#7: Back to the Future: Lessons for New Business Owners

Episode Summary

This Design Imposter podcast episode discusses lessons the hosts wish they had known when starting their design careers and businesses.

They emphasize surrounding yourself with supportive people, embracing imposter syndrome to fuel growth, being aware of business tasks beyond design, outsourcing work you dislike, and continuously learning through formal education and informal self-study.

Key takeaways include ignoring naysayers, offloading bookkeeping and other tasks early, attending conferences to network, and focusing on your niche.

The hosts share stories and advice drawing from their personal experiences of launching agencies and overcoming self-doubt.

Action Items

  • Research supportive mentors or business groups to join for encouragement and advice.
  • Make a list of business tasks and sort them into: only I can do, someone else can do, and I hate doing, to identify areas to outsource.
  • Look into upcoming design or industry conferences to attend, budgeting time and money to network and make connections.
  • Check Continuing Education programs at local colleges or universities for professional development courses in business, marketing, or communications to strengthen weak areas.
  • Set aside 15 minutes each morning to read industry newsletters, publications, blogs, and podcasts to stay updated on trends and best practices.


Monique Jenkins: Welcome, imposters, to another episode of the Design Imposter, where we strip away the facade and get real about the world of design, creativity, and business. I’m Monique, and today we’re diving deep into lessons we wish we learned when we first embarked on our design careers and entrepreneurial journeys. Let’s start with this question. What’s one thing you wish you knew when you first started your design career? 

Jessica Valis: This is a “wish I’d known” and a “wish I’d done”. And that is to surround yourself with people who support you. And I know this probably feels, I don’t know, a little obvious, but I had, and I still have people in my life who are so focused on the corporate money-making aspect of just having a job rather than what I enjoy doing for work. That when times get tough, the answer for them is always, “”well, maybe you should start looking back to corporate. my advice is to ignore the naysayers and just take the leap because I waited about four years to make that leap. Maybe it was my own self-doubt coupled with the disapproval of others that kept me from launching my business sooner. But now that I’m my own boss, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my career, my husband has never once questioned it, asked me to go back to work for somebody else, and I don’t think I could at this point. Just having the flexibility and everything is something I could never give up. what about you? What would you say? 

Monique Jenkins: So I want to double down on something that you said. I think that people are very easy. It is seemed in my career. People are very easy and very willing to tell you to go back to a corporate job because it is easy to work at a place for 20 years, have no advancement, kind of just go with the flow in order to earn a steady paycheck and they’re okay with that lifestyle. And I think I’ve worked at a multitude of companies where I was like, “oh, so you’ve been here for 30 years or whatever the case is and you are completely content. You’ve probably never gotten a raise. You’re not interested in a promotion. You’re just kind of okay with staying in the same place.” 

Monique Jenkins: And I think that that’s fine for some people. That’s just not what I would want for myself or what I would want for the people around me. And having your own business does truly give you the flexibility that you need. But to answer your question, if I had to choose one thing, I would say embrace the imposter syndrome rather than fearing it. I feel like it’s super normal at the beginning to have imposter syndrome, but that feeling can help you to fuel growth and learning. 

Monique Jenkins: So when I first started, I think I paused in that fear for a little bit too long. The idea that everything should be perfect made me feel like the journey wasn’t about learning. The journey was more about the destination than getting there. all of the things that I didn’t know made me feel like I was never gonna know it and it made me feel like I wasn’t any good. So I overcompensated with education. 

Monique Jenkins: I remember applying to the University of Baltimore’s PhD program and how I had really mixed feelings about what I wanted to do because I felt it would make people take me a little bit more seriously. And I ended up, long story short, not going to University of Baltimore. And when the recruiter asked me why, I got super transparent in an email, which is something that I had not done at that point. But in 2020, for some reason, I was like, I’m just gonna be brutally honest with people. I don’t care how they take it. I’m just gonna let it be what it is.

Monique Jenkins: So I wrote her email and I said, “In all honesty, as a black woman, I have used my education as validation that my opinion belongs in the room and it validates that I’m worthy for people to listen to me. I’m trying to redevelop how I see myself and try to allow myself space to accept that my opinion is valid without a degree and that my voice should be important because it’s different from other people’s in the room.” And I’ve been thinking about that in relation to my own imposter syndrome and how it affects how I’m gonna move forward in my education and outside of that. And ever since then, I just started to challenge myself to get out of my own head. And that’s kind of what led me into space with my own business. 

Jessica Valis: Yeah, I think in terms of things we wish we knew when we started our business, I wish we knew not to question our own judgment or to doubt ourselves. that’s the very first hurdle that you need to get over in order to start your business. It’s just to take the lead. 

