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Yellowstone National Park

Becoming self employed: How I ditched the 9-5

At 23, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.

It was October 2011, and I was working as an office receptionist. Having already gone through numerous jobs in retail, customer service, administration, and printing, I could never find anything that stuck.

Every time I started a new job, I’d start hating it a few months in. This reception job was no exception. I would sit under fluorescent bulbs for 8 hours every day, answering the phone when it irritatingly rang every 5 minutes, placing letters into envelopes, and dealing with office politics in a job where age discrimination as prominent as segregation in the 50s.

But what else could I do? If I got another job, surely the same cycle would just happen over and over again.

Who would have thought that it would be something as simple as receiving an office delivery that would change my path from detesting every job I had to working for myself.

This is the story of how I took control of my career.

finding an idea

My first business idea presented itself when a box of wedding invitations were delivered for my colleague. She rushed out of her cushy office to open the package in front of me, and her face fell. She’d had the invitations made professionally, but the design was plain and boring.

Having studied Graphic Design, I thought hey, I could give wedding invitations a try! So I started creating some designs, had samples printed, listed them on Etsy, and waited for excited brides to start throwing their money at me.

But all I heard was crickets. No one was interested in my invitations, and after a few months I realised that the market I was designing for was very small. Sure, there are couples who want their stationery professionally designed, but most people also want to take part in creating it. In other words, I was offering a product that wasn’t a good match for the modern couple.

I felt deflated and spent a few months brooding, but then had the idea to try out some of my invitation designs as DIY printables. I would do the design and text layout, then give instructions for the couple to print it themselves.

My Etsy Shop

One of the designs in my Etsy shop

This idea took off very quickly – I had my first sale within a month or two, so from then on I’d get inspiration from Pinterest, magazines, and wedding blogs to create new DIY printable stationery designs to add my shop.

After a year of selling my DIY designs online and getting to the point where I was making a few hundred dollars every month, I realised I needed to do something else. If I wanted to quit my full-time job, my Etsy shop alone was not making enough money for me to live off.

So my next idea was to try my hand at blogging. I thought I’d create an online space with useful information on weddings, and direct traffic from the blog to my Etsy shop. I purchased an e-course from a lifestyle blog and spent a few weeks completing the lessons to get my blog started.

I saw a slight increase in sales but unfortunately not much of it was coming from my new blog. The increase had come from the additional time and effort I’d put into maintaining my shop, creating new products, improving my photography, and using Pinterest to market my products.

I also struggled to make my blog stand out. The wedding industry is a saturated market. With professional photographers contributing to many fantastic wedding blogs, my little one-woman band didn’t really stand a chance.

Screenshot PS blog

My Polkadot Stationery blog

After 4 or 5 months, I considered starting a second blog. It was just before a trip Robert and I took to Bali and I was skeptical about once again sharing my photos on Facebook. I realised that I had so much more to offer than a few quickly forgotten photos, so I went about registering a domain name, designing a logo, and frantically posting content on my new travel blog.

This was actually a risky commitment, as the travel blog didn’t have any connection to my Etsy shop, so I’d basically be starting a second business from scratch. My Etsy shop would also grow less quickly as I’d have to put my time into blogging instead.

Still, I was really excited about it and had high hopes that I could make blogging a second stream of income. If I had two businesses each making a small amount of money, I might finally be able to make enough to live off.

Yellowstone National Park

My trip to Yellowstone, USA, a month before I opened my Etsy shop in 2011

Taking the leap

It’s not easy to know when you’re ready to take the leap and leave the security of your full-time job. Do it too early, and you’re doomed to fail by running out of money and resources. Leave it too long, and your business may never get enough of your attention to get off the ground.

I worked for 2 full years after opening my Etsy shop before I made the tough decision to quit my job. I was nervous, but confident that I would try my best to make it work.

I’d saved up enough money to live off for 6 months, though I knew that my savings would actually last longer than that as I was still making a little money through Etsy. I also got a part-time job at a print shop (1-2 days per week) to help cover my expenses.

After a few months, I finally started to see the benefits of putting all this extra time into my businesses. My Etsy sales more than doubled since the year before, and this blog is quickly growing into something that I can monetise.

If I hadn’t left my full-time job, I wouldn’t have been able to grow both my Etsy business and my travel blog nearly as much as I’ve been able to. Becoming self-employed was also a huge deal for my move to New York, as I had an income that wasn’t dependent on my location.

AGWT in New York City

After moving to New York City in 2015

Responding to change

At the beginning of 2015, I realised that continuing to post on my stationery blog was futile. I didn’t have enough time for it and had lost all of my original enthusiasm now that I’d produced a rapidly growing travel blog. I made the decision to stop posting.

I wanted to somehow merge my new travel blog and my Etsy shop, so I started designing printable travel stationery such as travel journals, art prints, and trip maps, and attempted to direct traffic from my travel blog to my shop.

It’s been reasonably successful, and I’ve been able to get feedback on other travel related products that I can sell in the future.

Work and travel at the same time

Exploring Philadelphia. These days, I can work and travel at the same time

My tips for becoming self employed

  1. Find a killer idea. The entrepreneurial type is always on the hunt, looking for problems and thinking of ways in which we can solve them. It could be starting a blog, creating an app, or selling an online product. Sometimes the ideas are unachievable and sometimes they’re entirely possible, but the point is that we’re brainstorming until we find something that might work.
  2. Think about the skills and passions you currently have. I have skills in design so I used them to start a business designing stationery, and I’m passionate about travel so I used this as a base for my blog. I had zero blogging skills, but I came to learn them throughout the process of starting two blogs. Remember, the most important skill you have is the ability to learn.
  3. Implement your ideas. Figure out what steps you will need to make it work. If you want your idea to support your lifestyle eventually, you’ll need to think about how it can be monetized.
  4. Start saving money like crazy. Be prepared for no income for a long while. Overnight success is very rare, for most people it takes 1-3 years (sometimes more) to set up a profitable business.
  5. Have a plan before you take the leap. Make sure you can cover your expenses and give yourself a generous amount of time to get started. It’s easy to be optimistic about your plans but in reality, it might take longer than you think.
  6. Notice when things need to be changed. An essential part of being an entrepreneur is knowing how to respond to change, or changing things when something isn’t working. There’s no point wasting your time on a dying project (such as I did with my stationery blog) when you could be doing something more productive.
  7. Trial and error. Sometimes, a business idea that you thought would work will flop. I realised that with both my original wedding invitations idea and my stationery blog. But with a little trial and error, I was able to tweak my ideas to find something that works for me.

I’ve learnt a lot of things from becoming self employed, and can confidently say that it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It hasn’t been an easy journey and it’s nowhere near completed, but I’ve never been afraid of a little hard work.

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