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The IPSE community is full of brilliant individuals building their self-employed careers and businesses. In our series of Member Story interviews, we share their knowledge, advice and experiences to help and inspire others.
Approaching the tenth anniversary of working for herself, Katy Carlisle has focused on a specific niche by offering web design, training and even creating a community based around the Squarespace website system.
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Can you introduce yourself and your business?
I’m Katy Carlisle. My business is called Squarespace Queen. And I do Squarespace web design and training.
About 50% of my business is web design for clients. And then the other half is training people how to use Squarespace to build their own websites. So, Squarespace, if you don’t know it already, if you’ve never listened to a podcast that’s been sponsored by Squarespace, or a YouTube video, it’s a website building tool.
And it’s really easy to use. It’s designed for people who don’t have any coding background, but it’s also really flexible for experts like myself to customise, so that you can create a really unique site for different people.
So, I work mainly with clients in the charity and non-profit industry, as well as other freelancers, and very, very small businesses.
And then for my training side, I do one-to-one training via Zoom, I do group workshops, and I’m just working on some online courses as well. And I also have a little community called Squarespace Club where people can ask questions, and I share updates about what’s going on with the platform as well.
How long have you been freelancing or self-employed?
I set up in October 2013, so nine years, and then this year will be my big 10-year anniversary. So, I want to try and think of something fun to do for that.
You’ve been freelancing for some time, but did you always work in web design before that? And have you been focused on Squarespace since becoming self-employed?
It’s always been web design. Basically, I’m quite an impulsive person. I kind of think about something for a long time, but then I’ll suddenly be like, right now is the day that it’s happening. And I’ll just go on and do it.
I’d been thinking for a little while that I wanted to run my own business and do something freelance. I used to work in the charity sector for charities and nonprofits. That’s why I work in that world now, because it’s a world I know really well.
My former boss shot herself in the foot slightly, in that she was really inspiring. And she was really keen on everyone that worked for her creating a life that they loved. But she accidently inspired too many people because loads of us left to set up our own business.
Originally, my plan was actually to do a similar job to what I was doing when working for the non-profit. Which had a website component, but it was more general tech and systems support. I’d guess if I was feeling fancy, I’d call myself the CTO. But it was a charity with three or four employees.
I would help create little micro campaign sites, I’d help manage the main website which has been designed by an external agency, but I took a lot of ownership keeping that up to date. And when we wanted to do things and they weren’t available, I’d just teach myself and figure out how to do it. And also, general systems support, setting up people on email, auditing different software to make sure we were getting value for money, looking for other tools we could use to help the business function more effectively, things like that.
My plan was originally to go and offer my services to the charity sector, because I know most non-profits can’t afford to have somebody full-time, or even part-time, giving them the tech support that they need. But I know it is sorely needed, and it generally falls to the person who is most technical, out of a group of very non-technical people. And that was always my role. So, I’d go in for maybe a couple of hours a month to each of the charities, build up a few clients, and do that.
I’d decided to go freelance and I’d heard of Squarespace because my former boss had sent me a link to look at an amazing website for an environmental cause, because my background was actually in sustainability as well. And at the bottom, it said ‘powered by Squarespace.’
When I left to set up my own business, it’s like OK, I’ll use Squarespace to create my own site, so I can get a feel for it. And it’s just another tool that I can offer people to use. And I used it, and just absolutely fell in love with it. And was so evangelical about it, that other people said “OK, can you make my website for me?”
One of the colleagues who had also left to set up her own business, she’d done her own site in some random website builder, but her search engine results were all German, her website didn’t look very professional, so she said “Can you help me out?”
So, I made up a price, charged her, and then her husband needed a website. I made one for him, and then my old boss put me in touch with someone she’d met that needed a website. And all of a sudden, I was like, hang on, maybe there’s a market for this? Maybe I’m a web designer? And so, I switched my plans and thought I’ll try this for as long as I can get customers. And nine years later, here I am!
Can you explain more about how you developed your niche, and how you taught yourself to become an expert? And whether it’s important or not to have a clearly defined speciality when you’re self-employed?
I think there’s actually a lot of pressure on freelancers when they first start. A lot of the advice is to find your niche, but actually, you almost don’t know what your niche is, until you’ve tried out a few things.
