My story: How a face full of acne led me to become the queen of branding

I’m successful in business because of acne. Yes, that’s right. The delightful volcanos that appear on your face at the most inopportune times, and no, mom, you don’t always just grow out of it. Aren’t female hormones delightful?

But anyway…. let me tell you all about how I went from the top of the world as an online course creator to the pits of service business hell and back again.

I got into business at 23 years old, after my face suddenly exploded in severe adult acne from top to bottom. It might sound superficial, but it was devastating to the ol’ self-esteem. That shit hurt.

This was 2010, a light year ago in internet years. Back then people barely knew what blogs were but I had a real problem I wanted to solve, and you bet your bottom dollar I was trolling all of them to find out how to fix my face!

I found myself buying an electronic suitcase full of “information products”, ebooks, and online courses from bloggers who had been in my situation and were now going to help me heal.

You know what? Their help damn well worked. After putting in some elbow grease on my diet and lifestyle, my face was starting to look like its old self. 

At the same time, I happened to be trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know that I hated every job I had ever had. I wanted to do something I cared about, that made a difference in people’s lives. That got me excited to wake up and work because I could be creative and do things my own way.

One day it hit me – if these people were making money selling e-books online about how to heal their skin…. why couldn’t I do that? I was passionate about this subject and had a lot to share!

Something in my bones said YES. THIS IS IT. It checked all the boxes. 

So I bought an online course (what else) about how to build an online business. I put the steps into action and stuck with it and slowly but surely, I started to grow a solid online audience who loved my blog, emailed me with questions about their skin, and eventually bought my e-books and programs. 

At the height of my success, I was having regular 10k months basically on autopilot, and several $30,000 months in almost pure profit selling a $200 course that was already pre-written and recorded, automatically sent to the customer, and didn’t require further time from me to deliver. 

I was the only employee so I didn’t have to stress about directing or paying a team, AND it meant I could work from home (introvert heaven over here) and be location independent (travel-lover swooning over here). 

As you can tell, I was living the dream. I was literally making money in my sleep.

Are you throwing your marketing dollars in a dumpster fire?

Now I know this part of the story isn’t the typical entrepreneur story full of struggle and strife, and how it took years on the struggle bus before the breakthrough (don’t worry, I’ve got a doozy coming up) — because it actually wasn’t much of a struggle at all to grow that business.

I mean, I worked hard at it – it wasn’t just magic pixie dust – but the business flowed easily from me and grew organically. 

A part of that was that it was super easy to rank well on Google and Youtube back then, so all I had to do was write weekly blog posts, and make simple low-budget videos of me talking for 10 minutes, and people found me. That was my one marketing method. I barely did social media and I certainly didn’t do any networking. 

But what I realize now is that the magic wasn’t in Google (or any other marketing method I could have done, for that matter). It was all in my brand. Google sure helped, but marketing only gets people there – it’s your brand that gets them to stay. It’s your brand that inspires them to buy.  

“Marketing is like asking someone on a date. Branding is what gets them to say yes”.  

…I legit don’t know who said that, but I’m stealing it. 

In other words, if your brand isn’t on point, throwing time and cash into marketing is as almost as akin to just throwing it in a dumpster fire.

You may have already tried increasing your marketing to remedy your problems – anything from buying ads, networking, and posting to social media.

My bet is that it didn’t work so well, leaving you increasingly frustrated and desperate. Even if it may have resulted in some extra clients, it didn’t result in any actual problems being solved. The clients you were attracting still sucked, and so you were still overworked, underpaid, and losing sleep. 

What I do is help you fix everything about your business BEFORE marketing.

It’s about crafting your brand, authority, packages, pricing, and processes to set up you for the kind of business you want to have.

It’s about building essential foundations so that you can go tell the world about what you do, and get results. No more shoveling time and money into a lead-weighted bag, destined for the bottom of the ocean. 

Back to the story…

My success? It was 100% brand magic.

Confession: Although I have evolved over the years and wouldn’t consider myself a total hippie anymore (maybe to some people!), I WAS a total granola-crunching hippie back then. White girl dreadlocks and everything. Not exactly what you would call your average business person. 

