Epic Interrogation with Vail Joy of FutureNoir – designer behind steffmetal.com and grymmandepic.com
If you’ve admired the bad-ass graphics and design of any of my websites, you’re should direct your compliments to Vail Joy of FutureNoir.net. Vail is the epitome of a grymm & epic businesswomen, running her creative design studio out of Slovenia, where she can indulge her bird-watching obsession and attend as many metal festivals as she wants, the lucky wench.
Over 18 months ago I was thinking about updating my Steff Metal site and sent out a message to all my readers asking if anyone knew of a good designer. Vail answered the call and I’ve been bugging her with projects ever since. She’s friendly, super easy to work with, has the BEST ideas (have you SEEN my Cthulhu-themed copywriting packages? That’s all Vail’s work), and I recommend her to everyone I know planning a website – especially if you’re even a little bit alternative.
Vail’s come over to Grymm & Epic today to talk about being a creative freelancer, money managing tips, and how to find the time to get to all the best heavy metal concerts.
Firstly, we just want to know who you are, and what you do. Can you share your journey from mini-Vail to FutureNoir?
Well, I am a transient cat herder and long-time lover of music, but make a living as an independent writer and designer. FutureNoir is a niche design studio focused primarily on web solutions for the creative industry – music, authors and artists.
I originally thought I was going to be a rock star like Doro Pesch when I grew up, and was involved in several musical ventures in my teens through early twenties. Meanwhile I was in an art school for fashion which put me into a photography studio. Naturally, by 22 my creative-freedom stage dwindled and I was forced to get a real job, and thus my decade-long servitude to The Man began.
I started out as a network admin for IBM doing night shifts. I had always been rather techy, so was hired purely on my contract firm’s test results and the fact that I was a student of some kind. This job morphed into a very long career in which I ended up developing several web apps and became the chief knowledge engineer of a major US financial corporation.
I had given up the fashion industry long beforehand due to a conflict of personality and was freelancing as a music journalist for several years which is where my writing career took off. In 2005, I met my current love interest, who happened to be a musician from Europe. I spent the next two years developing a telecommuting plan and manipulating my corporate superiors in order to secure a 5 year contract to work from home. I promptly sold everything I owned and moved overseas with big dreams of writing a book and attending every music festival I could.
I came across a blog post from Zen Habits that reiterated the old adage “do what you love” and I realized that is truly the key to happiness. In 2009, I began laying plans for an independent design studio to take advantage of the skills I really wanted to use. The corporate life, even though I was removed from it physically, was an incredible drain and taxing on my moral position. I knew it was also important to do what I had been good at the longest. My contract was prematurely ended during a slew of layoffs in late 2010, and like so many others, I was thrown into the world of full-time freelancing without really being ready, and my feet hit the ground running.
As of today, right now, how’s business going? What are your current projects? What are you excited about?
If I evaluated my success based on my own goals, I would complain that it sucks. But I know better. The creative industry is very competitive and the economy is horrible everywhere. It is extremely difficult for potential clients to find creatives with actual skill and professionalism because the nature of internet-based business, particularly the web, is very attractive to a lot of people and the industry is flooded. We also have to combat undercutting practices, conglomerates and contest sites that seek to undermine the nature of what we do by peddling it as a cheap good. All that considered, business is actually going quite well.
I’ve just recently finished a big project for a London based VIP talent agency and have some local corporate clients – projects that will likely not be featured through FutureNoir but through my local studio. I am the most excited about an open proposal I currently have with Relapse Records.
How long did it take you to grow your business from the initial idea to where you are today? Was there any one event that served as a catalyst for your success?
I had been doing design work off and on for several years, always thinking how I would love to do it full time. I would sit in my cubicle and work out plans of domination, but for whatever reason they never materialized because I didn’t have any knowledge of marketing or freelancing.
