Freelancer Interview: Tom Jepson, UX Designer

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. 

Daily routine and how it can help your freelance career

Read on to find out the benefits of having a daily routine, rather than winging it.

I’m not a morning person. Every day I have to coax, persuade or downright trick myself out of bed to start the day. Whether it’s good coffee, bacon or an hour of gaming before I start work I sometimes have to get creative to escape the duvet. Once I’m out of bed, it takes a couple of hours to warm up enough that I can work effectively. Trying to start too quickly results in mistakes and frustration.

A good routine is vital to my productivity, as is setting a focus for the day and working towards medium term goals like the website redesign projects I often do. We get tired and distracted as the day goes on, so working on important things first makes it more likely they get done. Getting my thoughts in order is vital before I start work so I can focus.

After some experimenting and some mentoring, I settled on the following for my freelance life:

8am – Alarm, quick walk, breakfast, shower, get dressed in proper clothes
9am – Meditate and journal, set priorities for the day
10am – Begin focused, scheduled work
11.15 – Short break, move around
1pm – Lunch
2pm – Check emails and phone messages, admin, meetings, smaller tasks
4pm – Short break, move around
5-6pm – Finish work, log time and go to gym/run/socialise
10pm – Stop using screens
11pm – Sleep

Weekends off

This routine ensures enough sleep, gets everything done and has space for exercise and socialising. Sitting down all day means I need to make sure I move around during the day and get runs or workouts in regularly to keep some kind of fitness. Working from home a lot of the time can be lonely, so planning social things in is vital. It also focuses me on paid, priority work instead of opening my emails first thing and getting waylaid with bitty tasks (more on email management here).

Some of us might tend towards being night owls. I’m curious if that could work – it’s tempting but there are definite benefits to sleeping when it’s dark and being awake when everyone else is too.

We all have fluctuating energy and focus levels during the day, so being freelance can be a great chance to work at our best times rather than when our boss says so. Being able to enjoy the sun/daylight in the UK (especially during winter) could result in a different routine that allow you to be outside during the short day and get your work done around that. If you’re an early riser, you could have a few hours racked up before us night people are even out of bed!

What does your daily routine look like? Let me know in the comments below…


Freelancer interview: Rachael van Oudheusden, Big Old House

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Rachael van Oudheusden, from Big Old House []. I’m a freelance Marketing and PR Consultant and Copywriter. I help businesses talk to existing and potential customers through B2B marketing, PR and copywriting.

It’s pretty varied. It can involve creating marketing plans, coordinating advertising, writing brochures, websites, editorials, planning and creating social media campaigns or connecting clients with their target media to raise brand awareness.

What led you to start freelancing?

Having spent almost 20 years in marketing communications roles, covering PR, project management, campaign planning and messaging for mainly B2B clients and owner managed businesses, I realised I wanted a bit more freedom and flexibility.

I had a senior role in an agency, which was becoming more operational than creative. My days were more HR than PR. I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I had written something, or even had the headspace to think about writing something.

I felt that I wasn’t delivering for my team or my existing clients well enough. It was time to redress the balance. It was time to look after myself, enjoy work again and choose the types of work I wanted to do and be proud of.

What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?

  • Accountancy is more complicated than anyone tells you, especially when you become limited or VAT registered. Pay for help if this is not your strength. 
  • It is very lonely, unless you make sure it isn’t. Spending too much time on your own is bad for you. Turns out I quite like being around people. Find a co-working space that is right for you, such as Works Social []
  • You will waste your time and money going to soul destroying networking events until you figure what is right for you. And you will. Then it will be worthwhile. 

What three issues have you had since starting up?

Not really issues, more things I didn’t factor in or found harder than expected. 

  • Saying no to business that is not true my original core focus (ideally building, construction property and industrial sectors). When you first start, you daren’t say no to any work in case nothing ever comes along again…it will. 
  • Taking on too much at once and not allowing for ‘thinking time’. Having too many projects and deadlines on at once means that everyone loses – you get stressed, your clients don’t get the best of you and your business suffers longer term (not to mention your sleep). 
  • Business developing faster than expected and not knowing how to manage it all. Delegating to just yourself is a tough prospect when your to do list is longer than a roll of wallpaper. Finding a network of other suppliers and co-freelancers has helped take the pressure off at times. Being freelance means I can give clients the flexibility they need and if I can’t help them, I have built a network of super talented people who can.

What’s the best thing about freelancing?

So many good things – variety, opportunities, fun, creativity, sense of achievement. Definitely being your own boss has to top the lot. 

Being freelance means I can give people the flexibility they need and if I can’t help them, I have built a network of super talented people who can.

How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?

Three years in I am at a fork in the road. Do I want to remain ‘just a freelancer’ or do I want to be ‘Managing Director of Big Old House’? I don’t know yet. I’ve given myself five years to decide and I’m in no rush. I’ve proved what I needed to to myself and the rest is down to the opportunities that might present themselves and if they feel like the right thing to do at the time. 

Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing? 

