Today we’d like to introduce you to Caitlin Shannon.
So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
In some ways, you can say that I’ve had a designer’s heart since the day I was born. Growing up, my dad was a creative director at one of the largest advertising agencies in the Colorado Springs (Vladimir Jones). When my sister and I were little, he’d often sit us down at an empty computer in his office, open Photoshop, and tell us to go wild. We’d spend our time creating crazy artwork and at the end of the day, he would print out our finished piece, laminate it, and painstakingly cut it into bookmarks. I remember beaming with pride as I handed out my bookmarks as gifts.
I was hooked.
I spent most of my childhood crafting and creating artwork. I had my art featured in a few student art shows, but I was most proud of the artwork my parents would choose to frame and hang in our house. They always encouraged my creativity and patiently supported me as my mediums changed throughout the years. In my teen years, my parents bought me my first Apple laptop. I spent hours writing poetry and helping my friends “bling out” their Myspace and Xanga profiles with simple graphics and basic CSS/HTML code edits. I was free to explore at my own pace and I absolutely loved it. In my later high school years, I took a basic web design class and my project was selected to become the official website of a local business. I remember feeling the same pride that I felt when I was handing out my bookmarks in first grade.
As I was considering college, it didn’t take me long to decide on a major. I briefly considered psychology (a related interest of mine that continues to this day) but ultimately decided on design. My boyfriend at the time begged me to look into Full Sail University so that we could go to school together and I fell in love with their design program. It was targeted, accelerated, and cutting-edge. I signed up (ironically, my boyfriend didn’t) — and before I knew it, I was moving across the country.
After 13 lightning-fast months, I graduated as valedictorian of my program with an Associate of Science in Graphic Design. I moved back home to Colorado and picked up an in-house design internship (before spending three months in Thailand for a voluntourism trip), and I was asked to come back to that company full-time once I got back to the states. For nearly six years, I continued there, moving up from Junior Designer to Creative Services Manager.
During that time, I started getting freelance design requests from friends and family. It started with a trickle of simple business card and logo requests, and within a few years, I had several ongoing client relationships. I worked hard during the “in-between” hours to make it happen and spent many early mornings at our local Starbucks before I went to the office for a full workday. There were several moments during that time that I considered going full-time with my design business, but the risk-averse side of me just couldn’t bear the thought of losing my reliable bi-weekly salary.
As I headed into my sixth year of employment, I noticed that my runway for career advancement with that company was running out. My boyfriend (now husband) encouraged me to make the leap to working for myself full-time. I was terrified and had every excuse in the book for why it wouldn’t work. He replied with, “what’s the worst that could happen? You absolutely bomb for three months straight, run out of savings, and go get a better paying job? I know you; you can do this.”
So I decided to take the leap.
I put out an email to all of my existing freelance clients letting them know that I’d be open for more work and encouraging them to share my name with their network if they had been happy with our relationship. Because I didn’t burn the bridge with my employer, I was also able to freelance with them until they found a new designer to replace me. From month one, I was profitable.
Over three years later, I’ve more than replaced my salary and I have worked with dozens of amazing businesses to bring their dreams to life. My passion is working with people I call “light-bearers” — those who seek to bring good into the world through their services and products. It lights me up to be part of that process as their brand advocate and unofficial cheerleader. I’ve never considered myself particularly entrepreneurial, but I’ve absolutely loved having the opportunity to build a business I’m proud of with intention and authenticity.
Has it been a smooth road?
Even though I’ve remained profitable from day one, the journey has come with plenty of bumps along the way. One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve heard when I speak with young women looking to make the same leap is the idea of “overnight success.” Many people look at my story of “profitable from day one” and don’t see all that went into making that happen. I pulled 50-60 hour work weeks for many years as I built my freelancing business on the side of a full-time job. I was often up and out of the house by 5:00 am and didn’t get home until after 6:00 pm. I had to stay on top of things so that I kept my clients and my employer happy. I started freelancing at very low rates, and slowly worked those rates up as I gained experience.