In 2002 I joined up with some friends to start a promotional venture that aimed to help Japanese rock bands gain exposure in the US. I created a massive social network application called Muse that exploded to 6200 members in the first 30 days. We began offering exclusive content for a subscription price and setting up booths at conventions and festivals. This was definitely the catalyst in terms of giving me a crash-course on business and marketing, as well as learning the many pitfalls that come with running such an ambitious project.
When I sat down to develop my creative business years later, it really only took a few months because I knew exactly what I needed to do.
Did you go to university? What was your experience like? How useful has your degree been in getting you to where you are now?
I went to several, and wish I had a better grip on what I wanted when I was younger. My University experiences were valuable for social development and gaining knowledge in more esoteric areas, but the only thing I truly learned that was any value to my current profession was English, psychology and art theory.
The thing about creativity is that it really is not a learned skill. This is a challenge we have in the design industry – once you have absorbed a large amount of what is out there, you realize that only 25% of it is unique or interesting. The rest is a regurgitation of trends and popular techniques.
I do believe that university is a valuable experience if you have the means of doing it – sadly in the US it is increasingly difficult as tuition costs are more than 60,000$ at most schools and there is no stable job market to sustain a student loan. If I could give my past-self advice, I would tell her to go to a vocational school for business and marketing.
The key to my current success as a freelancer was the foundation built by my previous work experience, even though it had nothing directly to do with the creative industry. I had picked up valuable financial, business and project management skills that are almost more important than creative skill in today’s environment – you can be an amazing designer but if you run a sloppy business and can’t communicate with clients, amazing won’t matter one bit.
How did you learn about the business side of your industry? Do you have a mentor/business coach/critique group/association or did you learn it all yourself?
This was the biggest challenge for me personally. I knew how to run a business in general and how to manage people and projects in a corporate environment, but I truly had no idea what the design industry was really like. I had been following several blogs for a few years – digital photography school (and later ProBlogger), zen habits, smashing magazine to name a few – and had picked up some information along the way but it wasn’t enough.
I started by checking out sites they linked to or advertised, who was commenting. This led me to JustCreative, SixRevisions and Envato, who were really my mentors. AIGA is a design association that was also a tremendous help. They offer a bountiful amount of resources covering the legal and business aspects.
So my initial learning process was through studying the techniques, formula and methods of those who were already successful and then asking a lot of questions. I gathered an astounding library of e-books and digital courses focused on the most current coverage of marketing, SEO, freelancing and design techniques being used. Since I had already been running my own consultancy for a few years, I was able to apply this information pretty quickly.
Who or what has been a support or inspiration to you throughout your journey?
FreelanceSwitch and Designers Couch are my main support resources in terms of peer interaction. I have also connected with other designers and independents in similar niches through social networks that have been invaluable when it comes to help on projects. I am most inspired by things that truly have nothing to do with design and am driven most by my own need to create – but guys like Jacob Cass (JustCreative) and Jon Phillips (FrelanceFolder/SpyreStudios) are inspiring by virtue of their dedication to sharing really good knowledge.
My best source of support are really my friends and clients – the people that tell me I am doing a great job but force me to get better by bringing details to the surface that I am often too tired or busy to face on my own.
You have a diverse range of income streams. Did you intentionally set out to do this? What are the advantages and disadvantages of managing so many different projects?
I originally wanted to setup a single site and sell products so I would only have to worry about creating a new one every-so-often. This is still an aspiration of mine, but the reality is that those things take a lot of time to setup and market. When I lost my job last year, I was faced with a quickly dwindling savings account and not a lot of time to replenish it. Freelance writing was the first avenue I sought because it was something I had a solid resume for acquiring. I was extremely fortunate to get signed on with CRACKED initially and it is a huge advantage in providing me with a steady source of income, even if it wasn’t matching my prior income.
