Sara Combs is a designer based in San Francisco and Joshua Tree. She founded the jewelry company Gold & Citrus, designed for ShopStyle and PopSugar, and currently designs user interfaces for start-ups at Hexagon, a design studio she founded with her husband Rich. Some of her additional projects include #100daysofsfpatterns as part of the 100 Day Project, as well as renovating The Joshua Tree House, which is available to rent on Airbnb.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer & illustrator.
After graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I moved to San Francisco without even having set foot in California before (I had a hunch I’d like it. I was right!). I didn’t have a job lined up, and after applying my heart out to a ton of Industrial Design jobs (what I thought my career would be), I found that the recession was more interested in layoffs than it was new hires. With San Francisco being naturally tech focused, I was inspired to learn more about UI/UX design. My boyfriend at the time, and now husband was already working as a UI/UX designer and would pass freelance work on to me that he didn’t have time for. It was an incredible way to learn, and I quickly found that it wasn’t so different from Industrial Design. I was creating experiences, which is what I've loved all along.
After taking a full-time job and a few year break from freelancing, I started to feel a pull back toward that life. There were so many personal projects I had my heart set on, but found that a full-time job was leaving me completely fried. I was using all of my brain power for someone else’s company, and realized that ultimately I wanted to put all of that effort into something that was mine. My husband and I took the leap at the same time, leaving our full-time jobs to start our design studio, Hexagon.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
Our previous full-time experience and connections with co-workers helped us so much in the beginning. We let everyone know what we were setting out to do, and asked that if they heard of anyone looking for design work to please send them our way. We made it a point in the very beginning not to spend our time chasing down clients, but rather putting our best work out there so that the right clients could find us when the time was right for them. We’re lucky enough to live in a time where clients can find us through our blogs, and social media etc.
Though, I would say about 98% of our clients are referrals from past work. Once you get started and do great work for a couple of clients, things start to gain momentum. Sharing projects that are curated to the style of your dream projects helps to further attract the type of clients you would love to work with.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
I find that a change of scenery keeps me feeling alive and refreshed. On any typical day I’m usually back and forth between my home studio and coffee shops around the city. Giving myself timeframes really helps me stay on track. Spending three hours at a coffee shop makes it especially apparent if I head back home without having accomplished anything.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Taxes… it took me a while to get this right. And honestly the only reason it’s right now is because my accountant takes care of everything. We have our studio set up as an LLC, and the LLC pays us as employees. Apparently this was too complicated for us to figure out on our own because even after sending out what we thought were all of our taxes on time, we started receiving letters that told us that wasn’t the case. We’ve realized we should use our time for what we’re best at (aka design), and delegate things like this to those who really know what they’re doing.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
The freedom of freelance life is truly addictive. Being able to work when I feel most productive, and take a walk when I’m not has me feeling more creative than ever. I also love that it’s not limiting. Sometimes I feel exhausted by spending days on end looking at my computer screen, so I’ll take a break to paint. Freelance life is whatever we want it to be.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
Side projects! When I start feeling uninspired with my day to day work, I try to push myself to start a new side project. Last year I took part in #the100dayproject (a community project on Instagram guided by the idea of creating something, anything, each day to find your muse). The result was that I painted every single day, fell in love with creating patterns, and then started getting commissioned for pattern and illustration work. The connections I was able to make due to creating something out of true passion was incredible. I even found my pattern work start to lead to new UI/UX clients as well.
Another goal of mine is to create more streams of passive income, so that I have more time and focus to attract my ideal clients. One thing my husband and I created together to do this was The Joshua Tree House - a creative retreat in the desert that we currently rent through Airbnb. Not only was it so much fun for us to create this space, we’ve now found it to take a significant amount of pressure off of our other work. We’re getting closer to the point of saying yes only to the projects that make our eyes light up.
"Another goal of mine is to create more streams of passive income... We're getting closer to the point of saying yes only to the projects that make our eyes light up."
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
For the first six months or so of freelancing, I found that I actually had no idea how much I was making. I was so used to the idea of a salary, and one day it occurred to me that I had no idea what my ‘new salary’ was. It was kind of a crazy realization. As luck would have it, a good friend was building a product called Cushion to solve that exact problem. You can add your clients, projects, and invoices, see when you’re overbooked, plan vacations, and get a visual of where you are financially compared to your goals and even stretch goals. I love seeing where we are, and it’s especially exciting when we can meet and even pass our goals.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
A little bit of planning goes a long way. Vacations are still ok to take as freelancers, and we should make sure they happen. As our own bosses we just need to plan them in advance. We include a timeline with every contract for our clients, and we schedule the timelines to align with any days off or trips that we have planned.
As far as day to day separation of work and life… I could definitely be doing a better job of this. But, I can recommend that you do the opposite of what I’ve been doing haha. So, that means no working on the couch, and if possible keeping work related projects to a desk or area that’s just meant for work. I too often find myself dragging my work out from when I wake up until just before I go to bed when I think it could be condensed in a more productive way. For a brief time, I had a studio which helped out so much!! I’d love to get back to having a separate studio space as soon as possible.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Motivation, Optimism, Passion.