Written by Nguyen Le

There’s a great chinese proverb – “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Overall I’ve had a great career that I’ve loved. Met some wonderful people along the way and did some fantastic work that we got lost in together. We forged some lifelong friendships, worked hard and played hard through it all. We were lucky enough to do work that reached millions of people for clients like Nintendo, Adidas, Nissan, banks and the Australian government. This was the agency life, and my career for close to a decade.

I eventually left that behind and continued my journey freelancing, building products and evolving into a small indie design business that you see today. And all the way to this very moment as I write to you.

Some things I've done, that you may also want to achieve:

  • Do a lot of work that you enjoyed with some great people
  • Work for some dream clients
  • Earn six figures as a Creative Director
  • Earn six figures independently as a freelancer
  • Generate 7 figures with your own product and brand
  • Win some awards along the way
  • Do work that people can use and enjoy
  • Be nice along the way

Many people have done way more amazing things than I have. But I'm happy with my career and how things have turned out. Having said that...

Knowing what I know today

Looking back now, and knowing what I know today, there are definitely a few things that I wish I did earlier on in my career. Because as the Chinese proverb goes - “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”  While these were missed opportunities over the years, it was never too late to just make a start. And more importantly to start now.

If I had to distill what I know today and offer advice to the next wave of designers for success - to get paid more, to do more of the work that you love, to work with dream clients and dream projects.

These are the 5 actionable things that I would begin working on today

1. Start building an audience

​Building an audience helps you spread your reach, work, message and ideas. Why is this important? Attention and awareness is the new currency. When you have an audience you are creating a connection. If you are looking for a job your audience can help you connect with people. Your audience allows you to be on people's radars, so opportunities can come your way.

Your audience allows you to launch products not to crickets but with a dedicated community. If you help your audience they will support you. Kevin Kelly famously stated that if you have 1000 true fans you can make a great living. Building an audience allows you the opportunity to pursue your passion, work on your terms and launch/create your own projects knowing that you have a community that will support your work.

How can you start building an audience? 

There are an abundant platforms today like youtube, facebook, twitter, instagram, snapchat, podcasts, blogs, tiktok, email lists or even dribbble for example. Each medium requires a different approach but they all lead towards audience building and awareness, find a platform that suits you.

Example of people with audiences – Casey NeistatDann Petty, Julie Zhuo, Jeff Sheldon, Jessica Walsh and even myself as examples

  • Be authentic
  • Be helpful
  • Tell stories
  • Stand for something
  • Share your process
  • Share your work
What can you offer the world for people to take notice?

Everyone is unique. Tell your story while providing value to others. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran there is always something you can share. Don’t wait til you’re “good enough” to start sharing.

My back story on building an audience

On Oct 2013 I posted on dribbble for the first time. What started as joke and a challenge between a friend and I lead to a wealth of opportunities down the track. Dribbble was the catalyst for so much. When I started this blog I had subscribers and readers thanks to the audience I’d built on Dribbble. Once I started freelancing I got work because I’d built an audience.

Eventually when I launched the Process Masterclass something I'd poured my soul into. I got hundreds of students in the early days that trusted me from all the work and tips that I'd been sharing on my email list, blog and newsletter. Sharing free advice and insights week in and week out built awareness, credibility and trust. So instead of launching to crickets and 0 sales, I launched to a community of like minded individuals that I could help and have been helping.

So choose a platform and medium that suits you, video, writing, speaking, sharing work etc. Build your audience it’s one of the greatest assets you can build.

Eventually this lead to thousands of customers that I could help.

2. Invest in yourself more.

Read books, take online courses, listen to podcasts, watch videos and learn as much as you can on top of your day job/business. 

Not saying don’t enjoy your time off, but Netflix can sometimes wait. Prioritise time to invest in yourself, grow your mindset and learn. Over the last 2 years I’ve deep dived on purchasing online courses, read books, listened to podcasts, watched videos on entrepreneurship, marketing, psychology and product design. Even by building my own course I know the amount of effort I put into it.