The nature of design work, and freelance work in general really, is that it is rain or shine and rarely in between. This can be a huge disadvantage when multiple opportunities present themselves but all share the same timeline. When this happens, I am not able to write as much as I would like, so it is difficult to balance everything for maximum benefit without losing sight of what makes freelancing desirable – freedom and free time.
The upside and the downside to being on your own is the fact you don’t just swap hours worked for money earned. How are you finding this? Do you earn more now or less than when you worked a normal job?
I previously mentioned the rain or shine aspect and the dry periods can really suck. I do not have the luxury of a consistent schedule and have spent many a weekend staying up all night to meet a deadline or stage a site. I also always put in more hours on a project than I can actually bill for – there is a lot of research and administration work that cannot be avoided nor can we really charge the client for it. Normally it works out somewhat when that time is anticipated and rolled into the quote, but on average most creatives earn their income off of only 60% of their effort or less.
It can also become difficult to separate work from general activity – we get tied to our computers constantly learning and creating stuff because we enjoy it, and this can bleed into spending far more time perfecting a given project than it is due.
It is hard to calculate value of one job vs another. While I had a guaranteed and consistent income in a corporate job, I was paying more taxes and, prior to telecommuting, was spending an enormous amount of money on transportation, lunches, and other means of coping with having no life due to having 9-10 hours of my day wasted in the office. If I put a value on the comfort and control of my current endeavors, I would say I am coming out ahead even if the cash flow doesn’t agree.
Freelancing is also so unpredictable – you can go months only pulling in enough to cover expenses and then suddenly land a job that pays your rent for the next 3-6 months.
How long did it take you to earn enough to go full-time? If you’re not full-time, why not?
Had I planned for it, I would have taken a year to 6 months to build a really solid foundation that could sustain me for a very long time. As I was forced into full-time freelance work, I only had a few months of salary sitting in the bank. This was actually enough to sustain me for about 6 months and I had already been operating part-time prior so had a decent head-start.
What’s one thing you’ve done that dramatically improved your earnings?
Creating multiple avenues for getting exposure. Marketing and networking have their value, but I found that positioning myself in different ways to appeal to different clients was very helpful. Increased earnings also come with increased skill and mastery of your art and the industry in general. The stronger your portfolio and presence, the more you can charge and the more chance you have at landing higher value projects. There are factors out of my control as well – one high profile referral from a client brought me a really big project, and is likely the way I will get them in the future – so my overall style of doing business is truly what improves my income.
What are your tips for managing money as a full/part time entrepreneur?
This is a great question, and the one I see aspiring entrepreneurs ask or complain about the most. It is absolutely essential to have a good understanding of financial management, business requirements and legal aspects of your industry. The tips I give the most often are:
1. Cut out excess and adapt to a more zen lifestyle. Stuff is really pretty useless unless it serves a very specific and long-term purpose. Define your style and create a wardrobe of exactly as many pieces as is functional and required and get rid of the rest. Avoid pre-packaged food, buy local and learn to cook on a budget or bake your own bread. I personally only spend money on books and the bare minimum personal essentials and save tons of cash simply by learning natural methods of caring for home and self.
2. Evaluate entertainment costs and vices. Cigarettes and alcohol cost an astounding amount of money if added up each month, anywhere from $200-300! Cut them out of your life and use that money for something productive or use it to reduce debt and stay healthy.
3. Control your cash flow by creating a budget and sticking to it. Cancel all but one credit card and consolidate everything to one bank. If you have multiple debts, find a credit card with a 0% APR on transfers and transfer everything to it so you are not paying interest for awhile.Take an inventory of all the subscriptions and automated costs you may have and get rid of everything but the most essential. Find services that offer one subscription for doing most of what you need rather than paying for multiple services, or build your own (http://www.futurenoir.net/news/articles/for-designers/build-your-own-quote-invoice-solution-in-wordpress/).
Get receipts for everything you buy over one month’s time and create a spreadsheet or list of costs. Categorize each item into a larger bucket, like Home, Food, Fun and Business. Take a good look at it and determine where the majority of your money is going and where you can cut back.
