Bear Essentials - Branding Designer Emma Sheppard

When Emma became a mum, she also became a freelancer.  

Trading as Big Bear Creative, she thought she'd get 15 hours of childcare a week and do little bits of work... But her freelance baby soon started to grow and needed more attention.

Now, not only is she working four days a week, but her husband has joined the business too.

Big Bear got bigger. And so did their plans. We chat mentors, networking, work-life balance and more.

More from Emma and Big Bear Creative

Big Bear on Twitter

Big Bear Creative website


Useful Links

NWES - EU funded business advice in UK

Who the hell is Steve Folland?

Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.

In 2015 is decided to create the freelance podcast (well, there weren't any others doing this then) where freelancers could learn from each other via their stories.

Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.

Transcript of Being Freelance podcast conversation with Emma Sheppard of Big Bear Creative and Steve Folland

Steve Folland:      Hey, Emma.

Emma Sheppard:      Hello, Steve.

Steve Folland:      How did you get started being a freelancer, as I mentioned in your introduction? You now work with your husband and stuff like that, so I'm intrigued as to how you've reached that point?

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, well. So, I started out being freelance ... it really started when I found out I was going to be a mum. So, I was working at a design agency over the other side of Cambridge, and it was really long hours, very stressful. Lots of pressure. Not quite the dream that I thought it would be before I started working there, of like, pool tables and bean bags and all that kind of stuff. 

Emma Sheppard:      So I was a little bit unhappy with my job, I suppose, and found out I was going to be a mum, and said, "Right, this is a good point to change things." And I got to the point where I decided I was going to do a bit of freelance with a bit of a nudge from my other half, Dave, of course. And just sort of try and get a few hours a week and see where that took me. Just so I could be around more for Noah until he went to school. 

Emma Sheppard:      So that was kind of my plan. And that's about as far as I got before I had Noah and then had no time to think about anything else for the next nine months, until my maternity leave was up. So then when maternity leave was up, I kind of thought, "Oh my goodness, what am I going to do? How am I going to do this?" Should've really thought about it ahead, of course. So, I phoned up my old employer, also the previous employer, and got some summer work for them. They had very seasonal work which is kind of from April to August-time, mainly. 

Emma Sheppard:      I worked for them over the summer just doing bits here and there, and at the end of that, thought, "Oh goodness, now what am I going to do?" 'Cause that work obviously finished and again, hadn't really put much thought into what I was going to do. There's a bit of a theme here, isn't there? So I went networking for the first time, which was something that I would never ever've even thought to do, or it kind of is something I dread doing, that kind of thing. And I actually quite enjoyed it, met a few people who gave me a bit of advice, and someone who pointed me through towards something called NWES which is a government funded thing, and they give advice to small businesses. 

Emma Sheppard:      So, I went along to see on of their advisors, gave me lots of good advice, and said, "Oh, actually, I've been looking for someone who does design and branding for all these businesses I work with, to sort of refer business to them." So I was like, oh, perfect, that's good. Good timing. And so from there, he kindly would pass leads over to me as new jobs came in that he thought I would be able to help with, and that was a really good way to get started, really. It sort of took out the fear of, oh my goodness, how am I going to find my next job, and all that kind of thing. 

Emma Sheppard:      So, yes, that's how I got started, really. I did a bit more networking and got to know some of the local businesses and sort of started from there. 

Steve Folland:      When you found that first freelance work, what did you do? Did you have child care, or were you working in naps or in the evening? What were you doing? 

Emma Sheppard:       A bit of everything, to be honest, Steve. So I started out with 15 hours a week child care, with a child minder just down the road. And that was really good whilst I had that work over the summer, because I knew I was going to have a certain amount of hours to fill that time. And also I would work in nap times. I was very blessed that Noah used to have a three-hour nap in the afternoon. I know, that's amazing. I was devastated when he gave that nap up. Had to change my whole work schedule around it. 

Emma Sheppard:      But yeah, so, I would work five hours for three days to make up my 15 hours, and then do Noah's naps for the other two days. That worked really nicely. Then the work dried up, sort of August-time end of the summer and I had all this child care and no work to fill it with, so I had to give up my child minder, unfortunately, temporarily. And my mother-in-law stepped in and she had Noah for me three days a week. She's an absolute saint. And I think without her, I probably wouldn't have been able to carry on, because with child minders and child care, you often have to give set days of the week and so, you have to commit to those, whether you've got the work coming in or not. So it can be quite tricky if you're starting from nothing, to manage that, really.

