When your creative business isn’t creative anymore.
This week Frankie Tortora and Steve Folland have a chat in response to a question from web and graphic designer at Spurwing Creative — Claire Wood. She says:
“Hi both! My current dilemma is a question I keep coming back to and yet have never found a way to resolve.
I started my freelance business 13 years ago and over the years my role has moved from a predominantly creative business into a more developer/online business.
I love designing and creating but now find that I am so bogged down in ‘adminy’ and technical jobs, that I end up being less and less creative. I am incredibly lucky that the bulk of my work is referrals and that I’m busy — but I find the more websites and systems I produce, the more I get recommended for that kind of work, which exacerbates the issue.
I understand how I got here (I’m good at producing these systems!) but I find them incredibly boring to produce and am still in a mindset where I’m unable to turn down work.
Now I’m in a position where I’m not enjoying the bulk of my workload and feel isolated, lonely and bored thanks to working from home — my mental health has suffered.
In an ideal world I would have a financial cushion that would allow me to turn down some of these projects and pursue more that interest me, but — as many self-employed people are — I work very hand to mouth (especially being a widowed parent).
My question is, how can I somehow incorporate more of what I love (and ultimately went freelance to do), without losing out financially?
Somedays I think I’d love to work outside or do something completely different, but understand this isn’t possible (unless I win the lottery), but the ideal would be to design book covers all day, but that is only 5% of what I currently do.
Any ideas on how to help morph my business back to a place where I am not voluntarily doing something I don’t enjoy? Thanks! Claire”
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Take note dear listener! We might swear a bit. This one’s for the parents. To be enjoyed at your desk or once the kiddos are in bed.
Here’s what was said in this episode:
Comments on the previous episode:
[00:02:35] – Frankie
Hello, you’re listening to the Doing It For The Kids podcast, where we swear a bit too much and talk a bit too fast about freelance life with kids in the mix. I’m Frankie and this is Steve.
[00:02:45] – Steve
Hello! Yes, each episode we take a question from the Doing It For The Kids community, do our best to answer it but we start each episode by looking back at the last episode.
Even though the last episode was a long time ago. I’m sure you were on the edge of your seat, on the edge of your deck chairs in the summer, wondering what on earth happened to our last question, the last question was…
[00:03:04] – Frankie
It was from Jason Hunt, who sounded like a detective but isn’t. Jason is real, and he was talking about he’s a one man show, he’s a one man business. But should he be presenting himself as a larger agency or not?
[00:03:17] – Steve
Tom Garfield got in touch.
“I’ve wrestled with these thoughts a lot and have a whole pile of unused company names and half finished web pages before landing on just being me. I think being honest is the only way to go. One big thing is that agencies, in my experience, will have a portion of junior team members and so the actual person carrying out the work might be far less experienced than the group of independent freelancers that you can pull together. I also try to keep my services pretty tight and won’t try to be a full service option because, to me, ‘full service’ in quotation marks just means we’re all right at everything and not brilliant at anything.”
[00:03:55] – Frankie
Trudy Thorpe says:
“I think it’s about being genuine.”
[00:04:01] – Frankie
Similar to Tom.
“We were selecting a digital agency and visited all of them. In the selection process it was so clear who was a good fit and who understood our organisation, who has a handle on what we wanted. The winning agency were very clearly the ones that had an exact grasp on the organisation and project objectives, and their really small team were able to carry out a range of tasks at the levels required. So with that in mind, I don’t use ‘we’. I and my business tell the story authentically, which fits with my brand values.”
[00:04:29] – Steve
Becky Dixon says:
“I work in a totally different sector. Pre-school classes, music teacher, that kind of thing. And so it’s different as I’m pitching to direct individual customers rather than winning bids, but often find myself in copy, slipping into ‘we’ and pretending I’m a big team to try and sound more legit. It’s just me. Well, until I get my first employee next month!
But then I remind myself that the big companies in their marketing are often working to sell the small personal homely angle, which I have authentically. So I should shout about that! Every big company wants to be all personal. We are personal. We’re people. We’re persons.”
