Two years ago today I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in interior design and I entered the real world... kinda. It's been an uphill battle with big and small victories, and big and small upsets. Today I want to celebrate those victories and address those upsets, both for myself and for those working with me.
I love sharing my creative projects on Instagram, but I'm a relatively private person when it comes to my personal life. Most of the time I post about things before sharing them with my friends and family because it's very uncomfortable for me to celebrate myself or acknowledge my struggles... I'm working on it. Today we're playing catch-up on the last few years: I'm sharing the highlights and missteps of starting a small biz at the tender age of 22. *Deep breath* Ok, let's talk!
The last year of my life has been a whirlwind. A little over a year ago, I was working at Pottery Barn, feeling totally stuck and frustrated. Working for Pottery Barn was always a goal of mine, it seemed fun and glamorous and who doesn't want to touch beautiful textiles all day? My coworkers were amazing, I made my very first friends in an unfamiliar city, and I learned the customer service skills needed to work in design, but I wasn't being fulfilled as a creative.
This feeling of unfulfillment is something I've questioned for myself, whether or not I deserve to feel it. We made the cross-country move for my fiancé to live out his dreams, and it hadn't occurred to me until after we moved here that it may come at the cost of my own goals for myself. It's very common for Kyndl's cohorts or professors to make comments about how selfless the partners of PhD students are to put their lives on hold for six long years, but that's the thing... I never agreed to put my life on hold. I didn't move across the country to work at Pottery Barn, though it was a fun experience. I've always been a dreamer, and there was no part of me willing to compromise those dreams. There's room for both of us to succeed, and I wasn't going to get where I want to be by settling for a sales associate job with a lot of free time (although that was kind of awesome for a few months).
Also around year ago, I was offered a position as a design assistant, my first real job in design. I had interned the summer before with a full-service interior design firm in Chicago, but 4 years of design school just can't prepare you for the things that experience can. Both of these positions with these awesome firms were, first and foremost, educational. I learned so much about working with real clients, scheduling, and the many minor details of a project that I had never had to consider during school. Of course I didn't feel prepared for either job, but I had to start somewhere. The hardest part of getting experience is just that: getting the initial experience. It's scary to hire someone so young and new to the game, hoping that they'll pick up on your company's language as quickly as possible. I'm grateful to those early jobs that taught me so much about myself as a designer and as an employee.
Last summer after a few months of working the job that got me into the design realm in town, I was laid off without any notice and had to figure something out quick—I wasn't an Oregon resident, so I couldn't collect unemployment, and living off of my boyfriend's monthly stipend was not even remotely possible. I had taken on multiple freelancing projects here and there, both interior and graphic design, but I had no idea how to run a business...spoiler alert: I still don't. But I'm working on it! My self-help book stack is about as tall as I am at this point.
I spent the summer working every day on growing my brand, taking on tons of random, low-paying projects, submitting to contests, internships, entry level jobs that I had no experience in, and many times I considered crawling back to retail, something I promised myself I was done with forever. After ~3 months of doing everything in my power to not leave my boyfriend in Oregon and move back home to my parents (who were extremely supportive, and with every stressed out phone call they gave me the reassurance I needed—I've wondered if all this support was just to keep me from moving back in with them as they began their long-awaited lifestyle as empty nesters...) I finally landed an interview with a company I had been eyeing since before moving to Oregon! Over 2 years ago I started looking into firms in Eugene that fit my style and could teach me what I'm looking to learn as a young creative, and these past 8 months have been so enriching.
I got engaged in August of 2017 to the man of my dreams, and while it has been a sweet and exciting time in our lives, I've really only been able to give a bit of myself to the wedding planning process because I've been hard at work for so many other weddings. Wedding season is coming to a close, my stress levels are lowering with every suite I send off, and I absolutely love what I do. I love creating beautiful things for beautiful couples, I love the connections I've made, and seeing my clients' visions come to life to create their perfect look. Seeing the end product makes every step totally worth it and builds my confidence to take on more and more. But this year, that confidence got a little cocky and I took on 10 custom suites and a number of semi-custom suites, which is a lot for me, even without the whole full-time job + my own wedding planning thing!
