Dream big. Start small.

Angela Larkin

Angela Larkin is a graphic designer, illustrator, and half of the husband and wife team at Extra Small Design in Phoenix, Arizona. She is also the mother of a Lego-obsessed five-year-old.


Creating, executing and maintaining business goals that work with your life

It might sound counterintuitive, but when you own your own business, the best way to think about long-term strategies for your business is to focus on the other areas of your life. I love my job, but the reason I got into this whole entrepreneurship thing wasn’t to work 70-hour weeks — it was for more control over the work I do and for better work-life balance.

And mostly, I’ve succeeded. I work fewer hours than I used to and enjoy my work more (most of the time) because I make my own choices about what I take on and how it fits into the lifestyle I want. In the 11 years that my husband and I have owned our business, we’ve learned a ton (through trial and a lot of error) about charting a course for our company that makes us happy. We set attainable goals, create detailed strategies and follow up on them to keep our business healthy, enjoyable and moving forward. Here’s how we do it.

Plan for the life you want.

It can be helpful to think about goals in a few buckets — I use Financial, Lifestyle and Work (for me, this means the actual design work that I do — your mileage may vary) and to keep things balanced, it’s important to have goals in each bucket. Envision what your ideal, blue sky life would look like. Are you looking to pursue a specific passion? Gain financial stability? Spend more time with your family? All of the above? Lay it all out, and be as specific as possible.

Remember: Like driving a car, look as far down the road as you can. If you focus too much on the spot right in front of you, you’ll be constantly adjusting and comparing yourself to others. It’s your journey, and it’s going to be unique.

SMARTen up your goals.

You’ve probably heard of SMART goals before, but they’re so valuable the information is worth repeating. SMART means Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. You can set big goals all you want, but if they don’t meet these requirements, it’s much harder to make sure you follow through.

Specific goals are precise. For example, one of my early goals was “more flexibility,” but that wasn’t super helpful; I needed to understand what that meant to me. What I really wanted was the ability to volunteer at my child’s school on a weekday or hit the gym in the mornings (and then make up that time later). I needed to be specific about that.

Measurable goals give you the ability to track them. In my gym example above, I want to make sure I can go to the gym at least three times a week. With that change I don’t just have a vague sense of wanting to be able to move my work hours around, but a measurable goal that I can easily see if I’m hitting or not.

Attainable goals are in your wheelhouse. It’s fun to say, “I want to win an Oscar,” but unless you’re already on the road to stardom in Hollywood, start smaller. Nothing wrong with dreaming big, but make sure you’re looking at the steps (and work required) to get there.

Relevant goals are in line with your overall objectives. If you’re primarily trying to spend more time with your family, a work or personal goal that requires a huge amount of time and energy might not be a good fit for you.

Timely goals have deadlines. These might evolve, but if you really want to make something happen, give it a reasonable time table.

Make a plan.

Some big goals may need to be broken down into smaller ones. Let’s say I want to get my illustration work in a major publication. Since it’s unlikely The Atlantic is going to call me out of the blue, I think about all the things that have to happen between today and that day, and make those my new goals.

It’s important to remember that a wish is not a plan. That means that (say it with me) GOALS ARE NOT STRATEGIES. In the above example, I need a strategy to accomplish the goal of making my illustration work more visible. That might include integrating more of it into my social media, posting to online communities where companies search for illustrators, (finally) finishing some personal projects I’ve been working on or talking to a friend who’s been successful in the same area (probably all of the above and more).

For each action item, add a deadline to keep you accountable, and make sure you plan appropriate time for it. Here’s an important caveat: Sometimes when I lay out a plan to meet a goal, I realize I can’t make it happen. Usually, the reason is that it’s going to take more time than I have. That doesn’t mean the goal goes out the window, but I may have to set longer timelines for it or back burner it until later in the year.

Stay on it.

For your business to really move forward, your goals (like your relationships) require maintenance. Running your own business is hectic, and it can be hard to find time to work on internal goals and projects (or even clean up your desktop — guilty!) some weeks. My secret is the same one I’m using to make my kid eat his veggies — rewards. My husband and I don’t use a sticker chart, but we do make our monthly business check-ins extra appealing by pairing them with a weekday brunch. We block out two or three hours, and it becomes like a mini date, except sometimes we talk about spreadsheets (listen, I’ll take my dates where I can get them). If you’re not dating your business partner (or you’re running your business solo), you can still entice yourself in other ways. Just make sure you make the experience fun!

To make sure we’re staying on task, we both add agenda items throughout the month to Evernote (using Notes on your phone would work too), and then we go through that list together. Our notes tend to be questions — Are we devoting too many resources to ongoing maintenance contracts? Should we investigate options for digital contract signing? — that require a longer discussion than we typically have on a work day. We also check in on our larger goals and strategies, and discuss progress (or the lack thereof — and if that’s the case, maybe we need new strategies). These meetings are usually really fun, but they’re also crucial, and when we don’t do them, we feel disconnected and off-track.

OK, you guys. Now that I’ve shared these pearls of wisdom, I’m expecting great things. Get out there and crush it with your business goals!