Lis Dingjan: Tips for freelancers to stay on top of the game

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Published:  September 29, 2015
Eloise Mahoney

Are you struggling to find work in the competitive creative environment, suffering from career fatigue, or perhaps a little nervous about working for yourself? Put the kettle on and take a moment to meet Lis Dingjan, founder of The Identity, MeetCreative and lover of tea. Dingjan is the go-to girl for coaching creative freelancers and start-ups to get back in control, free up their time and earn more money. In-between running her own business, travelling and charity work, Dingjan shares her tips & tales for how to keep work flowing, pay-checks coming and business growing. Note to freelancers: stop second-guessing yourself, you’ve absolutely got this.
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You’re a designer, developer, traveller and founder of The Identity and MeetCreative  which helps creatives and freelancers to develop and grow their own business. Tell us a about your background and why you decided to set up these helpful workshops?

I actually never intended to start a business (let alone run a small team!). I had quit my job, journeyed over to Cambodia to implement a number of charity projects and whilst there began going back to some design skills and learning new coding languages in the hot afternoons. Without any business intention or knowledge of small companies (having only worked at conglomerate corporates) my first year was an enormous learning curve (with plenty of tear-your-hair-out moments…and Bridget Jones!).

Eventually after years of working through numerous projects, navigating a huge range of client conversations, gaining a mountain of new skills, understanding how to create effective and efficient systems, automating workflow and growing the business organically beyond just myself I noticed I was starting to field a number of questions on these areas. I adore running workshops and helping others with their business so alongside the studio, I created a digital course, MeetCreative, so I could help others a lot more – and hopefully assist them in navigating around all the mistakes I made so the learning curve is much shorter and they continue to love what they do.

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How many coffee meetings (and years) did it take to get your business to where it is today?

I adore the smell of coffee but I don’t enjoy the taste of it so I’m a tea drinker! I’m in my fourth year now so it’s taken plenty of pots of tea and I’ve been lucky enough to have catchups around the world. I’ve found connections invaluable to business – we all do it naturally in our own context. Initially I never told anyone (including strangers) what I was doing. I felt like I didn’t belong to the industry and didn’t have the skills to feel confident, but I found that after I started loosely saying I did this and that, I start to draw commonalities with people, meet their friends and colleagues and an entire creative and tech world opened up to me that I would never have walked into before.

We all make mistakes which help us to learn from our experiences. What struggles did you face when starting out your successful business and did you ever just want to throw in the towel?

I definitely had moments where I considered the (now cliche) of going back to the corporate world where you could put your head down, receive a pay check and go home. Business can be all-consuming at times. For me, boundaries have been my biggest struggle. Just the word alone lends an (unwarranted) negative connotation and wanting to ensure everybody is happy all of the time definitely makes this hard. Learning how to push back on clients for the good of a project and their business objectives so you could be strategic about your work, and also sticking to scope within budget (so you don’t go crazy and end up disliking what you used to love) is a major learning. You can absolutely do this kindly and genuinely care whilst ensuring you deliver the best outcomes for both your client and your own sanity.

I had a moment about 18 months in where during a tough project I thought, if I don’t change the way I manage clients, how I value my work and how my systems are set up, I need to stop doing this because it’s not worth it. I was tired, drained, felt like I was constantly being pushed around photoshop monkey style and had little creative inspiration to do much more. I changed a lot of things and also set client expectations from the moment we first spoke to starting the project and throughout. Ultimately if you respect yourself, your clients and your time, you’ll find you generally receive this in return.

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Standing out in the online world is so difficult today. Why is good design so important when branding a business?

I’m a massive believer in branding but I think there’s also a bit of a misconception about design. Design can only be good when your brand message is clear, your copy is compelling and your photography is invoking. Each of these working components elevate good design to great design and this instantly helps you stand out.

Design isn’t just design – its entire purpose is to solve problems so if you’ve stated what these are, design strategy is formulated to resolve them. This has a huge impact on how you stand out within your industry because you’re shaping your business to what your clients/users need and their experience and perception of your business. If you can address their requirements and entwine this with aesthetics you’re developing an experience people want to engage in. In the end, a brand is only as good as the products and services it provides and design will start and greatly impact the conversation between this and your ideal clients/customers.

