On the last show of season 12 we talk with Sarah Parmenter about finding the right work / life balance in our business.
Paul: Hello and welcome to the final episode of Season Twelve of Boagworld.com the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul Boag, joining me as always is Marcus and our last…
Paul: No you are not allowed to say anything Marcus. I want to get the guest involved as soon as possible. I have to acknowledge that you exist, I am never quite sure on the timing. And now Sarah is just sitting there.
Marcus: And you are just blathering away as usual.
Paul: I know. You’ve just ruined it. Hello Sarah.
Sarah: Hi. I feel very honoured. I didn’t realise it was the last episode.
Paul: Well I tried to get you on ages ago Sarah, but some people just don’t reply to my emails.
Sarah: I know. I’m really sorry.
Paul: You are far too important for the likes of me these days.
Sarah: Not at all, I am just terrible at email.
Paul: So what’s the best way of contacting you these days?
Sarah: Carrier pigeon.
Marcus: A hand written letter.
Paul: Turning up on your doorstep. That’s what you would like isn’t it.
Sarah: With chocolate.
Marcus: Oh chocolate, that would be good.
Paul: Oh yes, communicating via chocolate. I am sure there must be a way of doing that.
Sarah: I am sure someone has done it. I am sure some very strange person has done it.
Paul: There would be an alphabet of chocolates.
Sarah: That does exist I think.
Paul: There you go. There isn’t an idea on the planet that hasn’t been done, manufactured and distributed to the world.
Sarah: Very true.
Paul: It’s like I got very excited. I had a little moan on Twitter, as is my want, about the fact that one of the disadvantages of working from home—which is very relevant for the subject we are talking about today which is work/life balance—one of the disadvantages from working from home is that you get through slippers very fast.
Sarah: Oh. You wear slippers?
Paul: See now, this is the reaction that I’ve got.
Marcus: With your pipe.
Paul: Then there was this barrage of abuse that I am some old man with these slippers.
Paul: So what do you wear when you work from home?
Sarah: On my feet?
Paul: Well yes, not just generally.
Marcus: That’s a bit of a forward question, don’t you think, Paul?
Sarah: Err yes. We’ve known each other a long time. But I don’t.
Paul: But in the middle of winter, don’t you get really cold feet?
Sarah: Well there is this thing in the UK called carpet. And they tend to trap the heat quite well if you have a normal central heating system. So no.
Paul: In my office I have laminate floor.
Sarah: Oh there you go. Then I can understand.
Paul: The problem is, you can’t wheel around your office. You have to get up and go and get things if you have carpet.
Sarah: Yes, but it keeps you warm.
Paul: Marcus, what do you do? I am interested in your footwear too.
Marcus: I wear wellies.
Paul: I so hope that is true.
Marcus: No Paul, I am like you. I am an old man and I wear slippers. So there you go.
Paul: But do you find that you wear the slippers out a lot faster than you used to before you worked at home?
Paul: There you go. That was my point. So anyway, the long and the short of this before we got distracted into how old and sad I am for wearing slippers, is that someone has re-invented the slipper.
Sarah: Oh is this the one that’s based in New York? The ones with the outside slipper? Or were they London?
Paul: It’s London.
Sarah: It is London, and they have the plastic backing on them.
Paul: Yes, and you can take it on and off. You’ve got this sole you can step into if you want to go outside. It’s very cool.
Sarah: I just think it comes under the bracket of things that really shouldn’t be invented.
Paul: Well yes, like alphabet chocolate. To allow communication with people that don’t check their email.
Sarah: Yes, but do you not think it’s a bit icky going out and being on the Tube and just because you’ve got plastic backing on them doesn’t mean it’s going to be nice.
Paul: Oh no, I am talking about putting the bins out or something like that.
Sarah: Oh, because the way that they have it on the website is that ‘Oh you just walk around London in your slippers and then you just take the plastic backing off and walk around your house’. And I was ‘Err no’. Not cool.
Paul: No, that would be a bit weird.
Sarah: Taking the bins out? Do you not just run out in your slippers and pretend it didn’t happen?
Paul: Well yes you do, but the downside of that is two-fold.
Marcus: It’s an exciting show today Paul!
Paul: This is what people want to hear, they want real world, down to earth advice about work/life balance and working from home. So you’ve got two problems with this. Problem no.1 is that when you go outside onto things like gravel and that kind of stuff, then you wear through the soles of your slippers even faster. Hence you get through lots of them. But problem no.2—and this is an important one—is that if it’s rained, it then soaks through the bottom of your slippers and you get very wet feet.
Sarah: Don’t most British people just find the nearest pair of trainers and just put them on like their slippers and do that funny crab-like walk thing outside and then run back again? Isn’t that what normal people do?
Paul: Are you implying I am not a normal person?
Sarah: Well never state what you can’t imply.
Marcus: It’s not even worth using words to reply to, Paul.
Paul: I’m really quite upset. I used to like Sarah.
Sarah: Well that was a nice short show, thanks guys. I had a really good time.
Paul: So how are you Sarah. What have you been up to these days, moving on from slippers?
Sarah: Yeah, I’ve been good thank you. Everything’s been…I hate using the word busy because actually it hasn’t, I’ve had some nice down time and taken some time out to actually learn some new skills. I’ve had the salon of course in the background, I’ve done some speaking, but mainly just… I have finished a big contract in March this year and since then I decided I was just going to take some down time.
Paul: Wow, lovely.
Marcus: That is lovely.
