Episode 64: Lisa Ghisolf


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Hallway Chats: Episode 64 - Lisa Ghisolf

Introducing Lisa Ghisolf

Lisa Ghisolf is a freelance designer & WordPress developer. She’s worked for 20 years in the field and 10 years in WordPress.

Show Notes

Website | Gizmo Design
Twitter | @gizmodesign

Episode Transcript

Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.

Liam: We ask questions, and our guests share their stories, ideas and perspectives. And now the conversation begins. This is Episode 64.

Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Tara Claeys.

Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today, we’re joined by Lisa Ghisolf. Lisa is a freelance designer and WordPress developer. She’s worked for 20 years in the field and 10 years in WordPress. She’s a Chicago native and speaks at conferences and travels as much as she can. Hi Lisa, welcome.

Lisa: Hello, how’s it going?

Tara: Hi, Lisa. Thanks for joining us, glad to meet you. Thanks for joining us in the hallway. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Lisa: Sure. I mean, as I said, I’m a Chicago native and I’ve been designing and developing since 1996, which means before CSS and before PHP and all that. I’ve just been freelancing for agencies and companies alike. I just love it. It’s kind of it in a nutshell.

Tara: Yes, so you’ve been doing this a long time, how did you get started a long time ago before WordPress and everything else?

Lisa: Oh, yeah. I actually was in school for journalism and found that I really loved design so I decided to go both ways. The funny thing is back then, no one was really doing it even though it’s such a huge deal, really, publications and print may be dying but it’s not nearly as dead as people would love to say it is. Yeah, it’s just been something that I’ve kind of grown with and tried to pick up as much as I possibly could.

Tara: Do you have a particular type of project or client that you work on right now or have you done– since you’ve been doing this a long time, I find people in that position usually have done a great myriad of things. Do you have a niche?

Lisa: Definitely all over the place. A lot of b2b corporate work, a lot of non-profit work, foundations, and a lot of small businesses too. The little mom and pop shops, all the way up. So I’d love to say that I completely niche in one area but it definitely has not happened.

Liam: Lisa, are you working mostly with clients directly, or you mentioned that you work with companies and agencies? Where do you land most of the time?

Lisa: You know, it’s kind of evenly split right now. Some places I work with directly, some are through agencies. It just really depends on my workload but right now, it truly is about half and half. It’s good and bad.

Tara: I want to talk a little bit about your description of yourself as a freelancer because that’s a word that I’ve gone to different talks about that word and what that word means. In your elevator pitch or at least in the pitch that you gave to use for this show, you call yourself a freelance designer and WordPress developer. What does freelance mean for you and does that mean that you work alone? Can you talk a little bit about that definition and maybe what’s wrapped up in it?

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. It is a really loaded word because I do think a lot of people think freelancer means fly by night. And I’ve definitely gotten a good amount of work from people who just kind of vanish off the face of the earth, which is cool. I have no problem with any of that. I think agencies identify with the word much better than the general public does. In my LinkedIn profile here I definitely say freelancer but I think there’s definitely a stigma to a certain extent that, you know, I’m not fly by night, I’ve been around for 20 years, 15 on my own. It’s not the easiest path in the world but honestly, I think that the freedom to kind of shape my own schedule and really just work how I want to work and with the clients that I want to work with definitely creates a much better life in a long run. I think overall, it’s been pretty good, that people have understood what I’m going for and how available I am, especially once they start working with me.

Tara: Yeah, thank you for that. I struggle a little bit myself because all of the things that you list, the flexibility and the freedom, I think the term freelancer has a lot of advantages to technically being a freelancer. But I do think that there’s been a lot of conversation in our space about that not being a very positive word or not very flattering for you as a business owner. I’ve heard the term solopreneur a lot, or sometimes people will say they have an agency. Do you have people that work with you or for you or are you solo?

Lisa: Depends, I bring on contractors if there are programming pieces that are just too much for me. Because I generally end around the end of the theme. If there are new plugins that need to get created or modified, that’s generally where I talk to other people and have them come in on those pieces. The design parts of it, I’m probably too much of a control freak and want to keep all to myself. They’re at that but I definitely bring in other people whenever possible.

Tara: And you mentioned that you speak at conferences. Are you involved in the WordPress community or do you do other types of things? What’s your involvement in your business community or communities?

