Launch and learn - Creative Xanthe Berkeley

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After walking away from a diverse career to have a family and live abroad, art graduate Xanthe was reluctant to return. Her children had started school and she was ready to work again, but office life was no longer appealing.

She had this passion for taking pictures of her children and documenting her life, and after discovering Flickr and connecting with like-minded people online, she was hooked.

Xanthe built a reputation for herself as a freelance wedding and family photographer, and then developed her business to include brand partnerships, film making, and online film courses.

Like many of us, Xanthe’s got to where she is now without much of a plan. But it’s through diving in and giving things a try that she’s been able to explore so many of her creative interests.

Because if you never try, you’ll never know, right?


Xanthe Berkeley:    Well, it goes way back, I guess, in terms of my creative career because I was at art college, and I worked in various different types of businesses, what's in the music business, what's in sort of art department, all sorts of stuff. Then I had my family and enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom, and we lived abroad and just was raising my boys. But the one thing that was kind of consistent throughout all of that was taking photos and documenting my life. Once the boys kind of started school, it was like, "Well, what am I going to do now?" The thought of going back and working in an office like I've done in my 20s wasn't really appealing, but I've been still taking lots of pictures and really enjoying that side of things. It was sort of my discovery of this online world that made me realize that maybe I could do something creative, I just wasn't kind of sure what.

Xanthe Berkeley:    But it was sort of 2009 when blogs were starting to happen. I kind of discovered Flickr, and that just opened my eyes to a whole new world really. I started sharing my pictures there, and discovering a community of people that were kind of doing what I was doing, document in my life and taking pictures of my children, and that kind of thing, and saw that people were starting to make a business out of there, and getting work from it. That kind of really sort of ignited something in me. It kind of began from there. I think Flickr, I definitely owe a lot to Flickr in those early days for sure, and discovering different blogs, and just still creating a documenting.

Steve Folland:      Interesting, but that's a lovely hobby to keep you occupied while the kids are at school, and to make you fulfilled, creatively and stuff. How did you start to make a living from it?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, well, absolutely. That's it. It's like suddenly you've got this hobby, and you think, "Well, okay, well how can I do it." I loved photographing families and children, but it was not really a sort of a big thing here in the UK, and it's still ... the market still isn't massive in my opinion, it's not like in America where they seem to document and photograph every stage in a child's life or a family's life. But the one thing that was really booming was wedding photography, and people always need a photographer, a wedding. I started photographing weddings just thinking that that was the only thing that I could do really, and whilst I enjoyed it, and I did a couple of years of wedding photography, I just kind of felt it wasn't really me, and I much preferred the family side of it. I kind of still pursued that photograph friends families to build a portfolio, and then built my website and started sharing things on Flickr, and then eventually Instagram, and started to get people asking really come and photograph my family.

Xanthe Berkeley:    That kind of is where it all, I guess started when I launched my business to do wedding photography and family photography, but it since involved again as it does as the tools become available, and something like Instagram has definitely changed my photography career in terms of giving me a platform to reach different people and do more lifestyle photography, or photography for brands and things like that. But I was also making little videos of my family, and my children, and just our sort of day-to-day, and this was before YouTube had all these content, creators all blogging and sharing their day-to-day. Kind of felt, I guess in my little pocket of the internet, it didn't feel like lots of people were doing that. I would get lots of questions about, "How are you doing that? What are you editing it on? Why are you shooting in that way? What are you doing?"

Xanthe Berkeley:    That kind of ignited the idea to start a course, and online course to get people shooting their own little videos. Then I started doing that in 2011, and launched my first e-course. Again, it was back then where they weren't loads of the courses like there are now. In fact, there wasn't even a platform to host the e-course, I kind of had to create a secret blog inside my blog to host it for people to access the content. Yeah, sorry, I got kind of diverted there off the photography, but it's just everything kind of all links into one that often you start doing one thing, and it leads to another, and that leads to another.

Steve Folland:      There is so much to kind of unpack in there. It's feels like quite an instrumental thing. Sure there was Flickr, but was Instagram?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, Instagram definitely has been the biggest change for me in terms of being able to get my work out there, and get it seen by people, and then also sort of drive the type of content that I create in terms of them getting work for it. Forever since I've had Instagram, it's been a way of documenting my life. I've always used as a kind of diary, but also way of sharing work that I want to do more of. Putting my films on there as a way to inspire other people to create their own videos, or maybe take my classes if they want a little bit of help, or to reach out to different brands or businesses that might go, "Oh, we love what you've done there. Could you make something like that for us?" That's really what's happened in the last five years with Instagram. It's been a massive tool for myself and hundreds of other people in terms of exposure, and getting your work out there, and being able to decide what you want to share with a view to then doing more of that type of work.