Monique Jenkins: Yeah, agreed. 

Jessica Valis: Were there any surprises you encountered when you were first starting your own design agency? 

Monique Jenkins: I think the business side of things, I wish I’d known that it’s not just about the design skills. Being a business owner is about wearing a bunch of different hats. So from marketing to client management to finances, running a design business involves a lot more than just creating beautiful visuals. And when I first started, it was very much all about design. But then you have to switch your hat to be a programmer and a year, your accountant, and your collections if people are paying you on time and developer and designer and marketer and CEO, your social media guru and all these things in between. Having that balance is really hard, especially when you might not truly love running the business and you just want to focus on the design aspects. But that’s not true when you own your own business. What about you? 

Jessica Valis: What you said is definitely one of them, but I have two things. The surprises that I encountered aren’t so much surprises as they are kind of like scammy things. And it’s to be aware of all the new offers that you get as a business owner. 

Jessica Valis: So I’m specifically looking at Yelp because when I first started my business, I was like, okay, I’m going to get my Google listing. I’m going to get my Yahoo listing. I’m going to get my Yelp listing. And you sign up for Yelp. They have somebody call you and they’re like, oh, you know, thank you so much for joining. Uh, we’re going to get you a $500 paper click credit when you, you, since you signed up. And you’re like, okay, what does that mean? Like, well, you basically have $500 to advertise your business. And every time somebody clicks on your business, you know, that just, you’re pretty much paying for a lead. And I was like, okay, how many times is somebody going to click on mine? So like a week goes by and little did I know that the $500 credit would expire in like one day. And I was brand new business. I didn’t even have a client yet. And I’m stuck with a $500, an additional $500 bill because more people clicked. Wow. And I didn’t, and I called them. I was like, I don’t even have a lead yet. So you’re selling me a thousand dollars later that, you know, so be aware of the scams and all the offers for new business owners because you might think they want to help you, but they’re not. They’re just looking to make easy money. 

Monique Jenkins: Yeah, I would say the amount of like emails and messages that you get where people advertising like SEO services or marketing services. I even have people come to me asking if I need design help, like design services, like, oh, we can redo your website for you. I’m like, you don’t even know anything about me because if you did, you would know that I am a design agency. Design assistance is probably, I don’t need you to make my website. I made the website. I don’t need you to do that for me. All of those services out here are just insane. So just be wary. 

Jessica Valis: Yeah, and this leads me kind of to my second thing. Obviously, you’re getting these emails about marketing, about SEO, about do you need an executive assistant? And you do need those things. You should offload the things you don’t like to do earlier on because you cannot wear so many hats. And it’s not just for design. It’s for any business that you start. 

Jessica Valis: When you start, you need to get your EIN number and then you’ve got to get your bank account and then you got to hire yourself a bookkeeper and an accountant. And then you just have to go through all these steps and you have to figure out very early on what is your strength, what is your weakness. And if you don’t even want to file for the EIN with the government or you don’t even want to open the bank account, you can get somebody else to do that for you. So figure out early on what you can and can’t do and then hire somebody that you trust to do this. Don’t just go with the first email marketing scheme that comes your way. 

Jessica Valis: But it does take a lot of stress off of you when you’re not trying to manage every single role in your company because it is more than just design. It’s payroll. It’s the bookkeeping. A lot of it is financial. I mean, let’s be real. A lot of it is financial and it gets really messy if you are trying to manage a team, work with clients, market and everything else. The first thing is to absolutely go find yourself a bookkeeper and an accountant. You do not want to be stuck in the mud with that stuff when you’re working towards due dates, prospecting and intact season? 

Monique Jenkins: Yeah. I will say don’t allow yourself to get stuck in the idea that you have to have all of those things sorted out. Because that was the thing that held me up in my business at first is like, I’m a very regimented person in some respects. I’m like, “I want to do everything right. I need to get the LLC. And then I need to have business insurance. And then I need to make sure I find an account in and I need to make sure I have that EIN. And I need to do dada, dada, dada, dada.”

Monique Jenkins: And I think that me having all of that figured out at first, because there isn’t a manual for how you do all of those things made me hesitate. I’m like, “oh my God, I’m going to get sued.” I’m like, “You’re not going to get sued. You don’t even have a client.” Like we don’t need to be worried about your freaking business. Like, McDonald’s reading about the fact that McDonald’s got sued for a bunch of money for spilled coffee or hot chicken.  I was like, “Oh my God, someone’s going to sue me and they’re going to take my house and I need to make sure my assets are separate. And dada, dada, dada.” I’m like, “You don’t even have a client. You don’t need to be worried about that. You just need to be worried about how to get your first client.” 

