This weeks interview is with UX Designer Tom Jepson from Nottingham. We met in the queue for the buffet at a recent Creative Quarter event and had a great chat about the freelance life. Tom’s podcast is worth a listen too!
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Tom Jepson and I’m a UX designer running a ‘design company-of-one’; I’m making the effort to say that I’m not a ‘gigging freelancer or contractor’ these days.
Broadly speaking I am a designer of ‘digital things’ and a remote-working, collaborative-facilitation fanatic. I bring experience from the world of corporate design, marketing, and communication into my work as UX designer however my client services extend beyond bread & butter wireframes and screen flows.
My core offer is focussed on helping my clients understand their problem better, helping them through the design process, educating them on the value of user-centred thinking, what a designer could and should bring to the table when they’re engaged on a project, all the while designing appropriate solutions for the problem which we agree, together, needs to be solved.
What led you to start freelancing?
After a couple of brief stints of contracting in between corporate and startup jobs, I knew that there was only ever going to be an outcome for my career where I would be truly satisfied; working for myself. Having spent time in both the corporate and startup world, seen success and failure, and watched a lot of people make quite dramatic, terrible decisions it was clear-cut for me that I couldn’t work under someone else’s agenda.
I have a young family who will always come first and are thankfully very amenable to the work that I have chosen to do. I want to maintain that balance for as long as possible and working for myself, almost on their clock rather than mine, has helped me focus on what’s really important.
There’s a running joke between some close friends and I that we may all just be terrible employees. But, having tried to make the best of every challenge over the last decade, running my own shop and setting a pace which is comfortable for me and one which I believe will be valuable to my clients has proven to be a very healthy move.
What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?
- Despite early success, continued client engagement is not assured. I ‘knew’ it but until I was faced with a day where I had no clients on book, I really wasn’t prepared for the psychological impact it has. It took a while to work through it and reach a position where it wasn’t quite so scary a thought.
- You have to keep yourself motivated to get out and meet with people. It becomes very easy to get stuck in the comfort of your own cave and not leave the house for days on end; it’s not a healthy choice, people!
- You will spend more than 50% of your time not doing actual work. After a busy three months at the start of the year, I’ve spent more than half my working weeks finding ways to engage with people, working out what my public-facing persona is and how to ‘get out there’ with people.
What three issues have you had since starting up?
- Identifying what my value really is. I do ‘the standard UX stuff’ – wireframes, user journeys, scope documents etc – but I don’t really feel that’s the most important skillset I bring to any engagement. It takes time to work out and truly engage with what your real value is to people. I’ve taken a lot of time to think about my business and how I need to approach my offer strategically – the value proposition; the message; the audience and market; the competitors – and am taking steps to break down the strategy into long-term, mid-term, and short-term milestones to keep me on track and to give me the opportunity to pivot if I need.
- Doing your own site to give yourself a presence is a massive pain in the behind, especially when you have a limited amount of tangible work to show! Plus, there’s the whole ‘it’s never really done’ thing… Add to this the fact that the majority of people with whom you do work will likely never actually see your site until you point them to it to view a case study, it makes it a thankless task!
- Pricing work. I have a ‘shop rate’ (you might call it your ‘breakeven’ rate) which I know I have to make each month else my bills aren’t going to get paid. After that, attributing profit which will make the work sustainable and accessible is really hard. I’ve read book after book and had conversation on conversation about it and still there’s no cut and dry answer. Coming up with the numbers and having the aspirational figures is easy, as is – to a degree – explaining it to clients when they ask questions about the rate (clients who go for price first and quibble are not the right clients); the hard part is believing that I’m really worth the money I’m charging. One cannot work at a loss.
What’s the best thing about freelancing?
Meeting amazing people. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some killer clients on amazing projects and do work that has proven to be very valuable to them and of which I am intensely proud. I get the time to have meaningful conversations and give a lot; even having one eye on ‘the next goal’, I’m able to contribute without always having a need for some kind of return because I know it’ll come along at some point further down the line.
I’ve been able to experiment every single day. In the face of horrible imposter syndrome I’ve been able to approach new projects as a clean slate and find out new ways of working, ways to keep each client satisfied, and ways to distill things down into repeatable, saleable services. Having this ‘luxury’ of experimentation (and subsequent success with projects) has proven to me that I can do the job and that I still get a real kick out of it.
Being able to take time for myself is possibly the most important thing. I work to a pretty rigid routine during the week and have found that taking some time out to read, go to the gym, or even step out for an hour to meet a friend for a coffee keeps me balanced and ready to get down to business when I really need to.
How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?
Going forward, as I said at the top, I am not positioning myself as ‘a gigging freelancer’. I’m looking to create a number of repeatable, easy-to-access products based around the services I want to offer to people and am finding ways to partner with other creative pros and businesses to enhance both of our offers. I’m also persisting with my podcast – The Sideman Designer – and exploring ways to up-the-ante on knowledge sharing and passive income streams.
Someone said to me that ‘it takes a village’ to really make something happen and I am inclined to agree. It’s great working for myself and being engaged as a consultant company-of-one to work on a project (honestly, I find that very validating!), but there is so much value in finding like minds who want to work on creating something new.
Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing?
The money you make is not the defining factor for your success. If you’re stepping out of a full-time job it’s almost a dead cert that your take-home cash at the end of your first year is not going to be anything like that which you got from your job. There’s so much more to working for yourself and doing things in your way that will bring greater rewards (and probably a load more cash when the time’s right!)
You have to be prepared to work and really have to stick at it, too. If your client base has dried up after three months that’s no reason to quit; just refocus and find a means to talk to new people. Having an eye on a bigger goal (and then the even bigger goal after that) is more likely to steer you to success than focussing on where the next can of beans is coming from (although I’m not saying that being able to buy food week on week isn’t important!).
Surround yourself with good friends and people who will challenge your thinking. If you’re working on your own there’s going to be times when you start to go off piste a little; having a solid network of people to bounce ideas off (even if that’s just a group of Instagram friends) and get some objective feedback is going to help keep you on track.