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So we tend to spend a lot of time chatting about how you can ditch that day job and go full-time with your new web design hustle…

But what if that’s not actually your goal? What if your dream career—the thing you are most passionate about pursuing—is something different altogether?

I’m so excited to introduce today’s guest, lovely past Square Secrets™️ & Square Secrets Business™️ student Emi Ichikawa of Designed By Emi.

Emi’s designs may be next-level gorgeous, but her true love (and what she’s wanted to do basically since she learned to walk) was dance!

If you are like Emi, looking for more freedom and financial security while you pursue your one true passion, or while you balance other big priorities in your life, you do not want to miss this interview!

Tune into Emi’s story as she shares how web design became the ultimate side-hustle to support the life and career she had been dreaming of!

P.S. How incredible are these recent design portfolio pieces by Emi?

How Emi made web design the ultimate side-hustle to her dream career

Q: What were you doing before you became a designer?

Did you have any coding/developing or design experience?

I’ve been dancing since I was three, and I kind of always knew that that was what I wanted to do, so I went to Dance College in the UK. Since graduating, I’ve been dancing on board cruise ships for about two years.

Then I moved to London just to see what else is out there career-wise.

Obviously, living in London is quite expensive, so I worked in retail, initially…I’d never had a non-dance job before, so it was really exciting for me! I continued to audition and train [in dance] while working retail.

I didn’t have any training in design prior to starting my design business, but I was a pretty nerdy kid in high school so I would stay home a lot and go on Tumblr. There was this community of people who would design Tumblr themes, blog themes, and forums which I thought was fascinating and I wanted to give it a shot.

So I was just kind of self-taught, seeing bits of what people did and seeing what else I could come up with.

I never really told anyone I did it. It was just more for fun.

Q: What made you want to start your web design business?

So I actually started my business right around when COVID hit…I was creating my own personal portfolio website for my dancing and had a lot of fun doing it.

I posted my new website on Facebook and Instagram and got a lot of great feedback.

I started Googling for more website and web design tips and that is when I stumbled upon Paige’s blog. It was then that I thought “you know…this could be something viable!”

My partner had just started his own business a few months before this and it was really starting to take off which also inspired me.

I knew I was going to want to continue dancing [professionally] for a long time. But I have also always been interested in design and art. I’ve always really loved being creative.

So I knew [my side-hustle] was something I would wish I had started earlier, instead of waiting until my dance career had ended!

Q: What inspired you to join Square Secrets™️ & Square Secrets Business™️?

Like I said, I found Paige through Google, and her website was the first one I ever remember really connecting with.

I really felt like her website was actually speaking to me, which I had really encountered in a website before.

If I was going to start a business, I needed someone who was really personable and welcoming and who I felt was actually rooting for me…and I could really feel that through her site.

I enjoy really clean design, and that is what she had. Everything was just in the right place, and being super detail-oriented, that is something I value.

So I really connected with all these things. And I was like, “Yeah! I think I really want to do this!”

Q: How did you land your first paying web design client?

Like many people, my first client was a friend of mine, also a dancer.

She really wanted a dance portfolio website and so when I posted my own website on Social Media, she messaged me to ask: “Hey, do you do this for other people??”

I was still in the middle of taking Paige’s courses, so my business wasn’t fully set up yet, but she was definitely my first trial run!

But as a dancer, the website I was most interested in creating was an agency website…they usually have a portfolio of all the talent so it would be quite a meaty website and something I really wanted to take a shot at.

So I reached out to an agency in London, but it was still the middle of COVID lockdown so the whole entertainment industry was shut down…[the agency owner] was very interested but just didn’t have the funds (which I totally understood) and didn’t feel right asking me for a discount.

I actually reached out to her again this year now that the industry is starting to pick back up and found out this whole time she’s been saving up to work with me!

She didn’t want to work with anyone else! So she left me a really lovely testimonial, and I really enjoyed working on her site.

I just remembered reading something on Paige’s blog sometime where she said:

“A ‘No’ doesn’t necessarily mean never!”

Psssst! Wanna Pin it for later?

Q: How do your Squarespace designs compare before vs. after taking Square Secrets™?

So I actually had no prior Squarespace experience before taking the courses.

I wasn’t really familiar with a lot of the platforms. My first website was on WordPress, and I use Divi Builder which I thought was quite similar…so when I saw the layout of Squarespace I thought “Yeah, I can probably hack this!”

So before taking the course I had only designed my own website.

But I feel like since taking the course, and since really understanding deeper than the aesthetic of a website…

Like how people actually interact on websites, how important the copy is, how to connect with your audience in order for them to be interested in more than just a pretty website, learning to place certain things strategically, and SEO which I obviously wouldn’t have even known about before taking Square Secrets™️…

All of that really played a big part and was super beneficial!

Q: How did you build your web design portfolio? Did you offer any free or discounted work at first?

Yes, I did. Especially since my first few clients were my friends and I really wanted to be able to build some more confidence for myself.

I had only ever designed my own website. I liked it…but I didn’t really know if it was good enough for everyone else.