Monique Jenkins: So yeah, I 100% believe offload the things that you cannot handle or that you don’t enjoy at all to someone else. But don’t get stuck in the idea that you have to have it all figured out before you make progress. 

Jessica Valis: Oh yeah, because I definitely did not have any of these things when I started. You remember I was laid off, had a baby, and COVID started. So finances were very, very tight. So I took on every single role. And when I eventually did get a bookkeeper, she put me online and she’s like, “why are you taking personal spending out of this? Why are you paying yourself like this?” 

Jessica Valis: And you know what? It’s fine to have somebody that you hire yell at you and tell you to do something right. Just because you do it that way a couple times or a couple years or whatever, you’re going to get it right down the line when you can afford to do those things. But the most important thing is that you’re not doing it by yourself the entire time. And your business then becomes so stressful that you can’t even. 

Jessica Valis: On this topic, I want to challenge everybody listening to do this right now. Or maybe when you get home, if you’re driving or if you’re busy doing something else. So I’ve read this exercise in a couple of marketing books and after listening to some podcasts or just doing some business classes.

Jessica Valis: I want you to get some index cards or a piece of paper and write down every single task that is required for your business. And it can include everything from prospecting, email marketing, social media, onboarding, billing, client management, balance in the books, filing taxes, project coordination, designing, development. I mean, it just goes on and on and on and you can get really deep into it. 

Jessica Valis: But I want you to begin to sort those tasks into three categories. One pile or category should be “only I can do this.” The second one should be “someone else can do this.” And number three is “I really hate doing this.” And you’ll see that there really isn’t one thing that only you can do. So if you can seek help early on and realize that you don’t need to be a one man team. And I’ve actually found that as my business has grown, the more I offload, the more money I’m actually able to bring in. 

Jessica Valis: So you think by doing it all yourself and you’re saving money, but when you’re able to give it to somebody else who can do it more effectively, it ultimately saves you money. And you can focus on bringing in more money. Yes. Yes. 

Monique Jenkins: In relation to that, I think you have to think about long term what you want from your business, not what your business provides to you today. Five years out from now, you don’t want to be the only person in your business that can do every single thing because, you know, that’s not fun. I want to be personally, I want to be sitting on a beach, not thinking about design at all, offloaded all this stuff to other people and just collecting money. That’s what I want to be doing. And I do not want to be in the minutia of the everyday color palette for every single business. 

Monique Jenkins: But I will say when you’re a CEO and you’re able to like, you know, spread the word and kind of offload the things that you can, you can pick the projects that mean a lot to you and you can interject into those spaces as opposed to being a part of every single thing. If your clients only trust you and don’t trust any of the people that you are working with in order for a project to be successful, you have to have your hand in it at all times. That’s not what I want for my business. That’s not the end goal. In five years, I don’t want to be talking to nobody. I want to be doing nothing. I just want to be collecting checks on somebody’s beach somewhere with my family, having a good time. 

Jessica Valis: I know. I think it speaks volumes about your team if your clients don’t trust your team.

Monique Jenkins: Speaking of skills, let’s talk about continuous learning. How important has that been for you and what do you wish you knew about it early on? 

Jessica Valis: College is expensive and if you work for a corporation or hold a government office, you should see if they’re going to pay for your higher education because you do not want to be stuck with this bill and drown in debt. I do believe continuing education is important, but I don’t think it’s essential. No client or employer has ever given me a raise because I got my master’s degree. And it’s kind of funny because my husband actually uses this against me. I’ll be doing something stupid around the house and he’ll be like, don’t you have a master’s degree? I’m like, yeah, but not in how to replace a dishwasher or don’t you have a master’s degree in this? I’m like, yeah, but not in Civil War era history. So like he kind of jokes about it. And you know, it just, it just goes to show it doesn’t really matter, you know? 

Jessica Valis: That being said, education is a pillar in core value of my life and my business. And continuous learning doesn’t necessarily need to come from an accredited university or even relate to your career. Listening to a podcast about the news or watching a mini series or reading a memoir, you just need to continue to learn. And you and me hosting a podcast, we’re still learning. And I’m going to continue to listen to other people’s podcasts who do something similar to what we do. And it’s just going to continue to inspire and make me a better podcast host. 

