Sharing the hats - UX Designer Mariana Morris

Mariana Morris Podcast Interview.png

After leaving agency life behind to go freelance, UX designer Mariana found herself yearning for more.

Despite still working from home, she now runs her own small agency, Fruto. Missing the benefits of working closely with other people, Mariana wanted to create the perfect environment for great work. A team where the responsibilities are shared, the skills are complementary, and the opportunities to collaborate make for better creative decisions.

And while many creative freelancers shy away from the business, sales, and financial aspects of our work, Mariana tells Steve that she’s actually learned to embrace those tasks.


Mariana Morris:     About one and a half years ago, I decided to quit my job and start my own thing, right? I've been working in the industry for a long time, for about kind of 15 years. Working like in other agencies, software companies, and then doing my own thing was at the back of my head for a long time and I think I was just looking for the right time. It was at that time which probably is common for most people, which ... you're kind of ... you're unhappy in your current kind of set up or current job and I decided to start this new thing.

Mariana Morris:     I went back to the drawing board and started thinking, "Okay, so what do I want to do? What are my values? What were the times that I most enjoyed working, that I was doing the best of my work? And how to now create something that can take the best out of this situation or the best kind of work that I did before?" That's how I started, briefly.

Steve Folland:      And where did you find your first clients? When you decided ... what were you doing? Were you in an agency before?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, so before I was at a software company. I was managing a team, and I started designing this kind of company and then just before I left, I had my first client. It was a nice move. But after that ... as in I had one client, and I needed to find more clients, right? The first thing I did was send an email to a lot of people in my network saying, "Hi. I'm now a freelancer. Is there anything I can help with?" Was pretty much like that. And with that, then people start to get to know you as someone they can go to instead through other companies.

Steve Folland:      And how did that work out for you? Did stuff come to you from that?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, totally. Some of them came straight away and some of them helped me create the network that ... one person would introduce me to another person and so on. Sometimes, sales can take a long time. So, for example, I still receive emails from these emails I sent in the beginning. One of the larger projects that we worked on, I got a reply about a year later from this first email that I sent, right? When you said email, sometimes you don't get a reply and you think, "Okay. So, that didn't work." Actually, it might work in the future. You never know. When they'll come back, they say like, "Oh, now I need a freelancer so I thought of you."

Steve Folland:      How long are the sort of projects that you work on? What does it look like for you? Are you somebody who goes in and joins a team for months, or are you somebody who works at home on multiple projects? What sort of thing is it for you?

Mariana Morris:     I work from home on multiple projects. As soon as I started, I actually got a contractor job. So, I would go to the office and stay there for three days and would use the other two days for freelance work as in for going after my own clients and start having other clients, not only one. Very soon, I realised that that was quite hard to manage because, with sales, you can't have such a limited time because people sometimes they want to meet on that day that you're in the office, for example, and you can't. You need to be much more flexible.

Mariana Morris:     And then I started to realise that you have basically two routes, right? One is you are a contractor where you work kind of with one time or one client for a long period of time. So, it can be like a six-month contract or a nine month contract. There are much more like long-term projects, and usually we'll work from the client's office, 9:00 to 5:00. This sort of thing. From my experience, the other route, in terms of freelancer, you have more clients. You need to go after clients like get clients on a much more regular basis, because projects can be quite short ... but you do that in your own time. After that beginning where I was trying to manage both, I realise that it's quite hard. What I want to do is freelance rather than contracting on a long-term project.

Steve Folland:      What was hard about it? Was it because for three days you would be in somebody's office but other people would be contacting you about other things?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah. Yeah. I think with sales, I think was the thing that was the hardest to manage, and I think also with freelance work, we need to have more flexibility. Having three days, exact days, every week would mean that I can't be flexible for, for example, running user research. Sometimes users are only available at a certain time of the day or ... So, we need to be much more flexible with certain activities that we run. That was kind of the difficult thing to manage both. I think to start with that was nice because I had the security of a contract, and then, at the same time, I was kind of starting with freelance. But very soon, I realised, "Well, I need to dedicate my time for getting clients and being much more flexible than a set number of days in contracting work."