Steve Folland:      How did it evolve from there? Was it just a case of filling those three days? Because as we mentioned, you'd clearly since grown. So at what point did it start to take off?

Emma Sheppard:      I just kind of got busier and busier. I think it was September I went to see my business advisor, and from then onwards, really, from October onwards, I just got busier and busier. And it got to the point where ... 'cause I'm a designer, a graphic designer, I don't really dabble with web. I believe in sticking in to what you're good with and not trying to be a jack of all trades. So, I was getting more and more requests for website work to go alongside my branding that I was doing, and it just so happens that Dave is a web designer. And he was working for a large mortgage comparison website company, doing their user journeys and user experience at the time. 

Emma Sheppard:      So, I kind of drafted him in, in his evenings and weekends, to help out and do web bits for me. And so that's how Dave first got involved. And then, as I say, we just got busier and busier all the time, firstly from the referrals I was getting, and then my networking that I was doing started to bring some more results. And yeah, we just started to get really busy. 

Emma Sheppard:      So, yeah, that was quite hard to manage. Because obviously I still only had my 15 hours a week and poor old Dave, any hour of the day and night and the weekends, was helping me out.

Steve Folland:      And at that point, let's say you've got a client you did a design and then they're like, "Oh, can you do the web design?" You're like, "Yeah, no problem." At that point, were you invoicing for the web design as well, or was it going to Dave himself as a freelancer on the side, if you see what ... 

Emma Sheppard:      Yes, it was going to me. So I was a sole trader at the time, but I'd always been set up as my company name, which is Big Bear. And so it was all under that umbrella, under the Big Bear umbrella. And then Dave would just invoice me as a sole trader, as well. 

Steve Folland:      When you decided to go freelance at the end of maternity leave, is that the point where you set up as Big Bear, was it?

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, yeah. It's kind of a happy accident, really. 'Cause I didn't really intend on doing too much with it. I kind of thought, three days a week's quite nice whilst Noah's little and I didn't really intend to create this branding studio and all that kind of thing. I just wanted a bit of freelance work here and there. But as it happens, with babe in arms, I sat and designed my little logo. I think Dave suggested I should do it, rather than just be me as a freelancer with no brand identity. So, we just knocked that out together in an afternoon, and it was Big Bear from there on, really. Which has stood me quite well, actually, moving forward as things have grown and stuff, 'cause Big Bear's a really good company name to have, really. It's worked really well.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, the fact that you were trading effectively as a company rather than just as an individual. So actually when you started to offer more services with more people working with you, it felt quite natural for your clients, 'cause they already ...

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, yeah. Exactly, that's what I was trying to say. It was quite a nice transition, not having to go from Emma Sheppard, freelance designer, to Big Bear Creative, 'cause it all was quite natural. So that was really, really good actually, yeah. 

Steve Folland:      Did you spend ages picking a name? 'Cause I love the name, I love the brand. But did you spend ages on that or was it just like, "No, Big Bear."

Emma Sheppard:      No. Considering I'm a branding designer, it was very quick, and so was the logo and the whole brand. I put it together actually, funnily enough. Noah, my little boy, I always used to call 'my little bear', and he's obviously the reason I started my company. So I thought, well, I'll be the big bear. And that was all the thought that went into it, really. Obviously now Dave's joined me as well, everyone thinks he's the big bear. But hey, what can you do?

Steve Folland:      So at what point did Dave then leave his actual job, his full-time employment behind and officially join forces?

Emma Sheppard:      We kind of ... into the new year in, oh, last year, we were getting really busy and it was getting quite hard to manage doing the time in the day, working in nap times, both of us working in evenings and nap times at weekends. And it was all getting a bit crazy. We could see things were going really well. We hadn't sort of advertised or anything, it was just all very organic, the growth of the company. So Dave sort of got to the point where he was, "I can't do this anymore. I've either got to quit doing Big Bear or I've got to quit my job and do it full time." 

Emma Sheppard:      So, then he just came home one day and said, "I've handed my notice in." And that was it, really. And that was ... I think he finished his job end March last year and came to join me.

Steve Folland:      Did that feel different after that point?

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, it did. It took a bit of adjusting to, to be honest, Steve. 'Cause I had my office to myself, I had a certain way of doing things. When I get into my project work I like to just zone in and be in my own little world. And so, suddenly having someone sat next to me in the office was a bit weird, actually. And it did take quite a bit of adjusting, and a bit of time, just to get used to a different way of doing things, really. 