Monique Jenkins: Yeah, I’ll say I use my master’s degree for evil all the time. I like when someone’s like, “oh, money, your pricing is super high.” I’m like, “yeah, I have a master’s degree, but you’ve got to pay this pricing” I’m like, I really be like, uh, yeah, I have a master’s degree. And you know what this, those student loans, they don’t come cheap, bro. You got to pay this off. This is my students will for due next month. Come on. I know they roll in these payments back up. I need to do it. I gotta be doing it. I don’t like it. 

But yeah, I use that for evil all the time. Brian will be looking for something in the refrigerator and he can’t find it. And I’ll come over and I’ll pull it out. And he’ll be like, that was a third second ago. I’d be like, if you had a master’s degree, you’d be able to see that catcher behind the muster. See, you use it the opposite way of. 

Jessica Valis: Chris uses it to make fun and I mean it’s all in joke and good humor… 

Monique Jenkins: Yeah. He’s like, “I’m so sick of hearing about Monique’s master’s degree. I’m so tired of her.” But yeah, I’m like “Color theory. Ketchup is red, tomatoes are red.” So I’m a nuisance in my household. 

Jessica Valis: Oh my gosh, I should try that. 

Monique Jenkins: Yes. But I do use my master’s degree. Whenever a client is like, “oh, why should I pay that much?” I’m like, “because you’re paying for not only the experience I have, but the education that comes with it,” which is like, you know, you ain’t going to spend four years or two years of how much time it took me getting this master’s degree. You got to pay for some of what you pay for the expertise.

Monique Jenkins: But I’m serious. No. My rule of thumb is to question everything and to take nothing at face value until you can substantiate each claim. I think that you should always be learning because the more you know, the more powerful you become. And that’s not for, that’s not in a traditional educational environment. It’s not college per se. It’s, you know, on YouTube university or whatever, you know, platform out there that helps you to learn whatever you need to know. 

Monique Jenkins: I do think continuous learning is crucial. I wish I had known that learning doesn’t stop in this field. I think as a designer, there are always going to be new design tools. There are different business strategies. There’s an understanding of human psychology and UX. And there’s always something new to explore and you have to be willing and able to go out and source that information for yourself if you’re not willing to do it in a traditional environment. 

Monique Jenkins: For me, when I was going to school, the only reason I have a master’s degree is because like I am not a great self -starter on the learning front. I want to get all of the information in five minutes. If I don’t have the regiment of like, I have to go to class every Wednesday at five o ‘clock and I know that homework is due, I’m not going to do it probably. That’s just my personal learning style. But I know that if I paid for college, I’m going to school. I don’t waste money on classes. I’m going to be learning. I’m going to be doing the best that I can. I’m getting A in this class because I’m super competitive. But I’m not going to waste. Yeah, I’m not going to waste the money that I just gave these people messing around with with the education. So I’m going to do the due diligence if it’s in a traditional classroom environment because that’s how I thrive. 

Monique Jenkins: If it’s YouTube or something like that, because you have the ability to stop and go whenever you want to and like life is crazy and things are happening, I find for me that I’m generally like, “Oh, I want to start this tomorrow” and then tomorrow turns into tomorrow turns into tomorrow turns into next week turns into next year and you just don’t like do it. So for me, traditional education is always been about holding myself accountable and having other people hold me accountable. Teachers and things that as opposed to having to maintain that schedule for myself. But I do think that, you know, learning new skill sets is incredibly valuable. You never stop learning as a designer. There are always different things for you to ingest and to take in. And even if it’s not on learning about different design things, for me, every single industry that you go in, you have to ingest so much information about that industry that you’re working on for that specific design. Because what works in an educational setting as far as design is concerned, might not work in a fintech environment, might not work in, you know, healthcare might not work in yada, yada, yada. 

Monique Jenkins: So as a designer, I think you’re forced to continuously be learning about different areas of industries, because you don’t really have a choice when you jump in with a new client. If it’s not in, if you haven’t defined your niche like me, you have a niche, you have a niche. I have a niche. It’s just a soft one. But if you haven’t like, you know, specifically said I want to be like yours is financial services. I think I want to be in financial services every single time you take on a new client, you have to start learning about their industry and how they do things and their respect. To me, that’s continuous learning, even if it doesn’t have a direct correlation to design specifically. And I think that makes me better for the next client because I’m like, Oh, I know a little bit about a lot of stuff, y ‘all. 

Jessica Valis: Absolutely. And when we got our degrees, some of the things that we took classes on are no longer relevant. I remember getting my bachelors, I had to sit down and I had to take a PowerPoint class, and I had to take a class on Excel and Microsoft Word. And I’m like, “excuse me, I grew up with these things. I’ve been doing Microsoft programs since 1995 when I was like in the what, second or third grade.” 

