For Part 2 of the ‘Interview with an Entrepreneur’ series, I talked to Aaron Null, Owner of Vervor Design. Vervor is a one-man graphic design operation there “to meet your design needs with personal attention”. From website design to product packaging, Aaron has continued to develop his style and workflow over the past 6 years of working as a freelance graphic designer. I have worked with Aaron on more than one occasion and was always impressed with his work ethic and ability to bring something unique to the table.
Vervor continues to thrive and take on new clients, even as the design market becomes evermore saturated by cheap foreign labor. I sat down with Aaron to discuss what life is like as a freelance artist – the challenges and benefits – as well as what it takes to create and maintain a flourishing operation.
With tips for new freelancers, awesome productivity suggestions and great insight on life in general, this interview has something for everyone.
BWB: First off, thank you for taking the time to do this. I know the freelance life can be a bit hectic and I know your time is valuable. To introduce what you do to our readers, can you give me a brief idea of what kind of design work you offer?
Aaron: Vervor does it all really – logo, layout/print work, posters, invites, all sorts of social media design.
Did you go to school for graphic design? If so, where did you go and what exactly did you study?
Nope! I went to Penn State for film, tried my hand at the film editor ladder for about four years in LA, got pretty washed out by that twisted town and ended up escaping to San Diego where a much quieter, sleepy, but ambitiously growing city awaited. I trained myself on Photoshop and Illustrator and continue to do so when I can get the time.
When did you decide to pursue the freelance route full time? Was this a conscience decision?
Well, when I decided film editing wasn’t going to work out I was kind of lost for a little while, but I knew I wanted to be creative everyday. I’ve always been someone who can draw, I collect art of all kinds, and I’m constantly sharing and trying to connect disparate feelings and colors and patterns in life. I started working with Photoshop and doing some contests on 99Designs to kind of test the waters. I started winning some contest and I got hooked on the whole process of learning to read a client – communicating with them, and it evolved from there. I had the idea of being a designer in my head for a long time – it isn’t too far from a lot of what you do in film or any art – you arrange things and create a message.
How do you go about finding clients? Do you use specific websites (e-lance, 99designs, etc..) or do you rely more on old-fashioned networking and word of mouth?
As I just mentioned 99Designs was my testing ground. I actually use Craigslist still for some stuff – I really like how random the clients can be, and I’ve “met” some amazing entrepreneurs that way. I was terribly shy with some of the basics of strong marketing and business-building when I began – I’d ignore a phone call, because I just got scared about them asking about something I had no idea about. I’ve grown in huge strides since the early days – I actually really like being on the phone now and getting to know a new client. I pride myself in attempting to bridge that communication gap and nailing their design. Once I got going, word of mouth was really important and still remains very important. You get people who have a whole different level of innate trust and “lean” on your skills when you get a referral, in general. When it’s a cold client you just never know what you’re going to get.
How do you divide your time between client acquisition and actual design work? Are you always looking for new clients even if you have a few projects on deck?
I have this routine where I do some emails and looking for jobs in the morning once I get going. I sometimes lapse on the acquisition if I’m really busy – it’s quite a luxury to be really busy, and it is like this rebel impulse to say “fuck it” for a day. That’ll quickly bite you in the butt though as I’ve found too many times when I’m all dried up a week or two later. Gotta always hustle!
Do you have other people you work with on a regular basis? If so, how did you create these working relationships and how do these relationships help your business?
Yes, I have a solid group of long term clients. I’m also currently on retainer with a company (essentially working half-time for them) which has been really nice and consistent. The best clients are often like good friendships – there’s a sort of magical instant connection and they feel the need to use you in particular for your style or for whatever reason. I’m sure I also have been much more charismatic or smart about my interactions when it comes to work I really want to pursue. This is also how I think designers develop a “style” and certain type of work they are known for. You begin to develop types of work you’re deep in experience with, and when an opportunity comes along you’re able to whip out some good nuggets and nail the first couple interactions then you’re in. It is massively important to get that sort of “good feeling” with a client. In general you still encounter that sort of suspicion people have with artists and visual arts… like it’s a swindle or not really worthwhile to throw assets at. You’re constantly convincing clients that good design is worthwhile (and worth spending money on). The clients it seems to work out best with are all-in and you’re able to just communicate and get to work. Wow, got me on a rant…
Because you work for yourself (or whatever client you are currently working for), do you find it difficult to stay productive or do your deadlines keep you in check?
