biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Sabrina Smelko

by Stephanie

Biz Ladies Profile: Sabrina Smelko
I’m beyond excited to share the lovely Sabrina Smelko’s interview today for a number of reasons – 1: She’s an insanely talented illustrator, designer and writer who decided early on in her career to branch out into the freelance world and tackle establishing a multidisciplinary studio of her own. Sabrina’s career path has given her firsthand experiences in the ups and downs of business-owning and has taught her how to manage the ever-so-complicated and multifaceted business model, which many of us can relate to. And 2: She will be the new editor behind the Biz Ladies and City Guides series here on Design*Sponge!

As I venture on from DS to focus my efforts on expanding my own personal biz ventures, I pass along to Sabrina these two columns that I have so cherished being a part of for the past five years, and I look forward to seeing this column grow and evolve into something even more beautiful, educational and inspiring for the DS community.

Thank you all so, so, so much for letting me be a part of your business and travel adventures for so many years. It’s been such an honor. – Stephanie

DS: Why did you decide to start your own business?

Sabrina: When I first graduated from Sheridan’s BAA Illustration program, I got hired at an advertising agency as a Junior Art Director. The hours were long and the work was hard, but that didn’t bug me; I was used to working 16-hour days and throwing myself into creative work, but as someone who works quickly and thrives when I’m juggling many projects, I struggled (both then and since) with hanging my hat and being chained to a desk. I also missed making, so I actually began executing a lot of the creative that would have otherwise been outsourced. This combination of things burned me out and – after a while – I found myself at a crossroads: Do I remain the Art Director at the 9-5 or do I start my own freelance creative business where I schedule my own time and projects? It was a tough decision, but it was an inevitable one. After eight months I resigned and, the next day, registered my business name, license number and tax information.


When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

I had gone to school for Illustration, so I was aware that being self-employed was my likely future, but I didn’t know how to define what I did; on top of illustration, I love design, conceptualizing and consulting on creative, writing and blogging, so I struggled with how to present what I do. I recall many late nights spent in bed with my laptop, staring at the blinking text cursor in an attempt to craft my “about” page describing the services I offer and what I do. Being multidisciplinary was a career path that I was unsure how to navigate, up until that point I thought you were either a writer, an illustrator or a designer. It wasn’t until a few clients hired me to execute the illustration, layout design and writing for the same project that I realized that having myriad skills was a strength, not a confusing hindrance.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

In school, we had a few industry professionals come to speak and the general takeaway I digested each time was be nice, work hard, deliver on time and be professional, and success will likely follow. Being a good business person is just as important as the actual work you offer. Also, don’t be a weirdo, do ask questions if you have them and don’t fear your clients; they’re people too!

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The most difficult part was actually getting started. That first year is like uncharted waters; you hit some rocks you didn’t know were there, you suddenly arrive at a waterfall of work and the next minute you’re smooth sailing. But like a river, once you’ve navigated it once, twice, three times, you gain more of an understanding of it; you know to veer left to avoid that rock, you prepare for the waterfall and you enjoy the smooth, slow streams when you get them. In all honesty, until enough time has passed and you’ve gained enough experience, you can’t develop that confidence and the skills needed to run a successful business. I’m still developing that. Being impatient myself, I understand that it’s a hard pill to swallow, but getting a good start in the creative industry–or any industry, for that matter–is about being consistent, trusting yourself and your product, delivering on your promises, being nice and giving it enough time.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned that has contributed to my success is believing in and trusting myself, my work and my abilities. If you can’t get behind your work, no one else will. The ability to speak about your work and sell it without being greasy is a skill I gained at my first job in advertising. Everyone challenged everyone’s ideas; in order to deliver them to the client, they have to be bulletproof. The ability to take criticism and know how to run with it to deliver a product that you can defend against that criticism is a skill that’s helped me time and time again. If you know what you’re capable of, you also open doors to new challenges that are just beyond that threshold. I’ve had jobs where I was tasked to do something I wasn’t super experienced in, but being aware of my skills and abilities meant I knew enough to know whether I could deliver on that task or not. Doing a bit of learning as you go is normal. Don’t fear or turn down work if it’s out of your comfort zone. If you know your limits, you also know how far you can push them to reach the next level.