But I’ve always had this underlying dedication to being my full, authentic self – no matter what – so I went with it. I didn’t try to change my appearance or personality in any way. I had particular opinions about treating acne, and I shared them freely. I taught a distinct method that was different than the typical acne treatments that my customers had already tried and failed with. 

As a result, I probably turned off a lot of people who thought I was an idiot. Occasionally people would write me and tell me that. Or write rude things on my Youtube videos. (I’ll tell you some other time why that’s a good thing!)

But I did attract a very specific type of person with a very specific problem who resonated with who I was and what I was putting out there. 

While I wasn’t right for everyone, I was exactly right for THEM. If they wanted help with their skin, then what other choice did they have? They were going to buy from me because I was the one who “got them” in a way that others didn’t.

And that’s all that mattered.

The people who didn’t like me didn’t matter and did not at all affect my ability to have a successful, profitable business. 

Want the free mini-version of the BrandSauce interview I give all my clients so you can start figuring out your special sauce? DL it right now:

So you might be asking – wait HOLD UP A MINUTE… why aren’t you still doing that??? And why aren’t you teaching me how to build an online course? Because that sounds AMAZING, and my clients are driving me insane! 

Very good questions, with very good answers, but I’ll tell you all about that in another article.

Let’s get back to the story…

My rude awakening after pivoting into services

While building my first business, I learned and mastered a lot of skills. Copywriting. Tech. Website building. Design. Strategy. I also got certified as a coach and an online business manager.

After some soul-searching about what I wanted to do next, branding & web design was what called to me. It felt right to use my creativity, business sense, and strategic mind to help entrepreneurs and small business owners build powerful, freedom-creating brands as I had. 

I jumped in feet first, expecting the best because of my past success.

And what I ended up with was something I hadn’t expected – a big ol’ struggle. This whole services thing was a completely different ballgame. 

I’m not saying I made every mistake in the book. I did plenty of things right from the get-go. I am in branding after all, so I purposefully built a unique brand that attracted a particular type of client that I wanted to work with.

Because of this, I didn’t start out at bargain basement freelancer prices or charging hourly. I came out of the gate charging mid-range package prices, in line with what I was seeing other established branding & web design agencies charging.

But what took me off guard was just how time-consuming it would be to deliver my services, especially because I care so much and want to give the best results I possibly can for my clients. That shit takes time.

What would inevitably end up happening was that projects would drag on and on and no matter how much I liked the client as a person, I’d be annoyed by the end of it and want to push them off a cliff if they asked just ONE MORE QUESTION or asked for just ONE MORE EXTENSION. 

It wasn’t their fault (well, sometimes it was), but I just didn’t feel like I was getting paid enough for the amount of time it was taking. The more time each project took, the fewer projects I could take on, so it was incredibly hard to actually make this whole thing profitable. Plus, I felt like I didn’t have the energy to do consistent marketing so was never really sure where my next clients were coming from. 

All I wanted was consistent, reliable income and to not have to work every single minute of every single day. I often wondered if it was really possible in this industry, but I was willing to do anything to figure it out and make this work. The worst-case scenario of having to admit defeat and get a “real job” was just not an option to me.

I had no choice but to keep on trucking…

So I tried a lot of stuff. 

I failed at a lot of stuff. 

I made a lot of very expensive mistakes. 

The fact that I had once very much succeeded with “passive income” almost became a curse, because I thought I could do it again and that it would be the answer to my prayers. If I could just get some passive income going again, then I could free up my time.

I spent tens of thousands of dollars on courses and gurus to teach me how to do it in the new digital age.

I spent hours upon hours creating website templates to sell. I created and built a whole course for teaching people how to DIY their own brand and website. 

It didn’t work. I sold some of these, but not even close to what I’d need to have it make up a significant chunk of income. I started to realize what it was going to take to really make the “passive income” successful and started to accept that I didn’t want to do what it took. I’d have to stick with services. 

Since I had built all these website templates, I decided to offer a brand and website package that was “semi-custom” for half the price and hopefully half the time to deliver it (wrong). The thought was that if I had more offerings at different price points then I could fit in more clients and hire some staff to free up my time and do the things I didn’t want to do. 