Although I was focusing on Squarespace because I really loved it, when I first started, I was also doing websites on WordPress and Shopify for people, because those are platforms that I knew as well. And some people would come to me and say “Oh, I’ve got a WordPress site, can you give me some help with it?”
But what I really noticed was that I always put those projects off. And I always wanted to work on the Squarespace projects because it was so much easier for me to do what the clients wanted. Compared to battling with WordPress and Shopify even though I’d used them more. And the steeper learning curve was with Squarespace.
I did have to familiarise myself with it, and teach myself. But it was just so intuitive, it didn’t really need that much. And I’m naturally a person who likes to poke about in things. We recently bought a camper van, and my boyfriend mocks me so much “because the first thing you did, was that you ran in, and you opened up all the compartments and pressed all the buttons to see what would happen!”
And that’s kind of the person I am. So, when I’d been building my own site, I’d been poking around. I had been clicking on stuff to find out what happened. And as I did more and more client sites, I learned about new little features each time. In the end, it just became so obvious that I really should just focus on Squarespace because I was able to add more value there. I enjoyed it more, so I was giving a better experience to people. And I was getting more recommendations from Squarespace clients than the other clients.
It felt quite scary because at the time, no-one had really heard of Squarespace. Nowadays they’re fairly well known, they sponsor stuff, they have Superbowl ads, most people know someone who’s had a go at making a website with Squarespace. But at the time, I had to do a little bit of a sales pitch.
After a while, when I decided OK, I am going to really focus on Squarespace, I went on a jobs site called PeoplePerHour. And I know in the freelance world there’s definitely mixed opinions about whether you should use these job sites. For me, they happened at a time in my career that I just wanted a little bit more exposure to people. But I know it’s probably harder to find good paid work on them now than it used to be.
I looked specifically for Squarespace jobs. And I was very strategic in terms of the ones I applied for. I only applied for the ones where they had a decent budget, and had a nice, well-worded brief or a really clear list of what they wanted to achieve. At the time, most people got one in every 18 jobs, I think, that they were applying for. But I was getting one in three, because I was being so targeted with my applications.
There weren’t that many other Squarespace web designers out there, and so it helps me build up my reputation in that niche. And it was great market research because I was asking those people how are you finding Squarespace? What made you choose it? How did you hear about it? So that helped me refine my pitch to other people.
I think probably about three or four years ago was probably the turning point where I stopped having to sell Squarespace to people. They’re definitely considering it, or have already decided on it, which just makes my life so much easier. Because I’ve just had to sell my services, not the tool as well.
Given your support for the platform, have you become more involved with Squarespace itself?
They do have a few schemes. I’m a Squarespace authorised trainer, and I was actually approached to be in the first cohort of the programme that they were piloting. Because, yeah, I’ve been pretty evangelical about it.
There’s also a community for people who are Squarespace developers, called Squarespace Circle. And I’m one of the community forum leaders as well. So, there’s certain things where, because of my long-term involvement and my enthusiasm, I’m quite involved with some of the different programmes that they have.
And has that been part of how you taught yourself to use the platform and go through the tools that are available?
I’d love to say yes, but honestly, I think it was just 95% poking about and trying stuff. That was just how I learned. And I think they do have really good customer support, so if there was anything I was stuck on, I’d go on their live chat or look at their guides.
But most of the time, the whole point of Squarespace was that it was designed for people who didn’t have any coding experience. You didn’t have to be that technical. So, even though I do have some coding experience, I didn’t always need to use it.
I was actually quite scared when I first started out that I wasn’t a kind of real web developer. I was terrified someone would ask me about code and I wouldn’t know the answer. And actually, after a while I realised that’s an asset, the fact that I’ve not gone down the traditional route of web development. Because it means that I talk in a human way, and my conversations aren’t full of jargon.
I approach the project in a way that I think just feels more normal for a client. And since then, I have taught myself various bits of coding stuff that can help me add extra value to the design of the site.
Many freelancers have encountered imposter syndrome, but you seem to have embraced it and turned it into an advantage. And that approach seems to be carried through on your website, which feels personal and fun?
