Freelancer Of The Year - Exhibitions Designer Rebecca Shipham

5 years after redundancy abruptly introduced her to self employment, exhibitions designer Rebecca Shipham was named IPSE Freelancer Of The Year.

Ahead of National Freelance Day 2015, a year on from her coronation, we hear how she succeeds in her niche, deals with isolation, finds confidence in trading as company Ships & Pigs, how she gives back to the next generation of creatives and just about finds time for a holiday.

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Here’s some of the key takeaway points:

  • there’s always going to be people out there who are better than you, just accept it and do the best that you can

  • stay on top of the latest technology, always keep learning

  • trading under a business name (instead of her own) made her feel like a business, treating it like a business, promoting like a business

  • she copes with the isolation of working alone by using twitter to form a network of freelancers to chat to both creatively and for company

  • submitting an entry for an award, makes you take stock of what you’ve done and celebrate your achievements

  • winning gave Rebecca a boost in confidence that’s improved her work

  • stick to what you’re good at - don’t do everything, find your niche, your expertise - “Find what you’re good at and do that, don’t try and do more”

More from Rebecca

Rebecca's site: Ships and Pigs

Rebecca on Twitter

Creative Briefs

Useful Links

IPSE (The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed)

Policy Bee

Who the hell is Steve Folland?

You know how everyone bangs on about how powerful video and audio content can be? Yeah, well Steve helps businesses make it and make the most of it. Find out more at Track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.

Transcription Being Freelance Podcast Interview - Rebecca Shipham

Steve Folland:        Hey, I'm Steve Folland - thanks for listening. This time let's find out what it's like being freelance for exhibitions designer, Rebecca Shipham.

Steve Folland:    00:44    So we've got Rebecca Shipham who is an exhibitions and interiors designer based in ... where you based?

Rebecca Shipham:        I'm based in Hull.

Steve Folland:        So speaking to us just before she takes a holiday, so thanks for that. Because it can be difficult finding time to have a holiday when you're a freelancer.

Rebecca Shipham:        Yes. This is the first one I've taken in ages. I've had a very busy, busy few months, and I woke up in the middle of the night the other day and I thought, "why don't I just take a week off? I am my own boss after all." So I'm doing it which is unheard of. I'm quite looking forward to it.

Steve Folland:    01:19    Yes! It's good you've got to that place, but when it comes to taking that holiday how does it like fit in with your clients and stuff? Do you just simply say, "That's it! I'm out of here guys."

Rebecca Shipham:        I mean I have picked a time where I've come to the end of a few projects. So I haven't left  anybody in the lurch and even then I was still quite nervous about telling some of my regular clients that I wasn't going to be here next week. I drafted out an e-mail and then deleted it and then thought I'll try again, and when I finally sent it, they just replied saying "Oh that's fine, are you going anywhere nice?" It was really straightforward and easy, I thought, "why haven't I done this before?" I think anyone that's freelance knows that it's hard to take the time out if it's your livelihood. To not work for a week means no money for a week so it's a bit of a fine balance.
Steve Folland:        Well enjoy the ice cream.

Rebecca Shipham:        I'm going to!

Steve Folland:    02:16    So why don't we get started talking about how you got started being freelance.

Rebecca Shipham:        Sure, I went freelance because I was made redundant. So it was a sort of situation that I was in where I thought, well it's either this or getting a job in design which is what I do or get any old job for the sake of paying the bills. I was working in London at the time and I'd been working in London for about four years and I was starting to think that I was maybe a bit sick of London, as much as it's great, I had a great time there, it was starting to get a bit much. I missed home and my family and so I thought "I'm going to go back home to Hull and set up freelance and see how that works out." That was coming up to six years ago, so it's worked out okay.

Steve Folland:        It sounds like it went very well. So the company that you were working for in London ...

Rebecca Shipham:         Yes.

Steve Folland:    03:07    Was that doing what you did now,  so you design exhibition spaces and things like that mostly don't you?

