by Erin Pfiffner of The Epiffany Effect

I'd like to think I'm one of the lucky few who have had opportunities fall into my lap and moments of truth that snap me into reality and change me for good. But then again, that could happen to anyone, really. You just need to know how to recognize and seize them when they come along.

Unlike some of the bloggers in this series who stumbled into entrepreneurship, I had my heart set on going into business for myself at some point in my life and was taking steps to get me there by sometime in my early 40's. In July of 2008 (the year before I turned 30), my opportunity came early. After climbing my way up the corporate ladder of an in-house design group for nearly 6 years - painstakingly carving out ways to stay creative and fresh like I did when I worked at an ad agency -  realized I had exhausted my learning experience and lacked joy in what I was spending nearly 60+ hours a week doing. This was not the life I wanted... stressed, tired, overworked, under-appreciated. So when a voluntary leave package was offered to the staff during a period of lay-off's I had to pinch myself. It was like a red carpet to entrepreneurship was laid before me. I said to myself "They want to PAY me for how many months to start my own business?" After all of my experience in personnel management, budget ownership, process planning, and creative direction—I was ready.

Some in my field might say 10 years of experience in marketing, advertising, branding, and graphic/Web design is still pretty young to run off and leap into building my own business. But to you I say "bah!" If you want to start a business—why wait? Do some research and go for it! What no one really prepares entrepreneurs for are the things you can't read on a SCORE Website or "Starting a Business" handbook. So I will share with you these anecdotal morsels of advice that have kept me going strong despite many ups and several downs in my first year as a business owner:

Think Outside the Box

Don't do what everyone else is doing or expects of you. Do what feels right for you. Ask yourself if your boat is pointed in the right direction. If so, keep paddling. If not, you better turn it another way. For instance, I couldn't bring myself to put "Owner," "Founder," "Principal," or "President" on my business cards as my title. After leaving a corporate world that was riddled with title hierarchy, I wanted something zingy, like "Brand Therapist" or "Entrepreneur Extraordinaire" but discovered Proprietress in one of my million Thesaurus searches and instantly felt at peace.

Surround Yourself with Opposites

As an artist, I have a surprising number of friends who are scientists. My sister is an aquarist, my closest girlfriend is a chemist, her husband a surface physicist, and countless friends who will debate the psychology of color or behavioral sciences with me. While I love rapping with fellow designers about the latest tips and tricks in Photoshop or Web trends, I find much more inspiration and value looking to sources outside of the creative environment. When I set out to describe my unique design angle, I discovered that I am a designer inspired by biomimicry and nature. Moral of the story here is that though it may be comfortable to stick with the same birds of a feather, there's so much more to learn from, and about yourself, when you push your boundaries and challenge conventional wisdom. It's like holding up a wonderful new mirror to yourself. Enlightening.

Be Impeccable with Your Word

When networking to drum up business, it's easy to fall into the trap of becoming a lip-service addict. Constantly pushing your services, looking for every moment to drop in a little sales plug for what you do... it's exhausting. Don't push. Listen. It will go a lot farther. With so many business buzz words flying around, people often become the same disingenuous terd (no offense) as most of the folks out there trying to sell themselves, products, or services. Rarely do I meet someone who is refreshingly honest and so crystal clear on what they do it makes me stop in my tracks and take notice (whether I need their skills or not). Maybe it's because I'm in the business of visual and verbal messaging that I am a bit snooty about this, but I think we've lost our individual voices and it's time to reclaim them as ours. So I try to always say what I mean and if I don't have anything poignant to say, I become a very good listener (asking lots of questions to keep the other person talking) until something they say strikes me and I can jump in. It's not that people aren't interesting, it's just that they have a hard time communicating their interesting perspectives and I feel compelled to help them get to that point.

Come Prepared, But Expect to Be Flexible

I was a Girl Scout through early middle school (lame?), which taught me never to be unprepared. That's why I carry a giant purse everywhere I go. Aside from the bandaids, business cards, sewing kits, mini portfolio, fabulous lip gloss, hair tie, nail file, and journal, these are some must-have things I'm convinced you need to be prepared before you leap into your own business:

  1. at least 4 month's worth of living expenses in savings
  2. health insurance plan (no one gives you sick days, you have to earn them)
  3. a first draft business plan (even if it's just written for you)
  4. a risk-taking personality (don't ever be afraid to fail)
  5. personal support system (family, friends, business coach, etc.)
  6. a devil's advocate or sounding board (read: not a Debbie Downer!

