Hey, how are you doing? I’m Steve Folland. Thanks for listening! This time, let’s find out what it’s like being freelance for UX designer Anton Sten!
So yes, this week’s guest is Anton Sten. Not just any guest, but our one-hundredth guest. This is the one-hundredth conversation put out as a podcast as Being Freelance. No, I’m not going to get emotional, but seriously thank you so much for listening and for sharing the podcast with people you know, and leaving a review if you’ve left a review, checking out the vlog as Being Freelance had evolved. And I just really appreciate you listening. I love having these conversations but I also love the fact that you get something out of it, too. One hundred episodes! Which, to be fair, I would have got to sooner if I put it out every single week. But, hey! Anyway, I’m kind of proud of it. One hundred episodes.
And if you’ve not signed up to the newsletter yet, please do! It’s at beingfreelance.com for a weekly bit of inspiration there. And also on @beingfreelance. It’s nice to kind of…yeah, join in conversations on there as well.
Right now though, let’s go to Sweden to freelance UX designer Anton Sten. Hey, Anton!
Hey! How are you?
I am well! Thanks for doing this.
What was the place you’re from? It’s near Malmö, isn’t it?
It is. It’s called Lomma. It’s a really small town. It’s about 20,000 people, perhaps, living here.
Cool, and Malmö’s the one in The Bridge?
If you’re listening to this and you’ve never seen The Bridge…or, what do you guys call it? You don’t call it The Bridge, do you?
We call it Bron, which is just the Swedish translation for “The Bridge”.
Bron…Such a good show. Right! So let’s hear how you got started being freelance? How have you ended up where you are?
I guess the short story is that I’ve been working as a designer of digital things for the past almost twenty years. And I started working for agencies for the first ten years. And then when we moved down here, actually I just felt that I wanted to try something new. I also wanted to have better control of time, primarily. And, just freelancing felt like it was something that I always had wanted to try, and always—when I was working for agencies, always felt like: I could do this better. I could do this in a way that would suit me better. So finally I just…jumped, I guess. And I’ve been freelancing for almost ten years now.
Nice one. So when you say you moved out here…was that moving quite a long way out from where you’ve lived before?
That was from Stockholm.
Right, ok, so quite a distance. So, how did you go about finding those first clients? Actual clients of your own?
Well, when we first moved down I worked in Copenhagen for almost a year. And I got to know some people here. Also, I had quite a good network from my time working in agencies in Stockholm, so my first years of freelancing was primarily working for other agencies. But then as time went on, and I got to know more people, and I got some sort of a reputation…I hardly do any agency work at all these days. I just work for my own clients.
Nice. So when you said from all that time in agencies that you could do it better, what did you set out to do differently?
I started, actually, with the idea or perception that I would eventually build an agency as well. But then as time went by I just realized that I’m not really interested in hiring anyone. And I guess that whoever I would hire first would sort of really set the tone for what kind of agency it would become. So, both in terms of culture but also in terms of work we would do. So if I would hire a WordPress developer, we would basically have to do just WordPress sites. If I had hired an IOS developer, we would just do iPhone apps. And I wouldn’t want to limit myself in that sense. Because the work I do now is pretty broad. But also with just being ten years younger and being naive on how easy everything is, in terms of admin stuff, but also I guess just making things work…So I wouldn’t say that today I’m as confident that I can make everything better, but at least I could find a way that works better for me.
Yeah, definitely. So did you come close to hiring somebody?
Not really, no. I do have a couple of people still that I buy chunks of time from, so they’re not hired. But I have people that I’ve worked with for years, but they’re also freelancers. So that’s a set-up that works far better for me at least.
Yeah. So you can choose the people who suit the project, rather than having to take projects because of the people.
So you said there about the admin…was it the admin that you hadn’t necessarily seen behind the scenes at the agencies that suddenly crept up on you?
Oh, definitely. There’s stuff that you see, like expense reporting and stuff like that. And you think: “How hard can this actually be to just pay out something?” But there’s also just so much stuff that you just never see, especially as a designer in a fairly large agency. There’s just so much stuff that you never see, that when start freelancing you’re just going to have to take care of yourself or find someone that can help you with it.
What was it in particular, and how did you get past that?
I’ve actually gotten help for most of the admin stuff now. So everything like taxes, and paying out salaries, and stuff like that. Because that’s just something…I found that it’s not the best option for me to spend my time doing that. And I think that’s something that I would have wanted to realize sooner. That the things that you’re not particularly good at, or things that you don’t want to handle—just get help. And focus on the stuff that you want to do and the things that you’re good at because you’ll end up making more money that way. And with less stress.
Yeah, I find that with the finances side of it. Even having hired an accountant, I’m still…the actual bookkeeping side of it…ugh.
Something you said as you went through the past ten years, is you realized your reputation grew and work was coming to you, and so on…How did you go about building your reputation? Was it just organically or was it particular things you did?