Sarah: Yeah. It’s been very necessary actually. It wasn’t just ‘Oh I think I am just going to bum around and learn some stuff’. It was completely necessary. I was completely burnt out and it took me a month to realise it. I realised I had never had the learning curve that I had at the beginning when I was in the industry. You know when you are first learning web design and you are like into everything, all hours of the day, learning things. And then when you are actually in the industry and using those skills you don’t actually go back and have that same learning curve at any other point. So I started learning Swift.
Paul: Oh great.
Sarah: Yes, it’s been really interesting. Found a great online learning resource with Swift. I am learning flexbox at the moment. All these little things, and I’ve looked over Sass and things like that. All these things you never get time to learn from scratch, you’re learning on the go and you never feel like you’ve had that learning curve. So it’s been nice. I’ve done some other freelance work on the side, but I’ve been really careful about making sure it’s not the type of projects that are going to consume me for three months. They are quick one week/two week/three week projects that then I can say ‘Ok now I have got some time to go back and learn this other stuff’. So it’s been nice, really nice.
Paul: It’s so important to have that kind of time, especially when you are a freelancer working by yourself. Because I am discovering this now, that it is very easy for it to get away from you and you don’t have the time to work on keeping your skillset up to date and moving forward.
Sarah: I think the problem is that I hate to say it, because I think that actually we undervalue ourselves. I think that actually when we look at all the skills that we actually hold and what we charge out for in our daily rate, they are getting a bargain. I think so. I think the skills that we all now hold, I don’t think the term web designer does us justice anymore. But I think you wrote about that actually the other day.
Paul: Oh I write about all kinds of rubbish.
Sarah: I remember you wrote something about how that term, how we are trying to fit ourselves into a box. But yes, I think that we undervalue ourselves, but we’ve also got greedy. When we know what our daily rate is and we’ve got this project coming in and we say ‘Oh I’ll just take on another one because that time x X = £’ instead of thinking we should be getting quite well paid for what we do, therefore if you say ‘Ok I’ve got a paid gig for a week but then I am going to take two weeks to learn a new skill’. But we don’t think like that. We keep rolling the projects on one after another after another. Because we see pound signs. And I understand why we do and it’s a really hard mind-set to get out of. Especially if you come from a job where you are getting the money put in your bank, a paid salary type gig it’s even harder. But I think we’ve just got a bit greedy but actually what we could do is notching our daily rates up a bit and then taking two days a week or one week of every month to say ‘I get paid really well the rest of the month and that one week I need for learning otherwise I can’t keep up’. And I think that’s a huge cause of a lot of anxiety in this industry at the moment. Is that it runs at such a fast pace we don’t give ourselves time to learn anything.
Marcus: I don’t think it’s necessarily just our industry. A friend of mine who works in marketing and advertising he came out with this quote the other day ‘The three most addictive things in life are carbohydrates, heroin and having a salary’. And I had never thought of it like that. But we are all addicted to having this fixed figure at the end of the month. Breaking away from that is a really, really hard thing to do.
Sarah: It is. I only realised because I was working for an American company over the last year where I was salaried. Although it wasn’t technically, because I wasn’t an American citizen, so it was a set fixed rate freelance. But because it was over a year, it felt like a salary. And then coming out the other side of that I had forgotten what it feels like to have to have other work in the pipeline. And then having all those balls in the air suddenly felt really alien again. And actually the company was a really bad fit for me but I stayed because it was that ‘Oh I don’t have to worry at the end of the month, this is fairly easy. I just do the work and the money gets put in my bank account’. And I stayed from October until March, I actually left or tried to quit the company in October last year and failed miserably when the boss came and gave me a hug and apologised for their behaviour. And actually I should have left then but I didn’t because of the salary which is bad. That’s a really bad mind-set to get stuck in.
Paul: That’s the other thing though isn’t it? When you should be taking breaks, either for learning or for personal reasons so you don’t burn yourself out like you said you did. It’s very hard to turn away that work because you are always going ‘What if it’s not like that in six months’ time? I need to get this money behind me’. So there is this fear element to it as well.
Sarah: Yes. With this job I was doing in America I knew that I was being sensible and saying ‘Ok while this lasts, I can make hay while the sun shines’. While it was lasting, fantastic, but I was putting away so much of it because I knew that I wanted to give myself that buffer of ‘Ok after this is done I want at least a certain amount, a good few months to learn, downtime, and I don’t want to be worrying about money’. Money is the root of all evil.
Paul: It’s really interesting because I set up doing Boagworks back in January time. And I had in my head that I needed a buffer behind me, just like you described. And I had a figure in my head that I wanted to reach. And I reached that figure last month. So I have my buffer behind me now. But it’s so hard now—and I took on everything to get this buffer behind me—and now I’ve got it I am still really struggling to stop doing that. And saying ‘Oh do you know, it’s alright if I don’t quite hit target next month and I take it a bit easier’.
For example, I was due to be going out to California this month and the client wanted to move it back to October for whatever reason, and my instant reaction was ‘Oh I must fill up that time with other work’ and I’ve only just now gone ‘Perhaps I don’t need to really. Perhaps it’s alright. I am halfway through the year, I haven’t taken a holiday, I haven’t had a chance to learn anything, and perhaps I should take a couple of weeks slower’. It’s hard to get into that mind-set isn’t it?