So I gave discounts to a couple friends and gave me really constructive feedback, which was really helpful. Or sometimes I would even trade my services for something that they offered that could be beneficial to me!

I wasn’t actually very good at making mock websites. I tried to do it, but I just couldn’t come up with any content, like the fake copy, etc.

I much preferred working with real content and real people, even if it was for less than I would normally charge.

I hadn’t quit my retail job at this point either, which was my main source of income.

So I felt I had a bit more leverage and flexibility to prioritize how I felt about my portfolio/designs than what I was earning from it at first.

Q: Did you start your web design business with any goals in mind?

I think when I first started my business, it was really more out of curiosity.

I was just really intrigued to see what could come out of it!

I wasn’t really going in with the intention of, like ‘in ten years, I want to be able to hire five people and then have an office and do all of this…’

I just knew that I wanted something to supplement my dance career, and to be able to give me the freedom and flexibility to attend last-minute auditions or to do long shoot days and not feel guilty about not having done work that day!

My main goal for this business was to be able to set myself up well for later in life, and I didn’t really expect it to happen this soon!

Q: Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome as a web designer?

I definitely (like a lot of people) deal with imposter syndrome as a web designer!

The dance industry is kinds of similar to the design industry in a way! When you get to a certain level, it’s not really about choosing between who’s ok and who’s good…because at that level everyone is good.

So the competition can feel insane!

I never went to school for web design. I’ve never gone to university, and have no official qualifications as a designer.

But if my clients are really happy with what I’m doing, and I feel like I’m doing the best that I can for my clients at that point in time, then that’s the best that I can do!

It’s knowing that no one is perfect in their industry, and no one actually knows what they’re doing (in the sense that everyone is still figuring it out!)

So it’s okay to be an incomplete product…because as long as you’re being a genuine person, you’re working on your craft, and your clients are happy…You don’t really need to be pleasing anybody else!

Q: Can you talk about your money mindset as a web designer?

I think it’s really important to be quite transparent about how much you earn! I think that it really eliminates a lot of adversity within the industry, and sets a sort of standard for freelancers.

If you’re severely under-charging, you’re not really helping out your fellow designer…it’s just not beneficial to the whole industry!

But when you charge more, you’re actually setting a new standard for people to aspire to!

I think it’s really important to be aware of the average market price when you’re first starting out. You can’t just set your prices randomly as a shot in the dark!

I am definitely planning to raise my prices in the New Year, since I think raising your prices is important when the demand starts getting greater than the supply!

I see increasing my prices as a way to challenge myself…to really push myself and see how creative I can be, and how much more value I can deliver to my clients!

Q: Is there anything you feel you do differently than other designers?

When I have a consult call with a client, I tend to get pretty quickly attached and invested in their business!

I really just want them to succeed! Many have never started a business before and some haven’t even really told anybody about what they wanted to do!

So I really want to be that person in their corner telling them they can do it! This is possible for them!

I like to be detail-oriented, and even offer suggestions about their business so they feel they’re being supported. I like to find ways to make their lives easier like including features on their site they didn’t even know were possible and automating things for them!

Many of the clients I work with are creatives themselves, so I’ve found they enjoy seeing the process and being a part of it! So I like to stay in really close communication with all my clients…sometimes I send them quick progress photos, or ask their opinion if I’m stuck between two design choices on a section.

It helps them feel like they are a part of creating their website as well because this business is their baby!

I feel like this way clients feel a lot less left in the dark. They aren’t just paying me, and feel like I forget about them, and then one day their website just appears.

I want them to feel like they’re an integral part of the process, and I have found a lot of people I work with enjoy that.

But on the flip side, there will always be those people who just go “here’s the money and the contract…do your thing!”

Q: Do you think your design skills are the #1 most important skill you’ve needed to succeed as a web designer?

I think every business is a people business.

Skills and hard work are obviously a must, but I think above everything else, the most successful people aren’t usually the people with the most amount of skills or the best designer…

They’re just great people and they know how to handle people and they know how to approach people.

And I think as a designer, it’s really beneficial if you’re personable, you’re open-minded, and you’re able to hold yourself accountable, always working with your clients’ best interests in mind.

You have to be able to listen to your client, like really listen to what they want, and to genuinely care about their business and the outcome of their website, because they can feel that too.

Like I said before, their website is going to be their baby.

It’s something that they want to be proud of, and share with everyone. And for you to be able to be a part of that process is an honor!

It’s an honor that they chose you to produce this work for them that they are going to be showing off to the world. That is pretty crazy that someone can trust you enough to do that.

So I think remembering that yes, it’s my design business, but I’m not designing a website for myself! It’s for other people…and knowing that it is bigger than you, I think is more important!

Q: What does your average workday look like now you’re a designer?

So I don’t think any of my days have ever looked the same!

Sometimes, I’ll sit and I’ll work for 10 hours straight. And sometimes I’ll just work for two hours. It really depends on my current dance schedule or life obligations!

My clients are all very aware that I am first and foremost a dancer!

