For my first article, I thought it would be a good idea to tell my business story. I personally love hearing how other people got started in business so hopefully, you’ll find this article interesting and encouraging. It’s a bit of a long story, so let’s get into it!
Let me properly introduce myself. I’m Stephanie Duke, a brand and website designer based in Cleveland, Alabama. Yes, you read that right Cleveland, Alabama – not Ohio or Tennessee! I’m a Christian, a wife, and an only child, among many other titles. I have a special interest in building brands and websites for stay-at-home wives and mothers in business, hence the name of my podcast – Homemakers in Business (check it out on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts).
I believe women can make considerable money running home-based businesses without sacrificing their personal lives. I have been in the online business space for over 3 years and have seen literally HUNDREDS of women make millions of dollars from home, while traveling, or doing whatever they want in their lives that would not be possible with a “normal” job.
It’s my hope that this podcast will be a source of inspiration, encouragement, and actionable advice that you can implement into your own business whether you’re just considering the idea of starting a business or have been at it for decades. I believe that you have a unique gift that can be used to support your family and glorify God. I hope this blog will be a rich resource for you and a place where you can feel safe to dream, ask questions, and find community.
As a brand and website designer, I’ll be writing about all things branding, marketing, websites, ideal clients, entrepreneurship, social media, blogging, goal-setting, trends, and so much more. There’s like, a lot to business if you haven’t figured that out yet! There will definitely be some more personal topics as well talking about things like homesteading, gardening, raising chickens, small-town life, travel, faith, and homemaking.
Now let’s get into HOW I got into business and just more about my background. I think it’s really fun to look back over my life and see the specific events and people God placed in my life to get me to where I am now. So we’ll take it back to childhood and go from there.
As mentioned before, I’m an only child. I grew up in a two-parent Christian household, very close to my mom’s family because her parents lived right next door to us. The women in my family are very creative, especially my grandmother – who I call Mimi. So my entire childhood I was constantly doing arts and crafts, going to craft shows, heavily decorating for holidays, taking all types of dance and art lessons, playing clarinet, doing musicals – all the typical creative kid things.
Both of my parents have worked my entire life so I also did all of the traditional schooling from daycare and preschool to public elementary and high school to college. When I was about 15 years old I got the idea in my head that I wanted to work for Disney as an animator – but from home. Now, this was 2010 so remote jobs in general were not very common at all. Regardless, I had my heart set on this dream job throughout most of high school.
Fast forward to my senior year of high school, I’m struggling to find a semi-local college with an animation program. It simply didn’t exist in my area at that time. So I narrowed down my options to 2 schools with design programs. I ended up choosing my college based on who gave me the most scholarship money, which I think many people do.
Now understand, I graduated from a rural high school with no art classes outside of the band program. No drawing classes, no design classes – y’all I didn’t even have a cluuuue what graphic design was. The term simply wasn’t in my vocabulary. All those art and dance classes I took were extra-curricular and not school affiliated.
Jumping ahead to freshman year of college, I failed my first math class. I consider myself to be pretty book-smart. I’ve got a lot of common sense. But y’all, I cannot math. Like, not at all. It stresses me out, makes me sweat, I absolutely despise it. And failing that class caused me to lose my scholarship. Which was the whole reason I was even at that college.
So over the next year and a half, while I’m still going to classes, trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, I get my first part-time job at a local hardware store. I had taught private clarinet lessons and worked as a band camp instructor previously, but this was my first “real” job. I soon got a second job at a local animal shelter, got engaged to my now-husband, Thomas, and was starting to get some traffic to my online Etsy shop that I had opened in 2012. So by early 2016, I was working 3 jobs, planning a wedding, and commuting to college 2-4 days a week. To say I was burnt out is an understatement.
And y’all I’ll be completely honest, I made some wonderful, lifelong friends in college – but I did not enjoy the actual college experience. So it was a no-brainer for me to start looking for alternative schooling options at this point. I’m not even sure how I found them, but I discovered Southern New Hampshire University and they had a 100% online, remote animation program! I was already paying out of pocket for my schooling since losing my scholarship, so I really had no reason not to make the switch. It saved me on gas, time, sanity, and sleep.
Oh, I forgot to mention I started freelancing as a graphic designer about a year before this point. I got my very first logo design gig from a customer at the hardware store but was also doing any kind of design work I could get my hands on. My husband is a high school band director so I started designing the t-shirts for their halftime show, making social media graphics, wedding stationery, flyers, you name it I would do it just to get the experience. I’d grown up with friends, family, and teachers asking me to draw and make things for them, so this just felt like a natural extension of that practice.
