An umbrella of skills - Experience Designer Stefano Bellucci Sessa
“Be the best boss you ever had,” says Stefano, and he’s trying to live up to that himself.
From not letting an employer’s limits hold him back, to re-imagining work-life balance on his own terms, to developing a portfolio that’s not just about winning work, but about showing his journey too; Stefano tries to make his professional development and mental well-being a priority.
With an “umbrella of skills” and a professional title that doesn’t tie him to one specific job, Stefano’s able to build deeper, longer-term relationships with clients.
He chats to Steve about he got started, how he finds clients, and how he’s worked on his mindset and well-being throughout his freelance career.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE BEING FREELANCE PODCAST WITH EXPERIENCE DESIGNER STEFANO BELLUCCI SESSA AND STEVE FOLLAND
Steve: As ever, let's get started hearing how you got started being freelance.
Stefano: Yeah, so I'm an experience designer and I was working at a company, in an agency called Flux. I was a visual designer there for four years. After four years I wanted to start selling my own projects, and to rebalance my work life balance to be able to travel, and have personal projects. Therefore I left, I was super scared. But I left, that was April 2016 I believe, or '17, I'm not sure.
Stefano: But yeah, I left, so I could pick my own projects, and be more perfect of which kind of project will drive me more learning. And because I was going through a career change, let's say, because I was going from visual design to experience design, and they will help me to be more mindful of what I was working on. In their defence, they want me to do more visual stuff because I was better at that. That's what brought me to leave there. And started freelancing and it was scary, but then I start to get the help from people I knew, and some podcasts, like this one, and yeah, it was quite overwhelming, but I think I managed to do it.
Steve: How did you go about getting your first clients when you left that company? Did you have any lined up when you left?
Stefano: No, I didn't. Which, from loads of other people was quite reckless. But I put money aside, which was really, really important because that allowed me to be more relaxed. If I remember correctly, my first client came from actually someone that used to work with me there in the agency, so it was a friend of a friend and that was really, really important because then it got me going.
Stefano: Then the other client, it was a referral to somebody I knew. They knew somebody was needed an experience designer, which was really useful. Also because at the time it was quite challenging for me to find jobs because in the agency I was working most of the time with NDA so I could not be able to show most of my projects, which was quite challenging because I could not have a public website or Behance or portfolio like Upwork or whatever. It was challenging for me to show myself there, because I cannot really show my work.
Stefano: So, word of mouth for meeting people was the best way to meet people and clients. And the following ones actually I kept going, I went all to events around London where I live, so I go to a lot of meetups, events, networking, where I can meet people like me in the best places or when actually who I not like me. I mean a lot of designers make the mistake of just going to the design events where you will not find the clients. You might find someone that needs a in-house designer because they have a design team but if folks really want the client then they are not designers because otherwise they will do them by themselves. You know? So yeah, I went to events like with doctors example, when I said I was a designer, everybody look at me in the room like I was this shiny new thing. It's very interesting.
Stefano: And also because my job is quite obstruct to other people, who don't understand what an experience design is. Meeting people makes me more in power to manage that conversation. So I meet people from startups in MBA in early stage and I can tell them, "oh, let me know what are your problem, what are you struggling with." And then once I know that problems, I can give them more examples of how I can help them with that business, which sometimes would be branding, sometimes would be testing a new idea, even a piece of research on this and the customers. And then make me break the ice and make them know what they can expect from me, which is easier than from before you have them googling: "I have this problem with something, what should we do?" Yeah, that was very interesting.
Steve: That's so cool. So going to events full of people who found the fact that you... full of people doing something totally different to you. Was that also nerve wracking though?
Stefano: Yeah, a bit, because... but then was part of the challenge, so actually it feels...
Stefano: In the agency you kind of use that, you have to explain your job to many people because anyway, that's for consulting. How come something works already? You're used to work with insurance people, bankers or whatever, customer support, anyone from a company. So you're used to, anyway, that you are the creative that is hard to understand what they are. It was quite interesting because I could be able to understand how to sell themselves.
