10 Steps to Working Smarter (Not Harder) at Your Small Creative Business
During the first few years of running Sycamore Street Press, I usually worked 6 days a week and anywhere from 12 - 16 hours a day. I loved it, but it was crazy, and I knew it couldn’t last.
Then I had a baby. When she was tiny, I didn’t work very many hours at all, but by the time she was a year old, I was back on a regular schedule. As you can imagine, this new schedule entailed a lot fewer hours at work than the old one, though. Instead of 80 hour work weeks, I was usually working about 50 hours a week, with a good portion of those hours being at night after she was in bed.
The great part about working for yourself is that you have the flexibility to set your own schedule. You can just decide to cut 30 hours out of your weekly schedule, like I did, without having to ask permission. The not so great part about working for yourself is that if you drastically reduce the amount of hours you put into your business, your business could really suffer. And mine did.
As I said, the first few years we were in business, Sycamore Street Press was steadily growing. Then in 2012, the growth stopped. In fact, our revenue actually declined by 11%. With a young family to feed, that scared me.
To be fair, some of that was due to some big changes in our industry (the stationery industry). The overall market had shrunk, but the amount of independent stationery manufacturers (like ourselves) had skyrocketed. However, I also realized that I hadn’t been smart about the way I had transitioned into balancing a baby with my business. I had just cut my hours without being strategic about how I would make up for it. That needed to change.
And it did change. In the first quarter of 2015, we grew 33% from Q1 of 2014. Here’s my story about how we turned it around, with the 10 key steps that have helped us…
1) Take time to keep an eye on the bigger picture.
So, in January of 2013, Kirk and I decided to figure out how to turn our company around. We knew we needed to find ways to work smarter, not harder. I read The Fire Starter Sessions by Danielle LaPorte and felt inspired to dig deep. We looked at the bigger picture first, asked ourselves some hard questions, and answered them honestly, even though some of those answers hurt.
2) Do what you do best. Delegate the rest.
We decided we’d let some longtime freelance design contributors go, and get back to just my designs. We decided that we’d no longer print everything ourselves on the letterpress, but would partner with some other local print shops for much of the manufacturing. This freed up Kirk and I to be doing more of the things we do best. Instead of spending as much time managing other designers, I would be able to design more myself. Instead of spending all his time on the press, Kirk would be able to focus on growing the business. It was a tough transition, but we knew it was the right one.
We also hired another employee, which might seem counter intuitive. But we felt like if we were able to delegate more of the day to day tasks, Kirk and I would again be able to focus more on the bigger picture stuff that would grow our company. We hired her on a trial basis to be safe, but we knew within weeks that it was totally worth it to have her stay on in a more permanent way.
And then in April of 2013, I had our second baby. He was colicky and had acid reflux, and for the first 6 months or so, I couldn’t really do anything besides hold him and try to comfort him around the clock. I didn’t usually work more than an hour a day. Sometimes just a half an hour, with my baby in a carrier on my front, trying to type an email while also bouncing up and down to keep him from waking. I tried to be zen about it, to reason that the business was fine. But deep down I was scared to death that this was the end of it -- the end of Sycamore Street Press and the end of our way of supporting our family. In fact, it got to a point where Kirk and I decided to really be open to the possibility that this could it. That maybe he just needed to go out and find a “regular job”. We talked a lot about it, prayed about it, tried to figure out what we should do… And in the end, we felt that we needed to keep going. That it wasn’t the time to give up.
Miraculously, we somehow managed to grow by 16% that year. I’m sure much of it was because of our decision to outsource most of our printing to other local shops, leaving Kirk available to work on the business (rather than just in it.)
In 2014, our baby boy grew out of his colic and acid reflux. I was able to have others help with his care and go back to a regular schedule at work again. (4 days/wk + evenings, so about 50 hours/week again.) Kirk and I wanted to keep finding ways to work smarter, though. Basically, we wanted to make more money but work fewer hours, so we could have a more comfortable life with our family.
