After moving from Brisbane to Melbourne, Tess McCabe was looking to strengthen her network among the city’s creative community to support her new life as a freelance Graphic Designer. So when the opportunity to take over the reigns of the Creative Women’s Circle (CWC) came along, she jumped at the chance.
Fast forward 6 years and CWC is one of the country’s most popular and dynamic communities for women in the creative industries.
Taking her love for creativity, communication and collaboration a step further, Tess is co-host of The New Normal Podcast (the podcast for multitasking parents – we love that!) and the founder of Creative Minds Publishing all while running her own design firm at TessMcCabe.com.au.
Now this Designer, President, Radio Host, Publisher and Mother of two chats with Woman Rising for Week 5 of our In Her Shoes Women In Business Summer Series.
Firstly, let’s get the facts:
NAME: Tess McCabe
BUSINESS: Tess McCabe Graphic Designer / Creative Minds Publishing / Creative Women’s Circle
YEAR LAUNCHED: 2008
Q: What was your professional journey before starting your business and how did your biz concept spark?
I’ll start by saying that my ‘business’ has three distinct aspects, but each are interlinked.
Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Design Studies (Graphic Design) in 2002, I worked for a large publishing house in Brisbane, where I honed my skills in book design and gained a broad view of the publishing process.
After a year of travel and working in the design industry overseas, I relocated to Melbourne in 2007 and freelanced for design agencies and in-house design teams for a year before launching my solo graphic design practice. The move to self-employment seemed logical to me – I disliked the ordinary ‘clock in at 9am, clock off at 5pm, 30 minute lunch break’ aspect of working for an employer and revelled in the variety of work I was offered as an independent contractor – identity design, website design, publications, reports, books. Every day was different and I loved managing all aspects of my business, instead of just being a cog in the wheel.
However, being new to Melbourne and working by myself from home, I lacked a network of professional friends and colleagues who were interested not just in graphic design but in other creative pursuits like I was.
I had met a number of interesting and inspiring creative women – many of them also working for themselves or running their own businesses – via a local meet-up group called Creative Women’s Circle (CWC). When the original founder wanted to pass the reigns in 2009, I grabbed them with gusto and over the next six years slowly built the group to become the thriving nation-wide online and offline community of creative women that it is today.
CWC was a small but incredibly satisfying part of the work that I did, and it also provided me with an audience and outlet to forge my own path in book publishing. I published two books under the CWC banner – Conversations with Creative Women (2011) and Conversations with Creative Women Volume Two (2013). I also released a printed version of my eBook Graphic Design Speak in 2014, and in 2015 developed, designed and published Owning It: A Creative’s Guide to Copyright, Contracts and the Law with lawyer and author Sharon Givoni. Before Owning It came out, I formalised the publishing arm of my business and set up Creative Minds Publishing as an official company (but it’s still just me!).
So, both CWC and Creative Minds were born organically from my profession as a graphic designer, but each offers different products and services to slightly different audiences (but with a lot of overlap, let’s be honest!).
Quite recently, I have formalised CWC into a registered non-profit association, which actually means that although I am its current president, I am a volunteer, as are all the Board and committee members. This was a personal decision as much as it was a logical one for the sustainability of the group and its ability to service the many needs of its loyal community. It’s really exciting to begin to collaborate with others on the direction of CWC.
Q: What gave you the confidence to dive in at the beginning?
The confidence to move to self-employment as a graphic designer was born from a desire to be in charge of how I spent my time day-to-day, both in terms of projects I took on and also how much or how little work I did on any given day of the week. If I wanted to take the afternoon off, I did. If I wanted to work into the wee hours of the night, I did. If I wanted to concentrate on a passion project instead of take on a client project, I had that choice. I saw being a professional designer as being someone who does a job well and puts their head and heart into the outcome, not someone who turns up to a building and doesn’t leave until eight hours later, for five of seven days each week.
While my foray into publishing has been on a decidedly smaller scale than that of the international company where I worked fresh out of university, learning so many foundation skills there definitely made the prospect of self-publishing, and working with an author to publish their work, less intimidating.
As for CWC, I took a punt that if I liked the kind of creative community event I was thinking of offering, others would as well. I started small and took cues from the community as to where and how to grow it.