Lisa: It’s kind of a mix. In the last few years, I’ve done a lot of WordCamps, mostly because I just want to travel to particulars locales. I’ve kind of been all over the place, even Montreal, but also Raliegh and LA. I tried to kind of go all over the place and it is great to meet these different communities and talk to them. But also just earlier this year, I still get NTEN, which is like a non-profit technology, I can’t remember what the E stands for, but essentially network. And it’s all non-profit technology which, essentially, the talk I was on was a panel and it was about starting a website and kind of where you take that website. Even if it’s a redesign or something like that, what is the process that you go through, how do you find the developer, et cetera, all those kinds of things. It just kind of depends. I’ve spoken to South by Southwest, it just generally depends how I feel and what direction I’m taking my business at that point.

Tara: Is it a business development process then? I assume WordCamps maybe not as much but these other sound like good ways to get your name in front of potential clients.

Lisa: Yeah, if I possibly can, definitely. Sometimes they are local so it’s kind of, are they people who may or may not be interested in my services or is this not the right crowd for them– I said that wrong, of course. Is this not the right venue for them, is this not the right topic for them? I think sometimes it’s kind of a struggle to find a match between who I’m talking to and my topic, and hopefully bringing it to them in a way that they can understand and walk away with something. Yeah, and I don’t know if I actually answered your question there. [laughs]

Tara: No, I think you did for sure. I’m just asking about your motivations behind different conferences that you participate in. I’m going to switch gears and get a little bit away from business or maybe more into business, depending on how you want to take your answer to this question that we ask everyone, which is, how you define success, Lisa? What success means to you, whether that’s personally, professionally, or where the two meet, how your life is fulfilling your ideas of success and what that means, can you talk a little bit about that?

Lisa: Sure. I think that it’s really actually fairly practical. It’s mostly just making enough money that I can do the things that I want to do like travel, and working with the types of clients I want to work with. I think that’s a huge thing, too, because at the end of the day, I probably spend more time with them than I do with most other people. I really want to work with people that are on the same wavelength as I am and that I’m excited about their projects and that they’re excited about my work and that kind of thing. Yeah, it really comes down to just being able to do the things that I want to do while I’m working while I’m continuing along, hopefully to creating things that I want to share with other people portfolio-wise and that I’m proud of.

Liam: That’s a pretty practical definition, I’d agree with you there. I wonder finding that balance between having enough money in the sense of project flowing in at your hourly rate, balancing that with people that you like, and maybe not go out to dinner with all the time but you enjoy getting an email, conversing, and working with them on projects. How do you find that balance, particularly as– well, any business has to find their balance but maybe it’s a little bit more precarious with a freelancer because it sounds like you’re the only one doing business development and you’re also the only one meeting the deadline. How do you make sure that you have enough projects coming in from the kind of people that you want to work with?

Lisa: A good amount of that, I think, has been locking the people that I’ve met. I’ve certainly met people who haven’t been the greatest to work with but–

Liam: [laughs] I think we’ve all met that person.

Lisa: Yeah, they’re all out there. But I am really happy to meet those people. I think, in some ways, it’s a very symbolical relationship that we just kind of give each other, and it’s easy to continue on then if they have continual projects and things like that. I found that I shifted over time to more of these corporate and agency projects just because for one thing, they generally know how to purchase design and development, they know what they’re looking for and I’m not really explaining everything to them, which isn’t an issue but it makes–

Liam: Or it’s less educational work, right? Plus, I have an onboarding cost and it’s a faster process.

Lisa: Definitely. And there’s always continual work then, too, so that makes a huge difference if we are working together. I don’t know, I find that I’m more excited by those projects and I think it all kind of comes together in a way. Finding them, I feel like I just networked and I worked around enough in different places that, generally, people will bring you with them when they move to another agency or another company. I don’t know, whatever their next piece is, they’re definitely talking to you about it and really working those relationships as much as I possibly can. I don’t care, I send Frango chocolates, I send whatever thank yous all the time. Yeah, I’m just a big fan of, “Hey, I love working with you and I will let you know.” And just being available as much as possible, too. I think that’s a big thing. I’m lucky that I don’t have kids to distract me from all of that, which they should, of course. But yeah, I think it’s kind of like an overall trying to bring those people in and I kind of feel like it’s the law of attraction, they keep attracting more of those types of people. They see that kind of work that they like as well and it just kind of keeps feeding into itself.

