Becoming a designer: from freelancing from the hostel to working with top companies and launching your product
This article was the most voluminous, important, but, at the same time, very simple to write, and all because I did not invent the plot, did not look for the facts and did not form a conclusion. Everything in it is as it was, starting from my arrival in Moscow from a small village, until today.
(~ 17 minutes to read)
I, Alexey Makarov, Alexey Petrushin, Vladimir Kokhanov on the hakatan Apps4All (2013)
I was 18 when I first went to the stage to present the project. This was the result of the 24-hour hakaton, in which we developed a social network tied to the user's geolocation. Then we won nothing, but my first practical experience in the use of design was not in vain.
The winners of that hackathon found me on LinkedIn and invited me to their team as a designer, despite the fact that I was no designer at that time.
I remember how we gathered in the “Circle” on Kurskaya and discussed projects that, if implemented, would make good money. I was too young then to seriously participate in the conversation, so I just listened.
In the center, Artem Keidunov, then still a developer at Uchi.Ru, and today the founder of Statsbot.
It should be mentioned that I came to Moscow at the age of 17 from the small village of Ustye, where 5 people studied in my class.
I was completely unprepared for the move and the first year in the capital cost me a lot of psychological effort. I will not hide, the thought of going back to visit me regularly, but inside I understood that if I want to achieve something in my life, there is no turning back.
I remember that time well - the first rainy autumn months of the school year, when I woke up in a gray dormitory and to tune in for a new day, I forced myself to smile looking in a mirror that was in the corner of a small common room, in which the entrance, kitchen and shower were combined. The habit of smiling, getting out of bed, has stayed with me to this day.
Hostel "Friendship" (m. River Station)
I studied diligently, but I did not have any special talents. The only thing that I did well was programming. I was the best in the group, despite the fact that I was far behind in many other subjects. Having received 3 points for the first term paper, in two weeks I passed the exam perfectly in 45 minutes. And subsequent exams also.
Despite the successes in the core subject, I felt that the knowledge gained would not be enough for me to build a career. The programming language that we studied is outdated. And the pace was too slow, so the summer after the first course I devoted to self-education in the field of web development.
Having studied the basics of HTML / CSS, I wanted to start practicing, but did not know where to find examples of website design where I could hone my skills. As a result, I began to draw the simplest sites in Photoshop, and then I tried to impose them exactly. On such tasks, I first became acquainted with something similar to design (I did not know anything about the UX / UI then).
I do not remember why, but for the hackathon mentioned at the beginning, I decided to register as a designer. I didn’t have a portfolio, but the team of talented guys invited me to my place, and this experience was unforgettable: a day without sleep, a countdown, a lot of coffee and incessant work.
Closer to the final of the event, when my tasks were already over, I heard from Aleksey Makarov: “Ilyukh, will you perform with the project?”. I tried to refuse, but even then, inside I understood that such an opportunity should not be lost and, after several ridiculous excuses, I agreed. Since then, the need to re-enter and leave the usual comfort zone lives with me.
I didn’t take the first design success seriously (I don’t know why), so I began my professional career from the position of a layout designer. In the first year I created a resume on hh.ru, LinkedIn, Superjob and at the end of 2013 I came to my first interview at the start-up connect2me (I don’t remember, I responded or I was invited).
I had nothing to show, not counting the T-shirt with Steve Jobs, in which I came. As a result, they believed in my potential and took for a test period of 10 thousand rubles a month (2.5 days a week). True, I don’t know why, to a greater degree, ambitions or a t-shirt. I was glad, because my efforts were spent not in vain, but this story could have ended in a week.
After several days, my colleagues made it clear that my level is still low for this kind of work. I understood everything, although it was unpleasant to see the swinging heads, after the director's questions “Well, how is he?”.
I was given the opportunity during the winter holidays to better explore the frontend, then come back and try my hand again. I did that, but when I returned, there was not much progress, and I began to understand where everything was going.
I did not worry, because I understood that my career was just beginning, and everything was ahead, so I simply tried to do my job as best I could, not paying attention to the thoughts of others. And as reality has shown, this can be enough.
