Aerial Ardour will be my second feature in my blog series of entrepreneurs that I admire. As I mentioned in a previous post, “I will be featuring entrepreneurs that I admire as a way to inspire my readers, my clients and anyone who wants to peek into the mind of someone whom I deem to be brilliant in his/her field. This is simultaneously my effort to practice what I preach as well as to (selfishly) inspire myself in the process.”
I admire Aireen of Aerial Ardour for so many reasons. I had the chance to work with her years ago for a startup in Chicago, and when she chose to begin her own entrepreneurial adventure I watched with awe as she dove in with fervor and incredible success. Aerial Ardour is about one year ahead of El-Be, so I’ve been lucky to learn a ton as I’ve worked to get my own business going. Aireen has inspired me from the day that I met her, which was roughly five years ago (holy crap, where did the years go!?). I love to have the chance to pick her punky, uber-intelligent brain. I hope that she can inspire others as she has me. (And you may want a drink after seeing her packaging and branding work on fantastically boozy brands.)
1.) What inspired you to start Aerial Ardour as a full-time gig? When did you start?
Aerial Ardour full time actually came about because the small agency I was at was closing. It was in the beginning of the economic decline, and every morning when we started, our creative director/company owner would announce how many more agencies were closing their doors or how many more friends and colleagues had been given pink slips.
Everyone else at the company had moved on to find more fruitful opportunities, and I was the last man standing. Realizing that I was dangling on a string, I reviewed my freelance opportunities and realized I had enough to go out on my own. I wasn’t sleeping because I was at the agency during the day, and then I would come home and work on freelance business at night. I realized that if the agency was closing anyway, I could focus my attention 100% on my freelance clients and turn them into repeat business. This wasn’t an easy decision, especially since I had just started paying one half of a mortgage that year. Thankfully, clients have been coming, and things are still moving along!
Because of this experience, I suggest anyone who’s on the fence about jumping to freelancing full time take on both a day job and as much freelance as you can possibly handle and then check to see if you’re in a good place financially to make that transition.
2.) What is a normal week like for you, if there is such a thing?
A normal week is pretty close to your regular 9-to-5, except some of those days are more like 8-to-8. What I learned immediately was that all the work my boss was taking care of at the agency, I was now doing for myself (e.g. quarterly taxes, payroll, new business). A normal day for me consists of checking email from bed and determining if any last-minute projects have come up. Then I’ll get in a workout, since the pumping blood helps get me alert. After getting ready for the day, I feed my brain and eat a good breakfast. I’ll then sit at my computer and check my personal and business Facebook pages and scan Twitter while enjoying a velvety homemade cappuccino. Once I’m ready to get crackin’ into work, I’ll turn up the music, and then start knocking out my Gotta Get Dones from the eternal To-Do List.
I find I’m most alert and creative in the morning (I never thought I’d be that morning person, but now I am!), so I get any sketching and ideating done during that time. I’ll then leave any revision work based on client feedback for the afternoon, since we’re most likely on a good roll with those projects.
And, of course, clients will occasionally call for a face-to-face meeting, so I have to be flexible about those too. My daily overall goal is to be ahead enough so that if a client makes a last-minute request, there’s padding in my schedule to make it happen for them, and they will remember me as dependable and trustworthy the next time they need something fast.
3.) What have you learned through the years?
I’ve learned to determine serious potential clients to less-than-serious potential clients. Everybody wants a designer to put something cool together for them, so it’s a good idea to read between the lines and determine if their budgets work with your bottom line.
I’ve learned to give estimates a little quicker since with experience, since I now have a good idea of how long it takes me a to do certain projects. Eight years ago, I would’ve been like, “How long does it take me to do a flyer? Umm…. 10 hours??”
I recently learned a barrage of tough lessons via a painful experience of losing a pitch:
- Don’t rest on the laurels of a recommendation. Always treat an opportunity like you’re a no name design nerd fresh out of school, and dammit, you ABSOLUTELY WANT that job.
- It’s YOUR job to sell yourself.
- Never lowball your prices.
So here’s what happened: Over the past few months, I’ve met diligently with a potential client, who got my name through another client. I’ve won business from this recommendation before, so I figured this one was in the bag (Mistake #1). I researched what I thought would be perfect for their product, and I even started sketching ideas. During one of our meetings, they asked me what I’ve done before. Despite the casual tone of their query, I knew that time right there was my opportunity to sell my skills and tell them why I was the perfect choice. But, I chose the understatement route and briefly rattled off a few projects (Mistake #2). Then when it came time to submit a proposal, I agonized over the cost. It was a big project, and in our meetings, the way they talked about their concerns for other parts of their start-up process revolved around cost. So it psyched me out, and I came up with the lowest price I could, in an effort to win their business. (Mistake #3).
Despite their push for last words from all their potential designers at the 11th hour of their decision-making, all of my mistakes worked against me, and I woke up to a heartbreaking email. I asked why they decided to go with someone else, and this statement has changed my professional life forever:
“I think you underbid yourself which added to my belief that maybe you were less experienced.”
