Aaron Joseph, a freelance web developer and designer, shares his journey of pursuing artistic interests. He initially wanted to be a doctor or artist but realized the challenges of math and science. He attended Albany colleges in the Bay Area with art programs, where he excelled in Advanced Placement art classes and theatrical programs. His interest in web design and development evolved from a desire to work as a studio artist to a desire to create unique, public art. Despite his dedication to art, Aaron realized that the competitive nature of the industry and the need for luck often limited his artistic output. He is now working on creating a freelancers’ cooperative through his new company, Identafire.
Aaron Joseph, a freelance web developer and designer, graciously agreed to an interview. In this interview, Aaron goes through how he develops customer connections as a freelancer and establishes prices. Additionally, Aaron talks about how working alone is his biggest struggle and how he’s taking the next step to create a freelancers’ cooperative through his new company, Identafire.
What inspired you to engage in artistic activities and become a freelance web developer?
I remember wanting to be either a doctor or an artist when I was little. Over time, I realized how challenging math and science are. That’s a really pretty way to put things. I was not especially good at math, and it was my least favorite subject. Additionally, I did not do well in chemistry class. I had the good fortune to attend largely Albany colleges in the Bay Area that had art programs. I was allowed to take the Advanced Placement art class in its independent study format. As a stage assistant and then a lighting designer and director, I had the opportunity to participate in the theatrical program. Those were the things I was best at and most driven to do.
I was a quiet kid, too. Instead of having to explain who I am, it was more comfortable for me to be able to do some peculiar things as art, release them into the public, and have others watch the art. I could see how people interacted with it and enjoy seeing their emotions. I like participating in creative projects where I’m not the focus of attention and my work is integrated into something that everyone can talk about.
How did your interest in web design and development change from a desire to work as a studio artist?
I went to art school while a college student in Chicago with the goal of becoming a studio artist. And maybe I will in the future. But not long after I had my degree, I came to the conclusion that I probably lacked the discipline to pursue painting as a career. The industry is incredibly competitive, even if I was extremely diligent and did it every day. Sometimes everything depends on luck. You don’t have to be a great artist to make nothing. In essence, the desire to earn money is not the driving force behind making art. Therefore, the kind of works that an artist may produce may occasionally be constrained by the methods in which they can be compensated for their labor. I thus knew that I would probably not be able to crochet and screen print for a living. I did my best. I made an effort to launch a screen printing business. But at the moment, I didn’t have the self-control to do it.
I thus made the decision to work in the design industry. I took design classes at Berkeley City College. Then Motorola engaged me to design websites. Recently, they had purchased Netopia. As a result, they were taking requests for the development of websites from AT&T and Yellow Pages clients. We would use a specialist program to build a website. We were not allowed to make full use of the instrument, and we had no training in coding. The webpages that were produced using this peculiar technology were of low quality. However, I did buy website design layouts and templates that I can use to build websites without writing any code. I liked the visual aspect. Additionally, I liked the idea of building a website. But I wanted to know how things worked and how to carry out the complete process.
What makes web design and development appealing to you?
This work is creative. Even though it’s mediated through committees that have to approve specific design elements, some of my project concept ends up becoming reality. It still involves me coming up with a concept, which I then bring to life in the real world. It also has reach and delivers a message. A sizable audience may be reached with internet-based material. This also applies to printed output. I spent many years working for a variety of newspapers, so I have a special spot for print. And even if print isn’t as popular as it once was, I still enjoy it.
How did you move to working independently?
I had been working a job and freelancing simultaneously for a while. However, I subsequently rose to the position of supervisor at the business where I worked. I had taken on the role of creative director, and I found that I missed performing most of the work rather than just overseeing others. The environment’s tier-like organization also turned me off. I just needed to get out of there and work in a way that seemed less harmful to me and other people. I thus made the decision to test my self-employment acumen two years ago.
I started off focusing on marketable skills that were in demand. At the time, I didn’t think of it as marketing. I was clueless about marketing. But I wanted to be sure I had a product that would bring in regular money. In the end, I discovered how to create original WordPress themes. I used to alter already-existing WordPress themes, but I try to refrain from doing so these days. I’m the kind of person that likes to peek beneath the hood, and I want to be a part of every stage of the project I’m working on. So instead of using an existing theme, I learned how to make a bespoke one.
Then, most of my clients were people who needed websites, so I ended up creating branding for them. Many of these clients needed a logo and a brand identity because they were just starting their enterprises. Additionally, I had some of my work published.