Emma Sheppard:      Plus I suppose Big Bear was my baby and someone coming in and putting their ideas into the pot, even though they're really good ones and it's good to have a bit of a fresh look at things, is a bit weird. 'Cause I was used to making all the decisions and suddenly I had to consider other things as well and Dave's opinion, too. So, yeah, it was interesting. Interesting time, but we came out the other side really well. 

Steve Folland:      Is it a home office?

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, so we are currently in our spare bedroom, that's the Big Bear HQ, which also has its own challenges, being in a house. We're actually at the moment converting an office in the garden, so we're going to have a separate building, albeit very close by.

Steve Folland:      Very nice. Do you only work out of that, or do you ever work elsewhere?

Emma Sheppard:      I occasionally do coworking. I find that quite hard, though, if I'm working on branding, 'cause I do like to get in the zone and I'm not very sociable when I'm branding, so going along to cowork and kind of sitting there with your headphones on kind of defeats the object of going to coworking, I think.

Emma Sheppard:      We have just started working ... We do some work with a marketing agency nearby in the next sort of town across from us, and so we've just started going in to work with them one day a week. Which is really nice, actually. Change of scenery, we get to talk with them about the projects we're working on, and it's quite nice just to get out of staring at the same four walls.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, that is good. And so that's like a partnership has formed ... Did they just approach you, or ... 

Emma Sheppard:      I don't know, really. It's kind of built up over quite a long time. I don't know, probably about a year ago I met Hailey who runs the agency and we kind of stayed in touch. And she has a very similar story to me as to how she started up, and yeah. So we kind of just sort of kept in touch, really, and it's just sort of ... Fairly recently we've started working together a bit more, so that's really nice. We have found over the past six months we're working quite often with marketing consultants or marketing agencies, 'cause we just really compliment what each other does, and it makes for a much better results some of the time. That's worked really nicely.

Steve Folland:      You mentioned when you started out, meeting with that business advisor. So, was that an ongoing thing, or was it just that one-off meeting?

Emma Sheppard:      It was an ongoing thing. We used to meet up, I don't know, probably about every six weeks or so? And just sort of talk about what I was doing with the business and where I could take things, and any sort of questions or problems I'd had at the time. So that was really helpful, actually. Especially as I was a sole trader at the time. It's a bit easier now having Dave to bat my ideas off and tell me I'm crazy or that I'm onto something. But when you're on your own, it can be a bit isolating and it's really good to have that sounding board to give you a bit of advice sometimes. 

Steve Folland:      And did you pay for that or was that the government funded ...

Emma Sheppard:      No, it's all government funded. 

Steve Folland:      That's awesome. 

Emma Sheppard:      I haven't paid a penny for it. So we kind of carried that on and actually, as it happened, the guy who worked there and I used to go and see, left his job, unfortunately, the day after Dave had handed his notice in, I believe it was, at his job to come work with Big Bear. So that was a bit of a stressful moment for me. But I kept going to see his predecessor following on from that for probably about six months and yeah, it's been really helpful.

Steve Folland:      What would you say have been the biggest challenges, then, that you've faced?

Emma Sheppard:      I think for me, the biggest challenges are work-life balance, really. I think it's a bit of an ongoing challenge for us, especially with us both working in the business and having Noah to consider. Yeah, it's always a bit of a continuing challenge, really, and we're always sort of adjusting things and seeing what works and what doesn't work to try and get that ideal of the perfect work-life balance. Which I don't really know if that exists, but ... We're striving for it. 

Steve Folland:      And actually, I just realized, we should put this in perspective. So, Dave joined you last year, but how old is Noah now, for example? Is he at school yet?

Emma Sheppard:      No, he will be three next month, actually. A month's time. Yeah, so he's still little. A month Tuesday, actually, he'll be three. Yeah, bless him. 

Steve Folland:      So, yeah, so that is ... that is quite a thing. So how have you worked on that? Do you take time out each to look after him? I know you have child care, as well, but do you get to spend time with him ... How have you figured that out?

Emma Sheppard:      It's changed quite a bit throughout the past year, to be honest, since Dave joined me. I now work four days a week ... I have child care four days a week, sorry. And have a Friday off as and when I can, and sometimes I end up working five days. I'm very lucky that I've got a really flexible, amazing child minder who will have Noah for me on a Friday if I need her to. So that works quite well. I've never been able to work whilst having Noah at home, I just can't so it. I find it really difficult and so distracting. It just doesn't work. So I think having that dedicated time is perfect for me, and it really focuses the mind. The second he's gone to the child minder, I'm there in the office, go go go. And he's a two-minute walk away at the child minder's, so at two minutes to 4:00, I'm off. That's how it goes.

