Big juicy clients - Graphic Designer Lyndsey Yates

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Watching her partner Mark go freelance with great success, Lyndsey decided to join him. “If he can do it, why not me?", she asked herself.

Now the founder of a small collective, Nine Dots Creative, Lyndsey’s on the hunt for some big juicy clients.

We chat about the “Spark Up” business course Lyndsey took and how it lead her to launch Nine Dots, what life was like freelancing alongside Mark, and how she’s managing to run a collective alongside the work she does independently as a solo freelancer.


Steve Folland: As ever, we get started hearing how you got started being freelance.

Lyndsey Yates: I think I, originally, first ever even thought about going freelance when I was at university. So when our tutors were talking to us about the options available to us once we left, obviously, working in an agency was mentioned, working in-house was another option, and working for yourself. And little young me was, like, "I want to work for myself that sounds awesome! I don't want to work for anybody else."

Lyndsey Yates: And then I left university, and I didn't have a clue how to work for myself, and I ended up getting a job in Curry's.

Steve Folland: So, Curry's, for those listening around the world is, like, an electrical store?

Lyndsey Yates: Yes.

Steve Folland: So selling everything from a cooker to an iMac, sort of thing?

Lyndsey Yates: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

Steve Folland: So, it isn't in-house, or an agency?

Lyndsey Yates: No, no, it was just one of those, back at home parents say, "Get a job!" "Okay, I'll go get something." So I went and I did that. And I actually met my partner there.

Steve Folland: Ah. Well there you go!

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah, it was worth it for that reason. I was having a conversation with him, he was, like, "Are you not going to do something with this degree that you've got? It seems a bit of a waste of time to spend three years at university and then not actually do anything with the degree at the end of it." So I started looking for jobs, and one came up in a town called St. Helens, which is quite close to where I was living. And it was in-house for an insulation company. And it was a German insulation company, and I didn't even know how to pronounce the name of said company! I asked about it. It's Knauf, but it's spelt K-N-A-U-F, so usually, in English, you'd be like, Nauf, or Norf.

Lyndsey Yates: And I went for the interview and, long story short, I got that job. So that was great, I had my first graphic design job. And it was a really good company to work for. I had a great team of people to work with, the money wasn't bad, there was a good bonus scheme. I learned loads of things that I wasn't taught at university, from the other graphic designer in the marketing department. Got to see from the client side, I guess, what clients wanted, because the marketing department also used external agencies, so I got to see what they did right and wrong. And I ended up staying there for about eight years in the end.

Steve Folland: Oh wow!

Lyndsey Yates: So, yeah.

Lyndsey Yates: In 2013 I became pregnant with my little girl, Holly, and I decided that I would take a full year off. And in that year off I started to get itchy feet, started wondering maybe I could do something else, maybe it's time I did something else. But after the year I went back. And during that year, Mark began freelancing. So Mark is my partner. And he started doing quite well, so after about, it must have been about 10 months of being back in work, I thought, do you know what? He's doing it, I can do it too. If he can do it, then why not me?

Lyndsey Yates: So I handed my notice in. And, in October 2015, I officially went freelance.

Steve Folland: You got there. And what does Mark do as a freelancer?

Lyndsey Yates: He is a web developer.

Steve Folland: Right. Okay. So we're into 2015. We've gone through Curry's. We've gone into Knauf, or whoever they were, and come out the other side with a baby and a freelance career for you both.

Steve Folland: So, yeah, how did it feel? Did you feel confident making that move? And where did you get your first clients?

Lyndsey Yates: I think I felt overly confident. And, in actual fact, finding clients was way more difficult than I thought it was going to be. I started off with a lot of networking, a lot of phone calls and emails to people. My first client actually came out of my old job. Knauf had sold part of their business, and the people that went with that part of the business, their new business wanted to use me as their graphic designer because I knew the industry. So that was how I got my first client. And I think that's quite a common story, is that it tends to come from people you've already met. Word-of-mouth seems to be a really common way of getting freelance clients.

