Starting your own design business sounds like an expensive and intimidating process. I managed to do it on the small expendable income from my former day job with a little elbow grease and a lot of patience. Over the course of a year I built it up to the point where I no longer need to rely on a day job to pay the bills, and in my first month of being independent full time, I'm making 90% of what I made a month working at the day job. That's significant considering that I decided to make the move on relatively short notice due to a situation beyond my control.
I launched this website (and by extension, the business) on July 21, 2013. At the time I was running a 13" MacBook Pro with a copy of Adobe Photoshop CS4. Yup, I was using 5-year-old software on a screen barely fit for design work. But that's what I had to work with, and unless I could drop a couple thousand dollars (which I could not) I would have to deal with it. So I did.
The extent of my startup costs were paying for a month of Squarespace and a registering a domain with an email account for a year. Rather than hiring someone to build my website, I wanted to do as much as possible for myself. I took the time to learn the more advanced features of Squarespace in order to really do what I wanted. It definitely wasn't everything I needed, but the other part of my strategy, spreading expenses out, has been solving that problem.
It wasn't long before I realized I just couldn't use Photoshop CS4 anymore. It just didn't play well with any version of OS X since Lion (which my machine shipped with), and it couldn't utilize all 4GB of RAM in my machine. A friend recommended I use Sketch, which is far better suited for the work I do. I put aside some money one week and purchased a copy.
After my first freelance design job I made back the money I had invested, and then some. Not because I made an impressive amount of money, but because I had invested less than $200 at that point. It was a victory to be sure, but I turned around and invested that money back into the business. I took some classes, extended my domain name registration, purchased some new tools and supplies, and bought a real desk so I wouldn't be working from my kitchen table anymore. I did take a little bit to have some fun with, but 90% of what I made went right back in.
Keep in mind, this whole time I'm working 30 hours a week at my day job. That really was the key to the business even surviving. Without that income I would be dead in the water. That's also where the patience came in. I had to work a job that wasn't at all what I wanted to do while I slowly invested to grow the business.
Here I am now, pulling in 90% of the income I was making while working the day job, which I think is impressive considering I found myself in circumstances outside my control. I wanted more time to build but I was faced with a situation I couldn't avoid: I was getting laid off. I could have succumbed to the misfortune, but I took the opportunity to utilize what I had built so far and got enough client work lined up to get me through the month of August.
I have a business that's making me money, even if it's not very much it's significantly better than nothing, and I'm still investing. All in all, I've probably invested about $600 over the past year. Things like working from home and using as much of what I already had as possible really helped keep that number low.
Photo by Graham Hall