Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, co-founder of lifestyle magazine Lagom, founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, and an electronic musician.

Interview on Boagworld (and appearance on The BeerCast)

Posted on 16 July 2008 Comments

Article illustration for Interview on Boagworld (and appearance on The BeerCast)

Last month, while I was in Norway (yes, I’m back in Blighty now), I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the lovely Paul Boag on episode #125 of the Boagworld podcast, which crept into the wild last week. Boagworld is the longest running and most popular web design podcast, so I was thoroughly chuffed to be on it!

Me, on going freelance

When Paul invited me to appear on the show, he asked if I could talk about my recent experience of leaving the world of full-time employment to wade into the murky waters of freelance life. I was more than happy to oblige, as I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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The transcript

Paul: So joining me today is Elliot Jay Stocks previously from Cansonified now a freelance web designer, in the depths of Norway I hear earlier.

Elliot: Yes. That’s all the hype depending on how you look at it.

Paul: Well it’s really good to have you on the show.

Elliot: Thank you for having me.

Paul: Normally when we get people on the show it’s to talk about some specific area of expertise or something like that. Although I know you have many, many areas of expertise I wanted to get you on the show just because of the really interesting thing that you’ve chosen to do. The fact that you’ve left a fairly well known company that had a really good reputation. That you’ve decided to go freelance. And you’ve decided, at least for a short length of time to work from Norway, as a bit of an adventure. Is that the right way to put it?

Elliot: Yeah I guess so. I don’t like to do anything by halves. I like to do everything at once. So we gave up our flat my girlfriend went off travelling to the far east. I moved to Norway and at the same time decided to start up my own business. So quite a few life changing things at once.

Paul: Cool. I mean that’s really exciting and I guess that’s the power of freelancing, that you’ve got the freedom to work from wherever you want.

Elliot: Yeah and the power of the web in general. You know whenever anybody says “How can you do that?” I say I’ve got my laptop and as long as I’ve got an internet connection then it’s all good. Although having said that my internet connection here is really dodgy.

Paul: Which is why I’m calling you on an ordinary phone line.

Elliot: Right. Where I’m staying unfortunately there is something wrong with the router where it doesn’t allow ftp or any way to send email out. So there’s no upstream traffic. Which isn’t that great when you’re a web designer. So my new office, as it were, is one of the local coffee shops.

Paul: In order to get ‘round the problem. So we’ve got loads of people listening to this show that either are web designer’s in an agency of some description or in house designers somewhere or alternatively people maybe not working in web design at all at the moment but want to. So we get lots of questions about freelancing and I thought okay let’s get somebody on the show that’s literally just gone through this process. And kind of ask you a few questions about you’re experiences and how its gone. I guess the biggest one and the one that we probably should start with is overcoming that kind of fear factor of giving up a regular income. How did you kind of convince yourself that this was a good idea?

Elliot: I’d been thinking about going freelance for a while. Not to swat at Carsonified, but sort of the entire time I’ve been working at a web designer. I started off doing freelance things in University. So like doing site for things like friends bands and things like that. I mean I carried on doing that as soon as I started working in the industry and have carried on the last 4 years or so doing bits and bobs, evenings and weekends. Although I’ve only just started doing it fulltime I’ve got quite a bit of experience doing it on a part-time basis which obviously is a little less scary, when you’re making. I think the other thing as well at Carsonified most days of the week I actually worked from home, in London, so that was a really good testing ground to see if I had the self discipline to work by myself all day and stay motivated and stuff like that. So because of that it was slightly less scary making the actual jump.

Paul: So would you recommend that to somebody who is considering going freelance? To kind of build up some work on the side and also if possible to negotiate some home working to see how you get on with it?