Steve Folland:      We're you having to put in a daily effort? Seems like the wrong word because it sounds like you clearly really enjoyed being on there, but you know what I mean. In order to grow on Instagram, what were you having to do?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Well, I've always seen Instagram as, as I said, as a diary. For me, it was always about all, "Oh, I'm just sharing what I'm doing," and being not necessarily strategic about it in terms of the photo, what I'm posting, but just thinking, "Well, look, if I want to do photograph more families then either way shows family pictures of my own family, or families that I'm working with, or if I wanted to do some stuff with brands or, well, what with businesses, then how can I create content that might appeal to them and they could then see their products in that picture or in that video, what have you.

Steve Folland:      In terms of growing on Instagram, it was just a fact that you showed up every day because you treated it like a diary way before stories, you were just posting great photos of your family and stuff on there every day.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah. It's just daily documenting, and that's what I think makes you ... It makes you show up every day. Absolutely. That consistency is a great tool to have in terms of when you're trying to build up a following or reputation or even just a body of work. I'm a big believer in personal projects, and setting yourself goals and challenges, and having somewhere to put it, so initially it was my blog or on Flickr, and then Instagram just made it much easier because you can do it all on your phone, and it's pretty straightforward. Yeah, that consistency has been a great learning tool for me in terms of my work ethic as it were.

Steve Folland:      At what point did brands, you made it sound like they reached out to you rather than the other way around?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Well, there was a point where I was sort of creating stuff, and I knew that once Instagram introduced video into the platform, I knew that video is going to be big. Obviously it was already happening in terms of YouTube and what have you, but I knew that that was going to be a big thing. I just started creating more video content. I was already doing it, but I was sharing on Vimeo and YouTube, so being able to create something. I started my weekend films, which I still made now, but obviously had to just get them down into 15 seconds. That was a really fun challenge.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Then in terms of reaching or working with brands, I started creating Stop Motions because I knew, well, I just had a feeling that that again, was going to be a great video content for brands to use. I started to build a relationship with a clothing brand, Boden, and I just said something that, "Hey, do you want ... send me some products, and I'll create something fun with them. Because I've been doing it with sort of leaves and flowers and things that I had around my house. But I started thinking, well, this would be great in the shoes, or sunglasses or handbags. I started to build a relationship with them, and by them sharing the work and crediting me, which was very nice of them, I would then get other brands reaching out to me and then also putting them on my own feed. Again, if I just did something with flowers or something with bits and bobs that have around my house, other brands could think about their products being sort of displayed in the same way.

Steve Folland:      You reach to Boden, first of all and said, "How about something like this?" Did you know anyone there? Because somebody will be listening to this go, "What do you mean you just reached out to Boden? Did you know anyone there? Was it the only company?

Xanthe Berkeley:    No, well they were the one company I really wanted to work with. We started building up a relationship. Anyway, I think they discovered me because obviously my feed is very colourful, and they were like, "Look, can we send you some things," and it was very early days in terms of influences. I don't think we even called influences then. They reached out to me initially through the colourful content that I was sharing. It was then I made the connection to what I could do some Stop Motion stuff, and yeah, I know it kind of feels a bit unreal, but it was like that in the in the earlier days of brands being on Instagram. It's very different now, but I still believe that smaller brands will reach out to content creators to see if they want to create stuff with their products.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, how is it different now then?

Xanthe Berkeley:    I just think there's so many more people. It's just the volume of people either creating the content, and all the brands are on there now whereas I think initially there weren't as many brands on Instagram like there are now. Yeah it just feel, it's just a different feeling. I guess maybe the procedure of contacting brands is slightly different how it was then.

Steve Folland:      How did you find dealing with the business side in that shift and relationship, so you've gone from doing the wedding and family photos very much for consumers to suddenly working with a brand?

Xanthe Berkeley:    It's different, and I feel like I often don't come with any experience. I just kind of figure things out and learn along the way. That's in terms of pricing, what should you price for things? Do they have any budget? Just in terms of being professional, and emailing, and being polite, and I still do this now where I try and meet with clients rather than just have an email relationship. If I'm starting, someone inquires, I'll try and go meet them for coffee just because I think people, they trust you as a person. I was trying to build that connection if I can. I would have done that straight away with my friends is build that connection so they trust you and they understand you.