But more importantly I also know the value that I am trying to provide for my students. I genuinely give a shit. And there are other course creators out there who wish the same for me with the courses they create. So I find people I trust in various fields and invest in their courses. Traditional education costs a shit ton ($20k, $30k wtf?) and even higher in the U.S.

Whilst there’s so many great resources out there at your disposal at a fraction of the cost that is providing tremendous value. People like Brian Chesky, Julie Zhuo, Seth Godin, Ray Dalio, Gary Vee, Steven Bartlett, Tim Ferris are all accessible from all the content that they share. And most of the time freely – search youtube, podcasts and articles. And if you want to take it a step further buy books and courses. Find an area of interest and zone in on it.

Knowledge is power they say. Knowledge is also a mindset and series of skills that you keep for a lifetime. Want to achieve or do something? Begin by self educating and turn that curiosity into a skill. Learning to be resourceful is a skill in of itself. Start investing in yourself and start reading, learning, watching, listening etc. Find people who do what you want to do and learn from them any way possible.

3. Start a side hustle

​Nothing prepares you more than trying to start and launch a side hustle. All these text book examples and hypotheticals are just that. You need to apply what you learn. When you have a side hustle you can see how committed you are to something. Do you have enough discipline to see something through? Whether you have the knack for entrepreneurship (it’s ok if you don’t) it also market tests you.

Do you have what it takes to launch something to your audience? Do you have the stomach to sell something you believe in? Can you go through periods of self doubt and still come out the other end? When you have a side hustle your consistency and perseverance is tested. Learning to build and launch something teaches you so much about yourself but also about the market and what’s possible.

Side hustles don’t have to be these grandiose things. Launch a Minimum Viable Product, or launch an ecommerce side hustle or something else. Just go out there and learn how to design, build and launch to an audience. Pieter Levels launched 12 startups in 12 months.

Until Nomadlist was a good product market fit and has gone on to do very well. Side hustles teach you so much, like learning on the job, and gaining experience from actually doing something. That scrappiness and first hand experience is invaluable. When you have a side hustle, whether the project sinks or swims rests solely on you. You’ll learn a ton out of that experience.

4. Build genuine relationships with people you admire. People are more accessible than you think. 

Do you have people you look up to? People whose work you’ve admired from afar. Or companies you’ve respected but never had the nerve to reach out and say hello. I sure did and still do. But a funny thing happened.

As I was building my audience on dribbble by chance, I began to get to know all these people and companies I admired. And it turns out they admired my work as well. I began chatting and got to know the people who I thought were so out of reach. It turns out people are friendlier and more accessible than you think.

Start building genuine connections and relationships with people you admire. Tweet at them, email them, dm them on insta. Try to offer them value or just to say hello. Connections and relationships can start with just a single greeting. Don’t demand anything of them but get on their radar.

Then if you ever have a question kindly ask them – people are more willing to help than you think, myself included 🙂 So go out there and say hello. I wish I’d formed relationships with people years ago but now is not a bad time to start either.

5. Provide value and give without expecting anything in return

​This last one is be good to people and provide value with expecting anything in return. Karma is good business. I used to look out for myself, and have blinders on. I would be generous but I’d use to always expect something in return. A thank you, a sign of appreciation, some praise.

But now I am happy to freely provide value without expecting anything in return. A funny thing happens when you build rapport, the more people you help regardless if there’s anything in it for you, over the long run more opportunities appear because of your reputation. People can sense bullshit. Just help as many people as you can. Your effort is the reward. Helping someone is the reward.

So those are my 5 actionable tips that you can work on today. Design is a great profession and we are all very lucky to be doing it for a living. Be grateful, listen to yourself and hopefully these tips can accelerate your career even further. It may push you outside of your comfort zone, but nothing in life worth doing comes easy.