Sarah: It is. I think because we’ve just glorified… you go up to anyone at a conference and you ask how they’ve been and they say ‘Oh it’s so busy… everything is so busy’. Everyone has to say they are busy in order to make it sound like they are doing stuff. It’s not the done thing to say ‘Actually I have had some lovely time off’ because it makes you sound as though you are not in demand. Whereas it’s actually not the case, you are in a nice position to be able to pick and choose the projects you want to work on. I think we’ve all got used to sitting in front of the computer and thinking that equates to work.
Paul: Ahh yes.
Sarah: I can’t remember which book it was that I was reading where it said ‘You need to think of your computer as a tool the same as a carpenter would use a hammer to do their work. Your computer is a tool, in the same way as anyone else has tools in their work’. And we don’t think of it like that as this computer is a portal to so many things for different people. It’s gaming, it’s friendship on Facebook. We all sit in front of it thinking that if we are sat in front of a computer we must be doing work. And quite often it’s not that way at all. Eighty percent of the day you are actually bumbling around the internet.
Paul: That was one of the things I did solve a few years back. There are so many things I am still crap at but that was one where I said ‘Ok, my laptop is my work tool’. If I want to game I go sit and play on the PlayStation. If I want to be on Twitter or Facebook for personal reasons, not for work, that’s where my iPhone and iPad is. If I am going to watch a film, that’s on my iPad. But I don’t use my laptop for anything other than work. And that’s quite a useful way of setting some kind of boundary between work and home.
Sarah: Yes, that’s very restrained of you.
Marcus: It is.
Paul: I am an amazing person in so many ways.
Marcus: Someone famous, a famous furniture designer wears black suits when he is working and white suits when he is not. It’s somewhat affected but…
Paul: But it’s amazing these little tricks. Someone else I remember, again I can’t remember who, they worked from home but they would put on shoes to go to work.
Sarah: That was Andy Clark.
Paul: Was it Andy Clark who said that? Well he doesn’t anymore because we were discussing slippers.
Sarah: Oh ok.
Paul: We are back on slippers. Oh no! And then somebody else I knew that used to go on a commute. So even though he worked from home, he would leave the house, go for a walk and come back and then in the evening, he would leave the house, go for a walk and come back home. Those little mind games I think work quite well. The longer you do it, the less of a problem it becomes, but to start off those kinds of things are quite healthy.
Sarah: I would love to see that guy walking around the block. I wonder if he talks to himself like ‘Morning John, how are you again today?’
Marcus: What you mean you don’t talk to yourself when you are on your own?
Paul: I do.
Marcus: I do.
Sarah: The only time if I talk to myself is if I swear because I can’t understand something.
Paul: When I say I talk to myself, I mean I get angry at myself. I shout at myself. Which I do quite regularly. Marcus do you have entire conversations with your imaginary friend?
Marcus: ‘Morning Marcus, how are you today…’ Not quite that bad, but yes I do talk to myself. Always have done since I was a little boy. I am cool with it.
Paul: See I always think your home office is quite a difficult one. Because yours is one of your bedrooms isn’t it? So it feels very in the middle of the house. Was that a problem when your kids were at home?
Marcus: Well when we moved to this house James would have been seven so he wasn’t like a little tiny baby or anything like that. And it’s not right in the middle, it’s the end bedroom out of the way down a little hallway. And it has a door that I can shut. So not an issue at all.
Paul: What about you Sarah, where you work do you get tempted into the rest of the house if that makes sense?
Sarah: Yes, but I am in an old townhouse so it is very narrow. So the office is right at the back away from most of the other living areas. So it overlooks the garden and before in my old house it was in the room right next door and that was really unhealthy because I would just do a U shape each day in and out, in and out. But now it’s different. And I worked out that there was 211 paces between my office and the kitchen.
Paul: That’s a lot. You live in a mansion!
Sarah: No. it’s just very narrow and long.
Paul: Do you take very little steps. What’s going on?
Sarah: Yeah I do it like a tiny pigeon. But yes, it works much better and it’s nice and quiet actually at the back as well. I’ve just set up a recording studio for YouTube videos in there and it’s really nice. It works really nicely.
Paul: Oh are you doing YouTube videos too? It’s a trendy thing to do.
Sarah: Yes I just decided before I came out to the State, that I wanted to do a video blog type thing about business stuff. Because it was really bothering me that I couldn’t go onto YouTube and find other women in business that I could subscribe to and see what they were up to every week and they were talking about business. When you go on YouTube it’s always women talking about how to do their hair and makeup or clothes that they’ve bought during shopping and holding it up to the camera. And it’s a terrible stereotype. And I couldn’t find anyone that I would want to subscribe to about business. I realised I’ve learnt an awful lot the last couple of years just by having a business completely outside this industry. And I learn a lot on a weekly basis that really I should be sharing and I haven’t blogged because you think about it ‘Oh I should blog about having to fire people, that’s not very nice but maybe that would help other people’ and then you are onto the next thing before you’ve even had a chance to document it. So yes, I’ve been doing that.
Paul: Brilliant. That’s really good. So is that up and running?
Sarah: No it’s not. I am still editing some stuff because I am still getting used to actually having a radio mic on and not bashing it with my hand every time I gesture and stuff like that. So I am still getting used to it, but I have some editing to do with it. And there is part of me that’s like ‘Am I just unleashing the floodgates to troll hell?’
Marcus: Oh gosh, absolutely.
Paul: Just never ever look at any of the comments that are on YouTube. It is as simple as that. You can actually go in and turn them off I think.