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, it's good. I'll have a Friday off, Dave works full time most of the time, and in the evenings we try not to work at all. Sometimes we're more successful at that than others, depending on what's going on. We just kind of share it, really. It's quite nice actually, 'cause I think before Dave quit his day job, he was working quite long hours and he would be lucky to see Noah, 'cause he'd get up before Noah'd wake up and go to work, and he would get home just before Noah was going to bed. So, actually, it's really hard managing it with both of you working in the business, but actually it's worth it, because it means that he gets so much more time with Noah. And they've got a brilliant relationship now, whereas before, Noah would be so clingy to me, because he'd never see Dave except for the weekends. But now they're like best buds, luckily.

Steve Folland:      You mentioned that you weren't much of a planner, but has that changed? Are you now making plans, or is it simply, "Let's see where this goes?"

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, we are now. At the start of this year, we kind of took a step back, really, I think as you often do at the start of the year and thought, we've been very reactive so far. We've not really marketed ourselves or promoted ourselves in any way. Whatever's come through the door has just come through the door through recommendations or just people we've met networking and things. So, we kind of took a bit of time out to think, what do we actually want Big Bear to be? It works and we can deliver really good work, and the clients are really happy with us, but we want more than that. And we took quite a bit of time to think what it was we actually wanted. And sort of try and work how we could change things to see that. 

Emma Sheppard:      I think Big Bear's always been a lifestyle business. So, at the start it was so we could spend more time with Noah. It still is that, but it's also to make a nice living for ourselves and I think historically we haven't really charged enough for the design we do. So we looked at that and if we were attracting the right kind of clients, and all sorts of things. 

Emma Sheppard:      And so now, we're just about getting to the point where we know where we're going and what we actually want for the future. 

Steve Folland:      When you say you weren't charging enough, do you think that came because when you started it, you didn't feel like this was anything particularly big? It was so that you could hang out with your son more. Whereas now there's the two of you and this is for real. 

Emma Sheppard:      This has gotta pay the mortgage and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, definitely. I think at the start, it was very much like that. Plus, I wasn't particularly confident in my abilities as a designer, for various reasons, so I just charged what I thought would probably be the going rate, and didn't really think much of it. My husband had a good job, so I didn't have to panic at the end of the month about taking on all the responsibility of all the bills and everything, so it was a nice bonus. 

Emma Sheppard:      I think moving forward, I've gradually come to the realization that if we're both going to do this long-term, it has to pay our mortgage and it has to allow you to go on the odd holiday, and do things that we actually want to do in life. And it puts quite a lot of pressure on you, as a couple, when you have to create your income from scratch every month, rather than one of you being employed and the other one being freelance. 'Cause you've always got that back up, you know, if you need to. 

Emma Sheppard:      So, yeah, I think it's been a gradual realization, over the past year and a half, probably. But I think we're getting to where we want to be now, which is brilliant. And we've put together some ideal income and what we want to be turning over, and all that kind of thing. We're pretty much there already, which is awesome. The only way is up, really, I suppose.  

Steve Folland:      That's great. So you put together an ideal income at the beginning of this year. So six months in, you've kind of reached that point. Was that like written on the wall? How did you focus on that?

Emma Sheppard:      We worked out what income we would need to bring in to pay ourselves X amount per month, as we did it on a monthly basis. So, this month we need to bring in X amount so that we can pay ourselves, pay our business costs, and hopefully have a bit to invest back into the business. That's kind of where we were at. So, yeah, we just break it down into that, really. 

Steve Folland:      It seems like a lot of your work, then, has come through networking, but you don't advertise. What would you say has been ... Is there a secret to your success with networking, or is it a particular sort of networking events that you go to?

Emma Sheppard:      Don't know, really. I think I'm very much a casual networking advocate. I don't go in for the ones where you have to do so many leads and very formal stuff, that's just not me. We're very relaxed as a company, if you like. And so, we go to events that go well with that. And I think going to more casual networking, I've found it takes a while to get any results, but when you do, you've built up a really good relationships and so you get really good results from it. I've also met loads of people who I work with and collaborate with, as well, networking, so it works really well in that way, too. 

Emma Sheppard:      And as I say, probably 90 percent of our work comes from recommendation or networking, so it's been a really good way of marketing ourselves, I suppose, for us. 

