(Case study) Building a freelance business with a chronic illness

Katherine Cory and Rachel Shillcock talk candidly about building a freelance design business while dealing with chronic illnesses.

Meet two of Jack’s customers; Katherine Cory and Rachel Shillcock. Both Katherine and Rachel are freelance designers with chronic illnesses. Katherine has chronic fatigue syndrome and Rachel has hypermobility syndrome.

Over a coffee in Manchester’s Chapter One, we talked candidly about building a business with health issues. How to position yourself to attract the type of clients you want to work with, and moving into the physical product space.

Rachel and Katie talk freelancing with a chronic illness

Katherine, you relocated to Manchester last year. Did moving to a new city affect your business at all? Did you have to throw yourself into networking or did you already have work lined up? What advice would you give to other freelancers relocating?

Katherine: I had to throw myself into networking. I just started networking and meeting people. There’s so much going on in Manchester, which is exciting. You could go to an event every night of the week.

In terms of advice, be prepared. I was so caught up with the move and the packing, I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to do when I was here. I do feel like I’m starting my business again, which is a really good place to be because I can right all of the wrongs and start over.

What’s the Manchester design scene like?

Katherine: There are so many agencies here, they’re always looking for freelancers.

Rachel: It’s such a creative place. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m really grateful for the opportunities I had years ago from people I knew who worked here. They gave me a chance when I was networking and much more active outside of my nerd cave office at home. It’s those relationships you build that do pay off in the long term. It has done for me.

I don’t attend as many events as I used to because of my joints. It has to feel really important for me to come out and make the effort. But I think it’s such a fun and creative city. I don’t do much contracting and never really have done, but when I want to or have wanted to in the past it’s been easy to get that type of work.

Katherine: Coming from a small city like Derby, I was always on the hunt for things to do every weekend and I haven’t got out of that habit. I could fill my entire week with events in Manchester, but like Rachel I have health issues. I have chronic fatigue syndrome and I’m in a wheelchair. It’s fine for work as I just need a computer and can sit down, but the amount of energy it takes to come to an event means I have to weigh it up—do I want to get the work done or do I want to network.

Katherine Cory

Rachel, you’ve put a lot of work into positioning. You’ve branded yourself as a studio that helps entrepreneurs discover their values and convey their message. Can you talk me through the journey of understanding who you wanted to use your skill set for?

Rachel: A lot of it has come from figuring out what matters to me. I started out contracting for places and was doing more front-end dev than design. I just wasn’t enjoying it. My heart wasn’t in commuting every day as I had to work on-site. I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.

After 3 months of doing it I thought, “I’m going to end this contract and then I’m going to make my own way”. It’s been a hard slog over the next few years to figure that out. It feels like I’ve started my business over several times. I had huge clients that I worked with—huge brands here in the UK—but I couldn’t say anything because of NDAs.

For the next couple of years I very much kept afloat. It’s easy for people to think you’re doing amazingly well, but I was just keeping afloat. About 2 years ago I realised you do your best work when you’re excited by it. Which sounds simple, but it was a revelation to me because I realised I wasn’t enjoying the work I was doing. I was pretty much doing anything for anybody, and I didn’t feel like I had a direction.

Rachel Shillcock

At the time I’d signed up for an online course. This introduced me to a world of women entrepreneurs that I didn’t know about about and hadn’t connected with before. I fell in love with that kind of person. I wanted to do products, not just trade my time for money. I wanted to do courses, write books and things like that.

It took a long time. It was like starting from scratch when I realised those were the people I wanted to begin working with. It’s still evolving now. I pick out my client’s values and what matters to them and create that value-infused work, which in the online world is important. To show up authentically, even though that’s a buzz word.

That’s what I’ve been doing with my chronic illness. The more I’ve done that, the more clients I’ve got, the more projects I’ve landed, the more consistent my income has become, the more connections I’ve made, the more comfortable I’ve felt and happier I’ve been in my business. I connected with that client because I knew what they would want from their work. I knew exactly what they were asking for.

Even though a lot of people in the web industry were telling me not to do it, I knew I had to create a package that these types of clients would benefit from. They knew they were getting XYZ. They were happy with that.

Why are packages frowned upon?

Rachel: I think people have a problem with packages because they don’t think there’s any creative freedom. What I’ve found is that it helps set a project spec up.

