Interview: Sarah Parmenter, Owner of You Know Who
Tell us a bit about yourself. What are your hobbies? Favourite places to travel? What kind of music are you into?
Well, I’ve just turned 27 got married and returned from honeymoon, it’s been a pretty hectic time. Outside of work, I am part of a theatre group and we put on a musical show twice a year, so this keeps me away from a screen at least twice a week. Having just returned from the states on honeymoon and speaking at various conferences I’ve travelled about quite a bit, I’ve totally fallen in love with San Francisco and have equal love for New York, I could quite happily live in either of those cities!
As far as music goes, my tastes can vary on a day to day basis, I love Coldplay but I also love old 1940’s music such as The Andrews Sisters. When I’m working, I don’t tend to put much music on as I find myself singing along rather than working.
What was your first job?
I was an actress for a Theatre in Education company, we were employed to go round to schools and teach sex education and drug education to secondary schools, as well as teaching primary school children about bullying, it was a pretty rewarding job. I then went onto “Casting” in an agency where we put people forward for films and television roles, because it was commission based, I found myself earning more money from updating their website than doing the casting itself, and quit to form “You Know Who”.
So how exactly did you get into web design?
My Mums best friends, sisters brother (that’ll take you a while!) was over from Australia and already owned a successful web design studio out there. He stayed with us for about a week when he was over and I was fascinated by how a site was put together, he pretty much taught me everything I knew, aside from what I had already picked up from hacking around with Geocities as a kid.
Do you have any formal design training, or are you mostly self-taught?
I did Fine Art at school, pencils, paper, watercolours etc. the school didn’t have any facilities to do graphic design on a computer though, and I was almost discouraged for wanting to pursue this medium, so I did it in my own time and learnt how to manipulate imagery on the computer that I had designed at school on pencil and paper. This might be why I still have to start all of my projects on paper and then move to the Mac
Can you share some of the struggles you faced when starting your own business back in 2003?
I was the ultimate cliché back in 2003, I was working from my Mum and Dad’s back bedroom, I had just turned 19 and I was a woman in business. Although I don’t like playing that card, all the three in the same mixing pot made it very hard to start up a credible business. I persevered though and after working my socks off and starting up on just £1000, after a few years the business had grown large enough to sustain moving into its own premises. Cashflow was always an issue back in 2003, I really was learning about all aspects of business on the fly and sometimes there would be months where I would earn about £300 – I was far too cheap but I was trying to build a client list, which I did – but looking back, a lot were definitely the wrong type of clients to be attracting.
Where’d the name “You Know Who” come from?
While I was procrastinating from revising for my GCSE’s back in 2000 I was bumbling around the internet and found a site that had “Designed by You Know Who” at the bottom of it, I was curious and clicked it. The link took me through to a very formal web agency who had a completely different name. It was obvious they had linked in this manor to play on peoples curiosity. This always stuck in my head and became the name I started up with in 2003. It’s been a great name for promotional materials and bits like that, but I can’t tell you how many problems it caused us when we used to pick up the phone in the office “Good morning, You Know Who”.
Tell us a bit about your studio. Any photos of the office you’d like to share?
My office is the largest room in our house, I had a lot of equipment and books when I moved out of my office that was in an actual office building, so it all had to come with me. I like my office, although I thought it would be a good idea to paint one wall a very dark purple, this was to the right of my eyeview and kept feeling like the wall was closing in on me, so I changed it this year to some lovely Laura Ashley, dove grey wallpaper, and balance has been restored!
Do you ever meet face-to-face with clients?
Rarely to be honest, I’m lucky that 99% of my clients are forward thinking enough to understand the best designer for their project might not live within a 5 mile radius of their home, and so search the internet and are not concerned about working with people overseas. The majority of my client meetings are held via Skype, which proves just as successful as face to face meetings.
Any client horror stories?
Lots, probably too many to mention actually. That’s the trouble with starting a business so young, I had to make a lot of mistakes a long the way, sometimes I kick myself that I still make those same mistakes. The biggest thing I have learnt is, stick to your routine. By that I mean, if you take 50% payment upfront for all jobs, don’t suddenly stop doing this because you feel you know the client or become complacent – sometimes it’s the clients that can seem like your best friends who suddenly turn into monsters.
What kind of tools do you use to run your business? Do you wireframe on paper or with a particular piece of software, i.e. Keynote?
I always have a pad and paper infront of me everyday. I write little things down, by the end of the day, to anyone else, it’s an incomprehensible list. Looking at yesterdays page of my book, I’ve got some to-do’s, the name and number of a mortgage adviser and who I’ve yet to send Christmas cards out to. I feel more organized if I write stuff down.
As far as wireframing, I always start on paper, as with everything, and generally go into Keynote or Fireworks for the digital portion.
Do you have a favourite project that you worked on? Care to share any artwork from it?
I love anything related to designing iOS apps, funnily enough. I love the constraints and the process of designing for these.
Which do you find more challenging, UI design for iPhone, with the smaller real estate – or designing for iPad with more screen space?
I actually find designing for iPad more tricky, in the case of an app. It’s hard to get out of the web mindset and design for an entirely new device, I still prefer designing for iPhone but immensely enjoyed designing the “Stocks” app for iPad.
Ever thought of designing for Android or BlackBerry?
No, not really. It’s enough just keeping up with iOS devices without diluting my knowledge by trying to keep up with Android and Blackberry too. It might be something I look into in the future but at the moment, I’m sticking with Apple.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your career?
Getting to travel. I always wanted to travel and never dreamed this job would allow me to do that, via speaking at different web conferences. That has been the breakthrough point for me, as well as being able to call various webbies, great friends.
Are you naturally good at public speaking or was this something you had to learn to do well?
I guess coming from an acting background, it was a natural progression for me. I still get nervous and anxious as it’s completely different to learning lines and becoming a character. It’s just me and there’s no mask to hide behind.
What blogs/books/magazines do you read?
I read .net magazine, and then tend to work my way through various interesting UI and UX books that I find on Amazon, Tapworthy by Josh Clark is an especially good read. As far as blogs go, I don’t really have any “go to” blogs that I visit daily but I love “A List Apart” and also listening to “The Big Web Show” which I stream through to my Apple TV and watch in a quiet moment with a nice cup of tea!
What have you done to differentiate yourself from other designers? If there’s no functional point of difference, how do you position yourself to stand out?
I have never positioned myself to stand out from the crowd, I’ve always been very vocal about my experiences in the web industry and I stand out because I am female in a very male dominated job. In some ways, this has worked to my advantage while in others, it’s worked against me and been quite unpleasant. However, you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth sometimes.
Is their anything you hate working on?
Web Forms. Whenever I see a web form in a project a little part of me inside cries.
And finally, if you were to picture yourself in a career outside of the design world, what would it be?
I think I would have gone into acting, I got very close in around 2001 to becoming part of a mainstream TV series in the UK but got pipped to the post by another girl. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way, acting is a very up and down industry and I’d rather be a part of a (for the most part) loving community of people and be settled in my job.