filed in:

Three Lessons I Learned my First Few Years as a Web Designer

In June, I was honored to be featured as a guest on Micala Quinn’s The Live Free Podcast. Micala is a mom and former teacher who’s built her entire business around helping other moms (including me!) create their own freelance businesses. 

All the way back in 2019, I signed up for Micala’s Live Free Academy (at the time, it was called Overwhelmed to Overbooked.) And – not to be dramatic – that ended up being a life-defining decision for me and my husband! 

Fast forward to December 2022, and I’ve just celebrated three whole years as a business owner! I’ve always LOVED podcasts and blogs where people share what’s worked to build their businesses. So today, I want to share a little bit with you about my journey and three BIG lessons I’ve learned along the way.  

I hope you’ll grab a coffee and stick around for a while! I’ll be spilling all the details on how I got my start in freelancing, my pivot into website design, and what it looks like to build a business. Whether you’re already a business owner or just starting to wonder if freelance might be the thing for you, I hope you find some encouragement in this post!


What my life looked like before freelance


Believe it or not, I didn’t go to college for design. I actually started my career as an elementary school teacher! While I loved teaching, I always knew I wanted to stay home after we had kids. When we had our first baby, we shifted our priorities to make it possible for me to stay home, but I still wanted to find a way to contribute financially to our family. 

I tried a couple of different things, including an MLM and tutoring on VIPKid, but ultimately, they never felt like the right fit. The hours weren’t ideal, and I wasn’t making the money I wanted for the trade-off of time I had to put in. 

In 2019, we had our second baby…and I was feeling ALL of the stay-at-home mom and postpartum feelings! I started to realize that I wanted to be present with my kids, but I also needed to have a creative outlet outside of being a mom and wife. I knew deep down what I wanted my life to look like, but I wasn’t sure how to make it happen. After quite a bit of Googling, I stumbled on an ad for Micala’s program!


Taking the leap to Launching a Business from Home


After watching Micala’s promo webinar, I couldn’t get her course out of my head. It was EXACTLY the opportunity I’d been looking for: a way to build a creative business without compromising on time with my kids. I officially signed up for her course in December 2019, right before everything hit the fan with Covid (perfect timing, right?!)

The boys were still full-time at home with me, but I promised myself I would do something every day to move forward and build my business. I showed up at Micala’s weekly coaching meetings, listened to course modules and podcasts, or just made time to take a walk and hold space for myself, separate from my role as a wife and mom. Even if it was something tiny, I wanted to be intentional about showing up daily. 


My first six months in business

I took the rest of December and early January to binge everything in the course and soak it all in before launching my business in late January. And things moved FAST! By the end of February, I was pretty much fully booked. I handled everything from Pinterest to social media management for my clients, whether that meant creating graphics, writing post content, or basically doing anything I could to help out.

At first, my business was strictly a nap-time hustle, adding up to about 10-15 hours per week. During the initial six months post-launch, I just dove in and learned how to do whatever caught my interest and would support my clients.


Lesson #1: Be open to trying new things.

The first few jobs I took on didn’t even directly relate to web design! My first position was as a Pinterest Manager in the Teachers Pay Teachers world. While I managed the logistics of the account, another freelancer designed the actual pins. Before then, I didn’t even know it was an option to focus solely on the design side of the process, but I was interested in giving it a shot!

So with my next TPT client, I signed on as the designer. Dipping my toe into that part of the process was one of those a-ha moments! I was immediately drawn to the design part of the process and making things visually beautiful. At this point, I wasn’t 100% ready to specialize in design, so I signed on with some larger virtual assistant agencies to try out all the different ways I could support businesses. 

If I didn’t know how to do something, I jumped in, binged tutorials, and figured it out. Over time, I noticed a pattern: I was being given design-focused tasks for all these clients! In particular, I did a lot of brand design at that time.

In my first six months, I learned to be okay with testing the waters and trying out new skills AND to listen to those little nudges of intuition that helped me figure out my passions and next opportunities! An amazing opportunity came up for a VA position with a web design agency, and I felt a nudge to apply. As it turned out, that position was the beginning of leaning into my web design niche! 


