Ask an Anchor: Establishing Client Systems (or Boundaries)

Hi Anchors,

I’m in my first year of business in graphic design, and this summer was insane! I’m a slave to my clients and I don’t know how not to be. They text me and expect responses ASAP and have no problem adding things to the scope of the project. I have a few really big projects, so I feel like I need to keep them happy at all costs (to me.) 

Some context: Things started off really slowly for me, and looking back, I realize I didn’t do enough to set up systems. Well, really, I didn’t set up any policies because I thought I had things under control when I only had one or two clients. 

How do I set up systems when I’m in the middle of a ton of client work? I depend on my clients to pay my rent, so I have a very hard time doing anything that would make them end our project or not work with me in the future. But, I also know I can’t keep up with the way I’m working. I feel like I burned out months ago. How do you pace yourself while providing excellent client services?

I can’t tell if I’m attracting very needy clients or if I’m letting clients take advantage of my generous nature.

Thank you!

Send Systems ASAP


Send Systems,

I would like to congratulate you, first and foremost. You are in one of my favorite growth phases. It may not seem like it, but you actually hold the power here. Take a deep breath and STOP working. I’m going to come at you with some practical advice, then dive into the big picture theory of it all. 

You MUST get clear about the timeline for your project. Take an afternoon, day, or two days to map out each of your projects. It may seem counterintuitive since you’re feeling extremely busy, but this is the only way to see the big picture. 

What you’re trying to find is each project’s current status, what’s expected of you to complete the project, and how each might overlap. I suggest a spreadsheet: set the headers as your days or weeks and make the first column the list of your clients. When you’re done, and you’ve figured out the next steps, send a kind email explaining to each of your clients what your plan is. Make it clear that you’re doing your best to make them happy, you have a plan, and you are not taking on extra aspects of their project. You CAN do this, and they will appreciate the transparency and boundaries.  

Onward! 

Scope Creep

If you’re not being clear with your clients about what you can and can’t do (in regard to both timing and deliverables), this problem is being created by you. So, are your clients adding more work without a plan to pay you? I can’t tell from your question, but this podcast episode changed my life. There are also articles linked in the show notes that will help you manage scope creep. Read those and build your bravery muscles. You should get paid for every part of your work. 

So, by systems, do you mean boundaries? 

There might be nothing you can do at this point with your current clients, but you can absolutely learn from your “mistakes.” I put mistakes in quotes because how else would you have known what you needed before you actually went through with the work? Making a mistake has a negative connotation, so I’d like you to see it as an opportunity to make your life better. Every business owner does this. 

Control 

I’m not sure where it was taught (I have a feeling in art schools across the country… yikes) that the client dictates the project's trajectory, but it seems to be a theme among graphic designers in particular. 

You are allowed to dictate the schedule, you are the expert that plans the needs you have for your clients, and you dictate the payment terms. These are important parts of being in control when there is, in fact, very little control you have over your life when you’re working for yourself. Counterintuitive, I know! 

What people are looking for in a graphic designer (or creatives):

  • Expertise (they want you to SOLVE their problem, not make it worse). They need an expert who knows how to create assets that will strengthen their business and brand 

  • Delivering assets on time  

  • Open & clear communication (especially if there is a delay)

  • Fast (enough) turnaround 

What you are truly in charge of is communicating your needs to your client before the project begins. You cannot move forward until your client agrees to your terms. If they don’t like it, either they will negotiate (this is good!), or they’ll leave (also good! You’ve dodged a bullet. Trust me.) 

The top boundaries to make you a happy designer:

  1. timelines for client feedback 

  2. payment terms  

  3. communication tools, hours, expectations 

Overall, a system is really about how you work. Step away from the stressful day-to-day to figure out what hurts most in your business. What’s taking too much time? Is there a template or a technology that can help? 

Don’t forget that your job is to get better at your job. It’s worth dedicating time, energy, and money to know (confidently) that you’re doing your best. 

Warmly,

Sarah


Ask an Anchor: PART 2 - Collaboration without depletion with Claire Seizovic

This week Sarah called one of her longtime collaborators, Claire Seizovic, to talk about the ups and downs of working with others. Previously, Claire was a participant in the Anchor & Orbit Business Foundations Program, and Claire worked with Sarah to design the branding for Cash Flow Cleanse. In addition to their work, Claire co-founded Cultivate Tucson and regularly connects her design and experience clients with other service providers to bring big projects to life. Read Part 1 here.