That makes me so happy, because that was really what I wanted to do. So, I decided to change my name just before lockdown, and the pandemic, and everything. And my plan was to do a big rebrand and do a proper launch, and everything. Then half my projects disappeared overnight, and so I didn’t have the budget to do that full rebrand.
I’m not a graphic designer. I work collaboratively with a lot of graphic designers. So, one of them, in particular, I’ve worked with a lot. And we chatted about her doing a rebrand of my visual identity, but I just had to put that on hold. In the end, I decided I’d just actually launch the site in the really basic way during the pandemic. And I’ve relied very heavily on my copy because I didn’t have much else.
I didn’t have much of a brand, I was OK making the site look nice enough, but I knew that working with a graphic designer will take it to the next level.
After a while I got some projects back, and the current site is with the planned design.
How do you find designers to work with? And what’s your experience of collaborative working?
I’ve had a bit of a mixed experience. 90% positive? It depends when somebody comes to me. Someone might say I want to have a logo, a brand design, and a website. And I’ll say okay, I do the website bit, and I work with graphic designers to do the brand part. So, I can recommend them web designers, graphic designers that I know work really well with me, and understand Squarespace. What it can do, and what it can’t.
Sometimes they’ll already have their own graphic designers on board. And most of the time they’re really easy to work with, and it’s really straight forward. But I have had the odd time when the graphic designers haven’t quite grasped the limitations of Squarespace, or they’ve designed it in a way that just doesn’t quite work.
They may be used to doing print work, and so they’ve designed something that doesn’t really work when it has to resize to lots of different devices. So, then that can be a little bit challenging, because you’ve got so many different sizes and aspect ratios to design for. But I’ve found in general, because of the type of clients I work with, they generally work with other good people as well.
Rebranding and changing a business name can be scary. What led you to do it, and has the rebrand been successful?
When I first started and planned to offer my services to the charity sector, one of the things that really frustrated me was how often people felt the need to reinvent the wheel. They would end up paying loads of money for some custom software or a custom-made website when all they really needed was a simple portfolio.
And the number of times I’ve worked with organisations mis-sold something that costs so much money, and had too many features that they didn’t need. When there were off-the-shelf products that would do it for them with just a little bit of tweaking.
So, I named my business ‘The Wheel Exists’, and that kind of worked for Squarespace as well.
After about seven years, I was ready for a change. I felt some people got it and loved it. But then sometimes I had to explain it. And it just became a thing. People were like “the wheel exits?”, and it just got really confusing, and I felt like it didn’t really reflect the work I did.
I was trying to think of a new business name. And I knew I didn’t want it to be my own name, because I have side projects, and I never want me to be associated with just one thing. So, I’d been wracking my brains and then within the space of about a month or two, I think four or five different people independently referred to me as the Squarespace queen.
I was like, wait a minute, why am I thinking so hard about a name when everyone’s done the work for me! I have to be quite careful because Squarespace is very protective, obviously, of their name and copyright. It’s actually written SQ SP Queen, which is a common abbreviation. I was on tenterhooks a little bit to see if that would pass okay with Squarespace, but they don’t seem to have been bothered by it. So, I’m keeping it for now, and if they have a problem, it’s going to be good publicity for me!
It’s been so much better because it just lends itself to people talking about me. If someone posts in a forum, on a Facebook Group, or Instagram or anything, and they say I need some help with Squarespace. Oh, you need the Squarespace queen. It just makes it so much easier for people to recommend me, and it says what I do.
Probably my focus is as much on my knowledge of Squarespace as it is on the actual web design side of it. So, one of the reasons that I think people like working with me is because I can always figure out a way to achieve what they’re looking to do on the website.
They might say “we want to do this thing,” and I’ll say well, Squarespace doesn’t do that. But what I think you’re looking to achieve is this objective, and we can do it this way using this work around. Or actually Squarespace has this other tool that we can add on.
I just love answering Squarespace questions. So, it felt like a really natural name. It has made such a difference in terms of how people talk about me. It comes with its own problems of people knowing how to spell it, but once I thought of that as the name, I couldn’t let go of it.
You offer both web design and training. If design came first, how did you move into developing the training side of your business?