And a dance career is so volatile. For example, I had a period where I did some shoots for a TV show over a period of 3 days where I had to travel to a completely different city…and there was no chance for me to do any sort of web design work within that time!

So I would just schedule days before and after to make up for that time, but still on my own terms.

I try not to make it too obvious to clients. If I’m filming Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I might have already filmed a section of their site they’ve never seen on the Tuesday. Then I would just wait to show them until the Thursday!

Right now I’m actually in Hong Kong. I haven’t been here or seen my family in two years! And I just got out of a three-week quarantine! So work wise things are much slower than I would normally be.

So yeah! No set workday!

I think that’s the beauty of owning your own businesses. You decide the rules! You obviously have an obligation to make your clients’ life easier as well, but it is also on your own terms!

Most people are super understanding as long as you’re very transparent with your clients! They are people! They get it! So as long as their work isn’t compromised, I think it’s totally okay!

Q: Have any encouraging words to share with designers who are just getting started?

I think if you really want to do something, and you’ve researched and worked hard enough for it, you can totally do it!

Even if you choose to do it as just a side-hustle for the foreseeable future…you can do it and you won’t be ‘less-than’ anyone else!

Your business is exactly that…YOUR business! There’s no blueprint on how to create the perfect business, or how to be the most perfect business owner or the best designer. That’s not a thing!

You don’t have to be like anyone else! And that’s the beauty of having your own business! You have all the freedom to be able to pave your own way.

You don’t have to do exactly what someone else has done. But even if you did do exactly as someone else has done—take all the same courses they did and learn the exact same things—you won’t ever find yourself in the exact same place because you’re you! You’re not them! And that’s awesome!

It’s scary…but it’s really awesome.

Also going into it knowing that you will make mistakes. And that’s ok!

Because again, it’s a people business! And you’re dealing with people who understand.

The first day of your new job is never going to go the way you want it! You’re going to mess up. You’re going to miss something!

And it happens! People will forgive you and that’s how you grow.

You and your business will always be changing and evolving as you learn from each project that you’ve done and as you develop as a person.

Nothing is set in stone and you can change things at any point!

And I think that was what initially was a bit scary for me. The idea of publishing my design website and saying “this is my design process, and this is what I charge.” It was scary because I didn’t realize I could change it anytime I wanted.

As a dancer, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was:

“Don’t hold yourself back if you are not good enough or perfect yet. It’s not your job to tell yourself that.”

You have to let someone else be like ‘oh, I’m actually not too keen on this part of the website’, or ‘this is not quite my vision.’ And that’s ok! That gives you an opportunity to change.

You’re not designing websites for yourself anymore, you’re designing them for someone else, so you can’t be the one to hold yourself back. You have to be the person that believes in yourself or no one else will!

Q: What would you say to someone who is on the fence about taking a PB course?

Just do it! Square Secrets™️ (and actually I took Square Secrets Business™️ too)…they made themselves back in profit so many times. I’m really grateful to Paige and her courses.

It was obviously really great to learn the skills, but it was also quite nice to gain more confidence belief in myself that I can actually do this!

I’m just not someone who can dive into the deep end and hope for the best.

Paige’s course tells you from step 1 through step 100 what to do and that’s exactly what I needed as a person. That really really connected with me.

If you’re someone who needs set instruction, and “I’m so lost I don’t know what to do!” It’s definitely the course for you!

It’s not airy fairy, it’s very direct! It’s like “do THIS…but if you can’t do THIS, then there’s also THIS option.”

But it’s all very clear. It just gives you a lot of reassurance that “ok, I’m not going to direly mess anything up, it’s going to be fine.

And the community has been really great so far as well! Being able to interact with other students in the Facebook groups and seeing designers who took the course around the same time as me and how much they’ve developed and evolved! It’s really inspiring!

So yeah! Just do it!

Q: Any final words for other designers tuning in?

I have gone through times of doubt where I thought “oh, maybe I should just do web design full time [instead of a side hustle to my dream dance career]…”

But it’s your business! You can just do what you want with it! You set the times. You set the prices. You schedule calls when you’re available!

Sure, you make time for other people, but it has to be you first! You have to be able to prioritize yourself, and your well-being, and your happiness in order for you to be able to produce something for someone else and to give more for other people.

I’m not the type of person to half-ass anything. It has to be 100% and the best thing I can do at that point. And I like to think my clients feel that from me.

You can just have this as a side business if that’s what you want!

Someone wise once made me aware of how I see success…“Is your idea success what YOU believe is success? Or is your idea of success what everyone else thinks is success?”

You have to ask yourself these questions! Otherwise, you won’t be able to live a life that is true to yourself and you won’t be able to make decisions in your business that you really believe in.

But it takes guts and courage.

There has been a lot of pressure to take this full-time, but I just want to encourage people that it doesn’t make you less valid if you do it as a side-hustle!

If there are other big priorities in your life, like you’re a full-time mom, obviously you have to prioritize your child. But also do your web design! You can do all of it!

It’s all correct! They are all right answers.

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How Emi made web design the ultimate side-hustle to her dream career