This was devastating because I firmly and 110% believe that charging too little devalues your product and yourself. Also, at 7 years doing design professionally with some heavyweight clients, I certainly didn’t have a lack of experience. I feel I charge a competitive price and have been doing pretty well with my formula. However, I didn’t practice what I preached in this one instance (and with a client that would’ve catapulted my portfolio), and now I’m telling you about it. This tale is wrought with bad news, but it’s all good, because it has fired me up in a way that I haven’t been in a while, which brings me to my next cautionary statement:
- Polish up your website!
Seriously, DO IT! (If you don’t have one, then stop reading this and start designing one… or hire me to do it! ;D) After the contact told me that I had underbid myself, he then advised me to “develop your website or blog more and toot your horn a little louder.”
Man, nothing like a cold dish rag to the nads for a wake up call. I had made myself so busy with client work the past few years that I never really took the time to develop a truly custom and professional website for myself. (You know, like I do with *clients!*) Just to get it over with and get my work up, I’ve used ready-made themes that do the trick (still am), but never was it more apparent than that fateful day that I needed to get off my butt and REALLY focus on my own brand in order to get more clients I REALLY want to work with.
4.) What are the best and worst parts of running your own business?
The best part is the flexibility of my schedule. It’s more of an illusion, it seems, since I pretty much have a normal 9-to-5 day as I’ve mentioned before, but it’s always nice to know I can schedule a massage for myself if I really need a break. ;D
I also love being able to go after clients I really want to work with. There’s no creative director plopping a brief on my desk and telling me, “Hey, you have to come up with a sexy PowerPoint design for this corporate client who hates the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, white, and black. And you need to incorporate a kangaroo somewhere. Also, it’s due yesterday.”
The worst? Taxes. I have a great accountant, but it still scares the crap out of me!
Also, this isn’t the worst, but it’s a slight inconvenience: Because they know I mostly work from home, some friends or family assume I do nothing all day and think I can come out and shop whenever. I *do* have the ability to do that, yes, but I also have the ability to dropkick a puppy. My mom will still call me at 11:00am and ask, “Where are you? What are you doing?” God bless her.
5.) Have you used social media or other Internet marketing services for your business?
Absolutely! As a business, if you’re not on Facebook or Twitter, you don’t exist. I like to update fans and followers on exciting projects I’m working on via Facebook and Twitter. I have more of a company-wide “we” kind of tone on Facebook, and I have a more personal “me” kind of tone on Twitter.
It’s important to help people understand your brand by who you Like on Facebook and who you follow on Twitter. On Facebook, you can see that Aerial Ardour Likes El-Be Social Marketing, Computer Arts Magazine, Mashable, and The Onion to name a few great, reputable companies. On Twitter, you can see that Aerial Ardour follows someecards, Louis CK, Huffington Post, and Ad Age. By associating yourself with certain companies, people can start to get an idea of your brand values and personality.
As for everyday usage, I use Facebook for posting big company announcements and interesting, design-related or client-related articles. I use Twitter to connect with talented designers and marketers and people I admire in the celeb-sphere. I love comedy, so I follow a lot of comedians, since they have pressure of having their tweets to be funny 24/7. I also have Twitter up all day to get the latest news. I found out about the deaths of Steve Jobs and Kim Jong Il via Twitter. Anyone not on Twitter are getting their news 100 years too late as far as I’m concerned.
6.) Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs? Anything important that you wish you’d known sooner/are happy that you know now?
Absolutely! See Question 3.
Also, don’t burn bridges. Just be nice! Even if you’re not crazy about someone, just grin and bear it, and take the time to enjoy a drink and a short chat. You just never know who will remember you when a project comes their way, and you’ll be thankful you decided to be sweet.
Additionally, network like crazy. Again, you’ll never know who’ll remember you. And don’t reach out to someone just when you need them. You’ll just start to be seen as an annoying user. You need to possess a genuine desire to establish a relationship. For example, if you chatted with a contact who mentioned their passion for photography, and you come across an article featuring the latest in photography apps, send it their way. They’ll appreciate you thinking of them outside of fulfilling your own immediate needs.
Lastly, if someone takes the time to help you out, don’t skimp on a simple thank you. Someone once reached out to me with what seemed to be a genuine request for tips and advice to help them get started on their own business. I took an hour out of my day to put together a thought-out, comprehensive email with candid thoughts and experiences. Guess what? I didn’t get so much as even a quick thank you email from them, which would’ve been the very least they could do.
One week later, I checked in with them, and I got some half baked apology and lame-o excuse about how busy they were. I immediately perceived that person as not very serious about starting out their business, and worse, just a plain, rude individual. I’ll be happy to help them out once they demonstrate they actually have a passion for what they want to do, or at least show consideration for the time I took out of my day to share tips that took me a while to learn. And that will be the case with others you might ask for help from as well. People *do* want to help – they just need to know they’ll get a return on investment.
7.) What are all the places can we find Aerial Ardour online?
You can see my latest work and my blog at my website, aerialardour.com
You can also connect with me at the following sites:
My thanks to Laura for featuring me on El-Be’s site!