Our answer to this week's question:
[00:07:35] – Frankie
Our question this week comes from Claire Wood, who is a web and graphic designer at Spur Wing Creative, www.spurwingcreative.co.uk.
“Hi both. My current dilemma is a question I keep coming back to and yet have never found a way to resolve. I started my freelance business 13 years ago and over the years my role has moved from a predominantly creative business into a more developer online business.
I love designing and creating, but now find that I am so bogged down in admin and technical jobs that I end up being less and less creative. I’m incredibly lucky that the bulk of my work is referrals and that I’m busy, but I find the more websites and systems I produce, the more I get recommended for that kind of work, which exacerbates the issue.
I understand how I got here — I’m good at producing these systems, but I find them incredibly boring to produce and I’m still in a mindset where I’m unable to turn work down. Now I’m in a position where I’m not enjoying the bulk of my workload and feel isolated, lonely and bored thanks to working from home. My mental health is suffering.
In an ideal world, I would have a financial cushion that would allow me to turn down some of these projects and pursue more that interest me. But as many self employed people are, I work very hand-to-mouth, especially being a widowed parent.
My question is how can I somehow incorporate more of what I love and ultimately went freelance to do without losing out financially? Some days I think I’d love to work outside or do something completely different, but understand it isn’t possible unless I win the lottery. But the ideal will be to design book covers all day. But that’s only 5% of what I currently do.
Any ideas on how to help morph my business back to a place where I’m not voluntarily doing something I don’t enjoy? Thanks, Claire.”
[00:09:30] – Frankie
This question makes me a bit sad because she’s literally called Spur Wing Creative and she’s calling out for help because she’s feeling like she’s not doing any creative work anymore. And that makes me sad. And also it makes me sad because a lot of the time people I speak to, I don’t know about you, like they start off in this kind of scenario where they’re taking anything and everything because they need money and they need to get their business going. But then over time they like niche out what it is they want to do and get more clients that make them happy. And I feel like Claire’s going the other way. Why is that? What can we do about that?
[00:09:53] – Steve
Yeah, I’ve kind of fallen down this trap at times as well. As you say, you do something, you do it well so therefore people ask you to do it again and on top of that, they refer you to other people for doing that thing even though it wasn’t the thing you wanted to be doing.
Remember, people hire you to do the things they see you doing and so you need to make sure that your portfolio or your Instagram or your LinkedIn or whatever it may be, is still showing the thing you want to be known for. So even if you’re doing a brilliant back end systems type thing, maybe you want to stop shouting about the fact that you’re doing that and instead show the book cover that you’ve been working on or new branding thing or whatever it might be.
If you want to stop building websites, stop telling people you build websites.
[00:10:44] – Frankie
Definitely. I feel like this episode is going to be a culmination of bits from other episodes. So I feel like I might have told this story before. When I first started trying to get freelance gigs as a designer, I built this portfolio site that I thought should show all the things I can do. So it was like, “Here’s my corporate letterhead stuff, here’s the website so I can build, here’s the crazy, colorful stuff, blah, blah”. But it had all the things, and in reality, it looked a bit confused and a bit like in the comment Tom made about doing all the things and not doing any of them particularly well.
For a long time, I was building websites for people that weren’t particularly good, and I did it, and I did it quite cheap because they weren’t particularly good. And I got more and more of that work and absolutely hated it and had to, like… I guess like what she’s going through now, that crisis moment where I was like, “I need to stop this before it gets out of control”. And what I did was very much saying a big NO.
So whenever somebody was sent to me as a referral saying, “Oh, I need a website for a few hundred quid”, and I was like, “No, I don’t do that anymore. If you want a website contact x…” I had, like, a list of two or three people basically who actually wanted to continue doing that kind of work who I would refer them to.
And that was uncomfortable and it was scary. And also that came from a position of privilege in that I wasn’t solely responsible for my family — saying no is a lot easier when you’ve got other people making money in your household! But yes, trying to do less of that while also updating my portfolio where it was all the colorful stuff, it was all the stuff I wanted to be doing, it was the projects I absolutely loved and cutting out the corporate stuff. I still do the corporate stuff, and I still get gigs like that because, you know, I’ve got to make some money! But the version of myself that I present, that I’m trying to sell is very much like, “I want to do the fun, colourful, creative gigs, please”. And on the whole, they have started to come through.
