When I launched my business, I thought I had a real leg up on getting to “the top” faster than the Average Jane.
Even though the loss of my day job came as a shock, I’d been devouring blogs, podcasts, and online programs by some of the most successful creative entrepreneurs for years—storing away in my brain every “5 Things I’d Wish I’d Known” and “If I Went Back and Did It Again” series for the day that I might, just maybe, also venture out on my own.
So when I was put at that crossroads of finding some other day job or opening my own creative business, I went for it—I launched Alexis The Greek. With full faith, I proceeded to do all the things I was supposed to, according to those blog posts and podcast episodes:
I built a website and picked my CRM;
I created an opt-in and I pushed new followers toward it on my Instagram profile;
I went to networking events and I printed out clarity worksheets to get in touch with who my ideal client was and how I wanted to feel every day in my work;
I even enrolled in a mentorship program and scrounged up my pennies to attend an expensive business school.
Every single measure contributed in some part to my ability to succeed, to hold on even during lean times, to say no to clients that weren’t the right fit, even when I needed the cash. But there are some things that no well-meaning, information-sharing, successful entrepreneur can teach. Those things I had to learn simply by Going Through.
The 3 Phases of Creative Business
In July, I entered my 4th year at Alexis The Greek. I also entered the third phase of my journey as a creative entrepreneur—what I believe is the phase we all sort-of start out striving for: The one where our days are largely structured by our own design, and the client roster is full, and we have the space and wherewithal to really dream about, and act toward, Bigger Possibilities.
The first two phases of my business were mostly about hustle. I didn’t have the time or money or peace of mind to stop and really think critically about where my business was or where I wanted it to grow to. Obviously I dreamed, but I didn’t actively think on a regular basis, “What are my goals for the next 3-6 months? How can I put in the effort for even 15 or 20 minutes today to get me closer to those goals?”—because there were too many client fires to put out, and bills that needed to be paid, and so on.
In fact, I’m not sure I fully knew that I had transitioned from Phase One to Phase Two when I was in it. It’s only now that I have a little breathing room that I have begun to reflect and I realize I now much more fully understand some of the things those before me explained about money mindset, and overwhelm, and scaling up.
As I’ve pondered this growth—even fully believing that all entrepreneurs must organically Go Through It—I have felt a compelling urgency to share what I think are the Three Phases of Growth for every creative entrepreneur. To share what they look like, how you know you’re in the phase you’re in, and conscious decisions to make in each phase in order to keep your head above water and get to the next place slightly less scathed.
So, for better or worse, here is how I categorize the three phases of business.
Phase One: The Make Money phase
What It Looks Like: You need money.
You declare you’re going to start a business; you pick a name and make the leap. And somewhere between the thrill-slash-excitement and the terror-slash-impostor syndrome, you realize: I need to ask people to pay me. It does not happen automatically.
In this phase, you have to accept work that does not light you up, because you have bills to pay. You post this work on your social channels to show that you are active, and it not only attracts more work that does not light you up, but it also messes up the aesthetic of your account.
You experience surges of business, followed by uncomfortably long waves of inquiries not turning into business, desperation, and serious worry that you’ll have to take a job working a drive-thru just to feed yourself.
Much of your business comes from referrals by friends and family—well-meaning people who do not fully understand what you do, or what you’re trying to build. The people they send your way either think they’re doing you a favor, or they expect the world for the price of a dime. You smile and do the work, anyway, because you do not want your gas shut off.
You wonder often if you’re a failure, or if every successful person you see had a secret celebrity connection or benefactor that helped them reach more people. Maybe you’re not as talented as you think you are.
How You Know You’re Still In Phase One: You lack confidence.
You might have to practice reciting what it is that you do in front of the mirror on your Voice Memo app—reminding yourself what you bring to the table and why you’re a better option than the next guy, even though it makes you feel like a jerk.
When a potential client never calls back, you think it’s because you gaffed your pitch; actually, you’re pretty certain you know the exact moment you flubbed up, and kick yourself repeatedly over it for days or even weeks.