Katherine: And expectations. It’s hard to sell a website because it can be as wide and small or tall or anything—it depends on a hundred different things. Where as packages help focus people.

Rachel: It helps them to understand what they need. A lot of the time they have a vague idea of what they need, but don’t fully understand. That’s the reason I created them. I’ve had more success with that than if I just said, “Websites start at X price”.

The online world I entered two years ago has drastically changed. For example, people were telling you how to do things and that there’s only one way to run a business to be a success. Now we’re growing up a bit and realising, “I can run my business the way I want to”. My work is not just about creating a website and a brand, it’s about helping them transform their business. Taking their soul, essence and values and what makes them special, and bringing that out into their business. Showing it to the world and helping them step up in a whole new way.

That’s what I do differently to other designers in the same sphere. It’s about transformation and supporting them. I’ve been through it and I didn’t have that hand to hold, so I want to help people show up as themselves and be there as a support to help them do that, while doing the visual branding and transformation of their business.

Katie and Rachel

In a way acting as a coach or mentor as well?

Rachel: Yeah, that’s what I love to do and I find myself doing that naturally anyway. The questions I ask before we work together and all that stuff feeds into that role. I take on many roles and give everything of myself to that client I’m working with.

My clients have been telling me that they’ve been hearing so many different ways of doing something and are finally figuring out how they want to do it—not just how somebody else says to do it. I’m kind of helping them navigate that in a safe place.

I’d been told for years that if I mentioned, for example, that I have a chronic illness I wouldn’t get clients to work with me. So I didn’t mention it because I needed my business to work for me to be able to live and pay my bills. Now I’m like, “This is me” and people respect that a lot more because you’re willing to be vulnerable. Not many people are willing to be vulnerable.

Katherine: It goes back to social media. It’s everyone’s highlight reel. Everyone’s so positive that you don’t realise half the people are also struggling to pay their rent. They’re not honest that it is tough out there.

Rachel: I’ve been guilty of that in the past. Now I’m more willing to say, “This has been a crap couple of weeks, there’s a lot going on”. The Manchester attack hit me hard. I couldn’t draw or do anything for so long. I don’t think enough people actually show up and own exactly where they are. They feel like they have to be 1 step or 10 steps ahead of where they are before they share the struggles.

Rachel Shillcock

Speaking of the Manchester attack, one of Katherine’s projects that caught my eye is We Stand Together. You’ve designed a series of products where all profits go to the victims and their families who were affected by the Manchester attack. What’s the response been like to that?

Katherine: It’s been positive. I’ve sold out of the badges already. My problem was that it took me 2 weeks to think of it. The attack happened the day I started my contract. It was just pure shock. I was working in town when the Arndale was being evacuated and the raids were in my neighbourhood. I realised I wanted to do something, but it was the first time I’ve produced a product.

It took me a week of doing all my homework with spreadsheets to work out if it was viable. It also took days of thinking, “Can I do this?”. When I’m doing something online I’m only investing my time, but with this I needed to pay money upfront and that was a really big thing to get my head around. Then I didn’t realise how slow the whole process was with manufacturers. They take over a day to respond to emails and we’re from the tech industry where people are online all the time. It’s taken 6 weeks to pull it all together. The response has been great, but I’m worried I left it a little too late. The aim is to raise £500.

Rachel: The manufacturing industry is so behind the tech industry. For example, I just want a thick notebook for my mandala designs. Not one that’s 20 pages—one that’s 100 pages that I can have a mandala printed on top of. I can’t find anywhere that will do it where you don’t have to pay £1000 upfront. It’s that whole scary thing of, “If I put this out there will it fail?”.

I launched an online community recently. I’ll be honest, it’s completely bombed. Part of it is my fault. I’ve not promoted it, I’ve not put enough time into it because it came from a place of lack. I saw someone else in a similar circle launch a similar community. They’ve now come up with the idea I had, so I wanted to get it out there and did things way too quick. All I’ve invested is time, but if I do a physical product and it bombs I’m going to have invested time, energy and money—and have these 100 notebooks here—and not be selling them.

Is there any advice you’d give to designers thinking of moving into the physical product space?

Katherine: Patience. I do a lot of online shopping. You get an email when you place an order. You get an email when it’s despatched and out for delivery. I didn’t get any of that. I just sat at home every day wondering if the postman would arrive with my order.

