From Intern to Small Business Owner
How I got where I am today
I was in high school when I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer. I was so much cooler in high school than I am now. I had weird facial piercings (tongue webbing - what?!), I drove a '91 Nissan Stanza - stick shift with a cassette player, on which I would rock The Shins, Michael Bolton and Marvin Gaye regularly while on my way to the local thrift store to buy random books, records and old magazines. Spending so much time in the book section sparked my imagination and I started buying random children's books. I'd cut up those old magazines and re-create stories, pasted around the words of those children's books. It felt creative, and expressive, and organized.
So I graduated with my Bachelor's of Fine Arts with a concentration in Graphic Design, and like every recent grad, thought that I knew it all and would land my dream job right away. Ha! Luckily I also knew the importance of a good internship, and the value in experience.
My first internship was with Modea, a digital consulting company. While they create really excellent work for really excellent clients, I really only ever got to create Flash emulators for Verizon. Yup, you heard me right... Flash. I can't say that I ever opened Flash again after that, thank God, but I did learn a lot about what it's like working for someone, and with a team, time management, buckling down and getting stuff done, but most importantly how to re-create life-like phone details within Photoshop and Illustrator. Learning the ins and outs of those specific programs has of course made me a better designer, but made me much more efficient which in turn made me a better team member/employee.
A year after starting my job at Modea I moved to Tyson's Corner. I had a clean slate, a new city with new opportunities and an everlasting dream to work at a magazine. I researched every magazine ever, I think. Found some cool local ones and applied. There was an internship opening at Northern Virginia Magazine!
Tip: Do your research. If you want to land your 'dream job' try and find smaller companies who do the same thing, or a similar company you can use to gain experience to get you to the job you want. Or find a different position at your 'dream company' to learn the ins and outs and get an insider advantage to eventually make the move to the position you'd really like.
This job holds such a sweet memory in my mind. I worked for and with talented people (one of our covers one month was designed by Jessica Hische!), I really grew in my Photoshop skills and also developed solid InDesign skills. I learned so much about layout, prepping for print, following style guides and templates, making infographics, contacting companies for features and navigating media kits. I loved everything about this job, I would get assigned layout design for certain sections and after a little while was able to design full 8 page spreads! I was enamored! So enamored in fact, that when they had to make budget cuts and couldn't afford to pay interns anymore I didn't even care. I loved the experience, and I really loved seeing my work in print, and that was worth it.
Tip: Sometimes working for free is okay. If you're loving what you're doing, or gaining valuable experience be open to the idea of working for free if you can. But definitely put a time limit on it. I gave myself a few months before finding a paying gig. Free work isn't sustainable and as your experience and talents grow, your worth will grow.
After that job I got a job at another regional magazine, and it. was. terrible. I'm not even gonna talk about this job because my few months there seemed like years, and I have nothing nice to say about the owner, so I won't say anything. But, I will say that I learned a lot about patience and perseverance, and it helped build my character.
Tip: Bad jobs and bad bosses suck. Try and find the silver lining and concentrate on pushing yourself to become better at whatever you do. Use it as a tool that's teaching you about patience, self-control and thinking outside the box. Don't subject yourself to that kind of work environment for too long, but try and get as much from it as you can 'til you find a better gig.
Around the time Terrible Job ended, something opened up at a large consulting firm, ICF International. A web design job. I'm gonna be honest, I have no idea how I landed that job. I had no web design experience. All I can think is that my interviewee (later boss and professional mentor) saw something in me and took a chance. I can't thank her enough for that. She provided me so many creative opportunities, and a safe place to learn and grow. I worked on websites for AIDS.gov, Chick-fil-A, Koshland Science Museum, SAMHSA, Energy Star, Army, CDC, USDA, Scripps, and so much more. You can check out some of that work on my Behance if you want to. I grew SO much, in so many aspects of my life, while I was there. I learned valuable lessons about working on a team, working for people, working on government projects (don't even get me started) and working with different personality types. I got to design whole websites, lead up projects, design infographics, and apps, go to amazing conferences, draw, take photos of government officials, be on a softball league, wear heels and a blazer and work in a corner office. I had meetings upon meetings. It was the epitome of a corporate job - if you work hard, you move up the ladder. It paid well, had good benefits, opened up lots of doors and brought in huge projects.
But something was missing. While the projects were for huge clients, they were always controlled tightly by government committees, and they lasted FOREVER. I learned a lot about myself. Some websites took years to build, and I'd spend months designing and redesigning one page, one widget, one graphic. I'd be excited for the first couple rounds of designs, and after so many edits from different people and random opinions... the final product ended up looking like a hollow shell of a good idea, slapped with a huge logo to appease someone, and the color purple to appease someone else. Nothing was cohesive and I lost the love of design. I got bogged down in the politics (and MAN are there TONS of politics in the corporate business world!) My designs suffered, I was doing just enough, and it really wasn't enough. A job that I had once been excited about, would look up from my desk to realize it was 6pm, would turn around and another year had gone by, was suddenly dragging on. I wanted to be anywhere but in front of that computer or on a conference call with my team. I counted down the minutes til 5 o'clock.
Tip: Take on different jobs that will expand your skill set and equip you with new tools to utilize. But always remember that passion is what keeps you going. Money might motivate you for a time, but eventually you'll realize that personal fulfillment is worth more than a fatter paycheck. Also, don't get caught up in the office politics - it's hard to do, but if you stay above it you'll save yourself lots of hardship.
I had started freelancing on the side through Visual.ly - designing infographics. I loved that it brought a kind of creative freedom that I didn't have at work. I was obviously gravitating toward something but I wasn't sure what.
By that time I was pregnant, so maybe that added to it. But, boy was I grateful for that delivery day to come. I would have paid maternity leave and then would only be working 10 hours a week! When I was about 4 months pregnant, I was perusing Instagram and came across a calligraphy account. "Wow, people actually still do this?" ... "that's beautiful!" ... "I can totally do that." So many thoughts were running through my head.
Zach, being the very supporting husband he is, bought me an online class for my birthday and I slowly started. It was hard. I practiced a lot, had a lot of friends request lettered quotes, or envelope and place card lettering. All very amateur stuff.
Tip: Find classes, workshops, books, blogs, Instagram accounts, YouTube videos, conferences on what you want to learn and soak it all in. Budget for those things because that investment into your business will definitely be worth it.
Then I had the baby, took a couple months off and the dream felt like it was kind of slipping away. Other ladies who had taken the class with me had already garnered a little online following, were booking wedding clients, and I started to get discouraged. I saw that Stephanie Fishwick was having a workshop nearby, and so my sister-in-law and I decided to go. The workshop itself was pretty good, and Stephanie was the nicest person ever, but what really stuck with me was the conversations I had with some other attendees who were apart of the wedding community already. They had relatively large followings and had been in business for a few years, and I soaked up every word they said. They gave me Instagram strategy advice, told me to curate my feed, to filter it through my brand adjectives (my brand?!), encouraged me to just do it. It was as if I was waiting for permission, and with that I said, "Okay. I will." And so I did.
Tip: Building your dream business takes time and lots of practice. Set realistic goals for yourself and don't beat yourself up if you don't achieve them, but always push yourself. You don't have a boss pushing you now, so you'll need to be self-motivated. Try writing down 1 goal for this week, 1 goal for this month and 1 big goal for the year. For example mine were: letter/post to Instagram every day, be apart of a styled shoot, and teach a workshop.
Look for more on how I grew my business, found a niche, developed a strategy/business plan/personal style and started yet ANOTHER company in another blog post. (I'd put it in here but it would be the longest blog post of all time.)