2016 was a big year for me. I purchased my first car, got engaged, transferred colleges, quit a job, got married, and got 2 dogs. Fun fact about me, I’m absolutely obsessed with dachshunds. My little weenie-baby, Leia, who is currently sleeping at my feet, just turned 6 years old and she’s the best coworker I’ve ever had.
Okay now bear with me, this is going to sound irrelevant but I promise it’s important to the overall story. After getting married in July 2016, I was determined to be one of those wives that makes everything homemade. Food, decorations, cleaning supplies, the whole lot. Searching for DIY cleaning supplies led me down the road of a network marketing essential oil company.
This was a pivotal moment for me personally because I had suffered from frequent migraines and asthma all my life up to this point. As I said, I just wanted to DIY all the things so I wasn’t necessarily looking for anything to help with those ailments. But this was definitely one of those times when the Lord knew exactly what he was doing.
A month after starting to use those DIY cleaners and ditching the Clorox, bleach, Windex, etc. – I noticed it had been about a month since my last migraine. Okay, weird, but didn’t think too much about it. A few months go by – still no migraine. At this point, I knew it had to be the cleaners making the difference so I went down the rabbit hole of toxic products vs natural products, and needless to say, over time we’ve replaced all of our conventional products with non-toxic ones.
About 6 months into this, my upline reached out to see if I was interested in the business side of this network marketing company. I had no clue about business or entrepreneurship or MLMs or anything at this point, and I was curious so I said yes. Longer story short, I ended up “doing” the business and THAT got me into reading personal development and business books. Even though the stuff I was reading was specific to network marketing, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of possibilities.
2017 was another big year for me, but more so in a mental shift kind of way. I was no longer looking at college and my future in the typical way of “Oh, I’ll get my degree and then get a good-paying job working for someone else until I retire.” No, I was thinking of growing my network marketing business and my Etsy business, and figuring out how to make my animation/design work-from-home dreams come true. I had lots of ideas unfolding during this time, haha.
That same year, I quit my hardware store job and started working at a local plant nursery that was closer to home. Like close enough that I could come home for lunch breaks which was awesome! This was hands-down my favorite job I’ve ever had outside of running my design business.
I got to be outside all day and talk to people about plants, which are 2 of my favorite things. I probably would’ve been happy working that job alongside my businesses if it hadn’t been for blowing a disc in my back. If you’ve ever had this happen to you, first I’m so sorry, but you know how debilitating it can be. I continued working for as long as I could, but after being laid out flat on my back one day AT work, I knew I couldn’t continue working there.
There were about 6 months when I was virtually unemployed outside of the MLM and Etsy store. I tried waitressing, but after 3 days of training, I could not sit up in bed on my own. So I quit that job before it even actually started.
During this time, I felt terrible for not being able to work, I felt terrible for not being able to move my body, and I felt terrible for not being able to even simply do laundry because I couldn’t lift the clothes in and out of the washer. It was just not a fun time. Even though the physical pain and the lack of money sucked though, I’m still grateful for this time looking back because it got me into studying the Bible more regularly and exploring ways to work from home full-time.
The time is 2018 now, and some interesting things started happening. That spring I was invited by my school, SNHU, to represent the animation department at the PAX East Conference in Boston. PAX is a massive gaming conference for both electronic games and board games. I mean one of the biggest of its kind.
This was an incredible opportunity because they paid for everything – flight, meals, transportation, all of it. Thomas couldn’t get off work so my mom went with me and we had an amazing time. But I learned an important lesson at that conference.
I didn’t want to go into animation.
Now I’d originally wanted to do animation for feature films – that was the goal. But I also enjoyed gaming and that was the focus of SNHU’s animation program. Just for fun – some of my favorite games growing up were the Sims, Super Mario Bros, Call of Duty, and Unreal Tournament. But man, y’all. These folks literally eat, sleep, and breathe their careers. And I was not interested in that lifestyle. So even though I enjoyed the conference immensely, I left with the peace of knowing that path was no longer for me.
2018 also brought me two separate remote internships with two different marketing agencies where I worked closely with the owners of these agencies creating social graphics, logos, merchandise, and packaging for their real clients. These internships were unpaid, which was fine by me because I was still unemployed at that time so any experience I could get to make myself more employable in the future was welcomed.
