Design

How Tech Lady Tiffany Taylor went from Art School Dropout to Product Designer at BloomNation

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Hi Tiffany! Can you tell us what you do and what you’re working on currently?

I work as a product designer for a startup in Santa Monica called BloomNation. We have a small team, so as the only product designer, I get to do a variety of design-related tasks from user experience to visual design. It’s also my first job working in Los Angeles, so after 7 years in San Francisco, it’s exciting to experience a different part of tech outside of Silicon Valley.

When I’m not working, I also enjoy studying Japanese, photography, travel, and playing with my pets (I have a dog and two guinea pigs).

What has been the toughest challenge you’ve faced working in tech and how have you dealt with it?

The toughest challenge I’ve faced is the lack of diversity in tech (especially in the design world), and the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that come with that. I am a self-taught designer with an unconventional education background and career path. I am also a Black woman. I didn’t finish college and I worked my way up to a designer position in my first startup after being hired as an office assistant.

Sometimes, I’ve felt that I’ve really had to prove that I deserve to be a part of the design world because I am not what a designer usually looks like, and my path to tech was not typical. When I looked at a companies during past job searches, no one else working there looked like me. That can be very disheartening.

So the way that I have dealt with it is to make sure that my work and portfolio speak for themselves. One way that I’ve done this is by finding design mentors and communities that can support my design goals while relating to my experiences. My mentors and support communities share insightful advice with me. In addition to general career and design advice, they also provide advice for coping with sexism, racism, classism, and discrimination — all things that can pop up while working in a world where you don’t match the mold.

An example of a supportive community is Tech Ladies! It’s been so helpful for me to have outlets where I can get career guidance and feel safe expressing my worries and concerns, so I really suggest anyone feeling isolated in tech to seek out a support system.

I read in another interview that you gave that you initially got into tech after designing websites and playing around with CSS and HTML when you were younger. What advice would you give others who are just starting out and aren’t sure how to turn their passions into a career?

My advice is to be flexible and to find side projects. While knowing HTML and CSS was extremely beneficial for me becoming a designer, it’s not how I actually got into tech.

At the time, I was an art school dropout who loved writing, drawing, and photography but couldn’t afford to stay in school. So after I was hired as an office assistant, I saw an opportunity to use a skill I had (HTML/CSS) to provide a service to my job (designing pages for projects the actual design team was too busy to take on) and leapt at that chance.

Take a look at the things you’re passionate about, as well as your natural strengths and skills. Once you understand what you are passionate about, be proactive and offer your services to help fulfill a need. It doesn’t matter if you’re unemployed, in school, or already working — you can find side projects anywhere.

Things like redesigning part of your company/school/friend’s website, researching how to help a friend’s personal business improve their SEO ranking, or learning how to fix a coding error on your site that no one else in your office or job has time to fix are all examples side projects that could help you start understanding what you enjoy, what you’re naturally good at, and what you don’t like.

Meet the Badass Neuroscientist/Designer who Created Beyond Curie

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Interview by Breanne Thomas

Hi Amanda! Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to develop your project Beyond Curie?

I am a neuroscientist turned designer turned design strategist (clearly a big fan of the career pivot). I feel really fortunate to be part of the design strategy team at Capital One Labs, working to redefine the relationship between people and finances. We all want to make things that matter, so to be able to solve problems that impact people in one of the major spaces that can dramatically change society is very exciting.

Before design, my first passion was science. I actually got into neuroscience through dance and was a ballerina for many years, until I had a terrible skiing accident that tore everything out of my knee. After my surgery, I couldn’t believe how much my sense of balance and coordination had changed. So I studied neuroscience at Columbia to understand why I couldn’t move as gracefully as I used to.

I moved on to conducting Alzheimer’s research at Columbia Medical Center. While I was there, I had an epiphany. I realized that, as a scientist, I was ill-equipped at communicating the vital urgency of my work to the general public. So I decided to do something about it. I quit doing research, got my MFA, and last year I founded The Leading Strand, an organization that brings scientists and designers together to co-create experiences that translate scientific research in rigorous and visually compelling ways. In my TED talk I share that the key to understanding science is storytelling, which brings us to Beyond Curie.