Biz Ladies Profile: Sabrina Smelko

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

Like everyone who runs their own business will surely say, failure only feels like failure in the moment, but actually proves to be a valuable lesson in disguise. I once took a job that I had a bad feeling about to begin with and it ended exactly as I had imagined, only worse. Now I always trust my gut and instinct and only take on jobs that I believe in and have a good feeling about.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Personal time, off the clock. It’s hard because when you enjoy what you do and run your own business, your personal life and work life are so intertwined, but taking even an hour off every day to spend with family or to do something just for yourself is necessary to avoid burning out. I tend to jump from this job to that job to that project throughout the day, and I’m constantly thinking, doing, moving, side-tracking, so I offset that with going to hot yoga. It’s a hard task, but shutting off my brain and finding stillness has helped my work tenfold and, as someone who works from home, leaving the house is important, too. At my local yoga studio there’s a wall decal in the change room that I read nearly every time. It reads, “Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” Sacrificing family time and you-time is a given when you run your own business, but if you prepare for that and take time when you can, even just a bit, you’ll thank yourself later. And go for walks, especially if you work from home!

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

The greatest success for me is being able to do all of the things that I love. I honestly thought I’d have to sacrifice certain things, but I’m lucky and blessed to be getting paid for doing what I enjoy most. I illustrate and design for publications, I art direct ad campaigns, I help design Mozilla’s Firefox Operating System, I contribute to Computer Arts Magazine and Design*Sponge (!), I participate in art shows, I run my own lifestyle blog, Hands and Hustle, and I’ve recently started dabbling in the world of home decor, products and apparel.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

People are your greatest resource; seek the feedback and advice of others in your industry and learn from them. As for books, I have read some gems: Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Brennan Dunn’s eBooks on doubling your freelance rate and Mike Monteiro’s Design is a Job come to mind. I also read Jessica Hische’s and James Greig’s blogs for industry insight and the blogs By Regina and Dale Partridge for blogging advice with Hands and Hustle.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

Have you done your research?
Do it. And do it again. Research what’s out there, what’s working and what’s not working. Then research yourself and what your strengths and weaknesses are. And pull inspiration. There’s so much out there it can be overwhelming, but when you fish from a big enough pond of inspiration, you’ll avoid stealing or copying others’ ideas and, in turn, refine your own voice.

Does it come naturally to you?
At the risk of sounding cheesy, be yourself, because everyone else is taken. Focus on your natural abilities and take advantage of your inherent skills and likes. Only do it if it’s something you’re passionate about and will still enjoy 50 years from now. But know that it isn’t all cupcakes and rainbows; you’ll have to do things you find annoying and deal with paperwork, but if you love what you do, it’s worth it.

Do you have an entrepreneurial spirit and good attitude?
I wholeheartedly believe that having a good attitude is what makes or breaks absolutely everything in life. If you put out negativity and defeat yourself before you start, you’ll never get anywhere. I think perspective, being realistic, having a good attitude and wanting to hustle, hustle, hustle are integral to running a successful life and business. A dash of patience is required as well.

Suggested For You


  • Congrats on the new opportunities, Stephanie, and thanks for sharing the transition! Along those lines, I have been wondering, what happened to Amy A? I guess she no longer works for DesignSponge? Did I miss her departure?

  • Sorry but I have to ask, where did you find that fabulous pizza t-shirt? I love pizza and I’d love to own one like it!

  • Loved reading about how you quit your 9-5 because of the creative burn-out, very similar to my own experience. After 9 months of doing creative work that would have otherwise been outsourced and not getting recognized for any of the extra work I was doing, I quit and decided to freelance full-time. Such a liberating feeling and glad to know I’m not the only one out there!!!!

  • Congratulations Sabrina!!! You are truly an inspiration and are totally kicking a@$ at everything new thing you are doing :)

  • Congratulations Sabrina on your new job! This interview is very inspirational for me, Thank you very much.. Best of Luck!

  • Congrats Sabrina :D I can already tell I am going to enjoy reading your pieces. Thanks for providing a MUCH NEEDED dose of motivation and inspiration. I think we all needed to hear that.