And for those of you who are new here, I'm not just a wedding suite designer, in fact, I had never even considered designing wedding suites until my good friend got engaged and asked me to do hers! Now it's something I love and look forward to exploring further, but I'm definitely still a novice. I take on many other graphic design projects each month, from business cards, resumes, stationery, to full-out branding packages. I love it all, but as my appreciation for wedding suites grows, this might have to be the year those smaller projects are no longer taken on. I'll be making some major changes to my site and my biz coming July 2018 (hello, Andrea Woodlee Design!) in hopes to prioritize my wedding suites and make the process much smoother for everyone.
I've also begun prioritizing myself, structuring my day to where I can have time to wear all of my many hats, and I've found wonderful resources that have begun changing my perspective and getting my head where it needs to be to succeed and not burn out. Things got pretty rough there for a minute within the last two years, both professionally and personal issues I'm not quite ready to discuss (maybe in my 2026 post, 10 Years of AHD). And while I may not be out of the woods yet, I'm closer than I've been. Here are some of my favorite resources (other than therapy and chocolate) that I would recommend to any struggling creative, and if I've learned anything it's that we're all struggling with our own emotional rollercoaster that we call creativity...I'm working on it, and you can too!
The Accidental Creative
Proof to Product
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle
Jen Gotch is everything I hope to be: brave and honest and inspiring and fun
Clink and Kiss's Kalen Rivers and her Freebie Fridays
This ridiculously harsh article by Tina Alberino
Now let's look at the highlights of the last 2 years:
FINISHING SCHOOL FOREVER!
How do I say this politely... I hated school. Always have, always will. I love learning, but I hate school. If you want to see the worst version of myself, put me in a classroom. I've been dreaming of the day that I didn't need to carry a backpack since I was literally five years old. I'm proud of myself for finishing and so grateful to have the means that allowed me to go to college, I'm glad to have been taught what I needed to learn to do what I love, and of course I'm thrilled that I met the love of my life, but never for a second have I considered going back for my masters.
After graduating from college, I dove head first into freelancing—probably too quickly, but I have no regrets. I tried my hand at a few E-Design gigs, ultimately realizing that not only was graphic design a more practical route for me, but it had also become my passion. Being able to work remotely was ideal as we made the move from the Midwest to the West Coast, and having a side gig was the perfect outlet for me as I continued applying for jobs.
GETTING MY FIRST "real" clients
I started AHD by basically creating an Instagram account and telling my friends and family to hire me, so while I may have had a handful of projects early on, the stakes were very low. I've heard a lot of artists say they struggle working with friends or family, not because they're tough clients, but because they aren't! For me, entering a professional relationship with loved ones can feel so unnatural; it's easy to put that project on the back burner because I assume they'll understand, but that isn't fair to anyone. I love being a helping hand to my friends and family, it's not something I ever want to take off the table completely, but it's been so fulfilling to begin working primarily with strangers who sought out my style, who found my work through Vistaprint, or they attended an event I did the signage at, or they were shopping at a local store and loved my greeting cards. Now I can help friends and family because I want to, not because I need to.
The creative world is divided between "never work for free" and "networking is key." In my never-ending quest for self-realization, I read conflicting arguments frequently: clients aren't your friends, but also here's how to nurture a friendship with your clients, and here's how to get your friends to support your small biz. It seems like whichever path one chooses initially is where one will end up, at least for a while. I've definitely gone the "let's be friends!" route and I don't necessarily regret it, though there is major room for improvement, mostly in regards to boundaries.
Some of my best work has come from giving my clients creative control in some aspects of the design, and most projects would look totally different had my clients not guided me the direction they wanted. And I don't think that's wrong! After all, they're hiring a custom illustrator. I can't decide their style for them, nor do I want to. Flexibility is huge for me, especially this early on in my career. I have so much to learn from every single client I interact with, and of course every designer's dream is for a client to say those magic words, "Do whatever you want! I trust your vision." But it's been a building time for AHD, I'm not there yet. Working on it.
My first pop-up
My former PB managers were so generous to give me the opportunity to set up shop and show off my first ever greeting cards. I only sold a few cards and maybe 3-5 people took the time to actually talk to me, but I was on Cloud 9 all day! This day was a glimpse into the future of working for myself. I hope to continue doing local pop-ups, maybe for greeting cards, maybe for wedding suites, who knows? This was a major highlight during my peak unemployment phase, it pushed me to think of my fun side gig as a real business, which led me to explore selling my greeting cards, attending stationery shows, and connecting with local artists in my field to seek their professional advice. A big thank you to my friends at Oakway Pottery Barn!