Here’s a look at some of the work I did during those internships!
A few months into those internships, I landed a design job with a local sign company – a job I didn’t even apply for. Yup, you heard that right. God placed that one right in my lap. The owner literally found my resume on Indeed somehow, looked me up on Facebook, liked the work I was posting, and hired me basically on the spot. So at that job, I did all the things. I designed billboards, stickers, roadside signs, trucking decals, logos, and tons of other random things like a wrap for a bank ATM. It was an awesome learning experience.
Later in 2018, I landed a job in Birmingham, about an hour’s drive from home, at a funeral printing company. Again, you read that right. Funeral printing company. This was the oddest job I’ve ever had for sure, and it’s always fun explaining what I did.
It was a super fast-paced job because we had super tight deadlines to meet. There were somewhere around 15 designers there, a giant print room, quality assurance, and a lot of other staff. It was a well-oiled machine run by 2 sisters and it was fascinating to see them do business. I think it’s worth noting that the hardware store job I had was the only “corporate” job I’ve ever held. Every other job I’ve had was a small business, which I think is really cool and definitely influences the way I do business.
At that job, each designer would be responsible for anywhere from 4-15 jobs at a time. A job would include anything from programs, a registry book, appreciation cards, plaques, fans, and a number of other print items that would be available at a funeral. As I said, it was wildly fast-paced because you couldn’t reschedule the deadline!
Anyway, it only took a few months at this job to get seriously burnt out. I was commuting 2 hours a day, working 9-10 hours, rarely took lunch breaks, and honestly felt like I had maxed out what I could get from that job as far as experience and skill goes.
In early 2019, I discovered podcasts via a college friend sharing about a “business guru” she had found online. I was very quickly hooked on podcasts because we could have headphones in at work so it was easy to learn and work at the same time. Y’all I subscribed to allllll the podcasts. There were business podcasts, design podcasts, and Christian podcasts, and I was eating it all up.
I had continued freelancing through all of these internships, jobs, and life events, and actively started to pursue creating my own design business about mid-2019, but it was super messy and honestly, I felt inadequate and just frustrated because Alabama did not make it easy to know how to legally create a business.
Fast-forward to December 2019 and my bank account overdrafted for what felt like the gazillionth time. It was a bit of a breaking point for me and I vividly remember going to the bathroom at work to just sit and think. I knew something had to give.
I had started following quite a few designers and business owners on Instagram so I went there to scroll for some inspiration and came across this ad for Laptop Lifestyle Bootcamp with Amanda Kolbye. I remembered following Amanda and that she had a travel blog or something of that nature, but I didn’t know she was a business coach. After reading through the program information, I KNEW that was what I needed. So I started Laptop Lifestyle Bootcamp in January 2020 and that is what I define as the start of my business.
Now we all know what 2020 held for us. LLB was only a 3-month program so the month it ended was literally the month the pandemic began. This was obviously very terrifying, but in hindsight was such a massive blessing. I was let go from my funeral printing job at the start of the pandemic but quickly started teaching ESL online with VIPKid thanks to another woman in Laptop Lifestyle Bootcamp introducing it to me.
So while I was teaching, I was building my business foundations, getting more clients, and really learning how to be a business owner. In July I was offered a job at my childhood dance studio as the office manager. It was only 2 days a week and was stable income and close to home so of course I took it. It was another one of those God moments where I didn’t apply for the job and wasn’t even looking for a job. The owner just happened to think of me and reached out. Blessings all around!
Are y’all ready for another pivotal moment? By December 2020, I was feeling a bit discouraged in my design business. My Etsy shop was doing great, my teaching was picking up, and I still had the dance studio job – but the one thing I really wanted to be doing was not where I wanted it to be! Someone really should’ve just told me to have patience, haha. But I felt like I needed to focus more on my Etsy shop at that time.
Now in my Etsy business, I sell polymer clay art. So I went all in on it, following all the polymer clay educators online, investing in a craft show setup, rebranding, the whole shebang. And that business was GOOD to me in 2021! I loved every moment of it. I didn’t give up on my design business either, I still had clients, but it wasn’t something I was actively marketing for most of 2021.
