Things I Learned On My First Holidays As a Full-time Calligrapher

Photography:  Katie Stoops Photography

All the greeting cards were out, Christmas parties attended, presents were open, and I made my last minute deadlines (sorta, the print shop closed for holidays but I emailed them the files). Now that the hustle and bustle of the Holiday Seasons is over, I figure this will be the perfect time to pause, take a deep breath, and reflect on what 2016 has been. 

Looking back to our last holiday season, we were just back from our month-long island vacation. I still had my full-time job where my old boss and I were planning on a very slow transition out of the office. But one thing lead to another, and the 3-4 month transition turned into a little more than a week. There were lots of sink or swim moments especially the very first few months. Ideas like driving for Uber and applying for a part-time position at Paper Source may or may not have been considered. But I survived my first holiday season as a full-time calligrapher! And there are so many lessons I learned this past year, but I'll elaborate 4 of the most important ones (for you and for me to remind myself).

1. To make peace with the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what's ahead.

Photography:  Katie Stoops Photography

The fear of an uncertain paycheck and lack of stability was definitely the biggest hurdle that held me back. The statistic of small business failure where only about 1 in 2 survive the first 5 years, and 1 in 3 made it to 10 years didn't help boost my confidence. Constantly being asked why I start a new business considering I'm making less than I used to didn't help either. To be honest, the fear was almost paralyzing. I'd try to justify staying at my old job with every excuse in the book. But at the end of the day, my happiness is not judged exclusively by the dollar sign. Working for someone is laboring to build other people's dreams. And it's a dream I no longer share with my old employer. 

So it's time for me to put my blood, sweat, and tears to fulfill my own dream. No, this first year was not exactly a cake walk. There were many nights with ugly tears where I wanted to give up. There were even more uncertainties; from booking that next project, praying the new merchandise would be a hit, hoping my class tickets would sell, even wishing my Instagram post would have great interactions. I learned to take calculated risks prior to taking any leap of faith. I tend to over-prepare when I can, and trying my best not to see other people's success as my failure. Those steps usually helped me focus on bigger picture goals instead of fretting on the small struggles. All of my client's thank yous, positive reviews, and encouragement on social media helped me through the bumpy part.

2. To value and take pride in my time, myself, and what I can offer.

Photography:  Katie Stoops Photography

This is another big leap was when I turned my calligraphy hobby into my occupation. I needed to charge a livable wage. I had to value my own time and skill set, and to reserve my time for those who appreciate and value my particular skills as much as I do. To never sell myself short and have the guts to say no when asked to reduce price in exchange for "professional photos and social media exposure". To make sure I deliver the best of my expertise and abilities to this special group of people. This means not stretching myself thin by taking too many projects to make my monthly quota (because I'm charging too low). I have to also reserve my professional time to work on projects that truly reflect my brand. This means I will only take projects where I have full creative control and saying no to projects or side hustles that do not fulfill me creatively.

Unfortunately, being selective means I have to say no or lose a lot of projects. At first, I had a huge problem with that and the reminder of lost projects on social media didn't help. Still do, but I decided to not linger on them. I'd rather be happy with the quality of work that I have than toiling away miserably. Because if it's money that I'm chasing, I'm better off working for someone else with much less risk. But I wouldn't trade building my own little business for anything else, so might as well make every project worth it.

While we're at it, it's important to have pride and integrity in what I do. In a creative industry where everyone is building on each others ideas, the line between inspired and plagiarized can be blurred pretty fast. So make sure to always put your own spin; change the color if you're inspired by the layout, add your own version of the illustration, do your own twist on the monogram crest, along with so many more variations you can pull! I know how important building my portfolio was when first starting out, sometimes it can be tempting to do a little "borrowing" to fluff up your portfolio. So if you participate in a shoot/wedding as second shooter or assistant, make sure to clarify that on your portfolio. When I'm only hired to do the signage or addressing, I make sure to credit them accordingly instead of only announcing my "participation" to unintentionally mislead people for other calligraphy services. Give proper credit where credit is due and be honest. Because your doing a disservice to both you and your new potential clients who hire you under false pretense.

