Balancing Freelance and Leadership: Liya Safina
Welcome Liya! You and I met at the General Assembly a long time ago. What were you doing before then?
I think it's only fitting to start with the fact that when we met it must have been my first year in New York - I had just immigrated from Moscow where I was building an educational program for a global think tank (by the way, I’m originally from Belarus).
Once I arrived, I faced the obstacle that a lot of people who freshly move to a new country face: applying to a lot of job openings and hearing nothing back. I started formulating hypotheses as to why no employers picked up my resumé, and decided that perhaps it was because mine only had foreign names on it. Adding “General Assembly” helped me get my start.
After the course, my colleagues and I founded a social app which was backed by 500 Startups accelerator. That brought me to Silicon Valley for a short stint and was truly exciting. Being a founder myself taught me a lot about business, working with VCs and investors and building truly customer-centric products.
I did not know that! Awesome! But eventually you came back to New York to work for Red Antler, right?
Yep. I was first hired on a one month contract to do UX work. I was so obsessed with the project I was put on (a global empowerment platform for women, Mogul) that I was offered a full time position shortly after getting there. Got immersed in agency life and loved it. Working across industries and with such talented folks, it was truly special - it shaped me as a designer and as a strategist.
Is there one brand you particularly enjoyed working on during that time?
I always name Google Pay, Allbirds, or D2C darling Otherland, but let’s mention something different today. One that got a bit less publicity was quite innovative work we did on a website called “Out East” (part of the StreetEasy group). Designing for a specialized, niche digital product with a distinct target audience was a very rewarding experience.
I had the opportunity to innovate and introduce new best practices for filters, listing pages, information architecture, and the overall buyer's journey. It's one of those cases where everything runs super smoothly because everybody was on the same page.
Love that. And soon after - you become a freelancer right? How did that go?
Yes, after freelancing for about seven years now, I've come to appreciate the profound freedom it offers in shaping one's career proactively. The ability to define your own professional path is a powerful aspect. Alongside my work, which includes collaborating with various agencies (over 15 so far), I consult individuals on their freelancing paths and host occasional workshops to help newcomers embark on their freelance careers.
One key lesson I've learned as an independent worker is that the path is not always linear. It demands a mindset shift in how we perceive and approach work. It’s all about proactivity.
As I ventured along this path, I developed a strong reputation for my work in innovation, complemented by expertise in user research and strategy - and that’s how I got hired by Proclamation Goods (PG) - which is how you and I reconnected.
PG wanted a website redesign at first (and I eventually designed it). We ended up doing a 2 month repositioning project which opened many creative opportunities beyond the website (I even built their TikTok strategy). I then contacted Storetasker because we were looking for a developer who could bring this vision to life - and we met Patrick, who crushed the project in a record timeline. It was a crazy project - but so worth it.
Ha! Yeah - the work looked amazing too. And recently you’ve started to work with Verbal + Visual - how did that come about?
As a freelancer, I've been heavily involved in various blockchain projects over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, with the recent downturn in the crypto market, those opportunities have become quite scarce. It's a shame because I'm genuinely enthusiastic about the potential that blockchain technology brings. However, it seems there's a bit of a stigma surrounding it these days.
So while I’m still bullish on the space and will continue to dedicate my time to it - I was able to circle back to my expertise in eCommerce to work with the team at Verbal + Visual. Now - I fulfill a role you could expect of somebody running a creative department, ensuring high quality across all projects, implementing innovative tech and consulting with clients.
Last question: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to junior freelancers?
Number one: connections are critical. Throughout my seven years of freelancing, I've never actively looked for work or applied anywhere. All my opportunities have come through word-of-mouth, highlighting the importance of building and nurturing your network.
Number two is talking about your work. That dawned on me pretty late. I used to never share my work - there’s probably 100 projects that my network has never seen or heard about, all because I never took the time to write about it. But starting to share my work more publicly has been extremely valuable to me - so it’s something I recommend to every newcomer.