How I Become a Product Designer

This writing is an archive from my newsletter. It starts from my childhood, early business stories that I did, how I decided to learn to code and design, and how I ended up working with clients from all over the world.

Childhood

I was born from a middle class family. My parents are strict—in a thrifty way. For example, I live in tropical country. My friends could turn on their air conditioner for 24/7. In contrast, I could only open them from 9PM to 5AM. My father made sure we turned it off everyday at 5AM—all to save money on electricity.

You know tissue? Back when I was a kid, my parents split single sheet of tissue vertically into two! By the end of the process, one pack of tissue eventually become two. Talk about being thrifty!

I thought that was normal, until I went to school. I figure my friends could open their air-con 24/7; they regularly get pocket money (I didn’t) to bought food! This is particularly interesting. One day, my mom didn’t cook any food. She gave me IDR 5,000 (~USD 0.8). I bought spaghetti and until now, I remember vividly how it tasted. It’s the best meal I’ve ever had.

This upbringing from my Dad triggered me to find my own money as early as 8 years old. Instead of spending my money, I saved them up, bought rare Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh card, and sold them with premium prices to friends in school. That’s how I made my first money.

Starting my business

One day, I got introduced to computer. Naturally, I played a lot of games and downloaded movies and music. But there’s one problem: at that time, one website dominates all movie, music, and games. It’s called Rapidshare. To download at full speed, I needed to pay for it. A solid 5 bucks per month.

That’s a lot of money for me. How could I get that kind of money? I immediately started to do my homework. I googled and found blogs describing how to get Rapidshare account for free. One of the blog shows that you could fill up surveys and get paid for it.

I’m ecstatic. I started to fill some surveys. But then, something crossed my mind: if I can get money from this, surely I could spend them on any means? Why should it be limited to Rapidshare account? I asked Mom to make me bank account with some money I’ve saved up. At the time, I was 14. I needed my Mom’s permission because I can’t open one myself.

At the same time, I’ve been enjoying Anime movies. Because my internet speed was slow, I decided to bought them online. I started to open Kaskus (similar to Craiglist) and bought a DVD or two. Eventually I realized that after I watched the movie, I could sell the CD. Even better: I could copy the CD, duplicate them, and start a business from that. I borrowed about IDR 200,000 (~$25) from my Mom and bought some CDs and copied them to my computer.

Bought some blank DVD’s for IDR 2,000 ($0.25) each, burned the Anime, and sell them for IDR 9,000 ($1.12) each. Business was good! I learned about marketing, design, and customer service. I started to buy DVD in bulk (cheaper) and spend most of my time home watching while burning the DVDs. Eventually, with enough capital, I started to buy some hard disk and offer a service to copy anime movies to hard drive at cheaper price. I sold 1TB of movie for IDR 900,000 at the time ($112.5). Pretty good deal right? As I have more capital, I started another business like selling t-shirt, flipping secondhand phone, and a lot more.

That was the best moment in my life, I could buy laptops, phone, and everything I wanted with my money. I’m the only person in school that already touched entrepreneurship. The downside? I don’t get time to spend with friends. Heck, I even don’t have one. I spend a lot of time for self learning and upscaling my business.

It all stopped

Eventually, I went to college. I got tired and decided to stop doing all of that. Instead, I wanted to enjoy life and spend time looking for friends. My Dad got promoted, so money was not a concern anymore, although we still live thrifty. Old habit die hard, I guess. Unlike my brother and sister, I got “unlimited” money to spend. Why? My Dad knows me better: I would save up the money instead of buying foods to eat. He was worried about my health as I was very skinny. Because of that, I spent a lot of time going out with friends and literally stopped thinking about everything. Life was good.

That doesn’t last long though. On my third semester, college got more competitive—I got to know a lot of my colleagues. Some already have profitable business, some are super smart, some are critical, and some are charismatic. Believe me, it’s a very competitive environment. Then, the cycle starts again. I started to alienate myself and spend my time (again) learning things to catch up with them. I catch up hard.

As I went to business school, I got very hooked on one subject. It’s about branding. It piqued my interest. That’s the trigger when I started to learn how to design brand identity. I started to learn Photoshop, Illustrator, and other various design tools. That moment in college is also where I started to work on design gigs.

After graduation

Back in 2015, I finished my studies. I've got some handful clients back in college and decided to start my own agency. I committed to do this for a year. If it doesn’t work, I’ll figure another way out. But then, a strange turn of event happens. A friend of mine asked me to help him build his company from scratch.

At first, I declined. I never wanted to work for anyone. I've had bad experience back when I was interning at some companies. Having a full time job is the last thing I have in my mind. But in the end, he and his investor convinced me to join. I wrote my decision this on lengthy post before here.

