We’ve talked to freelance rookies, now what do the veterans have to say? From the changing technical landscape to finding success, there’s a lot of wisdom in the experience of veteran freelancers.
Today we talk with graphic designer and developer Michelle Schulp. She lives in Minneapolis and creates WordPress sites, PowerPoint presentations, and visual design at Marktime Media. She started freelancing in 2008.
“Business is people, and nowhere is that more apparent than when you are your business.” -Michelle Schulp
We talked with Michelle about showing up, communication, and always learning.
How has your work changed over the years? What’s changed in your approach or your business since you started?
When I first started my freelance business in 2008 (and then took it full time at the end of 2009), I was primarily a visual designer, working on digital layouts, templates, and mockups. My work was very broad: web designs, animations, banner ads, print pieces, presentations, video graphics… pretty much anything that was related to my field and put money on the table.
In addition to learning front-end development and having that become a large part of what I do (about 40-70% of my work each week is in a text editor now) I also greatly narrowed down the type of projects I’ll take on. My primary work is now in web design/development (mostly WordPress) and presentation design. I’ll still do more traditional design work, but usually only for people I know well, or in support of a larger web or presentation project.
How did you break through and become successful? What strategies or approaches seemed to work the best?
I would say “successful” is relative, since there are many places I still want to grow and improve, and I’m sure my business in 10 years will be very different than my business now, just like my business now is very different than when I started out 10 years ago.
However, for me as an independent professional, the most important thing I did to establish myself was consistently showing up. Become involved in communities that matter to you and to your career—in my case, places like the WordPress/WordCamp community (many hours of helping, talking, volunteering, speaking, organizing), the AIGA (I now serve on the Minnesota board of directors), and Girl Develop It (as a student, assistant, and teacher) were important resources for me, but for you it may be a local professional network, speaker group, or something else entirely. I’ve spoken about “being smart and helpful” and I firmly believe there is no better path to success: show up, help out, be genuine, be knowledgeable, and be honest.
Business is people, and nowhere is that more apparent than when you are your business. Plenty of people have knowledge and skills, the difference (and why people want to work with you) is you and what you bring to the table. Own that!
What mistakes have you made over the years that you’ve learned from?
I’m pretty sure I’ve made most of them! Isn’t progress just learning to fail in new and different ways? But I’d say the biggest mistakes, where the lessons learned had the largest impact on my business, were in the realm of communication. If I had a problem in a client project, I used to believe I needed to figure out a solution before addressing it with the client. But, from a client perspective, that led to radio silence from me at the exact time they were anxious and wanted to hear more!
I learned that people are more interested in feeling informed and being heard than believing you have all the answers. Sometimes just getting back to someone immediately, saying you don’t have an answer but are aware of their concerns and are actively working on a next step, is all they need to continue to have confidence in you. So timeliness, empathy, and honesty in communication (even when it’s a little scary) is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned.
While you are a veteran, there are always areas where we can learn and grow. Where do you think you need to improve?
I’m certainly always learning from a technical perspective. There is constantly something new in each of the fields that I interact with (visual design, user interface and user experience, front-end development, WordPress, etc), whether it’s a new tool, or a new technology, or a new trend, or a new methodology. I’m pretty sure I’ll never keep up with all of that, but I feel if I make my best effort and try to at least be aware of what I don’t know, I’m doing OK.
From a business perspective, I’m sure there are plenty of ways I can better automate, streamline, segment, market, and otherwise remove bottlenecks and barriers to my time and energy. I’m currently looking hard at “why” I am in business, to make sure that the decisions I make going forward actually support those goals, and aren’t just made because I “should” be doing something.