Liam: What kind of work do you do? I know you said design and development but– and you started in ’96. Was it always web-based, so you’re designing websites, you’re developing websites? Tell us a little bit about what’s day-to-day like for you in terms of sitting down at the computer and getting work done.

Lisa: Right now, I’m at a big project for Alight, which is kind of an offshoot of Aon, it’s a benefits company. I’m doing a lot of corporate benefits work but there are big campaigns that go on and they all need to be done by end of year so that everyone can get that information for legal reasons and all that kind of stuff. But generally, usually, I’d be ending up going to the co-working space, drinking lots of coffee. It’s funny because I am both print and web so I may be doing a bunch of designer production work for some pieces that some of my corporate or non-profit clients need. Adding to that, anything going wrong with WordPress sites certainly, I hear about it first. “There’s a glitch here, this broke, someone did something, you don’t know what, please just fix it.” I get that all day long and I’m cool with it, I love fixing sites. I think sometimes I enjoy that a little bit more than the creative side of it. Yeah, it’s kind of a ‘who knows what’s going to happen’ sort of thing, which is great, that I never know what’s going to come down the pike. It does keep me on my toes. I constantly know what things are happening, who’s hacking sites and how. That’s generally how my day goes. I never necessarily know, I can never necessarily turn off my email, that kind of thing.

Liam: Yeah, I get that. Within that then, what’s your favorite thing to do when you’re working? What do you like to do the most?

Lisa: You know, I still love to just sit down and create from the start. And I’m one of those people who doesn’t necessarily sketch but I love to design something from scratch. That’s probably my favorite thing. If it comes down to developing, and I can’t necessarily say that I work on both things at the same time because my brain would probably explode. I think it is just digging into something. And I know that I’m weird among my peers for this but I’ve heard it more than once, I love actually getting into a site that I’ve never been into before that’s been around for a while and then being able to clean it up and speed it up and get rid of some of the debris that’s kind of been bogging it down and just optimizing it and all, that kind of thing.

Liam: It’s a very polite way to say it, the debris.

Lisa: Yes.

Liam: You’re very diplomatic.

Lisa: I try, yes. [laughs]

Tara: Yeah. It sounds like you love what you do. You mentioned that you go to a co-working space. Do you also work out of your house?

Lisa: Sometimes, but I sometimes just find that I need that stimulation of just other people being around me. Even coffee shops before I found the co-working space. Because I’m on the burbs of Chicago and you don’t necessarily have that many co-working spaces here just yet. Yeah, I find it sometimes is just a little too quiet so I just try to get out whenever I can.

Tara: Does that help you shut down at the end of the day and balance things or are you always– you said you’re always on email or something. Are you always on call?

Lisa: It does help me shut down to a certain extent, at least like the bigger things. I do have a bad habit of just looking at emails every so often. But most things I try to push until the next day unless it’s an emergency. Yeah, if I don’t need to be available, then it is good for me to shut down because working 24/7, it’s a very easy way to burn out.

Tara: Yeah, it’s hard to shut down when you are a freelancer and you’re working for yourself because your clients, like you said, I call them the whack-a-moles, these things pop up, not when you’re necessarily expecting.

Liam: Wait a minute, you call your clients the whack-a-moles? [laughter]

Lisa: That’s what I thought at first, too.

Tara: Sort of. I mean, the clients or the client issues, because you never know– there’s that game in arcades, there’s a spider or something and you have to step on– it’s like something’s always popping up or you have to hit it with the hammer. I can’t remember. But sometimes clients remind me of that because you’ve been doing this for a long time so you probably maintain– I’m assuming you maintain sites for lots of people. Even if you don’t, a site you built six years ago, all of a sudden, they remember that you built it and they contact you because something’s not working and you weren’t expecting that. And maybe you go and check it and you think, “I’ll just look for two minutes.” And then an hour later, you’re still trying to fix their problem, and there goes your day. You can’t really necessarily predict what’s going to happen in your day and you also feel probably loyal. It sounds like you really like your clients a lot and they like you too, so to shut down at the end of the day is a great thing to do and we all know that’s a great thing to do, but in all honesty, probably we don’t do it as often as we should. But what do you do when you’re not working? What do you like to do for fun?