By that time, I had had a few solid months with lots of clients in a row, so I thought ok – I’ve made it! And I’m ready to hire staff. I hired an assistant designer, and eventually, I decided I also wanted a project manager to shepherd the clients and answer their questions. As long as I booked two custom projects per month, or one custom and two semi-custom projects, then I could pay the staff, and myself, and expenses. 

But there was really no margin for error, let alone ever being able to schedule time off.

Of course, as soon as I hired them, shit hit the fan. Now that I had this “discount” offer, people began to only book that! I didn’t sell a full-priced custom package in months. 

Turns out these lower packages did NOT take half the time. They were almost as much work as the custom projects for half the profit. It was a disaster.

Shit was hitting the fan. Big time.

Things began looking real grim. 

The business was barely hanging on by a thread. The pressure was getting to me. If we didn’t book enough clients, or if a client didn’t get their content to us on time and pushed back their project (which happened a lot), then it was simple math…  we were going to run out of money and the business would fail. 

At that point, I had to completely cut out my own salary to be able to pay the staff. I was working harder than I ever had for literally nothing. It was a freight train about to go off a cliff.

By this time I was $45,000 in debt and to top it off, I was pregnant with my first baby and about to give birth in a few months. I would need some time off, but we couldn’t afford to have me continue to not bring in any income for an extended period. 

I. was. freaking. out. 

It became clear. Raising my prices was the only way to turn this train wreck around.

But the answer was starting to become clear. Like the clouds parting and the sky opening up.

I had to significantly raise my prices. It was the only way. 

How you price your services can make or break your business (and this was a critical ingredient that saved my business from destruction). If you want a thriving business, you can’t charge bargain prices.

But I get it – raising your prices is scary, especially if you regularly get people lowballing you. The catch is that you have to have the rest of the formula in place before you can charge more and have dream clients happily pay it.

No more of this low-priced bullshit. The DIY templates had to go. The semi-custom projects that took almost as long as the custom projects for half the price had to go. The project manager that I hired to help me manage all the low-priced projects had to go.

It would be custom projects only from here on out, and they’d have to be expensive. 

I was terrified to make this move. I knew I was the best at what I do and deserved to command higher prices, but were there people who would pay them? Was I about to commit business suicide?

But I had no choice, so I consulted a mentor who was already selling high-ticket brand and web packages to assure me I could really do it, tweaked my brand to attract the people who were right for my new premium pricing, held my breath, and took the leap. I doubled my prices overnight (which admittedly is gutsy, and I don’t necessarily recommend).

You know what happened?

It was the turning point. 

I could finally breathe. 

The clearing after the storm

The clients didn’t dry up. In fact, the ones I signed at higher prices were far easier to work with – they listened to instructions, met deadlines, paid on time, and didn’t require intense handholding. You’d think the more people pay, the more of a pain they are. Quite the opposite

The fact that I now needed fewer clients meant I could spend less time and money trying to find them, onboard them, and manage them.

I got to pocket more profit cause each client brought in significantly more and I needed less staff, so my overhead went way down. I COULD PAY MYSELF AGAIN! And start to pay down the debt. And actually have time off with my newborn baby and enjoy being a first-time mom. 

Plus I could actually enjoy my work and stop being constantly annoyed at my clients for eating up too much time because I’m finally being properly compensated for it. I have the space to give them all the good vibes they rightfully deserve. 

There’s no way any of this would have happened without the right brand. 

It’s the sole reason I have people happily say yes to $10,000+ packages while others have people telling them their $1000 fee for the exact same package is too high. 

Want the free checklist of what you need in place before you can charge more, and stop worrying that no one will pay it? Get it:

Tracy Raftl

Tracy’s a small business branding expert who’s been featured in the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, Creative Impact Magazine, and various podcasts. She helps entrepreneurs like you snazz their brands so they can work less, make more, and get clients that don’t suck.

Grab her free comparison guide here and learn 10 reasons she gets you better results than 99% of the brand + web designers out there.

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