[00:12:37] – Steve
There’s another thing in your comments as well, Claire, where you say, “In an ideal world, I would have a financial cushion”. But you can create that now. Yes, it might take time, but maybe you need to put up your prices? I don’t want you to sit there, basically, and think that’s an ideal world and it’s out of reach. It’s not out of reach. You can do that. You just need to bring in more money than you spend, ultimately. So you need to put up the prices as well as looking at your overheads, but ultimately put up your prices.
[00:13:06] – Frankie
Literally the second thing on my list was put your rates up!
Yeah, putting your rates up works in two ways in this context. Firstly, it buys you that freedom to do stuff, to say no. But also it, I think, would work in the long run for your technical build stuff — if that’s what you still want to do — because you’re going to get clients who are going to pay you better, who are more invested, who maybe might be more enjoyable to work for.
You know, putting your rates up would mean the work you’re currently doing would be more rewarding, literally, but it would also buy you the freedom to do other stuff. It’s a win win.
[00:13:41] – Steve
Charging more will also mean you don’t perhaps need so many. You could just have, let’s say, for argument’s sake, one a month instead of three a month. And then that means you have more time to work on the other stuff, and find the other stuff, or create things that bring you the other stuff. And you could consider keeping that work but hiring someone else to do it for you. You’re charging more in general not just to give to that person to do the work, but also for your business to keep it, plus also your financial cushion so that your business survives.
Also pointing out to people, “Hey, it was great working with you on that blah, blah, build. Do you need anything like this?” Like, pointing out the other things you do. “I could design this, I can design that. Did you know I can do that? Because I can. You know that it’s great working with me. Do you know anybody who might need any of these things?”
[00:14:44] – Frankie
Such a good point. If you are going to start saying no, as part of that communication you should be saying what you are saying yes to. That email or conversation or whatever is like, “Really sorry, I don’t do that anymore. I’m steering more towards these sorts of things. Here’s my new portfolio website that you can check out.” Don’t burn all your bridges by saying “No, see you later!” (Unless you hated them already and wanted to get rid). But yeah, use that network, use your clients that already like you and what you’ve done for them and get them to flog your new direction.
[00:15:10] – Steve
Yeah, because she doesn’t mention not liking the clients, it’s the work she doesn’t like. So presuming you like those clients and they might give you similar good quality clients then yeah, that’s worth doing.
[00:15:23] – Frankie
I feel there’s a lot of stuff going on bubbling under the surface here, right? In that she’s clearly had a traumatic time and is now parenting on her own. And that’s going to come with like the weight of responsibility, the financial weight of responsibility for her family and making any change is scary for that reason. But in the context of her life, it’s risky. You don’t want to do anything risky. She’s trying to protect herself. She’s like, “Look, I’ve got all this work coming in through referrals. It’s fine, but it’s really dull. That’s not what I want to do”. But she’s not allowing herself to move into something else because she’s afraid it’s not going to work out or it’s not going to make enough money. And she’ll regret that decision, presumably. I don’t know, reading between the lines, Claire, but it sounds like once upon a time you were doing more creative stuff. You have all the means to get back there yourself. I feel like it’s a mindset thing… a lot of this is a mindset thing. Say it loud enough and people will start hiring you more for those gigs. Charge more to carve out time for those new projects.
[00:16:27] – Frankie
And we grant you permission, Claire, to give it a go. More than likely, based on what you’ve said, it will be absolutely fine.
[00:16:36] – Steve
I’m sure of it because you’re good at what you do, Claire!
[00:16:39] – Frankie
[00:16:39] – Steve
You’ve just got to do more of the things that you want to do, that’s all. You’re just too bloody good at too many things.
[00:16:44] – Frankie
[00:16:46] – Steve
You’re doing a good job at things you don’t want to be doing.
[00:16:50] – Frankie
[00:16:50] – Steve
Now just start doing a good job at the things you do want to be doing.