Elliot: Yeah definitely. It’s something that’s not suited to everybody. Obviously there’s the appeal, everybody thinks WOW I’d love to work from home, loads of freedom fantastic. But, people I have spoken to have said I find it very very hard to get motivated when I’m at home. It’s easy to get distracted. The other thing as well is it can often be quite lonely. Jonathan Snook recently wrote a post about this on his site. He was disussing these ways of battling freelance loneliness. You know going to the local coffee shop for instance. Which is another thing to bear in mind when you’re doing it. There’s the option of working entirely by yourself. Working in the public, like the coffee shop. Working in a shared working environment. I’m still undecided really. I get on fine working by myself, but when I get back to the UK we’re not sure exactly where we’re gonna go. Depending on where we do go I may look into some kind of co-working space or whatever. There’s a possibility that we might go Oxford way, if so I may shack up with the old Rissington chaps, which would be lovely.

Paul: That would be superb.

Elliot: Yeah.

Paul: Well obviously no it wouldn’t because they’re nothing but rude and obnoxious to me so I’m in no way supporting that decision.

Elliot: And they’re a rival podcast.

Paul: Well it’s not so much the rival podcast it’s the fact that they’re just so jealous and envious of my huge success (Paul laugh maniacally).

Elliot: Well I hear you’re the one who gets noticed on the tube anyway.

Paul: Well yes this is true. Okay moving back to the interview and on with the questions. Cashflow is obviously something that always scares people. Not just when making the leap into freelance. How do you actually fund it starting off? You know in those first few weeks. How did you go about that? What was your solution to the problem?

Elliot: I’m not sure that my solution is the best one. People always say to make sure you have some money in the bank. You know enough to see you over for 2 or 3 months so that if it’s very slow starting off, if you’re not getting a lot of work in or if you are getting work in but clients are slow paying you’ve got a sort of fall back plan. I made sure I had a bit of money in the bank so that if it all went horrible wrong I’d still be able to survive. Luckily at the same time because we moved out of our flat and I am now living in Norway temporarily. Although Norway is horrendously expensive to anyone but Norwegians it’s actually cheaper working out here living here at the moment because of the reduced rent compared to what I was paying in London. So that was one factor that made it a little bit easier. The other thing is that I alread had a lot of work already booked in before going freelance. I think more than anything that’s the important thing when people make that jump, is having the work there. So rather than jumping and saying okay I work for myself now I better go get some work. To already have as much lined up as possible. Fortunately I am in a position where I had loads of stuff booked up a couple of months in advance. That was a good safety net. Obviously clients can be slow to pay so I always ask for 25% deposit before I start. That’s 25% based on the estimated amount of the project. But it’s a nice little safety net to have in there. It means you have a little bit of cash and if they decide that they want to be horrible at the end and not pay you’ve got a little bit of something to fall back on.

Paul: Sure. I mean it’s interesting that you said that you were fortunate enough to get some work lined up before you began. I mean the obvious question is how did you achieve that. You must have been marketing or been selling yourself in some way in order to attract that work.

Elliot: Selling myself. (laughs at Paul’s implied dirty joke)

Paul: Selling yourself in the nicest way.

Elliot: Yeah to some degree. I’ve been very very fortunate and I haven’t had to look for any work yet. So far people have got in contact with me so I haven’t had to go out there and kind of beg for clients or anything. Obviously Carsonified was quite high profile stuff. Prior to that when I worked in the music industry luckily I got work with some very high profile artists and bands so because of that and because I had those things in my portfolio that was part of the marketing. People see these kind of bigger bands in your portfolio. It definitly makes it easier because regardless of the work I think it kind of impresses people if they see a name that they recognize. In terms of marketing I guess this time last year, or I guess just over a year ago, the recent version of my site and things kind of took off from there really. I’ve put that on a load of CSS galleries which obviously helps because they get so much traffic. I think still sites like CSS Beauty and Web Designer Wall they’re still some of my biggest refers even now. So I think getting you’re site on there, getting people to look at it there that often has a snowball effect of having the other galleries picking it up and other sites and things like that. So that obviously helps. In terms of the work for the next few months, I’m actually launching a new version of my site which will probably launch in a month or two’s time. And I’m gonna do the same things again. Put it on lots of gallery sites. Tell people about it. I think having a new site with an emphasis more on the work more than just being a blog that will hopefully help as well in the continuing marketing. Luckily enough, doing things like this even lets people hear about you some more and I guess the thing with marketing it’s just to get your name out there in which ever way you can. To get people hearing about your stuff.