Sarah: Yes, but then sometimes I think it creates a healthy discussion and to be honest I am so used to all that nonsense now it feels like I have got used to it and whatever someone is going to say, they are going to say it anyway. So you may as well do it anyway.
Paul: I have so much respect for you over that kind of stuff because I am crap. I turn into a big blubbering idiot the minute anybody criticises me so how you manage to do it is beyond me. But let’s not get into that. What I did want to talk to you about because you just mentioned it is the BlushBar. Talking of work life balance that was a really clever interesting decision to set up a BlushBar. First of all, because we have a lot of male listeners can you explain what a BlushBar is to us?
Sarah: Yes, so it is a Blow Dry Bar where you go and women get their hair styled and we actually do cuts and colours now as well. We built up such a rapport with people because people were coming into us three or four times a week to have their hair styled…
Sarah: Yes, I know. Lots of income in Leigh-On-Sea apparently. So we built up more of a rapport than they had with their traditional hairdressers. So we got to the stage where we had a core group of people who came to us and said can we have our other hairstyling services done? So it just grew organically which was really nice. So it’s a traditional hair salon really now.
Paul: How? How do you go from being a web designer… obviously you have hair, so you have experience in hair.
Marcus: Unlike you Paul.
Sarah: Unlike you? Yep.
Paul: Exactly. But I have feet. It doesn’t mean I am going to start selling shoes. What happened there? How did that come about?
Sarah: I think I had a nasty bump on the head.
Sarah: No. I was just interested because it had always been something, when I was just getting into this industry when I was about 19. I saved up £100 to go and see this lady called Sahar Hashemi who started the first Coffee Republic in the UK which then went on to be bought by Costa.
Sarah: And I was really interested in American concepts. People who were well travelled who were able to go to America and see what they were doing first and who would bring them over to the UK market and tweak them to be slightly more British. And I was always interested in that. She inspired me when I was about 19 and I read her book and it was just really interesting. She came from a long line of money. She had a house in Kensington and it was quite easy for her. She just re-mortgaged the house in Kensington and she just started, essentially Starbucks. So I’d always kept an eye on the vacant buildings that were around locally and this building came up and I was thinking ‘Ahh that is a good price point’. It was £1200 a month and it was in a really good spot in town and I just ended up contacting the landlord who had actually already promised it to a tattoo parlour. Unbeknown to me the landlord was actually a hairdresser himself and when I explained the concept, he loved it and he took it off of the tattoo parlour and gave it to me instead. But I chose hair because at the time I was thinking I really wanted something that, it sounds awful, but there isn’t a whole lot of science behind it. There’s skill, but not science. It wasn’t colouring, but styling hair. And in my silly naive brain I said ‘What’s the worst that could happen? We are drying hair. You just wet the hair and start again’.
But I was more interested in putting all the skills in our industry into something so abstract like the hair industry and seeing what happened. It was like a giant UX experiment really.
Paul: Great idea. But I am thinking of me in my position as a freelancer doing not dissimilar to what you do. Did you not just kind of go ‘Oh I fancy doubling my stress levels. That’s what I want to do’.
Sarah: I didn’t think of it at the time like that. I was more interested in the fact that I hadn’t done design work that was so unashamedly female for a long, long time. So I had nice pink colour palettes out and nice pastel tones and I was just like a moth to a light.
Paul: So basically you created an entire business just to facilitate some design trip you wanted to go on?
Sarah: Yes basically. That was exactly it. And then when I had employees I was like ‘Oh yes… this is what happens to happen now’. Yeah. It was just to see from a UX perspective, if you put in really good technology into a business that’s known to be quite stagnant and quite cliquey what would happen? If you take all the skills as a web designer and you’re able to put in really great systems for online booking and plugged in did a custom stripe module so that if people didn’t turn up we can still charge them which was unheard of in the industry. And it’s just been a big experiment really.
Paul: And an enjoyable one? Are you glad you did it?
Sarah: I am really glad I did it. I am really, really happy I did it. I am actually selling it now.
Paul: Oh are you? Because one of the things I was going to ask was that you’ve just spent a year effectively working for another company full time. There must be a lot of work involved in doing the BlushBar too?
Sarah: Yes, I think the thing I underestimated was, maybe I was a bit naive as well, I am so used to being surrounded by people from our industry which is a wonderful thing. But our industry is very, very well disciplined. We take things on off our own backs, we don’t necessarily need to be told our schedules, we do our work, and we are very conscientious about other people’s money and time and all of this stuff. And I approached my employees a bit differently as to how they were used to working in the salon industry. And I said to them ‘Here’s the umbrella upon which I hope you will work under. These are the parameters. But aside from that, as long as you get your work done we are not going to be breathing down your necks’. We wanted a linear management structure, we didn’t want someone to be a Senior stylist, and someone else was a Junior stylist. I wanted to abolish that and have people I thought were best at their jobs. And that does not work in that industry. It is so steeped in so much tradition, that having a linear hierarchy causes pandemonium amongst them. They do not know what to do and they don’t work off their own backs. And actually it’s a very strange industry the salon industry in that the salon actually never has any of the power. The employee always does. It doesn’t matter which way you try and structure the inside of it, whether they are on commission or they are salaried like my lot were, they find a way round to make it that everything is to their benefit and nothing is to the salon’s benefit. So it’s been a very interesting experiment.
Paul: So now you are ready to get rid of it.