Since being open about your chronic illness, have any other designers come forward with health problems? Has it been a taboo to speak about it?

Katherine: I mentioned it when working in Derby. My work was given to someone else because they said they didn’t think I could manage it.

Rachel: That’s always been my worry as well. That’s why I never really mentioned it in the past. There’s a huge stigma around disability and chronic illness and how it effects you in work.

I work really hard at what I do and I know Katie does—we all do. If anything I think we work harder to prove ourselves and not let people down. I stopped listening to what a lot of people were telling me and tried to find my own way. Part of that was wanting to speak out about my illness, what I was going through and what it was like doing that as a business owner.

Not a lot of people realise the difficulties I go through daily and I don’t mind that. I don’t want people to know the ins and outs—I have boundaries of what I’ll talk about—but the more open I’ve been with clients, the better.

I’ve signed up a client with a chronic illness. She signed up with me because we’ve built that relationship up and she knew about my illness. That was amazing because on a day I was struggling, I could say to her, “I know we’ve got this deadline, but I’m struggling a little bit”. She was completely understanding and now I make it a rule to mention it to every client.

I have no problem getting vulnerable, whether it’s on stage or online. I prefer to do that because what you see is what you get. I’d rather it be that way than building up an image that I have this perfect life going on—that I’ve been running my business for 5 years and everything’s perfect. Because it isn’t a lot of the time. The more I speak up about it, the more clients appreciate it and it doesn’t turn them away. I’d rather it did turn clients off that don’t understand it, because they’re never going to be good clients anyway.

Rachel and Katie

Have either of you ever spoken about it at meet-ups or conferences?

Katherine: No. I’ve had it for 18 years and I had 10 years of good health where I was going to conferences and speaking and it wasn’t an issue. But the last 3 years have been rough and I can’t hide it now. I don’t publicly talk about it, but my clients know and I’d rather be upfront and honest. It’s tough.

I was speaking to an agency this week and they said people with health issues are always more reliable because they’re conscious of letting people down so they make sure that they don’t. Since my health has become a problem I plan my work better, because I know I’ve only got a small window of time to do the work in.

Rachel: It’s very rare to find myself doing a late night or an all-nighter. You just can’t do it. I have set hours because that works well for me. I’ll admit I’m a workaholic, I’m a perfectionist, I’m a semi-recovering perfectionist because I’m actively trying to change that. But for me I always have to make sure that I don’t work too long or too hard.

It makes you more efficient and focussed with the work you’re doing.

Rachel: That’s the plan! Imagine you woke up and you had 10 spoons given to you in the morning. Every action that you do during the day, one of those spoons is taken away from you. Having a shower in the morning, a spoon is taken away from you…

Katherine: Make yourself breakfast, that’s another spoon. Get dressed, that’s another spoon…

Rachel: That’s what it’s like for us. A limited amount of energy that’s taken off us with every action we do. This week has been crazy. I was grateful to get out of the house because I’ve got 4 or 5 calls booked throughout the week. I know that come this weekend I’m going to be aching and sore because I’ve had to be more focused for those calls. Working specific hours and not working too late makes a huge difference to how we run our business.

Which is really just a smart way to work in general.

Katherine: The culture is that you’re applauded if you’re working late nights and weekends. But I burnt out, which is half the reason I’m in the mess I’m in now.

Katherine Cory

What are you doing to recover from burn out?

Katherine: I stopped going to conferences, networking, events…

Rachel: All the non-essential stuff stops.

Katherine: You’ve got to give yourself time to remember why you’re doing this. That you enjoy doing this and almost fall back in love with it.

Rachel: I had a bad fall in February. I fell down the stairs, landed on and hit my elbow. My joints can move in and out and aren’t fully supported. As a result I get trapped nerves all the time. When I banged my elbow I had nerve pain for 8 weeks. That’s constant pain all the way from my shoulder down. You find ways of dealing with it and it’s similar with burn out. People with chronic illnesses find it easier to deal with burn out because we’ve had to deal with it in other ways before. I was trying to fight through that pain, but in the end I needed to step back, stop and realise that I’ve got to take that chance to recover.

Katherine: I think we’re more resilient because we’re used to fighting for what we want. Half my battle is frustration. I know what I could achieve if I could work like a normal person. I always feel like I never reach my potential. If I had more time I could do more. That’s frustrating.

