(Case study) Mikleo on curating an amazing portfolio

Learn how Mikleo produce beautiful designs while working in a remote team, what tools they use and how they find their clients.

Mikleo is a remote design and research team—and one of Jack’s customers! Jack sat down with one half of Mikleo, Cassius Kiani, to chat working remotely, finding a business partner, and how a solid Dribbble portfolio has helped them win clients.

Mikleo's portfolio

Mikleo is a remote design and research team. Can you give me an insight into how you and Fabio work together while in different cities?

Fabio spends a lot of time in Sicily and I spend a lot of time dotted around for other bits and pieces, so sometimes it’s not just working from different cities, but different countries.

It’s about being transparent. We work around the idea of morning check-ins where we rattle off what we’re doing and what needs doing. We check-out at the end of the day and cover what’s happened.

We make sure everything is really open and communication between ourselves is super clear in the same way it is with our clients.

Because we’ve had such a good working relationship and friendship for so long, we can be really honest about everything—even the hard stuff that no one wants to talk about. Everything is transparent.

We respect each other’s space as well. We know design takes time and everyone needs time to get in the zone, so we don’t sit and bother each other on Slack all day.

We don’t really think about it that much, we’ve done it for so long it just works.

Are there any tools you use to make remote working easier?

Things like Slack. We’ve dabbled with AsanaFlow and Basecamp, although we don’t use them as heavily as we used to. It depends on the project.

We use Invision all the time. Invision or Marvel depending on what we need to use it for.

Outside of that, Zeplin is good for collaboration. We do a lot of designing in Sketch, but you get a lot of people who are resistant to using Sketch—some devs hate it. Zeplin is a tool where you export the assets, drop everything into a workspace and it gives you all the styles, custom CSS, bits and pieces that are difficult to extract from a PSD.

Cassius, one of Mikleo's designers

What are your roles in the business?

We want to turn it into a product studio. We want to step away from client work and make cool products.

All the work we’re doing at the moment is geared towards creating a buffer of money where we can turn around in 6 months and say, “We don’t have to worry about anything, we can just make products”.

If it gets to the stage where things are a bit tricky, we can always go back to client work. That’s the ultimate goal.

We’ve had the opportunity of taking on more work and scaling it as a studio, but we don’t like that idea.

Why not?

As much as we love designing, the problem is we’re always restricted by client stuff. Although you shouldn’t get attached to designs, you put your heart and soul, time, effort and energy into something and the client doesn’t always like it.

We experienced this recently when the developers had already built the wireframe, even though we’d designed something better. We couldn’t implement it, which is nuts as design is iterative. It’s annoying when someone signs something off before it’s reached its peak in the creative process.

No matter how much you fight, ultimately the client is always right. You have to compromise and sometimes I don’t like that.

We’ve had so many good ideas and done cool things, but people turn around and say, “It’s just not right” yet they haven’t even tested it. They haven’t gone out and split tested it.

We’ve had some cool ideas but have never had the chance to give it a go and see if it’s what we really love, if we can make a living out of it and do something important for the world at the same time.

Cassius enjoying a coffee

You and Fabio make a great team. That much is clear from looking at your work. Do you have any advice for freelancers on finding a business partner to compliment their skills?

I’d be lying if I said there was a process. Fabio and I met through luck. We had another friend we worked with on a separate project. We all got on well, but Fabio and I wanted to go in a different direction so we separated.

You’ve got to find someone that doesn’t make you want to bang your head against the wall if you spend 24 hours around them.

When running a business, you’re going to end up being friends as well as business people, and you’re going to need to have really hard conversations. It’s difficult to do that with someone you’re not completely comfortable with.

All processes need friction. If you never get past the phase where you’re tooth and nail with something, you never get the best results. So, you have to find someone that you can be totally comfortable with as a friend, a business partner and somebody that you trust.

