Today I'm talking with Jeremy Blaze, a Product Designer and maker from Melbourne, Australia. He works with clients on a freelance basis from all over the world, while also working on his own projects and digital products. These range from an API-based screenshot platform all the way to co-founding a company to help restaurants and cafes with QR-based digital menus and check-in systems to help with COVID-19. It's really interesting hearing his story.
I call myself a product designer, which is, I guess, my trade, which is a blend of UI UX design, and a bit of product strategy. I do work pretty much exclusively with startups, with a little bit of e-commerce and a few web design jobs thrown in there.
That's probably the best explanation! I do also do web development, so that's a whole other thing. I don't really advertise that to clients though.
I started fiddling with websites in high school. My dad actually works in IT and he bought both me and my sister domain names, set us up really basic websites when I was something like 10 . I didn't get into it then for a couple of years, and then I just started tinkering and tinkering and tinkering.
That led me to making templates for an application called Rapidweaver, which was like a popular Mac web design tool at the time, I don't know if it's especially well-used anymore, but that got me learning code. From there I got a Dribbble invite, which was pretty exciting . I got really into the design side and started going on Dribbble multiple times a day, looking at whatever I was doing and I got pretty obsessed with it. And then when someone gave me an invite, that led me to my first client job, which was a school holiday thing for an agency in Melbourne. And it sort of just snowballed from there.
So after I finished school, I enrolled in a computer science degree, as what I thought was my biggest shortcoming was that I wasn't able to build my own products. I wanted to be able to build anything I came up with. I actually just wanted to learn iOS development, which I still haven't learnt, but I ended up leaving that degree after a semester.
I was going to go and freelance, but then I got a job offer at a really cool company where I worked for a couple of years. It was a tech startup, six people, fully remote, all in Australia, sort of along the East, a fully remote, distributed team. That was a really great experience. And I sort of kept freelancing while I was working there.
And when I finished up there, I just went full into freelancing and that's, that's the story. That's it.
I do have to genuinely credit a big chunk of my career to a few key people along the way. One of them being my dad who originally got me started, and then Simon who gave me that first client gig, then Jamie, Mike, a couple of the guys at that first company I worked at, and they and a few others have sort of been key people along the way who have referred work to me at times.
And the work that they referred to me then referred more work to me - I don't do any marketing or referral business, which is probably terrible, but it all sort of just snowballed from those first few connections.
The funny thing is I never did any of this stuff actively. Looking back I can sort of see little things that I have done along the way, but, I was at that company for about two years and I'd always, through that entire time, I was doing random freelance gigs, but in the second year I went a lot more seriously into that.
That was when I started building Enpose, which was one of the first little product businesses I actually built and launched. So I did a lot of moonlighting when I did that job, basically, which was helped significantly by the fact that they were a remote company. So I didn't have any commute.
We didn't necessarily work eight hour days everyday, either. It was sort of once the work was done, that was it. What we a results-only work environment, which was a really big opportunity looking back, which I don't think I realized at the time. That's also when I did a year of like the digital nomad thing, when I was working at that company.
It was a little bit scary. I'd been intending for a couple of months to go freelance, and I sort of told the CEO of the company that was the case. And when I actually submitted my letter of resignation and made it official that I was leaving and going full-time freelance, that was definitely a scary moment. Cause I was looking at the bank accounts, working out burn rates, almost! I was still doing my digital nomad thing there, so I was a little bit scared I'd get stranded in Vietnam or something stupid! But, I think I was actually in Melbourne at the time.
I came back pretty regularly during that year, just for a couple of weeks at a time, but I think I was actually in Melbourne. I came back for two weeks between Canada and Vietnam. And that was when I finalised everything; I had to hand in a company laptop, handle what that involves, in town. So I did all of that and then got on a plane to Vietnam and I was officially freelance, but one really good thing about that was I had such a good relationship with this company that I continued freelancing with them for another six months or so.
They weren't necessarily a major client, but they were sort of always there. I always had a little bit of work there, so it was a little bit of a security blanket in that way.
There was no, like, hard and fast break. I stopped working for them officially full time, but the day after I got a message from Mike saying, could you do this? And I did that.
It definitely didn't come naturally. I'm entirely ready to admit I'm not especially good with money. There's a history of my family being not especially good with money as well. It's not that I'm especially careless...well, it probably is that I'm especially careless! I'm not good at planning ahead, and I'm always optimistic with what I'm going to earn, and optimistic with how little I'm going to spend, when you should be doing the complete opposite of both of those things.
I don't think I was really comfortable freelancing until, maybe a year and a half or so ago. So I think, if I'm getting the timeline right, I've been freelancing full-time for about four years. So that means it took me probably the best part of two years to get to the point where I would have been happy to take on a lease, that sort of thing, and be confident that I'm not going to have a couple of months with no income. So it did take a while for me to get to that point.
I'm going to do a plug for an application, if you don't mind, which is a really significant thing with my accounts; an application called Rounded, which I still use. It's an accounting platform built specifically for Australian freelancers, and that just made all the financial sides so much easier and clearer. I was able to clearly see an automatic chart of my income, expenses, it actually got me to start looking at profit rather than just income.
