Monika Kanokova is a Freelance Community Strategist. Based in Austria’s creative and historic capital Vienna, she can also be found working with creative professionals and businesses in Berlin and New York.
On the side, she loves talking to people and learning about their stories, which is why she self-published her first book This Year Will Be Different: A Guide for Freelancers in 2015, sharing insightful interviews with creative women who have successfully launched their own businesses.
This year, she's in the process of publishing her second book My Creative (Side) Business, which is currently live on Kickstarter.
She’s a true social connector and one of those wonderfully humble professionals who are passionately focused on the success of others. We caught up with Monika to talk freelancing, influences, motivations and about her new book.
Tell us how you got started. Where and what did you study?
I studied interior architecture and fashion design. While studying, I became obsessed with how design decisions impact human interactions and developed a hunger for understanding public space design. I wanted to have an impact on human relationships through design and became interested in civic tech, social mobility and how social media can impact these. To me, the social web feels like the right place to get involved as an interior architect.
You're based in Vienna. Is this your hometown? What’s the creative scene like?
Yes, Vienna is as close to my heart as a city can get. Everything here just works. I always like to say that once you open your door you can see your taxes on the street. Vienna has an incredible history and many highly creative people grew up here or at least received their education here.
The Viennese creative scene is steadily growing, however, because there is not that much need and often little desire for change in the city, some creatives leave as they feel they cannot use their skills as they would like to. I have somehow found a way to divide my time between here and other places, which is why I am incredibly happy about my personal situation.
The special trait of Vienna is that people are generous with their time, which often comes as a surprise to foreigners when they meet me.
What inspired you and how did you make the transition to go solo?
Before I decided to go freelance, I was working for a startup in Berlin. As it goes with many startups you never know what will happen tomorrow and at some point, I was a little burnout and I didn’t feel secure in my work. I started to look for opportunities that would allow me to go freelance and become location-independent – allowing me to split my time between Europe and NYC.
You're a woman of many talents – working in areas such as content strategy, business growth, social media, writing, publishing and product development. Can you give us a quick insight into how you approach your work?
Everything I do has to do with people. I’m constantly trying to understand what they are looking for and what matters to them.
I am helping US businesses with their internationalisation strategies. I consult smaller businesses with their communication strategy. I write copy for various outlets and, whenever time allows, I work on personal projects. I've always been good at helping people realise their dreams and so whatever clients I take on, I make sure that their mission aligns with mine.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
Not necessarily, but I had to support myself through school, college and also my MA studies and that was incredibly tough. However, it has taught me a lot about time management, the necessity of distributing tasks and how important it is to ask (the right) people for help. I don’t even want to tell you how many people wrote my homework or at least proof-read it and whose magical hands made sure my architectural models were so beautiful.
We originally connected on Instagram, four or five years ago. I remember you saying that you have met nearly everyone you follow in person. Was this always your strategy and how has this affected your work life?
I must say that the number of people who I follow hasn’t increased dramatically in the past four years. To me, even with the people who I don’t know in person just yet, I feel like I am having an intense relationship with everyone I follow because I see what’s important to them and accompany them day after day.
If we would meet in person today – and you know that we have Skyped a few months ago and that it felt like talking to an old friend – it would not feel as if we would be strangers. I don’t care much for the places people show me. I care for the people who share these images. I am curious about them.
Community plays a big part in your work. How would you describe your approach to building or servicing a community?
I am generally excited about people who have a spark and a passion for something. If they share their plans, their vision and their excitement with me and are keen to achieve something, I do whatever I can to help them or try to connect them to the people who I think might get excited about their plans. So I have my ears open and listen to people’s plans and then once someone else mentions something similar I connect these two. And because many people know I do that without hesitation, friends come to me and ask whenever they are looking for someone.
However, I struggle with people who are not excitable or talk without ever pursuing anything they say.
"My strategy towards community building and growing a business always starts with making people more successful. Because those people are going out telling other people."
There is a big conversation about getting back to real world, face to face relationships and conversations. It’s a lost art many feel. What’s your view on this?
I believe the social web is very special because it made social hierarchies redundant. You can find all the people and all the events in the world and all you need to do is to show up and be generous with your personal resources.
However, today, we often only feel comfortable in socially safe environments and so I’d recommend to look for interesting events online, look through the guest lists and then reach out to other attendees to let them know you will be there to make it easier to connect with them in person. It’s easier to find people with similar interests online now but you can only create a bond in real life.
The social web has definitely opened up a whole new world of opportunities although I think we’re still figuring out its real purpose?
We, as a generation, are the people who can decide what the social web will be in the future. So we need to be very conscious of what we are building and how we are building it. If it’s really a communication and education platform where we learn together and get to know people internationally we need to build systems to nurture that activity.
What really matters online is creativity. The more creative you are and the more creative work you put out there, the more visible you are. Creativity and visibility are the currency of the internet. It’s no longer about money, it’s about people connecting based on similar interests. It’s a really investing place to be.
"Creativity and visibility are the currency of the internet."
Your current writing is focused on female creative professionals only. Tell us more?
There is a very common and almost stereotyped story of how we talk about success; it mostly features a man who founded a company, which then failed but then he tried again and succeeded. Women, or at least the ones I talk to, are very conscious about taking risks. Their stories are success stories with a safety belt on. Their process has been much slower and gradual and the tips they have shared feel practical and applicable. Taking risks is a big topic in My Creative (Side) Business and is being addressed throughout the book several times.
