Want to learn how to how to make six figures as a freelancer? Meet the creative pros who’ve done it in the Six Figure Freelancers Expert Series!
This week we bring you a digital interview Becca Kennedy of beccakennedy.net, a Psychologist, Design Consultant & UX Designer.
Becca turned independent and co-founded a UX consulting company called Kennason in 2015 out of Albany, NY. Currently, Becca is the UX Designer for Agrilyst, an agriculture-tech startup based in Brooklyn.
What makes Becca a Six Figure Freelancer?
I’m an expert in my own experiences and my own unique combination of skills. My expertise continues to evolve because I am always learning and trying new things, so the term “UX” doesn’t quite cover it all, but it’s the closest thing!
Maybe what makes me stand out is that I stay on this roller coaster — I keep improving both my UX skills and my knowledge about running a business.
I have a lot in common with fellow freelancers who struggle. My mistakes continue to teach me as much as my successes do.
Part of the reason you can call me a Six Figure Expert is that I stay on this roller coaster — I keep improving both my UX skills and my knowledge about running a business.
What can you tell our readers about your background?
I came from academia and eventually moved to consulting. I’m from upstate New York, and straight after college I was accepted to a PhD program in Human Factors Psychology and moved to Norfolk, Virginia.
I worked in a university lab where we studied cognitive issues in surgery, and we researched and tested simulators designed to help train surgical teams. A few years into that program, in about 2011, I realized that User Experience (UX) was an area of design that used many of the same concepts from Human Factors.
Alongside my PhD work, I started peeking into UX conferences and meetups and realized I had a lot more fun there.
My PhD program was grueling, like most PhD programs are. Financially, I also lived off a modest stipend for those years. So, after I spent five years on graduate coursework, research contracts, and PhD qualifying exams, I reached a personal breaking point and I moved to Albany to undertake my dissertation remotely.
I don’t talk about this very often, but I was burned out and broke and emotionally crushed and wanted to live somewhere I love.
The first and only Human Factors job I found locally was a research staff position at an engineering college, which was not ideal for what I wanted, but I applied and accepted it.
After getting my bearings in Albany by attending a ton of events and meeting people, I started a UX consulting business with two partners.
I’d realized that since I’d decided to make Albany, a small city, my permanent home, the only way I would be happy with my career is if I created my own.
How long have you been in business and what inspired you to start you business?
I’d actually wanted to start a business for about five years before it happened.
I’d very casually talked with people who had started UX companies to find out how it worked.
My loose plan was to finish my PhD and then work a cool job for a bit first, but that’s not what happened.
I co-founded the business while I was still working on my PhD dissertation. I really jumped in because of a need for money and a desire to do something huge to kickstart things.
In a way it was nice, because I never left a cushy job or great benefits for my venture. I was already used to living on little income and working really hard.
So, it’s been slowly uphill from there.
I’m really grateful for a career I can control and I’m grateful for the amount of stuff I learned in my 20s while I was really scrappy and falling on my face.
What, specifically, do you do? Who do you work with and where?
I’m a User Experience (UX) Researcher and Designer. I’m also a Human Factors Psychologist.
That means I use my expertise inhuman cognition and behavior to inform product design. My ideal clients are startups and small businesses who are passionate about solving problems and doing social good.
I’m based in Albany, NY, but my clients can be almost anywhere! I work from home and I love it.
I really like working with clients who are starting a UX process from scratch. I like teaching others how to use research methods and human-centered design thinking.
What is your top piece of advice related to your area of expertise?
Designing good experiences means you have to get to know users or customers.
If you aren’t actually researching and talking to these people, you really are not fully doing human-centered design.
That being said, there are a lot of things like web accessibility that are just good practice and don’t involve user research.
Another big tip is that UX is not only about digital products — this is a recent assumption because a lot of designers startedworking in UX from web and software design, but experiences can be physical products or spaces, too!
How did you get started in business? What are the first steps you took?
I got started with zero business knowledge. And I really mean zero. It’s almost embarrassing!
I had been deep in academia, which is a totally different world. I learned a lot through trial and error and fighting for learning opportunities.
I am still learning all the time.
I really recommend taking some kind of entrepreneur boot camp, if you can. I did this recently and I wish I had done it when I was first starting the business.
My boot camp was two evenings per week for a few months. It was offered by my local Chamber ofCommerce. Take advantage of affordable resources around you!
And don’t be embarrassed like I was about how little you might know upfront. If you are passionate about what you are doing, you will learn!
You have to jump in and start trying things to really get anywhere.
How did you get first client & how did you get your best client?
The answer to both is word of mouth! I’ve gotten a lot of work from having positive relationships with others who work in my field or complementary fields.
What marketing strategies have been most effective for you?
I’m not huge on marketing tricks, but what works for me is writing helpful or informative articles about UX (I am a writer for What UsersDo, which was recently acquired by UserZoom) and giving talks and workshops at conferences and events.
By sharing pieces of my expertise, I am building trust with others and low-key promoting myself.
Some of my best leads have come from people who have seen me speak publicly.
How do stay motivated or deal with fear or stress?
It can honestly be really hard to deal with fear, stress, and setbacks.
I suggest making friends with other freelancers and consultants, and genuinely support one another.
When you need to take a break, try to take a break.
Your physical and mental health are important and taking care of yourself is beneficial for your business in the long run.
How do you stand out from the competition? What do you to differentiate yourself from other people in your area of expertise?
One thing that sets me apart is that I’ve been doing Human Factors and UX work for over 10 years, which is actually quite a longtime compared to many UX Designers. Although UX comes from a history of other disciplines, UX as a buzzword is still really young!
What are your top tips for people thinking of quitting a job to start a business?
Definitely know that there will be huge ups and huge downs. A support system of others who are in similar shoes to yours is critical, in my opinion!
And of course, try to keep your expenses down and try to have some savings in place before striking out.
Some things, like having a website ready, can be done while you’re still working your job.
What is you favorite book, blog, podcast or other resource and why?
I really recommend UX Team of One by Leah Buley! I also find Amy Poehler’s book “Yes, Please” to be pretty inspirational and fun, so I think I’ve read that three times.
What business tool or online software could you not live without? What makes it easy to run your business?
Honestly, Twitter and Slack are my world.
What do you like most about running your own business?
I love choosing the companies that I get to work with, and I like having the flexibility of working from home.
What’s next for your business? What do you have planned for the next year, or what big goals are you tracking on?
These days I am working in a full-time role that I stumbled upon at just the right time, and I love it! I also work on small consulting projects and I do freelance writing for UserZoom.
Right now, I enjoy that I can pick and choose meaningful clients and these clients give me extra income. I really needed this kind of security after a bunch of years in grad school and then consulting.
In the meantime, I’m continuing to learn new skills and slowly increase my value and rate, so that when I eventually return to consulting full time someday, I’ll be way leveled up.
What else is important that we haven’t asked?
Just keep swimming.
Becca Kennedy is a healthy mix of science and creativity — she is a Human Factors Psychologist and a User Experience Researcher/Designer.
After an academic career designing and evaluating healthcare training technology, she turned independent and co-founded a UX consulting company called Kennason in 2015 out of Albany, NY. Currently, Becca is the UX Designer for Agrilyst, an agriculture-tech startup based in Brooklyn.