Home Business Heroes: Tom Hulatt, Grafiker

Can you sum up your business?

Grafiker is the creative services of me, Thomas Hulatt - a freelance graphic designer and print expert that can help make other businesses look their best!

What were you doing before?

After graduating from a Product Design degree in 2005 I was lucky enough to get my first break working as a designer for a London based publisher. I then relocated to Berlin for 2 years to design for one of Europe's largest tour companies before returning to London to take up a lead creative role at Continental Airlines.

Why did you decide to go freelance?

A year after joining Continental it was announced that they would be merging with United Airlines to form United, the world's largest airline. The whole organisation would be restructuring and I had decided to hand in my notice so I could go and live with my girlfriend who had found work over the other side of the country!

Before leaving, I had already helped implement the new United branding into the UK market and was beginning to help the other EU regions so they, in turn, could relay the information onto their own local agencies. I spotted an opportunity to save the organisation time and money and secure my first freelance client…

I could offer a central design hub for all the EU regions that offered unrivalled knowledge of the new brand as well as links into Head Office. It was a win-win for both sides and forms the backbone of Grafiker now.

How did you fund it?

Things were very basic when I started. It was just me and my trusty Mac. Luckily, my line of work generally dictates that if you're not making money, at least you're not losing it.

However, as I grow the print side of my company and look to push other revenue streams things are becoming more complicated but that's of my own making. As a freelancer, if you want to keep things simple and cheap - you can!

How did you market yourself?

I was lucky in the fact that my first client, United, were very big and had a lot to say. Having just merged they were essentially a brand new company and there was a lot of material to put out. I guess their initial marketing campaign acted as my own way of promoting myself, both within the organisation and also to build up my portfolio and attract new clients.

How did you build a list of clients and find work?

Once things with the airline were ticking over I decided to email all my old contacts to introduce them to Grafiker. It was great to find that some of the guys who had started out the same time as me were doing very well for themselves and were in the position to offer me a bit of work.

I've now got a host of regular clients in all kinds of industries.

How have you grown the list?

I'm probably not the best salesman in the world so feel I've been lucky in that, from solid foundations, the work has generally found me. Apart from those initial emails I've never really had to push for new clients… word of mouth tends to do that for me.

Having said that, I've started freelancing out some of my own work now to allow me more time to drive my client base.

Where in the home is your office?

My girlfriend and I recently moved into part of an old psychiatric hospital in Norwich. We've spent the last year renovating it but the first job was to adapt the awkward shaped bedroom into my design studio.

I'm especially proud of the white painted concrete floor and 4.5 metre long desk, which I designed and built myself over a very long weekend!

Do you have set working hours?

As a home-based freelancer I feel it's important to try to set some rigid working hours but unfortunately they're not always easy to stick to.

In general, I start work when my girlfriend leaves the house at 7:30am and try to finish when she walks through the front door in the evenings. It doesn't always work out like this as I now have clients in six different continents, so as somebody's working day is coming to an end, another is just beginning!

How do you make sure you're focused and never get distracted at home?

I don't like letting people down. If the work is there, I'll be doing what I can to get it done on time and to an excellent standard. It's probably more difficult for me to switch off.  

Having said that, I guess the recent Olympics and Euros tested me!

Was it hard at the start?

Although I had a large ready-made client, things were very stressful in the first couple of months. I had no real experience of running a design agency and so had to get to grips with things fast whilst staying on top of an ever-increasing workflow. It's a good problem to have but it certainly wasn't easy.

Do you ever get to take a holiday?

I have managed to get away for a couple of long weekends over the last year but I must admit it's difficult. I thought I'd have loads of spare time but the reality is that it's quite a skill to arrange a break when you work for yourself.

What's the worst thing about being freelance?

In full-time work, even if you have an awful day you can walk out the door at the end of it and forget about everything until the next morning.

When you work from home it's much more difficult to escape - there's always the opportunity to do more and it's easy to forget about what's really important and why you're working so hard in the first place.

What's the best?

Everything I achieve, or mess up for that matter, is of my own doing. I love being in control rather than controlled.

Will you ever take a staff job?

At this moment I can't imagine it but I firmly believe that you should always be ready for change, so never say never.

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