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Designing Self-Employment

Susan Sharman, Owner of Sharman Studios, based in Martinez, California has been a NASE member since 2012. Like many members, Susan joined for the access to health insurance but has come to appreciate many of the other benefits the NASE provides. Sharman Studios specializes in crafting visually pleasing and vibrant graphic design and marketing solutions for small to mid-sized businesses.

What inspired you to enter the field you are in?

I fell into the graphic design field after graduating from art school with a BFA in printmaking. I had school loans and needed a job! My first job was paste-up artist (a job that no longer exists in the design industry) for a wine importer. I also had knowledge of print processes which was helpful in understanding how to prepare artwork files for commercial offset printing. The skills I had were a good match for entry level work in the design field but once I got into it I loved the work. I love the smell of ink on paper! One of my favorite project tasks is conducting a press check for a client project.

 When and why did you start your business?

After working as an in-house designer and art director for about nine years in the wine industry I was ready to be my own boss. I was tired of “working for the man” and I launched myself into the freelance world in 1993 with one client, a Mac, and a fax machine! I will admit that I made a lot of mistakes in the early days but I was very committed to being self-employed so I stuck with it. Along the way I discovered I had skill sets that were uniquely suited to running my own business such as good organizational and project management skills.

That must have been a big leap of faith, how are your clients now and what equipment do you have?

My client base has grown exponentially and now extends nationally with current clients here in California, on the East Coast and in the South East. I got rid of the fax machine about four years ago and transitioned to a web-based fax service. I now have state of the art equipment in my office including a scanner, several printers including an Epson color printer and additional computers. A number of years ago I invested in custom designed and built cabinets and work area for my design office which includes flat files and a central “work island” with room to spread out my projects.

What challenges have you faced in your business? How have you overcome them?

The past two decades have seen radical changes in the graphic design industry, especially with technological advances and changes to the process of implementation of digital files. Additionally, the marketing avenues and choices now available to the small business owner have changed and morphed and we now work in a global economy with potential to reach beyond our local neighborhoods. This was not available a mere ten years ago.

I view the challenges as opportunities to learn something new to both advance my own business as well as for my clients! I keep abreast of new trends through my involvement with professional organizations; participating in seminars or workshops and through a great deal of reading.

I also have established partnerships with fellow entrepreneurs who may serve the same industries I do but offer a companion resource. These are my trusted referral partners and I bring them to the table for projects as needed for my clients. For instance, I may create a design for a direct mail campaign that will include traditional print and snail mail methods but to be truly effective the campaign should populate across multiple marketing channels including social media. I’ll bring on a social media expert to the project to advise and implement. I am proud that I can provide work for other small business owners such as myself.

I’m sure the other small business owners appreciate it too, how do you market your business?

The majority of my work comes via word of mouth. My website is the base for all my marketing efforts and outreach. The strategies I use to drive people to the website include networking, content creation for my blog and articles, and social media. Via the website potential prospects can see my work, learn about my process and capabilities and read my e-newsletter and blog posts. I also send the e-newsletter out to my database on a regular basis. I network within various organizations both to meet potential prospects but also to develop referral partnerships.

You mentioned you were determined to be self-employed, what’s the best thing about it?

I am master of my own time and direction of my life. I get to choose how I will spend my days and what type of creative work I will take on. I have the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people! I can leave my studio and take a walk in the middle of the day if I need to recharge my creativity.

And conversely, what is the most challenging thing about being a self-employed designer?

What is most challenging about being a freelance designer is keeping current with the software and hardware necessary to conduct my job. It requires a substantial financial investment on an ongoing basis.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received from a client?

That I am a trusted member of their team! I am a firm believer that the best design solutions come from an open and collaborative process between designer and client.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone starting their own business?

Spend the time and money to market the business properly from the start so that you will always have a flow of customers or clients coming through the door. I also recommend finding mentors who can help guide and answer questions as you grow and develop the business.

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