This is something that has evolved a lot with me. Initially I was excited about any work and wasn’t super busy so staying productive wasn’t too much of an issue. As I’ve grown and gotten busier, I get work that maybe I’m not as amped about or I’ll just be straight-up tired. I find letting my natural patterns of creativity breath a bit really helps. If I’m not up to really digging for a great idea I don’t push it. I work on stuff that I know I can bang out with solid design and good work that afternoon, go for a run, settle in at night, and then I relax and do some digging late night to find the nuggets of good design that takes harder work. When I get busy, I’ve learned to just buckle down and bust it out. I won’t admit that I naturally have a fantastic work ethic, so it has taken some personal growth to whip myself into shape especially as a rather idealistic, creative dreamy type I’d melt into otherwise.
Do you have set pricing for certain projects or do you determine pricing based on your client and the project at hand?
I have my standards that have grown as my portfolio and experience has grown, but the reality is that it definitely changes based on the client. I certainly never gauge people, and I take pride in doing charity work and tiny jobs for people who just want a little advert or personal piece done. Design is democratic, and I also feel it’s an integral part of the community and should never be unapproachable.
Do you work from home or do you work elsewhere to help with staying focused?
I used to work at my desk in my bedroom, and then I got completely stir crazy with that after a year or so. You don’t see anyone all day, and then when you go for a bite to eat mid afternoon you can’t form a sentence – it’s weird. I have this place Lazy Hummingbird here in Ocean Beach that is like my office away from home. I was there the day it opened, and I’ve gotten to know every person who has worked there. I bring them leftovers and stuff – it’s like my plug into the community. If I really have to focus on something intense I usually just hang at home. I really like working at home alone late at night. Its like a perfect limbo where great ideas come in… if you do it right.
With so much cheap design work coming from overseas, do you find it difficult to stay competitive? How do you deal with this?
Yeah, the low end of design has been nailed by that stuff. Lots of logo jobs and stuff that I might be bidding on are going to get totally undercut by insanely low offers form India and stuff. I rely on local business and people who value keeping business close, communication good, and an ongoing growth between us. All I can do is create my niche, work hard, and offer good prices – anyone can design if they know their stuff!
What is the most difficult aspect of working for yourself?
I haven’t built up the kind of savings or retirement reserves I probably would have if I’d gone corporate. My health care is minimal.
What is the biggest benefit of working for yourself?
I do what I want! It is that simple – there’s great freedom in being your own boss, charting your course, finding your way. I love it. My wins are my own.
What things do you do to make sure you are staying up-to-date with industry standards? Ie – how do you further your education in graphic design without formal schooling?
I have a massive list of websites that I keep up with to keep my finger on the pulse. Awesome designer collab sites like dribbble.com allow you to really interact and see how people are evolving styles and coming up with new ways to express. The Internet has just recently really “grown up” in terms of design, so its an exciting time. You can always find a tutorial for a new idea you want to explore. I have some colleagues I can get in touch with if I’m stuck on something or want to bounce something. In general it’s a very collaborative, vibrant community, and I really love that.
How long were you freelancing before it became a solid source of supportable income?
Two years? It can go from 6 months of amazing work to 4 months of dry so its all over the place. I still don’t feel like I’m out of the woods and I’ve been going for almost 6 years. I’m getting there though.
Was the company completely self-sustaining or have you ever received any investments or financial support?
I got some help from my parents for initial investments – computer, programs. They’ve been really supportive. I don’t have a ton of overhead so once it was off the ground it’s a matter of budgeting my life well.
Do you consider yourself “successful”? What stands in your memory as the moment when you realized you were able to support yourself from freelance work?
No, I wouldn’t say I’m some blazing success. I think things are building nicely! I remember getting my first pretty big branding job that included also designing the full packaging for a new company. That felt like a big boy job – it was an exciting day. I see those packages at my local market every day and it makes the work very real to me.
How would you define success and who is someone that is successful in your mind?
I think success is a very personal idea… I define success as comfortable financially, set with friends and family, and happy with the pulse and routine of life. I want to have work that is vibrant creatively, great relationships with my clients that are growing… just as I would want with all my other relationships in life.
Be honest, how many hours a week do you work?
50ish – that can definitely fluctuate. It’s been a really busy spring!
What do you do to stay ahead of your competition?
If I’m being honest I’m not looking over my shoulder all the time. I just do what I do and try to create design I’m happy with and hope to find clients who dig it too. I like to think my personal style with clients keeps them coming back for work with me.
If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Don’t kid yourself – you’re on your own, the world owes you nothing, and you have to slice out every bit of progress you’ll make. I think it was Oprah who said success equals opportunity + preparation…or maybe Ben Franklin. Either way, that’s bang on.
Is “the customer always right”? How important is customer satisfaction to your business?
