The 3 Biggest Mistakes I Made When I Started My Creative Business

We’re all bound to make a few mistakes here and there as we establish and build a creative business. 

Failure in some way shape or form is inevitable. In fact, I believe that failing fast and forward is often the key to long-term success. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the mistakes of others and avoid common pitfalls. 

Throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I have for SURE made my fair share of mistakes (nope– I’m sorry to report, business coaches aren’t immune)!

That’s why I want to share the 3 biggest mistakes I made when I started my first creative business to help you steer clear of these common and preventable challenges. 

Mistake # 1 Waiting Too Long To Treat My Business Like a REAL Business

Before I dive into my first (and possibly most crucial) mistake in business, let’s set the scene.

My business started out the same way many creative businesses do…

Completely by accident. 

You probably know what I mean if you’ve picked up projects here and there and suddenly you look up one day and realize– 

“Hey, I think I’ve got a business here!”

But you may not know that long BEFORE I worked in the corporate world and became a business coach for creatives, I was a freelance graphic designer!

While still in art school at RISD, I found myself regularly picking up side projects for friends and family.

I designed all sorts of things like…

  • logos
  • websites
  • brochures
  • business cards 
  • book covers

Seriously– I was all over the place!

Without even realizing it, these opportunities led to referrals. Soon, friends of my friends and family started reaching out asking me to do graphic design work.

The whole thing quickly snowballed!

Great, right?!

Sure, but…

This is where my first mistake began to reveal itself. 

You see—

Instead of approaching all of these opportunities as a business, I saw each project as its own individual thing. I treated them entirely separately.

  • My pricing was all over the map (and varied considerably)
  • I didn’t have any  contracts in place (that’s a BIG no-no)
  • I rarely set deadlines (hello, scope creep!)
  • I was juggling all the things without a plan and praying I didn’t drop the ball
  • I lacked a big-picture vision of where this work was headed

As you can tell, I was duct-taping all these things together, hoping everything would stick. I truly didn’t view my work as a business and this kept me frazzled, overwhelmed, disorganized and stuck. 

It took me FAR too long to realize that what I had in front of me actually WAS a business. 

But, once I did, things changed dramatically!

When I finally admitted I was running a creative business, I began to develop a vision

I standardized my work and suddenly things started to fall into place! This reduced my stress and made my graphic design projects a heck of a lot easier to manage!

Better yet?

I was able to make WAY more money doing the work I loved because I knew how I was pricing and why, so I could be sure to cover my bottom line and build in a profit

Mistake # 2 Trying To Do All The Things Myself

If you don’t know this about me yet, I am a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist.

Which means that in the early days of my business, I wanted to have a hand in everything… 

A.K.A. I wanted to be in the driver’s seat at all times!

I was juggling everything and wearing ALL the figurative hats like a one-woman show!

I wasn’t JUST the owner of a graphic design business, I was ALSO…

You get the point. I literally had my hands in everything. I was even my own copywriter! And when I finally admitted that maybe bringing in a copywriter would change the game…

It actually did!

And now, I adore my copywriter, show up regularly on my blog, emails, and social media because of her, and can’t imagine my business without her.

Don’t get me wrong. 

It is GREAT to be involved in the many diverse aspects of your work (especially early on)

But while this was doable for a time, it was unsustainable for me long term. 

It took a long time for me to realize that doing everything myself wasn’t always the best, most efficient, or even most cost-effective way to do things!

Seriously, sometimes it pays to hire the expert to do it not only faster but BETTER than I ever could. 

This is where outsourcing and delegating made all the difference. 

While hiring a team member may not be financially feasible for you right now, it is something you can strive towards and build into your plans!

I encourage you to evaluate where you need to spend your time and where you might benefit from seeking out the right help and support to help you move forward, build momentum, and avoid becoming the bottleneck in your business.

COO TIP: Not sure which first hire will help your business scale most? Check out this blog that will walk you through strategically hiring the right person for your creative business needs and goals!

Mistake # 3 Being Reactive Instead of Proactive

The third and final mistake I want to share with you may not seem like a problem at first glance.

But look a little closer, and you’ll see the issue.

Remember those family and friend referrals I had rolling in before my business was a, quote un quote, REAL business?

Well, I was happy to take anything and everything that came my way.

Until…I wasn’t so happy.

The truth is that while those referrals may have seemed like a good thing – I was taking on whatever project fell into my lap as if I should simply feel GRATEFUL that people even wanted me to do this work for them in the first place (hello, imposter syndrome).

Eventually, I took on so many different projects, I was left with a bit of a business identity crisis.

I had become a generalist. I didn’t have a niche and I wasn’t specializing in any one type of graphic design work. 

The problem? 

Well, there were quite a few actually. 

First and foremost, taking on tons of different types of projects meant I was constantly starting from scratch. I had to learn new skills or information to complete these varying projects. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but reinventing the wheel every single time I took on a new client put me on the fast track to burnout!

Second, I was taking on projects that weren’t aligned with my interests, goals, or talents. I found myself doing work that I didn’t even enjoy! In my opinion, what’s the point of starting your own business if the work itself doesn’t light you up?!

And lastly, I lacked a clear plan which left me wandering. It’s no wonder I felt lost when trying to formulate a cohesive business plan or articulate my goals. 

Once I became aware of these issues, I was able to shift from being a passive participant in my business, to actively taking initiative. I began taking a more proactive approach to my business which allowed me to seek out and create the opportunities I was looking for!

  • I defined the types of projects I genuinely wanted to do rather than just the projects that happened to fall into my lap. Once I knew what I wanted my business to be, it was easier to communicate this to potential clients. 
  • Narrowing down my offers allowed me to standardize my graphic design process so I could be more efficient with my time. 
  • Saying “no” to unaligned projects was hard at first, (scarcity mindset is real, my friend) and it felt counterintuitive to turn down work. However, once I got clear on what I wanted to do, I felt more fulfilled in my work and sought out opportunities that I was excited about. Over time this even allowed me to increase my rates as my skill and experience improved! 

Eventually, I started to see a vision for my creative business and where it could go in the future! 

Embracing Mistakes 

By sharing the 3 biggest mistakes I’ve made in my business, my intention was to help you avoid them in your creative business. 

I hope that this insight… 

…invites you to see your business as a REAL business so that you can stop playing small and start stepping into your rightful place as CEO sooner rather than later.

…reminds you to give yourself permission to ask for help and invest in the sustainability of your business by strategically hiring team members so you can stop carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.

…encourages you to proactively create the opportunities you desire because you are worthy and capable of building the business of your dreams, not just whatever projects fall into your lap.

That being said…

I guarantee you’re gonna make mistakes!

You may even make the same mistakes I did.  

And while we all want to achieve success as painlessly as possible, believe it or not, mistakes are there to help us!

Mistakes may cause us to stumble, but they also allow us to learn, grow, and come back stronger in the future. 

My final hope for you is that whatever mistakes you make, you’re able to embrace them as part of the entrepreneurial journey.

I wonder: 

What are the biggest mistakes YOU’VE made in your business so far? 

What did you gain from that experience?


I want to hear from you!

I personally read and respond to every email that comes through my inbox!

Click here to share your biggest business mistake, how you overcame it, and where you are in your business today as a result. 


Let's Connect!
Follow Me  @erincantwellco