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Minja’s journey - From agency to freelance graphic designer

For Minja van der Paard, going out on her own as a graphic designer hadn’t been part of her plan. Then at the start of 2020, she faced two options for the next stage of her career. 

“I had this decision to make, but the one to become a small business owner was just screaming at me. So it was like it was meant to be, without me even making it happen.”

Now she works from her home in Tauranga, running her own business Relatable Design Co, where she offers a range of graphic design services, including website design and social media. And she’s never looked back.  

Becoming a graphic designer 

With a mum who is an artist and a dad who is an engineer, Minja was almost destined for graphic design - combining the creative world with the conceptual. And at school, art was one of her majors. 

Minja then studied graphic design in Berlin and spent more than 10 years in agencies in both Germany and New Zealand. 

“I love that it is a good mix of being creative, but also allows for planning, conceptual thinking and applying theory.” 

Making the move to freelancing

After a decade in the industry, Minja was no longer feeling challenged by her career and she felt like the routine of a nine to five in an agency wasn’t working for her anymore. So, craving an opportunity to try something new, she decided to consider where to next. Then the pandemic hit, stalling her plans to move on.

“So I stayed put, even though I had started preparing myself to leave. The uncertainty as to when the pandemic would be over didn’t help my mental health, which had already been suffering.  

“Then a sign writing company offered me a one year maternity cover role, working on an hourly basis as a contractor, and I thought that if I could also get a few more clients, maybe I could run my own small graphic design business.”  

However Minja still had her reservations, cautious of not having the security of a permanent job and also not knowing how many hours a week she would be doing for the sign writing business. But those around her gave her the encouragement she needed, and with a plan in place, Minja realised it was the right move to make. 

“I knew that having the sign writing contract would be a good safety net, while I worked on building my business.” 

Then after just a year, Minja’s workload had increased so much that it was time to let go of her ‘safety net’ and become a fully-fledged small business owner - so she said goodbye to the contract work, right in the middle of another lockdown. And while it was scary, she did it anyway. 

“I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone, as it was the only way I could grow my business, and myself. I had enough savings too, which was important to me in case there was a month or two that didn’t go so well.”

But that never needed to be a worry, as there were clients already knocking on the door. 

Securing clients as a small business owner

Minja was happy to secure a couple of clients quite early on, one who she had initially worked with at the agency and another one who was waiting for her to be able to work for them directly. And after her stand down period of three months, she was able to sign them up.  

“Right before I started at the agency, I had someone approach me to work as a freelancer. So then they came as a client to the agency, and I was the only one who worked with them. They always said ‘if you leave, we will come with you’, and they did. I also had a friend introduce me to another long term client.”

From there, things snowballed and Minja was happy to be working from home, where she didn’t have to waste time sitting in traffic. It also suits her natural work rhythm which is a slower start in the morning, with productivity at its peak in the afternoon and evening. 

“I love the flexibility of freelancing, as I am happy to be working for another couple of hours after dinner every now and again.”   

3 tips to become a small business owner graphic designer

Minja’s advice for those thinking about taking the leap to running their own design business. 

  1. Just start. You’ll never be 100% ready. I always said ‘maybe next week’ or ‘maybe next month’ as I tend towards perfectionism. But now I know I would never have been ready, so I’m glad I just started.  

  2. Ask if you need help. It is always better to get the right answer straight away than spending time researching or doing something the wrong way. It’ll save you a lot of time.

  3. I remember when Jason from Rocketspark said ‘don’t be desperate even if you’re desperate’. And I’ve always kept that front of mind. When you start out, you may want to take everything that comes along. But you shouldn’t if it doesn’t feel right, as something better might come along that you’d miss out on otherwise. Consider who you take on and if there are red flags, they often do more harm than good. 


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