Rebecca Shipham:        Yeah my job in London - I had two jobs in London - but the one I left was exactly the same job. So I finished work there one day and literally didn't stop I just carried on doing the same job. So in terms of transition, it wasn't very different in terms of what I was doing and it was just obviously a very different mindset because all of a sudden I was the boss.
Steve Folland:    03:37    Yeah I'm intrigued when you say you were made redundant. How much notice did you have? Did you have a chance to build up a buffer of money or to build up your website and show off your wares. How did that transition happen?

Rebecca Shipham:        I think it was fairly standard, it was about a month's notice and in that time I did do a bit of cold calling and start getting ready to freelance for other people. It was my old boss actually then employed me as a freelancer so I had an instant contact which was quite good to start me off. I was amazed at how nervous I was at cold calling, it was like trying to ... I'm not very good at selling myself, I wasn't back then anyway, so to pick up the phone and sort of convince people to work with me was daunting but it worked. So cold calling can work if you go about it the right way.

Steve Folland:    04:34    What was your plan though, when you were cold calling like were you targeting specific companies?

Rebecca Shipham:        I was targeting people near me back in Hull. I was targeting people locally I guess to sort of say, I've moved back from London and I'm here and I do this job. Are you interested? There were two or three that actually said yeah, we're always looking for new people, but I didn't really have a plan. I didn't know what I was doing, if I'm honest. I'd sort of lost a comfortable job paying me a wage every month and whilst I was ready to move back to, back up north and get away from the big smoke, you know I didn't know what I was doing I was going into it blind. So it's still quite remarkable that I'm still here when I look back at how my mindset was when I first went freelance and I didn't have a clue, I didn't know how to do it.

Steve Folland:        I'm presuming given that you've been doing it for six years, that it didn't matter that you weren't in London anymore.

Rebecca Shipham:        No, that's the nice thing about freelancing I think and possibly this industry, is that I generally don't see very many people. You know I get email debrief and I will maybe give them a phone call to discuss the job. But other than that I will just basically email the design back. So the chances of me actually speaking with someone face to face is very slim. They just want someone to do the job which I do and then I email it back. So in theory, I could be anywhere in the world as long as I get the design back to them at the right timescale they've asked me to, me to which is quite nice yeah.

Steve Folland:        Especially because you know people listening around the world won't know where Hull is.

Rebecca Shipham:        Oh! Hello, it's the north of England!

Steve Folland:         Probably a couple hundred miles north of London ...

Rebecca Shipham:        200, 250 I think.

Steve Folland:    06:25    So yeah, it's far more rural, and so the overheads of life are far less than working in a city so it's brilliant that you can make that work. Your clients, do you tend to go direct to companies who might be going to attend an exhibition, or do you go to exhibition or agency, I don't know?

Rebecca Shipham:    I've got two main strands of work. One is build companies who build the exhibitions who are approached by the end clients say Boots or Aldi or big names like that, they approach the builders but the builders can build but they don't know how to design. So they then outsource the creative work to me. The other type of work that I get is through creative agencies who are very creative, but are probably stacked up with work and can't fit in one extra job, and they outsource to me. I have done two or three jobs for end clients but that's quite rare. Generally speaking it's through the middleman, say the build company or the agency where I get my business.

Steve Folland:    07:32    Was this niche because obviously you know you were a designer but you've got a very specific niche. Was that what you always set out upon? How did you end up in that?

Rebecca Shipham:        When I finished school and you were thinking about what you want to do in life, I knew I wanted to be creative and interior design was quite big on British television at the time with Changing Rooms which was quite tacky ... (laughs)

Steve Folland:        I'm Linda Barker!

Rebecca Shipham:        Yes! but when you're 16 and you see people being creative, you think that kind of lends itself quite well. So I went and did interior design at college and I thought, this is okay but what I'm designing here is people's living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms and I really wanted to design spaces where I knew that many people would see and experience something that I'd created and my lecturers at college said with this in mind, we think you should do this course which is specifically about exhibition design. So it's a very niche area of design and it has its own degree. So I went and did my degree in that very specific area of creativity and then didn't walk straight into employment from it, it took me about two or three years to get the job in the right line of work. But yeah, it's very niche - very, very niche indeed.