Lyndsey Yates: So, yeah, they were my first ... And that was good because it was an area I felt comfortable working in. But, yeah, it took quite some time. I did start to panic at first because I was, like, "Oh no!" Graphic designers aren't quite as in demand as web developers, so whereas Mark could just sort of sit on his hands and do nothing and people would come to him because he's a web developer and everybody wants web developers at the moment, it wasn't the same for me. So I found I needed to start doing something different.

Lyndsey Yates: And then I saw that the Chamber of Commerce in Liverpool were running a course called Spark Up. Sadly, it's no longer running. And it was, basically, a course with mentorship programs and speakers coming in, tasks that you'd be given, to enable people to set up their own businesses. So I went on that, and I went in with the idea that me and Mark would make a really good mini-agency. As I mentioned, he's a web developer, I'm a graphic designer: it sounds like a match made in heaven. And that was my business idea, that was what I went in with.

Lyndsey Yates: Over the ... Oh gosh, it must have been on for about 10 weeks, 12 weeks, something like that, over those weeks I came to realise that what I wanted to do and what Mark wanted to do were very different things. And the way I wanted to brand a business, and just every aspect of running a business was just totally different to how Mark would want to do things.

Steve Folland: Oh, to have been a fly on the wall! Did that cause friction, or was it cool?

Lyndsey Yates: It was cool. It was cool. I came home, I'd have a conversation about what I'd done that day on this Spark Up course, and he'd be, like, "Mm. Yeah. I don't want to do that." I'm, like, "Right. Okay. I'll try something else then." And then I'd come home the next time, and I'd be, like, "I've had this really good idea." "No, I don't like that either!"

Steve Folland: It must have been frustrating?

Lyndsey Yates: It was. It was frustrating. But not everyone who lives together can work well together, and maybe it was a blessing in disguise.

Steve Folland: That is so, so true. And great that you found it out at that stage, rather than having gone into business together and then finding it out?

Lyndsey Yates: Definitely. Because one of the lessons we learned on that course was to fail fast. So they wanted to really put us through the wringer and make sure that, at the end of it, we came out with a business that would work, not one that was going to fail when we didn't have the support of them any longer. So they wanted to make sure that if it was going to fail, it failed whilst we were still doing the course.

Steve Folland: Yeah, yeah. So what happened as the course went on?

Lyndsey Yates: So, at that point, me and Mark were both working in a co-working space in Liverpool called Base Camp. And there was talk amongst us all that we kind of had an agency in the room, so there was web developers, graphic designers, illustrators, radio talk hosts, a huge range of people. And we sat down one day and we tried to figure out if anybody would like to, maybe, look into start working collaboratively. And it didn't really happen, nothing really came out of it. There were a few people that said, "Honestly, I've got enough work on as it is. I'm happy as I am. It's a good idea but I don't think it would benefit me." And there were a few other people who were really excited about the idea of it, but nothing ever came from it.

Lyndsey Yates: But it gave me this idea of this sort of collaborative way of working. And I went back to the course I was on, with this idea of a collective or a creative collective. So running, basically, and agency made up out of freelancers.

Steve Folland: So you're saying, by the end of the course, you had that idea of an agency made out of freelancers, but you didn't actually have the freelancers because the people you knew weren't on board?

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Steve Folland: Gotcha! So did you decide to take that forward or did you think, oh well, I'll just go back to being me as a solo graphic designer, and figure it out?

Lyndsey Yates: I kept on being me, as a solo graphic designer because there were bits and pieces of work coming through various avenues, but the end goal was to set up this collective that would be able to take on bigger projects than I would be able to do on my own.

Steve Folland: Cool! What was it about that idea that got you excited, presumably?

Lyndsey Yates: It was the idea that, quite often, my partner had worked at agencies, and I've got friends who've worked at agencies, and quite often design agencies use freelancers to do the work that they do for clients. But the freelancers don't really get the recognition for that, it's the agency that did it. And it's the agency's name that goes on all the work, but it was a freelancer that did it, you know. Sometimes it's the full-time staff, but usually it's just one or two people.

