Leaving My Corporate Career To Start My Own Design Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! My name is Abigail Butler and I am the designer, maker and owner of Chirps & Cricket Design Studio. Chirps & Cricket is a small, Denver, Colorado-based design studio specializing in graphic design services, custom illustration, handcrafted paper goods and bespoke invitations.
At any given time, I am working on an array of projects including branding and logo design, marketing items such as brochures and mailers, website design, wedding stationery, and custom illustrations for album covers, maps, packaging and stationery. I also run an online shop where I sell tangible paper goods such as note cards, art prints, customizable save the dates, and customizable wedding invitation suites.
The bulk of my work and energy so far this year has been put towards custom illustration projects, designing marketing material, wedding stationery, and designing brands/logos. Because my projects vary so greatly, so do my clients! This year I’ve worked on projects for small and large businesses, startups, engaged couples and a freelance writer.
I originally launched as freelance graphic design business about three years ago. Since then, my small, in-home-studio freelance gig has also developed into a handcrafted paper goods / bespoke stationery business. With taking on a few larger illustration projects this year, the dream has become real with a contract to illustrate New Mexico State University’s Campus Map, a contract to illustrate a children’s book, being featured in Martha Stewart Weddings and Rocky Mountain Bride, and other creative, fun projects such as designing album covers and music show posters.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2010, while living in Chicago, IL, I interviewed for a graphic design position at an international commercial real estate company located here in Denver.
After almost four years with the company I began growing restless with a desire to challenge myself creatively and to continue to grow both as an artist and as a person.
After several phone conversations and a Skype interview, I was offered the job. Craving adventure and a big change, I packed up a U-Haul and moved myself across the country to Denver to begin this new chapter in my life. I loved my new corporate job at first! Commercial real estate was a foreign language to me in the beginning, but made sense after some time, and of course what I loved was that I was able to apply my knowledge as a designer to my work. The bulk of my work at the time was spent designing marketing items, such as brochures, mailers, email marketing, etc. And every once in a while, I had the opportunity to design something very fun like a logo or a website.
I spent approximately the next five years at the company, and the amount of professional training was absolutely invaluable. I learned how important communication is and how to be successful at it, from writing and responding to emails, to conducting meetings with clients and brokers, to pitching ideas, explaining design decisions and how to properly take criticism and feedback and apply it appropriately to my work. I learned the importance of organization and how to set up file systems. I still use the same filing and naming system for my business as we used in the Marketing Department of that company. I also learned time management and prioritization, appropriately setting tasks and goals to ensure deadlines were met and clients were kept happy.
After almost four years with the company I began growing restless with a desire to challenge myself creatively and to continue to grow both as an artist and as a person. I have a strong background in fine arts and was missing artistic challenges. After almost a year of discussions with my husband about leaving the company to pursue some sort of artistic endeavor, I finally made up my mind to do it. I left the company to pursue my dream of becoming a freelance artist/graphic designer. My hope was to find work that would allow me to flex that creative muscle in a way that had been missing for several years. And from that spawned Chirps & Cricket Design Studio.
I got a job waiting on tables, to allow for flexibility with time and schedules, and began to develop my business. I knew I wanted to continue being a graphic designer, creating logos, websites, marketing items, etc., but I also wanted to create and sell stationery, specifically wedding stationery. The idea came from something simple: after creating my own stationery for my wedding as well as wedding stationery for a few friends of mine, I fell in love with the creativity of the process. I love working with color palettes, themes, typography, illustrating graphics, working with paper, and finding solutions to design “puzzles” that come up with any design project.
Take us through the process of designing and creating your first products.
It took me approximately five or six months to develop my first line of stationery products. I began with a small set of note cards, about ten in all, and eleven wedding invitation suites.
I began with finding the two companies that I wanted to buy my paper from (almost) exclusively – Paper Source and Envelopes.com. What I liked initially about these companies was
1) the quality of the product themselves (for example, the thickness and durability of Paper Source envelopes is hard to beat) 2) pricing – these two companies sell their products at affordable costs, without compromising on quality, offering trade industry discounts and wholesale purchasing 3) variety – both companies offer a wide range of color and paper weight choices.
