Nela Dunato: Success is a long game.

“In 2013, I got laid off from my job as a lead designer in a flailing startup. Despite the uncertainty, I felt excited about my future career. I took this as a “sign” that it’s finally time for me to strike out on my own. Running my own boutique design agency had been a dream of mine for years, but I didn’t dare leave my job until the Universe pushed me out.

I was naïve and unprepared. I’ve heard so many stories about women that had “jumped and the net appeared”, that I was all but certain it would work out that way for me too. Spoiler alert: it did not.

For the first two years, most of my projects were completed on behalf of other agencies, which was a small step above employment, but in many ways worse. I couldn’t put these projects in my portfolio. I didn’t have a direct contact with the agency’s clients. The projects were uninteresting. I was undercharging and had poor boundaries. Money was tight and I was barely scraping by. All those stories about superwomen who exceeded their corporate income in three months? They stung now. I thought there was something wrong with me. After that first year on my own where nothing went right, I was so disheartened and fell into a seven-month depressive episode.

If you’re expecting a flashy turning point moment here, it’s not coming. I wish I could say things changed in an instant, but they didn’t. It was a long, slow climb out of that pit, and I can’t claim it was “just one thing” that brought me here, “one key decision” that changed everything. It was many small changes over the years, and I had to learn many lessons. I’ve shared them openly on my blog, because I wanted other people to know they’re not the only ones who are still figuring things out. I decided that I wouldn’t paint an unrealistic picture about running your own creative business. I would not project a superwoman image — I’m just a regular woman who happens to be passionate about her art.

Now I finally have what I wanted for so long — a creative business that serves the most wonderful people who value my work, love my unique style and personality, and are excited to work with me. I work on interesting projects that inspire me and push my boundaries. I’m surrounded by a wildly supportive community that believes in me. It took me much longer to get here than I expected, and the journey was full of detours, but I’m here.

If I knew what the path to here would look like, I wouldn’t have dared to step on it, because I had no idea back then how strong I was or what I could endure. I didn’t know how I would actually feel in the face of all my fears becoming real. I didn’t know how much I was willing to sacrifice for my creative freedom.

My road to success story may not be flashy and “inspiring”, and you won’t see it hitting headlines or earning me a book deal, but it’s my story, it’s real, and it’s only just begun.

Success is a long game. And the only way to stay in the game when things are tough is to love what you do so much, you’ll do it even if no one cares.”

Nela Dunato, Brand Designer
(Croatia)

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