Minja van der Paard from Relatable Design Co doesn’t sugarcoat the first year of being a small business owner.
“It was crazy and chaotic, juggling two jobs plus life. I don’t even have kids either! I just had to do things on the go and as I needed to. It was hard.”
But things eventually settled down, and now it’s a ride she definitely doesn’t regret, having found her groove in her second year of being in business. We had a chat with Minja, and she shared her story about her first few years as a small graphic design business.
First year - from brand to business
After deciding to leave full time employment, Minja began her journey to set up her own small business. Putting the brand together happened quite quickly and she still remembers being ‘brand-less’ for a while.
“It’s pretty bad when you think about it - especially not having a proper brand as brand designer - but a lot of the first year was winging it. You had to just go with what needed to happen at the time, a lot of it was making it up on the spot. I created the quickest brand ever, set up my socials and a one page website on Rocketspark, and just went from there.”
The biggest challenge Minja found was being confident to go out and ‘sell herself’. Not feeling like a natural salesperson, she recalls it being hard to go out and tell people ‘yes I can do this and yes I can do a good job’.
“When you work in an agency setting, someone else usually does the selling bit. I looked after the clients, but only once they were on board. So I had to wear all of those other hats and if they were asking 100 different questions - I had to be the one to answer them.”
To get through this adjustment period, Minja had to spend a lot of time saying ‘I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you’. But people appreciated her honesty, instead of telling them something that turned out to not be true, or possible. And with more client meetings under her belt, she feels a lot more comfortable in her approach.
“It all starts with how I dress when I go to see clients in person. And I make sure I take notes, and everything that happens is a learning experience for next time. There’s no point in beating yourself up on what you said or did once you’ve left. So I will take a mental note and do better next time.”
Second year - from systems to processes
Minja definitely noticed a change of pace when it came to her second year as a small business owner. She felt more in control with systems in place, templates created and less time spent on figuring things out.
“Nothing was from scratch anymore, so it wasn’t such a big deal to write a quote or proposal. And the Rocketspark Design Academy Course was great, as I used it as a bit of accountability, to redesign my brand and website.”
From a learning perspective, Minja was surprised at how much there is to do behind the scenes that isn’t related to actually designing. So when it comes to running her own business, she is happy to draw her knowledge from the professionals.
“You just can’t do it all yourself. I didn’t like paying a person so much money to do something, and would try to save myself the cost. But I soon realised it was a better use of my time to outsource to professionals, so I could do my client work.
“And they could always do it in a shorter amount of time too.”
Paying herself was also crucial, and Minja says it is definitely a cost to factor in right from the start.
Now that she is in more of a rhythm, in her third year of business, she has got into a few regular patterns - including reviewing her time tracking over the summer holidays, and making changes where needed. Minja also spends time working on her website, refining her messaging for the new year and ensuring it is addressing her target customer persona.
“The market changes, so it is about taking those things into account and constantly reviewing them. You don’t need to change your logo or brand every year, as consistency is still king, but you need to adjust how you present yourself to what’s happening around you, and to check it is still speaking to your ideal audience.”
The importance of community
Minja is a self-confessed introvert, but even she finds it a challenge to be at home by herself all day. Which is why she says it is really important to go out and talk to people.
“I definitely need my space to recharge my batteries after socialising and networking, however I still like to keep a good connection to my contractors and other designers. It’s not only important for your professional work, but for your mental health too.”
Minja works with another designer, sharing overflow, and enjoys being able to get feedback from her, as well as asking for advice when she is a bit stuck. Minja will also get thoughts and opinions from non-designer friends too, saying that they often see things from the end user perspective that could be missed.
“When you’re working on something for so long, you may not see something that others with a fresh look can.”
Now in her third year of business, Minja is prioritising networking and keeping in touch with those around her.
“You can lose being up-to-date if you don’t.”
Minja’s number one tip
Time tracking was a huge priority for Minja after her first year in business - especially when it came to preparing proposals, doing admin work and following up on emails.
Feeling busy all the time, but not so productive, she says taking the time (pardon the pun) to see where her hours actually went, was crucial to improving her overall output.
“Once I knew where I was spending my time, I could make adjustments and work more efficiently. That certainly helped get me into more of a routine.
“It allowed me to see whether I was quoting projects correctly, and that I was allocating enough of the budget to dealing with the non-design side of a project like replying to general emails, meetings, project management and other client-based tasks.”