Tamara McElhannon, a 49-year-old native Georgian of Celtic heritage, has a BFA, and is a Graphic Designer and Fine Artist at her company Tamara McElhannon Graphic Design and Illustration / Southern Studio Arts.
How did you begin your 100% work from home journey? I was part owner of a graphic design agency and sold my half to my business partner. After taking time off to travel, I began freelancing from home. It was a natural progression. I wanted to provide a service that was valuable to my customer. Making sure I had a great workspace and the latest technology to do what I needed to do was critical. The benefits? No commute! I am way more productive at home. However, that only works because I am very structured with my time. My office feels like an office. When I leave for the day, I shut the door. It’s a mind game.
Where was it going? Financially, I have done as well, if not better, than I would have if I had a full-time job with a company and I have my FREEDOM! This lifestyle is a perfect fit. Rarely have I felt like it was going to crash in on me. This last recession was the closest but I’ve been doing this for almost 25 years. I do have to make an effort to stay social. I go to meetings, I meet colleagues for lunch and I don’t mind productive meetings outside my office.
Some important factors that helped get started?
1. My first job was with a small graphic design company. I did a large majority of the work but not the bookkeeping and sales. My boss supported a family of four on the work I did, plus his part of the sales. I decided if he could support a family of four, I could take care of myself!
2. When I got to Atlanta, I tried to find a job with what I knew was a sub-par portfolio. I could do better but the only way to do that was to find the jobs that would up the quality. Portfolios are a MAJOR necessity for a graphic designer.
Today, Tamara is still a graphic designer. “I now include illustration in my title and from time to time I am a set/space designer. I am a fine art painter and show at galleries. I can do all of this because I am a solo-entrepreneur. I team up with vendors and other solo-entrepreneurs on various projects.”
What is the average day like? These days, I hit the ground running. Early mornings, coffee, and the news gets me going. I am in the office between 8 and 9 a.m. and out by 8 p.m. I try to stay committed to exercise in that time frame but my commitment comes and goes. A schedule is the most important thing to have. I get up, get dressed and go to my office as if I were working in a corporate job. Because of this, I take myself more seriously, and my clients do too. I do not return emails over the weekend, even if I am working. Right now, my work hours are Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and most weekends. Can’t complain, I am happy to have the work! I feel 100% in control of my life. Even if I am working around the clock, it’s by my choice.
Biggest challenges - Work-life balance. Vacation is in 10 days AND I’ve started telling new clients that I cannot work on their projects until mid-June. My initial fear was losing them but I am now booked until August! Also previously, when clients wanted to meet me at my office, I felt a little insecure about working from home. These days, it’s not taboo.
Lowlight of your 100% work from home career - Our accountant did not file sales tax forms and we were hit with a $30,000 tax bill!
Highlight of your 100% work from home career - I just finished a project for a huge Solar Power Plant just outside of Boston, MA. I created the environmental graphics for a solar trail around a bunch of solar panels for Cox Enterprises. High profile project, great cause, I’m proud of it.
The love/hate relationship - I like clients to stand out from the pack and when we do that successfully, it’s a lot of fun helping a client realize their vision for their company in a creative and compelling way. However, routine production work is not my favorite. I’m currently working with a production artist to take some of that load off.
What gives? I have a support network. Not a “team of people” but in general, I feel supported by my social and business networks. I have faith that I have a unique skill that can help someone else. I’m not a huge goal setter. I do hold myself accountable for moving forward every day and I’m a big believer in self-evaluation, regrouping and redirecting when something isn’t working.
Current status - I am happy financially. I am saving for retirement. I am happy socially and emotionally…I don’t sit well with the demons. If they sneak in, I kick them to the curb as fast as possible. Life is good.
Networking, social media and marketing - When a current client passes my name on, that’s the most valuable. Face to face networking, for me, is more about staying social and supportive to/with others in my community. Social media has been an eye-opener. Since I started an e-newsletter, my business increased by a third. I spend some time conceptualizing it and creating it. I feel it must be a professional job, look like “I” did it and not pulled stories from somewhere else. I also show a project that I have worked on and have a testimonial. I am working on being more social on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I’m giving it a good try, but I can’t say that I am that comfortable with it. The e-newsletter and cross selling to my clients are my best way to network. General ads to a general market suck! I learned this with my fine art business. Target marketing is the key and sometimes it takes a while to find the right niche in your target market.
Tamara plans to continue her 100% work from home streak in the future. “It suits me,” she adds. “I will tweak what I am doing and plant seeds for a career in the fine arts when I retire. I’m sowing the seeds now!”
Thank you for sharing your experience Tamara!