The greatest secret to being a successful entrepreneur is also the hardest to execute: put in the time. In today’s insta-world, it feels like if we don’t see results immediately, that something must not be working. In this interview with Allison Burns, we learn that all of her wins came from playing the long game.
Allison is not only talented in patience and persistence, but also in graphic design and communications. When I first came across her Instagram profile, I was immediately drawn to her clean, polished style and proceeded to get lost down a social media wormhole, admiring her feed of projects. I learned that her stellar visuals are all fueled by the relationships she has fostered with their clients. Some of her accounts began as small, one-time projects that led to steadier work, and large-scale projects.
In addition to her client relationships, Allison has also forged friendships with fellow entrepreneurs and creatives, further elevating her brand. Through these connections, she invested in copywriting, SEO and photography— all of which brought her an influx of traffic and growth over the last year.
I know that this interview with Allison will encourage and inspire you to put the time in to build your best business, just as she has!
What is your background in art + design? Are you formally educated or self-taught?
I’ve always been interested in art and design — from scrapbooking and experimenting with handlettering when I was young, to being an editor and layout designer for my high school newspaper, and then eventually studying graphic design in college.
I’m formally trained with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. After graduating, I found that writing and design complemented each other very well and many of my early professional experiences were marketing and communications focused. That being said, I definitely honed my skills and design aesthetic, discovered my love for visual branding design, and learned the most “on the job” and while working directly with small business owners! I’m still learning every day.
What made you want to want to start your own business?
It all began when I started taking on freelance projects while working full-time as an in-house designer and communications lead at a local non-profit organization. I quickly discovered my love for working one-on-one with small business owners, developing and nourishing that relationship, and making their ideas come to life. I also got a taste of what it was like to have freedom to make my own hours and control over what kind of projects I worked on, which I loved.
My mom owns a bookkeeping and business management company, so her and I had some good conversations about the possibility of going out on my own as well, and I knew she’d be an amazing guide and source of knowledge if I were to go for it. Although I knew it would be a lot of work (oh, if I only knew how much work it really would take! haha!), the actual decision to start a business and build something of my very own from the ground up just seemed so right. Although working for myself was never on my radar until that year, suddenly it was as if there was no other option or path for me. I wanted the freedom and flexibility to carve my own path and have a lifestyle that fit well with my personality and personal goals… all while collaborating with inspiring people and doing work that I enjoyed so much.
So, I started making job and life changes to make it happen. Five years later, I haven’t looked back once!
Did you have any hesitations or setbacks after your business launched? How did you find solutions and overcome them?
Feeling financially secure and being able to make ends meet was a hesitation for sure. I decided to grow my business slowly — I worked for my mom’s business for two years, gradually decreasing my hours as I built my client base and received more recurring design work. This also allowed me the time and space to experiment, figure out where I wanted to go with my business, and create a solid foundation for myself. Plus, I learned how to do my own bookkeeping while working for my mom, which was an important skill I wouldn’t have acquired otherwise. I’d never take that time back for the world!
The realities of being a service-based business brought some difficulties at first, as well. Learning how to recognize if clients were taking advantage of you (most of the time unknowingly) and how to handle it, figuring out how to put together proposals, estimates and contracts, and finding it in me to let it go when a potential client turned down my proposal or when I just flat out messed up. These were hard things to navigate, especially when you’re all on your own. What I realized is trial and error is a part of the process, and sometimes just experiencing those things and learning as you go is the best thing you can do.
I also started connecting with others in the creative field and opening myself up to amazing communities of people (both online and in real life) who can provide support and guidance when you feel like a deer in headlights. I’m passionate about sharing my story and knowledge with new business owners for this reason — doing it all by yourself can be exhausting and knowing you’re not alone in the journey can really make a huge difference.
Can you identify a moment on your journey that felt like a turning point in your business? How did it come to be?
