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A Freelancing Interview with Ethan Seow

Ethan Seow is an entrepreneur, educator and musician with a love for Product Development and Business Consultancy. Originally a medical student of 5 years, he embarked on a journey of entrepreneurship since 2012 and has never looked back. His previous ventures are Home Ground Studios, Pulse of Music and The Music Salon, and is now developing his new psychology concept Thought Action Paradigm to address the need for personal and business development in the 21st Century.


His experience spans across retail distribution, music education, venue rental, events organisation and digital agency over the past 5 years. Currently, he is focusing on developing a lecture series with Funzing and a network of business owners and enterprises, to prepare people for the rapidly changing markets.



Stroff: Hello Ethan! Can you tell us more about yourself?

Ethan: Hey Wanwei! Yup sure. I'm what we would traditionally call a Renaissance Man, a person who spans across multiple disciplines with no real core specialisation. This made it rather difficult for me to find my so-called "place in society". While people have classified me as "doctor", "musician", "designer", "entrepreneur", "psychologist" or a whole host of other categories, I found it hard to stick by any of these terms. There's a book released last year about this predicament, called The Neo-Generalist.


I was trained in science throughout my childhood to youth, following a classic triple science (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) track through all my education. Meanwhile, I was deep into music as I started music from the tender age of 4 and cycled through multiple instruments including the organ, piano, violin, viola and double bass. I also fell in love with the art of education because of the impact that my teachers had on me when I was in my teens, and that actually made me fall in love with medicine, where I viewed the doctor as more of an educator than simply a drug pusher.


I then came across great entrepreneurs in my young adulthood when I met the Derek Sivers at TEDxNUS where I was featured as one of the speakers with my band. From that moment onwards I knew I couldn't stay behind a safe employment mentality and was eager to explore the world of business.


That's when I truly experienced the world of freelancing - managing oneself and potentially others. I worked as a musician, sound engineer, distributed cables and cymbals, and worked with a business consultancy while teaching music. I could not sit down and focus on just one thing as I was young and restless. I thought it was business, but it really was Freelancing.




Stroff: Can you tell us briefly more about the "Thought Action Paradigm"?

Ethan: Thought Action Paradigm (TAP) was birthed during an IDEO Human Centred Design Challenge where my group members and I were trying to solve the issue of Creativity at Workplace - why people can't seem to be creative when stuck in an office. As we delved further into this issue, Thought Action Paradigm was created as a Sandbox to be able to diagnose and address this issue by matching the right people with the right frameworks under the right management systems.


It is a decision-making paradigm where it goes from Intention, which is the most fundamental needs of a person, to Execution, which is where our internal world interfaces with the external world through action. It is a rather complex process that has been highly unexamined throughout the whole development of psychology. The different schools of psychology were arguing as to who was more "right" rather than recognising that they were just viewing the same process with different lenses. TAP was created to address that.


Thought Action Paradigm can be scaled from a single individual level all the way to a society/civilisation wide level, where the same decision-making paradigm takes place as long as humans are involved. It is important to recognise this process so that we know what is missing between Intention and Execution, to allow for more congruence.


When one freelances, one needs to have great levels of self-management or one would be stuck repeating the same cycles and not progress in terms of the quality and value of work. TAP is an effective tool to identify where one stands, and how to improve self-management - it is all about how we assess our Frames (also defined as Values and Perspectives) and how to adjust it to be more in line with our Intentions.


Stroff: How do you think freelancers can stand out in an economy that is changing rapidly?

Ethan: There is a core skill set that makes freelancers indispensable - creative solutioning. The outside-in view that a Freelancer has that an internal team will never have is the ability to integrate their outside experience and knowledge with the specialisation of the internal team.


Gone are the days where hourly rates define how much a person can and should finish. Technology makes the majority of these repetitive, inefficient work obsolete. Freelancers are no longer just contracted workers just to finish up work that overwhelmed the internal team but instead are functioning more like consultants in specific fields. The world still wants to do things by the hour because old habits die hard, but with automation, the real value comes from seeing things people can't and creating things people can't even imagine.


That's what I focus my energy on - creating people and products that do things no one else can; because we don't need more robots. Freelancers need to know what value they provide - the eyes and ears outside of the company that gives rise to innovation tunnel-visioning would never be able to create.