Make sure you trust them because at any stage they could run off. They can run off with your clients, money, and leave you in a situation that’s high and dry. If you really doubt something, they’re probably not the right person to go into business with anyway.

Cassius from Mikleo at work

It isn’t all fun and games and designing pretty interfaces. The business side is the part most freelancers hate. Admin, insurance, taxes… How do you keep on top of that stuff? Are you diligent about it, or are you both more concerned with the creative side?

If you’re making money then pay someone else to look after it. It’s not your job to worry about what your money is doing other than whether it’s paying for the things you need, like your wage and the operating costs. Get someone else to look after it. If you’re wearing too many hats as a creative, it gets a bit stressful.

Obviously, check your account and see what’s coming in and out, but hire an accountant—hire someone who can turn around and say, “This needs doing, that needs doing”. That’ll take away a lot of the heavy lifting from a finance side at least.

Also, not all people are good salespeople. If you’re in a position where your work is good, and you’ve got people telling you that and a lot of belief in yourself, then hire someone else to find you work. Even if it’s on a freelance basis where it’s a fixed fee and they get a commission on top.

Selling things is really hard. It is something you can teach yourself, but it takes a long time and it detracts from your core set of skills.

I’m not saying it’s bad to be a Unicorn and do a million things like design, dev and sales. I’m sure in the future that’ll be an incredibly valuable set of skills, but if your goal is to grow, then in order to do that hire someone else to look after the sales side. They’ll do a better job than you will and it’ll give you time to focus on the things that are important.

If your day rate is £500 and you’re spending 2 days a month doing accounting, yet an accountant costs £250, you’re saving yourself £750.

Same with sales and what you’re spending a week to generate leads. If it’s costing you £500 to get an external person to do that for you, then you’re saving £2000 because you’re not going out to do that work. You can spend that time putting shots on Dribbble, uploading work to Behance, you can write, reach out to people to co-create, you can create UI Kits.

There are so many things designers can do to generate leads which doesn’t involve emailing, chatting to people, going to events. People are too concerned with taking traditional approaches all the time. Just be inventive and creative, and get other people to do the stuff you don’t want to do.

Cassius from Mikleo

Mikleo at work

You also collaborate with a lot of other freelancers. Vic Bell for illustration work, for example. How have you managed to build a broad network of talent to tap into? Is it from going to meet-ups, attending conferences?

A lot of it is just being nice to people. Being nice doesn’t mean you have to pussyfoot around things. Being nice is giving constructive feedback and helping people out, telling people you enjoy their work or what they’re doing.

If you feel that there’s collaborations you could have with people, just reach out. We’re not the best illustrators or animators on the planet. We do it, but we tend to reach out because there’s better illustrators and animators than us and it makes our designs better.

Cassius fuelling up on coffee

How do you win clients?

We’ve won clients in the local area because of doing good work for people. Obviously good work gets other people chatting, which is nice.

Outside of the UK scene, a lot of the work we get is from Fabio’s portfolio. Fabio has a kick-ass Dribbble portfolio he’s spent years curating.

I’ve chatted to Fabio about curating an amazing portfolio, and he’d probably say the same thing to everyone. Don’t be afraid to show your work.

Fabio hates about 70% of his work on Dribbble, but he doesn’t delete it. He leaves it. He takes the good and bad. He’s not afraid to show his work.

If you want to curate a nice portfolio, don’t be afraid to show everything—even the stuff you think is bad, because sometimes that’s the stuff that people really love. Bad in your eyes might just be “I don’t like this palette”.

We generate a lot of leads through Dribbble. If work dries up, we’ll release a ton of UI kits, we’ll put them in the right places and say “Hey, sign up for this cool stuff”.

There’s a really good agency in Manchester called Supremo which did Type Terms. Type Terms shows you what a stem is in typography, what ligatures mean. It’s really cool and that’s been shared a lot. Just thinking outside the box is another way to generate leads.

Black coffee and matcha latte

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