Sarah: Yes. I am ready to move on because I realised the day to day stuff, I only ever seem to get involved with it when something horrible needed to be doing like someone needed to be fired or there was too much stock ordered and we needed to speak to a supplier. And that’s not why I got into it. That wasn’t the point. The point was to build something with all the skills that I had from our industry and see how it went. And I’d love to do it for another industry. I’d love to take the money that I’d be coming out of it up, which is a good thing. And I’d like to do it for another industry. I would kind of like to flip houses. I would like to do that for businesses as an experiment. So in twenty years’ time I have all this random knowledge about very strange industries, but applying everything we know as web designers. So I would like to move on now. I will be handing it over to another Hairdresser who has another two salons herself. So upwards and onwards to the next thing.
Paul: That sounds really exciting. And I love that idea of flipping businesses. That sounds like great fun. I am nowhere disciplined enough to do it, but it’s nice enough for other people.
Sarah: It’s been interesting.
Discussing work / life balance
Paul: So, all of that, 30 minutes, now that’s the introduction done.
Marcus: I did wonder if you had just forgotten about the sponsor.
Paul: No I haven’t. It’s all been about work/life balance.
Marcus: It has yes.
Paul: We just haven’t necessarily gone down the questions route. But we do need to pause for a minute to talk about one of our sponsor and then look at the questions that people have sent in from there. But let’s talk about TemplateMonster. This is the last episode that Template Monster are supporting this season. I am sure they will be back in the future and a huge thanks to them for supporting the entire season from beginning to end. Both them and Lynda.com have supported the whole season which is brilliant. They’ve provided all the cool questions that we’ve had, they have paid for the transcription, all kinds of good stuff.
Now we’ve been talking about Monstroid the last couple of weeks which is their mega WordPress template thing. And actually I posted a video about it this week so we will put a link in the show notes through to that. Really the video in the blogpost that I did was about the challenges faced by those of you who work in the lower end of the market and about how tough things are at the moment. It’s always been a very price competitive part of the market place but now you are up against things like Squarespace and The Grid. The Grid is just witchcraft, it is just weird.
And so I did this blogpost and video about the challenges you face and I can’t help but think Monstroid is quite a good solution to web designers at that end of the market because it helps you keep your prices down, helps you deliver really fast which is brilliant. So essentially it is a WordPress theme on steroids. You can build absolutely anything with it. You can also—and this is really important to stress—you can turn features on and off of it. Which means that if you don’t want all that it offers, as it offers all so much and does so much, but if you are not using a particular function you can just turn it off and that means that you can keep your performance really high on the site, it will download fast etc. You can implement it really quickly which is great for your profit margins and it has a really cool visual editor built into it which allows clients to essentially build pages in the same drag-and-drop way you see in Squarespace, so it really is very competitive from that point of view.
TemplateMonster have also got really good support behind them anyway and they’ve got an extra good support for Monstroid that will respond within 2–4 hours. You have all the .psd’s you need as well for further customisation and there’s a very fast install wizard to get you up and running and there is a lifetime’s worth of updates which isn’t bad. I always wondered what the lifetime is. Is it your lifetime, or is it the lifetime of TemplateMonster? Or is it the lifetime of Monstroid? Or is it the lifetime of the Universe? Who knows? You can find out more about that at boagworld.com/monstroid. So there you go. Thank you very much TemplateMonster for supporting us for the whole season. You are awesome.
Right, so shall we talk about the kind of questions people actually sent in around work/life balance?
Marcus: Yes, we have kind of covered a lot of these already. Well the first one we have.
Paul: Right, ‘How do we keep hours under control when I am struggling to make ends meet?’ How did we answer that one Marcus?
Marcus: Well not totally, we talked about how do we keep hours under control, but not necessarily if you are struggling to make ends meet.
Paul: That’s a difficult one.
Marcus: It is.
Paul: Sarah, in your early days, before you were internet famous and flying around the world and speaking at EventApart, and people were falling at your feet in adoration. Before all that happens, did you struggle with I guess it basically boils down to rates. If you can charge more you can work less hours. Was that a big deal for you early on?
Sarah: Yes it was. I was struggling because I was always the type of person who would say ‘Oh the project… I am going to charge you £1500 for this project’ and then ultimately forget to log how many hours I was actually working on the project and a month later night and day for a month… and I would bill and think ‘Hmm I don’t think I have done that quite right’. Because I enjoyed what I did. That’s the problem. When you enjoy what you do you are not necessarily being completely contentious about what you are billing out. But I remember not being very good at that part at all. But in terms of struggling I probably didn’t have that problem because I was still at home living with my Mum and Dad and they weren’t asking me for rent or anything like that. So I was really lucky that I got to experiment with what my rates should be. I remember at one point it was £20 an hour.
Sarah: Yes, that was the first couple of years and then I was like ‘I think I should put this up. I am building full websites and I think I should put this up’. But I used to work all hours of the day as I enjoyed what I did. So I am probably not the best person to ask that one because I did it all horribly. But then you get to a point. We are lucky that this industry is fairly candid about how much they are on per day or rates and there is always discussions about it on blog posts so you are able to balance yourself where you think you sit in the industry based on your experience. Nowadays I don’t think it was much of a problem. But back in 2002/2003 when I was coming up with my daily rate I think I just plucked it out of the sky based on ‘I know I want to spend x amount at TopShop every week’.
Actually I didn’t even have a daily rate. I did it by hour. It was actually when I switched to daily rates that was when everything changed for me. When I was doing hourly rates I was even worse. Because I would spend like six hours and then go ‘How much of those six hours was spent actually working? Probably only an hour’. And so I would bill for just £20. And that was terrible.