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Like many people, I was feeling pretty upset after the election, and thinking a lot about how I could get more involved. One of my friends who had worked on the Hillary campaign suggested I pick a cause I care deeply about and support it in a way only I could. With Beyond Curie, I want to share stories and visuals that celebrate the rich history of women kicking ass in STEM fields — to show that our world was built by brilliant women, not just men, from all backgrounds. I want to inspire the next generation of young women to go into STEM fields and to show them that there are heroines out there that they can look to and many of them.

Of the 32 women you feature, who is the most personally inspiring to you and why?
When I read about Rita Levi-Montalcini in the 4th grade for a book report, she definitely became one of my heroes. Her story is one of grit, tenacity, and brilliance. When Mussolini barred all non-Aryan citizens in Italy from academic and professional careers, she set up a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom and continued to do research. It was in these conditions that she discovered nerve growth factor and won the Nobel Prize for this landmark achievement in 1968. I always remember her story when I face hardship and disappointment, and it helps me bounce back, get creative, and keep going.

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If we’re talking about next-level badassery, I have to tell you about YouYou Tu. Before 2011, she was pretty much forgotten and unknown. She’s responsible for saving millions of lives with her discovery of artemisinin, a compound used to treat malaria that is isolated from the sweet wormwood plant. When others wanted to abandon the research, she found the key to isolating the compound from a millennium-old recipe. She also first tested the compound on herself! YouYou also has no postgraduate degree, no research experience abroad, and is not a member of any Chinese national academies. I love her bold, ‘all-in’ spirit and unconventional methods. Her story is such a great reminder that success doesn’t have to hinge on specific degrees and affiliations.

How can people support Beyond Curie and download your posters?
The best way to support Beyond Curie is to share the project. The world needs to know the names and stories of these amazing women! We can start to change the white male paradigm in STEM by increasing the visibility of these badass ladies. Anyone can download the March for Science posters here. The posters are also available on beyondcurie.com.

How Meg Athavale, co-founder & CEO of Lumo Interactive, dropped out of high school and forged her own highly-successful career path

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Interview by Breanne Thomas

Hi Meg! How did you first enter the world of interactive design?

I entered the world of computer graphics almost by accident. I drew a lot of pictures as a kid, and I knew I was good at art. When I was in high school I started teaching myself traditional animation. I dropped out of high school in Grade 11, choosing to live on my own and work instead. Although I found odd jobs as a freelance artist, art is a pretty difficult career path and the traditional animation career landscape was moving into computer graphics. At the age of 19, I decided I needed to up my technology skills.

When Red River College in Winnipeg launched their Computer Animation Specialist program, I enrolled using a forged high school diploma (I have always been great at Photoshop). When I graduated, I spent a few years as a computer animator/compositor for a studio in Calgary. After a few years, I decided I wasn’t really that interested in linear storytelling, so I started designing small Flash games, and really enjoyed bringing characters to life through interactive media. This required me to learn to code, something I might not have otherwise learned.

I spent the early part of my career creating freelance digital media projects, VJing for a variety of bands, and working to develop and support a digital media literacy program for the Province of Manitoba. Eventually I wound up at a small interactive design firm and that’s where I met my co-founder Curtis Wachs. In our spare time, Curtis and I started developing what would eventually become www.lumoplay.com, an interactive display software platform designed to help any artist create an interactive display experience using readily available sensors.

Lumo Interactive has made so many engaging and unique displays over the years. If you had to pick a favorite project of yours, which would it be and why?

It’s really hard to pick a single project out of literally thousands. Lumoplay.com is my baby, though. The custom installations we’ve done for customers like McDonald’s and Google have all been uniquely challenging, and they’ve given everyone in our company a chance to learn how to do things like manage research and development projects, organize vendor relationships, and execute public events. But at the end of the day, the thing I’m most proud of is our platform. Knowing that we created something that thousands of people around the world are using to make interactive environments is deeply satisfying.

Do you have any advice for those Tech Ladies building companies outside of major cities on how they can improve their chances of getting funded?