The contracts you drew up (cough, by yourself) don’t cover every possible problem that could arise, which you find out when clients don’t understand that they’re supposed to get homework to you, or worse, that they owe another payment. You let the bad client behavior carry on too long because you think it’s your fault for screwing up the contract.
When your friends or family ask you how “the business” is going, you’re often embarrassed because you have nothing new to share. You might even try to make the last project they heard about sound like a new one, drawing on different details about the experience to have something, anything, to report.
What to Focus On In This Phase: Your initiation, your pricing, your contracts.
One of the things that kept me going in the Make Money Phase was knowing that others before me had also paid their dues. Not one person I looked up to told me that the first year or two years of their business had been easy—in fact, in their personal stories, they highlighted the adversity they had faced more often than their wins, because the adversity was where they learned the valuable lessons that got them to the next level. Whenever I felt down, I focused on their stories, and it gave me the strength to press on.
Mental game is the first 50% of success. The other 50% is action.
In the Make Money Phase, it is imperative to keep revisiting your pricing and your contracts. You should know when to increase your pricing to match not only the quality of work you are doing, but the quantity. As you get to know what people want, you will eliminate some of the work you thought you’d be doing, but you add on new work and skills, and you should be compensated for that.
Every time someone thinks they can get away with something, ask for something, or expect something because your contracts are unclear, you should update them for the next client, so that the mistake never happens again.
A great resource in this phase: Pricing Your Products and Services (video)
Phase Two: The Niche-Down phase
What It Looks Like: You start making big, sweeping changes—and turning down work that doesn’t light you up.
Fed up with how you’ve been treated in the past—and how often you’ve had to pay your bills late because your clients paid you late—you start to recognize “red flag” clients a mile away. This empowers you to say no to their inquiries, even when you’ve got plenty of room for new work, because you know it will spare you great pains in the long run.
You raise your prices—maybe substantially—for the first time ever. You know this will mean some of your existing clients can’t afford you anymore, but you do the math and realize with higher prices, you don’t need as many clients to make the same amount of money.
You determine that the website you launched with doesn’t match the business you’ve built, and you take the time to update it—maybe with a new template, or perhaps just one quality photo shoot. You eliminate pages that distract from your core mission, and move your favorite or most profitable offerings to more prominent places.
You finally invest in thorough contracts—if not with a direct lawyer, then by using a “lawyer-approved” template you bought online. You add in stipulations and clauses to protect yourself from oversights and bad experiences in the past.
How You Know You’re Still In Phase Two: You’re not as worried about money anymore, but you still never seem to have any time.
Where when you first launched, every lead felt like a promise but most of them didn’t pan out, you now know right from the get-go which leads will pan out and which ones won’t. When people approach you, they’re people who found you, on Google or social media—and they knew you were the One They Had Been Searching For. They come money in hand, and are maybe even a little afraid you will reject them.
You also get requests a few times a month to meet for coffee so another young, aspiring creative can pick your brain and ask you questions about how to build what you’ve built. As much as you can, you accept, because all press is good press; but really, there’s not always time, and appointments sometimes get cancelled or pushed off.
Confidence is no longer your issue. You don’t feel the need to attend every networking event. Your social posts have gotten more interesting because you’re not trying to convince anyone how great your latest offering is or why what you sell adds something of value to the human condition.
What preoccupies you most is how to get ahead enough that you can actually turn your “work brain” off at night and focus on spending time with loved ones. You might have settled on a routine of stopping in time for dinner and watching Netflix with your partner, but a part of you is still at your desk or in your studio, wishing you’d gotten one more thing crossed off your list.
What to Focus On In the Niche-Down Phase: Not getting stuck in the Niche-Down Phase.
By my observation, many creative professionals stop growing after the niche-down phase. They’re clear on what they want to create and whom they most enjoy working with; they target themselves at that community and make enough to get by, perhaps even more than they’d make at a day job. And for those who find this phase satisfying, that’s fine.