Paul: So there is a couple of things in there. One is to track your time. Because you often undercharge for things. Second thing there, you said is switch from hourly to daily rate, and again I think that is good advice. I am trying to thing what else there is to keep your hours under control when you are struggling. You’ve got to increase your rates, haven’t you? It’s the only way of keeping those hours under control. So I imagine you are charging considerably more than £20 an hour now?
Sarah: Yes, I am up to £26 now.
Paul: Oh that’s good. How did you go about doing that? Did you just rack it up one day or what was your approach?
Sarah: I didn’t do the Andy Clark thing of double Fridays or whatever it was that he did for years.
Paul: Anything that Andy Clark does, doesn’t apply to the rest of the world.
Sarah: No. I think I just pitched, I think someone put out a table based on ‘if your experience is this, maybe you should be within these daily rates’. And I think I did just one day the daily rate being £125 and then jumping it to £250 in one year. And I think there was some advice in a very early .Net magazine I read where they said ‘If you’ve got work stacked up and you are booked six months in advance, and you are still getting enquiries for work then you can afford to hike your daily rates up because you have a stream of people who are going to be willing to pay it. Because if they are contacting you and not even asking what your daily rate is, then you are in a good position’. And after reading that I thought I was really lucky. I was getting so many enquiries and I thought I would try and hike it up and see what happens. And I remember emailing back the first person and then wincing, waiting for the reply. And then they were like ‘Ok, that’s fine’. And it just happened like that gradually over twelve years. It’s been just a gradual thing but I think we are just lucky that a lot of people document it nowadays so you can get a feeling for where you sit much better.
Paul: And I do think there is that element where you just have to chance your luck a bit. See if you can get away with it with new clients. And then once you’ve raised your rates for new clients, you can go back to existing ones. And you are right, because I am having to learn this. It feels really weird it feels like I am starting again in my career in some days. We’ve had Jonathan Stark on the show this season and actually I chat with him a lot. I was going on about how it was really good and that I was booked up til Christmas and he was saying ‘you need to raise your rates then’. Because if you are booked that far ahead then you need to raise your rates and he was entirely right about that.
The other thing I would say is don’t over estimate how many hours you are going to be able to charge out. You are not going to be able to charge out anywhere near as much as you think are.
Sarah: No. I charge six. I have it in my contract that my average working day is six hours of working. Because I know there is going to be two hours of every day where it’s email or going back and forth with a new project. No one has ever challenged me on it. In the Terms and Conditions sheet I always say that our daily rate is based on six working hours. And that works fine for me.
Paul: I have a daily rate is based on eight hours a day but my rate presumes that, allows me to effectively only bill out about half time. So I am even worse than you. I am even lazier than you. I work on the assumption, really I am such a slacker, but the time I get up…
Anyway, second question. ‘Everybody says you should work smarter and not longer – how?’
Sarah: True. It’s easy though. I think that’s an easy one. Because when I was starting BlushBar I was doing a project and starting BlushBar at the same time. And before starting the project I was spending all day on the project – 9.00am to 5.00pm. And then when I had BlushBar because I wanted to work on BlushBar in the afternoon, I would get my client work done between 9.00am and 12.00pm and then I would spend 12.00pm to 5.00pm on BlushBar.
That whole thing of making a task stretch to how long you have to do it in is absolutely true. So it’s just about putting good measurements in place to say ‘actually I am going to give myself between 9.00am and 12.00pm to get this project done’. And nine times out of ten you can do it. As long as it’s not a new skill that you are having to learn where you do need to give yourself a bit longer. If you are just in production mode you can get it done. If you zone out everything and really know how you work best. If you work best at a coffee shop or if you work best at home with the headphones on, or however it is, you can get it done. You don’t need to be sat there for fourteen hours doing one task.
Paul: You know I said that I had that client move this month, suddenly I had all this free time for this month. My instant reaction was to take some time off near the end of the month. And then I thought, I know what will happen. This task will just spread and spread and spread. The other stuff I’ve got to do will spread and I won’t take time off. So what I did is I took the time off first and then basically squeezed and squeezed until I had loads and loads to do for the remainder of the month and now I am just ploughing through it at a rate of knots. Same principle isn’t it?
Sarah: Yep, same principle.
Paul: Other things I think that make a huge difference is don’t have your email client open the whole time. The amount of time you can waste… ‘Ping’. Check what that is – oh it’s a bit of junk mail. ‘Ping’ – Some client wanting something that can wait until tomorrow. So I tend to only open my email client three times a day, something like that. That makes a huge difference. Just being organised. You could do a whole show on this.
Paul: You’re bored? You don’t like being organised do you?
Marcus: No I don’t. I am organised in a different way.
I have a different job. I have a job where I have to keep my finger on many, many different things. And not having my email open all the time would be ridiculous. That’s how people contact me and that’s my main form of communication.
Paul: But how is that any different to me and Sarah. We have to manage our own clients and needs.
Marcus: That’s true, but then you have other things to go and do as well. Well I suppose I do as well. I don’t know. I am wrong. Hey.
Paul: Oh wow. I have waited how many years for you to say that?
Marcus: What I find….
Paul: Hang on a minute. Can we just enjoy that for a minute?
Marcus is wrong.
Marcus: Can I carry on, I was going to say is that ‘no I am not’. What I do find a particularly tough task, the kind of task you keep avoiding, then I will start turning things off and say ‘right, this is the only thing I am going to have open’ usually some document writer. Or I have got to do research into google analytics. Then I will start turning things off. But generally I don’t.