In this conversation, Sarah and Claire discuss... 

Investigating your desires and boundaries before diving into collaboration

  • There’s a lot of value in looking ahead and making sure your values align with whoever you plan to collaborate with before you commit. But the first thing to consider is what are your boundaries/values when you’re looking to start a new project. 

  • Consider whether you’re actually looking for a collaborative project/new business, or if you simply need a new creative outlet. Claire has played in orchestras and chamber music settings and enjoys having that as an avenue for creativity in her life. Creativity doesn’t have to be connected to your work to be valuable.

  • It’s essential to be clear about how much time and energy you have because collaborations are often a lot of work -- even the good ones. In fact, Claire said that in her experience, there’s no way to put in less and get more. Especially at the beginning. “Maybe there’s a miracle way to collaborate where you don’t get depleted,” Claire said. “But I’ve found that I usually put in a lot of energy in the beginning to align myself, my collaborators, and our values, and then the payoff comes out later if it’s done well.” 

Going through potential scenarios with collaborators

  • Something Claire said she learned from past collaborations is that you should actually go through X, Y,  and Z scenarios to make sure you’re aligned with your collaborator/team. Claire: “You want to make sure that you have the same gut reaction for how you’d handle situations.” Talk with your collaborators about: What do we do if the project is wildly successful? Are we OK if it stays small? What if the project totally fails? Going through these ‘what ifs’ helps you make sure you’re aligned on multiple points along the path… as Claire said, “You don’t want to get to a fork in the road and have one person ‘guns ablaze’ and another person saying ‘i just want this to be a side thing.’”

Planning ahead, but not so far ahead you get stuck

  • Sarah brought up that people often get stuck in the contract phase, and that can be an unnecessary hold-up. Sarah: “A lot of communication about boundaries and intentions through email can be really successful.” So, if you’re thinking you need to hire a lawyer...maybe not. If you’re running through specific scenarios and laying out boundaries via email, that clarifies what everyone is agreeing to and builds a paper trail in case you need it in the future.

  • In addition, Claire mentioned, the beginning of a project may not be the time to invest in something so iron-clad if you don’t even know if you’ll make a profit. 

  • Remember: Don’t get so far ahead of yourself that you end up running in circles.

Building your own safe space for exploration

  • As service providers, you don’t always get to try the things you want to do within a client project. So, an extra project outside of work can be a safe testing ground for skills you want to develop or theories you want to test.

  • Additionally, the skills you develop within a side project or collaboration can shift your business. After spending time examining Claire’s business goals while a participant in the A&O program, Claire and Sarah had an epiphany -- some of the things Claire was doing as a collaborator she could start to offer as client services. Since then, Claire’s work has grown to include more and more experience design and bringing people together to complete a project in addition to the graphic design she was already comfortable with.

  • Claire: “Collaboration can definitely lead to a shift in what you already have going on, and enlighten you about skills you have that aren’t being used in client work.”

Collaboration is what you (and your partner) make it

  • Claire: “I believe that when we join forces, it ends up leading to a more beneficial result, both for the collaborators and for the people impacted by the business.”

  • Collaboration can be a way to shake yourself, hone a skill, grow relationships and more (it’s not entirely predictable)

  • Claire: “You can make a plan, but there are a lot of things that stemmed from past collabs that I really couldn’t predict because we started out just solving a problem in the community. It’s important to identify what you’re looking for and talk to other people about other ways you can fulfill that want that maybe you don't even know.”

  • If it sounds exciting to you, go for it! And don’t feel like you have to plan every single thing out. Leaping ahead is good, too.

  • Both mentioned the added benefit of accountability within a collaboration. Claire: “You get forced, in a good way, to do things out of your comfort zone. And you have other people to help push you along and build on success.”

  • And, since collaboration is a group effort, things can shift within a project as you all move forward as you see fit.


Ask an Anchor: Collaboration without depletion

Dear Anchors,

For the past few years, I’ve built my service business, and now it’s getting to a point where it feels normal and under control and giving me what I need to thrive personally. Alternatively, I’m also feeling isolated and teetering on the edge of burnout. I want a creative outlet that still supports my business and lets me get to know others.