I used to be a teacher, and so there was always a natural inclination to do training there. I started with web design and I think the first training I did was actually a group workshop because I was running a freelance community. And we did these pop-up co-working sessions on Friday afternoons where we’d all come and work together in this community space.
A few of them are saying I want to make a website for my business, I haven’t got the budget to pay you to build it, but can I just pick your brains about how to do it? So, I realised there was potentially demand, and put together a quick kind of workshop. I think I got about six people registered and I was really happy with that.
So, we did a Saturday workshop and it went really, really well. I think the workshop was probably around 2014, 2015, still fairly early on in my freelancing career. And it just went from there, really. I started doing more workshops, and then I started doing one-to-one training either in-person or on Zoom. So, I was using Zoom before the pandemic, which was really good because it meant people were already used to doing that with me, and I was familiar with the technology. Nothing much changed in terms of the way I worked because of the pandemic.
Are there any specific projects or business achievements that you’re particularly proud of?
In terms of business achievements, there’s a couple. I think I mentioned already that Squarespace have a community for designers, developers, basically anyone who builds Squarespace sites for other people, and that’s called Squarespace Circle. And they’re trying hard to develop that community because they realised it makes sense to help people who are basically being their brand ambassadors.
They did a conference called Squarespace Circle Day. It was a full day event, they did it in-person in New York, and online. They put a call out a few months ago for speakers, and I was chosen. So that was really amazing, because there were only about probably 10 people chosen to be speakers outside of people from Squarespace. So that was extremely exciting, actually speaking at an official Squarespace event being broadcast on the YouTube channel and everything. So it was really cool doing that.
And then I think probably my other one was the IPSE awards, actually. I was Freelancer Of The Year in 2016, and then I won the Freelance Ambassador of the Year Award in 2017. So, very pleased with both of those. I was actually a judge at the awards last year as well, so it all came full circle. That was also a massive honour.
What’s your favourite thing about being self-employed?
My favourite thing about being self-employed is the flexibility, and just being able to actually be my own boss and make the decisions that I want to make. And not have to run them higher up the management chain, and wait for sign off to do things, by which time you’ve kind of missed the opportunity.
And I just love the flexibility that I can just decide to change my business name, and it’s fine. It’s only me that has to sign that off. I can choose which clients to take on, and which ones to say no to. I can decide which portion of my business is going to be website design, and which is going to be training. And I can change that if I want to. If I get bored of one thing, I can do a bit more of the other. I can take six weeks off if I want to, and just choose how to manage my time.
I think that really helps me because I love doing water sports. Outside of freelancing, water sports are my passion, so swimming and surfing and paddleboarding. So having the flexibility to take advantage of good weather conditions and I’m going to go for a swim now in the middle of the day because I can. That’s part of the beauty of being freelance, and I can block my calendar out to make sure I’ve always got that time allocated to it when the tides work.
We’ve got a campervan, and so we go out and can work from there if I’ve not got calls. I’ve even done a couple of Zoom calls from the campervan. So, it just lets me actually live my life whilst working, rather than waiting until I retire to actually start living, which I know some people do.
Do you have any side projects alongside your business?
Yeah, I get bored easily. Freelancing is by far the longest job that I’ve ever stuck at. Before it was kind of, three years was the most before I wanted to leave. One of the things that actually keeps me interested in freelancing is the fact that I can switch up my business, and introduce new things.
But I’ve also got various side projects. I’ve been running for years a community for freelancers, called Freelance Folk, and before Covid we used to meet in-person. We would meet every Friday afternoon and do these pop-up co-working sessions where we’d bring our laptops, have a chat and channel those Friday afternoon office vibes. And then we’d generally go for a drink after. That’s wound down a little bit because of Covid. I’m still trying to work out whether to try and resurrect the physical in-person meetups or whether to take it in a slightly different direction.
One of the freelancers I met through that has become a really good friend, and she’s my business coach. She’s amazing, she’s called Michelle Pratt, and she runs a training and development business called Dive Deeper Development. So together, we have a podcast called ’99 Problems but A Boss Ain’t One’. And we tackle a different freelance challenge every episode. At the start, we did things like imposter syndrome and finding clients. She comes at it from a very training, mindset and personal development approach. And I come at it from a sort of more practical, what can you do? And both of us share our freelancing stories and experiences as well.
