This is what happens when you live in Singapore: Buy a house and you’ll be in debt for life.

Well, I shouldn’t say this for everyone. For myself and my husband, we bought got a flat in 2013 for a whopping $650,000, plus a baby along the way. Got some help from my in-laws and here we are, not having to worry to live without a roof over our heads.

Not quite. We are now left struggling to pay up our mortgage loan.

Worst of all, we have been freelance graphic designers since 2005, and living on an unpredictable income simply doesn’t help.

And no, we didn’t end up get a full-time job.

In 2015, we made a point to do something to pay off our debts to the bank and to our parents and decided to launch a startup at the same time. A startup that means business. Not a series of freelance gigs, but a real business that scales. We realise this is the only way we can go debt-free at least within our lifetime and give us the freedom to live the lifestyle we want.

You might be thinking that you need at least 6 months of savings or a stash of capital to start a business.

Yes, cash is king and “cash is oxygen” as Gary Vaynerchuk says in his latest book #AskGaryVee. But to me, cash is oxygen, and water is “self-awareness”. You may be cash-rich but without self-awareness, there’s no way to thrive.

In my opinion, as long as I’m in debt, I’m considered broke. And I understood that solely just working my butt off will not get me out of debt in this lifetime.

In this digital day and age, the only thing we can do to help ourselves is to know ourselves inside out, be honest about it and use that knowledge to learn everything in the world as fast as we can (hint: leverage technology).

At the same time, although we cannot be impatient about it, it has to be done sooner than you think.

So you have no money? Here’s what I did to kickstart my business in less than 30 days with half a million dollars in debt.

What’s In it For Them

“Them”, means your prospect, or if you don’t have one right now, “Them” is your imaginary customer, the person who decides to pay you for something in exchange.

For the past 10 years, my goal as a graphic designer was always to get paid by getting things done for people, and that’s it. If I was to start all over again, the first thing I should’ve figured out is, besides getting things done, what purpose does my work lead my customer to?

So just like you, if I don’t want to just get a 9 to 5 job and work overtime for something I don’t truly believe in, I need to sell something to make a living.

BUT, before I sell something, I need to create or find something to sell, before I create or find something to sell, I need to decide what to create and sell. And way before that, I need to know and have hard evidence that what I’m selling IS indeed something that means something to anyone at all. Yes, what you sell needs to mean something to someone.

Lesson #1: Nobody loves giving cash away for nothing.

After doing it all wrong for 10 years, in 2015 I went on a hunt to figure this out. Well, I didn’t have to literally go to the forest to look for rabbits. Thanks to Steve Jobs, Google and Reddit, I can do this on my couch.

This time, instead of searching for what I want to buy, I started searching for what people are willing to part their money for.

Decide on Your Destination

Great, so at this point you might be thinking, cool, I’ve got it figured out and let’s start the business now.

No, not quite there yet. In fact, there’s a long way to go.

When I was this stage one year ago (even with ten years of experience), the vision was still unclear and fuzzy. But I had to decide on my destination nonetheless so that I know I’m not going to Canada if I want to find kangaroos.

In January 2015, my ultimate goal was to build and grow a sustainable business so that I have the freedom to control my time to be with my family as flexible as possible and play my all-time favourite sport called Canoe Polo till I die.

Within a day, I read up on books, blogs, YouTube videos and listened to podcasts to figure out where to start to get there.

The one that changed my life is the 7 Day Startup by Dan Norris, founder ofWPCurve.

Be wary that you will start to come across hundreds of advice that talks about the same thing yet giving opposing instructions. That’s what happened to me.

I got all overwhelmed. Seanwes said, get a day job, so and so said something else. Now, who should I listen to?

The answer is me. Time and again when I get confused with the millions of differing views, I looked back to the goal I set for myself. Then I questioned myself again and again: “Is this what I really want and why?”

Questions posed to myself led me to Googling for answers and that led me to blogs after blogs, which led me to find the all-time entrepreneur podcast guru, John Lee Dumas.

Still with half a million dollar in debt, I charged USD1680 to my credit card (yes I had to owe the bank) and learned everything I needed to know in John’s Entrepreneur on Fire (EOFire) Podcast Paradise club. This goes to paying for his ongoing live question and answer sessions, a storage of tutorials and a lifetime membership to his fast growing network of self-made beginner and successful entrepreneurs.

Thanks to EOFire, I started a podcast that got featured as #1 in a couple of new and noteworthy categories.

So being on new and noteworthy is not the point here. What I’m driving at is, because I figured out what I truly want my lifestyle to be like, that is how I got to starting the podcast, learning how to create something out of nothing, and improving myself as a person along the way.

On top of that, thanks to creating this podcast, I’ve made great friends along the way who rendered my service. That eventually helped to cover my membership cost with EOFire in three months.

Fast forward to this day, my goal still stands with a bit of change to it. Now it’s still to grow a sustainable business WITH a world-class team who believes in giving to the best of our abilities.

Point is, although where we want to end up may change and it may be fuzzy at the beginning, we must start plotting the points on the map. Never be afraid that you may have to change course and think that will make you look bad.

It took me “around the world” and this discovery is right now leading me to build the business I want and eventually the lifestyle I want to have.

Lesson #2: Don’t wait for the fog to clear. Decide on the end, move forward and make changes along the way.

Plan and Map Your Route

I have been freelancing as a graphic designer for ten years. What works well for me may not work for you. You may be inexperienced in a field you want to venture into and nobody seems to trust you to do it. So how do you get started?