Steve Folland:      So, at the end of that contract, you decide ... do you ... just to work with, as you say, freelance multiple clients flexibly on your own terms?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, exactly. I was doing both, and then when that finished ... I understood where the limit is for me in terms of what I want to do with my day-to-day. So, kind of, "Okay, so from now on, I do need to be flexible in the sense of that now."

Steve Folland:      What happened next for you? Because that's not where we find you now. You start freelancing for multiple clients. How'd it go?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, so that went well. I started being a freelancer and gave myself set number of months to see if it would work and it worked ... it started working straight away. At that point, I thought, "Actually, what I want to do is create a team." I want to create an environment that is a creative environment that you have like ... we can discuss innovative ideas together and much more working as a team than as an individual. That is also one thing that I really enjoy about my job is the business development side. I thought, "Okay. So, if I start working with other people that will help me build this thing, we can grow this way," right? That's what I'm doing now, which is growing as an agency rather than being a freelancer.

Steve Folland:      It was the fact that you missed bouncing it off of other people or the potential to do more? What did moving towards a more agency model hold for you?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, that's a good question. I think it was more the potential, right? I think one thing that I wanted to do is be able to create an environment where it's a creative environment. When I quit my job, I looked back and I thought, "Okay, when was the times that I was doing the best work? And when was the times that I was feeling most fulfilled about my work?" And then I visualised this environment and then I thought, "Okay, so, that's what I want to do. I want to create an environment where we can do that great work." And I think this means that I find it really important to be able to communicate with other designers and bounce ideas off and actually doing critique sessions, for example, because that's where I think great work comes in is when you have multiple heads thinking about a problem, rather than just one. I think it was the potential of what it can become, rather than the other thing you said. I forgot.

Steve Folland:      How did you go about finding the people you were gonna work with, and were they like freelancers? Were you all remote? What did you build?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, so, I started working with freelancers and I still work with freelancers, and I think that's the first step before you can hire someone, just to make sure that you are giving the kind of safe steps, right? I built a database of freelancers. Pretty much did a bit of recruitment on that in terms of video calls and essentially their skills and so on. I still have this database and I keep building this database, because very often we have projects that are larger than what you can take on, just because we're busy, right?

Mariana Morris:     And then after a while, I got to a point where I thought, "Okay, so, now is the first time that I can employ someone," and that's what I did kind of about six-month months.

Steve Folland:      Wow. How was that? Hiring your first person?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, so that was ... it's hard. It was kind of exciting but also quite frightening. I think my first reaction is to go to books and read the articles and really see from people more experienced than I am kind of how did they do that? Because it feels like a massive leap, right? And I think it is a massive leap. I read an article that said, "It's the right time to hire the first person when it's painful," and I was like, "I'm here working at the weekends, weekdays. I'm working massively ... it is painful. I know it is painful. I know I have enough work for someone else." I created a list of tasks that that person would be doing the first week on a regular basis. Yeah, there is enough work here, so that's when I decided, "Yeah, I'm going for it and I'll do it," and it's been working fine. It's kind of ... yeah, that was definitely the right decision to do.

Steve Folland:      And is that person's skills the same as yours or are they a different position?

Mariana Morris:     They are a designer as well, but there is a complementary thing here going on. My strength is mostly UX, UX's strategy, usability, and all that. I got someone who is very good at the visual aspect of it. Even though I can do the visual, I know that each designer has their own strengths. So, I tried to complement this way and now we are hiring the second person, and I'm looking for also adding to the skillset rather than duplicating. I think this is really important.

Steve Folland:      There's like a difficulty when you start to grow, when you hire other freelancers and when you're suddenly responsible for someone else's salary, with paying them, frankly.

Mariana Morris:     Yeah.

Steve Folland:      Particularly in terms of cashflow because you might not get paid for the project much further along the line than when those people wish to be paid. How have you found that?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, yeah. That's ... cashflow is always the beast, isn't it? From day one, I started setting up the finance of the business, following a book called Profit First by Mike Michalowicz ... I think that's how it says his name ... where you basically have envelopes, right? He created a book that follows this idea that you are going to spend the resources that is available to you. Instead of having your own bank account with everything in it ... because you might spend more than you can actually do ... you set up your finance in terms of envelopes. You basically and kind of ... the way that it's set up with the bank, you have like a current account, and then you have mini accounts that are associated with that account. The work that comes ... the revenue comes into one account, then you distribute the percentages or the values to the different envelopes.