Lyndsey Yates: And I thought, well, there's loads of these people, these freelancers, all over the place, many within a very small distance of where I was, and you could totally offer those services, the same services that a design agency could, and we'd be able to get much bigger projects working together than we would on our own. So I liked the idea of being able to get some really nice juicy big clients, but it's not often that those clients want just a graphic designer, they quite often need a full team of people. They might need a graphic designer, a copywriter, a photographer, and it would be good if we could offer all of that.

Steve Folland: Interesting. But you didn't actually yourself have experience of working for an agency, because you were in-house, so it's a different set-up, right?

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve Folland: Okay. So how did you got about finding those other people? Like, what happened next?

Lyndsey Yates: I set up a networking group. So I know a lot of freelancers hate the word "networking", the very thought of it just sends shivers down their spine, and I'd been to a few networking groups and some of them feel just a little bit too forced. I don't like the idea of having to stand up and give a 60-second pitch about my business. I don't like the idea of having to recommend somebody to else to bring with me: all that kind of thing. So I set up, I tried to avoid the word "networking", and I set up a social meetup for creative freelancers. And I just popped it up online, and yeah I got ... I think there was about eight people turned up at the first one.

Steve Folland: How many came to the second one?

Lyndsey Yates: I can't remember, you know! I've got a terrible memory.

Steve Folland: More or less?

Lyndsey Yates: I think it was actually, less, at the second one. It varies loads. And I've played around with the dates and the times and things, and I'm quite bad at keeping it a regular thing as well, I haven't done one for ages. But I did meet other freelancers through it. And I had met a couple of freelancers at the co-working space that I kept in touch with, that did really good work. And, yeah, I just sort of built up my little network from there.

Steve Folland: And then what happened though? Because it's still quite a leap from meeting other freelancers, as you'd found in the co-work space, to finding people who did want to collaborate, or building that relationship which would lead to that.

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah. It's still an ongoing process to be honest. There's probably four people that I would say are in the collective, and probably another 30 people that I've got the details of on like a spreadsheet, that when I see projects I know they're ... And if something comes up that I think that will really suit them, I'll get them in and we'll pitch together for something.

Steve Folland: Cool. So you did manage to pull it off, you got that collective together. And what year was that?

Lyndsey Yates: Probably, 2017. It probably took a good couple of years for me to really ...

Steve Folland: And who was in it then? So you're a graphic designer, what are the other roles?

Lyndsey Yates: I've got Andy, who's a 3D animator, who I used to work with. So he does any 3D animation work that comes through. There's Adam who's a web developer. Mark ... I sort of count him as in the collective, because he's also a web developer and he's quite capable of doing work with us, but he's since taken on a full-time job.

Steve Folland: Right. Okay.

Lyndsey Yates: And then there's two copywriters: there's Dave, and there's Simon. And there's also a photographer called Antonio.

Steve Folland: I'm sure this sounds like more than four people?

Lyndsey Yates: No, it's five! It's five if you count Mark. But, yeah, four.

Steve Folland: Brilliant! But there's so many more questions of course, because, do you all work together? Who finds the work? So let's start with the first one. Are you all working remote, or did you all end up in a co-work space?

Lyndsey Yates: No. We'll all remote. I work from home. Dave is in a co-working space. Simon's from home. Adam is a mixture of both.

Steve Folland: Yep. And, then, who brings in the work? Is it like a collective responsibility, or ...?

Lyndsey Yates: It should be a collective responsibility, yeah. And it has worked that way actually. Simon brought some work to me, so he had a client that he was doing copywriting for and we did a brochure together. Dave, similarly, was working on some copywriting for an accountant and they needed some design work doing, so he brought that to me.

Lyndsey Yates: And then, I always keep an eye out for ... It's the bigger projects that I want to keep an eye out for, so I tend to keep an eye out for projects and we tend to write tenders for work together. So, me and Adam have been doing a lot more of that recently.

Steve Folland: So tenders ... so pitches for bigger projects?