The first turning point that comes to mind is when I gained my first retainer client, which allowed me to start transitioning out of working at my mom’s business and into officially being self-employed full time. I was already designing print materials for this organization and they needed additional help with their monthly e-newsletter and social media management. Although it wasn’t design-focused and not something I wanted to do forever, I was very familiar with their organization and the online marketing they needed, so I was confident that I could provide a ton of value to them. And I did! I went for it, submitted a proposal, got the job, and started feeling more momentum.
The other big turning point was the beginning of 2017 when I started booking out more in advance with branding projects. I’d just done a branding refresh for my own business, including beautiful new photos and copywriting on my site (thank you to to the lovely and talented Brett & Janelle Photography and Kayla Hollatz!), which helped me make my brand and voice stronger than it’s ever been. That change, combined with all the networking, blogging, social media marketing, etc. I’d been working at for four years, led to something just… clicking. The number of projects I was booking skyrocketed and honestly, inquiries have been really consistent ever since. This has helped me take a breath, let my brand speak for and sell itself, and spend a little less time focusing on finding clients and instead work on my visibility and preparing my business for the future, etc.
The evolution of your business
What do you love most about branding and identity design? Do you find it easy to stay focused in this one area, or do you ever feel the pull to offer other design services?
Collaborating with my clients and developing a relationship with them during our time together (and after!) is something I love and always look forward to with every project. I have a holistic, heart-centered approach to branding — my creative process is designed to help my clients clarify their brand vision and strengthen their brand’s foundation before we create their visual brand identity. So, the time we spend together digging deep, getting to the heart of the matter, learning about their business and their ideal client, and really feeling the emotional connection they have to their business… all that leads to a friendship that makes the project that much more enjoyable -and- it often lasts beyond our project! I love cheering on my clients and watching their businesses evolve and grow.
How do you go about finding your customers?
Word of mouth has always been my best marketing tool. I’m a firm believer in loving hard on your current clients and giving them the best experience you can — they will become your best referrers! I’ve also developed many genuine friendships with other small business owners here in the Twin Cities and because we love, support, and believe in what each other and what we are offering, we naturally refer one another.
I’m thrilled to say that I also receive numerous inquiries directly through my website from people who found me via Google search. This did not happen overnight by any means, but after working with a professional copywriter for my website, I saw a huge increase in traffic. So, I can say from experience that having beautifully written, high quality and SEO-optimized copy on your site can do wonders!
Of course, having a consistent presence on social media helps as well. Putting myself out there, sharing my story and my work, and connecting with my tribe (especially on Instagram!) has been a great way to establish myself as an expert in my field and help me authentically communicate my brand and offerings to potential clients. I’ve had people follow me for awhile and reach out many months (or maybe a year!) later, when they’re feeling ready to invest in a professionally designed visual brand for their business. Like I said, it doesn’t happen overnight, but genuinely connecting with your tribe (or those who you want to be your tribe!) and staying consistent is key.
Any advice you can offer to other designers looking to break onto the branding and identity scene?
Know that sometimes, great things take time. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t go perfectly right away and don’t take those “how to make six figures in your first year” posts for your truth. Give yourself time to try different things, hone your process, work with different types of people, find your groove, and figure out what feels right to you. You’ll learn more by actually doing the work than sitting there listening to all of the podcasts and reading all of the blog posts, waiting to start. I’m still guilty of doing this in certain seasons of my business and I have to remind myself that staying in your lane is key.
I’d also say that, at first, no project should be too small or significant. Think of each project as an opportunity to hone your skills, make a connection with that business owner, and make some money, of course. Many of my longer-term clients first hired me for a simple newspaper ad design, a brochure, or a single logo. A year later, it gradually turned into retainer work or collaborating on a full visual brand. Again, great things take time!
Behind the scenes
What does a typical day look like for you?
Every day looks a little different depending on my workload, my meeting schedule, etc. I’ve been doing time blocking each day, which has been really helpful for productivity and ensuring I’m making it through my to-do list every day. So, after getting up and having my breakfast and coffee (and barre class, a few mornings a week!), I know what my focus is for the day and I can dive right in. Usually, my days are a blend of client design work, responding to client emails, keeping up on branding project flow, making revisions to design projects, prepping print materials for print, and anything else my clients need.