Steve Folland:    08:55    And have you continued to have to invest in yourself? Because I notice that you do, like you don't just obviously design them, it's kind of like an architectural type thing as well because it's such a 3D thing that you're designing and you create animations ... was that all within your degree or have you continued to learn them?
Rebecca Shipham:        I continue to learn and the computer packages that I use now, I think they probably did exist when I did my degree but I wasn't aware of them because you use whatever the university has as a resource and they're constantly changing and getting better and you've got to keep up because behind you there's bright young things that are coming up that can use packages that you can't and you've just got to keep going and doing what you can to make sure that your work is the best or the best that you can do. There's obviously other people out there that are better than you, you've got to just sort of accept that I think. So yeah I do invest a lot of time in learning new packages. The package that I use at the moment I self-taught over the last two years how to use it, just to give me that extra oompf like you say, I can now provide on the animation, better visuals than I could when I first started out.

Steve Folland:    10:13    Now obviously I introduce you as Rebecca Shipham, but you trade as (rather brilliantly) Ships and Pigs. When did that ... like when did you do that? When did you decide to trade as a company name I guess?
Rebecca Shipham:        I think it was about, maybe 18 months to two years in. I'd been trading, well not trading so just with a standard website or something and the thing about Hull, for anyone that hasn't been, or the north of England in general is you don't really play your own trumpet because people will think that you're conceited shall we say. So I didn't want to go out there and say Rebecca Shipham Designs or Rebecca Shipham Creative because it is just like it's so self-centred, it was my name. So I thought I'm going to twist it and call myself Ships and Pigs which is the ships and the pigs from the ham of my surname. So that it was me, but it wasn't as well I could write about what I did in the third person so it wasn't saying 'I'm Rebecca and I can do this this this and that and aren't I fantastic'. I could start to refer to myself as a business, and actually it was good because then I started to feel like a business rather than me sat in my living room doing designs - it sort of felt a little bit like I was playing at it. But when I gave myself a business name, it had a different mindset in me. I thought, oh well okay now I've got that name - maybe I am a business!

Steve Folland:    11:54    That's really good yeah - I like that. You mentioned working in your living room. Do you still work from home or do you have a studio?

Rebecca Shipham:    Yeah, both. My boyfriend has a studio space because he's also a designer, so I use a bit of that which is helpful to make me feel as if I'm going to work, even though it's in the same building as where I live, but it's just a sort of separate area which is quite handy. I think that's quite important because I did to begin with, work next to the kitchen, which was just too tempting - it was just too much food on offer. So now I work in a separate section of the building now which helps me feel as if I'm actually going to work rather than just crawling out of bed.

Steve Folland:    12:45    Are you like really strict on yourself, because I noticed on your website you have your contact hours which was nice to see. It's like 'this is when you get in touch,' otherwise you know, forget it.

Rebecca Shipham:        It doesn't work! People still ring me.

Steve Folland:    13:01    So have you had a mentor through all of this be a creative one or a business one?

Rebecca Shipham:        Yeah. Like I said my boyfriend is a designer and has run a business for 16 years. So when I first started he was like 'Calm down, this is how you do your books,' and he guided me through that for the first year or two. Probably the first year, while I got to grips with it. Since then he used to come in and find me sort of banging my head on the desk saying 'I can't do it, I can't design on my own.' And anyone who is listening who is a designer or creative in any way will probably be able to relate to that. When you're a creative person you need to bounce ideas off each other and sort of have someone to reaffirm that what your idea is, is a good idea. When you're sat on your own, you don't have that. But then I joined Twitter and found other designers that were freelancers and started chatting to them. I started to network through Twitter and it completely transformed how I felt because there was other people on Twitter saying 'Oh, can someone just take a look at this design for me and tell me if I'm doing it okay,' or just to have a laugh and just feel as if you had other designers there to bounce ideas off. So Twitter has saved my life ....