Whatever it is, experienced or not, we all have to plan and create little destination points in our lives to help us move forward. As we move along, we get better whether we see results or not.

I hated planning. Everyone tells me to plan but nobody gives a shit to give me the exact steps on how to plan. If this is you, my suggestion is, don’t wait for someone to give that to you. Read on because I’m giving you the exact steps I’ve used, right now:

  1. Decide what success is for myself, find out what I want and why I want to do the things I’m about to do.
  2. Work backwards from my point of destination
  3. Find my super power, in other words, what skill do I possess that means something to someone for them to pay me in exchange for it.
  4. Win over myself first as much as I can. In other words, solve my own issues in the shortest time possible by reading personal development books, blogs and listen to podcasts, write in my journal 5 minutes every day, go for walks and meditate. The vision was still fuzzy at this point, but it got way clearer.
  5. List out my top 10 values. This is critical, without this, I might not be writing this post today because one of my top 10 values is to share what I’ve learned and help others grow. That’s the purpose of this post.
  6. Understand that to have a sustainable business, I must create a business that scales without me having to be there all the time for things to work and for sales to be made.
  7. Work towards building a business that brings in predictable monthly recurring income.
  8. Set a date of arrival. I set my date as March 2018 and today I’m very confident to reach that goal not because I’m born confident, but because I freaking set a date.
  9. Set an income to that date. I set my monthly recurring income to be $100,000 by 1st March 2018. Note that this is not just an average monthly income. This is a predictable regular income that I know I will have every month in exchange for my service.
  10. I calculated how much more I need to earn every month to reach that.
  11. Then I calculated how many more customers I need to acquire to earn that amount each month. My calculation came up with about 15% growth every month. That’s quite steep, and so far I’m going strong.
  12. While working on my plan, I took about a week. You may not need that long. I had to because along the way I had to nurse my baby, clean his shit, declutter the things in my house and round up things to sell for extra income. I made about $543 in total from that! It kept me alive for another month, so that helped.
  13. I had a few regular customers in January 2015. Although they don’t contribute to my goal of earning predictable monthly recurring income, they helped me get by. This is important in the beginning. I needed some cash flow to at least make ends meet first.
  14. I figured that in order to grow 15% each month, I needed to make one more sale per day every month.
  15. On average, out of ten people I promote my service to, one person will buy it. This means in order to make one sale a day, I have to promote my service to an average of ten people a day.
  16. List out at least ten possible ways to promote and market my service, whether it’s providing tons of value by creating content or through Facebook groups, forums or paid advertising on Adwords or Social Media.
  17. Immerse myself in anything and everything “marketing”.
  18. I decided on creating loads of great content on my own blog, do guest blogging and write on Medium to help as many people as I can.
  19. Study my competitors, take note of their strengths and weaknesses, their strategies and do better than what they do.
  20. I also decided to go Social and engaged Danny Flood from OpenWorld to help me with social media strategies.

Even with this plan, till this day, I’ve not yet accomplished my mini goal of growing 15% each month for this startup.

Be mindful that a plan is a guide to get things going, so that instead of wasting my time on binge watching Game of Thrones or NetFlix, I’m doing constructive work to progress and get myself moving.

Lesson #3: Although the ultimate goal is to reach my destination, I must first put my head down so that I can see if there are obstacles in my way and avoid them, then lifting my head once in a while to know I’m moving in the right direction.

So, I am armed with this list, act on it and tweak it as I move along.

Start Selling to a Friend

I know, it’s hard to sell to a friend since you wouldn’t wish to accept your friend’s money. It’s the same for me. But even with ten years of experience, not everyone knows what I can really do.

Simply put, I need to earn the trust and show social proof amidst the other designers who are making names out there.

I didn’t have awards, I’m a nobody and nobody gives a shit in what I can do.

The only people I have relied on throughout these years are my friends.

Like you, I was uncomfortable charging my friends and taking their money. So I did many things for free.

Lesson #4: Helping my friends for free helped me practice and learn, while at the same time, it helped build my credibility in this field. As I provide the best service to my friends, they recommended me to their friends. I used to also help their friends for free. Only when my plate was too full that I had to put a little price tag to it.

So how did I start selling to my friends in the first place?

This may sound like I’m bragging, but, really, it can be as subtle as a Whatsapp message that goes like this: “Hey _________, in case you or your friends need _________, let me know, I’m now doing _________. I’m very happy to help! Thank you!” That’s it!

I recently sent this sort of message to a few of my friends and some of them were looking for someone to take over editing photos and text on Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. It’s a win-win!

You might find it awkward to send such a message, and I must say I did take awhile to muster some courage to do this. I cannot deny I was afraid my friend would think of me as some cheap sales person who only goes to them when I needed help. After doing this a few times, I got the hang of it and it doesn’t bother me what respond I will get from them anymore.

As long as I’m genuinely offering something that helps and all ready to over-deliver, I know my friends will benefit from that. Hence, I should let them know about my offer, rather than get all messed up wondering if they are thinking I’m just in it for the fast cash.

Conclusion

Ultimately, launching a startup requires one to have some form of cash flow to be able to get by. However based on my experience, it does not matter whether I’m half a million dollars in debt or not.

Having to start a business is beyond just doing great sales or merely making money. It stems from facing one’s personal aspirations, likes, dislikes and not taking action based on other people’s perceptions.

I got to terms with that within myself two years ago and never looked back since.