Next week, all the front-end developers gathered to give me feedback and decide what to do with me within the company. To my surprise (and the director’s surprise), colleagues have noted significant progress over the past few days and it was decided to leave me at the company.
After a few months, the project began to experience financial difficulties, the atmosphere deteriorated markedly and I decided to leave. Pretty quickly, I managed to find a new part-time job, but already for 20 thousand rubles in a good business center, where the floor above was working, then still unknown, Yuriy Dud, whom we occasionally came across in the elevator (I recognized him as actively watched football).
I persistently considered possible solutions, leafed through Stack Overflow and, after a while, found a solution. It could not be so beautiful, but it always worked, which I surprised not only myself, but also the technical manager.
The first 20 thousand rubles seemed to me wealth. In my work, progress was visible, but despite this, I began to think about design.
At the start of my career, the conferences that I regularly attended at the 1–2 year of the institute helped me a lot. Immersion in the atmosphere of professionals for a beginner is very important, so I would advise all young people to leave the house more often.
At one of the conferences, which turned out to be the most disastrous, I was met by a strange type of person, with whom we had a little conversation. He said that the other day at the Mail.Ru Group office (still an old office), the UX-Wednesday event will be held. The idea to visit the new office interested me, and the next day I first became acquainted with the design.
Yuri Vetrov was the first person from the new industry for me, and since then, over the years, he has provided significant support not only by his example, but also by sensible advice.
Since the spring of 2014, I began to practice a little in design, and after the first Dribbble attended, Meetup was determined to change profession.
Design, books and collision with reality
In addition to the designer’s resume, I had a summary of the project manager and in October 2014, Trood, which was involved in creating business management systems, responded to it. Of course, at that time I could not imagine what the work of the manager was, despite the fact that at the first workplace I had already encountered the use of Scrum / Agile and other popular foreign terms.
In addition to product management, among my tasks was the design of the service pages, and this work I did better. As a result, I almost completely retrained from the manager to the designer. But still, at 19, I lacked the skills to design systems of this kind, so after about six months we decided to disperse.
Despite the fact that I did not have any real projects for the portfolio, I already began to publish fake cases at Behance, and, to my surprise, interesting orders came to me a couple of times.
The largest project was the automation system of Swiss clinics, which included applications for a variety of platforms. Then I received my biggest, at that time, income - 50 thousand rubles per month of work in the evenings and went to rest in Spain.
In addition to the mentioned order, other projects appeared quite rarely, and then I sat down at the books and read them in large numbers. It all started with the book "Number 1", presented by my first girlfriend. It is thanks to Igor Mann that my interest in self-development has awakened. I read 2–4 books a week and, picking up the theory, I decided to start a blog.
Photo from the Apple Store in Barcelona
Perhaps someone remembers my blog, where I wrote notes about self-development, which are full on the Internet today. I read a lot and put in books of 2–5 thousand a month. My neighbors in the dormitory twisted their fingers at the temple (when they turned away from the monitor), and I gladly began to read.
Then I thought, why not invite publishers to send me books for free in exchange for reviews. I decided to try: I wrote a letter to the general box of Alpina Publisher and received a positive response. In the end, my desk was littered with free business literature, to which I was very pleased.
In 2015, I accepted the challenge to read 100 books a year and already in the first quarter I was ahead of schedule. Having finished this marathon, I was so fed up with business literature that I could not read for a while and took a break. I continued to write to the blog, but it was the last year of my “training” at the university and I had to decide what to do next. I did not want to go to the magistracy, so I had to find a steady income that would allow me to provide myself with housing.
I remember well how I sat in Starbucks on Mayakovskaya and thought which direction to take. I decided to write out all my hobbies and put them on the front of each of the 1-3 ruble signs, which indicated potential profits for one year. And it turned out the following:
Design - ₽₽₽
Writing - ₽
Sport - 0
After this simple exercise, the choice became obvious. There were a few months before the eviction, but I did not have a steady income. Therefore, I seriously engaged in self-study design.