Steve Folland:      You have a very diverse income now, but it's great, but it sounds like it all sort of evolved, as in people went, "Oh, how do you make a video like that?" Then you went, "I know." I mean, 2011 to go making a course is like seeing something, and it's brilliant. Again with the Stop Motion, which then became such a trend. Before we could all do it within our phones, which must make you go, "Ah."

Xanthe Berkeley:    No, I think it's great. I'm a big believer in make it easy, don't ... if it can be easy to create it, do it, and the phone apps are brilliant. I'm always teaching people how to do it. Stop Motion is so simple. You don't actually need a great amount of skill in terms of actually shooting it and putting it together. I think the skill comes in the creativity, or how you're laying out or the setup, or what have you, but I think the actual technical side of it is not that tricky.

Steve Folland:      What makes up the biggest chunk of you, like your income today, and how has that shifted?

Xanthe Berkeley:    I think it's quite evenly split actually. I still photograph families. I don't generally advertise that much because also something's shifted in family photography for me is that probably 50% of the clients I do photographs asked for their pictures not to be shared online, which obviously is a marketing hindrance for me because if you want more work, you need to be sharing the work you're doing. I still do some photography, my work with brands, that's probably 50% of my income. Then my courses as well, so I have various different online courses teaching video-making, and film creation, and stuff like that. It's a real split, and that also splits my time. But that's what I love about being freelance is every week it's different. One week I'll be on a shoot for a clothing brand, then that Saturday I'll be photographing a family, and then maybe I'll have a week at home where I'm just doing emails or creating Stop Motion content here in my home studio.

Xanthe Berkeley:    I love that variety I wouldn't want that to change and to just pick one thing. I get asked that, it's like, "Could you could you pick just one thing?" It's a bit like picking your favourite child, you couldn't do that could you.

Steve Folland:      Well. No, no, of course not. In that downtime where there aren't people coming to you and giving you money to do something, you fill it with your own, other than business admin, with your own personal projects?

Xanthe Berkeley:    I do. I mean, Steve, when is there ever any downtime? Let us be honest.

Steve Folland:      We make it like that for ourselves. It's an interesting thing in itself, though. Yeah, do you not feel like you have downtime?

Xanthe Berkeley:    I don't feel like the to-do list is ever done. I used to battle with that, and now I'm just like, "Well, that's just how it is." You can always refresh your website, and you can always get your accounts up to date, and you can always meet that deadline, and there's always something to do. Knowing that you can't always get it done is okay as well. Obviously, the client deadlines are the priority, but the website refresh, well say that we'll have to wait for next week or what have you. I am a big believer in personal projects, I do make time for those because otherwise, I really would just shoot content for other people. I don't kind of want to get to the end of my life and be like, "Well, where's the videos are all the pictures of what I was doing?" I do make that a real priority.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Also I know from experience that side projects or personal projects have actually always helped my business. In terms of nourishing my creativity, and sparking more ideas, helping, my portfolio, or even leading to work, so I've had so many times where brands have gone, "Oh, we love what you did here, can you create that for us?" I would never have created that had I not done a sort of personal projects myself. Yeah, big believer in making time to shoot for yourself if you can, or create for yourselves.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, and you've mentioned challenges as well.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, so I kind of have done 365 projects where you take a photo a day, or I have done weekly projects or a hashtag joined in with a hashtag project is obviously the things you can do an Instagram. Those types of things just push you to create in a different way you might not have thought of or offer a prompt that is different to something you shot before. It might just open your eyes to something else. Yeah, the hashtag projects on Instagram are really fun, or I did, last year I did 100-day project, which is a sort of global project where you pick something to do every day for 100 days. Even though what I picked wasn't a creative thing, it then lead to something creative. I like that full of deadline or that challenge, it kind of drives me to create and do it rather than just go, "I'm going to take a picture tomorrow and a picture the next day." If you're like, "No, I'm going to take a picture every day for a year," that's really good.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, that's true. It's so much like being given a brief in a deadline by a client, except that it's you.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, absolutely. When I did my, I did a 365 project, I think it's in 2010 or 2009, 2010, it was before Instagram where it's actually fairly easy now to take a picture every day. I did on Flickr where you have to upload your picture, and edit it, and then put up on to Flickr. It was a slightly bigger deal.

