Entrepreneurial Journey

Growing from Freelancer to Cooperative: Aaron Joseph, Identafire

This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Joseph, freelance web designer and developer. In this interview, Aaron shares how he cultivates client relationships and thinks about pricing as a freelancer. Aaron also talks about how his greatest challenge is not having co-workers and how he’s taking the next step to create a cooperative of designers, developers, and others through a new organization, Identafire.

What inspired you to pursue creative work?

I remember when I was a kid I either wanted to be a doctor or an artist. Over time, I found math and science to be very challenging. That’s putting it nicely. Math was my least favorite subject, and I wasn’t good at it.  And, chemistry class was not something that worked out so well for me. I was lucky that I went mostly to Albany schools here in the Bay Area, and they have an art program.  They had multimedia art class, and I got to take the independent study version of the AP art class.  I got to participate in the theater program as stage crew and later lighting designer and director. Those were the things that I was good at and that I felt drawn to.

Also, I was a quiet kid. Being able to make some weird stuff as art and put it out in the world, and have people see the art rather than having to tell people who I am was more comfortable to me.  I could sit back and look at and watch people react to it or interact with it. I enjoy creative work where I’m not the center of attention, but where it becomes part of something that we can all have a conversation about.

How did you go from wanting to be a studio artist to focusing on web design and development?

When I went to art school for college in Chicago, I thought I was going to be a studio artist.  And, maybe I will someday. But, shortly after I graduated, I knew that I probably didn’t have the discipline to treat artmaking like the job that it is.  And even if I was super regimented about it and did it every day, it’s a very competitive field.  It’s sometimes about luck.  You could be an amazing artist and not make a dime. Really, the primary motivation of artmaking isn’t to make money.  So, sometimes the ways to get money for the work can constrain the kind of work that an artist can do.  And so, I knew I probably wasn’t going to make a living crocheting and screen printing. I tried.  I tried to do a screen printing business.  But, I didn’t have the discipline to follow through on it at that time.

So, I decided to merge into the design world. I took some design classes at Berkeley City College. Then, I got a job at Motorola making websites. They had just purchased Netopia. So, they were taking orders for website creation for AT&T and Yellow Pages customers. We would build a website using a proprietary tool.  We weren’t allowed to use the tool to its full ability, and we didn’t know any coding.  It was a weird solution for creating websites, and the sites weren’t very good. But I did get to design layouts for websites and design templates, and without coding, use those to create websites.  I liked the design part. And, I liked the idea of building a website.  But, I wanted to know how things work and how to do the whole process.

When the department closed, I had the opportunity to learn web design and development for real. I largely taught myself how to code with HTML and CSS. And then later, a little bit of PHP and a little bit of JavaScript.  Just enough to know how to do what I wanted to do in WordPress.

What makes you passionate about web design and development?

It’s creative work. Some part of my vision for a project comes through even if it’s mediated through committees of people that need to approve parts of that design. It’s still that creative process where I have an idea and then eventually it gets out into the world in some tactile form.  And it carries a message and has reach. Things that are on the web can reach so many people.  That is also true for print work.  I have a soft spot in my heart for print because I worked for a number of newspapers for a long time. And, I love print, even though it’s not the powerhouse that it once was.

How did you transition to being a freelancer?

I had been freelancing for a number of years, partly in conjunction with being an employee. But then I became a supervisor at the company where I was working.  I had become creative director, and I missed having my hands on a lot of the work, rather than telling people to do the work. And, I didn’t like the tiered nature of that environment.  I just needed to get away from that world and work in a way that felt less toxic to me and the people around me. So, two years ago, I decided that I wanted to strike out on my own and see if I could make it work.

I started out focusing on the skills I could market that were in demand.  Well, I didn’t think of it as marketing at the time. I didn’t know how to market. But I wanted to make sure that I had an offering that would give me a steady amount of business. I ended up learning how to create custom WordPress themes. I started out doing alterations of existing WordPress themes, which I try not to do now.   I am the kind of person who likes to dig under the hood, and I want to do all parts of the process of what I’m working on. So, I learned how to make something custom rather than use an existing theme.

Then, I was working mostly with individuals who needed websites, and along the way I ended up doing some branding for them. Because many of these clients were just starting out, they needed a logo and brand identity. I also got to leverage some of my work in print.

You’ve mentioned to me before that your client base has changed over time.  How has it changed?  And, who are your ideal clients?