I would say it was primarily organically. I would also say that it’s just something that takes time. One thing, I guess, I thought when I started was that everything would happen faster. Whereas I realize that it just takes time. And I still get phone calls from people that, maybe I met five years ago, and we haven’t had the chance to work together, but somehow they just remembered my name and eventually they’ll call me back. But it can take a lot of time. Whereas when I started I had the idea that if you meet someone you either get a project straight away or it’s never going to happen.
But I would say that the biggest marketing strategy—I’m not sure if it’s actually a marketing strategy, but word-of-mouth has definitely been the biggest client-driving activity for me. Even though it’s not something that I’m doing, it’s more that I just try to be easy to work with, and then people will spread the word.
And have you narrowed down a niche, over the years? Twenty years ago—or even ten years ago—were you doing what you do now?
No, not at all. And I would say that probably goes for anyone who’s calling themselves a UX designer today: that ten years ago you didn’t really discuss UX design in the sense that we’re having the discussion today, at least.
And I guess as a field is emerging, that gives you an opportunity to really position yourself as…I don’t know, somebody who maybe pushes boundaries or is a—I hate using the word “thought leader”, but an expert in that. Is that something that you did?
Absolutely. And it’s something that I’m still trying to do. As you said, this part of the industry is growing quite quickly, and it’s evolving in a sense that no one could understand just a couple of years ago: how UX design has grown during the last years. And now we’re seeing all of these voice-controlled assistants that will open up a pretty new field for UX design as well. So yeah, definitely there’s the opportunity to position yourself, and that’s something that I’ve been trying to do and will continue to roll with, obviously.
And how have you gone about that, other than doing great work?
The past, I would say, two years I started blogging more and more. I started blogging with the sense that it would position myself better, but what I found is that it actually helps me think about the stuff that I’m doing more—both in a critical way, but also in a philosophical way, I guess—than just writing the blog post and having a mailing list helps me position myself. But also I’ve written two books over the past two years. One of the reasons for writing those books has been to help position myself.
So with your mail-out, with your newsletter…that’s an extension of your blog is it? How did you go about growing that? Putting it out there?
It started pretty basically. And I would say that it’s the same thing with the newsletter as with everything else. That it really takes time to create something that’s viable. If it’s a business, or if it’s a newsletter, it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s going to take time. And I think any of these blog posts that want to tell you how to build a business that makes a six-figure revenue in six months or build a mailing list of tens of thousands of subscribers in month…it’s not viable in the long end. So building something that’s strong and that will last takes time. So I would say for that for the first almost year, I think, my mailing list had a hundred people. And it started with just fifteen friends who then told some of their friends, and who told some of their friends…and occasionally I had some blog posts that got some pretty good viral spread, so people signed up from those. And that’s the way…to just continue doing the work.
And how often would you say you blog or put out your newsletter?
I started with having two posts every month. So bi-weekly. I’m now pushing myself to do it weekly, but I’m finding that it’s hard to find the time to set aside a couple of hours every week just for writing a blog post. But we’ll see. It’s also helping me a lot as a designer to just spend some time to think about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, and what kind of problems I’m trying to solve, basically.
Yeah, you mentioned earlier. It’s an interesting bi-product isn’t it? Of blogging, and writing…something I didn’t expect. I don’t blog enough about video, marketing, and things like that. But when I do I find myself analyzing: why did something work? And then trying to explain it to people…really makes you look at something differently. And even doing the freelance vlog that I do, that has made me analyze what I do as a freelancer. It’s not just documenting it.
Exactly. That was part of the reason. So the second book I wrote was about freelancing and not user experience. And part of the reason for writing that was to take a step back and think about why I’m freelancing, and what kind of things am I doing that I haven’t really thought of why I’m doing them, and are there other ways to do some of the things that I’m doing, and stuff like that.
What’s your second book called?
It’s called Mastering Freelance.
And very good it is too. I’ve read it, and we will put a link at beingfreelance.com. I really recommend it. It’s nice and bite-sized chapters that you can easily read. It’s not a huge tome, it’s like reading lots of nice blog posts.
The first book I wrote was actually a selection of blog posts that I then re-wrote to be able to fit the language and fit them together. But the second book, Mastering Freelance, was just written as a book. Obviously, with my background in writing blog posts, it’s the language that I’m confident with writing. And I agree completely, I wanted to keep it short. I think that there’s this misconception, sometimes, that a longer book equals a better book. Which I don’t think necessarily is true.
So your first book…that was about user experience?
Yes. So the first book is called User Experiences That Matter.
Do you feel like writing that first book had an impact on your work?