But I get stuck. I have a feeling that collaboration might help me, but I get nervous because I’ve heard some horror stories. I’m nervous about everything from whether or not the project will “take off” to the logistics of how split the profits if it turns into something that actually makes money.

I want a creative outlet that still supports my business and lets me get to know others.

I’m a few steps ahead here, but that’s the problem! I think I’m trying to work through some of the potential kinks, so it really is a project that gives more than it takes from me. The online small business community has given me a lot, and I want to give back generously. Overall, I don’t want to get in over my head, I’m craving something fun and hope that collaboration will serve me. . . not deplete me.

Can you give some ground rules you’ve used for collaboration? Or advice about how to go about it thoughtfully?

Thanks in advance,

Collaboration Procrastination


CP -- 

There’s a lot to cover here! I’m going to explore your desire, give some tools to help you assess what you need and, as always, try to help you see the big picture. 

I have friends who formed a band with a very special rule: members had to play a completely new instrument. Each of them had been in bands before, and all had their own version of musical success. They decided together that the project was about providing a safe space to learn and explore -- not perfection. Each collaborator took the responsibility of practicing on their own, but if the budding guitar player was struggling, the experienced one would jump in and help out. I think they even taught lessons outside of band practice. It was a slow process, and they didn’t play a single show because it wasn’t about fame or external acclaim. They had fun, formed deeper bonds (vulnerability will do that), and achieved their goal as a group and individuals. 

I bring up this example as an introduction because the following is going to be about exploring what you are really looking for when it comes to your next collaboration. I believe you when you say you want something creative, connected, and new. I hear your mention of burnout. I also believe in projects that simply exist without the pressure of “success.” 

How to Start

Let’s also talk about burnout and how you’re having trouble starting this new project. I’d say that you are suffering from what I like to call Post-Traumatic Business Founder Syndrome. What’s that? Well, when we fall into our first business, we are fearless! The bad could never be that bad, right?? Even if your venture grows according to plan, us founders are left with emotional whiplash. The good parts of your success are easy to measure (numbers of clients, income, press), but the harder pieces (late nights, hard clients, scary financial situations) are types of trauma that stay in our bones. This is good because it helps inform your “intuition” about what you don’t want to do. Knowing how much work goes into a new project can also keep you from moving forward (why you emailed your question). 

With all the knowledge you have gained by running your business, you are and will inevitably be forever changed by that hard work. Congratulations, and welcome to the very exclusive club. You now truly know the weight of starting new. 

Working together with others definitely helps with isolation, but I'm not sure if it'll help with burnout. Do you have enough time in your schedule to take on this extra work? Or would you be better off consciously and actively taking time away from your work? For me, as I try to heal my own version of burnout, I get the urge to put MORE on my plate. It’s craziness, but it’s a whisper in my ear that I couldn’t possibly be doing enough, that I’m a failure if I stop moving and ride the wave. What I have figured out in those moments is that I need to sit still, read books, journal, dance to some music, and FEEL my feelings that have been ignored as I pushed to make my business a priority. I have started to recognize the productivity monster as a version of fear and anxiety. I ask it (the productivity monster) a lot of questions and take time to figure out what I truly need, which is usually doing less, not more. 

I ask the productivity monster a lot of questions and take time to figure out what I truly need, which is usually doing less, not more. 

The above is not a new idea, and there is research out there about burnout. The following is also informed by my deep interest and the many different platforms that explore human connection (each of those links is pure gold). My understanding is that burnout, disconnection, and depression manifests when you ignore how you really feel and what you truly need. Those feelings will inevitably come to the surface through exhaustion, sadness, and even some physical symptoms like hormonal imbalances. 

That all being said, let’s dive into the potential of collaboration as a solution and give you some tools to prepare yourself for this type of work. 

Collaboration Alignment 

You are right - collaboration can be great and tricky! You're more experienced now, and hopefully, know more about how you work and would like to work with others. A good analogy is that of first partners or even your first roommates. You go into those types of intimate relationships with rose-colored glasses, but what you're really getting is an opportunity to learn what you want from future partnerships and living situations.

You want it to last forever, but the true value is what you're learning about what you need from people and how to navigate their needs along with yours. Since you’ve fine-tuned your skills over time, have some faith that you can set good boundaries for yourself and your collaborators. I trust you can do this. 