The next phase of business: niching down and ramping up

By the six month mark, I’d discovered that design and brand strategy were my jam and that I wanted to offer more of those services to my clients. Meanwhile, my husband was faced with the decision between continuing his career path in the corporate world or taking his own leap of faith to do his own thing. 

Since I’d been able to ramp up my business quickly and book out my available hours, we sat down and worked out a plan to expand my client roster and build a full-on web design business. Now that I was up and running, the next goal was to grow to the point where my husband could step away from corporate and start his own business as well. Making that plan was a huge motivation to niche down into design…but it wasn’t an overnight success!  


Lesson #2: It’s okay to fail, but definitely try again!

It took me a few months to ramp up my web design skill set to a place where I was comfortable and confident in the service I offered. In fact, my first web design project was kind of a disaster! The client needed mockups, so they sent over a brand book sample and sent me on my way. What I initially submitted back to them was a complete and total flop! 😂

Fortunately, this client is still near and dear to my heart, and we laugh about that first project to this day! We both learned a LOT, but my big takeaway was that I had quite a bit to learn about web design. So, over the next year or so, I kept working on it daily! I soaked in as much as possible about design, mockups, SEO, brand strategy, and software to help streamline my process. 

And, you know what? It was incredible, and I got better at being a designer! I worked my way from Graphic VA within that company to Creative Director over the course of the year while also growing my client base within Southern Creative. Eventually, I was working with multi-six-and-seven figure businesses on custom WordPress site builds, membership sites, and e-commerce websites. 

Along the way, my schedule shifted from nap-time hustle to full-time career. I started working two full days a week and one day on the weekends. Plus, my husband was able to transition out of the corporate world and launch his own business!


Moving forward and refining my business

One of the most amazing things about owning an online business is that you can be flexible and consider what’s working for you, your skills, and your financial goals. Whatever works for you might not be the same as your business bestie or the hustle you see on social media, but if you’re honest about the phase you’re in and your unique goals, you can adjust to what’s working best for you at the moment.


Lesson #3: Embrace the journey!

In one way or another, I’ll be in this phase as long as I’m a business owner. It’s okay to constantly re-evaluate and make adjustments to your business as it grows, and as YOU grow. 

My business now looks a lot different than it did at the end of year one or even year two. I started with retainer clients, then moved to a mix of retainer and one-time projects. I tried out VIP days but realized that didn’t work for my schedule, so I moved on to other services. Along the way, I discovered a passion for bridging the gap of tech overwhelm that comes with getting a new WordPress site online, so I built out my new Launch Week service to make the process effortless for my clients. 

On the family level, Nick and I worked through some coaching around “designing our ideal life” that helped us gain focus and put everything into perspective. We sat down as a couple and mapped out our family, business, and individual goals, then backtracked to figure out the realistic ways we could make those things happen. 


Even though things might not always go exactly as planned, we do our best to roll with the punches and be fluid with what our family needs in each season.


Starting my own business was the first step in completely shifting how we defined goals for our careers and family life. Three years ago, I was a stay-and-home mom, and now, my husband and I have both started our own businesses and work from home – something that we would never have thought was possible before 2019. Micala’s course and jumping into freelancing opened up our eyes and hearts to the possibilities of life outside of the regular ole 9-to-5 world.


What’s next for Southern Creative?

Launching Launch Week was a big step in aligning my current business and family goals to allow for a more balanced workweek. I’m so thrilled to help more service-based businesses get online with the website of their dreams in as little as one week! 

My next personal goal is to invest in a small group mastermind to help me continue to grow personally and professionally. Having a solid group of like-minded business owners has always been such a fantastic way to connect and build community while building my business!

Have questions or want to chat about business in the new year? I’d love to connect on Instagram – my DMs are always open!


Tune into the full Podcast Episode Here

Steph O'Keefe, SEO strategist and WordPress designer sitting at desk wearing a white shirt in Raleigh, NC.

I'm Steph!

I'm the Founder and creative Director behind Southern Creative, a.k.a. your SEO strategist and web designer.

My passion is crafting websites rooted in strategy so you can put your focus where your heart is while we launch your dream website that shows up online.