Lyndsey Yates: Pitchers, sorry, yeah, yeah. I'm not massively successful. I still seem to be much better at getting work for myself than getting work for the collective, and it's something I'll just keep on plugging. I think the other freelancers, and all of the freelancers get it, they get the idea of working as a collective. I'm not entirely sure that clients get it yet, and maybe that's work I need to do.

Steve Folland: Yeah. I was going to say, so how do you present yourself? So, if you were going to a bigger project, what do you call yourselves?

Lyndsey Yates: We present ourselves as Nine Dots Creative.

Steve Folland: And so, I would see that as an agency, as a production house, as a ...?

Lyndsey Yates: I started off, originally, saying it's a collective of freelancers. I think that's still a jump too far, so now I tend to just say we're an agency, and then, down the line, if they need to know more about the details of how we work, then ...

Steve Folland: Yeah. The funny thing is, of course, many agencies really are a collective of freelancers!

Lyndsey Yates: Exactly. Exactly.

Steve Folland: As you said earlier.

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah.

Steve Folland: Okay. But is Nine Dots Creative, an actual sort of business entity? As in, is Nine Dots billing for this work? Forgive me if I'm getting their names wrong, but if the copywriter brings a project in and you end up doing design work, is that the copywriter's project, or does it go as Nine Dots Creative and your billing as Nine Dots?

Lyndsey Yates: It's varied, actually. A couple of projects we've billed separately, so the copywriter has billed separately to me. And then, on a couple of projects, like when Andy does 3D work, I just invoice as Nine Dots Creative and sort of pay him as a contractor.

Steve Folland: Right. So Nine Dots does exist as a business?

Lyndsey Yates: Yep.

Steve Folland: Well, I was going to say, who has responsibility for that? As in, there has to be, I would have thought, some sort of structure in place as to, if people leave, or if there's some sort of problem with people being paid? I don't know. In fact, that's a question in itself, what did you come up against when creating it?

Lyndsey Yates: So far it's all been relatively plain sailing, I can't think of any issues that we've had. It's set up, it's not a limited company, it's still just a trading name as me, as a self-employed person. Setting up as a limited company is something that I'm looking to do, possibly, this year.

Steve Folland: Ah! Okay. So, actually, Nine Dots Creative is a trading name of Lyndsey Yates as a sole trader?

Lyndsey Yates: Yep.

Steve Folland: Okay. Right. It's all coming together. But you are thinking of making it more, well, not official, that's not the right ... But going a limited company?

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah. It feels more official.

Steve Folland: Well, I suppose it is.

Lyndsey Yates: It might enable us to work with some of the bigger clients.

Steve Folland: That's a really interesting first step on, that, isn't it? Like, rather than just taking that name?

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah, because I didn't want to go too official too soon, because I wasn't sure if it was going to work. I still don't know if it's going to work. My freelance work has been pretty consistent for the past year, but the work for the collective is less so.

Steve Folland: So your work is getting more regular. But do you feel like part of that is coming off of what Nine Dots, as a collective, is doing?

Lyndsey Yates: I don't think it is. I don't think it is.

Steve Folland: Okay. In that case, where is your work coming from?

Lyndsey Yates: Mostly, word-of-mouth. It's usually from people that I've worked with in the past. Because people tend to change jobs quite often, so they leave where they were working with you and go somewhere else, and you get a phone call a few months' later.

Lyndsey Yates: I've actually had a couple of jobs just from replying to somebody on Twitter. Somebody said, "I'm looking for a graphic designer?" "Yeah. I'm one," send them an email. And I've had a couple of jobs that way.

Lyndsey Yates: I've had a couple from freelance communities on Facebook. So there's a Freelance Heroes Facebook group, and Doing It For The Kids group. I've met a couple of people through that, that have needed a graphic designer. I've got work that way.

Lyndsey Yates: And then, I think two other clients are actually from ... And this isn't a way I would usually recommend working, but when I had a bit of quiet time really early on, I got on People Per Hour. And usually most of the jobs on sites like that are really low paid, not really worth bothering with, but occasionally you do find a couple of diamonds in there. And I did find two clients who were willing to pay the going rate for a good graphic designer. So a couple came out of that. Yeah.

