Not everyone knows this, but Yes and Yonder wasn’t the first time I worked for myself.
Let’s take it back to 2009. We were two years into the Great Recession. My husband’s company asked if we would consider relocating from Evansville to Indianapolis. This meant I’d have to give up a job I loved as director of marketing for United Way. Despite the fact that we didn’t know much about Indy, and that I’d likely be out of work for a while (because no one was hiring), we decided to make the leap. While I job-hunted, I could freelance. Maybe, I thought, I could even make a long term go of my own design practice.
Spoiler alert: my freelance career was a short one. But I learned a few things not to do, if and when the next time came around. I’m starting here because the lessons I learned then were pretty influential on how I approached Yes and Yonder.
- I couldn’t treat a new business venture as a temporary or freelance thing. It was far too easy to not be all-in that way.
- I couldn’t name the business after myself. My experience of branding under my own name and trying to sell myself as a freelancer felt awkward. This is a perfectly fine naming strategy for some small businesses, but it just didn’t work for me. I needed an organization to stand behind and build into something bigger than myself.
- And, finally, I needed more connections to really get traction—the sort of network that only comes through years of work. Trying to launch a creative business built largely on relationships and reputation in a new city was not the best path for success.
Two creative agencies and nearly a decade later, I’m one year into Yes and Yonder. What a ride it has been. My two “launch” experiences couldn’t have been more different. Though I was far better prepared this time around, the journey continues to bring new surprises and lessons.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned during year one of YAY:
Don’t be Scared
I’ve previously shared that the legal aspects of starting the business weren’t as challenging as I expected. Even still, I marvel why more people don’t share this. Part of the reason I never went all-in in my first try was that this stuff intimidated me.
But really it was as simple as getting referrals to a lawyer and a CPA. For a small amount of money (less than $2000 for the year), I got all of the legal counsel, start-up help, and financial advising I needed.
I Need Help with X…
Dozens of people asked me how they could help make YAY a success, particularly in those first six months. I had so many plates spinning in the beginning, and needed all the help I could get. And yet I found it really hard to answer that question in a meaningful way.
A few months in, I realized I’d squandered a good opportunity to tap into those generous offers. I I got more concrete in my responses–asking for referrals for specific types of projects, or asking for feedback on the YAY brand or content, for example. When I shared an actionable response to offers of help, people readily jumped in. I still wonder what might have happened if I’d caught onto this sooner!
Early on, I went out on a limb and sent a sort of crazy email to someone I knew only a little. I’d met Stephanie Fernhaber, a Butler professor at Centric’s Day of Innovation. Luckily, she was willing to listen and connect me to some others within the University (thanks, Stephanie!). Sharing this idea turned into one of YAY’s larger projects. I’m not sure I would have been so bold earlier on in my career.
Every time I’m on the verge of something and feeling timid about going for it, I remind myself of this early, wild email. If I’m not willing to go out on a limb for my ideas, who would? Even if it seems a little crazy.
I’m usually more of a risk-taker, but I’ve learned that lack of financial stability breeds bad decisions and insecurity of the worst kind. Some people might prefer to go the route of getting investors, but I really wanted to do this thing myself. I decided to be conservative with my funds at first. To launch as light as possible and focus on building up cash reserves.
I paid myself less than my ideal salary for the first few months, and kept initial expenses low. It took less time than I expected to build enough of a buffer to have some peace of mind. That cushion meant I never had to pressure clients about payments and I could say no to the wrong job. This is perhaps the best thing I did for myself all year.
I’ll be honest. I was absolutely floored by how much I could get done when I had the autonomy to just decide and act. I’d been so used to a highly collaborative process in a layered team. That often meant extra meetings, emails, and conversations to make decisions and move things forward. As much I love collaboration, there’s a place for it (creative sessions, for one!), and a place to divide and conquer, and trust people to get a job done.
With YAY, I found myself on the other extreme—on an island with zero collaboration. That also means less creative energy, no feedback, and it’s harder to celebrate wins as a party of one. This first year has been a process of learning how to navigate this new extreme, and I’m still looking to strike better balance of autonomy and collaboration.
Best Laid Plans
Related: I wrongly predicted that business development would end up being YAY’s biggest challenge in year one. So many people mentioned this as their main stumbling block in their early business journeys. Because I felt so certain it would be the same for me, it really threw me for a loop when I faced my first (and thankfully only) big crisis, and it had absolutely nothing to do with cash flow.
Just a month into YAY, my mom got sick, and eight weeks later lost a devastatingly fast battle with cancer. With projects full steam ahead I was torn between my hopes for YAY to succeed and the commitment I made to my clients, and the need to process my grief and be with my family. This was one of those cases where taking time off was just a necessity. Being a solo operator had become a liability.
SInce then, I’ve reset my thoughts on how to bring people into YAY, starting with bringing contractors in for projects and seeking feedback from past collaborators and mentors. A primary goal for year two is building a team around each project, with the hopes of hiring for at least one creative role later in the year. I’ll be on the lookout for amazing design strategist types (please say hi if that might be you!)
Growing the Base
People often ask how I get clients. Some days it seems like this aspect of the business has just fallen in my lap, and I feel lucky and wonder what I did to deserve this. The truth is, I don’t think much about business development–at least not methodically on sales tactics and funnels and that sort of thing. I’ve always believed in focusing on doing the best work I can do, while creating a fun and meaningful experience for people, and sharing the story of the work as I go. I guess it’s more of a “build it and they will come” kind of approach, which feels natural for me.
There isn’t much secret or magic to it, and it’s pretty simple in theory. The hard part is that it took many years of learning and practice, gathering experience and process know-how to be able to make that approach work.
So where did our projects come from this year? Former colleagues. Former clients. A co-volunteer I serve with on a committee. That wild ask I mentioned before was from a connection I met at a local conference. 100% of YAY’s clients were through personal connections or word of mouth.
This first year has really been a journey (check out some of the photos of the behind the scenes). I’m really grateful to the clients who trusted in YAY, to friends and colleagues who gave support and advice and kept me company, and most of all to my husband who accepted this journey, risk and all, without knowing whether it would be a success.
To celebrate year one, we’re hosting a happy hour at the YAY office. Please join us!
February 21 from 3-5pm at Yes and Yonder
350 Massachusetts Ave, Suite 300
Indianapolis, IN 46204