Q: What has been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since launch and what lessons came from the experiences?
I’ve introduced two children into my life since 2012, so perhaps the biggest challenges have come from ensuring that each aspect of my business is agile enough to deal with their needs at various stages. For example, when my first son was born, I scaled back on graphic design work, and just concentrated on CWC, as it was the more manageable and self-directed of the two aspects of my business. When my husband wanted to take on the role of stay at home dad when our son was a toddler, I built up my design client list, began developing and designing Owning It. That book was released under Creative Minds just before my second son was born (busy month!). Now that I have two kids under four, I’m being very selective about the amount of design work I take on; I am not currently developing any new books; and I am concentrating on getting CWC running smoothly as a non-profit (and delegating its various tasks to the newly appointed board/committee). This balance of projects will all change again over the next 12 months I’m sure.
There have been many lessons along the way.
- It took longer than I thought to build up a solid graphic design client list again after taking extended mat leave after my first son. I should have prepared to return to at least part-time practice well before I needed to go back full-time.
- When a book that I publish is out in the world for sale, there is a lot of stuff that is not design/concept related that I have to do. Boring stuff. I have learned to outsource some of it, and accepted the rest into the minutiae of my regular business activities.
- I’ve decided to forget about the ideal division of work-time and family-time after kid #2. I currently work in random pockets of time where I can, and do a lot more ‘thinking’ before I sit down to ‘do’, which actually makes me much more productive when I’m working and gives me more than enough time to be attentive to my family AND manage some sleep in there somewhere as well.
- Being self-employed has provided me with a lot of professional opportunities but it has also come with fluctuating income from year-to-year. While as a family we have never had an issue making ends meet, because my husband is also self-employed, basic life things like convincing a bank to give us a home loan when we couldn’t show them regular payslips from an employer was an unexpected challenge when we first set out to get one (and continues to be every couple of years when we want to refinance). There is a lot of jumping through hoops for things like that – stuff that ‘employees’ in the traditional sense doesn’t have to deal with, which is frustrating. There’s a perception that self-employed people are always a project away from never earning another dollar again, which couldn’t be further from the truth. But being in a minority always comes with unique challenges – it only makes me more resolute!
Q: How important is following your intuition in your business?
Somewhat important, though it has failed me in the past when I’ve relied on it too heavily. I try to mix in a fairly hefty dose of rational reasoning into any decision I make – along with consulting my ‘brains trust’, who are the people who know me personally and my business audience/goals the best.
Q: What are 3 things you wish you knew then?
I wish I had been more patient and maybe studied overseas for part of my design degree, rather than itching to get out into the professional world. I also wish I had specialised my design practice earlier – while a broad depth of experience is an advantage in some respects, I think a specialisation can garner more professional rewards.
More recently, it would have been good to have known a bit more about managing a first-time author while they write their manuscript, as we definitely both made a few mistakes along the way! But regrets are worthless – you can only do what you want to do now and in the future. Best to accept/learn and move on.
Q: What is the key piece of advice you would provide others starting out?
So many little things: Be a good business person (pay bills on time). Ask questions (but be wary of boundaries). Respect other people’s time and effort. Build a good reputation. Put yourself in your customer/client’s shoes.
Q: What does it feel like to look back on what you have accomplished so far and know you have developed your own path?
I feel happy that I have developed a business structure that combines both flexibility and stability in terms of workload + family demands, as well as variety when it comes to creative stimulation, collaboration and professional challenges. By running my own show I have a much broader foundation of skills than if I had just stuck on the path of an employed graphic designer.
- A biz system/program/platform you can’t live without: Podcasts – I listen and learn from them constantly.
- What keeps you motivated (aka professional motto): ‘Do work that you are proud of with your talented friends’ – Amy Poehler
- Who do you admire in business: Tina Roth Eisenberg, Ira Glass, Jessica Hische, Lucy Feagins, Tyler Brûlé.
- When I started, I wish someone told me… Work less, travel more pre-children!
- One day I hope to… add ‘philanthropist’ to my business card title. (Anyone out there the next J.K. Rowling…?!)
Thank you for talking to Woman Rising
Image credit: Shannyn Higgins (supplied by Tess McCabe)