I want to thank Mike Smith of Blog Theme Machine for taking the time to do this interview for Fuel Your Creativity. Mike lives in Knoxville, TN and is a Web Designer who works in the comfort of his own home office!
Are you a freelancer?
Yes. Since October 15th 2007 I have been full time freelancing.
What is the best part about being a freelancer?
The ability to do work whenever I feel inspired and not feel stuck in a 9-5 timeframe. Some days I work from 10pm until 8am and other days I split my time and work a little bit in the morning and a little bit at night. Flexibility is awesome.
What does your typical day look like?
Like I said above, some days I work in the morning, some days at night. Throughout the day I am checking and replying to emails and checking out various leads on blog design jobs. I get the bulk of my client work done throughout the night because it’s so quiet and peaceful. Some nights I have a nice glass of Scotch or Jack on the rocks and that helps the evening go by smoother :)
What are your best methods for finding/attracting clients?
When I started Blog Theme Machine I literally went to 45n5.com/top-100 and emailed EVERYONE from that list about creating a website for them. I got a few clients from there and it snowballed from people they knew and then leverage to say I designed X amount of sites on the top 100 Make Money Online blogs.
Now I gain most of my clients through search engine traffic and word of mouth. I still do some cold emailing but I’m finding that networking through social media sites like twitter and stumbleupon work really well too.
How did you get started? Did you study something in particular or are you self-taught?
I have been designing and fooling around with photoshop for a long time. I also spent some time ghost blogging so I was aware of wordpress and blogging in general but nothing like I know now. I never took a class on design, hell, I didn’t even graduate high school. I just pick things up, test them out and learn as I go. Right now, I know about 20-30 more things about wordpress then what I did a week ago. I study a LOT of blogs and websites to keep up to date in my industry.
Please tell us more about your art and design background and what made you become an artist and designer?
I started drawing at around 5 years old. I remember drawing old cartoon characters like Sylvester and Tweety Bird and selling them to kids in class for a dollar each. I also got into graffiti and quickly learned why I didn’t want to do graffiti anymore… Cops hate it :) So at thirteen I found photoshop because I wanted signatures on some message boards I was posting on. From there, it just snowballed to where I am now.
What do you feel are the most important skills for a designer to have/develop?
Social skills :) Without being able to talk to clients and really interject yourself as a person the other wants to deal with, your design skills will not matter as much. As from a design standpoint, I’d say that keeping up with your industry and knowing a little bit of everything (design, xhtml/css, php, ajax, wordpress integration, ect). This way, if you’re outsourcing things to people, at least you know that you can edit it down the road or re-use snippets of code later on to save yourself time/money.
Where do you go for design inspiration?
Fuel Your Creativity of course :) I also check out various css galleries like CSS Remix (they’ve been non-existent on the posting lately though), Smashing Magazine has some awesome design inspired articles as well. When I’m trying to think about something off the wall as far as “normality” goes with blog designs, I check in with Go Media and look over their work. Some crazy shit there.
How do you typically start a new project?
When the client and I are done talking over the spec of the project and it’s time to sit down and start designing I draw out some sketches on paper. Once I get the design sketched out how I want it, I open photoshop and create a wireframe. I then let it sit for the rest of the day and open it up again in the morning/afternoon/evening (depending on the time I start work that day) and I create the actual layout. I walk away from it for a couple hours and stare at it later with fresh eyes and make sure everything still looks as good as it did a few hours ago :)
Do you have any favorite websites for interacting with others in the design community?
TWITTER :) I’m addicted. I don’t post 200 tweets a day but it’s great to interact with other designers. I also use stumbleupon a lot and talk to a few people and actually sold a stumbler on a new website design because of our conversations. I’m also getting into designfloat as well. I have a post on my blog with all of the Blog Theme Machine social media profiles.
What are you 5 favorite sites online?
This is a tough one. But the ones below are the ones I frequent the most often (besides FYC of course)
MMA Mania – I love Mixed Martial Arts. As a side MMA site, I also check out Cage Potato a lot too.
Smashing Magazine – This is one of my favorite websites for obvious reasons.
Freelance Switch – Besides the awesome business advice, they’ve got an awesome freelance cartoon :)
Zen Habits – I like to keep my mind and my life organized and this is a great site for tips on doing it.
Itty Biz – Naomi is a no-nonsense type of person and the writing and advice here is 100% awesome.
Who, in the online world, would you say has had the biggest influence on you?
I pull inspiration from everywhere, so I couldn’t really pick one person. I’d say that Adii is an influence to me for his design style and business sense. I also admire Collis from Envato on how he built up the entire network he has in the amount of time he did it in. I admire the design work of the entire Go Media team a lot too. There are too many people to list only one haha .
What are the tools you couldn’t live without?
I’ll break them down below. I could NEVER do what I do without the list below:
Paypal – Well, without it how would I ever get paid? :)
Gmail – I have my business emails through the gmail business accounts and it’s simply AWESOME to keep track of information from my clients.
GoBootstrap – This is what I use to keep track of the money I make and how much I spend on my business. They have awesome charts and tracking software and give advice on taxes as well.
Pidgin IM – This is what I use to keep all of my IM clients open in one piece of software.
Photoshop – Duh :)
Notepad – I hand code all of my layouts and I’ve tried many pieces of software and find notepad to be the best, IMO.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now I am working on building Free Fall Creative to work together with my Blog Theme Machine site and market my design clients, and design for my marketing clients. I also am in the process of working on a blog that will donate all of its profit to help homeless veterans that served in the US Military. I am in the process of designing another free icon set as a follow up to my free hand drawn vector icons. Finally, I am working on a free wordpress theme that is packed with TONS of features that will be (hopefully) released through smashing magazine.
Visit Mike’s Website, Blog Theme Machine.