By the time I launched my business full-time, I had already been building it for close to six years. Then I had to figure out how to actually run a business! The first several months came with a lot of growing pains and lessons — from time management and proper project scheduling to finding the confidence to raise my rates and the wisdom to cover the inevitable slow months. Some days I look back on my employment and marvel at how much simpler it was by comparison. Oh, if only I knew how “good” I had it! I’ve had many moments of doubt and wondering to myself why I decided this would be a good idea. I’ve had a few bad clients that stressed me out and left me empty-handed. I never enjoy those experiences, but I strive to learn something every time — whether it’s strong contract clauses or how to identify red flag clients earlier in the process. Running my own business full-time has been tough but incredibly rewarding. If I could sit down with myself three years ago, here are a few insights I would share:
Believe in yourself enough to take the first step. Many designers happen to be perfectionists — that’s part of what makes us so wonderful at our trade. But you cannot allow it to paralyze you. Be intentional about writing out your goals (make them S.M.A.R.T. goals) — and then commit to taking imperfect action. You’ll likely make mistakes along the way. That’s okay! That’s how we learn. I would be much further along today if I had taken action on the things that scared me.
Trust your gut. If there is something about a prospective client or project that doesn’t feel quite right — whether it’s their budget, personality, perspective, or something else entirely — trust that. Remember that the consultation is your honeymoon phase. If something is already stressing you out or causing pause, it’ll only increase as the project progresses. It’s a lot like dating. Staying in a friction-filled relationship that your heart isn’t in isn’t beneficial to either of you. Turning down a project or relationship that isn’t an ideal fit for your skillset frees you up to work on something you love, and frees up the client to do the same.
Be authentic. I spent far too long, thinking I needed to market myself a certain way or be a certain person in order to be successful. It was exhausting trying to play a part I was never meant to play. As soon as I started embracing my personality (and quirks), my business began to flourish. My love for psychology led me to embrace personality frameworks for self-awareness and personal growth (for the fellow nerds out there, I’m an ISFJ and Enneagram 9w1). I also pull from those frameworks to inform my marketing and business decisions. It allows me to attract clients who will genuinely enjoy working with me, and those clients have come to deeply value my sincerity and honesty. I call this “Magnetic Sincerity,” and I advocate for it endlessly these days.
So let’s switch gears a bit and go into The Ember & Co story. Tell us more about the business.
While I’m able to offer a wide variety of design services to my clients, I specialize in brand and website design — specifically for small businesses who desire to bring more good into the world through their products and services. It lights me up to know that my work amplifies beauty, truth, and kindness. I’m honored to have clients all over the United States (and beyond).
While visual branding can be rewarding, my true love is web design. As someone who is equally left/right-brained, I find web design to be a beautiful synergy of strategy, structure, and creativity. It’s such an honor to play a role in telling my clients’ stories through that medium.
I used to think that I would become known for my design talents, and while they are definitely appreciated, I’ve found that most of my clients rave most about their experience working with me. I’ve poured a lot of care and attention into providing an exceptional client experience. As a result, many of my clients continue working with me after our initial project, and over 95% of my business (if not more) comes from word of mouth. I like to say that the best marketing strategy is to love your clients well.
Of all of my personal and professional achievements as a business owner, I’m most proud of the warmth and authenticity of my client relationships. When you enjoy the people you work with, the work feels less like work. As Aaron Draplin said, “do good work for good people.”
Do you have any advice for finding a mentor or networking in general? What has worked well for you?
Truthfully, I often get stuck in the “I’ll do it myself” mentality. I also have a burden complex, so I don’t reach out to mentors in my life as often as I should. However, the longer I’ve been in business, the more I’ve come to believe that teamwork really does make the dream work. We go farther together, and the journey is certainly a lot more enjoyable when you have someone to journey alongside. One of my goals over the next year or so is to seek out an intentional relationship with a professional mentor.
I’m not a fan of huge in-person networking events, so I often start by connecting with fellow designers and business owners on social media. There are many great Facebook groups for professional designers (both local and global), and I’ve made some great connections simply through engaging in conversations on those platforms. Sometimes those connections end up being local and I’m able to meet them over coffee. It’s so much more personal than a quick introduction at a large gathering.
I’ve also learned to be open to learning from “all ages and stages.” I often pick up wonderful insights from those much younger than me, and visa versa. We all come to the table with a unique perspective and background. There is so much to gain from showing up with humility and striving to listen before you speak. You don’t know what you don’t know!
- Brand Design: Starting at $1,250
- Website Design: Starting at $2,500
- General Design Requests: Available upon request
- Address: Castle Rock, CO
- Website: emberand.co
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: instagram.com/emberand.co
- Facebook: facebook.com/emberand.co
- Other: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ckshannon
Kira Whitney Photography