What inspired you to write your first book ‘This Year Will Be Different'?
I was on an assignment in London for two months and was living in a house that was falling apart. There was even a massive leak in my room. Imagine waking up because of raindrops next to your head!
The assignment I was working on was interesting but it wasn’t a topic I cared about deeply and while I loved working with the team I needed a project that would keep me motivated. In my opinion, if things don’t go well, you need to find something else that keeps you excited otherwise you are miserable to spend time with. I always wanted to write a book and it felt like the perfect time to start.
You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for your new book ‘My Creative (Side) Business’. Tell us about this new project?
Last February, I was in New York shipping rewards to the supporters who pre-ordered my first book. It was about three months into my life as a freelancer and it was also the first month I didn’t send out a single invoice, nor did I have any client work lined up. They say it’s normal when you are a freelancer however, no one tells you what to do in times like these.
In such moments, many freelancers retreat to anonymous job boards where they compete based on price but to me, it didn’t sound like a good strategy to get the type of work I wanted. I realised that for a business to feel stable, one must create a mixture between offering services and having products to sell that can potentially also be sold by a third party.
My Creative (Side) Business is an investigation of what it means to run a stable business in the creative industries. It’s a guide filled with interviews, practical tips, and tricks to help people think about their skills from a new perspective and help them build stable businesses.
You connect with creative professionals globally, Diana Joiner in Baltimore, your Copy Editor for ‘This Year Will Be Different’ and Sara Combs in San Francisco lined up to Illustrate you new book ‘My Creative Side Business’. Was this a conscious choice or the power of your online community?
And you forgot to mention Diana Ovezea, my favourite art director and font designer, who is in Amsterdam. You are right! I work with people from all over the world. I don’t expect the best people to gather in one city and having Google Docs, Dropbox and Skype are all that we need to work on our terms, contribute the best possible work while being and working with the people we care about the most.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of freelancing? And the most rewarding?
My main struggle is writing client proposals. In an ideal world, the client comes to me with a specific problem and wants to get me onboard to help them solve their challenge. But the bigger the company, the longer it takes until everyone is on board and agrees. You have to be incredibly patient until, if at all, a contract is signed.
While remaining flexible you also have to find different ways to keep busy and still earn enough money. That’s probably the reason why I prefer to experiment with different online platforms that enable me to build scalable income streams. Being a freelancer enables you to play and experiment freely without having to get a permission to realise your ideas.
"Being a freelancer enables you to play and experiment freely without having to get permission to realise your ideas."
Do you think freelancers can misrepresent themselves online?
Most freelancers just have a portfolio website but I think there is a better way to promote yourself, with a service website. About how your work benefits your customer or client. A portfolio site with little explanation doesn’t position you as a problem-solver or person to hire. It positions you as a person who has a portfolio and often ends up being a website that signifies you are looking for permanent work.
Who has been your biggest influence and inspiration over the years?
Definitely Tina Roth Eisenberg, the mastermind behind the design blog Swissmiss, the founder of Creative Mornings, Studiomates, TeuxDeux and Tattly. All her companies were once tiny side projects that she grew through hard work and endless passion.
You’ve recently spent some time travelling in South Africa and the US. Does travel play a big part in your life and work?
I wouldn’t say I am much of a traveller in the common sense. Wherever I go, I mostly have a regular everyday life. I love to become part of a culture and just live the way locals do. In New York, I get takeaway bagels for breakfast. In Berlin, I sit with others in the park and drink beers and chat. In Vienna, I spend countless hours in the café where I work or read the newspaper. It’s all pretty normal. Just the scenery changes relatively often, which indeed is a big part of who I am.
Tell us about a typical day. What’s your morning routine?
I am not sure if there is anything like a morning routine or a typical day. I eat about four times a day. I might have one cup of filter coffee a day. But not always. And I’ll definitely have a shower in the morning and brush my teeth at least twice every day. And I floss after every meal. But that is about all I can say that makes for a typical day in my life.
How do you stay productive?
I think my biggest trait is that I am naturally self-motivated and curious and I think curiosity is what drives me. There are no secrets or tricks.
What’s your setup?
I only need a laptop, my headphones and probably my iPhone. For some reason, whenever I write, I listen to Berlin Minimal Techno. It helps me focus.
What’s on your reading list?
One of my resolutions for the new year is to read books that have nothing to do with work, more fiction and stories, so I am currently reading Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.
What is the most important rule in business?
You cannot just work “in” your business, you must also work “on” your business. Only about 50% of your time are billable hours, you must do so much more than just finalise assignments.
"Only about 50% of your time is billable, you must do so much more than just finalise assignments."
Many people are afraid to go freelance, what would you say to those who are worried about taking the leap?
Freelancing is not for everyone. You need to remind yourself regularly how your work benefits others and you must be able to communicate clearly about the results you help people achieve. Passion and self-motivation are the key traits you’ll need if you want to make freelancing work for you. It’s in your hands to create a business you want to work for, but if you aren’t driven by something, you won’t get anywhere.
Finally, if you could give just one piece of advice to aspiring freelancers, what would it be?
Start a side project! Do something that you want people to hire you for and start sharing your process on social media!
Discover more about Monika at www.mkanokova.com and be sure to check out plans for her latest book and support her over on Kickstarter. She is also prolific on Instagram with achingly cool pictures of her work and travels, so be sure to check her out there too. Or follow her on Twitter @mkanokova.
If you enjoyed this interview, or have any questions for Monika, let us know in the comments below.