I took my hobby and turned it into an online business, which killed all the joy in it. The story of an introvert running an online business — how I learned to do things my OWN way.
I took my hobby and turned it into a business, which killed all the joy in it. I thought I’d share my story as a freelance creative, new business owner, introvert and anxiety sufferer — as I know I’m not the only person trying to balance these opposing forces.
Just over 18 months ago, I started my Instagram account to document the renovation of our 1901 Edwardian house. It was supposed to be a visual diary and private outlet for inspiration and support, but it quickly turned into a more curated feed to support my ambitions to work in the interior design industry.
This was great for a while, as I had my own little corner of the internet to showcase my own private work, style and sensibility when it comes to interior design and decorating. I wrote more on this here.
Instagram was a fun place for me to hang out and to meet other like-minded interior lovers. It was, and still is, a wonderful community to be part of. I love the camaraderie, support, inspiration and the satisfaction that I get when I see my Instagram friends’ journeys and homes coming together beautifully. I have been very fortunate to work with some really amazing brands to create styling concepts and content, including Soho home, OKA Denby, Pooky Lights and Cult Furniture.
My account has been featured on Apartment Therapy (three times!), Domino Mag, Audenza, Farrow & Ball, Little Greene and Sheer Luxe, and I was recently shortlisted for Best Home Styling Blog by the prestigious Amara Interior Blog Awards. I was featured on The Great Indoors podcast, hosted by Sophie Robinson of Sophie Robinson Interiors and Kate Watson Smyth of Mad About the House, to share my experiences of racial discrimination in the interiors industry. All of this led to several thousand more pairs of eyes on me and my little corner of the internet.
So where did it all go wrong?
I knew that I didn’t want to become an influencer, and although I frequently received requests and invites to receive gifting and press items for brands, I really didn’t want to go too much down that path and I refused most collaboration requests unless the brand was perfectly aligned with my values.
What I really wanted was to work with people. I wanted to help people create unique homes that are nurturing, comforting and calming. I wanted to work with people like me: slow home-makers that are happy to take their time to figure out their own style, understand what works for them and what meets their needs — and not what is trending or “colour of the year”.
I wanted to work with people who see design as a valuable investment that could improve their mental and physical wellbeing and help them thrive at home. People who are introverts and home birds, just like me.
And there are so many of us! I worked with some wonderful people to help create homes that meet, and will evolve with, their needs, instil a harmonious flow of energy and promote internal and external wellness — something that, as a qualified medical practitioner, I am acutely aware is closely linked to our immediate environment.
In less than 6 months, I went from loving what I was doing and being grateful for Instagram and the opportunities it afforded me, to opening the app and physically feeling my chest getting tighter and tighter, which ultimately resulted in hospitalisation.
The simple truth is — I lost myself. I was trying to be a self-promoting, over-confident, authoritative business owner, and that is not who I am. I was blindsided by what everyone else was doing and convinced myself that the only way to run an online business was loudly.
As soon as I launched my business, Instagram changed. It was suddenly now all about getting clients and appearing successful. I was posting at optimum times every day, liking, commenting, engaging with peoples posts, checking stats and pandering to the algorithm. I would spend hours and hours doing this because all of the online advice, strategies and business coaches said that was what you needed to do to grow a business, to succeed and to be “fully booked”. Instagram went from being a source of joy, fun, creativity and friendship to a relentless treadmill.
I hungrily scrolled, obsessively scouring for leads, looking for the next project or client, thinking of content to create, wondering if every person that messaged me about a wall colour could become a potential client. This went on for months, all in the hope that it would drive clients to my site. It worked, but who had I become?
I was becoming tired, frustrated and panicked. I felt like an inadequate failure if a post bombed. The never-ending game of content creation and finding my audience was exhausting.
For my A Level in English Literature, I read Death of a Salesman and it is only now that I truly understand and relate to the protagonist’s true predicament. His sense of value, self-worth and esteem was, in his mind, directly proportional to his ability to make sales. For those who have read this play, I am definitely not comparing myself to him but simply trying express how society can make us feel this way. But our value is not the sum of our productivity.
There’s an unhealthy culture around creatives, business owners and freelancers that dictates they should hustle, network, be agile and reactive, build a six-figure business overnight. But what if you can’t cope with this sort of stress and adrenalin?
As someone who suffers from anxiety and PTSD — something I’ve never spoken about online — I found this way of working excessively tiring and draining. I was spending 10–14 hours on my phone every day and I dreaded those mocking notifications of average screen time statistics. But I told myself it was part of my job, so it was ok.
I was losing sleep thinking about these so-called business strategies and missing out on vital moments, like talking to my partner and actively listening to his anxieties and worries about his own job. I was having phone conversations with my elderly parents while also trying to reply to DMs and work on my website all at the same time.
For years I felt like I couldn’t keep up with the normal pace of the world, and then during lockdown, the world finally slowed down. Yet there I was, launching a business and trying to go as fast as I could!
