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20 Things I've Learned in 20 Years-Part 3

We are reaching the halfway point for our 20 things in 20 years series!   I hope you are enjoying reading this as much as I am enjoying writing it. :)

9. Hard work + Reasonable goals = Success!  I've always been a hard worker and know how to hustle! When I first started my business, I was also waiting tables to make ends meet.  I would have loved to just jump right into being my own boss, but the bills keep coming and I needed to live.  The people with whom I worked were always so positive and eager to help me get started. I remember selling so many cards, letters from Santa, shower invitations, wedding calligraphy, and so many custom projects to the great people at my restaurant jobs! Everyone was so supportive when I was new to this career.

My very best restaurant friend, Michelle, even loaned me money to get more supplies on hand and help me get started when I left the restaurant.  She trusted and believed in me and took a chance.  Celebrating the 20 years is so great! It reminds me how many people have been in my corner all along the way and how much love and support has been around me since 1999.


Becoming established as a business took me awhile.  I didn't have a lot of business savvy at the beginning, so there were a lot of challenges to face.    There were many times over the past 20 years when most people would have just said, "forget it....this isn't working out....I'll just go back to ____ (enter former job here)".  

One thing I always have done is set goals for myself and my business  At the beginning of every year, I write a list of things that I want to accomplish during the next 365 days.   Sometimes they include personal goals, but typically they are business related.  Now Bob and I do this exercise together. We look at the past year to see what we would like to change or parts of business to increase.   

Every time I have written down my goals, I have set reasonable parameters. I didn't set out to have 40 weddings my first year and sell 5,000 Mother's Day cards.  One time my friend Vyvyan commented how it was so great that I set goals for my business and kept blowing them out of the water!  This was achieved by being realistic....and keeping my expectations reasonable.  Throughout all of these years in business, I have really celebrated all accomplishments-big and small. 

When I attended that workshop on the vision for your business that I mentioned in part 1 of this series, I remember setting a goal of doing 12-20 weddings the following year.  We reached that goal, and I'm excited to report that last year we worked with over 50 wedding couples!  But it didn't happen took years of hard work and reasonable goal setting.

brainstorming area

This is a common place in our home for us to brainstorm together and set our goals. Thank you Melissa Mullen for the photo.

10. Tying in with the above-define your own version of success.  When people hear the El's Cards story and how busy we are now, I often hear the same remark, "Now you will need to start hiring people!"

To me success is very individual. Having employees may be the answer for some, but not for us.  To be able to do something that I love and pay the bills doing it is the best definition of El's Cards success. We have built and are sustaining a business that has grown every year (even if it's only a little bit) since 1999 .  We have really worked hard to build a business that is busy all months of the year.  Although weddings are a huge part of our success, growing the every day products like cards and maps is just as important to me.  

In our happy El's Cards world, success means we can take a vacation or two every year. All the bills are paid, and we are putting away a little money for a rainy day.  And most importantly, that we are happy doing what we do and hope to be doing this for many years to come.  We don't over purchase supplies or overextend ourselves through expensive advertising.  We spend our hard earned money wisely and are always re-investing in the business! 

It might sound corny, but making a living creating pretty artwork that makes people smile is the best definition of success for me.  When I started El's Cards, and for many years of business, I always believed that if I gave it time, things would catch on and the business would be able to support me. Now there are two of us on the "payroll" and what we have accomplished together is already far beyond what I ever could have hoped when I was first starting out!

11.  Don't be afraid to try something new-This is a big one!  I have a great tangible example for this lesson.  When I was in high school, my art teacher and mentor, Jane Wydra, taught me a classic style of calligraphy.  I caught right on and this because an art form that I loved immediately.  For many years, this was the only form of calligraphy that I offered-Elscript is what we have come to call it. It's a classic style and while being beautiful, it is also easy to read.

Elscript calligraphy custom invitation suite

Custom Suite-Envelope with Elscript calligraphy

Another envelope with Elscript calligraphy-photo by Melissa Mullen

As I went along, I was getting requests for different calligraphy styles and I found that I was interested in other styles of calligraphy...different pens, inks, etc. So I purchased a bunch of pen nibs and inks and started experimenting.  I ended up creating several new calligraphy styles using a dip pen with different types of nibs and inks.  

I have also tried different papers over the years.  A few years ago, an artist who I met recommended Arches for watercolor, and I haven't gone back to any of my older choices.  I've been able to experiment more with watercolor designs and have really found this to be my favorite paper.  

Mixing my own ink and paint colors can be challenging, but I really swear by this method.  This way I am able to get the exact shades that I like.  The liquid watercolors are a neat tool for calligraphy.  All of these items are things I have added to my toolbox as the years have progressed.

12.  Refer others freely (and The Backhanded Compliment Story) When I was new to business, I had to take every small job that came my way.  I was truly grateful for every job I had and always said yes.  As time has gone on, my business has changed direction and grown and I have found that I am unable to do this.  It is so wonderful when a former client refers me to one of their friends.  And you can ask anyone who knows me...if I have a good experience with a vendor or business, I tell everyone!  Sharing that information is the very best compliment.

In my experience, there is plenty of work for the artistic community.  When I am unable to say yes to a job when requested, I always try to refer someone who I trust.  It is much better to pass on another professional than just saying no!  In the early days, I suppose I was fearful of doing this...thinking that someone else would build a better reputation than I.  But as time has gone on, I can see that we receive exactly the amount of work that we need. And if something does not work out, there is always a reason for that.  When I receive referrals now from other professionals or clients, it just reinforces the necessity for me to pay it forward when I can.   When I take every chance I have to send someone on to another professional, it is always a win.  

The following experience really stuck with me. In those early days, everything was really referral based.   There was a service that I used to do where I addressed and mailed out cards for clients.  I had all the birthday dates for family members and sent them out on time. The client paid me once a year for this service and it was really a great convenience.  

writing out cards

Photo by Melissa Mullen

One of my clients who used this service told me one day how much they loved this service and how much their family and friends loved the cards...they went on and on about how wonderful it was. Then, they told me that one of their friends had asked who did this for them, and they refused to give them my name.  They wanted to "keep me a secret" and all to themselves.  Hmmmmm....thank you? Was this the expected response?  I was a little shocked and more than a little disappointed to hear this.  I guess it was a backhanded compliment that I was so great this client wanted to keep me to himself.  But the takeaway for me was to freely refer others if I am pleased with the quality of service.  That is absolutely the best compliment.  Especially when someone is trying to establish themselves as a professional. 

Only 2 more posts in this fun series!  Stay tuned for more things I've learned! See part 4 now! And part 5!