Nearly a decade ago, I ventured into the "real world" and began my career as a graphic designer. Although I was green to the ways of the business world, I had big ambitions. As I grew in my skills and knowledge, I was also networking and growing relationships. That's when I started to realize that not only was there a need for a boutique agency, but also that my workaholic nature would best be applied to working for myself.

So in 2007, The MOD Studio was born. I took the business one step at a time from a fledgling startup in my home to a beautiful office with additional team members, always applying five key growth strategies that I'll discuss below. Following those strategies helped me create a boutique design studio that is the creative powerhouse behind many local and national brands.

When people give advice about starting your own business and being successful, it seems like they always say the same things. That's probably because they're universal truths. Still, it never hurts to hear how those truths are applied in unique or special ways to a particular business. That's what I hope to do here.

A lot of these truths, self-evident though they may be, stem from a shared discovery among all business owners--a series of defining moments where we all realize the vast difference between a conceptual dream and the reality of the hard work it takes to start and run a business. Bringing a dream into the "real world" can be brutal, but when you do, your success is heavily influenced by the environment in which it's founded.

Which leads us to the first topic of the day: where to start a business.

Location. When deciding to venture into highly competitive territory, it's nice to know you're in an environment that will support you. That's what makes my hometown of Austin, Texas, one of the best--and friendliest--places to start out on your own. It's a town that somehow makes risk seem less daunting and the thrill of the startup more exciting. Austin fosters an unbelievably enthusiastic, positive attitude toward small, local businesses. This attitude makes you feel as though realizing your dream may actually be possible. It's almost as if the creative spirit that permeates the highly inventive town says "go wild!" I think that's why visitors to Austin become so enamored of our lifestyle and return to visit so often. In other words, Austinites have achieved a kind of Zen balance between work and play. We've elevated to an art form a marriage of cool, laid-back living with serious business pursuits.

Growth. Once you've decided where your business will be "born," consider what you can do to grow that business progressively. Thinking about the steps that worked particularly well growing my own company in the past three years, here are the five key strategies that come immediately to mind:

  1. Maintaining relationships
  2. Staying current
  3. Knowing your limitations
  4. Developing discipline
  5. Spending intelligently

These strategies are clearly not new and probably seem like Business 101, but their daily application has been integral to the development of MOD, and I want to share them with you.

  1. Build relationships. I remember hearing once that it costs your company five times more to acquire a new client than to simply invest in and maintain your current customer base. I couldn't agree more.

    Everyone on my team employs a "the customer is always right" attitude to ensure that we develop the best product possible for our clients and exceed their expectations. Although this approach may frustrate us at times, it shows our clients that we value their business enough to subjugate our short-term happiness for the long-term good of a strong and profitable relationship. We invest heavily in all our clients, and they take notice and are willing to trust us in return.

  2. Stay current. In any industry, being aware of constantly shifting trends is a necessity. This prevents awkward situations such as when a client seeks your professional advice or asks what more you can do to help, and you don't have the foggiest idea how to proceed. That's why I stress the need for my employees always to be evolving, improving and learning.

    Knowing what the latest developments are in your industry is crucial to success in today's fast-changing business environment. Whether it's implementing social media campaigns, improving a website's SEO or even testing new marketing models, you have to be one step ahead of the trend.

    You also have to follow your own advice. If I tell clients to strive for constantly updated website content or to engage clients and prospects through social media, I had better be doing the same. If current and potential clients see that your company is following its own rules and is successful at it, then they are more willing to ask for your guidance.

  3. Know your limitations. As a small business, it's easy to get caught in the dilemma of trying to play every role necessary vs. spending money on outsourcing or hiring an employee. Although the expense may seem scary at first, it's important to do what will ultimately be best for your business. After all, your time is better spent doing what you do well rather than wasting time (which you can never find enough of as a small-business owner) trying to tackle work in which you have little or no expertise.

  4. Develop discipline. In your business, the buck stops with you. If something goes wrong, it's all your fault. This realization will weigh heavily on you at first, but it will also keep you highly focused on quality and results. Discipline isn't just about remaining driven; it also means keeping your mind open to the way your decisions affect the company as a whole. Even though a decision may seem to play a role in only one part of the company, it's good to keep the big picture in mind. Always look at how an action will affect your business from every angle (HR, marketing, finance, etc.).

  5. Spend intelligently. A major challenge for entrepreneurs is knowing when to invest in your business. The trick is to realize that something you invest in today may not pay off right away but could in the future--with an even bigger return, if done properly. So when looking at future expenditures, stay cognizant of items that may seem superfluous today but could nonetheless be important investments that will benefit you later.

    Investments in professional organizations, workshops or marketing the brand probably won't have short-term payouts. Yet they could help your business grow immeasurably down the road.

    It's also good practice to evaluate your expenses after the fact to be certain they were wise and relevant. Call it "postmortem financial analysis." It will help you learn from your experiences (we won't call them mistakes as long as we're better off for it) and become a more disciplined investor in your company. With every financial decision, I analyze all possible ways that money could be spent to make sure it's the most appropriate use of my funds for the situation today and into the future.

Although the strategies I've outlined above are by no means the only factors that ultimately play a role in the success of a business, they have worked for me, and I hope they resonate with you.

But there's a final piece of advice that supersedes everything else I've said here . . . 

Go for it! Seriously. If you have that entrepreneurial spirit and it's desperately looking for an idea to run with, don't let your fears hold you back. Harness that drive and chase the dream. Doubts and fears will inevitably creep in, but push them aside. The easiest route to failure is not acting at all out of a fear of some vaguely anticipated future disaster. Instead, suck it up and dive in.

Soon you'll know exactly what I meant at the beginning--dreams are vastly different from reality, but with enough passion and hard work, dreams can become reality.

Maria Orozova is president and creative director of theMOD Studio, a boutique design studio providing services from corporate identity and brand strategy to web design and development.