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The Sweet Spot Between Freelancer and Agency

How going freelance helped Sarah Hutto hone her e‑commerce design skills—and achieve autonomy in her professional life.

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This directive is painted over a wintry landscape portrait in gold capital letters. It hangs on a wall on the first floor of Switchyards Downtown Club, a coworking space in downtown Atlanta’s Luckie Marietta district. Designer Sarah Hutto sits at a nicked wooden table underneath the painting.

Hutto’s career has already followed a fairly epic trajectory. After spending her entire childhood in Calera, Alabama—the kind of small town where everybody knows your business—she went to Troy University to study graphic design. After college, she looked for jobs “in anywhere but Alabama” and landed in Atlanta. Her first job? Working as a designer for The Elf on the Shelf, the company that became famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for selling a cherubic elf who spies on kids in the days before Christmas.

The gig, it turned out, had a limited shelf life. “After 2 years of a Christmas brand, you don’t want to do Christmas anymore,” she says. Hutto had been doing primarily print design at The Elf on the Shelf, and she wanted more digital work. So she got a job as a digital designer at an Atlanta-based health and wellness engagement platform.

It seemed like a great opportunity, working on a digital brand with serious celebrity clout. But, like the Elf gig, it failed to scratch Hutto’s itch (to borrow a phrase) to do epic shit.

"I seek to work with people with integrity."

Destination: autonomy

While working at the health and wellness platform, Hutto tried launching a small agency with Vaughn and another close friend. It didn’t work out, but the experience gave her confidence. “A few years ago, I didn’t think I had the drive to go freelance,” she says. “But this proved I could do it.”

Both Hutto and Vaughn were determined to achieve autonomy in their professional lives. By mid-2015, they had both quit their jobs and launched freelance careers. Along the way, they formed a close professional alliance, working in tandem on e-commerce sites for small and mid-sized merchants.

With Vaughn in the dual role of project manager/developer and Hutto as designer, the duo has helped numerous merchants launch highly customized online retail over the past 2 years. And even though Vaughn works from the city’s far northwest side while Hutto works from downtown Atlanta, they couldn’t be closer in terms of professional style and standards.

“I seek to work with people with integrity,” Hutto says. “With Kelly, if I throw a challenging design element her way, she’s like, ‘Let’s do it.’ Some developers wouldn’t want to figure it out, but Kelly’s response is, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ That’s why I like working with her.”

Integrity is the key

Thanks to her partnership with Vaughn, Hutto has become especially skilled at designing for the e-commerce platform Shopify. More than half of her projects are Shopify sites. After spending time on other types of work — Hutto specializes in brand identity and infographic design — she says returning to the next e-commerce project is “exhilarating.”

“It’s just so different from a regular website. Say you’re selling hiking gear. You’ve got to figure out the categories, how are they treated differently, what does the boots page look like, are we showing certain styles together, or do we further divide them into sub-categories? There is much more of a UX component to it.”

The exhilaration can turn sour fast, though, when clients slow down or sabotage their own sites by being unprepared. To prevent this, Hutto and Vaughn give new clients homework — a list of tasks such as product photography and detailed product descriptions — to be completed before the project can kick off. “We insist on excellence,” Hutto says, adding, “That’s why we strongly recommend Mailchimp — there are just standard best practices that Mailchimp honors.”

Typically, Vaughn integrates the client’s Shopify site with Mailchimp, and then Hutto designs set of templates for the client’s future campaigns. And while Hutto enjoys the creative process, she also appreciates how Mailchimp shares that load. “Creativity is hard,” she says. “Mailchimp really does some of the work for you.”

Mailchimp makes things similarly easy for online retailers, Hutto says. “It pretty much tells you, ‘Hey, this is what you should be doing.’ You have to work hard to mess up a Mailchimp campaign.”

Charting a different course

Back at Switchyards Downtown Club, Hutto is winding down her day when Sarah Price stops by to talk shop. Price runs a virtual agency called The Eddy and Hutto is one of her trusted “makers.”

Price cut her teeth as a project manager in various Atlanta creative agencies. During that time, she kept one of the dark secrets of the agency culture: When agencies want to impress a client, they often enlist independent creative professionals instead of using in-house talent. Price launched The Eddy in part “to blow the veil off that concept.”

The Eddy employs an à la carte approach that connects clients directly to top-tier creative talent. And since its makers aren’t on the payroll and it’s operated out of Switchyards, The Eddy is able to pass its low-overhead savings along to clients.

Creative professionals also benefit from The Eddy’s approach. It supports creative collaboration, facilitates personal freedom, and encourages each maker to devote time to her personal life. “I’m very life-work balanced, and not the other way around,” Price says.

That’s a refreshing outlook in the technology, creative, and start-up communities, where an “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mindset is prevalent. Atlanta hasn’t been called the Silicon Valley of the South for nothing.

But Hutto, Price, and Vaughn, have each chosen a different path — one that honors their personal principles. This, in turn, allows them to better serve their clients. “It’s about prioritization, focus, and balance,” Price says. “Self-care first, and then success follows.”

How to find the sweet spot between “freelancer” and "agency”

Let’s say you’re a freelancer, and your business is growing. And growing. You don’t want to hire employees or find a derelict building to transform into a charmingly low-rent office space. But you also don’t want to rest on your laurels. How do you grow a one-person operation into a true enterprise? Here are a few lessons to glean from Sarah’s career.

1. You change your mindset. Stop thinking of yourself as a hired gun and start thinking of yourself as a strategy-minded entrepreneur. Carve out more time to focus on strategy, planning, marketing, and finances. Stop saying, “I am my own boss” and actually start operating like a boss.

2. You charge more. It sounds obvious. But you’d be surprised at how many freelancers fail to adjust their rates to reflect their improved skills and increased experience. Yes, you may lose clients. But that will free up time for strategy and networking — two musts if you’re serious about being an entrepreneur.

3. You forge strategic partnerships. As you take a more entrepreneurial approach to your business, you won’t have as much time to do the actual work. You’ll need contractors. Find a few you can trust, pay them fairly, and be transparent with your clients about your vendor relationships.

4. You bone up on business 101. A lot of freelancers have no formal business training, but they manage to muddle through. That’s fine for them, but if you want to take your business to the next level you’ll need to take an active interest in the fundamentals of operating a business. Take a class. Read a book. Become a smarter entrepreneur.

5. You don’t do it. It takes a lot of work to go from freelancer to growth-oriented entrepreneur. It’s time-consuming. It’s stressful. It’s risky. If you don’t have the stomach for it, there’s no shame in that. Stick to hustling, or get an agency gig. You can make a pretty good living at it these days.

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