I was doing strange things at the time where I was ignoring the fact that GST counts towards my revenue in some places, but it's not actually your money, so you can't really make plans with that money.
It's little things like this that that application just made me a lot better at noticing. Things like how much tax I'd be obliged to pay, doing all of that. So that was a really big, a really important thing for me.
Flexibility. The ability to spend your day however you like, really. Obviously you gotta work, but I think, for the most part, freelancers, especially in our industry, don't have a huge problem with motivation. I have to try hard to not work. I speak to a lot of friends who are like, how do you, how do you get in the zone, and how do you actually sit at your desk and do work? Wouldn't you just spend your entire day doing not work things? Going to cafes, walking the dog, doing all that sort of stuff? It's never been an issue. I just like working too much.
The nice thing is if at 11:00 AM a friend says, do you want to go and get a coffee? I go and get a coffee. I go for lunchtime runs, which you can't do if you have a nine to five job. I get up at 6:00 AM every day. I start work at 6:30, again, that's not going to work in a nine to five.
I just find that I work better in the mornings. And then I often don't work in the afternoon and I'll start up again in the evening after dinner. So just being able to work when you feel like it is a really big asset, and that's not to be confused with not working at all.
I think two things, both sort of related. The first is financial stress, to some extent, which even though I'm a lot more comfortable than what I was a couple of years ago now, there's still, I think always that fear. I was chatting with a client of mine who runs a SaaS business, based in Melbourne as well, and he was saying that founders seem to have this feast or famine mindset where you're on a high for a couple of months, because you think you're just doing so well, and you're in love with everything. And then you'll have one little setback and you'll start thinking Oh my God, my business is going to fail.
And it almost never does, but that fear just seems to keep coming around every little while. I think that's a real thing. A couple of years ago when I had a small slump, it was actually really bad because I don't believe in the whole work-life balance thing. I think there's just life. I've never been one to try and divide work and life all that much, just do what you want, which is part of the whole flexibility thing.
But when work gets difficult, it affects everything else. So if you start getting stressed about work, other things start to take a bit of a hit; personal relationships, things like that. You'll start going a bit crazy about work if you're stressed about how many clients you've got in the pipeline, that sort of thing. And all of a sudden, you'll have spent two weeks as a hermit in your house, working like crazy, and you'll have not spoken to anyone. Which has definitely happened on a couple of occasions. It's never been a massive issue, but I think it's not to be underestimated; the impact that running a business or running a freelance business has on other parts of your life.
When you have all of the stresses of finding work, you're running the entire business. It's not like you've got a job where that's part of operating business. Finding new work is often a little bit out of sight, it happens behind the curtain. And so when that's your responsibility, there's a whole pile of stress that just comes with that.
That's really tricky to answer. I don't know that I've had the high point yet. That's my slightly facetious answer. I don't think I can point to any single moment that was like a high point of freelance life or anything like that. I'm generally thankful for having the flexibility to spend my time how I like.
So I'm overall just grateful for that every day. There are certain times when I've been especially grateful for that, but it's something that I constantly think about.
It changes a lot. I go through months of doing one thing and then I'll completely change it up. Not necessarily intentionally, it just happens to change. At the moment I'm doing a wake up at 6:00, start working at 6:30, and try and cram in as much as I possibly can before midday.
And after that, I sort of slack off a little bit, I allow myself a little bit more freedom. I typically do a midday run, just cause I have a terrible issue with afternoon slumps. So I find that that helps a lot, probably has something to do with caffeine intake, but that's a whole other discussion!
So start working at 6:30 and I work pretty steadily up until midday. After that, lunchtime run, walk the dog, go get lunch. I might go and visit someone in the afternoon, if it weren't for COVID, and then dinner and I'll start working again around then. I'm a little bit of a night owl as well, so I often start working again in the evening.
Probably a couple of things. I don't have great advice on this sort of stuff, because everything was sort of a natural progression , but I don't necessarily have any massive regrets.
I think a couple of them were; I was/am always nervous about charging people, which makes absolutely no sense. But following up on invoices is something I don't love doing, when people pay invoices overtime. And that being said, I have pretty strict terms on invoices, which is a bit of advice I got a few years ago, which was fantastic. I bill every two weeks and there's five days to pay the invoice until it's marked overdue, which for a lot of people seems to be nothing. But the whole charging for your time thing took me a while to wrap my head around.
Another was pitching and selling myself; it's still something that doesn't come very easily. I think I've gotten better at it, but it's still not something I love. At the same time, I also hate really hardcore pitches.
E.g. I was procuring an SEO agency for a client not too long ago, and some of the conversations I had with these agencies were ridiculous. I told them what our rough budget was and they said their minimum project size was double that every month. And I was like, it's just not going to work. But I kept on getting follow up emails where they're like, Do you want to book in another call in a week, we can have another talk?
I'm like, I'd love to, if I could afford it, I'd love to, but it is just so far out of our price range. Anyway, I hate that sort of thing. It's having those sorts of sort of initial sales calls I don't really love; cold calling and cold emails, emailing. It's something I've done occasionally, but again, never really felt great about it, even though I have actually made a couple of sales through it.