Use this to set your monthly budget for each category. That is how much you absolutely have to earn and if it isn’t possible, that is where your line of credit is essential but you must aim to pay down 75%-150% of what you charge each month every month to avoid accruing unmanageable debt.
4. Use a credit or debit card for anything remotely related to your business and setup a separate business account. Not only does this help in accounting for expenses and losses come tax time, it protects your money if you operate under an LLC. Always get receipts. One designer I know has a closet full of shoeboxes, each labelled by year, full of receipts. How you organize and store them doesn’t matter, but having a record of where your money goes is beyond important and is why cash is your worst enemy.
5. Dedicate time each month to accounting and use a good set of tools. In my industry, we need to invoice for everything and track expenses with diabolical precision in order to owe as little as possible in taxes. I personally use FreshBooks, which is an extremely affordable cloud app that includes client, invoicing, expense and time management.
I’d love to talk about promotion. You’re quite a prolific blogger, but we all know that simply writing a blog isn’t enough. What have you done to bring new readers to your blog?
Social networking. Building up a base on twitter, for example, and tweeting posts at the right time is key. Mentioning or linking other bloggers and posts to create pingbacks is another useful tactic. Contributing useful content, comments or discussions to communities and blogs is also a big help.
Other methods are much more technical. SEO plays a huge role, as does removing dates from my posts, managing feeds properly and getting content featured elsewhere. The more active I became in the circles, the more opportunity I had to write guest posts or contribute articles. As a freelance writer, I also have the benefit of my URL being referenced in every article I write on sites like ehow and cracked. Content plays a huge role as well. The more content a site has; the more SEO value and likelihood of attracting visitors. By writing tutorials or sharing business resources with a niche slant, I am found and bookmarked a lot more often.
What have you tried that doesn’t work? Why do you think that is?
Posting too much too often can hurt a blog unless the content is really high quality and in-demand or the blog is more of a magazine. Subscribers tend to have a list of several sites, and it becomes quickly overwhelming to read everything and keep up. I find that letting an article marinate for a day before posting it, and then letting the blog be for a week or a month gets the article read far more often than if I post multiple times a week. This makes sense for my business though, and some blogs benefit from frequent content – namely personal blogs, opinion pieces and so on.
I have also found that the more general my content was trying to be, the less interesting it seemed. If you can make an article extremely specific, you are more likely to get a high concentration of a focused audience reading it than you are likely to catch random readers writing a really generic post.
What promotional activities give you the greatest return?
Anything that generates new interest, and not necessarily immediate payoff. Sending emails directly to contacts in my target market as well as peers has been a fantastic method. I’m not talking about spamming or sending marketing messages. The emails are typically short, personal in style, and introduce a new site, concept or service. Peers see this as something they can use to generate content for their own site in the way of reviews, and prospects are informed without being annoyed by aggressive marketing copy or sales pitches.
How important is networking?
Extremely. You simply cannot survive as a freelancer without a tribe at your back.
Do you get more out of face-to-face or online networking?
Due to living in a foreign country, I operate almost exclusively online but prior to this I had enormous success with face-to-face efforts and would advise any independent creative to really pursue it in their own communities and areas. Dropping business cards, flyering, showing up at clubs and events where desired clients hang out is just invaluable.
How do you approach online networking? What tools and techniques do you use? Do you actively seek out people you’d love to get to know, or just let the whole thing happen organically?
I do a mixture of both. I use twitter and frequent sites where the kind of clients I want to work with hang out. Those I actively seek out are typically accessible decision makers – managers, agents and business owners. I never do this without an acute desire to actually know the person though. I am genuinely interested in their work and if the people and personalities are not interesting, the relationship will only ever be sterile and shallow. I think the best technique is to not have one. The more natural and off the cuff you can be, the more approachable and trustworthy you will appear.