Mariana Morris:     One of them is going to be salaries. The other one might be subcontractors. The other might be profit. The other is like savings and so on. The only way it would kind of feel safe and the only way I can feel safe by kind of ... keeping the first steps of growth is by having that envelope where there is some money in there that if there is a problem with cashflow, I know that it's not going to be a problem in the short term, at least. I think in terms of kind of cashflow, this really helped me because, at any point, I can look at my bank account ... like at the business bank account and I know exactly how it looks like without any other spreadsheets and so on. I know that there is money for salaries for the end of the month. I know there is money for kind of tax, for example. I'm not going to have any surprises. I know there is money for growth or whatever.

Steve Folland:      And so did you not hire other people until you knew there was enough money in that envelope to pay them?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah. It's a mix, right? I also like talk with other business owners to kind of ... yeah, understand how to do that. It's a bit of a mix between, "Do I have enough money and do I have work for the future months?" It's kind of, "Can I pay now and can I pay in the next six months, next year?" Yeah, it's kind of how I'm learning how to do it.

Steve Folland:      And how are you finding now the multiple hats that you then have to wear? You're not just a UX designer, you're people's boss and you're probably a project manager, unless you've hired one. It's bigger than that now, right?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah. But I think it was big from the start, right? Even if you're a one-person business, you also have to wear multiple hats. And I think even if you are a freelancer kind of working for yourself and not employing anyone, you also need to be able to do the other jobs. You can't just be a designer. You do need to go look after clients. You need to do the sales and to do the project management for you. You need to invoice clients. Do the finance side, and so on. I find it even harder to be a one-person business than having multiple people because you can't really share any of these hats, I think. I think what I found very early on, as well, was that you do need to enjoy the other side of the business.

Mariana Morris:     A lot of the time we come from kind of a discipline that's not business at all, right? So, I come from design. I never run a business before. I understood that I, okay, there are other roles like the entrepreneur side or the manager side that needs to be as strong as the design side. There is a really good book about that as well, that I read early on, called The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It. As soon as I started, I thought, "Okay, let me see what can go wrong, so I can kind of understand a little bit more about what I need to do." And that's what it describes is like how business owners need to be the master juggler of these three functions, like the technician, the manager, and the entrepreneur. I think, as a freelancer, or as a business owner like employing people, you do need to have all of these skillsets, I think.

Steve Folland:      I'll tell you what, we'll put ... I'm reading that book at the moment.

Mariana Morris:     Oh, are you?

Steve Folland:      Yeah. Yeah. It's an interesting read. At times, I kind of hate the way it's written, but the actual concepts are really resonating with me. I'll put links at

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, I really loved the book, actually. I think the idea of creating templates as well ... so, how can you ensure that the quality is going to be high kind of across the board and ... So, kind of we keep trying to create templates that I can reuse, other people can reuse in the business, and the quality keeps up.

Steve Folland:      It sounds like you're creating systems and processes?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, I'm definitely doing that. Basically, anything that can be systemised is going to be. But, of course, it's a creative industry, right? Like a creative job, right? We need to see what do we need to rethink every time and what are the things that you don't need to think every time, so we have like the right tools. In practical terms, we're creating pattern libraries. We use version control so we'll have the most up to date version of that pattern library, and we kind of create templates as in kind of the pages of what a pattern library must have, for example. We don't need to think every time. We are not going to forget to add certain elements into the pattern library. But for every client to create a new one, which is based on a template that is basically a checklist for us to go through.

Steve Folland:      You've said the word sales a lot right from the very beginning. It's interesting though because, actually, it's not a word that often comes up. I've spoken to over 150 people and that word doesn't often come up. People certainly run from it. It sounds like you don't. That you've embraced it.

Mariana Morris:     Oh, yeah. Totally. Totally. It's something that ... I think a lot of people also use business development in terms of saying sales. We think of sales in a negative way because we keep thinking of cold-calling and stuff like that. But it's actually we're selling our work all the time, right? I went to some kind of training courses on sales and I understood that the act of selling needs to be a win-win situation. It's very much like you understand the person's needs. You try to help them in a way that is actually ... kind of is going to genuinely help them, and sometimes you can ... I hope ... that you can actually provide the services to fit that need. But if you can't, you can recommend someone else. So, kind of your role there is to help them.

