it that our clients need from us? They pay for services because they want someone to solve their top-priority problems. But, how do we know what exactly are these problems?
We can talk to clients as if we were at a bar on a Friday night. Be open to them, to listen and help, like talking to our little sisters. When they open up to us and tell us the biggest problems they are facing (trusting us that we are there to help), we will know exactly what they need.
As a bag designer, I came across a client who asked me to help her design a “fashionable bag for moms.” At first, I went straight into sketching out the bags I thought moms would like. After going through a ton of variations of a similar bag design, I gave up. I spent two weeks sitting at my desk, looking at the mommy bags on random websites, trying to get ideas.
In the third week, I decided to just hand over my design drafts to my client. She came back with a very mean and discouraging comment, “Didn’t I tell you that I want FASHIONABLE bags for moms? Even grannies won’t use these!”
While, in my mind, I was blaming and yelling at her, I felt defeated and thought perhaps designing was not what I am good at or what I want to do. After a few sleepless nights trying to fight this depression, I decided I needed a rant to a close friend. She slapped me on the face with her words, “You’re not a mom yourself, so why didn’t you go talk to those with experience? Stop trying to be the know-it-all. You just need to learn to ask for help!”
It seems obvious now, but I never thought of that as an option back then — probably a common syndrome for solopreneurs.
So, I searched online in parenting forums, asked questions in private Facebook mom groups, and even asked a few moms out with their kids for coffee to learn about their pains with the bags they use. From the first moment when I met them, they completely enlightened me on how clumsy it could be for them to carry a large tote stuffed with diapers, wet wipes, milk and all other baby essentials — holding on to a tote which was half sliding off her shoulder, while finding her wallet as if it’s in a raffle box and, at the same time, holding on to one baby in her arm, while rushing the older kid out of a cab.
What I found out from the chat was completely out of my expectations — one of the moms said, “There are many functional diaper bags in the market, but they are just too bulky. I have a few at home, but they are too ugly to carry around … every time I use them, it looks like I am hiking. I look miserable enough after gaining so much weight, running around in my messy hair like a crazy woman with two screaming kids. A nicer looking bag in leather would make me feel much better, maybe slightly sexier. You cannot imagine how bad I feel about myself whenever I bump into my ex-colleagues on the street.”
So, my client was right. These bags need to be fashionable, functional and sexy. That’s when the light bulb in my head hit “ding!”
I marked down all the exact words these moms used to express their pains and narrowed down to top three most common ones. The project came to life with a meaning because of the mission to solve these problems.
We could all be that superhero saving the world. Design has a direction and purpose once the target is clearly stated. What’s more, I felt better and refreshed after going out and meeting new people.
Step 2: Plan the work.
After identifying the core problems, list out all of the possible solutions. We can break them down to small pieces of actionable steps. This is how we come up with a realistic timeline for the whole design process.
We are often given a deadline by clients or normal trade practices (e.g. fashion seasons and trade fairs). If this is the case, we can reverse engineer from the target date and work back the time allocations. This is not difficult, but make sure we take our normal administrations and errands into considerations.
Once we have our tasks and general timeline listed, group them to one task per day. For example, planning on Mondays, researching on Tuesdays, design sketching on Wednesdays, meeting on Thursdays, writing on Fridays, etc. This will help us focus on the actual tasks without worrying over random happenings and errands.
If we need to write up invoices, quotations or social media posts, gather them all under the writing day. We can always schedule all the social media posts way ahead. I have tried services such as Buffer, Hootsuite and Sprout — most of them offer free plans or trials.
Step 3: Make this schedule our top priority.
The plan won’t work magic on its own. We will have to stick to it in order to earn small wins every day without getting distracted. Treat this planned schedule as our top priority, and even if our family and friends think that our time is flexible, just tell them we are only free after work hours.
After I started working for myself, my parents often thought I could go anywhere, anytime. They would call me up one morning, and ask me to join them for lunch at noon the same day. I did that a few times just to be a good daughter, but it made me feel very guilty for not working on what I had planned.
Don’t get me wrong, I treat them as a priority too, but they have to be trained to understand the way I work and make a living. They wouldn’t hope to see a slacker daughter not achieving anything, right?
Step 4: Get quality sleep.
Our daily schedule should include sleeping time! We can never function well without quality rests. Get off work at least two hours before bedtime. Leave some time to wind down, relax the brain and eyes by staying away from the beaming computer screens.
Prepare the plans and pack the gym gear in the bag for the next day, so we don’t have to waste time deciding when we get up in the morning. Write down all the creative ideas in a bedside notebook and free the mind to welcome the sleeping angels.
Step 5: Join a mastermind group or association.
Any business groups (formal ones like industry associations or casual ones like groups of friends in our fields) can be our go-to places for help and support in our careers. There are always different people with various experiences who we can talk to when we feel stuck. We don’t have to be a loner just because we are solopreneurs.
Get a support group and meet them regularly for market information and inspirations. Below is a list of design associations worth checking out:
- International Council of Design (global)
- The Professional Association for Design (USA)
- Design Council (UK)
- Hong Kong Designers Association
- Design Council (Singapore)
- AGDA (Australia)
And here are a few free-to-join freelance communities:
- Freelancers Union (a hub for various creative freelancers where we can share our thoughts and interact with people on similar paths worldwide — my profile here)
- Creative Mornings (regular morning creative talks by various creatives to inspire all of us for free, serving 162 cities worldwide)
- Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide (as the name suggests, a group of business ladies coming together for exchange of ideas)
- Female Design Entrepreneurs (a private Facebook group I created, dedicated to female designers/creatives/artists to share resources and connections)
Set the mind right.
It might sound cliché, but this is true — change your mindset and the world will change according to your will. We might think we hit a dead end, but all we have to do is dig deeper and create a new path for ourselves.
Once we reach the other side of the garden, we will laugh at ourselves for panicking over small hiccups. A lot of people are there to help. It is up to us if we are open up to ask.