I’ve approached dozens of investors in Canada, the United States, China, and most recently Russia. Aside from the obvious roadblocks around where the company is based (Winnipeg), we also face the statistical improbability of women-led companies being funded at all, and being greatly underfunded when they are.

My strategy has been to pursue funding that seems likely: I’m always open to conversations with investors, and I have a deck, a business canvas, and diligence materials on hand at all times. However, our first priority is growing organically. We’ve never depended on funding. Our company was launched with a few small business loans and a tiny bit of angel investment, and we worked our butts off to break even as quickly as possible. We’ve also done well with small loans and support from organizations like IRAP, SR&ED, and the Canadian Media Fund.

That said, my advice to any founder regarding funding is to be aware that fundraising is a full time job, and the outcome is very much outside your control (especially if you’re a female founder). While you’re fundraising, you won’t be doing any other job (like business growth or marketing) very well. If you have a team to focus on growth while you focus on fundraising, and you’re confident that your company will grow exponentially with funding, it’s probably worth the risk. If not, you might want to focus on the stuff you can do without funding.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Courtney Zalewski, Partner at Midnight

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Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Hi Courtney! Can you tell us about Midnight and what you do there?

Midnight is a product design studio based in NYC, which I run with my creative partner in crime Elan Miller. We work with companies to help them figure out what to build and how to bring it to life. Think of us a product team-in-residence. We facilitate design sprints, prototype hypotheses, validate assumptions, prioritize features, create interfaces, guide development, and conduct usability tests to design something people want.

As former startup founders, we like to move fast in an organized way. We come up with crazy ideas that can be used as a North star, but then reel them back in so teams can start executing immediately. We believe the world’s best brands are designed with a distinct point of view, so opportunities that allow us to focus on brand and design are amazing to work on. We want to do design work that is intentional and grounded in something.

What is a recent tech hurdle the agency has overcome and how did you tackle it?

It’s hard to keep track which new plugins, tools, and products are actually worth dedicating time to learn. It’s that sense of FOMO. While you want to be using all of the cool new things, you need to be realistic and think about how it will fit into your workflow and process. Especially considering how fast we work, introducing new tools mid-project could throw everything off. If I find designers in the community raving about something new on Twitter, Product Hunt, or Facebook, I’ll have the confidence to dedicate some time on nights and weekends. But, I don’t like to just try things for the sake of trying it. I’m more excited to see how these prototyping tools, specifically for micro-interactions, evolve. Those are the tools that make the biggest impact in my opinion.

On your co-founder’s Medium post announcing Midnight’s launch, he talks about how the company was born of a partnership. What advice can you give to other Tech Ladies who are launching a company with someone they’ve worked closely with before?

Partnership is number one. We first focused on defining why we were creating Midnight in the first place. We borrowed a lot from our design process: we set a timer to get as many ideas down as possible and then went through and discussed each one. We answered questions like, “What do we value?”, “Why are we different?”, “What are we best at in the world?”, and even, “What don’t we want to be?”

One of the values that came from that process was “Radical Candor,” which we define as “Honest feedback is the first step to greatness. We want to push each other, yet are careful to deliver critiques in constructive, actionable, and thoughtful ways. It’s not what you say — it’s how you say it.” Business is hard enough, but when you mix in two friends that are both passionate and emotional, it definitely has potential to get messy.

My advice is to over-communicate and think about the reason why you’re starting something and why you’re starting it with this person. In regards to maintaining equal balance of responsibility, Elan and I are both self-aware people, so we know where our individual strengths are and where extra support and help is needed. It’s less about having a checklist of responsibilities and more of being a team-player and remembering to speak up if we’re ever feeling overwhelmed.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Sabrina Majeed, Product Design Manager at BuzzFeed

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Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Hi Sabrina! Tell us about what you do at BuzzFeed.

I am a product design manager at BuzzFeed, so my responsibilities include coaching individual designers, growing the design team, plus establishing and maintaining our shared design process.

You made the transition from Visual Designer to Product Designer. Why did you make that decision and what advice can you give to other Tech Ladies ready to make the leap?

In some ways I think my transition happened as the industry around software design was also making a transition away from these more specialized roles and towards a more holistic one where a designer is responsible for a product from end to end. So that includes visual design, but also includes user experience and product definition. I wanted to expand my responsibility into those areas because often times good visual design is so dependent on good user experience.