WHOLESALE GREETING CARDS
During my stint with unemployment I found greeting cards to be a great way to keep my creativity flowing and make some quick cash, little did I know you could make a whole career out of it! I started small and my friend Casey from Rescued Living was my guiding light, giving me the rundown on how much to charge, how many to print, who to sell to, and she even bought my first batch and sold them in her store! Selling greeting cards to local shops was a long process, and rejection was a big, necessary part of my summer, but I landed in some local stores I absolutely love and I still get butterflies seeing them on shelves. I was so accustomed to doing only custom projects, but this opened a new door of opportunities for me. After launching greeting cards I started selling semi-custom wedding suites, another quick financial turn around that lightens my workload greatly. I learned so much more about business, how to market myself, and the power of Instagram during this time, but I've also learned that I can't just keep running my business on the fly; I need a long-term business plan that I can stick to. Again, working on it!
ENTERING WEDDING WORLD
Initially I thought this was a major misstep, but it has turned into a major highlight. In just a few months I went from an interior designer to a printmaker with absolutely no training or insight other than a lot of Wedding Bee message boards from 2009. I had no idea what the logistics of creating wedding suites were. I wasn't sure how to word anything, how to properly format my designs for printing,... I was extremely confused and felt bad for everyone who hired me, but for some reason I couldn't stop taking on projects. It was and (still is) a time of constant learning, something I love but also fear, especially when these are actual people's actual wedding invites being sent all over the country with my name on them! Terrifying.
Somewhere along the way that fear switched to excitement and inspiration. I'm just under a year into my new title of "printmaker" and every day I love it more. Working behind a screen all day every day has me desperately craving to work with my hands, hence why I introduced belly bands, custom paper sizes, and venue illustrations (and so much more to come!). One day I hope to own a letterpress machine and do everything in-house, but that's something I definitely won't be diving head first into!
I'M IN MAGAZINEs!
OK, so I designed an advertisement spread for magazines, I'm not in a magazine. But this was still super cool. I'm so fortunate to work with the Historic Homes Foundation and Weekend Wedding Warrior in Louisville. Like I said above, my work and overall vision for AHD has shifted so much since falling into Event & Wedding World, and a great deal is due to them and the experiences they've provided me.
In December of 2016 I submitted my tiny portfolio to a contest to design the invitations and signage for the Historic Homes Foundation's annual Derby Breakfast, and I won! The following year I was asked to do the event again, another major highlight. I know that I'm very young and fairly inexperienced, so at times it feels like everyone is doing me some huge favor by choosing to work with me, and I know when I first started out that was definitely true on more than a few occasions... quite humbling! But every time a former client comes back I'm ecstatic. Insert "They like me, they really like me!" GIF.
2018 has definitely been a networking year for me. After coming dangerously close to burning myself out, I'm trying to live by the old adage, "Many hands make light work." There is so much strength in numbers, especially for someone like me who is relatively new to the game (side note: I've said this phrase a lot today, is 2 years too long to feel that way? When do I stop being a newbie?). Since launching my product line of greeting cards and semi-custom wedding suites, I've struggled with photographing everything in a way that is easily marketable. I've been using my dad's 2004 Sony camera and it gets the job done, but styling, getting the proper light, making sure everything is legible...that stuff is hard! I'm a bit of a perfectionist, but I'm definitely no product stylist. Luckily I've connected with some amazing local ladies this year, like Samantha Kin of To Be Loved and Lacey White of Lacey White Photo Co., and they've introduced me to so many options for creating content. Every time I see a photo of my work styled to perfection, I can't believe my eyes. It feels so good to see my designs in the light they deserve, and I'm so lucky to know such creative women.
The Fairway styled shoot was my first, and about a week later To Be Loved teamed up with Ava Maria to photograph my suites (photos to come!). Grateful is not even the word—so many talented women who are such a pleasure to work with! Having beautiful product shots opens up even more doors for my biz: I've steered clear of Pinterest until now because I've never had the beautiful, pin-able photos brides love to share, but this summer I'm stepping up my marketing game big time thanks to these beautiful shoots. If you're an Oregon bride or looking for creative connections, here's a list of vendors I've worked with on styled shoots that I couldn't recommend more:
Belle Fleur Floral Design
Flowers and Thyme
Lacey White Photo Co.