To a point… I can be pretty stubborn when I hit my point too. I’ve learned this is quite the tightrope act when it comes to design. Lots of the time if the client really wants something, and you have done your best to communicate all the reason or reservations or adjustments you see fit to make the DESIGN GOOD, then you have to just let them have their way and take your fee. But I really hate doing that when it leads to a twisted product, which happens just way too often. I think it’s the responsibility of the craftsman to advise with the integrity of the craft in mind at all times and fight for it when it can be done without burning a bridge. It’s a tightrope act, but one that I enjoy navigating – it makes for a lively interchange, and I’ve learned a lot about design finding the middle ground with many great clients who are willing to have the back and forth.
Do you get a lot of repeat business?
Yep! Especially these days with social media graphics being so prevalent – lots of updates, memes, page graphics, etc.
How do you drive traffic to your website/facebook? Where does most of your traffic come from?
I’m woefully bad with the SEO…reminds me I need to work on it.
What kind of advertising do you do (paid or non-paid)?
Not much really. I’ve done some flyering around town. It is another thing I need to build on.
How does social media benefit your business and how do you plan on continuing to leverage these avenues?
I used to use social media more, but since Facebook changed how people see pages I’ve fallen off a good bit. I personally love how wide open social media is, and I have a strong personal presence there both with design, personally, and with the electronic music weekly I run, so all that combined has led to quite a bit of business which I really like. It means it is organic.
I would assume having a portfolio is important for your business. Do you have any advice on how to start building a portfolio when starting out as a freelancer?
Just get to work. Go through the process and finish pieces. I think 99Designs was a great way to learn that because you’re forced to just get an iteration done. So much of progress is repetition, learning shortcuts, learning how to quickly and smoothly get a task done so that you can concentrate on a larger idea. When you have a big idea you want to work on it is so important to be able to coast through the smaller steps it takes to get to the bigger whole. So much of art is contingent on this. Master the skills and then you have the freedom to build unique expressions. It is important to FINISH work – go through the entire process, get it out there, get feedback, etc. All of it is equally important to really progress.
Do you have a basic routine that you stick to everyday? If so, run me through it.
Typically – up by 8ish if I didn’t work late night, 10 if I was up very late which happens a couple nights a week if I’m jamming on something. Morning: marketing emails and pressing revisions before noon. Often I’ll head to a coffee shop by noon, lunch, then jam on 3-4 hours of afternoon work. I like to hit the gym or go for a run from 4-6. After the sun is down I’ll usually get 2-4 more hours of work depending on my workload. If I have something I need to be really inspired about I’ll work late into the night.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Exercise is super important to me or I overload – love to run, go to the gym with my buddy, shoot some hoops. San Diego is always begging you to step out into the sun – it’s the best and I’ve never taken it for granted.
With working from home, do you find separating work life and home life difficult?
If I am really jammed up I can get pretty cranky and not get my mind off of work, but in general I can be pretty good with just turning it off and forcing myself to chill out. My weekends are generally totally off or if I have to work I’ll bang out a Saturday morning or Sunday night, but I really value them.
How do you “shut it off” at the end of a workday so your mind isn’t constantly worrying about work?
Running/workout. You get to sweat it out and breath – it’s so important to me.
Do you listen to music while working (I know you, out of all people, do)? If so, what are you listening to these days?
ALL THE TIME. Music is really my life – I use it to shape my feelings and routine constantly. Recently I’ve been all about The War on Drugs, Sufjan Steven’s new one, Mr. Carmack, French Kiwi Juice, Jamie XX, Garden City Movement, Kan Wakan, Spoon… want more?! I got stuff for days – let’s talk music!
Do you make to-do lists? What does a typical Aaron Null To-Do List look like?
Oh man, you should ask my mom about that – she’s the queen of to-do lists. I don’t really do them – only when I do a crazy errand run. I have these moleskin graphed notebooks I use for keeping track of clients. I keep my current job list going until a page gets messy and then I transfer it all over to the next page with things that are still going freshly updated. I end up starting new projects in whatever facet of my life from the back of those books. I’ve run through about 5 of them now – they’re my little books of secrets and projects.
What motivates you/gets you out of bed in the morning? Do you have any sort of songs, videos, quotes that you use to stay motivated?
The song I can’t wait to hear again. The song “Minor Cause” by Emancipator has been my total reset button since he came out with it. For whatever reason it gets me totally focused and feeling “in awe” with life no matter what mood I’m in. It’s a magical little tool.
If you are ever feeling lazy, what do you do to get rid of that feeling and resume productivity?
I force myself to think very practically – something that doesn’t come naturally. I think about my friends who are hard at work in a traditional office and remind myself I don’t get to be lazy and that hard work is its own reward – which is so true.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring freelancers, what would it be?
Be very realistic and do your homework before you jump in, but if you feel the itch then go for it. Freedom to build your own path I think is very human, and I totally encourage it, especially given the powerful tools at our disposal these days to anyone who wants to put in the time/effort.