The company I worked for is called Bukapintu. The mission is to help fresh graduate land a culture fit job by educating them about careers, what to expect after graduated, and also show them interviews from their employees. On another hand, company benefitted by getting a written sponsored articles, a thorough details about "who they are”, and quality—culture fit candidate.

I joined the company as UX/UI designer. My initial task is to design the UI and brand identity. We worked hand to hand with another agency to build the web application.

At first, everything was great. I learned how to design and work with the agency to deliver the result. But some problem surfaces: they didn’t work as fast as we expect—the application itself is not identical to what I've made.

We ended up spending every morning at their place—make sure everything looks identical to the design. Afterwards, we spent the nights to design the interface. Weeks goes by and I got furious—I started to learn how to build the application by myself so we could move faster.

For months, I focused on my crafts, working, and learning nearly for 12 hours a day. We all worked hard. Soon enough, we got our first client, seed funding, tens of thousands of user, and some publication online.

My first client (a big one)

One evening, my girlfriend sent me an instagram account. It’s called @doyoutravel. At the time, he has 1.8M followers. He posted some amazing photos he took while traveling. I’m amazed. I binge scrolled for a while, then decided to check out his website. It’s horrendous. There’s issue everywhere and doesn’t particularly looks good on phone. So I sent wrote an email that says basically his website could do better and propose some solution on how to fix it. I hit sent and immediately went to bed. If you’re interested to see the email, reach out and I’ll send it to you 😊.

The next morning, I got an email back. It’s from him! We went back and forth multiple time until reached an agreement. I was super happy at the time and in disbelief: I didn’t know it was that easy. I can’t even sleep that night because of excitement.

What's crazy about the whole thing is, I never wrote code for clients my whole life. This is going to be my first time. I just move forward with full confidence that “I can do it” attitude and learn them as I go.

A week later, it’s finished. He’s super pleased with the result. Then he asked me my Paypal account. I immediately made one at the time and got the money transfered to Paypal. It feels surreal: I just made a month my current salary from 5 days work! I started to fantasize that I could do this full time and travel the world—just like what he do.

A few weeks later, another person emailed me to do some design & development job. He’s from Stockholm, Sweden. He found my portfolio on Behance and interested to work together with me. That incident gave me confidence to quit my job.

The reality

Soon, I quit my job and start looking for clients. Then reality hit hards: I don’t get any client for 3 months. It’s not easy as I imagined it would be. I started thinking: how do I get client on the first place? I got the first one from sending an email (outreach), and the second one because he discovered me online.

Clearly, I don’t have any online persona that I could show to anyone. Then how people could discover me without it? I need to have a portfolio and tell people somehow that I’m available for work. I started to research where did designer and developer are on online. Found two place: Twitter, and Dribbble.

How I marketed myself online

The next few months, I curated my past projects and put them On Twitter, I followed some designer and developer that I respect. Almost everyday, I replied their tweets, joined conversations, and published my work incrementally there—hoping they’ll somehow check my profile out after I replied their tweets everyday.

The strategy works. After 2 months, I got an inquiry. It’s from a startup in San Francisco. They asked my availability and my interest to help them as contractor. I got paralyzed, it’s actually happening! It’s a long project—probably last for months. And also they asked what my rate is.

Pricing

At first, I want to charge $5,000 for three months work. That's a lot of money for me. But before doing that, I consulted to some people who are in this industry. Wanted to hear their opinion. So I DM’ed some contractor online and asked how much should I charge. One says $100/hr, other says $150/hr! Some are in between.

That’s a lot of money. I told them there’s no way I’ll charge client that much money. I’m uncomfortable with that. They said it’s actually a standard rate, some even charge $300/hr. One particular person told me that the company will earn way more money from my work, so I should just man up and charge them that.

After I got their advice, I waited until the clients reached me out. The moment of truths came. They asked what my rate was. I paused for a while and wrote a number similar to what those contractor told me. They said “OK”—probably in 2 seconds.

Can you imagine how I was feeling? I started screaming in my room, jumped uncontrollably, and told the news to my family and girlfriend. I’ve been waiting for this moment for 5 years, perfecting my craft, and it paid off.

Immediately after, I challenged myself to go to Canggu, Bali to get myself out of comfort zone. It stroke the perfect balance: it’s dominated with people who worked remotely from all over the world, but it still within Indonesia (where I live): I don’t need to think about SIM card, exchanging currency, and everything in between. My goal is to learn to speak English (so I can do video call with more confidence), try to live alone by myself, and test the hypothesis: whether I like travel or not.

Conclusion

So, that’s the story how I ended up becoming a designer and developer. If you been dreaming to do the same, no matter if you want to be a freelancer, photographer, or anything else believe me: you can do it. Just make sure you’re good at what you do (world class if you can), make a case study online, then promote it everywhere.

There’s clearly some story I didn’t wrote. Either I forgot to write about them, or I decided not to write it because of time constraint. Definitely reach me out if you have question(s). Would be happy to answer them. 😊

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