Stefano: So let's say I'm meeting people that had no idea what they do, has misunderstand more of why and how I do things for them, then the what. So I can understand, okay, what's the umbrella thing that I can help people with. Because I can do information design, I can do interaction design, I can do a logo or a website or whatever, but actually what is that I do. And that's what I understood, it's more about story telling and helping them communicate with people, interacting with them and they've got me to the actual umbrella that covers everything.
Stefano: It was a good tip that I got by someone, I will not remember the name of, someone of the first freelancers I met at the beginning and they say, yeah, try to understand the umbrella that covers all your skills because that's what makes you then also have many clients outside of just the specific job and have modeled my relationship with them, help them with around or rather than just for a one gig or one project on task.
Steve: After those meetups, did you have a way of following up those people you've met, or how long might it take before you perhaps got work out of it?
Stefano: So it depended by the meetups. With some, I just was meeting... a lot of them were in just early stage founders of a start up. So it was just a matter of chatting with them for a coffee, then helping them a little bit, being available, and try to understand what they doing.
Stefano: But others where more than that. Actually people were more looking for my type of role. And then when I got two in my first big project, which was for a company education stuff, and for them I was the UX/UI designer, but then I got more and more into the strategy there and they actually also hired me full time. So that was more a long relationship with them, and they actually also pay me monthly instead of per hour, so that change as well.
Steve: So you just said they ended up wanting to hire you full time.
Stefano: Yeah, there have been... I think almost after one year. That was interesting also because the other podcast that I was listening to was Clients From Hell, which was super useful also. So you actually interviewed him as well and yeah, it was really useful and actually was weird because there's a moment when he leaves the podcast, he left the podcast because he was in the same situation where he was offered to go full time somewhere and that basically matched with when I was given the offer and it was quite... it was quite funny.
Stefano: Yeah, it's interesting because I think the biggest learning for me as a freelancer was to actually be more in charge of my own project, which is anywhere in my life and my career. So that shifted completely the approach I was doing for my own person development.
Stefano: So if I go full time on a project, and actually being hired for a project, for me is anyways is not mean me not being a freelance anymore, if I can say. Because in my long term I know they're not going to be in that company for 20, 30 years and, and even if I really like when I go full time I really commit to it, because have a good sense of community and belonging and I wanted to learn how to nurture the company itself outside of just doing the projects.
Stefano: From my long term strategy, joining full time a company as employee, is anyway a project of my life. So yeah, there's the thing that was the biggest learning of being a freelancer, is I'm not just a business entity, I'm more Stefano as a business, let's say. And so just different phase of my life and that's just for me because outside actually working for them, doing projects that makes me more to keep ownership of my personal growth and more of my own culture, let's say my own business culture and be accountable of my... how I want to grow, there and outside.
Stefano: That was quite important, because compared to when I was in the agency before, I kept doing attending many meetups even if I wasn't up to clients anymore. Because there was just meeting people or learning new things or being able to understand what kind of jobs and projects I wasn't interested on because I was more interested in the one that was doing. And they gave me more... like I say, I am more comfortable my own personal growth.
Stefano: For example, in the start up, because it was a start up anyway and they didn't have a huge amount of budget, and there was a two days conference and they were able to afford only one day of the conference for me, which was really, really nice. But then for me as a personal growth was really important to attend both days of the event. So I just paid my own tickets for the second day. Because for me it was more important to do that then just go along with what they were able to achieve, because at the end, it's my own journey, and let's say as the boss of myself, I can be my own boss even if I have legally another boss, that's head of that part of the project of my life, let's say.
Steve: I love that way of looking at it. So how long did you end up working with them full time?
Stefano: One year and two months, one year and three months. So at the beginning it was for three months I was just doing part time, also because at the time I was teaching. When I went freelancing I also start teaching design.
Stefano: Great experience and, I did that also because I wanted to learn how to lead other people. I was in that stage of the career when I left the previous company, my going freelancing was a kind of challenging that, if I go freelance are you get less likely they're going to be able to lead someone in a team. And so I say, okay, so let me like jobs for myself and then look for teaching experience so they can teach others and learn how to mentor others in another way.
Stefano: So in September 2016... I'm really bad with numbers, maybe it was '17, I can't remember... I started teaching and working part time in the start up until then after three months the start up asked me to go four days per week instead of two and a half. So I moved some of the teaching and teach only in the evenings. And then after six, seven months the start up asked me to go five days per week and being hired.