Sarah: It’s called the ‘Eat that Frog’ principle.
Paul: It’s what? I’ve never heard this.
Sarah: I read the book years ago. It’s based on if you do the task that you are most dreading first, all the other tasks seem easy by comparison, so you plough through them at a much quicker rate than if you had done them in reverse.
Marcus: I always did my homework on Sunday evenings, well often on Monday mornings.
Sarah: Oh did you? I was the Friday night kid.
Marcus: Oh well I hate you then.
Marcus: We are who we are, we can’t change that and yes I would love to get rid of the most difficult task first but meh.
Paul: That’s a very defeatists attitude Marcus. You could be a Friday night kid if you could only buckle down.
Marcus: Friday nights are for having fun, not doing homework.
Sarah: But then you don’t have to worry the whole weekend. That’s how I used to be.
Marcus: I am quite good at not worrying.
Sarah: Oh ok.
Paul: That’s Marcus’s curse and his blessing. He doesn’t worry about things.
Sarah: That’s an amazing thing though.
Paul: I know. I wish I was like him from that point of view. But the result is that he leaves everything to the last minute.
Marcus: Not always, but I am more likely to leave things to the last minute because I don’t fret about things so much. I do fret about somethings, but yes, getting homework done wasn’t one of them.
Sarah: Mind you, I am a Last-Minute-Larry in somethings too. If I know that I have to book a flight, I would leave it until the night before or sometimes the day of.
Sarah: Even though I’ve known it’s coming. I’ve known a whole year its coming. I would think ‘Oh yes, I need to fly’.
Marcus: Oh well I am completely different on that. I would have that booked from the day I knew it was confirmed.
Sarah: Oh no. I am not like that. I leave all stuff like that to the last minute. You get a better deal actually truth be told.
Paul: Oh now I can believe that.
Marcus: See I always thought the more in advance you book it, the more likely you are to get a lower price, or there won’t be any seats left.
Sarah: Yes, but where are you flying to? Timbuctoo? There’s like eight flights a day to America. You can always get them.
Marcus: It was more the logic that I would be saving my money as I always thought flights got more expensive the closer to the day you go.
Sarah: It’s a lie.
Paul: And Sarah would know as she spends half her life in the air from what I can gather.
Sarah: Yes, I do. Bus in the sky.
Paul: ‘I don’t feel like I can go away on holiday because clients won’t be able to reach me. Help!’
Sarah: Oh this one. I spent years thinking this. And then I just got to a point where I was like ‘Do you know what, no client normally ever needs anything in the two weeks you are away that can’t wait’. I remember being held hostage in my office once by a client who wouldn’t actually let me go until I had done something on his website and I was due to go to the airport. And then I came back thinking ‘Oh my goodness, everything will have imploded and I won’t have a business anymore’ and the client hadn’t done anything with it for two weeks. Nothing is that urgent ever. Unless you are running servers. That was the only time when it was stressful. If their website goes down, or their emails gone down that’s different. But generally speaking what are they really going to do in two weeks?
Paul: What she said. Absolutely. And as for servers and stuff like that I read a recent article Drop Sys Admin work as fast as possible, it’s the devil’s work.
Sarah: Oh it is. It will increase your stress levels as a freelancer by like 80% if you are running stuff like that. Because you end up being the go-to. And you are just not that person. That was never our jobs.
Paul: No. Do not do it. ‘People say we should keep work and home separate but work is my hobby’. Now this goes back to what you were saying earlier about you really enjoying your job so things began to expand and you wouldn’t worry so much. Do you think, a lot of people in this industry would say they don’t mind working long hours because it’s their hobby and they love doing it? In hindsight do you think that’s a problem?
Sarah: No because I still think it’s my hobby. I still love doing it, even now. I enjoy certain parts of this industry so much that I hardly watch television anymore, I am always doing tutorials. Some people might say that’s a workaholic, but it’s not it’s the same as someone who enjoys reading books, or any other form of knowledge gathering or bettering yourself. This is part of why I wanted to do this video blog, is that it’s almost become unfashionable to actually want to do something with your brain nowadays. It’s almost like it’s become unfashionable to want to be clever or to want to have some knowledge in something. And I don’t think it’s a problem at all if that’s what you enjoy. It’s the same as other people having other hobbies. I was talking with Brad Frost at An Event Apart a couple of days ago and we were talking about the mindless stuff we do to combat the fact that sometimes the industry can be very heavy on your brain when you are learning things. And it’s funny how many gamers there are. How we all are still on computers but just switch the use to mindless gaming. And he was saying that Worms has just come back apparently.
Marcus: Has it? Oh I liked Worms.
Sarah: He was saying that that is like the best web designer mindless check out for a couple of hours is to play Worms. And I love that. I don’t think it’s a problem. I really don’t.
Paul: I worry that it could become a problem if we are not honest with ourselves. That’s my problem. I think sometimes we love what we do, we love the job we do, but actually there is a difference between loving to learn, loving to fiddle and play with new technology and new gadgets but I don’t love sitting up until 3.00am trying to solve an iO8 bug. I still like to have my work time and my home time, but that doesn’t mean that in my home time I won’t be doing some elements of work that I enjoy. But I give myself permission not to do the bits I don’t enjoy.
Marcus: I have a 6.00pm rule now.
Paul: Do you really? How does that work for you?