It could be frustrating to be handed wireframes that didn’t make sense and expected to just ‘make it look good’, so I really wanted to have a voice in shaping the UX and the structure of the application I was designing. I was lucky because at my first job a lot of my more experienced co-workers who were interaction designers really encouraged me to take on small UX projects and would find opportunities for me to gain more experience in that part of the design process.

My advice for anyone looking to transition into a new or expanded area of responsibility at work would be to try to pick-up small low-risk projects that allow you to gain experience and contribute to your portfolio. If that’s not an option then self-initiated personal projects are also a great way to force yourself to be responsible for parts of the process that may be outside your existing area of responsibility.

You were recently promoted to manager. What have you learned so far? Any advice to those looking to move up?

I’ve learned that management, when it’s done right, is really a support role. I think a lot of people look to move into management thinking it will gain them more visibility in their workplace. To some extent this is true but I think good managers will try to direct the limelight towards their reports, advocate on their behalf, and give them opportunities to grow.

There are certain tasks that might be easier for me to accomplish myself, and would probably make me look good, but it would be a disservice for me to not to recognize that as a learning opportunity for someone else on my team. Something I’m learning is how to balance being selfless with being selfish as a manager. It’s not good to be an extreme in either direction, and easy to burn out if you don’t practice self care and prioritize yourself from time to time.

My advice is to fully understand what management means at your company. At some smaller companies it may be more of a player-coach role, while at larger ones it tends to be strictly people management. If the role of a manager is vague and undefined at a company, that’s a major red flag to me. That should be a red flag for anyone, even if you don’t want to be a manager.

Also keep in mind that management is not the only way to “move up”. Many companies are now adopting separate tracks for individual contributor versus management roles. This is because someone is an amazing designer does not mean they will make a good manager; and the same goes for engineering.

If this is an area you’re interested in, my advice is to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and fully understand the responsibilities. Then I would look for opportunities where more management may help your team. For example, are deadlines getting pushed back because the team keeps going back and forth on a design and can’t come to a decision? Can you help establish a decision making process for that team? Also mentoring and managing an intern is a great way to try out management responsibilities.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Sarah Doody, Freelance UX Designer and creator of UX Notebook

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Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Hi Sarah! What are you working on these days?

I am an independent user experience (UX) designer in NYC. UX means a lot of things to a lot of people these days. I specifically focus on the experience design side of things — that includes: conducting product, market, and user research; creating prototypes; and designing products (through user flows and wireframes). I don’t do much visual or interface design anymore. However, I d have a background in visual design which helps me create beautiful wireframes and prototypes.

My clients are about a 50/50 split between companies that are just launching a new product and companies already in market. I help new companies research, validate, and design the first version of their product. For companies already in marketing, I help them understand their users, design new features, and prioritize their roadmap. My clients are in a variety of industries. But I’d love to start focusing in the health care space. There is too much friction in health care. When people are sick, they shouldn’t spend time trying to navigate a poorly designed system.

I’ve been in the industry for 14 years. During that time I’ve done a lot of writing and teaching including co-creating General Assembly’s first 12-week UX Intensive back in 2012.

Education in the UX space is a passion of mine today I truly believe that UX is not the responsibility of one person. So many people in an organization influence the experience that someone has with a product. The experience is the sum of all the touchpoints someone has with the product and brand. Because of this, I am really focused on helping people learn to think like a designer.

That’s one of the reasons I created my UX newsletter, The UX Notebook. It is a weekly newsletter that has curated articles, questions, and activities for your team, case studies, research, and more. People seem to really love it and that’s what keeps me doing it each week (We’re up to issue 143 so far!). I also continue to teach and am currently focusing on a UX research coursethat I’m re-launching with new curriculum and content this fall.

If you weren’t doing this, what else could you see yourself doing?