What are your top tips for freelancers to ensure a steady flow of work and reduce anxiety about when the next pay-check is coming in?

  • Word of mouth work is the best kind of work – the cost of acquisition is low, you’re likely to get it from clients you enjoyed working with (so chances are it’ll be a similar experience with the referred client) and it’s from clients who will probably know a bit of your work and feel like it’s aligned with them already, so the more work you can get like this, the better. To ensure you have clients and contacts who consistently recommend you take an audit of your current processes from initial client inquiry to project completion and ensure everything is as smooth, beautiful and as easy as possible and really reflect what you and your brand stand from. Make it really easy for people to say yes, let’s do this to you. This will immediately place you leaps ahead of everyone and create a great experience. Don’t forget to send a little thank you to your referral!
  • A lot of freelancers enjoy retainer work. We haven’t done these for quite some time but when I did I restructured retainers into packages so you don’t feel like you need to be connected 24/7 with retainer clients pushed to priority all the time (despite other looming deadlines). Look at potentially creating packaged services your clients can pay you for on a monthly basis and you’ll have a base level of consistent recurring income.
  • Break up projects and invoices into phases if it’s more than 2 weeks work. If it’s a 12 week project, invoice 25% at the beginning as a deposit and then split the 3 payments remaining throughout the project lifetime. If your project has set phases invoice a different % at these milestones. For long projects with bigger companies we tend to invoice once a fortnight (which may go on for 6-12 months). This way you’ll ensure you have known income coming in over a period of time and your clients are generally happy too.
  • Delight your clients, update your portfolio with work you’d love more of, stay in touch with current contacts (use a CRM like Contactually to help you), go to events outside of your industry, meet people within your industry who are growing businesses (they tend to get busy and need people quickly!) and save a small portion of your income for each project so you always have a bit of padding (and don’t feel the awful need to take on terrible projects purely for the money).

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You love travelling, photography, speak multiple languages and started up a charity in Cambodia. Seriously, how do you manage your time so well and find time for the things you love?

I’ll never pretend that things don’t fall by the wayside and that I’m some special unicorn time magician! I currently don’t know a programming language that increases the hours in my day yet! As we speak, I have barely exercised lately and haven’t been the best friend I can be – I’d love more time to write notes and send little things when I think of special people and I just don’t but I know that time will swing around again when I make it a priority. That in itself is a hard fact to swallow but I find it really useful to consistently use the words choice and priority with yourself. I’m making the choice to not do X, I’m prioritising X right now. If it doesn’t feel at all right or aligned with where you want to go, you’ll know you need to change it. I think at different stages of your life different things capture your focus, attention and hard work and that’s ok. I believe that’s the real balance rather than the traditional work/life balance format we’ve been taught.

In businesses, systems are the most important. Automate everything you can, set up processes so you’re efficient and get off social media. I also set aside two hours every morning before any work starts to do purely my things. No client work (and definitely no emails) but either other startups I’m a part of, creating products, writing or streamlining processes.

And learn to let go. Of your expectations of daily life and your perfectionism. If you can let go of tasks here and there that free up your time where you can either spend it doing something you love, be with someone you love or spend it creating something that outweighs the cost of letting it go then it’s worth it. Start slowly and over time you’ll be able to let go of more so you can focus your energy where you want it. I don’t believe I’m in any way perfect, but show me where you spend your time and money and I’ll show you where your priorities are.

Any final tips or tales for those in our design community, perhaps a little nervous in taking the next step and working for themselves?

Essentially if I can do it, anybody can. Love the grind and have a long term outlook. I think it takes three years to feel steady and five to really be in a position where you can capitalise on what you’ve created and your growth. A lot of people quit way before this time, are (often understandably) disillusioned by it and miss out on this. You’re creating a way of living, it takes time and hard work.

And don’t ever feel any guilt for going into a contract role or taking on another job or side project for a while – sometimes rent just needs to be paid and there is nothing wrong in that. You’ll undoubtedly learn something through it. You can also always take a trip to Asia for a while and have far lower living expenses! There are a thousand possibilities, it just depends on what you want and what you’re willing to do for it.

Believe in yourself, don’t be afraid to pivot and change and keep your eyes wide and mind open. You’ve absolutely got this.

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Images courtesy of Lis Dingjan and The Identity

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