Mariana Morris:     And kind of ... I very often, I think of that as very similar to kind of UX design when you're thinking from a user's point of view, for example, and you're trying to fulfil those needs. With sales, it's very ... I see it very much like that. The reason I don't think of sales in a negative way is because of the concept of selling, which is very much like that ... is you want to get into the win-win situation. You're there to actually help them. That's what kind of drives me. And then once I understood this concept, I really kind of fell in love with it, in a sense of, actually, I love helping people and if we can offer these services for them, we can actually work together and that's brilliant. But if we can't, then we kind of putting them in contact with other people. So, we're kind of helping in terms of the actual working side of things as well.

Steve Folland:      And you now work with ... or as an agency name ... What's the name of your agency?

Mariana Morris:     Fruto.

Steve Folland:      Fruto. Oh, I love the way you say it. You say it better. You do your Rs better than I do. But when you first went freelance, were you Mariana or did you start out with a business name, or did that come later?

Mariana Morris:     I think it came like maybe two months later, the company name. Yeah.

Steve Folland:      So, that's still when you were by yourself though? What made you change?

Mariana Morris:     Because of the agency idea, because I wanted to grow as a business and not much about ... it's not about me. It's about creating an environment, creating a business that ... it's not kind of personal. I think very early on, I thought, "I want to detach myself, as in person, to the business." As in, "Let's try to make this business work." That's the reason I created a name and a company.

Steve Folland:      And how do you market the company? Originally, you sent out that email to everybody. Is that email still paying dividends, or are you doing other things?

Mariana Morris:     I'm doing a lot of things. I don't do much of the mailing anymore, I think, but I should do on a kind of regular basis, I think. But most of my clients come from references and recommendations. I think if not all of them. I think that's such a strong part of our industry, I think. But I also organise an event. So, organise UX Oxford and that helps a lot in terms of putting your name out there, getting to know people. I think in our industry, it's a lot about networking. The more you are out there, the more you are likely to find someone who might need your services. Can be today, can be in one year. It can be in three years’ time.

Steve Folland:      Cool. So, you organise events. Were you organising those before you went freelance, or is that something you started later?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, I was organising before for many years. It's been like 8 years that we've run UX Oxford, which is every month. With that, I kind of ended up getting to know a lot of people. I think this is really important. And also kind of public speaking as well, which is never very comfortable, right? It's never very comfortable to be in front of an audience, but it's really helpful to kind of get to know people. It's all about networking, I think.

Steve Folland:      And also positioning yourself as an expert.

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, totally.

Steve Folland:      And that's great, because even though you weren't planning on going freelance at the time, you actually were building up your own reputation and your network just by creating those events. That's cool. Are you the only person who organises those?

Mariana Morris:     No. There are other people organising the event. Yeah. So, it's the three of us. So, James and Finola also organise UX Oxford.

Steve Folland:      And is that main sort of revenue streams coming into you? As in, is it all through the agency now, or do you have other things going on?

Mariana Morris:     It's pretty much all through the agency. I lecture as well at the University of Reading once a year, but this is kind of something on the side. That's good to kind of keep you being able to critique design work very well and knowing how to motivate designers and so on. It helps me when I do in-house training, stuff like that, because it keeps you up to date with those things. Yeah. I think that's all I'm doing at the moment.

Steve Folland:      Earlier you said that you were working massive hours every weekend, the evenings, and you described it as being painful. How's it going now? How's the work-life balance?

Mariana Morris:     Oh, yeah. It's great. We are a distributed team, right? We are all based in the UK, but we work from our own homes and we meet when we need, which means that ... I find working from home much easier to balance work and life in a sense that if I need a 20-minute break, I can go and sit at my sofa and actually do other things like taking the dishes out of the dishwasher and stuff like that that you can only do at the very end of the day. So, this is fine, and I've also got kind of a bit of a rule that I don't really work at the weekend. I say that, but it's a bit of a lie. What I mean by that is I don't really plan to work at the weekends, as in if I don't look at my computer for the whole weekend, nothing bad is going to happen.