Steve Folland:      Back in the old days. They don't know how easy they've got it.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Well, I know, exactly.

Steve Folland:      You mentioned the colour and everything that that brands were drawn to, did you have your branding professionally done? Or do you like to do everything yourself?

Xanthe Berkeley:    For the first few years, I did everything myself, I built my own blog, and did my own logos, and all of that. Actually even the header, I did myself, but I have in the last couple of years, got a developer to help me put my website together because I just wanted something that was very me, and whilst it is still a template, by just being able to tweak, have a developer tweak different things you can just make it more personalized because I think now the internet is just full of stuff, and some things look quite similar, and I just wanted to try, and be a little bit different. I don't know if it really is, but to me it feels very me, and so she helped me with that.

Steve Folland:      You do teaching online. Do you do teaching in person?

Xanthe Berkeley:    I do, yeah, if people asked me to, I have tried organizing my own workshops, and it's quite a lot of work, and not something that I enjoy that kind of side of it. If someone invites me to come and teach at their events where they've organized the lunch and they've emailed the tickets and done all of that, then I'll do that. I've done little Stop Motion workshops, just shooting on the phone, or video walks, or getting people to make a video in 90 minutes, "Go and shoot something and edit it straight away." I've done that a few times, and that's really fun. Opening people's eyes to video, I love doing because a lot of people have a big kind of block where they think it's big and scary, and actually now we have these phones, which are just amazing devices. You can do it all on your phone. It's incredible.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Obviously that might not be how you then want to carry on making videos, but what you need is that spark to make you realize it's not too difficult, and get the ideas flowing. The phone, I think is brilliant for that.

Steve Folland:      Yeah. Video walks, did you say?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, yeah. Getting a group of people together., like a photo walk, I do those as well. You just go and walk around a few streets and take some pictures, but with video as well. Getting people to try different shots and angles, because a lot of people when they start shooting video, the same with when they start taking photos is that they just shoot from eye level, and everything is just shot at that angle. Whereas, yeah, getting them to do video walks to get them to shoot a wide shot, or close ups, or shoot along the floor, or try panning, and that kind of thing, and video in each other as well is quite fun. Doing little boomerangs or trying a little time lapse. Then sitting with them and getting them to edit it together.

Steve Folland:      That's great. That means with the video walks, you get that sort of that human interaction because it's obviously something you like with going in and meeting people, but it can get quite lonely otherwise sometimes.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, although I really I tried to not make it lonely. Luckily, I get kind of invited to events or I have quite a good network of people that I've met through Instagram or through online work that I've done, and so try and meet up with them lunch, or I try and work my working week like I would if I was in an office in terms of where we might go out for lunch one day, or we might go to an event one evening. I try and do that. I don't ever feel really lonely. I feel like there's always something happening that week that will keep me social or connected.

Steve Folland:      When you go to events do you do speaking?

Xanthe Berkeley:    I have done a few public speaking. I spoke at Blogtacular, I heard you interviewing Kat. I spoke a few times at her event, and I love that event because it's my kind of community. I feel very supported there when I talk, whereas I've spoken at other events where people don't know me or they haven't heard of me before. That is a little bit more daunting, and so I tend to veer away from that now and just stick to communities where I kind of again feel that support, or that connection, or people who get what I do.

Steve Folland:      I mean you mentioned that you love taking video of your family. You want to see that at end of life.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yes, I do.

Steve Folland:      But it's a very good point. I often think I take all this video of myself, I look back and think, "I'm sure I had kids somewhere." But it's lovely your family, your children who have grown up now, how old are they now?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Well, they're 14 and 17. They're still around, but they're just not around as much, which is why they don't feature as much in my work.

Steve Folland:      How have you found the work life balance of the past 10 years being freelance?

Xanthe Berkeley:    For me, I make films for me to look back on in years to come. The fact that I share them online to then inspire other people is secondary to it. My kids kind of get that, they understand that it's precious to me, but they also know that it's part of my business. They're happy to comply, not always, but they're pretty much happy to be part of what we're doing or what I'm filming. But as they've gotten older, they're just off doing their own thing so often not around. There has been a shift in the last year or two where my weekend films or my daily films centre more around me. Yeah, watching your blogs, it's the same. It's you going to work and doing that, and mine is kind of come a bit like that.