I knew I wanted to offer a handcrafted item, printing and assembling the products myself, ‘in-house’, so ordering as I went along would work for my business model.
After ordering paper swatch books from each company, I began using them to develop and design the lines of stationery, matching colors, creating themes, drawing and illustrating graphics for each. This stage involved market research, finding out what people like, what’s trending, and what sells and who’s buying what. All the designs, illustrations and graphics for my stationery are my own, save for the fonts used.
I developed and designed the packaging for the note cards that are available as individual cards or as a boxed set of six. I thought through how my logo and brand would appear on the back of the note cards, on the outside of the boxed sets and how I would package purchases that had to be shipped in the mail. I wanted the customer experience of receiving a package/purchase in the mail to be special, feel well thought out and of course have the product arrive without any damage.
Overall, my initial investment on paper, envelopes and packaging materials was roughly $500.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I used Wix to set up my website and launch the business, and it was also relatively easy to set up my shop for e-commerce using Wix too.
It took me several months to design the site, get my portfolio organized, and to photograph and edit the photos of my products. Part of the process also, was figuring out how I wanted guests to interact with the site and how I wanted their experience to go when purchasing stationery. Because I was operating on such a small budget to start up, I did everything myself – from designing my logo and brand, designing my website and setting up the SEO, photographing my products, editing those photos and getting them up on my website to writing all the copy for the site.
Any purchases made to start up was either paid for from my own pocket or the small business line of credit I applied for and received.
Setting goals is paramount in starting a business – it provides direction, sets the stage for the larger picture, focuses you in on what is important/priority, and will motivate you!
With so much excitement and a bit nervousness the launch of Chirps & Cricket was relatively modest with announcements on facebook and Instagram, and I also sent out an email announcement to the small email list I had at the time (mostly to friends and family and a few professional contacts). I did receive orders from my online shop right away, all from supportive friends and family. I also received a few freelance projects right away as well and even got to design a few custom wedding invitations. It was a small start, but I leveraged social media as much as possible to help see things grow.
When I made my first wholesale sale of note cards to the flower shop down the street, that felt like a big win, and when I received my first wedding invitation project from someone that I didn’t know already, I knew things were heading in the right direction.
I’m still working on the growth of my business. Participating in market/craft fairs has helped a lot. This year I’ve hired a company, Electriq Marketing, to work on the back-end of my website, improving SEO, searchability, gain exposure and improve my online presence. I’ve been decently successful at selling my stationery items in-person and to friends and family, but I know I have a lot of work to do in order to improve my online sales.
When launching this creative endeavor there ended up being so many decisions to make and processes to walk through. Here’s a short list of items I not only had to educate myself on but had to implement:
- Applying for an EIN / tax I.D.
- Setting up my LLC (understanding why I wanted an LLC vs. a Sole Proprietorship)
- Because my office/studio is at my home, how did I want to direct other businesses and/or clients to send me my mail? Did I want to give out my home address? I ended up setting up and using a P.O. Box at a nearby Post Office.
- Setting up business bank accounts
- Applying for a small line of credit
- Paying taxes, both quarterly and annually
- Obtaining a sales tax license
- Learning about things like operating expenses, gross margins, cost of goods sold, ROI, sales tax, how to price my product, margins, markups, etc.
- Using an accountant vs. handling my financials and doing my taxes on my own
Looking back, I think I would have been a little bolder with my launch, making more aggressive moves to get myself and my business out there, noticed and exposed to the public. I probably would have asked for help when needed to speed up the process for launch (for example, I’m not a professional photographer, but have friends who are and offered to help with that aspect of my website). There’s also so much I don’t know about Google Analytics, SEO, etc. so I might have hired someone to help with that or taken more time to educate myself on it. I might also have read more books on business or even have taken a course or two to start. Obviously, it’s not too late for that!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
This year has been busy for Chirps & Cricket! The focus this year has shifted away from stationery sales and has been on freelance projects instead.