3) Focus on what is most important for you to be doing RIGHT NOW.
To achieve this, I first started to look hard at how I was spending each and every minute. I had become pretty good at this from my months with a colicky baby, when I knew that I might only have a couple of minutes at the computer before he began to wail again -- so I would make those minutes count. The trick was just maintaining that mentality now that I didn’t have a wailing baby to worry about. Not the stressed out part, ha ha, just the part where I was laser focused on what was the most important thing for me to be doing RIGHT NOW. I’ve found that the days that I stay focused and centered on that idea throughout the day always feel productive, less stressful, and less scattered.
4) Stay Innovative
Another thing I realized we needed for growth was innovative design. Looking back, I realized that back in 2012 when our business had gone downhill, my designs had become stagnant. In 2007, when I first started, my style was fresh, unique, different. But with the explosion of independent stationers in 2012, came an explosion of hand drawn illustrations meant for letterpress. My designs weren’t so fresh anymore.
So starting in 2013, when we vowed to turn the business around, I worked hard to refresh the look of our brand and designs, too. I made some progress, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2014 that I had a creative epiphany and it all came together. Our spring launch that year garnered the kind of attention from both the press and from buyers that I hadn’t seen in years. Taking the time to gather inspiration and work on updating my style was really worth it and paid off in the end -- not just monetarily but also with my happiness at work and creative fulfillment.
As a side note to this, though, I should add that you don’t want to get too far ahead of the curve. That can backfire, too. I know from experience. The trick is staying right on the crest of the wave -- ahead of the trend but not so far ahead of the trend that people don’t get it. Or just figuring out how to be appealingly timeless all the time. Easy, right? Ha! It’s not that easy, of course, but at least if it’s something you’re conscious of and trying for, you won’t become super stagnant like I was back in 2012.
As an artist, I am always wanting to move on to the next thing. I do a little of this, and I never want to come back to it, even if it does well. But in the past couple of years, Kirk has helped me realize that part of the secret to success and working smarter, is knowing when to capitalize on something that is working for you. In the early years of Sycamore Street Press, I didn’t really capitalize on the successful things at all. I was running my business as if it was an ongoing grad school experiment! But even amazing artists learn how to capitalize it’s not just entrepreneurs. Look at all the pop art portraits Andy Warhol did of celebrities. Or the way Maria Abramovic keeps making provocative performance art. They key is learning to capitalize in certain areas while also innovating in certain areas finding the balance.
6) “Multiple Income Streams” isn’t just some lame business jargon.
Ever since Kirk joined me full-time at Sycamore Street Press back in 2009, we’d pretty much just had one income stream -- the sales of our stationery line. We’d tried getting into custom work (wedding invitations, business cards, etc…) but we didn’t enjoy the project management side to that. So we focused on our stationery line.
But in this new economy, I kept hearing how important it is for entrepreneurs and freelancers to have multiple income streams. So when a friend approached me in 2014 about teaching classes on atly.com, I decided to give it a go. My first class, Stationery Business 100: Start Strong debuted in August of 2014, and did well enough that I decided to launch my second class, Stationery Business 200: Wholesale, in March of 2015. I’m hoping to launch a third class this fall.
I also started working creating content for brands through Hello Society and Kirk and I launched a film production company with a couple of colleagues.
I have other friends who are “makers” like us who also do freelance design on the side. Or wedding photographers who also sell stock photography. Or shop owners who moonlight as small business coaches. The point is, it’s smart not to have all your eggs in one basket.
Kirk and I have found that applying all the principles we’ve been learning about working smarter and more efficiently helps us handle more projects/income streams in less time. But even with that in place, you can get spread too thin. Unfortunately, I think it’s hard to figure out where the balance is until you try. It’s a process of trial and error.
7) Passive income is kind of the best.
I always used to think that “passive income” seemed a bit slimy or at least super corporate and boring. But then my friend Alma talked to me about how she’s always trying to think of ways she can use her creativity to create passive income -- things like her online design classes, the kids’ app she helped create, and her paper goods shop that sells strictly downloadable PDF files.