Lisa: Oh, god. I just not terribly long ago finished the improv program at Second City and I really would love to continue doing that but then I just got caught up with work, just hit and the balancing act is not there, not for staying late at Second City and then getting up the next morning and trying to get work done, that just isn’t going to work. And I love to travel, I think that’s my biggest outlet. And the last couple of years, I think I did about seven speaking gigs and trips tied into those, and just try to get out as much as possible.

Liam: Where have you been? Where have you traveled?

Lisa: Oh, lord. So the thing that makes me an international speaker is Montreal, that was for Montreal WordCamp.

Liam: Woohoo.

Lisa: Yeah, I know. I spoke– this actually was last year at the Write/Speak/Code conference in Oregon in Portland. Let’s see, what else? LA, San Diego, those were WordCamps, Raleigh. I did do some travel blogger speaking for a while there too, bloggers, I just have a few of them that stick around. Some of them actually do have budgets, it’s kind of shocking but some of them actually do pretty well. Yeah, just trying to get around as much as possible. I’d love to go more international but yeah, work has been a little crazier this year so it hasn’t been as big of a priority.

Liam: Sure, sure. You’ve been in business, you said, for yourself for 15 years, I think, or at least you’ve been working by yourself for 15 years. You’ve been designing and developing for 20. What’s been your biggest challenge as either a designer, or a developer, or as a businesswoman, as a business owner, or as a freelancer? I’ll let you frame the question as you want. What’s been your biggest challenge?

Lisa: That’s a good question because I can find answers for every single one of those names.

Liam: We’re only a 30-minute show so you’ll just have to limit it to one of them. [laughter]

Lisa: I think, as a business owner, I think business development is one of my biggest issues just because sales is not my forte and it was nothing I ever thought that I would ever have to do. I don’t think any– especially designers don’t think that we have to sell. But at the end of the day, we all have to sell what we’re doing to our clients, to whomever. I think that’s just been the toughest one for me. I’ve gotten a lot of word of mouth but it’s not always easy to break into different niches. I think that’s always been a tough one for me. Gosh, otherwise, I don’t know, time management sometimes is a big issue, just depending on how projects are going and if one project goes longer because websites tend to generally go longer than they ever should because of lack of content or something, mostly like that. I think those are my biggest issues, and also not wanting to do billing. That’s always a big one. I’d rather just get the work done and someone else to think about it, but then I would actually be working for someone else so that wouldn’t work too well.

Tara: Yeah. How about timekeeping? Do you track your time, do you bill hourly?

Lisa: I actually do. Generally, actually, it’s built off of my early but I do project rates for people just so they know what they’re getting into ahead of time. With a certain number of rounds of revisions and that’s so it kind of has a full scope and I can get an idea of where it’s going and if we hit beyond those hours that I’ve put out for. I use Goharvest.com, I love to use that just to keep track of everything because I hate writing down on little post-it notes everywhere. Like, “I did 15 minutes on this job, or on that job, or something like that.” It just makes life so much easier. For those quick fixes like, “This is wrong with our website.” It’s nice to be able to say, “Yeah, I spent 20 minutes on it and here’s your bill.” And go from there. But yeah, I end up tracking pretty much everything.

Tara: Yeah, that’s good. I think that’s a challenge for a lot of people, I noticed for me. Let me ask you another one of our questions that we like to ask everyone, which is, we’d like to hear if you have some advice to share with us? If you have any advice that you’ve received that has been helpful to you and that you’ve implemented and that you can share that with us? What would that be?

Lisa: That’s another tough one, which I probably will have another long rambling answer for. God, sometimes I think it’s just a matter of starting something. I think a lot of people that I know I talked to, when they talk about freelancing, they just say they can’t do it because they would just sit at home and do nothing. And I totally understand it. If you procrastinate on a project, it can be quite easy. But I think that if you just start on it, give it five minutes just to look at it, it makes a huge difference. And just getting something out the door and then you’re not dreading it quite as much. And if you’re dreading it, maybe you shouldn’t be working with that client or that type of job or something like that. I think just keep at it, that’s always been a big one. I think it’s easy to feel an imposter syndrome and that I’m not doing as well as everyone else. You can only do what you define as success and do as well as you possibly can with your work and how you’re getting yourself out there. To me, at the end of the day, it’s just about keeping at it, keeping a good attitude, finding others who can– the clients who are a pain in the butt so your friends don’t think you’re insane and move on from there.

