7 things I learned -- and am still learning -- from starting my own business

Bonomo paper co 1Hannah BonomoHannah Bonomo, in her home office.

Hannah Bonomo started designing stationery as a hobby.

“It allowed me to combine my love for illustration with my experience in graphic design, and my obsession for all things wedding related,” shares the 27-year-old, who was married to an equity research analyst in 2012.

After five years working for a digital media company in New York City, she knew it wasn’t what she wanted to do long-term.

“So I figured if there’s ever a time to take a risk, this is it,” she explains. “I’m young and hungry for a challenge, I don’t have children to support, and I’m covered by my husband’s health insurance.”

In 2014, with about $US9,500 collected from exercising stock options at her previous employer, Bonomo established Bonomo Paper Co., the bespoke stationery studio she runs out of her Brooklyn apartment.

“Before I started my own company I felt hopelessly stuck and uninspired,” she shares. “I had been at the same job for so long, I could do it with my eyes closed (and that’s saying something from a graphic designer). I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that way — in fact, I know most of my friends have been there, or still are.” Although she says she doesn’t consider herself to be a natural risk-taker or entrepreneur, “the challenges have reignited my drive and I feel more motivated now knowing that it’s up to me to make this work.”

Bonomo has officially been in full-time business since January 2015, and in her first few months of full-time entrepreneurship, she’s been learning fast. Here’s what the transition from corporate life to running her own business has taught her, in her own words:

1. Don’t quit your day job until you’re absolutely sure.

I started designing stationery in my spare time for three years prior to making it into a business. My first project was an illustrated save the date for a former coworker. I had no idea what I was doing.

I had never designed for print before and knew nothing about paper types or how to set up a print-ready file (I was a graphic designer working in digital media).

Needless to say, I gave my first bride a pretty significant friends-and-family-discount as a ‘thank you’ for being my guinea pig.

I needed to build a solid portfolio and allow myself time to learn the craft before going out on my own. It would be impossible to earn a client’s trust without enough experience to back it up.

Three years and a dozen printed pieces later, I finally felt I had the portfolio and skillset to launch my business.

2. Be fair to yourself and affordable for your clients.

Kentucky Save the dateBonomo Paper Co.Bonomo created this hand-painted save the date depicting the couple’s Kentucky venue.

I haven’t mastered the art of pricing yet. In theory, it’s some combination of my hourly rate plus the cost of printing (I work with third-party printers in the city).

However, I’m a perfectionist: If I billed the actual number of hours I spent on a design, I’d lose every job after the initial estimate. I’m still learning to find a balance between being fair to myself and affordable for my clients.

One challenge I run into a lot is that potential clients have already done some price research with the big online vendors, when they compare their prices to my estimate, they seem shocked. I have to remind them (and myself) that though we both sell stationery, we have very different business models. Bonomo Paper Co. is a bespoke stationery studio that offers premium, custom design services and our clients appreciate the quality and dedication that goes into each unique product.

3. Find a lawyer.

Frankly, I chose to file for a Limited Liability Company because my lawyer friend told me to. She put it to me this way: People have wild imaginations, and in the very unlikely case that a bride claims my stationery ruined her wedding and seeks retributions, my personal assets are protected. So that was more or less a no-brainer.

Setting up an LLC, however, is a pretty tedious, multi-step process, about which I was completely clueless. Everyone I spoke with told me to use Legal Zoom, that they make the whole process a breeze. It was partially true — they certainly got the ball rolling. However, there are many requisite steps even after receiving the nice, neat folder in the mail.

Did you know that in the state of New York, every LLC is required to have a notice published in two periodicals announcing their formation? For six consecutive weeks? Yeah, me neither. It was a pain, it was expensive, and it required a trip to my county clerk’s office.

Hannah bonomoHannah BonomoBonomo works from home to keep her costs low.

4. It takes money to make money.

Building a business isn’t cheap. In addition to the $US1,000-plus of filing fees and legal expenses, I also had to purchase a new computer (which, six months later, is now outdated), a new subscription for Adobe software, and my domain name and website.

I consider myself pretty lucky though — as a stationery business, my overhead is relatively low; I work out of my home and all of my products are made to order (for now), so I’m not paying for much up front. Even still, I’m on a much stricter personal budget now that I don’t get a regular paycheck. I can’t even imagine having to rent a space, pay for prototypes and production, or hiring employees before having any steady revenue stream.

Before quitting your day job, be sure to take into account the expenses you may incur just to get up and running and be sure you’re saving that, plus a few months of living expenses before you take the plunge.

5. Keep your accountant on speed dial.

Taxes are a foreign language to me, so it’s important that I keep an open dialogue with my accountant. Keep in mind I have a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and haven’t taken a maths class since high school. Terms like resale certificate, or EIN were never mentioned in Figure Drawing 101 or Colour Theory. I’m learning the importance of filing receipts and keeping an organised folder of invoices.

NYC Illustrated Save the DateBonomo Paper Co.A New York-themed save the date with hand-drawn illustrations from Bonomo Paper Co.

6. Just start working.

I let my desire to be perfect right off the bat keep me from taking the first vital steps. I wasted too much time in the beginning trying to create the perfect logo or the perfect website (I’m a designer, those things matter to me!). I was focusing on the branding details before I even established a brand.

The reality is, I needed to get the product out into the world so I could start bringing in business. The branding and site details will evolve over time, and I’ve learned to accept that.

7. People genuinely want to help you succeed.

I didn’t have a single client for the first two months. I was still working on filing my LLC, photographing my work, and building my site. It wasn’t until I created an Instagram account and Facebook page for Bonomo Paper Co, and invited all of my friends to “like” it, that I immediately started getting inquiries.

What surprised me most though, was the influx of messages from people I had lost touch with, who offered advice and helped to spread the word. One long-lost college friend, an employee at Facebook, offered to run a test ad for BPC; a former coworker periodically sends me details for networking events and inspiring designers, another friend-of-a-friend reached out asking if she could feature Bonomo Paper Co. in her company’s weekly newsletter — with a subscriber base of 10,000.

It was a wonderful reminder that there are some truly kind and generous people out there.

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