However, many of them experience the pains of being in this phase acutely and do little to alleviate them. For instance, they don’t feel they have enough hours in the day, and by telling themselves this over and over, they adopt the belief that they can’t set aside time to think about what would give them more time in their business and life.
There’s a business principle that says, “Spend 50% of your time working in your business and 50% of your time working on it.” The people who get stuck in Phase Two are the ones who spend 100% of their time working in their business.
Working on your business means reserving large portions of your week or month to asking, “How can I do this better?”
A great resource in this phase: 26 Things I Wish I’d Known When I First Started (video series)
Phase Three: The Scale Up phase
What It Looks Like: What you thought your business would look like when you first launched.
Creatives today who go into business for themselves do so because a stranger on social media empowered them to do so: “If I can do it, you can, too.” This empowerment might come through a free webinar, or pricey online program, or New York Times best-selling book, too—but it came from a stranger.
And when these creatives receive this empowerment, they receive it from someone who is in the Third Phase of creative entrepreneurship—that’s the shiny phase that the creative who hasn’t even entered Phase One yet gets to see, and it’s what they begin to dream about.
Which is fair. No ambitious creative starts out dreaming about having to work with boring or bossy clients, or having to revise their contracts over and over, or being so busy thinking about work that they have to re-read that paragraph over and over just to compute what it says.
However, when they launch an online program in the first year and no one signs up, or they create an opt-in and only 10 people give up their email for it, or they run a Facebook ad with a cost-per-lead of $11.36, they wonder if they were bamboozled, if it’s too late for them, if this is going to be much harder than they thought.
And the answer is: No, you weren’t bamboozled. No, it’s not too late for you. And yes, it’s going to be much harder than you thought, because you wanted the happily-ever-after but you can’t have it without the first two acts in the story.
How You Know You’re In Phase Three: One day, you wake up, and you have both money and time.
More accurately, one day you wake up and realize that if you get really smart about the next 200 hours or so, you can wrap up every project you have going on right now at the exact same time and actually catch a breath.
And when you catch your breath, it dawns on you that this moment is what you were always working toward—the day or week of peace when no one would be calling you to ask you to come in for a shift, no client would be riding you about getting something done faster; just a moment when, for once, everything could be still.
Furthermore, you realize there could be more moments like this, now that your business hums along like a machine (one with a few quirks, most likely, but still). And you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you want as many moments like these as possible.
So you look at what you can do to streamline your business model and reach more people—both in order to help them, and to make more money so you have more time for moments of peace. Your brain sees money in a whole new light—amounts that years ago seemed like a veritable fortune now sound like the kind of income you want to make every month so that your business doesn’t need your attention every damn second of the day.
This is why creatives start coaching and mentorship programs, online courses and VIP-upgrades to virtual communities—because the more people they can serve at once with what they’ve already built, the more peaceful and spacious their lives will be.
What to Focus On In the Scale Up Phase: Developing passive revenue streams.
When you know your audience really well, you know how to reformat your offerings to serve them in more personalized ways—even on a mass scale. For instance, there are many people who have the same dreams and worldviews and values who do not share the same financial bandwidth. By creating a DIY-kit or teaching guide, you might be able to serve more people who wish they could work with you, but at a lower price-point.
Similarly, once you’ve had about 50 coffee dates with young dreamers who look at your career with stars in their eyes, you know the 10-12 questions they all want to ask—and how you answer them every single time. That’s a great foundation to build a paid video series or online course. You already know what information people want. Capitalize on that.
Quick note about passive revenue building: Passive revenue is a lot of work up front that can pay dividends later, if executed well, positioned correctly, and promoted with expert help. That’s why it’s best created once you’ve been established for a while, and you know how to create the time to make it happen. When done too early, it can actually be the drain on the company that means you go out of business. But once you are in that space, the sky becomes the limit, and it really can change the face of your business, and life.
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Hello! My name is Alexis.
Coffee lover, day dreamer, foodie, and creative. Currently working and living in New Hampshire, I’m an eclectic mix of forward-looking and completely old-fashioned.