Xanthe Berkeley:    But as for the work life balance, it's just a complete myth, is it? I'm always juggling, and being a parent is different now to when they were little, obviously my time was taken up with them. But there are other challenges that teenagers bring, and at the moment sometimes work is more important, and other times you're like, "Well, actually, I need to be with my family and do stuff with them." But what I feel like I've managed to create is where actually they're very interlinked. My creativity, my making my films or shooting for Instagram, or what have you is part of my life really. In that sense, there's a balance there where they're very integrated, but the balance of being able to get everything right is no. I don't agree that's possible.

Steve Folland:      In light of that though, what you just said there is a bit like, I think it was Jason, wasn't it, who sort of saw it more like a mash where you're kind of like bringing them together rather than trying to split them all the time.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, I think so. We go to the, like on a Saturday, we might go to a market, and I genuinely love going to the market because I love the food, and my husband loves it there, and we like the vibe, but also it's great video content, or to take some pictures, or it all works together.

Steve Folland:      What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you or challenges?

Xanthe Berkeley:    I think sometimes that you just have to trust that things are going to be okay or work out because sometimes you can have a quiet week where no emails come in, and no one signs up to my course, or and just being able to know that you can embrace the uncertainty because all it takes is that one email to come in, and that can change your month. Just be able to trust in that is quite a hard thing I've had to teach myself, but I do it now and I just kind of go, "Okay, it's going to be okay, we're going to figure this out, and something's going to turn up, or a few people can sign up to my course. That'll make this month be a little bit smoother. Yeah, maybe that's it. Yes.

Steve Folland:      Your clients, they really do come to just through word of mouth or through the content you create. As in you don't do anything else.

Xanthe Berkeley:    It has been that way, which is very, very fortunate. I am very grateful for that, but yes, clients have found me either through work I've done for other clients or they've seen stuff I've done and often that's the beginning of an email from someone is like, "Oh, we follow you on Instagram, we love what you do, can we meet up? Or can we chat with you?" That's really great, and often I deal directly with brands rather than through an agency that liaises. I do that sometimes, but I prefer dealing directly with brands and dealing directly with the social media team or the production team, and getting to understand them and see what they want, and build up those relationships.

Steve Folland:      If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Probably to launch and learn, don't wait for the right conditions to do something. Just go for it and kind of figure it out along the way. I think sometimes we think we need to be super prepared and have all our ducks lined up, but actually, we can just go for it and try things out, and yeah, figure it out as you go along. That's what I've kind of done, and so far, it's okay.

Steve Folland:      Launch and learn. It sounds like we've just written the title for this episode. That is great.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, yeah. It's not as definitely not my quote, it's definitely something that is out there in the world. But yeah, I'm a big believer in that.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, and it's nice, because it does sound like you, and this is great given how much social media constantly evolves, is that you always from very early on in this story seem to be thinking of the next thing, and trying things out, and seeing things.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Yeah, just experimenting, and maybe not even being that strategic about it, but just doing what I love and knowing that the right people will find it, or figuring things out like with the launching my e-course, I didn't really know what I was doing, but I knew that I had something I could share with people. It was doing it that way, and the same with working with clients or just I didn't learn any of that at school or at college. Yeah, you just figure out as you go along.

Steve Folland:      You said earlier that you are one for goals, is that like on a yearly basis, on a monthly ... how do you use goals?

Xanthe Berkeley:    Well, I kind of set intentions. I'm a big believer in writing things down, and making a list of things that you want to achieve, or you want to do better, or learn, or what have you. Yeah, I do try and do that. I'm not strictly like January I write my goals, I actually find January quite a hard month in terms of staying motivated off the back of Christmas, and it's often quite a quiet month. I prefer the spring time, that's kind of a good time, or the ... or September, that sort of back to school vibe, and just sort of reassess what you've done, look back at what you've achieved, and what you've enjoyed doing, and then set some intentions for how you want to move forward, whether that's in your business or in your personal life, I think it's good to kind of have an idea of what you want to do, and dream big.

Xanthe Berkeley:    As a Brit, we tend to be a bit sort of cynical about that. We will set a goal and dream really big, and you can make it happen. But it really does work like that sort of putting it out into the universe or putting it down onto the page has definitely worked for me. I'm going to keep on doing it.

Steve Folland:      Xanthe, thank you so much, and all the best being freelance.

Xanthe Berkeley:    Thank you so much. Thank you.