Stroff: How do you think freelancers can protect themselves financially, so that they would also have enough in old age? Can you give them three tips?

Ethan: It's all about self-management. How much money do you actually need a month to survive? How much money can you save? What would give you mileage and a nest egg? How do you automate what you do?




A majority of Freelancers who earn good money are blinded by their success and believe that the money will keep flowing as long as they keep working - and that's precisely the problem. They are not planning ahead because they might not realise how their career might be limited by many possible Acts of God.


I learnt this from a friend who gave me tips on financial planning, and this became how I manage things for the future:


1. Earn The Money: Keep trying to explain to people what you do best, you'll find your way to the best explanation one day and people will demand you because of it. And because you'll be focusing on what you do best, you can keep the money earning in this area going strong if you brand yourself through this method.


2. Find Passive Income through Collaboration or Referral: Work with others so that you can create products or refer them clients so you can get money with the minimal amount of effort. Best part is that this helps the whole network of Freelancers you are part of, which means you can develop a richer, deeper value for your clients when you work for them.


3. Keep Upgrading: The world keeps changing, and if you're not always upping your game, someone will kick you off whatever throne you thought you own. Even till this day and age, every great business person is learning something new, developing a new technology or product, or finding a world problem to solve. The moment you stagnate you're out of the game. But that doesn't mean you're not allowed to rest - even through play you can find your growth, just learn how to integrate new knowledge from new random areas of your life.


Stroff: How can freelancers negotiate for higher rates? Do you have a strategy to share? 

Ethan: It's all about how you sell yourself. Build your credibility through a strong portfolio, be clear to explain where you fix their problems and how much they save, then charge a good price for the work that you do.


Know what problems you solve best and fastest and build your portfolio around it. Make sure to get testimonials and examples in the process. Meanwhile, if you can speak, get a higher profile to command more money. Either that or use your specialisation knowledge to streamline what you do and take more clients while working fewer hours per project, so you can get more per hour. There are many ways to get there.


I'm personally going down the path of portfolio + speaking + doing a niche that no one else does to build my credibility and value so that I can demand higher rates.


Stroff: What is the one thing about freelancers that most people think they know, but they don't actually know?

Ethan: The value of their skill sets. Most either overvalue or undervalue their skill sets. The best effective freelancers often undervalue, and the good self-marketers often overvalue. Neither are in touch with reality because their focus is often in another area. We are often convinced by the markets what our value is, but I disagree.



For example, I believe I'm of a certain value that the market might not be willing to pay yet, but I know where I stand once I work my magic, therefore I'm just trying to educate the market about the work that I do. If I depend on what others think of my work to decide my value, it'll fluctuate depending on whether someone knows how to appreciate my work, and that's what often happens to Freelancers.


I had a friend who both undervalued and overvalued her work. The market did value her a lot, but she felt like an imposter because she actually didn't value her work. It became a very confusing experience for her when she realised it. I believe her value is very real, but she had not found the best way to describe what she did, and therefore she went through a crisis of identity.


This is a very real problem for Freelancers.


Stroff: Can you share with us some stories you have about your interactions with freelancers? They can be funny, downright ridiculous, strange or unreasonable encounters. 

Ethan: Nothing off the top of my head most of the time as I minimise such negative encounters as much as possible. I feel for a lot of Freelancers who have tons of talent but a lack of clarity of their value. I often realise that they keep getting stuck because they don't know how to evaluate their worth nor do they know how to manage their productivity, so I often have to let them be.


However, I have met plenty of Freelancers who overinflate their worth, this is thanks to the multi-level marketing models and motivational speakers/coaching circuit.


A lot of them are re-packaging whatever products were trickled down to them through the system, and they are effectively freelance sales people. They keep selling the "business owner" or "freedom" perspective that is just annoying to deal with, and their lack of self-awareness worries me dearly for those who end up buying from them (I was one of them).


Oh and freelancers who quit their day job so that they have more control over their time and end up working a lot harder and more for a lot less, with no planning for the future. And it's always hard to get it into their skulls that they are limiting themselves.


Stroff: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?

Ethan:  Freelancing is basically being your own boss, sales person, manager, accountant and everything all in, you need to know a little bit of everything. Any gaps in knowledge would cause you to be functional but not as effective as you can be. It is important to grow and think like a business owner eventually to really develop your career and your financials.