When I started as a freelancer, I was working with more individuals, like artists, authors, musicians, and filmmakers. The kind of client that my work is attracting now is different than it was then. In some ways that’s because of my own conscious choices, but also it’s a result of taking Uptima’s Freelancer Accelerator. That helped me find the kind of clients I want to work with because I like what they’re doing and they can help me to be sustainable.  So, it feels like we’re both getting something out of it. In any transaction, hopefully both people are getting something out of it.

So now, I’m working primarily with non-profits and some for-profit, mid-sized companies that are in the housing and education sectors.  I like being able to work with people whose organizations have a positive impact on our communities.  There’s a lot of underserved populations in our school systems.  And the price of housing in the Bay Area, and other places in the country, and around the world is just crazy right now. If I can do work that helps those organizations make an impact, I feel way better about the work.

I had an experience once working for a for-profit, housing client in the real estate market where one of my projects was to create a postcard boasting that they broke the record for the most expensive home sold in the Mission or something like that. I did that work and got paid, but didn’t feel good about it.  It felt predatory.  On the flipside, I work with an organization whose goal is helping students more effectively learn math. I can personally empathize with their mission because, I’m not great at math.  It was a struggle for me.  And so, I get to work with them in a way that’s not just reorganizing, or shuffling chapters in a textbook to release a new edition so they can make more money, and that feels good.

So, I’m drawn to organizations whose missions are to solve real problems, that touch people, or helps provide homes for people.  They are also the types of organizations that have a product or service they are selling that enables them to hire somebody to help them with design, yet probably don’t have the budget to have a full-time designer. So, I can temporarily become part of their team and help them achieve their goals.

As a result, you have a number of long-term clients.  How do you cultivate relationships that lead to long-term engagements?

Yes, from the time I started freelancing on the side during the weekends and evenings, I have been working with a filmmaker who I still working with today.  It’s been more than a five-year relationship. That’s rewarding. I appreciate long-term clients like that who helped me get started. They have traveled with me, where I’ve raised my rates, and they still keep working with me.

Having worked in a number of customer service positions in my early working days has been helpful in cultivating relationships with clients. Also, having worked in a more corporate environment lets me know how those organizations that I work with might function.

It’s important to have good communication. Making sure that my understanding of their expectations matches what their expectations actually are. Making sure that I hit the deadlines that we’ve agreed to or give them a good reason as to why we need to adjust the deadline. Making sure to follow-up and follow-through. Also, drawing on my experience waiting tables, I have to be able to anticipate people’s needs or challenges in the project – if I see something that is probably going to be a problem down the road, I’ll try and head it off before it gets to be.  So, I think just like drawing on all the different types of work I’ve done in the past and making sure that whatever I produce for them is the best that it can be. And, it seems to have made them want to come back.

Also, I let them know that I appreciate their business, which is sometimes just as simple as putting a note on an invoice that says thank you for choosing me for this project. And sometimes I’ve sent out emails saying in a very plain direct way that by choosing to work with me, it lets me live the kind of life and do the kind of work that I want to do. Just being honest and open with them, and letting them know that I want to build a relationship with them.

You mentioned that one of your long-term clients has stuck with you as you’ve changed your pricing. How has your pricing changed over time?  And, how do you think about the changes in your pricing?

When I started freelancing on the side, my rate was $30 / hour. That was more than what I had made hourly anywhere else. It was more than what I was making hourly at my job. But, I also had to account for the fact that I had to pay for my health insurance and pay taxes on the money that I was making from my freelance work.  So, I needed to increase my rate to account for those costs.  But, increasing my rates felt like a lot of money to me at the time.  I thought, “nobody’s going to pay me this.”

By the time that I left that job, I was charging $40 / hour, but I kept my very first client at my old rate because I appreciated that she had taken a chance on me and given me a start.  I did always let and continue to let clients know ahead of time that I’m going to raise the rate. And, if we have been discussing a project over a period of time, and I’ve given them an estimate based on my previous rate, I’ll usually honor that rate going forward.

When I got to $40 / hour, I didn’t think that I could charge more.  But, I knew that I needed more money.  On New Year’s Day, I decided that I’d charge $50 / hour. I also started taking Uptima’s Freelancer Accelerator, and we discussed the idea of an upper limit problem. I thought, “that’s exactly what I have.”  I didn’t think anyone was going to pay me more than $50 / hour, but I knew other designers that were charging $75-$100 / hour.  I just though nobody’s going to pay me that. All my clients will stop hiring me.   That class helped me look at why I had developed the idea that there was a ceiling to how much money I could make.  I’m certainly not going on a whim and significantly increasing my rates. But I know that there’s a certain amount of money that I need to live and there’s a certain amount of money that I need, to feel like I’m being compensated fairly.  Also, in a more traditional work model I would get raises periodically if I was working at a good company, and as a freelancer, I should treat my work the same way.