Stefano: Actually during the offer, the actual fifth day was actually saying, listen, we want you to invest this day, not just to deliver the product, but also the strategic thinking about the company, how it can be long term and this kind of things, which becomes another type of job which is more interesting and is more involved because when you're involved full time in the company, you want to think about the company more long term.
Stefano: Also as I said, because I have a big sense of belonging and commitment. I enjoy that, I don't see that as something that's going to lock me there or whatever. Because then I left. I left them in December, last December until December I've basically been doing freelancing again and also with them actually.
Stefano: I've been doing some freelancing, some side projects, some learning and mostly be on sabbatical, so I travelled a bit and I've been doing courses online and meeting people and the shift again to have more balance on myself. The learning in the company, which is definitely a learning I'm going to take for the next opportunity I have full time.
Stefano: For me, freelancing is more of a mentality rather than, oh, I choose my own projects or I pay the taxes on my own.
Steve: Interesting that you used the term sabbatical. Does that mean that when you go travelling, which was one of the driving forces you mentioned at the beginning to going freelance, having that flexibility to do travelling. When you travel, are you just travelling and not working or are you working on the road?
Stefano: So I said sabbatical because actually I wasn't really looking for a job or for projects. That's why I say sabbatical and then in some scenarios I was in, I was a freelancer because it sounds less lazy sometimes. Because it makes you seem that you're open to projects anyway.
Stefano: But, yeah, actually I was travelling and just for the sake of travelling. Even if it made me actually wonder how it feels to be this digital native, Like people I met because I went to Mexico, Morocco and I didn't meet people who were freelancing. Just being there I was like, Huh, there's a different lifestyle.
Stefano: Yeah, I did consider that, but then because as I said, I could kind of like to be on the spot because you get the best... Being a service designer and experience designer, you get the best from actually being in contact with people and see and observing things, how they are. That kind of made remote working a little more challenging.
Stefano: So I might do that in future, maybe, if I want to. If I decide, okay, you know what, I prefer to travel more or not be specific in the area or whatever. I'm like, okay let's rebrand myself because I want to make sure that I have more exposure to travel now and other things. And maybe I want to just be more of a graphic designer that allows me to work more remotely for example.
Stefano: But I was just travelling for travelling's sake, which is good because for me it was also a reward for how much I worked the year before. So because I was still in the start up and teaching , some days were busy with work 12 hours a day, and always working most days even the weekend, because in the weekend I was preparing the lessons and there was a huge amount of work that I've done. So being able to say, okay, you know what? I'm going to go sabbatical. I'm not going to look for a project now, I'm going to just relax because I earned it, I worked so much last year and it's better to reward myself with some laid back and sit and relax.
Steve: So when you're working, it sounds like the sort of thing that you work on, you tend to go in and work in other people's offices rather than at home.
Stefano: Yeah, I try. Sometime it depends, like what of the part to the process that I do. So sometimes I might work at home. Also when I was in the start up, we're anyway a little bit more relaxed because some of us were, the manager was in Spain for example, so we were open to remote working. But then independent projects, if you had to run a workshop, is better to be anyway in the same place. And of course like when I have to do research or interview people, I have to go there and meet them in person.
Stefano: Most of this I like. Part of it is being able to take the small chunks of company culture that you are able to improve by being there in person, rather than remotely. Sometimes as I say they were open to remote working and it was quite useful just for a list of chores now and then so that you don't have to do the laundry all in the weekend for example.
Steve: And you mentioned when you chose to go freelance, one part was travelling, but you also said that you wanted to be able to do your own personal projects. What kind of stuff have you been working on?
Stefano: So my side project is that I've been teaching a little bit on one side. I also do improvisation, which I see that as my own personal project because I'm part of a company and that's quite fun. I also went to Edinburgh, the Fringe Festival, it's quite nice. And now I do more and more because now also this sabbatical was focusing more on personal projects.