I bought an intelligent course from Nikita Obukhov, who told me about the basic rules and the process of work. In addition, I practiced almost daily: I made up tasks for myself and implemented them. A couple of times a freelancing project came to me from Behance, but the money was not big.
It is interesting that if it were not for the need to provide myself with regular income, I would not have dared to seriously engage in design. Such kicks in life are extremely useful, so since then, I consider every obstacle as an opportunity to make a new breakthrough. After reading further, you are convinced of this.
It was a rainy Friday mid-May. I last left the institute, feeling free from other people's rules. Parents were upset, because of what I, too, was not in the best condition, but inside I knew that I had done the right thing. Then I promised them that everything would be fine. What I earn for living and get settled in life. More than two years have passed and it seems that I did not deceive them.
When you say no, you need to hear yes.
I was asked to move out of the hostel in a week, but I had neither money nor work. After talking with the head of the hostel, I was able to extend this period, but there was little time.
I did not use the classic methods of job search (although perhaps the most classic is to want and do nothing) and wrote to the director of Trood, Sergey Zverev. Our personal relationships are pretty good, so I decided that this was a good option.
Sergey liked this idea and he gave my contact to the designer, who assigned me a test task, but rather quickly he contacted me again and said that the search for a designer was no longer relevant for them.
Despite the refusal, I decided not to leave the assignment (which would be logical), but to finish it as well as I can. After completing it, I, bypassing the designer, sent the layouts to the director. Sergey liked the resulting design and he decided to invite me to work. A month later, the designer was fired, and I took the place of the chief product designer.
Only a few years later, I realized the thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger conveys in his biography: “When you say no, you need to hear yes.”
Despite the fact that I managed to prove myself, things did not go smoothly at the new place. ERP-system is a big project and at that time my knowledge was not enough. I did not know how to analyze the industry, competitors, and draw conclusions based on this.
As a result, it was decided to outsource the visual part of my work to an outsourcing design studio, and I was assigned only an approximate design with a list of necessary components. It was a severe blow to my competences, but the second time I could not just give up.
I decided to make a prototype that would cast doubt on the need to transfer my layouts to another studio. I decided not to say anything, but to show everything by deed. Having seen the mock-ups, the leaders, having conferred, understood without my hints that there was no point in transferring this work further. As a result, I managed to save the company hundreds of thousands and establish myself as a reliable professional.
Trood office (TIC Factory)
The following months at work, everything went well. I even managed to raise the salary from 80,000 to 120,000 rubles a month, which made work even harder. I do not think that the level of my work deserved a similar mark, but during my short career I realized that income depends not only on core skills, but also on the approach to work, prospects of the company and personal qualities.
Then I wanted to make a breakthrough in my career and I started working from 8 am to 8 pm (minus 1.5 hours for training). Having fulfilled my main duties, I devoted 1–2 hours to professional and personal development and in a few months it gave results. My efforts began to be celebrated and towards the end of 2015, I had a flattering nickname - Iron Man.
In December of that year, we began to work out the idea of a new service, which was supposed to automate the market of mystery shoppers and sent a request to Starta Accelerator in New York. After the Skype-interview, our project was accepted and invited for 4 months in the USA. At this point, and affected my efforts. The first person from the team flew to New York, I, along with the general director of the new company, Ivan Terekhin.
New York was infecting with scale and not only in skyscrapers, but also in the working atmosphere. We were in a group of people who wanted to achieve something and believed that it was possible. And not only in the framework of New York or the United States, but the whole world. Having flown across the ocean, I was filled with this sensation and I feel that it has remained with me until now.
Many people asked me where and how I learned the language. In short - nowhere: neither in school nor in high school. The most effective method for me was a simple interest.
As a developer, I had to read Stack Overflow, blogging, I often looked at inc.com, becoming a designer for Medium. It was interest that always forced me to translate new words and, after many months of this practice, the result came.
Mentors and self-development
Before flying to New York, I signed up for a ux-design course from AIC and Skillbox. The format was interesting: homework with verification of the studio staff, a closed group on Facebook and useful feedback. From the first days I decided to be active and regularly commented on the publications of others and created my own.
