3 Year Business Anniversary One Big Lesson Learned

Three years ago today I quit my job at a startup in NYC and ventured off on my own. It was the best decision I ever made. It’s hard to believe I’ve been running my own user experience design consulting business for three years. As a kid, I never ever considered entrepreneurship, but the older I get, the more I realize it really suits me.

During those three years, I’ve learned a lot. How to deal with clients, how to give and receive feedback, how to set up my own retirement accounts, and many other important but not sexy things. But there’s one key business lesson that stands out to me.

I was recently asked by a friend of a friend, “how long did it take until you were able to work for yourself” and I blurted out, “10 years”. I know this wasn’t the answer she wanted. I think she was hoping I’d say 2 or 3!

In our culture of instant gratification, there’s a wild expectation that you can develop a business and have independence in a few years — that’s likely the exception to the rule.

Every smart entrepreneur knows that behind every perceived overnight success is years of hard work, failure, & faking it until you make it.

Three years ago I was working at a startup and I just knew it was time to leave. The signs were obvious and to be honest, I was miserable. I felt restricted. I wasn’t excited to go to work each day. And I wasn’t even doing UX anymore because the founder asked me to join the marketing team, teaching them how to tweet, develop a content strategy, and use Facebook for marketing (sidenote: I have a degree in marketing). Needless to say, all those things combined, along with watching the tech team own UX, became an obvious sign that it was time to move on.

So I did something that I completely do not endorse: I left early on a Friday and quit on Sunday, and I had absolutely no plan. I was asked to stay on at the company for a week to help transition some things to other people. And then, that was it. I walked out the door and was gone. And I had to figure out what to do next.

I didn’t have any clients lined up. I hadn’t taken on freelance projects in years. I didn’t have a portfolio, contracts, or a pipeline in place.  But you know what? I wasn’t starting from scratch. Why? Because I had developed a personal brand and unintentionally established myself as somewhat of a thought leader in my industry.

In the three years I’ve been working for myself, I’ve never had to worry about getting clients. I’ve never had to do any paid marketing. I’ve been really lucky. But, I also worked to establish myself as a leader.

What’s the biggest business lesson I’ve learned in the last 3 years? Develop your online presence. Establish yourself as a thinker. Let people into your head.

So, how did I establish myself as a leader? I created a presence online. It’s not that difficult. It just takes thought, time commitment, and the understanding that it’s not going to happen overnight. Establishing your presence requires that you tinker a bit, experiment, see what works for you, and find your fit in your specific industry. Here are 3 key points to help you learn more about this important business lesson: how to create your own online presence.

1) Build Your Home & Be A Writer

I’ve had my website since about 2004 when I first started publishing articles and blog posts. My website has changed about twice since I’ve had it. I maintain it myself; it’s a WordPress theme that I customize when I have time! It’s likely the first thing that people will see if they do a Google search for me. So, it’s a critical first impression for people who want to work with me. Equally important, it serves as a home for all my writing.

As I’ve written before, writing is a crucial skill for designers. Writing forces you to think. It forces you to be articulate. It requires that you tailor your message to your audience. Writing will make you a better designer. When people want to work with me, they often say they found me through an article I wrote.

Beyond client work, my writing has lead to being asked to guest post, have articles published, write an e-book that’s forthcoming, develop curriculum for General Assembly, and speak at conferences. Don’t underestimate the power of writing.

2) Find Your Social Tribe

In 2008 I joined Twitter (@sarahdoody) and realized that a great way to learn more about UX would be to just follow all the people who were talking about UX, startups, and design. I quickly curated my Twitter to be a constant feed of knowledge, ideas, insights, and inspiration from peers and designers from around the world (here’s a link to one of my UX lists on Twitter). But I didn’t just sit back and read all the tweets and articles. I engaged. I tweeted to people and asked questions. I engaged in conversations and debates. I went beyond consuming content and became a curator myself.

Eventually I became a content creator when I started writing on my blog more regularly, getting articles published, and ultimately created my own brand, The UX Notebook, which is a weekly UX Newsletter I curate. Twitter has proven to be the best platform for me to connect with and grow my audience. They key to my success on Twitter has been two things. First, I keep it focused. My Tweets are about 80% business and 20% personal. My audience gets focused content with me about UX that’s sprinkled with personal adventures and anecdotes. Second, I keep it authentic. My Twitter account has a voice. I don’t just re-tweet. I engage regularly. I use Buffer to schedule tweets that are content related (articles, videos, etc) and that allows me to use my slots of free time throughout the day to actually talk to people on Twitter.

3) Share Your Knowledge

As I mentioned earlier, it’s crucial that you develop a habit of writing. But, how do you know people are reading your writing? What can you do to get feedback, foster discussion, and hear what people think about your ideas? I have a few ideas on this for you. My first tip is to consider posting your writing on publishing platforms such as Medium (here’s my profile on Medium). This is a great place to put your writing, especially if you don’t have an audience yet. Medium has a built-in audience, so you’ll likely get more readers and more engagement and interaction with your writing than if you just post it on your site.

My second tip is to submit your writing to publications and see if they are interested. I did this back in 2012 and ended up with my wildly popular article in UX Magazine, which continues to drive tons of traffic to my site each month. That article also went really viral on Twitter and I was able to connect with people from around the world, including people who worked at or used to work at Stanford, Pixar, major VC firms and startups, and more. Once you end up in one publication, you’ll likely get requests to guest post on blogs or submit articles to other publications.

Where am I today?

Three years after going out on my own, I have my own user experience design consulting business where I work hands on with product teams, founders, designers, and entrepreneurs. For companies who are just starting out, I help them establish their product vision and create the first version of their product. For teams with products already in market, I help them look at data, learn from users, and optimize the user experience.

Regardless of what industry you’re in or what stage of career you’re at, it’s never too late to develop a personal online presence, especially if you think that one day you want to work for yourself.

Working for yourself is awesome, but it requires hard work, dedication, and the understanding that you’ll have to work a lot of really late nights and weekends so that someday people will think you’re an overnight success (wink).