Stefano: I want to... I start to writing about my mental health as a designer or creative. And that might become a project, maybe I want to have my own podcast in future about looking at mental health. Or also how this can be part of a sustainable lifestyle. So I'm quite into environment as it's an ability. So I try to adopt now a sustainable lifestyle and as a designer, I see that I will potentially inspire others to do the same. So now I'm running a few projects to see how to do that. At the moment it's just an interstitial project that I have on Instagram and I'm doing step by step, but in future will I scale and maybe began a book? Or what, I don't know yet. I will see what happens with a bit of time and... yeah, that's one of the things I'm doing.
Steve: I like that some of it, it feels way more like a hobby type thing, but also, yeah, you're taking time to spark off on stuff that interests you and some of that feeds back into your work, but it's not just to do with your actual freelance skills. It's expanding you, which seems to be a lot of what you do. You mentioned like your mindset or mental well-being to do with being a freelance. How have you found that side of it?
Stefano: So more than freelance is being a creative, that is quite challenging for mental well-being because you are continually channelling yourself and looking for unknown places because that's your job. Also being really vulnerable about showing your product or your service, the product of your work to others. It's quite stressing, but at the same time like that's what you're going with, because I believe that if you're not exposing yourself, feeling vulnerable and if you don't challenge your assumptions or your unknowns, you're not being creative, right.
Stefano: So it's not about avoiding that, but it's actually being able to deal with it. In terms of freelancing, I guess it's the same, like need to be able to understand how far you got. So I learned a lot by me being in the start up and by also being a freelancer. There's a Facebook quote that says, we are only at 1% of your journey and this is the same with your freelance career and hopefully your life.
Stefano: The thing that you need to be okay, that they saw much more to do in your life, so much more to do in your projects, how much more to do in your freelance life. And it's just a journey that you have to do step by step and it's quite overwhelming. But then you need to be able to look back and be grateful for where you are.
Stefano: So for that, my portfolio was quite important. I realised that actually for a designer at least, making that portfolio is kind of a gratitude journal. So I realised that when I left the company and I started freelancing because I wasn't updating my portfolio back then, and after four years I look back on all the work I've done and a good part of it look really bad. Not because it was bad, but because I could do much better. So it was just looking at... instead of looking myself in the mirror is just to look at myself for many pictures of me and myself in the past and not be able to see myself there. And then because I did my portfolio step by step and see, "okay, I'm getting better, okay, I'm getting better. Okay, this project is not good any more, but because I have done something better, so I'm going to remove this project and put another one."
Stefano: That was kind of a celebration. But I've never done that in four years. I'm doing it now, and the taking care of my portfolio is not just about job hunt, it's more about my own celebration of my own journey, which I want to make sure I do as much as possible if I go full time. That's something really helps me for my mental health.
Steve: So do you feel like you've got the work life balance figured out? As in you're quite happy with how things have gone since you decided to work for yourself?
Stefano: Yeah, I think that's the interesting bit about my own perception of work-life balance. I really struggled with binary descriptions, so work and life for me I find mixed together, because I like the kind of way my life is my work. So like my own project is my life, which means that then actually projects and working for clients is just a part of my life. In the past I work 12 hours per day and I was okay with that. It wasn't as stressful because it was worth it. I was trying to make sure that I didn't undermine the other side of my life. I was making sure that I was able to go out with friends anyway, travel or take time for taking care of my own mental health, physical well-being.
Stefano: So the whole part of me being aware and not counting the hours, how much I was spending somewhere and just make, okay, am I okay? Am I doing okay psychologically, or I'm suffering? And of course I never done it out... There are moments when I've been in wrong, and that I was just aware of it and trying to learn from it. I am my own, let's say breakdowns, when I was too overwhelmed and actually there I realized, because it matched with a phase of my life where I was, was not doing improv and I thought, okay. So having that part of my life is really important.
Stefano: So that's how, let's say I balance it but at the same time, I don't say that to balance the work and the life, that's because I don't want to count the hours I spend working or the hours I spend travelling. I just want to see how much they impacted my growth in terms of when I learn from a project or my mind or my wellbeing.