Steve Folland: And if I was to go looking for Lyndsey Yates, online this is, I'm not going hunting in West Lancashire, if I was going looking for you, would I find Lyndsey Yates or would I find Nine Dots Creative?

Lyndsey Yates: You'd probably find a mixture of both, because I have used my Lyndsey Yates name to do surface pattern design as well. Still trying to decide what name goes with what, and ... yeah.

Steve Folland: Do you have separate websites?

Lyndsey Yates: I did have an website, but it's really out of date. That was me, as a single freelancer. I set up the Nine Dots Creative website pretty early on and decided I was just going to put all my work on there, and kind of abandoned the Lyndsey Yates website. And then, I also had a company name from previous projects, like side projects, when I was employed, called Lyndsey Loop, and I used to sell handmade items and things. And I kind of repurposed that, so now my surface pattern design work sits under Lyndsey Loop, my graphic design work sits under Nine Dots Creative, and my LY Design stuff, I think, is going to be phased out.

Steve Folland: Yeah. So do you still do actual product creation?

Lyndsey Yates: Surface pattern design work.

Steve Folland: Just to explain to people, would that mean that you've created a pattern and then you put it on something like a print-on-demand website and I could have it printed on a mug or an apron or a cushion, is that the kind of thing?

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah. I do that. And I sell designs on a site called Spoonflower, where you can fabric with designers' prints on. And it's, just, for me it's a way of having a more creative outlet that's not as corporate as some of the client work that I do. It's more illustrative work and it's just something that I like to do. And I figured, well, if I'm doing it anyway, I may as well try and make a little bit of money.

Steve Folland: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it's like a creative outlet, side project-wise, but actually ...

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah.

Steve Folland: And so, with those kind of things you've got no risk in terms of buying project, because it's all on demand?

Lyndsey Yates: No, exactly. Yeah.

Steve Folland: Cool! Of course we'll put links, by the way, to everything we're talking about at So go, do take a look.

Steve Folland: You mentioned earlier, co-work space, and then working from home. So was that purely a logistical thing, or did you go off the idea of co-work space? How have you chosen where to work?

Lyndsey Yates: It's a bit of a story in itself, actually.

Steve Folland: Excellent. That's what we're here for!

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah, Mark was in a co-working space because he just needed to be out of the house. And when I went freelance, I really liked that co-working space, so I asked if, on the days Mark wasn't using his desk, if I could use his desk. And the guy running the co-working space very kindly agreed to let that happen. Which was lovely, because, okay, it's nice to get out the house sometimes.

Lyndsey Yates: But then it turned out that I wanted to be there more often and Mark would want to be there at the same time, so, in the end, we decided we'd keep Mark's full-time desk and then I would pay for a hotdesk. So we did that for a while. And while we were there an opportunity came up in a new venue, a place called The Invisible Wind Factory, is a music venue. But above it, it had a lot of artist and studio spaces, and they posted some photos up online, and I was, like, "oh, that looks really nice! I'd like our own studio. That would be lovely."

Lyndsey Yates: And Mark's, like, "Don't be ridiculous. It's going to be really expensive." But I went and had a look anyway. And a guy called Rob showed me round, and he took me into this lovely studio, loads of space, view of the Mersey. You could fit probably six to eight people in there, and we could do what we wanted with it. And when he told me the price, it was £10.00 less than what we were paying for the full-time desk and the hotdesk at the co-working space, so I nearly bit his hand off. And then, I went back to Mark, and he asked all the sensible questions like what's the internet connection like? I don't know! You go and ask all the sensible things: it's pretty and it's big!

Lyndsey Yates: So he went and asked all the sensible questions and got all the sensible answers he needed, and we moved into that. We were there working together, that was really nice. But then in December 2016 I had a late paying client and Mark had a late paying client, which completely screwed us up for Christmas time, and I ended up having to borrow money off my Dad. And it kind of ruined the relationship with one of Mark's main clients, because he was just chasing and chasing for this money. We decided we couldn't go through that again, and after a lot of conversation we decided that Mark would go and get a full-time job, so we had at least one guaranteed income.

