Informational Interview with Student from Western Washington University – Part One

funny pictures of cats with captions A few weeks ago, I got an email from a Senior in the Graphic Design program at Western Washington University. She was interested in meeting up to do an informational interview with me. I had done a couple of these with designers myself when I was in school, so it was cool to have the opportunity to be on the other side of the table and hopefully offer up a young person in our community some advice.

While much of what was covered in the interview are things that I touched on before on this blog, I decided some of you might like to see what we talked about. The interview was a little over an hour, so I am going to publish this in parts, here you go! Thank you to Nicole for the transcription!

Interviewed by: Nicole Adsit, Friday, October 22, 2010.

What got you jump started into computer graphics? Did you go to school specifically for that?

No I actually started school as a fine artist, emphasizing in painting and drawing. Computers were my guilty pleasure. In the art world it’s not cool to spend your evenings coding websites so it was a  thing that I liked to do but didn’t really talk about it and didn’t really think about it in a way of a career. At the end of my freshman year in college I had a professor that saw that I had an eye for design and talked me into doing a double major. Then I realized I loved design and that I could feel creatively satisfied from it …plus I could incorporate this love of computers into a visual medium.

Once you graduated how did you enter into the field?

When I graduated it was a shock to me because I did really well in school and got a lot of encouragement from my professors so I was expecting to move from school into career but it was really tough getting my foot in the door for that first job.

The first job I got out of school was for a company that made high-end presentation material — mainly portfolio books. Their mail client base was commercial photographers and they had a full design department that offered design, branding and marketing services to commercial photographers. Now, I really wanted to get in there doing design — but they weren’t gonna hire me cause I had no experience.

They did have a sales position available though selling the portfolios and I thought I can do this, get my foot in the door that way.  I worked as a sales person for almost year got close with the Art Director showed her projects I was working on on the side and one day she said “Hey, Do you want to try giving me some ideas on this project?” So I went home worked on that and within a few months I was pulled out of the sales job and started as a designer. I was there for almost 5 years collectively before I left to start my own business.

So it was taking whatever I could and being like, “I know I’m not going to be a designer but I at least wanna be around creative people,” and in that environment I just focused on learning whatever I could about the business and making myself indispensable there.

When you were doing projects on the side what were they?

It was stuff for friends and family. Sort of freelancing but I wasn’t changing back then, It was mainly just for fun. I did some design for friends bands; t-shirts, album covers, stickers… I mean I was doing sales all day so when I went home I wanted to do creative design stuff.

So what made you decide to jump into opening your own shop?

I had been with the same firm for a while and I was feeling like I had reached the end point and wanted to move on. I started looking for another full-time position, just doing design for another company. I was at one interview for an in-house position and they were asking me all typical interview questions and one was “What do you see your doing in 5 years?” I was like, “Well, I would really love to have my own business; I’d really like to do freelance work and start my own company,” The guy interviewing me asked, “well why don’t you do that now?” and I didn’t have an answer, that had never occurred to me. I said something, whatever good interview answer that I came up with, I don’t know.

When I left the interview though, I was thinking, “well why don’t I just do that? Why wait 5 years?” So I started laying the ground work and left my job 4 or 5 months after that point.

How big is your design firm?

I’m a one woman show right now. I have worked with other freelancers, outsourced some work, I bring on other developers or designers from time to time but for the most part it’s just me.

So your focus is web?

I specialize in web and work a lot with websites powered by WordPress. But from my former work, I have that background in print work — I have clients where I do all their stuff; logo, collateral materials, print marketing, web site, all of it

What steps did you have to take to start your business? Did you have a client base?

I kept my job, I didn’t quite the next day. I started saving my money to create a bit of a nest egg. I knew that I had to have some what of a nest egg to keep me going through the early times. I contacted some of the creative temp agencies in the area like Filter, Big Fish, Creative Circle — these are agencies that specialize in the creative industries. They work like temp agencies: you go into them and let them know what you can do, they look at your portfolio and they have contacts with all the big design firms and large corporations that have in-house departments. If they know that you can do the job at hand they give you a call. They are really great resources for short term or long term contracts.

So I went in and interviewed with them and let them know I was going to be looking for freelance work in the next few months. That was encouraging, there was a lot of security in those positions but also a lot of freedom. When you’re on a contract there’s a little bit of security but you’re not an employee. I ended up taking a short term contract doing web development for a hospitality company in town… it was only 15 – 20 hours a week, but that was enough to allow me to leave my job, pay rent and stuff. Once I landed that I left and started focusing on building my personal brand online, networking with people building up a client base.

When you first started networking did you just call up people?

I’ve never done a cold call in my life. A lot of my networking was through other people. This person would introduce me to this person. Basically, getting to know one person, them hooking you up with someone else, and so on… meeting other designers.

Did you have any of your clients from your former job follow you? Did you take any clients?

No. I think that would be completely unethical to steal someone else’s clients. My former job actually became one of my top clients and would hire me out for freelance work regularly and I still have a working relationship with them. And after being gone for several years, I have had some clients I worked with back then that have since ended their relationship with my former employer come to me, but to actually take a client — I just see that as shady.

How has it been for a small start up company in this rocky economy?

I started working full time in February of 2008 which was the beginning of the recession. You would think that would be the worst time but I feel that was the best time. I feel like if I can be successful in the last three years then it’s only gonna get better from here.