So I think not being afraid to charge for your time, and being a little bit strict about the fact that if people want your skills, then those are worth something. I think that's probably the biggest.
At the moment I'm busy freelancing, I'm enjoying that. I've got a couple of good product clients that I'm working with on some really fun projects. One of them I can't talk about, and the other one's a project management tool/marketplace for the architecture and design industry.
We're basically trying to build the Figma for interior designers, essentially, which isn't an analogy that would work for any other audience, but here I reckon that probably makes sense! Currently, that entire industry runs out of Excel, and we're trying to build a much more streamlined process for that.
When I say architecture and design, I'm talking interior designers, those major companies with a hundred plus designers who have to work with construction companies. That entire range of the industry. They're all running their project roadmaps and things out of Excel spreadsheets, basically.
If you imagine a skyscraper in the city, let's just imagine trying to order all the tap fittings, and now think about the fact that you've got to do that, as well as all the door handles, you've got to do the couches in the lobby, all that sort of stuff.
So purchasing all of that, dealing with the suppliers for that, and then getting it installed, is like a really big job. And when it goes wrong, it's lots and lots of money at stake. So we're sort of trying to streamline that industry, as well as providing a place for suppliers to advertise products, and designers to find them.
We're trying to sort of bring those two parts of their workflow together. So that was a lot of fun. We just launched that in June, they're currently doing a seed round or series A, trying to raise some funds, then we can do a whole bunch more work, building out e-commerce capabilities, a whole lot of stuff.
In terms of personal projects, in March or something I partnered with a good friend of mine, Bella, to start a QR code check-in business for hospitality, just with coronavirus you know? So we're just sort of ticking along with that, it's not a big earner or a big venture.
I think its end is coming, with South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria all talking about having government -mandated QR technology, that will basically kill our business. Which we knew would happen, but I think that's probably not far off.
But that's been a lot of fun because it's been a couple of years since I've run a product business, we've got something like 60 clients, or thereabouts, which has been really refreshing to do product work again, rather than all the client stuff, which I love, but I think I much prefer running a product business.
So I've mentioned Rounded, which is a fantastic thing specifically for Australia, so it's probably almost useless if you're watching this from overseas, but I still use it for doing all my accounting, it means you can submit your quarterly returns statements in about 5 minutes flat. It automatically follows up to clients if they don't pay invoices, it pulls in your bank feeds so you can log expenses, it just makes the whole business side really quick to organise, you can feel comfortable that it's all ticking along as it should, that there are no glaring errors hiding in the dark.
In terms of resources for learning, there's honestly too many to mention. I'm not a big podcast person, although I do listen to a few, but I listen to audiobooks almost non-stop though, most of them business books.
One of the best in terms of the business side of things, is this book called The Personal MBA, which I'm pretty sure is by Josh Kaufman, I'm not quite sure how to pronounce it. It is what it says in the title. It basically goes through, in a really fun, concise, memorable way, what you would learn if you went and did a Master's of Business Administration. And I'm not about to claim that I now essentially have an MBA, but, it gives you a high level overview of a lot of principles, which allows you to then dive deeper into what you want to learn more about. I've recommended that to a few people who have wanted to start businesses, just don't know about so many things.
It just gets you like 10% on the way on a whole bunch of subjects, which is sort of enough to get the ball rolling. So that was a great one. Another one is a fairly new book, I think it came out last year, or the year before, which is Company of One, which is by Paul Jarvis I think. And that's a fantastic book. I mostly just loved it because it was entirely speaking my language. I highly recommend it, it's a really good book. It's somewhat philosophical, discussing why we do business, it does go into a lot more depth than that, but it's, yeah, it's a fantastic book. And, I think it just appealed to my, my confirmation bias quite a bit. I can't fault it.
Josh Kaufman has a couple of good books too, I think another one is The First 20 Hours. He has this theory, or someone has this theory, which he tries to prove; that the first 20 hours of any subject is enough to get you sort of past the point of knowing nothing to the point where you now know a bit about it, that you can decide whether you want to take it further, it gets you past the pain points. You know how you start anything new - it's awful for the first little while. The theory is that if you push through just 20 hours , on virtually any subject matter, that could be enough to get you past that point where it feels awful. He does things like windsurfing, that's a good example. No one who gets onto a windsurfing board for two hours is going to be able to stand up , so there's no doubt that you wouldn't be very good, but you'd be able to say that you can do it. That was a really interesting book as well, I don't know that I'd recommend it for this audience particularly, but, it was interesting.
There's one other book I want to plug, which is called Make Time. I can't remember who wrote this one, so I'll send you some links so you can put them in the description, but it's a great book for discussing time management and working out productivity hacks for yourself. Getting to understand when you work best under, what conditions you work best.
Twitter is probably the best place. I'm @mrjeremyblaze everywhere. I'm fairly active on Twitter, I very occasionally post an Instagram story, or on LinkedIn I'll post businessy updates. I do have a couple of personal projects which will be coming out, hopefully, early next year, which will all be Twitter-based. So if anyone wants to follow along with that sort of thing, Twitter is the place.