Earlier, you said that your clientele has changed over time. What’s different now? Who are the perfect clients for you?
I worked with more writers, singers, filmmakers, and artists when I initially started out as a freelancer. My work used to draw a different clientele than it does now. This is partly a result of my own conscious choices, but it is also a result of my involvement with Uptima’s Freelancer Accelerator. I was able to identify the kind of clients I want to work with since I like what they do and they can help me support myself. It thus seems that we are both benefiting. It is always hoped that both sides would benefit from a transaction.
As a result, I currently work largely with non-profit organizations and a few mid-sized for-profit businesses in the housing and education sectors. Working with people whose businesses benefit our communities is something I appreciate. In our educational systems, there are several underrepresented demographic groups. In addition, housing costs in the Bay Area, the rest of the nation, and the rest of the world are now out of control. I feel lot better about my work if I can help these groups succeed.
When I was employed for a for-profit housing client in the real estate sector, one of my responsibilities was to create a postcard announcing that they had, or something like, sold the most expensive house in the Mission. I completed the work and got paid for it, but I did not take pleasure in it. It seemed predacious. On the other hand, I work for a company whose goal is to help children learn arithmetic more efficiently. Because I have trouble with arithmetic, I can identify with their objective. It was challenging for me. It’s good to collaborate with them on projects that go beyond simply rearranging chapters in textbooks so they can publish a new version and make more money.
As a result, I am drawn to groups whose goals are to address pressing issues, have an impact on people, or offer housing for individuals. They are also the kinds of companies that provide a good or service that enables them to hire someone to help them with design, but who probably lack the resources to do so. so that I may momentarily work with them and help them accomplish their goals.
As a result, you have many repeat clients. How can you encourage connections that lead to lifetime commitments?
Yes, I have worked with a filmmaker since I started doing freelance work on the weekends and in the nights. We’ve been dating for more than five years now. That makes me happy. I’m grateful for my devoted customers who supported me in the beginning. They still work for me and have accompanied me on trips when I have raised my prices.
I worked in a number of customer service roles early in my career, which has been helpful in developing client connections. I can also grasp how the organizations I cooperate with may operate because I’ve worked in a more corporate atmosphere.
The ability to communicate effectively is crucial. ensuring that my understanding of their expectations corresponds with what they actually anticipate. ensuring that I fulfill the established deadlines or offering a justification for why the deadline has to be changed. Make careful to follow up and complete what you started. I need to be able to anticipate people’s needs or issues in the project using my expertise waiting tables; if I notice something that seems like it could be a problem in the future, I’ll try to stop it from happening. As a result, I believe that the greatest job I can do for them is to draw from all the many types of work I’ve done in the past. And it seems to have motivated them to come back.
I also let them know how much I appreciate their business, which is sometimes as simple as writing a note on an invoice that says “thank you for choosing me for this project.” I also occasionally send emails stating that working with me allows me to live the life and do the work that I want. Simply telling them I want to build a relationship with them and being straightforward and honest with them.
You noted that despite pricing changes, one of your regular customers has stayed steadfast. How has the cost of your products changed over time? And what do you think about the pricing changes?
I started doing freelance work on the side for $30 an hour. That was more than I had been making elsewhere per hour. It exceeded my hourly pay at the time. I also had to take into consideration the fact that I had to pay taxes on the money I made from freelancing as well as my health insurance premiums. As a result, I had to raise my pricing to reflect these costs. However, at the time, raising my rates seemed like a significant investment. I thought I wouldn’t be paid for this.
By the time I left that job, I was billing at $40 per hour, but I maintained my very first client at my old rate out of gratitude that she had taken a chance on me and given me a start. I always have and will keep letting customers know before any pricing rises. And if I provide an estimate based on my past pricing after discussing a job with you for a while, I’ll usually stick to that fee going forward.
I didn’t think I could charge more until I hit $40 an hour. But I was aware that I needed more money. I made the decision to charge $50 per hour as of January 1. I joined Uptima’s Freelancer Accelerator as well, where we talked about an upper limit issue. I thought I already had this. Although I knew some designers who charged $75 to $100 per hour, I had the misconception that no one would pay me more than $50 per hour. Simply put, I thought no one would pay me for that. My clientele won’t use me any more. I was able to explore my reasons for holding the notion that my earning potential was constrained thanks to this training. I won’t abruptly decide to raise my charges drastically. But I am conscious that I need a certain sum of money to exist, as well as a certain sum to feel like I am getting paid fairly. As a freelancer, I should treat my work the same manner as I would if I were employed by a respectable organization within a more conventional work paradigm.