Ha! Well according to a letter I wrote to myself when I was 10, I would be a ski patroller! My mum recently sent me a copy of it and I had a good laugh! I’ve always been a problem solver and I love making things with my hands, so I could see myself being an architect or industrial designer. I was actually accepted into a Neuroscience program in Canada where I’m from, but I turned it down. I think the problem solving aspect of medicine really resonated with me. I’m really creative but also can be very technical and analytical. Sometimes I think I’d make a good psychologist or psychiatrist, but at this point I don’t see myself going back to school for that long of a time! I’d also love to host a show of some sort — maybe travel because just being dropped in a new city and find my way around and hunting for the hidden gems.

What would you advise your younger self?

Confidence. It’s a tough lesson to learn. No matter how much other people believe in you. If you don’t believe in yourself then the little voice inside your head is going to drown out the chorus of positive voices from the outside. You can seem like a public success to others. You can come across as confident. You can have presence. You can take risks. You can speak with authority. But, a lack of confidence will result in your feeling like internally you’re a mess — you’ll waste energy and time, deal with imposter syndrome, and constantly debate yourself as to whether or not you’re good enough. The big problem here is that when it comes time to take a risk — you won’t take it because you won’t believe you’re worth it. And if you add up all the little risks you don’t take over a career, a lifetime, you’ll probably end up not having the impact and influence that you could have.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Timoni West of Unity VR

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Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Tell us about what you’re currently doing.

I work at Unity. It’s a fascinating company. If you make games, I don’t need to explain Unity; you know it. For the 99% of folks who don’t, here’s the short pitch. Unity is a 3D game engine — a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) for games — founded with one mission: democratizing game design. It uses C#, has a friendly UI, and most importantly, it lets you code and design in one environment, then port your app or game to over 30 platforms. So if you’re an indie developer, you can make a game for iOS, Android, and Playstation simultaneously, all in the same engine. It’s dead useful.

It was founded twelve years ago in Denmark, and has been profitable ever since, but just this year, 2016, it got billion-dollar unicorn valuation. That’s unusual for Silicon Valley. But it makes sense: over the last 12 years, many other industries started working heavily in 3D: cinema, heavy industry, automotive, creative coding, and architecture, to name a few. If you’re an engineer, architect or VFX guru, Unity can import everything you build, then let you show it anywhere: in films, projected on buildings, viewed on an iPad, in augmented, mixed or virtual reality.

Let’s focus on those last three examples, augmented, mixed and virtual reality, or xR for short. In 2016, for the first time in history, we’ve got two commercially viable, high-end VR devices on the market: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.

Google, Microsoft, and every tech and hardware manufacturer on the planet are also actively figuring out what they’ll do in the xR space. From academia to NASA to Snapchat to Warner Brothers, this is a big new tech conversation happening right now. Unity is the base on which most of these new apps, movies, and experiences are made.

That’s the backstory. Now to bring it in: I work in Unity’s Labs, the moonshot department. I lead product and design on the team focused on xR. We’re further Unity’s core mission: creating tools for people to make worlds in xR.

If you remember the early days of the iPhone, you might just remember how there was no App Store. In fact — stretch your memory wayyyyyy back — really, there was very little to do, because the platform was so new. We anticipate this for xR, and so we’re building out tools for both developers and regular consumers to easily make 3D worlds, movies, and games.

This is easy in some respects: building a 3D world in xR can be as simple as playing with Lego. But it gets complicated quickly, because not all of the real-world rules need apply. For example, in the real world you have gravity. But when you’re designing a game, gravity isn’t necessarily useful. In Labs, we are figuring out the new rules of computer interaction, where you can easily assign gravity to specific objects. Where does that option live? In a menu on your controller? In space? If you grab a virtual backpack? As a gesture or audio command? There are no solid answers yet. These are the kinds of questions we’re solving.

What do you do to stay so up-to-date in a world where it’s so difficult to stay in-the-know of new technologies?

That’s a tough one, because time is of the essence, and we all have busy jobs. I get that. I used to do more subtle research and quietly sign up for alphas, but nowadays I tend to just reach out to folks. Working on a cool new xR experience? I’ll follow you on Twitter. If you’re not in Twitter, I’ll email you. If people are using Unity to build new xR experiences, they’re very often self-funded and really enthusiastic. If nothing else, I can give my support and open up channels for communication.

Or I’ll just send an email intro anyway. I’ve learned there’s very little to be lost reaching out to people who are interested in the same things you are.