  • Decide what is most important to you – family, money, time, ethics, work-life balance, flexibility, growth, industry sector, personal development and let that lead your decisions.
  • Reassess where you are every six months and make sure you the things you are doing are either what you set out to do, or even better than that. If not, readjust. 
  • Grow your networks and be generous with your contacts. Be helpful, connect people. It’s nice to be nice. 
  • Track your time. (Harvest [] is great) What are you doing all day? Helps with assessing profitability, understanding how to manage your time and with quoting new projects. 
  • Have a plan and some key goals, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant. One of mine was to visit Japan for a month when I had enough steady work, good enough cash flow and could still pay my mortgage without working for a few weeks. I’m going soon (and not taking my lap top). #proudofmyself
  • Your gut instinct is more important than anything in coming to the right decisions. Ignore it at your peril.
  • Work hard (but smart) and be kind.

Freelancer interview: Christian Lowery – social media manager & copywriter

This week’s interview is with NYC based social media manager, copywriter and SEO specialist Christian Lowery

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Christian Lowery, based in NYC, and I am a freelance digital marketing professional specializing in social media marketing, paid advertising and SEO copywriting

What led you to start freelancing?

I started freelancing somewhat by choice, and somewhat by necessity. I was in my mid-20s, not sure what career I really wanted to have, with a lot of uncertainty around me. I studied music at NYU, then got into real estate on a whim, and really got lost in the process of it all. Real estate wasn’t giving me a steady income, so I decided to start freelancing as a way to make money on the side.

Plus, I had always wanted a job that didn’t look like your traditional 9 to 5. One project led to another, which led to another, and I eventually got to a place where I didn’t need to do real estate anymore. I started as a freelance copywriter because I did a lot of copywriting for real estate marketing materials, and it led to this incredible digital marketing career I wouldn’t trade for the world. More on my story:

What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?

  1. That you have to be STELLAR at self-motivation and time management. No one tells you to get up in the morning and get your work done. Similarly, no one tells you how much time to spend on each client and how much time to spend growing your own business.
  2. That you will pay the self-employment tax all on your own (nearly 15% on top of your income tax)
  3. That some days get lonely and you may miss an office setting every once and a while

What three issues have you had since starting up?

One was charging higher rates than many low-cost freelancers on platforms like Fiverr, another was finding the time to generate leads and write for my blog while still completing client work… but the biggest was getting people to see me as a professional in my new freelance career, after multiple career changes.

What’s the best thing about freelancing?

You get more time in your day to do the things you love. I don’t commute or waste time talking to friends around an office. I get time to make breakfast for myself every morning, catch up on the news, shower, mentally prepare for a productive day, and all by 9:00am. Then, I get to go straight to work without wasting time to get there.

How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?

I am building my personal brand to generate revenue from my website, eGuides, consultation classes and more. For me, it’s important to generate streams of revenue that have nothing to do with client work.

Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing? 

They should take my freelance quiz to see if freelancing is really the best choice for them. The quiz is simply a list of 11 questions that will help them know if they have what it takes to be a successful freelancer. Also, I would tell them, above all else, to be extremely patient with themselves. You may start by making $10/hour on a very insignificant project, but make $50/hour less than a year later – that’s what happened to me.

Freelancer Interview: Jonathan Talks, Photographer

Our interview this week is with Nottingham based photographer, Jonathan Talks. He did my recent headshots and gets a thumbs up from me for putting me at ease during the shoot!

Who are you and what do you do?

I am Jonathan and I am a commercial photographer specialising in headshots, products and press photography.

What led you into freelancing?

With photography being very much an individual pursuit and working in the provinces one has to lend themselves to many avenues.

What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?

  1. Work on your skills if you provide a service or trade. There is a real joy and pride in being “good” at what you do. Upskilling yourself in my opinion is “non negotiable” in importance in my opinion. If you have skills this will help you get work and get recommendations. If you are lucky enough you can hire specialists to do marketing, admin etc.
  2. Its a big learning curve but one that can give you a lot of development as a person in work and life. Maybe they can make a degree in freelancing! (Now there’s an idea… Nick)
  3. Don’t waste your money, get as much as you can for free and only spend when you can.

What three issues have you had since starting up?

  1. You are very much on your own, of course you can forge alliances and contacts but the truth is nobody cares about your practice or in my case my photography, they really don’t, so from this you have to work on your trade and your networking.
  2. Obtaining finance takes real skill in this era. Lots of organisations promise a lot but unless you are already established or have a business degree then obtaining finance for your business or practice is a challenge.
  3. Prioritising has been tricky, as a freelancer you have to wear many hats and being organised has been a learning curve for me as a creative. I’ve had to learn to be an all-rounder.

What’s the best thing about freelancing?

The challenge of delivering work beyond what you previously thought capable of. Working on new projects and delivering is a joy, one of the best parts of work.

How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?

For me, the next steps is to gain new clients, develop skills and eventually have a top notch photography studio in Nottingham. In fact I am hell bent on this..

Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing? 

I’m cautious on giving advice as it is such an individual decision, however I would say think carefully and then give it your all…

Jonathan Talks