Mariana Morris:     But if a client, a new client or a client, sends me an email at the weekend. If it's urgent, I will reply, of course. Or a new client. So, if someone sends me an email at the weekend saying, "I need UX," and so on, I might reply straight away just by that rule of with sales emails you want to reply as quick as you can to keep the momentum going. So, stuff like that, but I think it's really important to kind of have a break and not do anything, because I think this improves your work throughout the week as well.

Steve Folland:      Do you manage to take longer breaks?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah.

Steve Folland:      Some might call them holidays.

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, totally. I think holidays are so important for me, like travelling and so on. This actually is easier now that I don't have to ask anyone if I can take the holiday. I can just make the decision myself than before.

Steve Folland:      But what happens? You have a team that you're building and you go on holiday. Like what actually happens business-wise? Do you actually get to switch off for a week or two weeks?

Mariana Morris:     It depends what you mean by switch off. So, I ... yeah, it's something that I'm still working out. The last holiday, for example, I was replying on quite often. That was ... I probably shouldn't do that that often. Yeah, but usually I try to set it up in a way that the client has already access to the designer directly, right? So, ideally, if there is a problem, yeah, do involve me regardless if I'm on holiday or not. But if it's something that is for the running of the day-to-day, this can be done by the designers. I think as the designer is already in contact with clients, they've built this relationship. This can work well.

Steve Folland:      Have you delegated other tasks to people? Be it bookkeeping or project management? From my point of view, I haven't built a, air quotes, proper team like you have, but I have groups of people that I work with and I have multiple projects, but I'm kind of there managing it all. How's it working for you?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah. I am managing other projects and doing the client stuff and the bookkeeping and all that. But kind of ... I actually sent a tweet out, I think yesterday, asking for a virtual assistant like recommendations, right? Because I do ... and I printed a list of tasks that it could be definitely done by a virtual assistant, so it kind of reduces this clutter in my mind. That's what I'm looking for at the moment as in freelancer virtual assistant that can help me with these sorts of tasks. So far I haven't delegated much of that. I have delegated in terms of the business side. I have delegated some marketing. Kind of I got a freelancer marketing assistant. So, to delegate some of the social media stuff and some of the kind of, okay, we're going to a tech fair. Let's see who is going to be there so I can actually go on and meet them, and so on.

Mariana Morris:     These tasks as in creating a list, someone else doing and stuff like that. I think, yeah, the more we can delegate the small tasks, I think the better it is. Just kind of trying to find the right person, right, that they are actually going to remove stuff from your head, rather than keeping asking you ... or you think, "Actually, I used to do this much quicker than delegating to someone else." So, it's just kind of setting up, again, the templates or the set of tasks that needs to be done and getting someone else to do it.

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

Mariana Morris:     I think it would be about being kind of flexible in negotiations, for example, especially on the business side of this. When I started, I thought, "Okay, I can have a rule, right, because I don't want to do the finance side of things. That is scary. I don't want to talk about money," and so on. So, I kind of ... You have a rule, "Oh, this is my daily rate. Great. That's it. I'm going to use it for everyone." But in business terms that's ... in terms of business, I think we need to be open to negotiate ... not the daily rate, but negotiate in terms of project by project basis. I think this is something that I learned and I got more comfortable with kind of talking money. Yeah, I think that's one of them.

Steve Folland:      Well, listen. It sounds like it's going great and I realise I never put this in perspective like I normally do. Is this within the last couple of years that you went freelance, isn't it?

Mariana Morris:     Yeah, yeah.

Steve Folland:      Yeah. Well, what a journey so far.

Mariana Morris:     Yeah.

Steve Folland:      Are you someone who sets goals? Have you a got a big plan in front of you, or are you just seeing how it goes?

Mariana Morris:     A bit of both, I think. I have yearly targets and stuff like that. I'm getting very much into the business side and the finance side of things. I do have yearly targets and objectives, but I see how it goes because I think that's the only way, to be honest. You need to be kind of open to see what happens. I have almost like an end goal, but I have no idea when it's going to happen and if it's going to happen or if I want it to happen. It's kind of ... you just have a direction and you see how it goes, I think.

Steve Folland:      Well, it sounds like you're having fun and enjoying having to wear those multiple hates that we spoke about earlier and becoming the entrepreneur from that book.

Mariana Morris:     Yeah. Yeah, it's been fun.

Steve Folland:      Mariana, thanks so much. All the best being freelance.

Mariana Morris:     It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.