Some days will be more admin-heavy (on-boarding clients, putting together contracts and proposals, bookkeeping, etc.) and some will be more focused on my own marketing. It all depends on project deadlines and where things are at.A couple days a week, I teach dance classes at two local studios so I wrap up work in the late afternoon on those days. On my non-teaching days, I’ll work until between 5pm-6pm and then enjoy time with my husband. We don’t have kids yet, so if it’s super busy week, I might do a little extra work in the evening to keep caught up. But I’ve been trying hard to get out of that habit. My brain and creativity needs that rest in order to feel refreshed and productive the next day!
Client meetings, networking events, and coffee dates with other local creatives are sprinkled throughout my weeks, which breaks up my routine in the best way. I usually work from my home office, but at least once a week I’ll work at a coffee shop for a change in scenery. Sometimes just being around people gives me the renewed sense of energy when I need it!
Can you name a book, podcast, conference, or individual who has had a lasting positive impact on you and your business?
Oh, there are so many incredible and inspiring people and resources out there. My go-to podcasts lately are Raise Your Hand Say Yes with Tiffany Han, The Real Female Entrepreneur, Creative Empire, and Being Boss, but I’m always looking for new ones!I’m very lucky to live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, which has a wonderful and thriving creative community and lots of opportunities to connect with like-minded small business owners. They are always inspiring me and leaving a positive impact with their encouragement, willingness to share knowledge and tips, and honestly, just saying “me too” when you feel like you’re the only one. I’m a part of a mastermind/accountability group here in Minneapolis and those ladies have (and continue to have) a beyond positive impact on me and my business. I don’t know what I’d do without them!
Hopes + dreams
What areas are you still working on becoming better at, as a business owner and a creative individual?I’m working on having better boundaries with my work.
My business is my baby and I care so much about my clients, the quality of my work, and the overall success of AllieMarie Design. But it can consume me sometimes to the point where I don’t have enough time to just be and spend time with my family and friends. And, of course, I want to make sure I’m at my best when I’m designing visual branding for clients… and a sleep deprived, over worked, creatively exhausted Allison does no good for anyone!
What do you envision for the future of your business? Do you have any personal dreams that you still have your sights set on?
From the beginning, I’ve always said I want to keep things simple with my business. Even now, I don’t imagine having an agency structure with a big team working under me or transitioning into a solely product-based business and do the passive income thing. It’s important to me that I keep my business a small design studio, continuing to offer that one-on-one experience to my clients and doing the heavy creative work as long as it continues to bring me joy.My main goal for 2018 is to focus on molding my business into something that truly fits my life (not the other way around).
After 5 years of being in “hustle mode,” I’d like to start making bigger strides toward what I want my biz to look like in two years, five years and beyond… although there are many still developing pieces to that puzzle, my vision is becoming more and more clear, which is really exciting. I started outsourcing my bookkeeping and I’m hiring a design assistant this fall to help give me more downtime and that balance I was talking about, not to mention creative energy to start focusing on some new ideas and making them happen!
Anything exciting on the horizon? Tell us about what you’ve been up to lately and what we can look forward to:
I’ve been enjoying working with some of the most incredible small business owners and helping them elevate their marketing with a beautiful authentic visual brand identity, print materials, and website designs. So keep your eye out for lots of really fun brand reveals on my blog in the coming months!I’m also playing around with the idea of creating my first online course, to further inspire and bring more brand clarity to my clients and community of small biz owners. Stay tuned and if you want to get a taste of where I’m going with this, you can download my Branding Workbook for free!Lastly, I’m getting really excited for some upcoming events and workshops here in the Twin Cities! I’ll be on a panel at my dear friend and copywriter Kayla Hollatz’s conference Your Own Way on November 2 and I’ll be a Branding Passion Leader at Ena Workshops in April for local wedding professionals.