Tara: So do you have that kind of outlet? You do a lot of speaking and traveling to conferences and things like that. What’s your support network? Is it your freelancer friends, you go to meetups, how do you manage that what you just described?

Lisa: I wish I were better about going to meetups because I would be much more in tune with the Chicago WordPress community. But I just never make it to anything, I feel like. I do look in freelancer groups on Facebook and I find that they’re really helpful to find those people that you can just talk to and get out the good and the bad that’s all going on, and not really put it out there on your Facebook feed, which probably your clients are also reading. Because half the time they will think it’s about them. Yeah, I find that those are the easier things, those kinds of freelancer friends designers. And the co-working space was excellent also for just talking to people on a general basis, kind of having co-workers that I don’t really work with, and the great thing about that too is that they don’t bug me then all day long to get jobs out because I’m not working with them. It makes it easier. Yeah, it just kind of introduces that social element if you want it. I think those are the big things that get the work stuff out at the very least.

Liam: And that probably helps, as you said. As a freelancer, there’s not an immediate community. You have to make your own, you don’t have a team, you’re working alone, especially if you work within home. And then to know, “Am I doing this right? Is this how people run a business? Is this the amount of work I should be putting in on this kind of project? How do I compare myself to the industry?” Not necessarily, am I better or am I worse, but like, is this even close to what most people define as right or rightish? And that can be a real challenge. Those different avenues of networking social media, Facebook, and real life at the meetups and at the co-working space can be really helpful, can’t they?

Lisa: Oh yeah, most definitely. It’s just, like I said, a different outlet that your friends and family don’t have to feel like they’re getting overwhelmed with, your complaints and all that.

Tara: I’m going to ask you a question that may not come out the right way but I can tell because I can see you and Liam did. None of us are probably in our 20s and 30s so I was thinking co-working spaces as being intimidating because I imagined that they’re filled with young people, and that I would feel so conscious about that. What’s your co-working space like demographically?

Lisa: It’s all over the place, to be honest. There are people who are in their 60s and down through– some of the women who work the front desk are in their 20s. Honestly, if you’re Second City– I got over that because one of the women that I was in the class with was 18 years old and another one was 18 and he was just still in high school. Yeah, I had to get over that really quick because otherwise you just feel like the old crone.

Liam: I think co-working spaces really have changed in the last two to five years, certainly the ones that I’ve popped into from time to time. And I don’t regularly co-work. There really has been that mix, the recent college grads but also the older professionals or older individuals. I think that’s probably reflective of the fact that so many people work from home even though they are employed by somebody else or they are running their own consultancy, their own services from. It certainly makes it not just the young people, hipsters club but it really is a place of varying demographics, Tara.

Tara: Yeah, that’s good to know. I have that sort of impression in my head which probably is left over from maybe earlier days. I also want to just say that I think it’s awesome that you do improv and I think it’s great not to just add humor in your life and interact with people of all ages that way, but you’re in Chicago and to participate in the Second City improv class must be pretty cool, that’s really neat.

Lisa: Oh yeah, and it’s definitely an outlet. It’s complete 180 from anything I do.

Tara: That’s really neat, cool. I think we are coming up on the end of our time with you today, Lisa. I’d like to ask you to tell us a joke but I won’t put you on the spot.

Lisa: No, I never get that.

Tara: [laughs] Thank you so much for joining us here today, it’s great to get to know you.

Liam: Thank you.

Lisa: Thank you.

Tara: Where can people find you online?

Lisa: You can just go to Gizmo-design.com and find me, and you can find all of my contact information and other websites there.

Tara: Okay, will do. Thanks so much.

Liam: Thanks Lisa, great meeting you.

Lisa: Yes, you too.

Liam: Hope to see you soon, bye-bye.

Tara: Bye.

Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.

Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.

Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.

Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.

157 episodes