Tina Lee: The Freelance Creative & E-commerce Assassin Chasing Freedom
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Tina Lee: E-Commerce Owner and Freelance Creative.
Haven Café in Surry Hills. We had coffee, Japanese tea and gluten free chocolate brownies of course!
At just 26, Tina Lee is her own boss and manages two businesses . No More Ugly sells leather camera bags. Tina Lee Creative is her freelance photography and design business. We spoke about everything from career shifts, starting a business without telling your parents, acquiring clients and the challenge of having few friends our age to relate to from a business perspective.
Thanks for meeting Tina! I’d love to get some context and take it back to when you were a child. What was 6 year old Tina like? Was she always creative, did she like books or play sport etc.
I was actually a quiet child, I enjoyed drawing and art. I watched a lot of Japanese anime growing up and loved drawing Japanese characters like Sailor Moon!
What did you study how did it lead to your first job?
A Bachelor of Business, Majoring in Marketing and Advertising at UTS. However, in Year 12 I really wanted to do design.
My first job was an in-house marketing assistant at a financial services company. About a year and a half in, I was getting bored. In fact six months in, I decided to take a graphic design course. I had to scratch that itch from Year 12. As soon as I finished, I was ready for something new. There wasn’t much creativity at the financial service company, even if there was a glimpse of it, we weren’t pushing any boundaries.
When did you recognise that you needed creative agency experience?
Client side is tricky, because there’s not a lot of room for real ‘creative’ work. I thought to myself, there must be so much more I can do. That’s when I moved to an agency. As a designer, having agency experience exposes you to a wider scope of projects.
What was the turning point to branch out on your own?
After working at the design agency. I decided it was time to take a risk and go out on my own. It was so stressful and I would get anxious as there was a lot of pressure to perform. Design is also subjective, you don’t just follow a formula so it was creatively stressful too.
I also didn't envy the lifestyle of some of the directors there. Leaving the studio at 11:30pm when you have children and forgetting to eat until 5pm (not one of my life goals!).
It’s interesting that you’ve identified those trigger points. The anxiety and witnessing the lack of work life style balance. What do you think someone needs to have in order to make a move on their own ‘trigger points’?
Self-awareness. II would look at the managers or directors of the companies I worked for and ask myself do I want to have that career path and lifestyle? Do I want to be working for someone for the rest of my life? I always wanted to start my own brand, so I started No More Ugly on the side while working.
So what came first? E-commerce or freelancing?
BUILDING AN ECOMMERCE BUSINESS
How long was the idea percolating before you set everything in motion?
About 6 months. I took it step by step. I was in Hong Kong and saw these amazing camera bags and thought ‘Why don’t we have this in Sydney?’ I then researched where I could source them, bought a bunch to test, set up a website and did my own logo and photography.
Do you think because it started as a passion, it alleviated pressure?
Yes, absolutely. It was a hobby that I felt really passionate and ambitious about. When I started, it wasn’t I’m going to start a business it was oh I’m going to try this out.
I really wanted to grow the brand. Every time I made a sale, or someone tagged me on Instagram, I was so happy!
When did you decide to focus on No More Ugly full time?
I was really unhappy at the design studio and starting to make a few sales. However, I'm not fully dependent on it for income just yet. Which is why I started my freelance creative services business.
What practical advice do you have for an e-commerce newbie?
1. Get your branding and personality right.
2. Strategic Partnerships. Who can help you out? For me, it was fellow photographers.
3. Get your brand out there. Reach out to press publications, magazines, influencers etc.
That’s great advice. I think people underestimate the power of marketing. We should be putting equal parts effort into marketing and the product.
If I can pivot back to when you left the design agency. What does the first 6 months look like once you’ve handed in your resignation letter?
The first month is amazing. When it hits the third month, you’re like shit I need to get some income. I think the best thing is to have a plan, a really good action plan for the first 6 months. Because you need to think about your income streams. Otherwise you lose focus and after 6 months, you think shit I haven’t achieved anything.
Planning itself is an intimidating activity. How did you stick to your plans?
I had focused goals. I had 12 month goals, broke it down to quarterly, then broke it down to monthly goals.
I know from personal experience, parents may find it challenging supporting their kids quitting 9-5. What was the case for you and do you have any tips?
Simple tip. Don’t tell them! Haha, but really I just waited until I was gaining some traction. I didn’t tell them for ages.
Haha I should’ve done that! I think it’s also about anticipating their reactions, and framing the conversation to mitigate how they might react.