Steve Folland:    14:32    It's the most interesting thing. As more and more people work in a more isolated way that isolation is not very human, that's not what we're about. So that's interesting especially because last week, we spoke to Tim and for him Twitter was very much about promoting his business whereas for you it's more like surviving it.

Rebecca Shipham:        It is. And just chatting to people who are self-employed and you realise how many there are. You sort of do a search for freelancers or self-employment on Twitter and there everybody is. And you can just say to them like 'how do you find it' or you know 'have you done your tax return yet' or even just talking about nonsense. It's just quite nice to know that there's people out there that work on their own as well.

Steve Folland:    15:23    By the way, we should point out this time at there'll be a link to Rebecca's twitter. So now you can go and chat to her there. You mentioned your tax return which is always a sexy subject. But how have you coped with the finances?

Rebecca Shipham:        Oh I got an accountant. It was one of the first things I did. I keep on track with what my accounts are. I know how much money I've got and what's going out, what's going in, but in terms of the proper paperwork, I just hired an accountant because the fee that they charged you know it's sort of like an extra day's work for me. I just thought it's a day's work if I can do one extra day's work a month, then I can pay for an accountant, and I think it's well worth it because it would take me about 10 days to do what they do in a day.

Steve Folland:    16:10    And you're hoping you've done it right.

Rebecca Shipham:        Yeah that's the thing, if they do something wrong it's on their back. If I do something wrong, I'm going to get a big fine, and that terrifies me. So yeah.

Steve Folland:    16:21    And I noticed on your website, you have this little badge for insurance. Presumably that's a big thing for you because you're designing stuff that people are going to be walking around, and under and sitting on, and ...

Rebecca Shipham:        I didn't think it mattered, and I only got it in the last year which is probably quite unprofessional but its with Policy Be, just a plug if I'm allowed to name-drop and again on Twitter, they had cartoons which demonstrated different ways the insurance might matter and it was quite a nice visual representation. It wasn't just about the structural side of it. It would be if I recommended say a builder to a client and the builder did something wrong, I could be sued for recommending someone that wasn't very good. And I thought well, I'm forever recommending people because I'm nice and I like to share work. I thought, 'Hang on a minute, if someone did do something wrong I could be sued for that,' even though it wasn't my fault. And there's many other reasons why you want to get insurance but I thought yes now's the time. Like I said before when I got a business name and I started to feel like a business I thought, 'I need to start running it like a business,' and getting insurance and the things that matter to protect me. It's a really weird mindset to think that I'm employed by myself so therefore I have to protect myself from my business. It's a weird one when you're the boss, but yeah if I go out and I get damaged then I am insured for that through my business.

Steve Folland:    17:56    We kind of touched upon the lonely sort of thing and mentorship, but I'm intrigued because as well as doing your business you also are helping teach or inspire younger people. Tell us a bit about that and how you ... well why you did it really. You know you're busy working, you've not got time for a holiday, but no I'm going to take time out and help other people. So how did that come about?

Rebecca Shipham:        Well I won Freelancer of the Year for 2015 - an awards show ...

Steve Folland:        Congratulations!

Rebecca Shipham:        Thank you! and as part of that, I got some prize money £5000 - which is quite a lot of money - and I used to teach, when I first finished university, I taught for two years, taught design and whilst I enjoy teaching, the paperwork that goes along with teaching is just awful. So I left, but my boyfriend is also a teacher and he teaches design as well as being a designer. So between us, we've got quite a unique set of skills in that we're both working in the design industry and as practitioners but we also have teaching experience. When I got the prize money, I thought, if I just took this what would I actually do with it? I would probably buy maybe a new computer that I don't need a new computer and I don't need new software because the ones I've got are fine so I thought I would invest it in something that the pair of us really feel passionate about. And that's sort of encouraging creativity but also informing people about self employment and particularly young people. Because when I went self-employed it was a sort of 'well I've got no other choice. I'm going to have to do it.' We now think of self employment should be seen as quite a viable option from - when you're considering your options at school and what you want to be. I want to be a lawyer - have you considered self employment? It's never really said and we think it's quite important to get that into people's mindset that is it's a perfectly good opportunity, a perfectly good career path to choose.