And never expect your first year to go as planned. Be flexible, and use every success and mishap as a learning experience. There are messages delivered in emotions - so it's OK to laugh, cry, or do whatever feels right during this journey. Then think about it afterwards in order to move forward. Always move forward... never backward.

Talking to Yourself is Good, but Talking to Others is Better

It's one thing to give yourself pats on the back, or coax yourself into having the courage to cold-call someone, but let's face it, most entrepreneurial-types aren't introverts and thrive on human interaction. And especially in the creative field where I am paid to come up with new and innovative ideas, I sometimes hit a wall (literally) when working at home by myself. That's why I've created an emergency creative phone tree...a network of people who can keep me honest with constructive feedback (not "I don't like it but I don't know why" or "can you make it pop more?"), jumpstart my thought process, or reassure me that I'm on the right track. This goes for anyone who works from home...get out at least once a day and talk to someone, anyone. It will break your concentration just enough that you will probably be able to tackle that challenge with a fresh set of eyes.

Reward Yourself and Celebrate the Little Things

I'll admit it... I loath bookkeeping. I mean, that's common for us creative types not to be good with numbers, right? (just say yes). Until I can hire someone to periodically take over my books I schedule 4 hours out of every Friday to tend to the books... no distractions, no treats, no Pandora radio, nothing but doing the books. And once I finish, I can take the rest of the day off or work on a really exciting design project...but until they are done each week, I'm in my self-imposed confinement. It really works for me...that's the kind of discipline I need to play the role of CFO. (I'm a natural CMO or CSO)

Another thing I've struggled with is what is often called "the trance of scarcity." Learning the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial cash flow can be hard on the ego and leave some lasting psychological effects. This stems way back to my early relationship with money (I won't bore you with that) but I've since created a ritual for every paycheck that I receive. I make a photocopy to forever etch it in my mind. Say "thank you" to the check and then go deposit it and start my 5-step distribution process:

  1. pay Uncle Sam
  2. pay any contractors who helped me earn this
  3. pay the bills
  4. tuck away some for a rainy day
  5. give myself a little treat with what's left over

Paying myself last is rewarding. I keep all of the photocopied checks in a special lock box near my desk so that if ever I am feeling low because I haven't closed a deal or think I'm destined to fail, I get out that box, look at all the compensation I've received so far and start to feel a little better. Also, compensation is not just money, people. I highly recommend that you list out other forms of exchange or compensation that motivate you to do what you do. Be open to receive just as much as you give.

You Can Do EVERYTHING Online

I don't know about you, but I didn't have a lot of cash going into this whole entrepreneurial thing and wanted to keep my operational expenses down. But I knew I needed to stay organized if I was to wear all of the hats necessary to be a business owner. So, I started looking for tools online to help me keep the back office running so I could be busy working in the front of the house (sales and actually designing). Here are some of my finds that cost very little per month to subscribe to:

  • The Company Corporation: for legal needs like forming an LLC, assigning a registered agent, state business registration, name and logo trademarking, and more.
  • Freshbooks: for online invoicing, time tracking, financials, and contractor management...I hate Quickbooks, so this was my replacement. Has an iPhone app for on the go and integrates credit card payment services!
  • Shoeboxed: online receipt and expense tracker. Also has an iPhone app to take photos of receipts!
  • MyFax: online fax number and send/receive services. There's no way I was going to buy an ancient fax machine.
  • RightSignature: for digitally signing contracts and statements of work between multiple parties.
  • Basecamp: collaborative project management (integrates with Freshbooks).

This August marks my 1 year anniversary of starting The Epiffany Effect and I couldn't be happier. My pipeline is overflowing and I've learned so much about myself and from the clients I've had - I've loved the start-up life so much I've also joined a mobile tech start-up in Reston, called Citrrus, as their Chief Creative Officer under an equity sharing agreement. I look forward to many more adventures as this journey continues to unfold. I hope I'm back here writing again about what this next year yielded for me. Until then, my friends, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities you can't pass up. They say in the Silicon Valley, that if you haven't experienced at least 3 failed start-ups, you are not trying hard enough. You've only got one life - viva fellow entrepreneurs!


Erin is a zealous and self-confident businesswoman with a fierce commitment to human connections and product relevance and is sought out for her ability to visually interpret complex messages into polished and concise design solutions that change behaviors and generate results.

The Epiffany Effect is a woman-owned branding and design firm specializing in identity, print, and web design by drawing from nature and real-world experiences to help entrepreneurs, start-ups, small businesses, and large corporations around the country to get noticed. Citrrus LLC is a mobile app company who builds location-based mobile products that influence the way people interact with the world around them.

Website: | Twitter: @epiffanyeffect

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