I've hopped between being a freelance and in-house researcher a few times. There were quite a few different reasons, ranging from circumstance to grass-is-always-greener syndrome. However, I believe everyone should experience both sides because of what you can learn.
Being an in-house researcher means putting together frameworks and processes, working with the same stakeholders repeatedly, and diving deep into how research can move an organization's research maturity level.
As a freelancer, you learn huge lessons in client management, having an impact within a short timeframe, and pushing back on what a client might think they want (but isn't a great idea). You also learn about networking, marketing, and all the fun stuff that comes with being on your own.
A retrospective on running my own business
Both of these experiences honed what I wanted for my future. As much as I loved working on teams and directly as a researcher, I knew I didn't want to work in an organization forever. I craved more flexibility in my schedule. When I moved into management, I also learned how much joy and reward I got from helping others develop.
A few years later, I started my own business, User Research Academy. Since then, I have received many questions about how I got started and what the behind-the-scenes, not-Instagrammed journey looked like. Some parts were beautiful, arguably some of the best days of my life. Others left me wishing I could run away from it all.
I'm excited to take you through that journey and uncover how I created what I do every day and how I hope to grow in the future!
It started on a whiteboard
Whiteboards are where most of my ideas start. They can be real whiteboards, virtual whiteboards, small ones, streaky ones, or ones with markers that are so dulled out they barely write. But, whenever an idea pops into my head, to the whiteboard I go.
The idea for my company started way before I started it. I was in New York City (well, Brooklyn) and had just come off a freelance gig. I had started interviewing with a few companies for another full-time role since the novelty of freelance had started to dull—again. I was tired of networking and searching for clients under every rock and in every corner.
None of the companies were exciting for me. For some reason, I couldn't find a role that inspired me. Not to say all the roles out there were terrible, but instead weren't quenching my thirst. I wanted something new and different—something novel (can you see the theme?).
I went to the whiteboard and began to doodle what I wanted my future to look like. What was it that I was chasing after?
I came up with the following list:
- Flexible hours and schedule (four days a week or part-time?!)
- Helping others achieve their goals (management)
- Understanding how different companies worked (consultancy)
- Sharing knowledge with others to help them get into or improve in user research
My list confused me more than I had initially been. How was I meant to be a manager but also a consultant? And part-time? Could I get paid for writing research articles? Did I have enough knowledge to share?
So I started the only part of my list I could at the time: sharing knowledge. The next day, I walked to the Starbucks on the corner and wrote my first user research article. I felt bummed when I woke up the next day, and it wasn't "viral." However, I kept chugging along with my writings, finally creating an article about user research portfolios that got some attention.
The first break
About eight months and 24 articles later, life looked a lot different.
Fate had intervened, and I had moved to Berlin to be with my then-boyfriend (and now husband). To live in Germany, I needed a visa. The easiest visa to get was one through a full-time job. So I applied, interviewed, and got a job as a senior researcher in Berlin.
But first, I did some travel with my parents. I was sitting in our hotel in Sydney when I received an email from someone at dscout. He happened to be the founder (Hi, Michael!), and he was wondering if he could pay me to write articles for the People Nerds blog.
I nearly shattered the windows screaming with joy. All that work I put into writing those articles had paid off. Someone had noticed and judged my work as worthy. I signed a contract to write four pieces a month for them, and (as of now) about 150 later, we're still going strong.
One question that I get asked a lot is about my contract writing and how I get it. My best advice: write. Share your knowledge in a way you wish you could have read when you started or had questions. Write so that someone can read your article and, in the end, say, "I can do this tomorrow!" And, yes, you do have something new to say because your experience is unique from others.
I was finally getting paid to write (a dream beyond just that whiteboard exercise). However, I still needed a full-time job, so I went to work on that with some thoughts still bubbling in the back of my mind.
Back to the whiteboard
As I settled into my full-time role, I continued to write for dscout and my Medium audience. People started to follow me, my stats went up, and with that came a lot of questions.
My email and LinkedIn inboxes were brimming. The most frequent question was how to get into user research and what courses to take to get started. My biggest problem was that I didn't have anything to recommend. When I started, I attended a UX Bootcamp, and there was one day of research. That's an expensive way to learn very little.
I chewed on this for a while and then remembered my whiteboard list (I had taken a photo of it when I moved). One was helping people achieve their goals, and the other was sharing knowledge. My articles were helpful, but I didn't have enough to reference at the time.
With that, I decided to create an introduction to user research course in the early months of 2019.
The course that started it all
With that decision, I worked on the logistics. It was a live course that met for three hours every Sunday over eight weeks. I would also review everyone's homework and give feedback. Because of some constraints, I opened it to about ten people at a time.
Now that I had a deadline, it was time to plan. While working at Pratt, I had created a lesson plan and course, but I had somehow forgotten that it was hard work. There was so much to cover, and 24 hours seemed like so little. But I was determined. I eventually finalized a curriculum and built the slides.
I must say, this was one of those lower moments. First, I struggled with creating the content for the course. I abhor slides and presentations. I could work for hours on them, and they never felt good enough. And then, I struggled to find a timezone for everyone who signed up for the class—a mistake I avoided in the future.
But after some time, we finally got started. The delight at teaching others displaced those low moments I felt earlier. It was so fun to see the spark in peoples' eyes and excitement when they finally cracked the code of generative research or screener surveys. Secretly, I loved reviewing work and still do.
I learned much about how to explain user research, and other people's perceptions and experiences. It was fascinating. I got feedback after the first round, iterated, and continued. I ran quite a few free introduction courses over the following months.
Was I exhausted? Yes. Did I sometimes resent spending my Sunday teaching? Absolutely! Was I overwhelmed by reviewing work? Surely.
But I don't know where I would be if I hadn't started that course.
The next step
While I was planning the next cohort, someone approached me for help. Unfortunately, they couldn't take my course due to time zone differences and felt it was a tad too junior for them. So instead, they asked if I did any 1x1 mentorship.
Never in my life did I imagine coaching or mentorship. I went into a frenzy trying to understand what it would mean to coach or mentor someone.
Now, I liken it to managing someone at a very high level. Despite being hard work, mentoring is one of my favorite things now.
However, at the time, I wasn't sure I was qualified. I had management experience, but I was nervous that it didn't correlate. Who was I to advise a stranger about something I didn't have the full context of?
So, I did what I had done best. I leaped into the challenge and offered free 1x1 mentorship in addition to my free introduction to user research courses.
All of those experiences were the building blocks of my business right now. I still offer 1x1 mentorship, I have a self-paced User Research Mastery course for those transitioning into the field, and I still do contract writing. That also includes other content—check out my first email course with dscout).
So, how did I take this free stuff and turn it into a business? Stay tuned for next time!
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
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