Oh absolutely. And I think if we want to go back to that discussion about positioning yourself as a “thought leader”…I think that book was really good in the sense that if I’m talking to a potential client, for instance about helping them with UX design, and then being able to say: “Oh, I’ve also written this book about UX design, and I’m going to send you a free copy.” It really puts the trust in that conversation for them to say: “Ok, this is someone who’s obviously pretty serious about UX design.”
Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s really powerful, isn’t it? And has that led to—or maybe you don’t want to, but has that been speaking about the topic as well?
I haven’t yet. I did a lot of speaking engagements a couple of years ago before I started writing. Primarily in schools and universities, with some corporate gigs as well. I have now started thinking about getting back into that whole scene. So let’s reconnect in a year and see then…
And then the second book obviously concentrates on mastering freelancing, as we’ve mentioned. And when you said you were writing that, you were exploring how you were working as a freelancer. Was there anything that sprung out at you, that maybe you hadn’t thought about before? What was the key takeaway for you from writing that?
I think the key takeaway was to be reminded about all the things that I do know, but I’m not necessarily so good at doing. So for instance, not working all the time. Or making sure that I do exercise, and sleeping eight hours a night, and stuff like that. It’s all stuff that all of us know that is incredibly important for our work, but somehow we all—or at least I—seem to forget it or just not do it on occasion.
What would you say—have you been mostly guilty of doing a lot of that whole “working all the time” thing, at times?
Yeah, I would say working all the time—that’s definitely the drawback of being freelance. So one of the reasons I wanted to go into freelancing was that when I was working for an agency, I always felt that I couldn’t understand why I would work overtime since I was getting paid the same amount anyway. Like, I was getting the same monthly salary if I worked six hours a day, if I worked eight hours a day, or if I worked ten hours a day. It didn’t make any sense that regardless of the effort I put in, I would get the same end result. Whereas with freelancing—obviously depending on how you charge your clients and stuff like that—but more or less, the more you put in, the more you get. So I would say that I’m better at not working overtime.
I would say that my biggest thing that I need to remind myself of is all of the possibilities that I do have as a freelancer. Like, if I want to go away during the day, or if I want to sleep in, or whatever, I’m the only one that can make those decisions. But I am not good at allowing myself to do that. I end up doing the same kind of hours that I would do in an agency. Which is fine but is also good on occasion to remind yourself about the luxury we have as freelancers.
Have you ever struggled with taking on too much work?
Absolutely. I think all freelancers have. Especially when I have a couple of bigger proposals out, I’m anxious that…what if they all accept and I’m not going to be able to finish them all? But you can send them one at a time because it won’t make sense time-wise. But in the end, it always somehow works out. Projects almost always get pushed forward, or something needs to be done earlier, or worst case scenario I have to work a couple of weekends. But in the end, it always works out.
Has your website…you know if people go to look at your website antonsten.com now, has that evolved much since you’ve been a freelancer?
Yeah, definitely. In the beginning, I was also positioning myself as a company more. Whereas now I’m more positioning myself as a person. I think that was also one of the things about positioning is that it’s just me. So either you like my thinking about design, or you don’t. But it’s Anton you’re going to get, it’s not some company name. But in the beginning, especially, it was not using “I” but always talking about “we”.
And did you have an actual company name that you were using?
I did. And I still have the same company name, it’s just not something that I promote. So the company name is Le Petit Garçon—“The Little Boy” in French. People seem to remember the name and talk about the name, but it was a pretty bad name when you’re on the phone with someone and you want to spell out your email address.
And so you chose that name…I mean, you did say when you started out as a freelancer you envisaged you were going to build an agency, so is that why you went with a name?
Yes. I guess I just had this idea that it would seem more professional. But I’m not sure if that’s actually the case.
So over time you just phased out…if you invoice it’s still on there, but otherwise, it’s just Anton Sten.
How have you coped with the financial side of being freelance?
So especially when I started, that was a real stress for me. Coming from the agency side, I had a pretty good salary. And I was able to put some money aside. But what I did that helped me get started, was that my first freelancing job was…I was sort of part-time hired for a client. In the beginning, I worked three days a week for them, so I could freelance two days and work for them three days. And over time we made it two days, then one day a week, and then in the end I was just freelancing. So that was a pretty nice transition into freelancing.
But during the first years I definitely had some stress about the financial side. I did try to put away as much money as I could. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I realized that I could probably continue living the same way and not get any work for a year and I would still manage. And I don’t see it happening that I wouldn’t get any work for an entire year. So let’s just try to skip the cash stress. But it is stressful.
But on the other hand, I think we also have a society with this wrong image of the securities a full-time position would mean. People get fired from full-time positions too, and that could put them potentially at even greater risk. So it’s not like freelancing is this hatchet game, whereas full-time positions are the most secure thing you can have. But obviously, you need to plan ahead.
And how about the way you work? I presume you work from home?