Paul: So would you recommend, if someone’s talking about going freelance, say a new graduate that has just come out of university. Would you actually encourage them to try working for an agency where they can perhaps build up a portfolio of bigger clients before they go freelance? Or is there really no reason why they shouldn’t go freelance straight away.

Elliot: No. I would definitely encourage working for an agency or as an in house designer for some kind of company before hand. When I left university my flat mate and I were condsidering starting up a business and I was thinking about this this morning actually. If we’d have done that and we could have done it I guess and maybe done okay out of it but the first thing is. I don’t think I would have then got access to the kind of high profile clients that I have got through my previous work experience so in that sense I probably would have still be struggling now to market myself and convince people I can work with big brands. The main thing that I, you know the wealth of experience that working in an agency will give you is definitely something not to be under estimated. Dealing with clients. Dealing with rediculous deadlines. Obviously these are things that your pick up being freelance as well but being inside an agency and working with other people and getting a feel for the industry that you are in, the working environment. The requirements. Things like that. All of that stuff. I am very grateful that I decided not to start my own business that early on and actually went to a real job as it were. So I would definitely recommend that people do it, that graduates do that. As well I thinks it’s just you learn a lot about who you are as a designer and where your strengths are. I mean when I was at Young life I was completely Flash. 100%. I barely new HTML at all when I started there because I was so interested in Flash. Obviously now that has completely changed. Now its much more, well completely standards based. That’s sort of where I specialize in now. If I hadn’t gone through that process I may not have realized that.

Paul: Okay so we’ve done the kind of exciting stuff of kind of talking about setting up, or deciding to take the leap and go freelance. We talked where the work comes from. What about all the boring stuff? What was your experience of the admin of going freelance? Setting up all the kind of legal requirements. What did you do there? You kind of muddle your way through that yourself? Did you get any help? How did you approach it? What were the big problems?

Elliot: A bit of muddling through. A bit of asking around. There’s still some things that I have yet to do. For instance I haven’t yet got a business bank account. Which I’m waiting till I get back to the UK. Mainly because I was setting this up at the time of moving, leaving the country. It was very very complicated. As I’m not getting paid immediately for some of the projects I am doing its fine to wait till July and set it all up then. You know what a nightmare UK banks can be anyway. So still waiting about that. One of the first things I did was get an accountant. I was quite nervous about this because one of the things that really dawned on me was how do you…First of all how do you find an accountant and then once you’ve found one how do you say “Ah they’re good.”: You know, if you’re choosing a designer you can look at there work and it’s very easy to see what their like. What their styles like. What they’ve done. This kind of thing. With an accountant I think it’s really hard. You can only seem to go mainly on recommendations from friends and colleagues. Luckily I’ve had some dealings before with Nick who is Carsonified’s accountant and really nice guy and I figured well I’ll get a consult with him and if he fancies doing accounting for myself. I had a quick meeting with him. He was very friendly. I got to ask him all sorts of mundane tax questions which he answered for me. That was one of the first things I got sorted. So that was a big weight off my mind. To have someone who could look after all that stuff. Everybody has always said to me, in fact I think you may have said to me yourself, a good accountant will always pay for themselves and then some. In the time they save you. In the expertise. When the taxes come and all this kind of thing. So everybody recommended to me that I get an accountant from the first thigns and I guess that I would even in these early days say the same thing to anyone else thinking about that. In terms of paper work and stuff like that, one of the things I really really underestimated, although luckily I found out the truth in the first week, is how long it would take to manage my calendar. I just thought yeah I’ll book things and it will be fine. What I didn’t realize was that when projects need to shift round or you had to allocate couple of extra days for this. This had to move. The scheduling was actually, not a nightmare, but something you really have to make time for. The tricky thing is at the end of that you have nothing to show. There’s no realy paperwork to go with it. It’s an output as such. It’s easy to leave it off for, to neglect it. But obviously it’s something that needs to happen. In terms of paper work I made sure I designed myself a nice little invoice template so at least doing paper work isn’t as mundane as it has to be. Caus I got some nice little pretty pictures on my invoices. Doing that kind of stuff and obviously kind of chasing people to pay the money. Although actually so far everyone’s been very good. I haven’t got anything to complain about.