My current projects are either from people I’ve had as clients before, people who know me, or from people who have referred me. A very important aspect of my business model has to do with client satisfaction and the development of interpersonal relationships with my clients, allowing for honest and effective communication, trust and respect, which all has led to repeat business.
I’d say a huge aspect of successful repeat business has to do, quite simply, with prompt and honest communication, and then (perhaps not so simply) with follow-through (completing projects when promised, as promised). I strive to answer emails, texts and voicemails from clients as quickly as possible. If the communication has to do with a task that cannot be completed right away, I always respond with something to the degree of: “I’ve received your email (voicemail, etc.) and will complete the request first thing Monday morning” or “as soon as the draft is ready, I’ll send over for review”.
I believe follow-through is huge for clients when they’re working with a freelancer. I’ve built a solid referral system based on a reputation for always meeting deadlines and delivering on promises. And if a situation arises where it seems like I might need more time to complete a project, I always communicate that with my clients - I never leave anyone hanging, so-to-speak.
I certainly have room for improvement when it comes to marketing efforts, but these days, any marketing I do is solely done using social media – specifically facebook and Instagram. Sharing my work, services and goings-on on a consistent basis seems to be very effective in keeping the momentum going for the business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
With the focus shifting away from selling stationery and my online shop, I have become more and more excited about the freelance projects that have come through. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve come to realize that Chirps & Cricket is a design studio that offers graphic design and illustration services, while also offering paper goods for sale – versus the other way around.
I ended up not moving through enough inventory last year and making my online sales goals. This led me to take a step back and reanalyze what my goals are for the company in general. I think the loss partially had to do with the fact that I hadn’t quite found my stride and how I wanted to be a business owner.
Turns out, making product for sale and then pushing to make sales, while satisfying, is not something I feel extremely motivated by. I am much more excited and motivated by custom design projects that I am hired to work on, including custom stationery. Selling paper goods will still be on the table, but it’ll take a back seat for now.
Chirps & Cricket is profitable this year through custom design projects and I feel like the momentum is back. I’m currently in the process of reanalyzing my goals for the business and developing a new strategy for growth.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Starting a business has been an awesome challenge, full of growth, change and excitement. I wrap so much of the success of my business into any sort of success I feel as an artist that it has been difficult at times to think like a business owner. As I’m finding my stride with my graphic design and illustration work, the path as a business owner has become clearer.
Stay focused on your work and your goals, I’d caution against comparing yourself to others on social media, and above all, BELIEVE in yourself! You got this.
I believe setting goals is paramount in starting a business – something I didn’t do in the beginning but do now and believe it leads to success! Setting goals provides direction, sets the stage for the larger picture, focuses you in on what is important/priority, and will motivate you!
I’ve also learned that I can’t do everything by myself. Chirps & Cricket has one employee and that’s me. Since day one I felt I had to be doing it all. I believe I’ve wasted so much time and energy on things that have shown little to no return on investment. I’ve re-focused and now dedicate my time more appropriately.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I currently use Wix to host my website, online shop and for email marketing. I like Wix because it’s so easy to use and because the customization options for design, layout and setup seem infinite.
I use PayPal to send invoices and receive payment for stationery purchases as well as design projects. Again, I like PayPal because it’s easy to use, and so far, I’ve not had an issue with receiving or transferring money. I use Square for financial transactions during market/craft fairs.
I also use on a daily basis: The Adobe Creative Suite, Shutterstock, Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft Word.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The E-Myth was informative, #Girlboss was inspirational, and I really like Seth Godin’s blog and podcast, Akimbo.
I also look at Creative Bloq and Spoon Graphics often for inspiration and for tutorials. I am also always reading from AIGA Colorado and Communication Arts.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I’d say remember to stay focused on your work and your goals, I’d caution against comparing yourself to others on social media, and above all, BELIEVE in yourself! You got this.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
No, I am not currently hiring, but I do love meeting and making connections with other graphic designers and artists. Feel free to drop a line and say hello!
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: chirpsandcricket.com
- Facebook: chirpsandcricket
- Instagram: chirpsandcricket
- Email: [email protected]
Chirps & Cricket Design Studio has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with Chirps & Cricket Design Studio to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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