During the pandemic, I also set up another little side project. I like lots of projects – I’m not even halfway yet!
I’ve been wanting to do something for a while, that was a bit of an outlet for things that didn’t quite fit on my own blog. It didn’t quite fit on Freelance Folk’s blog. But I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to share, and in writing. And I knew a lot of other people did as well. So, I had a chat to a few people and said “would you be up for writing some articles about stuff for this kind of online magazine thing that I’m making?” I wrote some articles, and some people I know wrote some articles and then I launched the online magazine, that’s called ‘Own Beats’. It’s about marching to the beat of your own drum, and it’s basically a collection about living and thinking a bit differently.
I want to give it a bit more love and attention. I had a look at how many people had signed up to the mailing list, and I think there’s 800 people signed up without me even realising!
How do you find the right balance between work, life and side projects. How do you fit it all in?
I don’t always, is the really honest answer. And so there will be times when a certain side project gets more neglected than others. I also run a business with my partner that I dip into every so often. I’m not full-time on it, but there will be times when I’m more involved and times when I’ve stepped back as well.
So, it is a real challenge juggling everything, and there are more things I do. But a few things have helped me.
I don’t generally do client work on a Friday, or any kind of work relating to the Squarespace Queen side of the business. And I’ve not done that for a long, long time. Because I used to do the Freelance Folk meetups on a Friday and tended to travel into Manchester in the morning, I haven’t worked on a Friday on web design stuff. So that’s always been available for other projects.
Sometimes if I’ve had time off doing other things, I will pop stuff into a Friday. But as a general rule, I don’t do calls on Fridays. And I’ve actually started not doing calls on Thursdays either. So, if someone wants to book a training session, a call, or a client wants to have a catch up, they have to book me in advance between 11.30am and 4pm Monday to Wednesday. I tend to have quite jam-packed days on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. But that gives me the flexibility to do what I want on the Thursday or Friday, whether that’s water sports, doing some deep work on a client project, or working on side projects.
And actually, using a scheduling tool. So, I use Calendly and it’s made such a difference. This is what I was talking about at the Squarespace event; how to set boundaries with your clients, what I’ve learned through trying to do that and failing, and then ultimately getting to a point where I’m happy with it.
I used to be like, ‘my calendar is so complicated a scheduling tool could never handle it. And clients are going to need me the next day. So, I’m never going to be able to set it to work how I actually want it to.’ And I resisted it for a really, really long time.
In the end I just had this feeling that I needed to do it, because I was just getting really overwhelmed. I felt like I wasn’t in control of my calendar, it was in charge of me. And it was so easy.
I thought ideally, I’d have Monday to Thursday. I don’t do mornings either, so I never worked really before half past 10, but I don’t mind working in the evenings. And I don’t work weekends. So, I’m pretty strict with setting boundaries already, but then I was breaking them when clients asked me. I’d be the one putting pressure on myself to scramble and find time the next day, cancelling things I wanted to do, or for my business development.
What I found when I started using Calendly was that I set it so you have to book me at least a week in advance. I’d send them the link and say book a time, and they would just book within the time available, and it just worked.
So that’s really helped with balancing work, life and side projects, and just helping my wellbeing, because I do have anxiety. Looking after my mental health is really important, and not getting too burned out. And I know the signs to look out for if I start to get too overwhelmed, and then I can just restrict my availability a little bit.
It did take a little bit of an adjustment period because there were some clients who were used to getting me the next day. So, I had to explain to them you might need to wait a little bit longer to book me. If you have a problem, let me know and I’ll see if I can fit you in. But they tended to just be happy with the dates that were available.
And for new clients, it probably looked quite good, because they’d be like ‘Oh, she’s really busy and booked up she must be good.’ And because they’d have to book me from the very first call, they were just used to them. Part of it was just educating the clients around my work.
How long have you been an IPSE member?
I think I first joined IPSE in either late 2014 or early 2015. It was not that long after I started freelancing. I had previously been a member of another industry association that supported businesses, and I just didn’t feel like they really understood the role of a creative freelancer like myself.