Paul: It’s interesting isn’t it. That when you kind of sit down and think about going freelance and whatever else you do the calculations if I charged this per hour and you know I work 40 hours per week WOW I’m gonna be so rich. But very quickly you realize that well actually half of my time is probably taken up with non-paid work like managing your calendar, project management, invoicing. Dealing with the accountant and all of the that kind of stuff. It’s easy to forget that side of things. What about the business plan? Did you put any kind of business plan together or did you just go oh sod it I’m just going to do it?

Elliot: I said oh sod it I’m gonna do it. For the kind of stuff that I’m doing I didn’t see the point in doing a business plan. Because I know exactly what I’m doing which is providing a design service to clients on a project by project basis. I don’t have any plans to grow the company as it were. This may change over time of course but at the moment I have not interest in turning it into an agency and employing other people. Obviously there are some financial benefits to doing that. A lot of people will tell you it’s the best thing to do and you gradually get less involved with the day to day stuff and are just running the company but to be honest at least where I am now I wouldn’t be happy doing that. Because I actually love doing the day to day, the hands on design work and if I wasn’t doing that I wouldn’t be happy and that’s the reason I’m doing this anyway. So at the moment there’s no, it’s not like I’m a start up and I have a product and I need to predict sales and growth in that way. I think just being a designer we’ve got it a bit easier. So maybe I’m going about it the wrong way. Maybe I’m being unprofessional but this if fine for me.

Paul: No I have to say I would agree. You know it’s not like you’ve got big costs going out. You don’t have offices that have to be paid for on a monthly basis. You don’t have staff that you have to worry about. And pensions for those staff. You know there’s no major complexity to it that kind of demands a business plan. I mean ultimately you just need to know that you are earning enough each month to pay your accountant and feed yourself.

Elliot: That’s right yeah exactly. I think as long as you can go into freelance work and aim to earn at least as much as you were earning in your day job then I don’t think you’re going to run into too much trouble. As you say it’s probably safe to assume that half of your week you’re not actually going to be getting paid for because technically you wont be doing paid work like you say you’ll be doing the invoicing, chasing up things like this. So if you say you’re only working 2.5 days a week I think it’s a fairly safe bet to go on. If you can say that in those 2.5 days you’re going to earn at least as much as you were earning in a week when you were in fulltime employment then you’re not going to go too far wrong. Obviously a lot of what we aim to do and what is happening with me luckily at the moment is earning more than what I was earning in fulltime employment. So in that respect it’s yeah it’s good and I don’t think there too much to worry about there. As I said before luckily we as web designers have very very few overheads. Like you say if you’re renting an office that’s one thing and obviously there’s the accountant but actually accountants are very very reasonably priced anyway and I’m paying it all in a lump sum just to get it out there and get it done. Luckily there isn’t too much that we have to spend much money on.

Paul: Okay last question and to wrap up with. How far in, sorry when did you set up again? I’m trying to think how long you’ve been doing this now?

Elliot: Doing it fulltime has been since around the 20th of April.

Paul: So it’s still very early days. You’re just over a month in. So so far pros and cons of being you’re own boss? What things have you liked? What things have you not liked?