Self Analysis

We can get swept up in other people’s ideas, so it’s nice to take a moment to explore your own boundaries (the key to happiness, IMHO). So, do you want a creative outlet, or do you want an extension of your business? Either is ok (and can be healing when working with others), but deciding which you'd like is an important first step. If you’re struggling to answer the questions below, a starting point is to outline what you *don’t* want first. Then shift to the positive potential. 

Are you trying to …  

  • … expand your market under a different brand?

  • … learn something new?

  • … help others increase their reach?

  • … simply try a new way of working? 

  • … “trade” skills with your collaborators?

What are the potential outcomes of your project …

  • … that work for you?

  • … that do not work for you?  

Once you've figured out what you'd like to get from this project, then move on to how to find the right collaborators.

  • Do you want to learn something from them? 

  • Do you want to support and be supportive of each other's creative endeavors? Collaboration takes two (or more)

As with any relationship, coming to the table with your needs and your partner doing the same is powerful. It’s the first opportunity to align or realize you’re on a different path. Explore the questions with your potential collaborator. I suggest you both answer the questions separately and come to the table with ideas about how this new endeavor could look. 

Giving Back  

I love the direction you're taking with wanting to give back to your community. When you're working on a "job description" or a thesis for this work, I hope you find someone who has a similar goal.

As you start to really dig into what you and your collaborators are going for, write the job descriptions and the business plans for yourselves. Leave no stone unturned. It is worth moving slowly to align completely. 

Leave no stone unturned. It is worth moving slowly to align completely. 

I've done both "collaboration" as well as simply paying people who have complementary skill sets to help my project along. If you have a specific vision that you want to move forward with, and that will take just a few hours from a fellow creative or specialist, paying them is a straightforward way to give back. It’ll bring your vision to life quickly, and you’ll genuinely support your fellow business owners. Both versions of giving back are good and fulfilling. 

Stop Working and CONNECT 

A note about doing something fun, too. Does it have to be about work? Can it be something completely different and serve you all the same?

I linked to a podcast above that interviewed Jenny Odell. She wrote a beautiful book called How to Do Nothing. Read that. Consider your motives. 

Start by joining a real-life networking group, creating one yourself, or better yet, doubling down on the relationships you have already established. Those new conversations don’t even need to be about business. Some of my favorite business owner meetups encourage conversations about anything BUT business. Explore explore explore - then collaborate. 

I hope you find the connection you are seeking, and I can’t wait to see what comes of it. 

Sarah


Ask an Anchor: PART 2 - WTF is Marketing?

Today, Sarah invited her friend Tricia Mogensen to bring her social media expertise to the newsletter to answer Marketing Overwhelm's question. Sarah and Tricia got together to talk their answers in more detail. We hope you enjoy it!

In this conversation, we talk about:

Staying in your zone of genius

  • Tricia’s example is that her zone of genius is being able to see the big-picture vision, and for a long time, she did everything to make that vision a reality. She got to the point where she was making enough money but had no time. She decided only to do things that made her excited to go to work and hired out the rest.

  • Sarah agreed and added that delegating isn’t just restricted to business tasks -- you could hire a housekeeper! The time you would spend vacuuming could go toward clients or something else, like going for a walk outside.

  • Remember: Most people who start a business are generally better at starting their business than following through. It's hard to be the big-picture CEO and be the implementer. In the early stages of business, you may have to be both, but don’t beat yourself up if you get to a breaking point and need help. It’s more than ok to focus on doing the things that you feel best doing in your business. You don’t need to do it all forever.

Internal systems are the best marketing

  • If you get clients coming in, but you can't deliver on your product or service because you don't have reliable systems in place, the clients won't stay

  • Start with making sure your clients/customers are really happy by following through on your promises

Marketing shouldn’t make you hate life

  • If you’re scrambling to come up with ideas and implement every day, marketing feels exhausting

  • Tricia says that if you’re following a roadmap that you put together ahead of time, it should be pretty easy to implement (either yourself or with an assistant)

Tricia’s advice for building a marketing strategy: 

  • Start with a great product/service and customer service. 

  • Once you’re good internally and want more customers, build the marketing roadmap.  

  • Don’t get overwhelmed by thinking you have to talk to everyone on every platform. Each platform is different and has different qualities. If you want people to come to your website? Pinterest. If you want to build and engage with your audience? Instagram (Tricia says to use Planoly or Later). If you want to produce and share video? Facebook. 