Steve Folland:    20:00    So you set up Creative Briefs, and is that local to where you guys are based?

Rebecca Shipham:        Yes it is. We do talks at schools and workshops but then also just like creative projects that are just fun. I'm not necessarily saying this is about your career paths. It's just about getting people involved in creativity but being able to teach and also know how design works in the real world is two really useful things that have helped make it quite successful.

Steve Folland:        So that must be really rewarding in itself.

Rebecca Shipham:        Yes and it gets me away from a desk even if it's just for one day a month. You know it's not a regular thing particularly, it's every now and again as and when we get bookings and it just gets me away from the desk for a while just to be able to get out and get back to the bones of creativity rather than getting designs done for clients, you're getting designs done for fun with people who are interested in them which is great.
Steve Folland:        And you take a lot from that.
Rebecca Shipham:        And then you go back to work refreshed because you've had a day out. So it's quite nice it's a good balance.

Steve Folland:    21:06    Yeah I really like it. Well again, a link at to Creative Briefs because it looks really cool what you guys are doing - good on ya. But also I mean you touched there about the fact that you won Freelancer of the Year 2015 by was it IPSE?

Rebecca Shipham:        IPSE yeah - they stand for the Independent Practitioners and Self-Employed. They are essentially the voice for all self-employed people and they will liaise with government particularly about issues that affect the self-employed whether it's tax and all sorts of things that they go and discuss them on our behalf which is I didn't know that about them until I entered the competition. Then when I was named the winner, obviously fantastic, but it really They say past fantastic but it really made me realise how important it is to have a voice like that and a body like that, that will support us because like I said before you sometimes feel like you're on your own and to know that there's people there fighting your corner for whatever it is that matters, it's good to know.
Steve Folland:    22:08    Yeah so maybe worth other people checking them - is it a UK organisation?

Rebecca Shipham:        Yes, yes.

Steve Folland:    22:13    But when it came to entering that award, had you done anything like that before?

Rebecca Shipham:        No I didn't really enter awards mainly because as I keep touching upon, I didn't feel as if I was actually a business but this was an award to find the top freelancer. So I thought, well that rings quite true and they were particularly, the way that the competition was described, it was very much about the small businesses. Whether you're a baker or designer, you know just sort of independent people trying to make a living doing what you love. And I thought that sounds like me. So I sat down with a glass of wine and churned out an application and then got shortlisted from that which was fantastic, and I thought that'll do - just to be shortlisted is great. But then it went through all the different processes and then I was crowned the winner which was an amazing achievement. I was delighted.

Steve Folland:    23:10    How did you find that process? Because when I've entered awards when I've worked in the past for companies and stuff, even just the entering of it, I've found it being quite a motivator for everyone within the company as you're celebrating even internally, 'Hey, look what we did over the past year and this was awesome!'

Rebecca Shipham:        Yeah it's nice because it was a written application and it asked me to say things that you proud about yourself. And it forces you to think, okay what am I proud about and when you write it down, you think 'Okay, I've done quite a lot!' Because you can forget if you're on day to day basis working hard, just to be able to step back and see something that you've done even if you've just written it down. It's quite nice just to sort of stand up and say, 'Oh yeah, yeah I'm doing okay really.'

Steve Folland:    24:00    Yeah it's interesting because there's other trade bodies and stuff like Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses and stuff like that. Have you touched upon any of those?

Rebecca Shipham:        No actually I should probably check them out. In fact I'm going to do that this afternoon, check and see if there are any compositions on.

Steve Folland:        Yeah because I've ended up hosting some of these award events and I sit down and say actually this looks rather fun to enter, and then actually off the back of it if you do when you can obviously put something on your website, call yourself the award winning freelancer or use it in marketing locally in the papers or whatever it might be. People like to be I guess feeling like they're working with somebody who's successful.
Rebecca Shipham:        Yes it gives you a certain status and that's a mental thing as well, it makes you feel better about yourself and I think I've certainly seen my work increase in quality since winning because my confidence has increased. Someone sort of said 'Yeah, you're doing well.’