Stefano: So now different points of view and I will just... I measure those which are on the outcomes, rather than the hours are spent because at the end, like as a freelancer, I am my own boss and I would not like my boss to count the hours I work in the company. So I don't want to... that's not the countable culture I will create if I were running a company and I want to do that on myself. So I'm just aware and the check in soon and then doing my own one-to-one, let's say and say, okay, am I doing this right? Should I do that next, should they work a little bit more, should they relax, for the hanging out with people. Am I met enough new people this month, or have I learned something new, and that just allows me to measure the outcomes rather than what I'm doing.
Stefano: I just trust myself that I do a good job then for my own freelance career for my life, so I don't need to be that methodic and measuring, okay, I work this number of hours, oh, I've done this month shows or I met these people. It's just, okay, am I doing it, do I see the outcomes, and then I just trusting them.
Steve: It sounds like you take a lot of time to reflect as you go along.
Stefano: Yeah. That's something that I learned to see as not a weakness but a strength. A few years ago I got real into mindfulness, and quite funny actually, because it was just a role I was given to me, oddly enough, in a play and also dealt with this mindfulness. Because I was a mindfulness coach in the play, I ended up discovering mindfulness and it was so important to me because I realise how actually, sometime you just need to be aware of stuff, which is really, really important.
Stefano: We all have voices inside that speak to us and if we are aware of them, you understand it, let them drive you or not. So for example, like now is real important because I'm looking for a job or for a big project and for me, because I want to have had the goal that sustainable projects, so heavy impact on the people life instead of sending more or instead of doing Fintech, this kind of project that I'm not interested in, it's really important.
Stefano: But at the same time when I look for jobs, they so much money into them, right? I applied for jobs that have half of the budget of the one that I'm saying no to and is really like... I feel I'm going insane. But actually just because to stick with my own values and that's important. And I will always have a voice inside me to say, Oh but that's so much money. Yeah. But that's not that voice I want to listen to.
Stefano: And it's really important in the work life also, like I believe that you may see a great relationship with someone. You always going to be jealous a little bit, but that's normal because you have a voice inside you that is your insecurity and it's up to you if acknowledge it or not, and make you drive it or not. And in the same way when you choose a project, so when you want to go somewhere. Yeah, lots of people for example, carry on their job that they do in the past, be unhappy without being aware or how many days can be happy. So it's really important that you look into yourself and mindfulness really helps me with that.
Steve: And do you journal, or do you write down these thoughts, or is it just something you take time to think about?
Stefano: I'm really bad at that. I did try to do journaling, a lot of times with different tools, and it's something that I should get better, I'm trying to get better at, and I failed a few times. I need to understand what's the best way to kept me doing it.
Stefano: But I listen to myself a lot. Like when I cycle for example, I'm really aware of it. Writing down sometimes helps, but I'm quite honest with people I have around like my girlfriend or my friends, I'm always open with them and telling them what I feel so they know me and I can trust that too. But yeah, sometime I used to just be on my own. That really helps. Like for example, being aware, for work in projects for example, being aware of what I'm missing for example, when I am travelling.
Stefano: So when I'm on holiday I'm not working, do I miss working? But what side of it do I miss? Do I miss hanging with people? Seeing clients happy? Do I miss learning new things? Being aware of them made me understand better what kind of projects I want to take on for the future, which is really important because at the end I'm doing this, I don't choose projects as half of the money. Learning is really important, special impact is even more important or people to hang out with. Money is secondary.
Stefano: I need to pay bills as well, but I have a lifestyle that makes me manage my expenses as are not too big, fortunately, and which makes me then prioritise stuff like, as I said, learning and people I work with which are more important for my growth and that's okay.
Steve: One thing I wanted to mention, because you said how important meet ups, getting out into communities and events were for you, but haven't you also ended up organising them? Not just attending them. Am I right?
Stefano: Yeah, that's right. I forgot to say that. So I'm part of Creative Mornings, which is a global network of events. They started 10 years ago, nine years ago in New York and that event, of course, every morning with a coffee and there is a global theme. So for example, July is going to be wonder and all the chapters, different cities around the world, they will like, okay, this theme is wonder, so we should invite a star, special guest about this subject. And they're really, really interesting and they're really, really inspiring.