And earlier this year, I happened upon the Smart Passive Income podcast by Pat Flynn, and have been so inspired to learn more ways to create passive income and work smarter. (Pat himself makes six figures a month doing something he loves while only working part time hours so he can spend time with his family.) There are so many avenues to try -- e-books, niche sites, affiliate links, ad networks, and more. I think it’s fun to figure out ways to apply the ideas he talks about to a design-focused business like ours. So far, I’ve just started using some of his tips for SEO and email newsletters. But I’m considering an e-book, niche site, and affiliate links, too.
8) Create Systems
So, with all our efforts to work smarter, we were able to grow the business by 28% in 2014. (So much better than our 11% decline in 2012!) And as I mentioned earlier, this year we are on track to grow by at least 33%. We are so grateful. Although it is still up and down, as most small businesses are, it finally feels like we can breathe again, which is amazing. Another big part of that is that we’ve been working hard to create systems in our business.
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber was a huge help in this. The main takeaway I got from his book is that everything in your business should be organized into a system and written down. That way you’re not having to reinvent the wheel every time someone does that task or it gets delegated to someone else. At Sycamore Street Press we do this in a simple way we just take a task such as creating a blog post and make a google doc where we write down every single little step required to accomplish that task. This isn’t something that gets done all at once. We’ve been chipping away at it over the past year or so. And if a new recurring task comes up, we try to create the “protocol doc” for that task right away.
9) Get Organized
Along with creating systems, we’ve been working hard to get more organized. I feel like the more organized I get, the smoother things roll, and the more time I have to be creative and be with my family. So of course, I am always looking for more ways to be organized!
Getting Things Done by David Allen is a fantastic read with practical steps to help you get organized. A lot of what he said in his book really resonated with me and lessons I had learned through experience (like focusing on the most important task right now). The biggest takeaway I had from his book that I didn’t already do was to make sure that all your possible tasks are written down in an organized way. ALL of them, broken down into tasks. If you do this, then it frees up your mind from the stress of trying to keep them organized in your head. He also encourages you to dedicate a few hours every week to read through your entire list (or lists) of tasks. Get rid of some if they’re not important anymore, delegate some to the “someday” folder, and make action plans to accomplish others. Although it is really tough to find those hours to do a comprehensive look through my lists, I’ve found that when I do it is SO helpful. It ends up saving me time in the end by reminding me of things I’d otherwise forget, helping me see the bigger picture, and helping me feel more in control, and therefore, less stressed.
10) Use these small biz tools.
It’s amazing how the right tools can really help you work smarter and more efficiently. Here are some of the tools we use:
- Dropbox to organize design files and photos into folders
- Google Drive for documents, to do lists, and text
- Google Calendar for schedules
- Quickbooks for accounting
- Zoho for contacts
- Viraltag for Pinterest scheduling
- Schedugram for Instagram scheduling
- HootSuite for Facebook and Twitter scheduling
It doesn’t have to be super high tech or expensive to get the job done in a small business.
So, after our year of an 11% decline in growth in 2012, we had 16% growth in 2013, 28% growth in 2014, and 33% growth so far in 2015! With this growth, we did not get any loans or money from investors, and we didn’t work longer hours. I pretty much took about 6 months off when our second baby was born in 2013, and this year, I’ve cut back my hours even further to about 40 hours a week. Although I still have a ways to go, I know am living a much more balanced life than I was working those 80 hour (pre-kid) work weeks, and Sycamore Street Press is doing better than ever.
All of this wouldn’t have been possible if Kirk and I hadn’t made a conscious effort to work smarter and more efficiently through the 10 steps listed above. I hope that some of this can be of help to you in your own life and business! We are in this together! We are fighting the good fight!
Thank you so much for reading. I’d love to hear how you are working smarter in the comments below. Or if you need ideas of how you can work smarter in a specific area, please ask away in the comments below and I’ll try my best to answer them (other readers feel free to weigh in, too)!