Steve Folland:    25:05    Well that's really nice. That's great. Man there's so much I could talk about but, I always do this, tell me three facts about yourself or your career. Make two true, one a lie and let me figure out the lie.

Rebecca Shipham:        Fine I've had to write these down. I've got notes here! Firstly, I always make time to watch Homes Under the Hammer, which is - I didn't realise we were going to have international listeners - but it's a TV program in the mornings about selling homes and it's quite trashy but I enjoy it. I've got a designer who I speak to regularly and we give each other pep talks. We ring each other up and tell each other that we're amazing because we tend to forget. I once sat next to a famous designer called Ben Kelly, I think he designed the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester in the 90s and I once sat next to him on a plane but I didn't know who he was until I got home and everyone went crazy and said you've sat next to Ben Kelly! and I was like 'Who?'

Steve Folland:    25:17    Oh man, these all ring true! I mean to make up Ben Kelly on an airplane ... why would you ... what was the first one? Oh! Homes Under the Hammer.

Rebecca Shipham:        Homes Under the Hammer - I always watch that, I stop work to watch that every day.

Steve Folland:        And you have ... so you deliberately take time to watch Homes Under the Hammer. You see that's almost, that's almost confessional isn't it? And then there's you have a fellow freelancer you tell each other that you're amazing ... You see that could even be your boyfriend ... but then playing Homes Under the Hammer ... These all sound really - if that wasn't true why would you pick Homes Under the Hammer? I do like the thought of seeing your schedule in front of you for the day and that is blocked out. You should put it on your website as well as office hours, you should be like 9 to 10.30 - half an hour cleared out for Homes Under the Hammer or whenever it is when it is. I'm going to have to say the person who you tell each of you are amazing that's not true.

Rebecca Shipham:        I'm afraid you're wrong. The lie is Homes Under the Hammer. I don't stop work! Don't be silly.

Steve Folland:        Actually that should've been the clue. I love the fact that you picked Homes Under the Hammer!

Rebecca Shipham:        You know, I was gonna say Jeremy Kyle and then I remembered that he's on now while we're chatting and that would just give it away so I checked. I actually checked the TV guide this morning to see what was on.

Steve Folland:        I like the commitment that you ...

Rebecca Shipham:        I didn't know I could lie so well!

Steve Folland:    28:02    I also usually say if there's one thing you could tell your younger self something about freelancing, what would you tell your younger self?

Rebecca Shipham:        I would tell my younger self to stick to what you're good at because when I first freelance, I tried to be all things to all people. If someone rang me and asked me to do something that is maybe a little bit outside my remit, I would say okay, I'll give it a go and it wouldn't be quite right in myself. But then when I discovered that if I stuck to my niche, which is exhibition design, I could do that very well. I got my business out of it. So I do see a lot of designers that start off and they've got a website that says we do web design, graphic design, we do 3D design and it's like everything. And I think no just pick one because then people when they're ringing you exactly what service that you are offering and what they're going to get from you. That works for me anyway. Find what you're good at and do that. Don't try and do more.

Steve Folland:        Really nice. Hey it's been great chatting to you. Thanks so much and enjoy your holiday.

Rebecca Shipham:        Yes I'm looking forward to that! It'll be fun.

Steve Folland:        Don't waste it watching Homes Under the Hammer!

Steve Folland:    29:15    Take a look at We'll put up links to Ships and Pigs and Creative Briefs and IPSE. Don't forget you can find us on Twitter at @beingfreelance. Reach out to Rebecca because clearly she likes it - so do that on Twitter as well which is always good. If you are chatting to other freelancers, share this podcast with them, it will be awesome. And if you've enjoyed it leave a review on iTunes because it really helps us get found. It's not just an ego boost. I do print them out and wallpaper the house in them but that's not the main aim. Rebecca thanks so much and all the best being freelance!

Rebecca Shipham:        Thank you very much, I enjoyed that. Thanks for having me on.