  • Ask yourself: What is the goal? And who do I want to talk to? Once those answers are clear, look at the platforms you want to use and reverse engineer the goal on each platform.

Tricia’s rules for marketing and business

  • Be consistent and know your ideal customer. (If your ideal customer is ‘everyone,’ you’re off base. Try again.)

  • Once you know your ideal customer, set the tone through copy and photos -- you will attract the type of people who like the images/words you use 

Thank you for joining us, Tricia! Visit her website and Instagram to say “Hi!” and follow her work. And give our conversation a listen for even more insights on marketing, social media, and running your business.

Dear Anchor & Orbit,

I’m having a lot of trouble with marketing. Everything expected of me as a person, along with the platforms and ever-changing algorithm, leaves me exhausted. It feels competitive and like a beauty contest without a lot of depth. What others are doing (selling themselves to sell a product) is out of my comfort zone. And, the stakes seem so high - “sink or swim” paralyzes me. 

The fear is that if I’m not engaging with my “community” all the time, or not looking absolutely perfect, nothing I do will ever be enough. Some people seem so comfortable in their skin when they’re talking to a camera, and I can’t imagine ever getting to that point. 

Alternately, I get tired and frustrated when I step into that zone, but my efforts don’t move the needle. Then I stop engaging with it altogether. That triggers a cycle of feeling like a failure daily and trying to “psych myself up” to get back in the game.

My products sell reasonably well online, and even better when I engage with real people (selling my products in-person is fun and easy!) In that moment, in real life, I have the chance to tell my story directly to my customers and see that the value of my product is immediately understood. I can’t seem to replicate that feeling online. 

Any advice or guidance would be appreciated. 

-Marketing Overwhelm


Dear Marketing Overwhelm,

First off, thanks for this amazing question. I come across many business owners who feel this way. SO you’re not alone. The good news is there are easy ways to get these feelings organized and streamlined, so you don’t feel this way about marketing your fantastic business!

Hi, tricia!

Hi, tricia!

When reading your question, one big idea jumped out at me -- I think you might be overwhelmed and overworked and that’s negatively impacting your mindset towards marketing on Instagram. You’re doing ALL the things for your business, and that’s a lot to handle. It might be time to delegate.

The overwhelmed marketer is an unhappy marketer

Since you’re doing all the things, it’s hard to shift your mindset around marketing. Mental and creative blocks caused by having to manage everything in your business can strike a heavy blow to your marketing. Having some extra breathing room will allow you to look at things clearly and objectively. Feeling like you hate Instagram probably comes from not having enough time to understand it fully and use it to your advantage. So how do you get more time and bust through those blocks?  

I always tell my clients: “Stay in your zone of genius.” To run a business effectively, you’ll need to learn how to delegate what you're not enjoying OR what you’re not good at! If marketing is something you don’t enjoy, then the best option is to find a way to bring someone onto your team who understands your brand. If you’re a solopreneur and you are your brand (i.e., your face is part of what you’re selling) then you can hire a creative to create content for you in a way that includes you in the digital files without you having to do it all alone.

Other things to consider delegating:

  • Copywriting

  • Photography

  • Video

  • Scheduling your social media posts

  • Outreach and engagement

Building a team so you can stay in your genius zone

When you can effectively delegate and outsource areas of your business that are draining you, it allows your mindset towards marketing to SHIFT! Because if you’ve chosen the right people to work with, they should inspire you and help you to see your business and marketing through fresh eyes. Whether you hire someone to do the marketing or something else so you can spend more time on marketing yourself, delegating is a game-changer.

So you may be asking yourself, “How do I find people I can trust with my brand who understand my vision?” The best place to look is on social media. Doing a little digging in a hashtag can easily give you 100s of candidates within minutes. If you’re looking for a virtual assistant, try searching with the hashtag #virtualassistant. Or if you’re looking for a social media manager, try #socialmediamanager. Start scanning the ‘gram to see if anyone looks like a good fit.

And if you want someone local, try asking some businesses in your town for referrals! Or even better post something on your social media to let people know that you’re hiring...you probably have loyal fans that love your brand and can fill your gaps.

My advice for you is to start with at least one area you want to outsource so you can build momentum with your marketing. Photography and social media management is a significant first step.

---

I hope this helps and I can’t wait to see how much you grow within the next few months!

Tricia

Social Media Consultant 

TriciaMogensen.com

@Tricia_Mogensen