I was having a daily battle with myself: the entrepreneur self that was chasing her dreams, grinding and hustling; and the introvert self that is slow, cautious and kind to herself.
For example, I would beat myself up over why I couldn’t and didn’t want to do Instagram lives, to talk on stories, or show my face on my feed. I am naturally private and introverted, and the very thought of it made me ill. But I kept hearing that this is what I needed to do for my business to connect on a personal level with my clients.
I asked myself why, as an introvert, do I even have social media? What a bloody contradiction. But here’s the thing: introverts can be creative, show their work and inspire others on their own terms.
This is not a woe-is-me blog post. In an effort to be my most open, truthful and authentic self online, I am opening up and putting this out there. Since my recent post on Instagram about my anxiety struggles, people have opened up and I’ve heard so many stories that are similar to mine, and so I felt compelled to share my story and my lessons learned in the hope that it helps one person.
This permission slip to everyone in a similar situation. You are allowed to carve your own path, no matter how wildly different it looks from others. Your worth is inherent and not dependent on the opinion, judgment or how well you respond to the rigid expectations of society and others.
It is hard. It really is. But it’s important to cut through all of this noise and hear yourself, and then believe in yourself. This realisation has helped to alleviate my anxieties surrounding social media. I’ve came to terms with the fact that it is not whether or not I use it, but how I use it that matters. To use it for good, and in my own way, slowly and unshackled by the dreaded algorithm.
Ending up in hospital with my heart racing at 150bpm at rest from anxiety forced me to slow down, and I would urge anyone in a similar situation to step back before you get close to this point. I’ve taken down my services page and I am taking time out to create a business model that is truly suited to my personality, lifestyle and mental health instead of an interpretation of what I thought it should be.
There is space and a pace for everyone to do their thing in their own way, we just need to take time to figure out exactly what that looks — no, what it feels like.
Finding the right type of clients
After I launched my business, I realised I wasn’t doing the work I envisaged. Instead of sticking to my key services, I was saying yes to everything for the sake of money, and many of those clients were not right for me, my business or my values.
These “wrong” clients were the bottom line ones, the ones that wanted me to just do the job for the cheapest price possible and didn’t take any pride in the end result. These clients didn’t value my skills or time.
I chased these clients for invoice payments that would always be late. These clients always wanted more and I would spend long evenings tweaking design documents and hours on the phone explaining documents that were all pretty much self explanatory. These clients wanted me to available 24/7 and I was always there, eager and happy to help because I had no boundaries.
I spent valuable time putting together quotes and writing proposals, covering ways in which these clients could improve their commercial premises to better serve their customers in a post-pandemic world, only to hear nothing back. Not even a no, thank you.
This was my fault. I was saying yes to everything, and I didn’t have an appropriate screening system for my ideal client. I was trying to do all and be all to everything and everyone. Need an interior designer? Hire me. A stager? Hire me! A stylist? Content creator? Hire me. I was spreading myself far too thinly, loosing focus and, as a result, burning out fast.
On top of the actual work, pitches, admin and emails were the networking groups, business courses, content strategy workshops, Facebook ads training. I was spending less time doing what I loved doing, which is designing, interior styling and photography.
My mind was so consumed with how to get more clients that I forgot to get to know the right ones. The ones that align with my values of soulful design that supports and promotes good mental health. The ones that understand the true purpose of home, and are willing to invest in medically-sound, thoughtful and sophisticated solutions, bespoke to them.
Growing your business slowly is the best way to understand your core services and who will value them the most. Even if this is a tiny pool of people, targeting a small, engaged and relevant audience is infinitely more productive than watering down your offer and trying to appeal to everyone.
Defining a niche that is deeply connected to your own beliefs and journey is the most authentic way to sell. The quiet, assured pitch of “slow business” is something I have finally arrived at after a long journey of trying, and failing, to be a ruthless, shouty, busy business owner (I wrote all about my journey as an introverted entrepreneur here).
I was seeing other interior designers and stylists getting the types of clients that wanted, launching their online shops, working with brands I coveted. I was falling into the trap of comparison-itus, and it gave me the wrong sort of determination. The sort that makes you want the most and the best, not the sort that is responsive to and in tune with your personal needs and desires.
And so any queries that came my way, I said yes, and was running up and down the country to meet potential clients, quoting competitively to ensure I won the job and taking on jobs that were wrong. This amounted to tens of hours of commuting in the midst of a global pandemic.
I burnt out so quickly and ended up in hospital. I have learned a lot from that experience and I’m now taking time out to understand who my perfect client is. Yes, it is one that values expertise, pays on time, gives space and time to complete creative work. But they are also just like me. We understand one another, and there is mutual respect. The expansive services page, five-figure month and steadily-growing Instagram presence can wait because, finally, I understand what is important.
Find me on Instagram — @somethingbluehome