Lyndsey Yates: Which left me in the studio on my own. Which was nice at first but it just started to get a bit lonely. And then it seemed a bit silly that I was dropping Holly off at nursery, 10 minutes down the road from our house in West Lancashire, and then driving 40 minutes into Liverpool to sit in a studio that I was paying "X" amount a month for, to then drive 40 minutes back to pick her up. And the studio wasn't of any business benefit to us, it didn't get me any more clients, there was nobody in there to collaborate with. And I thought, you know what, I could save this money and just work from home. So, eventually, and begrudgingly because I really, really loved that studio, I handed our notice in there and decided to work from home.

Steve Folland: Ah! But how are you finding that now?

Lyndsey Yates: It's really nice, you know? I love that I haven't got a commute; that's great. Saves me a fortune in fuel. I do need to get out more often. I definitely need to head into Liverpool and do more networking events. I have been speaking to a couple of people about Nine Dots Creative, and another entity in Liverpool collaborating on some networking events for creatives, because I haven't done one for so long. And, yeah, it's something I need to start up again.

Lyndsey Yates: But, yeah, now Holly's in school, and it is a three minute drive from home to school. So it's nice. I like it.

Steve Folland: Yeah. And actually school hours are perhaps more restrictive than nursery hours? It depends, but ...

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah. I mean, I ended up, so when she was in nursery, I did a three day week: I had two days at home with her. And then, when she started school, I obviously got to do a five day week, but it was 9 'til 3, instead of 9 'til 5. But I have ended up with a few more hours, since she's been at school, to work.

Steve Folland: Yeah. So, actually, how is work/life balance for you guys?

Lyndsey Yates: I think, for me, it's really good. For Mark, he's not so happy. In full-time work he doesn't get in before 7, so that's like bedtime. But at least one of us is at home to pick Holly up from school. I think, before Holly, work/life balance for us would have been all about how many holidays we could take, and how much time we had left to do the things in life that we don't get paid for. But, now, with Holly, our priority was making sure one of us is always there to pick her up from school. Because we both had parents who did that, and it felt important.

Lyndsey Yates: Being freelance, it also means that I can set when I work. So if something does come up at school, or if Holly's sick, or needs to go the an assembly, I can usually shimmy things around a bit. And then, still, when there's quiet periods, I can use that to do the things that I want to do. You know, quiet periods when you're in employment usually mean you end up getting something dumped on your desk that you don't want to do, or in the worst case scenario you get made redundant. But quiet periods when you're freelancing can be quite fun!

Steve Folland: Yes. Here's to that!

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

Lyndsey Yates: Even if you're working for your own mother, have a contract or a set of terms and conditions. Because it is so much easier to resolve issues where everything is down in writing before a project begins, because you have that to refer to.

Steve Folland: In your terms and conditions, a lot of that would be in, like, the scope of it?

Lyndsey Yates: Yeah. Get the scope written down. Basically, write down as much as you possibly can, even down to what kind of hours that your client can expect you to be available for. Just everything that a contract should have, because you can kind of use the contract as the bad guy then, when your client is doing something that you don't want to happening, you can refer to the contract and say, "Look! It says here ... And you signed it."

Steve Folland: And that scenario, where you had the late paying clients that one December, have you managed to not have late paying clients since? Have you managed to do anything to stop that? Or-

Lyndsey Yates: Most of my clients, now, apart from one, pay on time. Like, one, within minutes of me invoicing them which is great. I'm never letting that one go! The odd one that does pay late, I know they always pay eventually and that I usually understand the reasoning behind it. I've had to threaten a late payment fee once. I can be a really nice person, but I almost have to put on a different hat when it comes to getting paid, and just forget about trying to be friendly and pleasing everybody, and just be, like, "No. I've done the work. Pay me.