Occupation: Graphic Designers
Website: Boss Lady
Biography: Emira and Lauren are friends and business partners who are eerily alike in personality type, although they’ve managed to individuate themselves to some degree by participating in different hobbies. Between the two of them, they run a website design business, Raised Eyebrow Web Studio, as well as their blog, Boss Lady.
What do you do and how did you start?
Emira was working for a high-tech company where she held the position of Marketing Director, but was in fact required to do everything from making coffee to putting together booths for trade shows; another job that got plopped in her lap was updating the company website, so she read through a couple of online tutorials and dove in. With that experience under her belt, she moved to an office manager position with a web development company, where she was again asked to do HTML work as part of her job.
This was the company where Lauren & Emira met, and after spending a few months working together, they started talking about how they would do things if they were in charge, and eventually they realized they could actually be in charge if they struck out on their own. A month later they were filing registration forms and opening a business account.
How old were you when you realised you wanted to do what you’re currently doing and how old were you when you actually began?
Emira was 24 and Lauren was 27. We didn’t delay; we made up our minds and just jumped in!
What steps did you take to create your own business?
We spent a few evenings together poring over spreadsheets and thinking through marketing strategies. We spent time on our own reading “how to start a business” books and websites. Because we were worried about money, but not so much about how to do the day-to-day business stuff (after all, we had already been in the business for a couple of years), we spent most of our planning time crunching numbers — calculating what our hourly rate should be, the costs of different kinds of projects, how our billing system was going to work, that sort of thing.
We also planned out a five-year plan around what we wanted our salaries to be, what other types of expenses we anticipated, and made sales goals accordingly. Of course, the first year was a tough one financially, but having all those goals made it very easy for us to measure our success.
What kind of formal education, training or experience do you have that applies to what you do?
We’ve been asked this question a lot, and the answer is basically that we learned nearly everything on the job. That said, there are a lot of non-technical skills that are needed in our business — people skills, for example, and money management — that can be learned in any number of environments, and which in our view are equally important to the caliber of your design work and coding. Clients won’t recommend you to their colleagues if you communicated badly, no matter how much they like the way your site looks.
How did you first begin to sell/market your work?
We were fortunate to leave our former employers with one client in tow — this was a client that Lauren had wooed through her personal connections and they were very dear to her: The Vancouver Recital Society. We put together a portfolio of sites we’d worked on, being careful to point out what our roles had been so that it was clear that some of the sites had been developed under the auspices of our former employers. And we sent emails around to everyone we knew, to let them know that we were setting out on our own. Our marketing materials were pretty basic: business cards, a website, and word of mouth. We had developed good reputations as project managers at our last company, and so we already had some degree of recognition around the city as good people to work with — and it just kind of grew from there.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
The best part of what we do is our clients. They invite us into their organizations, let us play around with ideas of who they are, and pay us to do it. And the variety of people we work with is amazing — in the morning we might be at a meeting with an environmental nonprofit group, and in the afternoon we’ll head off to work on a photographer’s portfolio. For a couple of inquisitive people, there’s no better job, because it’s like having a new job every other day.
The most frustrating?
Sometimes a client will have difficulty prioritizing their marketing work in the same way as their paid work, and will let their website project languish for months, or in some cases a year or more. After a point, it becomes terribly difficult to get the project back on track, because it’s been hanging around like an albatross for so long. It’s frustrating, but understandable.
Do you have any fears about what you do, and if so, how do you deal with them?
I think our biggest fears have been on the level of paranoia — they’re almost laughable, like thinking “What if no one ever hires us again?” One of the best things about having a business partner is that it gives you someone to lean on when you’re stressed out, and who will completely understand how important this stuff is to you. We’ve been fortunate in that so far, we’ve taken turns having dark nights of the soul — we haven’t had to go through being freaked out at the same time, so one of us is always capable of patting the other on the head and saying, “There, there. It’s all gonna be okay.”
What kind of work environment do you have?
Until recently, we both worked out of home offices, one of which (Lauren’s) has two computers — so it’s the “head office” and we work together there at least a couple of days a week. 2002 saw us getting a “real” office space downtown, although Lauren has continued to work from home, and Emira shares the new office space part-time with a graphic designer. It was important for the first year or so that we spent a lot of time sharing the same physical space, but over time we’ve been comfortable working apart more, which means that neither of us has too much of a commute. (We live on different sides of town.)
Have you encountered any financial obstacles, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Our business, because it’s service-oriented and not goods-based, didn’t require much of a financial investment; we bought a computer (Lauren already owned one) and we were on our way! Eventually we bought new desks and chairs, and new computers, but we waited until we could afford to pay cash for them rather than racking up debt before we got started.
One of the positive things we were able to pick up from working at other companies was to see our bosses making mistakes in the financial department — forgetting to set their tax money aside, for example, or getting into debt by getting into a long lease agreement. So we learned a lot about how not to do it, and planned accordingly. We feel it was important that we didn’t start out by doing a bunch of underpaid work for the sake of building up our portfolio; instead, we stuck by our guns and charged full price, confident that our low overhead (yay, home offices!) would make the difference in bringing our proposals in at lower prices than the competition. So although we had a slow first year while we built up our business, the projects we were doing had decent budgets, which helped keep our morale up. We knew that we would be successful so long as we could get more projects at the same price the following year.
Who or what are your inspirations?
Our inspirations are many, and they are being documented on Soapboxgirls. We created Soapboxgirls to celebrate the amazing women we have encountered in our lives, and their personal journeys — from friends of ours, to writers and artists who have touched us, to business associates. Every month we work with a theme (e.g. Food, Giving, Sex, Fear, Family, etc.) and through interviews, articles from contributors, and reviews, we discuss the varied ways in which people pursue change and fulfillment in their lives.
If you want a list of our favorite work-related books and websites, though, check out our resources
Words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals.
The thing we find ourselves telling people a lot is: Don’t undersell yourself. We’ve found that a lot of people — women especially — who are starting their own businesses don’t create business plans that will pay them enough to live well. It’s true that you may spend a few months, or even a couple of years, building up the business and scraping by (and racking up your credit cards), but you’ll burn out pretty quickly if you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Plan to pay yourself what you’re worth; build in a health plan budget; try not to touch your tax money; and basically treat yourself like a valued employee. Also, be realistic about how many hours a week you can work, and stick to your guns. We work 40 hours a week, and that’s it — no weekends or evenings, unless absolutely necessary. And we take two to three weeks of vacation time every year. If you can separate yourself from the business a bit, you’ll be able to have some semblance of a life on the side, and that will keep you from being fried at the end of a couple of years.
This may sound like we’re money-obsessed, but we’ve found that when the basics are taken care of, and you’re not worrying about making next month’s rent, it’s a lot easier to feel free to be creative and engaged in the process of doing great work.
Also, treat your clients very, very well. All of our clients have been referrals — every last one — so we know the value of doing well by a client, because eventually, they will tell someone how great you were, and you’ll get another job because of it.