3. To own up for my own mistakes.

Photography:  Katie Stoops Photography

Well, this one is obvious. I'm the only one working and I can't exactly put the blame elsewhere! There's no customer service department to alleviate this task or even other coworkers to point fingers at. And I'm only human, so I do screw up from time to time. Printing a wrong last name on invitation suite? Been there. Charging too little and losing money on a project? Done that. Messed up on calculating the extra envelopes or order a wrong size and color for the supplies so everything takes longer than expected to complete? Too many to count. But even when things happen that are out of my control, it's still my responsibility to say "I'm so sorry" and fix it. Anything from eating the merchandise cost because they don't live up to my aesthetic standard, forgetting to add a certain line item to my estimate, goods damaged during shipment, hell, even goods damaged after it survived shipment! It's still my job to send replacement and/or give refunds with a smile. 

That being said, every mistake is another opportunity to learn. You never know it's a problem unless something comes up. For example, my agate packaging worked fine for the first 5 orders until someone said they received broken pieces. Now each slice is individually bubble wrapped for extra peace of mind. Other than beefing up my packaging, some of those mistakes alerted me on what additional information needed to be added on my listing to prevent more mistakes and mishandling. They also gave me even more incentive to double check my clients' order and trying my very best to be organized. Basically whatever I can do to increase my efficiency and minimize my mistakes. 

This also gives me another perspective as a customer. To understand that you need to accommodate for possible hiccups with humane lead time, extra materials, and as clear of instruction as possible. Also, to keep my eye on the big picture when things don't go according to plan. Like the time my screenprinter got carried away with my gold ink orders, they actually printed my Christmas cards in gold instead of grey. Yes, this Christmas card. I still think I like them in grey ink better, but I can live with gold ink. So I'd like to think my vendors enjoy working with me. Except my local post office though; they still think I'm a bit nutty with my crazy amount of packages, fancy writing, and stamps that require them to whip a calculator.

4. To be constantly reminded that I'm standing on shoulders of giants.

Photography:  Katie Stoops Photography

Running a small business of one might give the illusion that everything this business achieves is the fruit of my labor, and my labor alone. To be honest, this couldn't be further from the truth. I am very lucky to be where I am know, where all I have to do to succeed is to focus on my craft. I'm standing on shoulder's of giants, from those who help me personally to those who don't even know that their hard work allows me to be where I am know. Their contributions to my business vary, but I will not be here without their collective effort. And it important for me to always have this perspective, to keep my pride and ego in check because I do not deserve all the credit.

I owe so much to my husband and my parents who pragmatically support my dream (pragmatic, because I didn't exactly give them much choice early on). Their moral, emotional, and financial support allow me the solid foundation I need to be on my own two feet. To every vendor and client who took the leap of faith on me for their shoots, events, weddings, and to host classes at their establishments. To every established calligrapher on their tutorials, tips, and worksheets. To all the wedding blogs who constantly supply us with an endless amount of inspiration, and their collective efforts that makes modern calligraphy style mainstream. For all the different craftsmen who turn my digital files into amazing products. The many authors and voice-actors for many marketing and psychology audio-books that provide me with crash courses on how to run a small business. And let's not forget how much I owe to technology; from the super skinny lightpad that constantly saves my butt, to all the digital editing software, and to Instagram for my marketing. And I'm damn sure I'm missing a lot more.

So those are my four main lessons from my very first year as a full-time calligrapher. Let me know what's your major take-away from 2016! If you have any advice on how to tackle 2017, I would love to hear from you in comments, Instagram, emails, snailmail, or however you can reach me! 

Happy Holidays everyone!

Photography:  Katie Stoops Photography

Photography: Katie Stoops Photography | Cinematography: NazFilms | Event Planning + Design: Cynthia Martyn | Wedding Dress: Marchesa (gray) from Gossamer Vintage | Cake:Cake Opera Co. | Invitations: Seniman Calligraphy (#2 Grey/gold With Tile Escort Cards) | Shoes: Bella Belle | Hair + Makeup: Modern Beauties | Venue:Musée Rodin | Floral Design + Styling: Cynthia Martyn Events | Hatbox: Trousseau & Co. | Jewelry + Accessories: Helena Noelle | Model: Nastya Vasyk For MP Paris