Marcus: Pretty good really. Obviously if you are driving back late from somewhere there is nothing you can do about it. But since the kids grew up and left, I found myself getting up earlier and earlier. And if I have anything that I need to get my head down to then I just get up earlier for it. So therefore I am not prepared to stay at work in the evening.
Paul: I don’t mean this offensively, but for you the web and digital is a job. Isn’t it? You wouldn’t be like me and Sarah, if you weren’t getting paid you wouldn’t be sitting fiddling with Swift or learning new bits of tech. So it’s maybe slightly different in your situation.
Marcus: Yes definitely. We’ve had this conversation. If you didn’t have to do this – would you do it? Probably not. That’s quite tricky actually, because there are aspects of it I really like. It’s more the kind of running a team and seeing the team doing good work and getting on well and all that aspect I really like. I’d like to be this boss that flits in and out every now and then. But yes. At the moment it’s nothing like that obviously because I have lots of other work to do. But yes, you are absolutely right. It isn’t my first love.
Paul: I do think something you said there is actually spot on in terms of being able to tell. If its 8.00pm if you are enthusiastic about the web and digital and things like that and you are still working, if you ask yourself if I wasn’t getting paid to sit here and do this, would I be doing it? And the answer is no, because it’s writing some documentation or doing the accounts or whatever then you shouldn’t be doing it at that point of the day. That’s probably quite a good way of looking at it.
Sarah: Yes definitely.
Paul: Anyway, we ought to wrap up because we are going to run over as is always the case. Let’s do our last sponsor because I want to thank Lynda for the amazing stuff that they have done to support this show over the last however many episodes – 15 I think?
They’ve sponsored us through the whole season, they’ve got a great selection of on demand video courses on creativity, business, and technical skills. They are a great place to learn new skills, whether it be learning Swift for example as Sarah is doing, or whether it’s learning some aspect of web design or running your business, they’ve got a great selection. Of course, it’s only right that in the very last episode of the season they have come up with a bumper crop of related content. There have been some weeks where they haven’t done so well, but this week they’ve done well. They’ve got whole courses dedicated to ‘Finding your work/life fit’ or ‘Creating an amazing life’. They do a course on ‘Creating an amazing life’. There is course I should start doing.
Marcus: You are going to be disappointed by that. It’s setting the bar very high.
Paul: If by the end of that course if I don’t have a house in the Maldives then it’s let me down.
But they’ve also got videos on ‘Balancing entrepreneurship and life’, ‘Balancing the technology in your life’, ‘Developing a work/life balance’, ‘Achieving a work life balance’ and it goes on and on. So loads of content on work/life balance there that you can keep watching. And so there’s loads for you to check out in the bit of a break between seasons. People on Twitter are wailing and gnashing their teeth, asking how they are going to survive between these two seasons of Boagworld. Lynda.com. There is your answer. You can get a free trial at Lynda.com/Boagworld.
Marcus. Last one. Is it going to be a good one?
Marcus: This is from a chap called Paul Winter who says ‘P.S. I have listened to every Boagworld podcast, do I get a medal?’
Paul: Yes we can make him a Knight of Boagworld. We’ve done that once before – Andy Kinsley was it? Or was it Ian Laskey?
Marcus: Yes, a Boagworld Knight.
Paul: You don’t get anything for it. It’s totally worthless.
Marcus: I was going to say, if he’s listened to every episode, he probably needs some kind of counselling.
Paul: Psychiatric help.
Marcus: But anyway, his joke.
‘An old lady was driving along the motorway at 20mph whilst knitting. After she failed to respond to the flashing blue lights and siren, a police car pulled alongside with the window down. Pointing at the woman the policeman shouted
“No” she said “It’s a scarf”.
Paul: He obviously has listened to every single episode if that’s what he’s coming up with.
Marcus: He obviously found that joke and thought of me. It’s kind of nice isn’t it. I am a part of his life in a very, very small way.
Paul: Which is fair enough. So Sarah, thank you very much for joining us on the last episode. As always, it’s been amazing.
Sarah: Thank you for having me.
Paul: We need to meet up.
Sarah: Yes, I haven’t seen you since Vegas I think.
Paul: Listen to you. ‘Oh yes, when I was flying off to An Event Apart…’ ‘Oh I was hanging out with Brad Frost and we were talking about this…’’Oh when the last time I talked to you was in Vegas…’
Sarah: You were there too!
Paul: Oh yeah. Damn. That undermines it.
Sarah: That was the fun time. That was the fart conference, remember?
Sarah: That was fun/
Paul: Yes, Sarah had flatulence problems in her workshop room.
Sarah: Yes, it was caused by the drains of Vegas but I didn’t know whether to say something, because I didn’t know whether it was a problem with an attendee…but I had to get someone from the conference in the end it was that bad.
Paul: Only in Sarah’s world do these things happen.
Sarah: I tell you, I am struck with some kind of web designer’s curse.
Paul: I don’t think it’s anything to do with web design.
Sarah: I think it is.
Paul: Alright, thank you so much for joining us Sarah. I hope people have enjoyed this season. We are all done. We are back on the 24th September when we are going to be doing a season on User Experience design. We are going to be looking at User Experience in the broadest sense. We are not going to be talking just about web design, we are not going to be talking even about screen based design. We are going to look at all aspects of user experience, so expect a really good and interesting season.
Links mentioned in the show
- Sarah Parmenter
- Sahar Hashemi
- Monstroid Blog video
- The Grid
- Brad Frost
- An Event Apart