Yes, I agree. Also, framing the outcome too. What are you getting out of it from a growth perspective? Your family will always support anything good for your learning.
FROM EMPLOYEE TO SELF EMPLOYED
For budding freelancers, what's your advice for acquiring clients. Do you have a strategy in place, focus on particular industries or is it more ad hoc?
Number 1. Start with your personal network. You’ve got to literally trawl through your whole network. Who has a business or know someone who has a business. I’ll send Facebook messages to anyone I know that might need my services.
One of the biggest mistakes of ‘client outreach’ is talking too much about your services, when it’s actually about adding value. What’s your take on doing ‘free’ stuff for clients like initial workshops?
It’s all about developing relationships. You don’t think of it as ‘free.’ It’s genuine conversation which adds long term value. You never know, you could be top of mind for something in the future. It’s all leg work.
What are some practical tips?
Think about how you are saving them time and money. For me, my selling point is that I produce and manage content. They have a photographer, designer and social media manager in one.
If someone has emailed you, schedule a phone call. Don’t ask for more information over email. Just call them. Once you speak to them you become more than an email. You become a person who is actively trying to help.
Absolutely, it’s an opportunity to take a consultative approach. You can also get a sense of what you can charge. How do you find the balance between setting a rate that is best for you and one that won’t scare off the client?
You’ve got to understand where the client is at in the business, and the project itself.
I go for a project rate. But I get there by thinking about what hourly rate I’m aiming for eg. If I wanted $60 – 80 an hour, what does this look like for the whole project? However you do need a standard rate that you work to, just in case your clients talk to each other.
Agree, you definitely need to have a rate that is flexible to fluctuate depending on the nature of each project. So now that you’re managing two businesses, what does your typical week look like?
From December 2016, I got a business coach who has really helped me focus. My week kind of looks like this:
Monday: Fitness Playground (my part-time social gig)
Tuesday: Client work or reaching out. (Dragon boating training- I do this 3 times a week).
Wednesday: No More Ugly (I’ve hired an intern to help me out as well).
Thursday: Fitness Playground.
Friday: Client work.
Weekend: Trying to stay off emails. Some client work, mostly working on shoots. And food.
So you dedicate a whole day to each of these things?
Yep, it allows me to focus and keep on track.
LOOKING OVER THE HEDGE
What’s missing that could really help?
Consistent income! So I don’t have to stress. I could never go back to the 9-5 though. I envision No More Ugly to be fully income generating and I’m still working towards that. There’s all these other creative projects I want to do too.
Do you have a business plan for the next year?
Not really, but I do have a plan of how much I want to earn each month. I have a really focused goal of ok I want to earn X amount a month, it doesn’t matter how I do it, I just need to do it.
What keeps you motivated in down periods?
It’s definitely hard. Talking to other people really helps. They can provide you with a fresh perspective on your business that you didn’t think of before.
Are most of your friends in a similar situation? Who are these people that you reach out to (from a business perspective)?
Actually, that’s a good question. Because come to think of it, I don’t have big network of friends I can talk to about these challenges. Most of my friends are in full time jobs. Other people who are running their own business, I’m either not really good friends with them, or they’re much older than I am. It’s probably just one friend I can really relate to.
Which is challenging right, because sometimes you want both. Someone our age and someone with similar business acumen.
Absolutely, because chatting to a business or life coach is totally different to this conversation between you and I. We could be talking all day!
Who inspires you and why?
Johnny Cupcakes. I went to his Vivid talk ‘Do What Makes You Happy’ where he spoke about always wanting to work for himself. To this day it’s been one of the funniest and best talks I’ve ever been to. So I got this tattoo to remind myself that I will never work for someone else.
Gemma O’ Brien. She’s a designer I really look up to. I admire her craft, she’s really defined her craft in typography and calligraphy. It’s inspiring to see that you can get to a level where people will pay a premium for your artistic skill.
Finally, what is your definition of ‘Hacking Life’
Freedom. Not necessarily financial freedom but time. When you have control over your own time, that’s when you’ve hacked life.
That’s really powerful. Time is a commodity that is worth everything yet has no direct monetary value.
Yes exactly. I don’t envy the money people make by working 12 hours every day in an office for someone else. My thought is that when you give someone else all your time, you’re essentially giving them your life. Which is why I decided to work for myself!
Wow. Thanks so much for your time Tina!! This was so much fun xx