I also go to a lot of events. If you’re new to any tech field, I highly recommend going to conferences, workshops, or meetups. Shake hands, say what you’re working on, and follow up with emails. Even the smallest of intros can lead to really great partnerships later.

Throwback time! What’s one gadget from the past you wish would “come back”?

My first gut instinct was ‘mini-game console’ but let me step back from that to a larger gripe: digital ‘touch’ inputs are bullshit. I typed faster on my Motorola v700 numeric pad more quickly and accurately than I ever typed on an iPhone. I vastly prefer the buttons of a 3DS XL to touch screens, and the Kindle 3 — the one with the physical keyboard — will always be the best Kindle to me.

While I am a firm believer in swipe, pinch-to-zoom, and drag-to-scroll, the fact is we live in a bizarro era in which alphanumeric inputs are getting worse. Sure, maybe we’ll all switch over to shortcut autocomplete emoji — thanks Google keyboard! — but in the meantime, I’ve typed all this on a physical keyboard, because moving my fingers millimeters on physical buttons with tactile feedback just works really well. Alphabets involve many characters, hands are really good at muscle memory, and tactile feedback can’t be beat. I think we can all agree writing emails on a touchscreen is just painful. This is an open problem to be solved, and speech recognition isn’t there yet.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Dani Beecham, freelance UX design

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Hi Dani! You’re a freelance UX designer, what do you love most about UX + design?

When I found UX Design, it was kind of by accident. I was managing program communications for a non-profit and I was trying to find resources for web design best practices. When I realized there was an entire field dedicated to solving problems and making experiences accessible and meaningful, I felt like I had found my calling. I’m a communicator and I’ve always been the person on the team asking questions and trying to make things better. Every day as a UX Designer challenges me to be creative, analytical and empathetic but every day feels like just being myself.

Another thing I love is how multi-faceted the field of design is. I’ll always be passionate about mission-based work so I’m very excited about the notion of service design and expanding design thinking beyond digital to solve problems in the physical world. I think design has a huge roll to play in social impact. It’s just a matter of bridging the gap between designers and social services.

Can you tell us about some projects you’ve worked on that you love?

One of my recent client was a very badass speaker, author, MC & comedian. She had done so many cool things and had this amazing outgoing personality but her personal site wasn’t capturing that. I really enjoyed getting her involved in the redesign process and opening the conversation up to content strategy. I really had the chance to help her develop and define her unique brand and give her a site that she could use as a tool to build her career in a new direction.

I’m also in talks with a client that’s an early stage solar startup. Their platform is built around the idea of community solar. Instead of doing an expensive solar panel install, their customers can tap into existing solar farms in their community and see the savings prorated to their utility bill. It’s really exciting to me for two reasons: I’m a Bay Area hippie so doing my part to save the environment is a pre-req and the community solar model makes solar power more accessible for people in underserved communities. It has a huge benefit for low-income households where a significant amount of income goes towards just keeping the lights on. It’s really cool to be plugged in at such an early phase and have the potential to make that big of a difference in others’ lives.

What tips would you give to people who are looking to transition to freelance?

I have 4 key pieces advice:

  1. Do your research. Take a hard look at your spending habits and crunch your numbers to figure out what your minimum monthly income will need to be and set your rates accordingly.
  2. Sign-up with Freelancer’s Union and check out services like Bonsai. Pitching a client can be a quick process. Both Freelancer’s Union and Bonsai have contract templates and other resources to help you close the loop with your client quickly. Bonsai also allows you to invoice directly through their service which is helpful at tax time.
  3. Put yourself out there! This is key. Let everyone know what you do and what you’re trying to do. Seriously, do this with everyone you meet. You never know how your next lead will come to you. One of my first leads was through a post in a Facebook group. I was in-between clients and conducting some independent research for an article that I wanted to publish. I mentioned that I was a UX Designer and 10 minutes later I had a message in my inbox from a start-up founder in need of some design help.
  4. Be confident in your skills and remember that everyone is learning. This is especially important if you’re new to the field like myself. Get over imposter syndrome and give yourself permission to learn and feel confident about it.