Then I met my second mentor Sergey Popkov. On some topics we found a common language and even recorded a video interview . His experience helped me better understand how the industry works.
The course turned out to be useful, but I always did my homework in a hurry, and only when I received them for revision did I pay special attention to them. As a result, I often received a comment like "As if the other person was doing!".
When it was time for graduation projects for real customers, I decided to work hard and do a good job. We had no student rankings, but I knew that the majority fell off and felt like I could do a better job. It was the beginning of summer, and then for the first time I said that I would make an excellent project and would invite me to design studio # 1.
I went through the stages of analytics and visual design pretty quickly. I reworked the final work 3-4 times, until I was satisfied. Having sent my graduation project for verification at the beginning of autumn, which was carried out by Sergey Popkov, I received a complimentary reply and within a few hours a job offer.
AIC has a great atmosphere and I know a lot of people from this studio, but I was more interested (and still interested) in creating my own service, so we quickly understood each other.
graduation presentation During the following months, thanks to the graduation project, portfolio, media activity and recommendations, I began to receive offers from companies like Alfa-Bank, Yandex, Mail.Ru Group, VTB, Sberbank contractors and small startups. It is difficult to say what exactly it is, because any progress determines the succession of factors.
Income Boost and Freelance
New office. Corporate BINO CX (Manhattan BC on Baumanskaya)
I wanted to launch and develop my product, which I did in the BINO CX startup. But, despite the good growth, due to lack of funding, we had to transfer part of the staff to party time. Including me. This meant that I had the extra few hours on freelancing, and then I turned up a few fairly large projects.
A design agency that is part of a large advertising holding turned to me for help in designing financial services for several large banks (all of these projects were under strict NDA). And I earned some good money on this.
The first project, which took about 5 weeks, brought me 210 thousand on top of the basic salary, which dropped from 180 thousand rubles to 120 thousand. The second brought me for 4 days of work 90 thousand, the third 50.
But you need to understand that it was not easy money at all. Besides the fact that I occasionally worked at night, many negotiations were conducted in English, since a team from Dubai participated in several projects.
In addition to money, I was able to test myself at a new level and prove my professionalism. Before that, I always worked alone, so a new challenge helped me gain professional confidence and experience.
In addition to design skills, personal qualities played a very strong role in these projects: stress tolerance (especially after sleepless nights) and courage (when presenting projects to the board of banks). It was thanks to personal qualities, and not only professional ones, that they were ready to apply for repeated projects.
At some point, it seemed that my career was going very well. I have a good income, a stable job in which I can calmly read books and attend fitness, my girlfriend, but it was here that something happened.
As Steve Jobs used to say: “sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick ...”.
And I felt it to the fullest.
Fall and new beginning
“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, but you don’t have to lose faith ...” - Steve Jobs
Our project BINO CX grew every month by 100% and in six months the revenue reached one million rubles. I sat in a cafe on the first floor of a solid business center and worked, looking at the monitor. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed how heads with slightly confused faces approached me.
Ivan (CEO), as usual, took a long time to the point, but I already understood everything. We did not receive large investments that were promised, and due to the lack of resources, the company will have to part with most of the staff.
Not to say that I was very upset. On the contrary, I felt the desire to do something more significant. In addition, I have a small share in this company, but the surprises were not limited to work.
I went up to our office and sat down at the workplace in a good mood, and then I saw a series of messages that showed that a serious storm was coming on my personal front. It was only with the attempt of the 15th to get through the phone and the conversation didn’t end with anything good (I’ll leave the personal details) For the first time, the two fundamental pillars of my life collapsed, and I sat with a new sense of shock. But, despite the tragedy of the situation, for some reason the ironic thought turned in my head:
“Damn, how it would look cool in my biography!”
And all because I was sure that any fall is an opportunity to start all over again and do better. Moreover, I felt that this blow was necessary for me to wrest from the usual scenario in which I hung. I needed a new challenge and I found it.