What kind of face-to-face networking events do you attend? How do you approach this kind of networking?
Photographing concerts is the closest I get to face to face networking here, although in the past, conventions, clubs and seminars presented great opportunities for meeting people. Truly though, the most long-lasting and warm connections were made outside of such structured situations. Meeting people at barbeques, concerts or in bars ends up having the most effect.
The Entrepreneurial Life:
What are three tools of your creative business you absolutely could not live without?
Not counting the actual tools used to create, I really could not live without WordPress, my project management tools, and google.
What have been some of the best things to happen to you because of your business?
Total creative freedom, both artistically and esoterically. Words express the visions we cannot create in art and art expresses what we cannot say, so in applying the majority of my existence to either pursuit, I have become a more whole individual.
I also feel freed from the oppression that comes with doing menial formulaic work for a poor salary to make someone else rich – the problem I think most people who go into freelancing want to avoid. It may sound overly philosophical, but I feel there is truly no reason to do anything at all unless it is meaningful.
Describe your typical day?
My day always starts with coffee and checking RSS feeds, Facebook and forums, then I have the luxury of making breakfast and taking the time to eat it with my partner. I will spend a few hours writing by a timed clock to stay productive, and after that my schedule is totally variable but that is what I love about it. In a week I will usually produce several pieces of art or design work whether it is comissioned or not. As a creative, it is really important to do something every day to stay sharp and motivated.
Are you a workaholic? How does your business impact your personal life?
Yes, but mostly because I don’t have a lot of outside pressures drawing me away or distracting me and I really love my work – I view it as a pasttime I am fortunate enough to be paid for. With that said, there are times when I will be working on a problem or design work for 12 hours straight, and my cats will be looking at me sadly. I don’t know a single successful freelancer that isn’t driven in some way.
What have been your priorities when setting up your business? What were the reasons you’ve set things up in exactly this way?
Efficiency, contracts and professional-concise delivery of my initiative. My reason for emphasizing these three factors is my intolerance for stress and catastrophe. If my practices are efficient and my processes communicated clearly and with confidence, I am in a far better position to be successful.
Do you set goals for yourself? What kinds of goals have you set for the coming year?
My primary goal is just to make ends meet, but I do set broader long term goals. Before the year is done I would like to have a couple products established for creating passive income.
Working for yourself, how do you deal with procrastination tendencies?
I am not prone to procrastination to begin with when it has to do with work, but my advice to anyone that is would simply be to think about how good it feels when you have no pressing tasks to complete and can relax. That state of being can only be reached if you get work done. It is a form of self discipline that requires having a lot of respect for your future self. Compartmentalizing tasks in order to isolate the easiest parts is also a good way to work through something quickly and avoid the common pitfalls that make us put something off. Making work fun is also a huge motivator – music, a clean environment, collaboration with friends – whatever will create incentive.
Have you ever had negative press or comments made about yourself or your business? How do you deal with them?
I had one comment once on a post I wrote regarding the value of direct-sale platforms and independent merchandising of books or music. The commenter thought I was ignorant and overly ambitious, saying that my ideas would never work in practice. What he didn’t know is that I was not the inventor of these ideas, which had been put into astute practice with excellent results. In the corporate world I came up against my share of politics which included backstabbing and harsh criticism. I deal with it by attaching the comment to the person making it rather than letting the comment attach itself to me. Usually negativity is born of someone’s own shortcomings and hardly ever has to do with anyone else.
What’s the best thing about being Vail Joy?
If I had to pick something, I would say that being able to blog from a log in the forest is an absolute plus to any existence.
What do you think the future holds? What exciting projects loom on the horizon or in the back of your imagination?
If aliens don’t land and assimilate us all in 2012, I fully expect to be doing much of the same as I am now, only doing it better. My mind is full of concepts on a regular basis, but one thing I would really like to see take form is the book I have been meaning to write for 7 years.
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