Did your chronic illnesses lead to you choosing the careers you have because it’s low impact and you can choose your hours depending on how you feel?

Katherine: I was bed bound from 13 and was bored, so I bought a book on HTML. I started learning that and I saw Computer Arts on the magazine shelf. That’s the first time it clicked that I could make a career out of this. I got Paintshop Pro, taught myself that and got on a graphic design course at Uni. I was bottom of the class because everyone else came from Foundation or A-levels. I worked hard, came out first and got a job in the industry.

That’s a really good origin story. Is yours similar, Rachel?

Rachel: I had a similar experience. I remember going online, seeing websites and thinking, “I want to know how to do that”. I’d look at the code. I didn’t understand it, but thought it was cool. Tutorials.com was my go-to website for learning code.

I used to write code in Notepad. That was how I started. I hated Dreamweaver because we had to use it for GCSE IT to build a web application. I was like, “I can do this, I can code it better”. I’d moved beyond tables at that point. I was told that if I didn’t use the draw feature in Dreamweaver to draw the tables, I would fail the course because they weren’t up to date with where the code was at that point. I was so frustrated that I made sure it looked the best, and I got the top marks out of that class. My mum started getting me Computer Arts and .Net magazine.

Katherine: They were expensive. I couldn’t get a part-time job, so all my pocket money went on those magazines. I still have them. I’m not prepared to part with them!

Rachel, you’re active in a few online communities as well as running a group on Facebook. Have they played an important role in your career as a freelancer?

Rachel: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of clients from the communities I’ve been in. I’ve not joined them with that intention. It’s always been about building relationships and making connections with people. That’s one of my biggest values.

Once I slipped back into that value-based stuff for myself and my business, I realised that’s why I wasn’t getting as much work. I started focusing on creating connections, building real relationships and focusing on helping and being of service to people. As a result I started getting tagged in communities and known as someone that does a lot of work with ConvertKit, because I was giving advice about it. That organically grew into people having me in mind when they needed branding or a website, because they knew I did that sort of thing.

I’ve been in a lot of free communities and paid communities with courses. You have to do the work and show up if you want to make a difference. A lot of running a business and being the entrepreneur I want to be—and I do consider myself that because I’m not just trading time for money—is investing a lot of time and energy into this stuff.

Let’s finish by sharing how you get to the bottom of what your client needs.

Katherine: It’s taking the time. A lot of people are caught up with chasing the work. Finding your market helps. I’ve struggled with this. I like making websites, but finding that market where I fit and how to sell myself is a struggle. I still don’t have a website because I struggle to find that grade where I fit and clients are going to find and understand me. It’s hard. Once you find that it’s easy to grow your business.

Rachel: I agree. It’s taken me years to figure out who I want to work with and why I want to work with them. The other day I was talking with one of my clients that prompted me to change the copy I had on my website. When I said I work with visionary entrepreneurs, she said she really connected with the word ‘visionary’. I thought, “Why am I not using that word more?”. That encapsulates everything about the type of person I want to work with.

They’re someone that has many ideas and needs that little bit of help to get there. More support visually, branding-wise, and genuine support to get to that next level with their business. They want to launch a new service or product, or look more professional and like the expert they know they are. It’s not about putting up a front with my clients, it’s about helping them step into that role they already know they’re capable of.

Finding that group of people and that sweet spot is difficult, but now I have it’s all down to process and systems. Taking the time to really get to know them and dig deep with calls, questionnaires. One of the things I launched recently was a brand strategy intensive. It can be a standalone consulting thing. People sign up for a 1.5 hour call with me. A brand plan—almost like a business plan, but for branding and strategy. I realised after doing the first one that it’s the perfect first step with a client as I can dig deep into their needs, what they want and we start to get involved in the visual side. I have a slide deck that shows them types of things. Because my clients don’t always know how to describe the work they want. They were coming to me and saying, “I want to work with you, but I don’t know how to explain what I want”. So I’ve then been able to create systems and processes within my work. My work isn’t just asking them questions and then doing it. We really dig deep and chat and all sorts of things before we even get started.

Katherine: Not being two steps ahead of yourself and chasing the next client. Sitting down and taking the time with the client helps.

Connect with Katherine and Rachel

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