One year ago today, my life changed. Now, before half of you abandon ship, this is not a fairy tale. This isn’t a ‘Five Easy Ways to Make Your Dreams Come True’ post. And actually, this saga isn’t really even about something that happened to me. This is a story about a simple decision I repeatedly made that yielded incredible results.
This hero’s challenge, however, began a few years earlier.
I am a designer by trade. At that time, my freelance career had grown to the point where I could support my two-person family — barely, but I thought I had made it. The client roster was deep, but revenue was shallow. I worked for 53 clients, each with multiple projects of varying scope. My clients received incredible value, and needless to say, referrals were streaming in. I didn’t realize it, but I was overworked, overstressed and I was dangerously close to full burnout.
Now, I don’t avoid work. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. I thrive under pressure and I love being busy. The more work I see in my backlog, the better I feel.
But I hated spinning my wheels.
And that’s what I felt like I was doing. It became glaringly clear that no matter how many hours I put in, I would never be able to break out of the vicious cycle of low-budget work unless I did something different. I’m not sure if I thought a client would come through and tell me that I wasn’t charging enough, or if I thought that referrals would eventually lead to bigger budgets.
I did know that I needed a change.
And as all millennials do, I googled my pain. I stumbled upon the Get Rich Quick-ers, cruised through the Passive Income Stream-ers, and bounced off of an incredible amount of $199 Agency Builder E-book landing pages.
Somehow, I discovered a YouTube channel with a small following called The Skool. Their content hit me like that first breath you take after you’ve been underwater for a second too long. Life-giving, but just a little painful. The founders, Chris Do and Jose Caballer, spoke to many of the pain points I experienced, and I began to implement a few of their tactics.
Here’s what mattered to me: they gave it away for free.
I gained so much value from their videos over the course of the next year, I decided to do something I felt strange doing: I reached out to Chris. This was April 1, 2015. I felt incredibly indebted to him, and I wanted to let him know. Honestly, I didn’t expect a reply. In fact, I expected to be added to another email list of which I would eventually tire. What I got in response floored me:
You’ve made my night. Thank you for sharing. Id like to chat with you some time to share stories and find out more about your journey, challenges and the future. i’m free tomorrow morning 9am pst. are you free to chat then?
I was immediately faced with a decision.
Moments like this are rare. I had immediate clarity that I stood at a fork in my journey. Obviously I was planning to take the call, but I knew that my actions afterwards would mean something. I made the decision right then and there to simply say yes. And not just say yes, but to take action.
On that call, I laid everything on the table. I told Chris what I had been struggling with, and where I knew I needed help. His response was simple and actionable advice:
- Ask each client I currently had to move to a monthly retainer at a respectable rate, or fire them.
- Read the Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns.
- Iron out my goals using Jim Rohn’s goal-setting exercise. Dream big.
- Practice telling people our minimum engagement level.
- Finish our own website.
Some of this felt insane. Like borderline batshit crazy. But I said yes, and then I got to work.
I had difficult phone calls with all 53 of my clients. You can imagine their surprise. But the result? Three retainers that totaled more per month than I made working for all 53 combined. Obviously, this opened my schedule and allowed me to pursue other avenues. Win / Win.
I started telling everyone I talked to about our new minimum engagement level. Seriously. I told my parents, a stranger in a hospital elevator, ex-clients, leads, our landlord. I got so used to saying it and talking about money, that it started rolling off my tongue. I also bought the book, read it three times, set goals and finished the website.
This was only the beginning. Here are some other ideas, from Chris and others, I said yes to:
- Hiring someone. Yep, I felt like an imposter during the interviews. Yep, it was weird having a stranger work with me in my 800 square-foot loft. But we are now cranking out work faster than I ever could riding solo.
- Finding an office. I had no idea if I could afford this. After all, we were on the hunt for new clients, and a two-year commercial lease was scary.
- Raising our minimum engagement level. It takes time to onboard, adapt to and engage in a new project. Setting a minimum budget allowed us to offer higher quality of service to each new client.
- Refusing to pitch. This is one of the most inane practices in the creative industry. You try going anywhere else and asking to try whatever they’re selling for free for the first time. But it’s such a widely accepted scheme that you’re viewed as rebels for rejecting it.
- Taking people to lunch. Designers are not an inherently social bunch, and I am no exception. But honestly, some of the most important relationships I have made have been made over a cup of coffee.
- Accepting an AIGA board position. Major imposter syndrome here. I felt extremely proud, mostly terrified, and a little intimidated. But WOW what an incredible way to grow closer to your community!
- Conducting my first webinar. Wait, people want to hear what I have to say? No pressure, right? Turns out, I absolutely love sharing
Here’s the deal.
I haven’t made it big yet — not even close. But incredible opportunities have popped up in the past year, and I attribute every single one of them to a “yes” that would have previously been a “no.”
And listen, my goal is not to turn every person who reads this article into Jim Carrey’s character in Yes Man. In fact, I say no to a lot. I‘m talking about saying yes to the great ideas. To the fantastic connections. To remaining open to the people around you.
To say yes to actually and finally taking action.
Too many of us are stuck in cycles of inaction — the kind of motivational lethargy that, over time, glues us to our chairs. Remaining still for too long shrinks your comfort zone. And I only know this because I’ve been there.
So get out there. Try something new — in business and in life. Ask for help and take advice. Do something incredible that is way outside your comfort zone. Pretty soon, you’ll feel comfortable again and have to make a change.
Special thanks to Chris Do. This year has been an incredible ride, and I am eternally grateful for everything you’ve done for me. Happy man-niversary.