I do have an office actually. I used to have an office in Malmö. So that was a fifteen-minute commute. But I just recently got an office, not at home, but just a short walk from home. I do need to have a very separate space. And I found that it’s good for me to have a space that’s outside of home. Even if it’s just slightly better, it’s still better to be able to separate.
And do you work with other people in those spaces?
I used to. I don’t anymore. So that’s my biggest challenge now is finding ways of staying social. I do have my dog with me, so that’s the social company I have in my office now.
They’re great until it comes to making coffee. That’s the only thing.
Now, I always do this thing where I ask for three facts about yourself. Make two true and one a lie, and let me figure out the lie. What have you got for me?
Ok. When I was a child, I climbed up a shelf and the shelf fell over, and I fell on a coin that stood on its head, so I have a scar on my cheek from that coin.
Tell you what, if that’s a lie, that’s such a convoluted lie! But I love it. Ok, number two?
Ok. So this is pretty hysterical, since you mentioned The Bridge, and in the next upcoming season of The Bridge, I’m playing an extra as a Liverpool supporter.
As a Liverpool supporter?! Ok, yeah?
And the third one: I have all the music theory education needed to become a music teacher.
Oh, these are amazing facts. So you could, in theory, be a music teacher? What’s your chosen instruments?
I played the guitar. And I went to a high school that had a music focus. So one part of that was to get all of the music theory needed.
Hmm, but you’ve never called up on it? You’ve never had to teach it?
No. And I’m not sure I would pass all the tests today. But I did twenty years ago.
You were in The Bridge…now, I love that show, as we’ve mentioned. So what did you have to do as a Liverpool—a Liverpool supporter is weird! So, Liverpool are playing in Malmö or something, are they? In the scene?
I don’t know the scene actually, I’m just…so the thing is, I am a Liverpool supporter and I’m part of the Swedish Liverpool Fan Club, and they sent out an email saying that they’ve been approached by the production company and they would like some Liverpool supporters to…we’re just basically walking past a cafe, but it was…I’m not sure why because I don’t have the full story, but it was important that we were all dressed in Liverpool shirts and scarves.
Oh, God that feels so true as well! And when you were a child you climbed a shelf, fell off the shelf, landing on a coin that was standing up that scarred you?
Yes, I’m not sure if the coin was in a jar on the shelf as well. But I landed on it and now on my—righthand side?…right cheek? There’s a scar on my cheekbone.
Have you ever made up a different story as to how you got the scar to impress a girl?
I haven’t, no. I should though, I guess.
These are…we’ve not had a good scar story, I done think, since Harry Roberts, very early on in this one, where he looks a bit like Harry Potter. Ok…shelf, Liv…these all sound…you see, the one that sounds the least true…well it sounds true, but I love the other two more. So I’m going to say…you’re not qualified to be a music teacher.
Oh man! So what’s the lie?
It’s the Liverpool supporter.
Ugh…God, that was so convincing!
I’m not in the show, but there might be something about Liverpool in the next season.
Well, I’m glad that the coin story’s true, mate, because that’s excellent.
It would be weird to make that up.
It would be really weird. Which would also be awesome. Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing—other than, please don’t climb the shelf—if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Yeah, I was thinking about this, and I think that one thing I would have liked to tell my younger self—and that I would like to tell myself every day today, as well—is something that Steve Jobs said in his commencement speech. And it was: “that you can only connect the dots looking back”.
I think, for freelancers, we’re thinking that we can predict everything—how things are going to go, and what’s going to happen, but we really can’t. And in the end, everything will make sense, but it might take years. But sooner or later everything will just add up somehow.
Very nice indeed. Make sure you go to beingfreelance.com, follow the links through to Anton’s site, check out his book…thoroughly recommend it: Mastering Freelance. Which also—you do a version with comes with loads of templates and stuff as well, don’t you? Like, is it contracts, and…?
I do! Yes, exactly. A bunch of templates—it’s my invoicing template, a proposal template, stuff like that. But also a list of all of the software I use, along with some discount codes.
So especially if you’re just starting freelancing, that’s a good deal.
And Anton is kind enough as well to give 20% off…Go take a look, and you’d put in the code “BEINGFREELANCE”, right? So put in the code “BEINGFREELANCE”…20% off the book, it’s a bargain. Or you can get the book and the templates and stuff that we just mentioned as well. So follow the link at beingfreelance.com. And Anton, thank you so much. I forgot to mention—thank you for being our one-hundredth guest as well.
Oh! What an honor!
I feel like there should be balloons or streamers…I’ve got nothing. I’ve not even got a coffee to hand.
Huh…next time then. Let’s make it “guest a thousand”, Steve.
But, yeah, a hundred guests. And it’s a great story to have as the one-hundredth story as well, and some fine advice in there as well, so thank you very much. Yep, beingfreelance.com, and don’t forget to share the podcast with freelancers that you know as well. Anton, thank you and all the best being freelance!
Thank you, Steve!