Elliot: The main pro and so far they’re living up to what I expected the pros and cons to be. Some of the main pros are the freedom of being you’re own boss. Obviously to an extent you’re clients are your bosses but just having the freedom to decide when you think this deadline should be. Doing the work when you like to where you would like to is a really great thing. When somebody comes to you to estimate a project being able to be generous enough with the hours to know that you can really spend a decent amount of time on the project. Not to a degree where you’re kind of taking the mickey as it were. But knowing that you can really give some really good time to a project instead of it being rushed. Also picking and choosing the clients. If you have got a fairly steady amount of work coming in and you can afford to say no to some things then that’s great cause it means that you can just work on a project that you personally find interesting. As I said before the financial benefits are working out well so far. That is a game when anyone goes freelance as well as freedom there is the monetary benefite as well. I can’t express enough this sense of freedom. Just having a chat with you this morning and then toodling off into town later this morning to go and do some work from a coffee shop and I’ll probably work a bit later this evening because we’ve had this chat this morning but you know having the freedom to do that and not having to worry about needing to stick to normal working hours and things like that. Not that employers aren’t flexible to these things but knowing that you’re the only person you have to please that does make a massive difference.

Paul: So what about cons? Those were all pros.

Elliot: They are aren’t they.

Paul: You’re still in the honeymoon period aren’t you?

Elliot: Yeah I agree. Give me a year and I’ll be all disheveled and angry. The only con I’ll say is that it can be a bit lonely sometimes. I mean I guess it’s hard to judge cause I’m in a foreign country where I only know a few people anyway. There way a while where I was working from my room here when the connection was a bit more reliable and that was great but I found I’m actually much happier being around more people now. Seeing more people during the day. I think I’m fairly well self disciplined like I said before cause I’ve had the experience of working from home before for quite a while but even so I found that I sometimes get a little bit distracted when I’m at home. You know go for a little wander. When you’re sitting down maybe in a coffee shop in public it’s more like this working environment, you can focus a bit more. I think even if you work from home most of the time maybe spend one day a week heading out and working in a public space just to see how it compares. I definitely find my concentration is a little bit better when I’m in somewhere like that.

Paul: That’s really interesting because that’s something I’ve never tried doing. You know I work from home the vast majority of my week and I’ve never kind of gone and sat in a coffee shop. Mainly because I don’t drink coffee but also because, I don’t know its just never occured to me. I will go and try it today. There we go. We’ve got a little coffee shop around the corner I really like so I will go and sit in there and do some work for a while.

Elliot: Of course as soon as you get there there will be really loud music and you won’t be able to concentrate.

Paul: Probably. So Elliot you’ve definitely taught me something. I like that idea. What has that never occurred to me? Never even thought about doing that.

Elliot: Of course I have only been doing it for a month so I could be completely and absolutely wrong.

Paul: Yeah it could be a nightmare couldn’t it. But that’s why I wanted to get you on really. I wanted to get you on at the early outset of you doing this just to kind of give that unique perspective of somebody who’s just gone through the process. The stuff that you’ve covered has been great. I really apreciate the time that you’ve taken to come on. We’ll get you back on again in the future when you’re a year down the line and see how you feel then.

Elliot: Yes that would be a good test.

Paul: It would be.

Elliot: Something to aim towards perhaps?

Paul: Yeah. So you’ve got to stay as a freelancer for at least a year otherwise it would be very inconvenient. Alright good to have you on the show Elliot and we will talk to you again soon.

[END]

The BeerCast

And now for something completely different…

Some friends of mine run a popular podcast about beer, called – rather aptly – The BeerCast. A couple of months ago they invited me along to record episode #16 – a Belgian beer special. Some of you may know that I’m somewhat of a Belgian beer geek, and if you happen to feel the same way ( Sam Brown and Tim van Damme, I’m looking at you), you may well enjoy this episode. We tasted Chimay Blonde, Mort Subite Gueuze, Delerium Nocturnum, and Maredsous 10: four absolutely fantastic beers.

Warning: it’s a little slow at first; understandably we warm up a bit near the end, once we fill up with beer…

Listen on the BeerCast site | Subscribe via iTunes

By the way, for those not in the know, the Michael Jackson I reference throughout the podcast is not that Michael Jackson. It’s Michael Jackson the beer aficionado, who wrote Great Beers of Belgium, a book I’d thoroughly recommend if you’re getting into Belgian beers. I brought it along to the recording session as a reference point and it’s got some great stories behind the various different beers and their brewing techniques.

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