I now take all of these things into account when setting prices. Additionally, I can show the customer their potential return on investment if they engage me since I can exhibit a greater body of work and a larger portfolio. As a result, I think my fees are fair to both my clients and to myself. I think there is also opportunity for improvement. Additionally, I have these methods for deciding when and how to proceed with the following increase.
What is the biggest obstacle you must overcome as a freelancer?
My biggest challenge is the lack of coworkers. Being a designer (and likely in many other professions as well) without anybody to bounce ideas off of is rather insane-inducing. I also miss working in a collaborative setting. I miss the wonderful people on the design teams I previously worked with at companies. Working alone was wonderful for a while. But I’m suddenly hankering for more human interaction. And I’m making an effort to apply this to the direction of my business.
I know that you came back to enroll in our Small Business & Enterprise Accelerator because of this. Describe the further steps your company will take.
I’m thinking of starting a cooperative as the next step for my business. I just started outsourcing computing work to independent contractors since I cannot afford to hire someone full-time. I also cannot afford to hire another designer more than a small portion of the project if I need to work with them. I am not very good at arithmetic, as indicated. I don’t enjoy dealing with money. The creation of invoices is fine because I know I will likely be paid based on those invoices, but the rest of the process is not at all pleasurable. I think there are people I could work with that are far better at it and love it more than I am. I can’t, however, pay for them to monitor every activity. However, I can’t build the team I want to work with through contracting and subcontracting.
They might as well become co-owners in a cooperative instead. Even if there isn’t initially a steady stream of initiatives, I think people will be far more interested in sticking around. Maybe they discover activities as well. Then, I’ll be able to work with them as they take the lead, and the other way around. The cooperative model, in my opinion, has the potential to be a great method to draw individuals who have similar ideals about the kind of workplace they want, the customers they want to serve, and the potential influence their work may have on the globe and our community.
What stage of the coop’s construction are you at?
I’ve reached the accepting stage. I was originally apprehensive because I wanted this to be my business because I had already succeeded at it. Therefore, there was some internal battle about whether or not my ego could let go of it. But I’ve now gone past it. Additionally, I think this is a fantastic idea. I specifically don’t want to reproduce some of the more toxic places I’ve worked in before. And if I adhere to these common organizational structures for businesses, I will be on the same route to duplicate this.
Additionally, I currently know very few people with whom I would feel at ease working together and even fewer people with whom I think I would make a successful business partner. So I need to meet more people, build connections with them, and carefully assess if I want to continue doing business with them when I retire, which is something else I’d like to be able to do as a consequence of this, or at least until I do.
What do you consider to be your most significant business development success?
One of my clients, Berkeleyside, needed a website that would walk visitors through the process of investing directly in their business. A direct public offering is what it’s called, and from what I can tell, it’s similar to an IPO but smaller and allows unaccredited investors to participate directly in the process. They are journalists. My background is in publishing. When I used to work for the Guardian, I was there when it closed. Because no one wants to pay a monthly charge to access online news sources and because commercials are obtrusive, I saw funding for journalism as a difficulty with the development of the Internet. As a result, I felt this was such a great idea and deed. Particularly in Berkeley, where inhabitants have a keen interest in both national and global affairs. It seems like the perfect fit. I was overjoyed to be chosen for this project. This website was made just for them, and I think it looks great. In contributions, they have amassed more than $500,000. It complied with their needs. Still in business and looking for investment. I feel quite gratified to have played a part in that endeavor. It was one of the biggest projects I had worked on before. I have had moments when I questioned my capacity for success. I also did. I keep working together with them. Being able to see and be a part of their achievement is satisfying.
What words of wisdom would you impart to a new freelancer?
Working a part-time job while freelancing is not stigmatized. However, if you can secure a reliable source of income, I think you should. I consider it to be crucial. It may first feel like a feast or a famine.
Additionally, keep track of the hours you spend on each activity to ensure that your estimates and pay are correct. Make use of a time-tracking tool like Toggl or another program to make it simple to get this data as required.
For more information
We bring you exclusive interviews with leading experts in the fields of web development, web design, and SEO. Discover the unique stories of these individuals who have transformed their passion into remarkable achievements. Our team thoughtfully gather inspiring stories from across the internet, aiming to spark your creativity and engage your interest through our closely monitored case studies. You can find other inspiring case studies here.