Stefano: I got into them because I was on the other side, I was attending as an audience member and they are so interesting because usually the speakers get really vulnerable about about their life and being creative. They are kind of like you. And sometimes that talk matches with your thoughts in your life about, oh, what should I do about my life. Oh I feel really down. And then most of the time they'll be speakers will say, "oh look, I was really fucked up 30 years ago. And that's what I was." And, okay, so there's an opportunity for me to go on the other side. And it makes you think, ah, okay, that's great. I have more hope.You feel really nurtured by the community and inspired.
Stefano: And just because it was in the morning, and it was such a huge effort to wake up in the morning, I say, you know what, what if I collaborate with them so I need more accountable of waking up in the morning. And also just to be able to give back and nurture the London community, which I feel is a great thing to do. So yeah, I ended up helping and being the organising team in the same team for almost three years I think now. And yeah, it's great. And recently at World Summit, we are other people from around Europe in Edinburgh and we have a summit with everyone. It's quite nice and really interesting vibe.
Stefano: So wherever you are in the world I recommend you to check if there is a Creative Morning chapter and if not consider starting one, it just create the morning of calm is a great, great thing. Those would just be online as well.
Steve: Do you think being involved in organising it also helps you and your business?
Stefano: Again, in terms of getting new clients, I think I had some of the initial collaborations at the beginning because usually at the end people will send out, and they say, oh, I have this business. I'm looking for a person who helps me with that. So at the beginning I did make some money for them, like these two projects. But as I said, if I had to answer like my business is not just my job, is not just my project. So it's really really important for me as a business because he gets me inspired and I can meet people that have around me.
Stefano: So for me it's been important because let's say again like if I had to consider my business as a freelancer, as if I was my own company, I would not hire people that all look like me. So for me being part of a network of creative and different point of views, because in London you have the luck that people come from any background, so you have people that are not like me, like women or people that have different backgrounds or people that work in completely different fields. They're so inspiring to me and that's how if I was my own company, and the board meeting, or in any structure of my own company I would not have only little versions of myself. And being part of this big community helps me to have diversity in my head because I can compare myself with others. I can hear them, what they say, what their point of view is and how they see problems around the world, which is really inspiring. So in that point of view, he really helps me.
Steve: Such a great outlook on life. It's been brilliant chatting to you. Before we go, if there was one thing that you could tell your younger self about being freelance, what would that be?
Stefano: That's weird because I think that a lot of people quit jobs and go freelancing because they hate their own boss, which fortunately wasn't my case, but then also people end up being like myself as well and not being their own slaves, their own boss. So if you go freelancing be your best boss that you've ever had, otherwise it just going to be another slave or whatever that means, because you prioritise money, how much you work to make sure that you reward yourself, you take time off to learn or you mix projects, you keep yourself creative and nurtured. Otherwise you're not going to be free. You're just going to be slave and sick and sad. Yeah, just because that what it means to actually be free. Otherwise you have just a lance because you're not freelance. You're just a lance being used by whatever happens in your life.
Steve: Brilliant. Stefano, thank you so much. It's been a joy to chat to you. If you go to BeingFreelance.com, as ever, as for all of our guests that we speak to on the podcast, there are links through to what they get up to. So you will find links through to what Stefano was up to but also and... oh it's a lovely website, so hugely recommend checking it out anyway... but also we'll put links to some of the stuff we've talked about.
Steve: So for example, if you want to find Creative Mornings, which I've not been to, but I really want to now, I wish I lived in London for example, so I could get along to one. But I'm not too far away. Maybe I should make that effort. Go to BeingFreelance.com.
Steve: While you're there, also come join the community. Stefano was just mentioning about community. It would be really nice to have you as part of ours, so go to the website and there is a link through and you can join it there, and then you get to chat to freelancers from around the world. Ask them questions, support, have a laugh. We have live Q and A's, live video each week, and it's a good place to be. So please do come find us there. We've also got videos and articles at BeingFreelance.com as well. So do check it out and follow us on Instagram or Twitter.
Steve: If you can do me one favor though, tell somebody else about the fact that you've been listening to this. You can even do that online, of course. Or maybe in a review or in person. Maybe if you're at a meet up like Stefano was just talking about, if you're there, maybe tell another freelancer or creative.
Steve: Stefano, it's been brilliant speaking to you, and, yes, all the best being freelance.
Stefano: Thanks a lot, thank for your time.