If you’re familiar with VIPKid you know what’s coming next in this story. In October of 2021, China stopped allowing foreign teachers to teach their children. Which meant bye-bye VIPKid. So even though I knew it was coming for a few months, I felt like I was scrambling to replace that income because it had gotten to a point where VIPKid was my primary source of income – by a large margin. So I was frantically applying to all the online home-based jobs I could because I was not about to go out into the world to find another commuting job again. I didn’t care what the job was, I applied for it. Design, data entry, teaching, transcription. I applied to over 40 jobs and didn’t hear back from a single one.
Enter God, yet again. In the midst of all this applying, I had a random guy reach out to me on Facebook saying he saw someone recommend me in a Facebook comment. I didn’t even know the guy that recommended me so I was suspicious of this outreach at first. But I got on a phone call with him anyway, and long story short, I took him on as a retainer client the next week!
It gets better. That same week I was scrolling through Instagram Stories and saw a popular polymer clay educator searching for a graphic designer. My immediate thought was “She is too big of a deal and will have hundreds of people reaching out so she won’t even open my DM.” I closed out of the app and went about my day. Later that evening I came back to it and thought, well why not give it a try? The worst that can happen is she doesn’t see my message or she says no. But wouldn’t you know it, we got on a Zoom call that following week and I took her on as a retainer client as well.
The best part of this little story? Those 2 clients alone replaced my VIPKid income in full. Now I still have no idea where the first client actually came from, but the polymer clay educator? I would never have even seen her ad for help if I had not made the decision in December 2020 to focus on my polymer clay business. Talk about God working in mysterious ways!
Alright, so we are almost caught up to speed! 2022 definitely brought the most growth for my design business. I hired a CPA (huge shoutout to Zaslove Accounting!) to help with my complicated taxes which helped me feel so much better about my finances and understanding of it all.
But the best thing I did all year was join Elizabeth McCravy’s Booked Out Designer course. While I still love and reference the original LLB course I joined back in 2020, BOD was created specifically for brand and website designers – my specialty! It helped me improve my workflows, client experience, and marketing techniques, and is the sole reason you are reading this article right now.
2022 also brought me many new clients, new design friends, my first podcast interview, the highest revenue my business has ever seen, and the ability to quit my final part-time job. While not every day is easy or fun, I’ve never felt more at peace about where I am because I trust that this was God’s plan all along. I started my first “real” job in 2015 and it took me 7 years to get out of the “normal” workforce and come home full-time. Yes, I am working from home, but there is immense freedom that comes with just being home in any capacity.
I create my business schedule around my life, not the other way around. I’m able to meet my grandparents for lunch or go to the chiropractor when I need to without having to ask for time off. I have not missed a single opportunity to support my husband in his career this last year – remember he’s a band director so there are lots of family-friendly events like football games, competitions, and concerts. Even the freedom to take small breaks throughout the day to do a 5-minute chore like swapping the laundry or putting away dishes makes such a huge difference in the management of my home.
To wrap up my first-ever blog article, I want to tell you more about what I actually do in my design business. To start, the name of my business is just my name – Stephanie Duke. Since I’ve had my Etsy art shop for over 10 years, worked in network marketing for a stint, have a design business, a podcast, and foresee myself going down other creative ventures in the future – I figured going with my own personal brand was the best bet.
So, what do I do? I specialize in designing brand identities and Showit websites. If you’re new to the business world, you may still have questions about that – like what is a brand identity? Is it a logo? What is Showit? Do I even need a website? All your questions will be answered on this blog in due time, I promise.
But to put it all simply right now, a brand identity is the visual representation of a business. Think logos, colors, fonts, graphic elements, and photography. These are the assets that are used to build other business essentials like products, websites, marketing materials, and merchandise. And Showit is the best website host and building platform on the market – in my opinion. Like any new software, there is a learning curve to it but it is significantly easier to learn than any other website builder out there. Seriously.
In addition to designing fully custom brand identities and Showit websites, I also offer a super fun VIP Design Day. This is quickly becoming my favorite offer because it is such a quick turnaround and ROI. In a VIP Design Day, we can tackle a variety of design projects. Showit template customization, website maintenance, long-form sales page design, brand collateral like social media graphics or merch design, and even a design checklist of a bunch of oddball to-do items that need attention like updating the fonts in your Canva account and redesigning your email signature. Pretty much the only thing we can’t fit into a VIP Design Day is a brand or full-scale website design.
I hope you found a nugget of inspiration or encouragement in my business story that can give you some hope for your own life. If you have any questions, just want to say hey, or would like to work together you can find me at my website stephanieduke.co, or on Instagram with that exact handle – stephanieduke.co.
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