I think we were probably a bit of a rare breed back then compared to how we are right now. But that sort of lifestyle freelancer, not wanting to grow, not wanting to set up a limited company. I didn’t need printer cartridges and office space. So, after my first year with that organisation, I discovered IPSE. And I thought that’s perfect, there’s an association that’s dedicated to freelancers, to people like me. It seemed like IPSE really understood what my needs were, and what I was looking for.
And what have you found most useful or valuable as an IPSE member?
In terms of what I find most valuable, I’ve always wanted to be part of something. So, when I was working in the non-profit and charity world, I think every organisation I worked for or worked with, they were a member of some kind of industry body. And it gave them a bit of protection, made them feel like they’re part of something bigger, and there’s opportunities to talk to other people in that world as well. So, I knew when I went freelance, I wanted to be a member of an association of some kind. I think part of what I like about being an IPSE member is feeling part of something bigger than myself.
I love all of the campaigning work that they do. IR35, it’s not super relevant for me, but I know so many people are affected by it in the freelance world. And it’s really important the work that they’re doing.
And then during lockdown and the pandemic, people were really struggling financially, and I know that they did such a good job of being our voice for the industry, and getting the government to actually listen to the demands. And I know they didn’t manage to get everything they wanted, and there’s still a lot of people left behind. But I feel like they were really instrumental in getting the support for freelancers that was desperately needed.
From a practical perspective, I really like things like the tax investigation cover. And you know, hopefully, I won’t need it. I feel like I’ve done all of my bookkeeping fine, but I don’t have an accountant, I do my own tax returns. I’m a bit of a nerd about it, I’ve read a lot, I think I’ve done it right. But I just think the disruption to my business would be so much if I did get investigated. So just having that peace of mind. And there’s a few other perks that they offer.
But I think the real benefit and what has been really valuable is just taking advantage of the opportunities on offer. So, the first year I was a member when you were doing the Freelancer of the Year awards, even if I hadn’t got anywhere with it, it was such a useful process. Going through and actually looking at what I’d done well, it was a really nice feeling actually.
Then actually being one of the finalists and going down to London. I’m still in touch with a lot of the other finalists now. Steve Folland, who does the Being Freelance podcast was another finalist with me, so we commiserated our losses over a beer in the pub. And then I was a guest on his podcast. And we’ve worked together, he uses one of our software products. So, we’ve had a nice relationship ongoing from that. And I’ve done some website design work for another finalist.
Just meeting people, and the opportunities that came from that, were just so valuable. I mean it’s nice to say, I’m a finalist. And then the year after, I was the Ambassador of the Year winner, which was for my work on Freelance Folk and championing the freelance way of life. So just taking advantage of the opportunities, and doing this Member Story, and I’ve been on the podcast. I think the opportunities are there if you take them.
Would you recommend IPSE membership to other freelancers?
Absolutely. Even in difficult times, they’re always looking for ways that they can add value to the membership. So, I know there’s a few plans afoot that are going to help members connect with each other in a few different ways. And they’re really listening to the membership.
You know, just from the support that you get, it would pay for itself so easily with a lot of the perks and discounts you get. To be honest, a lot of people probably joined because of the perks. But I think the reason a lot of people stay is because of feeling part of the community, and just really respecting the work that they do on our behalf. So yeah, I would definitely recommend it. It’s like a no-brainer for me to keep being a member.
If you’d like more personal insights into freelancing and self-employment, why not take a look at our previous interviews:
- Enterprise Consultant Adrian Ashton
- Marketing Consultant Luan Wise
- International Trade Consultant Lucinda O’Reilly
- Solicitor Kim Huggins
- Naval Architect and Engineer Andrew Comley
- Video and Audio Creator Steve Folland
- Market Research and Data Analyst Susie Mullen
- Entrepreneur Network and Marketing Consultancy Founder Nadine Campbell
- Business Consultant Fran Varley
- Professional Photographer and Dog Walker John Bloomfield
If you’d like to share your own experiences or know someone who would make a great subject for a quick chat, then let us know via email.
We want to share the knowledge and experiences of our members to help more people succeed in building their own careers and businesses.
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