Steve Folland:      And do you have people on retainer? 'Cause you mentioned having to hit that monthly income. Or is a lot of the stuff that you do ... you know, you do it and then that's it and then you have to find the next client?

Emma Sheppard:      We don't have too many design clients on retainer. We have SEO clients on retainer, which is really good, because it obviously gives you that base income each month. So you're starting from X amount rather than zero, which is comforting. But yeah, we don't necessarily have them on retainer, but we do have several clients who will come to us every month for ongoing stuff, design-wise. So that's really good. 

Emma Sheppard:      I think as part of ... I said we were looking at what clients we were sort of targeting things, we're looking to work with some bigger companies, which we've started to do, and I think that will turn into a more of a retainer-based model, because they've got a lot of marketing collateral that needs looking at. Especially when you've re-done a brand for somebody and they've got a massive load of marketing stuff they need the be re-done over a certain amount of time. That's the perfect time for a retainer, isn't it, really? To be able to sort of help service their needs there. 

Emma Sheppard:      I think moving forward it will be more of a feature of what we do. And again, that helps with the whole not panicking on the start of the month because you've not got a particularly busy calendar or whatever. 

Steve Folland:      And how do you go about managing your actual time and your projects, especially between the two of you?

Emma Sheppard:      We just use Capsule, really. We've got the calendar view of Capsule and we just plan out all our jobs, and we can obviously look at each other's and see what everyone's up to, as to what we book in and what our availability is. That seems to work quite well for us, so far. We've looked at quite a few different CRM's to see if there's a better way of managing what we do, but we haven't really found anything yet.

Steve Folland:      So, Capsule is ... I don't know that one very well, but it is more about being a CRM rather than Trello or Asana, for example, which is more aimed at managing your tasks.

Emma Sheppard:      Yeah, definitely. We just use the calendar, really, to just put in what we're working on, what deadlines we've got, what things we need to be doing on what days. It just seems to work quite well for us, so far. I mean, if we've got a big project on ... So, I've just started a big branding and branding web project, and so we will create a plan of work. It's basically a schedule which is based just around that project. So we'll do that and get that all signed off with the client, and then we'll plan it into our Capsule so we know what the big major milestones are and when we should be working on what. 

Emma Sheppard:      It kind of works for us, but I think there's a better option out there, we just haven't quite worked it out just yet.

Steve Folland:      I suppose one of the benefits come from the fact that you are in the same room.

Emma Sheppard:      Well, yeah. It's true. 

Steve Folland:      You're able to actually talk to one another. 

Emma Sheppard:      Well, it's quite nice, yeah. Plus I can actually plan day stuff into his calendar 'cause I have access to it. So when he forgets, as he often does, to put things in there, I can sort it out for him, bless him. 

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

Emma Sheppard:      Tell me probably lots of things. I would say, just be kind to yourself. Don't work too hard. Just 'cause there's 24 hours in a day doesn't mean you have to fill them with work. I've been quite guilty in the past, especially when I had just a few hours a week, of working evenings and any time I could, nap times and everything, and kind of reaching burn out. I'm a lot better at that these days. But I think that would be my one piece of advice because we are income, and when we work too hard and burn ourselves out, we're doomed really, aren't we? So, I think that's a really important thing.

Steve Folland:      How did that feel, then, trying to squeeze in the work, being a mum ... being a new mum, as well, for that matter, really. Probably with a lack of sleep and everything that comes with that.

Emma Sheppard:      It was hard, it was really hard work. I don't know how we did it, really, sometimes. There was working when there was a child minder, working in nap times. Once you went to bed at like 6:00, working again, working at the weekend at nap times, it was just full on every spare minute of every day was consumed with work. It was hard, actually. 

Steve Folland:      How do you even go about compartmentalizing it in your head? 

Emma Sheppard:      I don't know. I still struggle with that. I think I'm better at it now. I don't work evenings, apart from if I've got a big project on or if I want to because I'm really enjoying something. I make myself stop work. And so Noah's at the child minder 8:00 til 4:00, so that's my work time. And I can say, I can have a Friday if I need to, to make that time up, and so that makes it a lot easier. But yeah, it's really hard to give yourself a break sometimes and just have a day off or something. I did that the other day and I was like, "Oh my goodness, I've just had a day off. I'd like to do the garden." Because normally the only time I take off is when we're going on holiday or something. It was amazing, it was a lovely, beautiful sunny day. Felt amazing, Steve. But then the next day I was a bit grumpy 'cause I was like, "Actually, I'd quite like another day off."

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

Emma Sheppard:      Thanks very much. It's been great to talk to you.