As I approach pricing now, I think about all those things. Also, as I have more work to show, more portfolio pieces, I can show the value – what the client’s potentially going to get when they work with me. So, I feel like what I’m charging is fair to my clients and it’s also fair to me. And I also think there is room to grow. And, I have these strategies for how to think about when it’s the right time to make the next increase and how to approach it.

What is your biggest challenge as a freelancer?

My biggest challenge is a lack of co-workers. It’s a bit crazy making to be a designer (and probably in a lot of other professions, too) and not have anyone else to bounce ideas off.  And, I miss working on a team.  The people I worked with at other companies on a design team have been amazing wonderful people that I miss.  For a while, working by myself was great.  But now, I’m craving more human contact. And, I’m trying to build that into what my business will become.

I know that’s part of why you came back to take our Small Business & Enterprise Accelerator.  Tell me a little bit about the next steps for your business.

I’m looking at starting a cooperative as the next phase of my business. I just started delegating some of the work to subcontractors, and that’s been in the form of coding work, but I can’t afford to hire somebody full-time.  And if I need to collaborate with another designer, I don’t have the finances at this time to pay them for more than part of a project.  And as I said, I’m bad at math. I don’t like doing the financial work. Generating invoices is fine because I know I’m probably going to get paid based on those invoices, but all the rest of it is not an enjoyable task at all.   I think there would be people who I could work with who would be way better at it and enjoy it more than me.  But, I can’t afford to have them be around to track every project. At the same time, I can’t count on contracting and subcontracting these jobs to create the kind of team I want to work with.

But in a cooperative, they could become co-owners of the business. I think they are going to be a lot more interested in sticking around even if there isn’t a steady stream of projects at first.  Maybe they find some projects, too.  Then, I can collaborate with them while they take the lead and vice versa.  I think that cooperative model could be a really great solution to attract people with a similar vision for the kind of work environment they want to be in, the kind of clients they would like to work with, and the kind of potential impact that work might have on the world and our community.

Where are you in the process of creating this coop?

I’m in the acceptance stage. Initially, I was a little bit resistant to it because there was a part of me that wants this to be my business – I did this, I made it.  So, there was a little bit of an internal struggle around my ego being able to let that go. But, I’m pretty much over that.  And, I think this is a really great idea. Especially because I don’t want to recreate some of the more toxic environments that I’ve worked at in the past. And, if I follow those traditional models of organizing a business, I’ll be on the same path to recreate that.

Also right now, I know very few people that I would feel comfortable collaborating with and even fewer people who I feel would be a good business partner. So, I need to meet more people and develop relationships with them and very carefully think about whether I want to be in a business relationship with them hopefully for the rest of my life or at least until I retire, which is something else that I would like to be able to do out of this.

What’s been your proudest moment in building this business?

One of my clients, Berkeleyside, needed a website that would guide readers through a process of directly investing in their company. It’s called a direct public offering, and as I understand it, it’s similar to an IPO, except its smaller and allows unaccredited investors to invest directly through the process.  They’re journalists. I have a background in newspapers. I used to work for the Guardian and watched it close while I was working there. I saw funding in the world of journalism as a challenge with the advent of the Internet – nobody wants to pay for a subscription for an online news site and ads are annoying.  So I thought this was such a good idea, such a great thing they were doing. Especially in Berkeley where people are very interested in the politics of Berkeley and the world. It seems like such a perfect fit.   I was so glad when they chose me to do this project.  I’ve built this site for them, and I think it looks great.  They’ve raised over half a million dollars. It worked for their needs. It’s still up and still attracting investors. I’m really proud of being part of that effort.  It’s probably one of the largest projects that I had worked on at that time.  And there were moments where I didn’t know if I could do it.  And I did. And I still work with them.  It’s rewarding to see them succeed and to have been a part of that.

What advice do you have to people who are getting started as a freelancer?

There’s no shame in having part-time work while you’re a freelancer.  However you can get some sort of stable income, I think you should do that.  I think that’s kind of essential. It can be very feast or famine at first.

Also, track everything that you do in terms of hours, so that you can make accurate estimates and get paid accurately.  Use something like Toggl or some other time tracking software so that you can easily grab that information when you need it.

If you are a mission-driven education or housing organization, check out Aaron’s portfolio and learn how you can work with Aaron to design and develop your website, online advertising or print collateral at Identafire. Or, if you are also a designer or developer who is drawn to Aaron’s work, find out how you can join the cooperative.