But this is kind of a weird story, not really weird, but I have a family member, distant-distant family member who has a degree in communication. And think way back to the 90s when telemarketing was a huge thing and people would cold call you at dinner. This family member has a degree in telemarketing. But now we fast forward to 2023 and telemarketing is just not applicable anymore because it’s done by robo bots. Or is that it robo bots? 

Monique Jenkins: I’m gonna say yes. I’m sick y ‘all. I’m gonna say yes. 

Monique Jenkins: I’m 100% happy with COVID right now. It’s all the things, yep. 

Jessica Valis: So, he has a degree in communication specialized in telemarketing. Telemarketing is no longer relevant. So you have to continue to learn. Otherwise, what you have a degree in is no longer relevant. 

Jessica Valis: So even with design, you know,I said, taking PowerPoint classes, like now they might do stuff on, I don’t know, designing in, what is it? Google, Google presentation. Google Sheets. Google Sheets. It’s like, oh yeah, you know, there’s so many better options now. So those are things that I have to force myself to learn because I know that my clients are using them. I don’t use them, but my clients are. So I have to go back and continuously learn. 

Jessica Valis: And the beauty of this golden internet age is that you can just quickly find something on Google or read a quick tutorial. Or just, you don’t even have to listen to the tutorials half the time. You can just watch and pause the screen at a click, click, click. And then, you know, you’re ready to go. Um, that being said, I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully competent as a designer just because of how quickly everything is evolving with the age of technology and AI. And I mean, that’s the imposter syndrome for you. 

Jessica Valis: So continuing education and focusing on what it is that you’re good at, I think too. Um, and that’s another reason it’s important to offload because you need to focus on what it is. Or you need to focus on the reason you started your business in the first place. And if that’s going to require extra education hours, then that’s what you need to focus on instead of trying to muddy your hands with bookkeeping or something like that. 

Monique Jenkins: Yeah, there’s one other thing that I wish I had done, which is take more time to attend conferences and network in those spaces, because I think that people that you meet there will help to make or break your career, or can help to help make or break your career. 

Monique Jenkins: I think I mentioned that I went to a conference a few weeks back, and from that conference, I got to meet some incredible designers that I wouldn’t have otherwise have ever gotten to meet. I think one is from Tennessee, the other one is from maybe Chicago. But I would have never had access to these people. So I think being able to go to conferences and kind of network with people who are not specifically local or central to your location is important. I also got an opportunity to meet some startup founders who are looking for UX designer to help create an application that they’re working on. And I think those connections are priceless. I would have not had an opportunity to quote them or a project if I had not gone and been in that space and been open and vulnerable with them about what I liked and did not like about the application that they had in a very nice and fun way. Well, I wasn’t fun or nice about it, but- 

Jessica Valis: Your sarcasm makes you feel fun.

Monique Jenkins: I think that’s what it is. It’s not sarcasm, because I literally was like, “so why you think these colors?” And he was like, “I like them.” And I was like, “not okay. And not okay at all.” And one of the other designers was like, “yeah, Monique just blatantly pointed out much she don’t like this man’s application”. I was like, “I did not say that in those words. Okay. I said it need work.” 

Monique Jenkins: But I think being in the conference space and being around those people, you get to get it on the ground floor of some people’s businesses. And if they can trust you at this particular junction, they can trust you as they continue to move forward. Like they’re in, I think they’re raising, they’re in series A of raising funds and stuff like that. So I don’t know, it’s a couple million dollars or whatever. Getting in on the ground floor of a company like that and being able to help them refine their application from the beginning all the way up to what I know is going to be an amazing application later. That’s invaluable experience with a company that I would not have had had I not attended this conference and found myself being open and willing to, have those conversations and things like that, which I certainly wouldn’t have done 10, 15 years back. 

Jessica Valis: You know, this is a great place to kind of end this conversation because next week’s podcast is all about networking and the benefits. And you’re gonna just wanna stick around to hear all about this, cause clearly Monique’s making, you know, million-dollar connections. And it’s how I found my first people and we’re gonna go more into that next week. But I just wanna remind you to not be afraid to say no when something doesn’t feel worthwhile, even if it feels like an integral part of your business. If you don’t love it, don’t do it, offload, learn, and listen to your gut and do what you love. 

Monique Jenkins: ups and downs, the feelings of being an imposter. But keep pushing forward. The lessons you learn along the way are what are going to make your entrepreneurial dreams come true. 

Jessica Valis: Beautifully said. Thank you all for joining us on the Design Imposter. Remember, it’s okay to feel like an imposter as long as you keep learning and growing.