Any fall is a new chance.
I knew that I would definitely find work with an income of 150,000, but I wanted not only stable work, but places where I could influence something.
For the first time in two years, I updated my resume, met with several well-known design teams and considered new start-ups. In the end, I had two options that corresponded to my goals to do something of my own.
In both companies I was offered the position of chief designer with a salary of 170 thousand rubles + a share in the company and bonuses. People were pleasant both there and there, the only thing that embarrassed me was that the first startup, living on other people's money, rented an expensive office. And the second startup just started and it was obvious that in it I could play a more significant role.
It was with this thought that I chose the second company and did not lose. In a new place, I’m not just doing design, but, together with my colleague, I create a product from scratch with the goal of changing the freight market.
People periodically ask me why I refused offers from major design teams.
There are a number of well-known companies whose corporate culture I really like, but before making another decision, I always ask myself the question:
Where will I be in three years if I continue to do what I am doing now?
I don’t want to become a great designer, bring millions to another person for a modest salary, too. That is why I chose a new promising company, in which I can influence any process and, in case of success, earn good money, and in case of failure, I will get an excellent experience in creating my product.
Someone will say that it is risky, but after thinking you will understand that it is much more risky to stay in one stable place for many years if you are striving for something more.
I believe that youth is a great opportunity to set ambitious goals without thinking. It will be possible to get a job in a large company at any stage of your career, and it is better to pay attention to a risky project as early as possible.
The end of a designer's career
In May 2015, I decided that I wanted to change the work of the developer and do design. This thought finally got stronger at the Dribbble Meetup conference. In recent years, this event gathers about 1,000 visitors, which makes it one of the most ambitious design events in Russia.
Last year I had a desire to speak in public and I began to believe that at some point my articles would attract attention and I would get an offer to speak to an audience. This is what happened.
Two weeks before the Dribbble Meetup 2018, I received a message from Yuri Vetrov:
“Do you want to perform in the second part of the dribbble meeting? :) You tell a cool story about the growth of the designer, I am sure that people will be interested to hear about it »
Dribbble Meetup 2018
At about the same time, an online university, Skillbox, approached me with a proposal to write down a case with me (a “success story”).
For almost five hours we changed locations and wrote video interviews, which allowed me to share my thoughts with the audience in a new format.
Such events indirectly show that I did something right in my career.
I managed to work with large organizations and get a good income. But it was during this period that I realized that by itself, the work of a designer doesn’t give me any past interest, and the shots on Dribbble and cases on Behance do not take vanity. Instead, I had a desire to do something for the real world (for example, a new service that will affect something or meaningful material like this).
Design, I certainly will not give up. He still remains my main work tool, and solving business problems with a lucrative passion, but if you ask me if I want to work in a graphic editor in a few years, I will answer: definitely not.
More than one year, young (and not only) specialists from different fields periodically turn to me for advice. Someone wonders where to start, others want development, and still others think about a personal brand.
In conclusion, to this important story for me, I decided to share with you things that helped me look at the world in a new way. It is these three things that I would like to convey to the young myself.
At the start of a career it is very important to start doing something. Someone is lucky and he immediately finds a vocation, but most of us have to go through the thorns to find our own.
Try new things, communicate with people from different fields, attend professional events and, most importantly, practice.
The work of each of us is at first very bad, which greatly demotivates, especially when you see the honed work of others. But one of the most important things that I realized is that so that does not happen, keep moving forward.
Success always takes time. Sometimes, many years of experimentation and patient work. Do not stop - this is very important.
Most always wrong. If your ideas are incomprehensible to others, rejoice. You do not need to become a hermit, but go after all - this is the road to nowhere.
It is very difficult to take a decisive step when millions of people, including those closest to you, think the opposite. But it is precisely this step that is capable of becoming the beginning of a new path of an outstanding personality.
Friends, I am very pleased that you took so much time to read my story. I hope that you could learn from it something valuable. I wrote absolutely sincerely and honestly.
Each of us is capable of more. Do not forget it.
“The world was created by people not smarter than us” - Steve Jobs.