Brandy Nichols Photo
Ava Maria Photography
MAKEUP & HAIR:
Holly Pitalo Beauty
To Be Loved Events
Coco Lou Events
Flour & Flower
The Sassy Cupcake
preparing for the future
Job hopping is miserable. Job hopping from across the country away from everything I've ever known is extra miserable. I live in a relatively small town with a tough job market and a high unemployment rate, and after being laid off without any notice I've developed a paranoia that everything could crumble from beneath me again at the drop of a hat; and in Eugene, that's a very real possibility. The one thing that has been consistent is AHD, and I'm making huge strides to nurture my business with care so that if something ever happens again, I can make the transition into working for myself with ease... OK, maybe not with ease, but without triggering another quarter-life crisis.
And fearing unemployment isn't the only thing I'm preparing for. In a few months, Kyndl and I will start our lives as husband and wife, and we want to make sure we are lining up our future accordingly. We want children, and most importantly we want to be able to provide for our children, of course financially but also emotionally. We're both hustling extra hard, with not a lot of down time, and I don't see that slowing down any time soon. We want to put in the work now to build the life we want to have with our future family, as well as with ourselves.
In this state of preparation and organization, I've finally created a contract I know I can trust to protect me and my clients--that's right, I've been doing all of these projects with no deposit, no contract, no boundaries, nothing! I've always felt connected enough to my clients to trust that they won't walk all over me, but as my brand grows and I juggle many projects at a time, I've reached the point where lines need to be drawn, for both of us.
Time for me to admit to something: I'm human, and in the business world I'm barely a toddler. There have been typos and misprints, and as much as I'd love to promise that those won't happen ever again, mistakes can and will happen. I cut each paper by hand, I type and print each envelope address myself, I cut, score, and secure each belly band, and Kyndl double-checks everything when I'm too tired to finish. I'm more of a teeny tiny business than a small business at this point.
Some people love this about my biz, the personal and real approach to life I have, and some people are just looking for a cheaper version of their favorite Minted invites. That last group is what I'm slowly but surely filtering out. My pricing is going to change a bit starting this July in an effort to create the projects I want, before that happens I want to touch on two essential things:
#1 If you have an exact design that you want to copy so as to not pay the original designer their seemingly high cost, I am not the designer for you. Er, I won't be. Starting in July. And if this is you, I mean absolutely no disrespect; I've taken on a handful of projects where that's exactly what went down: client falls in love with Pinterest image, client finds out the price is extremely high, client asks me if we can get the look for less. And we can! But I make sure to make the design my own, but ultimately I didn't have to use much brain power. A note to all consumers asking creatives for this: this is plagiarism. Someone else spent hours creating that original file, and not only are they not receiving proper credit, but the designer you hired isn't doing much designing. And don't get me wrong, I'm all for inspiration images, moodboards, Pinterest sharing, etc. and many of my projects started with brides loving the same inspiration image, but all became totally unique to the couple. There is a fine line between inspiration and imitation, and it's everyone's job to tread lightly. This is me drawing that line for myself and for future clients!
#2 My time is valuable, as is yours. As of right now I don't charge for phone calls, in-homes consults, etc. but it's important to understand that I have the right to do that. And this is me talking to myself as much as I'm talking to you; because this was just a side hustle at first, it was fun for a while to be making any profit at all! But it also wasn't taking up as much of my time back then as it is now, and will continue to do in the future, so now I'm working on undoing the damage I created early on. And thanks to Clink and Kiss's Freebie Fridays (she's linked above) I've become aware of just how many people are negatively impacted by my low pricing and easygoing business structure. She taught me that by underselling myself, I'm actually damaging not only my own business, but others around me! If people are only familiar with my overly reasonable pricing, what does that do for other artisans around me charging nearly double? Does that make them overpriced? No! Everyone's craft is different, and when you're hiring a small biz owner to create something totally custom, it's unfair to expect mass production pricing.
Whew, that was a lot. Two years of pent-up emotions, highs and lows. This feels like a diary entry. Maybe this should be an annual thing? If you relate to this post, or if you've got tons of advice to offer me, let's share stories! Comment below with your biggest biz challenges and successes.