Jess Joyce is a Toronto-based SEO Consultant who’s primarily focused on organic search engine optimization.
Starting her career as a front-end developer, Jess has since made the leap to working as an in-house marketer for startups and now helps humans understand what SEO is and how it can help them and their businesses — all while teaching her one year old how to walk between meetings.
In this episode, Jess and Mohammed talk about how Canadian freelancers can be better prepared as they make plans to start a family.
Short on time? Skip to the parts you're most interested in.
[05:28] Getting started as a freelancer
[08:56] Starting freelance with a pipeline of clients
[10:58] Mistakes to avoid before you go on parental leave
[16:44] Making a financial plan when planning to start a family
[19:47] Establishing a business continuity plan and ramping back up
[23:31] Experience of stepping away from freelance business
[25:52] Considerations for freelancers going on parental leave
[29:03] Balancing working and parenting
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Mohammed: How have you been, by the way, it’s been a while since we last spoke?
Jess: It has, I had a child.
Mohammed: Yeah. Talk about that.
Jess: Yeah, right? I got pregnant — I think the last time I saw you we were doing Women and Color stuff was it feels like it might have been summer, it feels like it might have been warm outside, I don’t know.
Mohammed: Yeah, it’s like fall.
Jess: Oh, was it fall? Yeah, then I got pregnant about six months after that.
Mohammed: Oh, wow.
Jess: I think, yeah. So, she was born in November and I took three months off, completely off.
Jess: And shut down all of my freelancing and I had to organize with family and other friends and I had been kind of winding down for months before that because when you’re pregnant your whole brain just kind of takes over and my brain was focused on creating [a] human and not wanting to optimize things. So I found myself laying on the couch a lot more and needing [to force] myself to go for walks and just stay active to create a human. I’d been kind of preparing from the moment I knew that she was like a living fetus that was gonna be cool and gonna be good. All those things that you can actually tell people, tell the world.
Jess: So as soon as I could tell the world, I started telling my clients slowly and I worked with a bunch of agencies, so I wanted to give them enough runway that if something happens and they knew that I was gonna be gone for three months and that they wouldn’t be blindsided by it because finding like SEOs especially even now is kind of a tough thing. So, I gave as much runway as I could to people.
For one client I had, they were working on building a website and just because of the nature of building websites and how long that takes it kind of runs over. We all kind of anticipated it being, so I called in backup for that project specifically and kind of on-boarded her while I could go have the baby and then she just kind of took over that project and then I picked it up again at three months.
Jess: Yeah. That’s a lot of planning.
Mohammed: So, okay, there are a few things you said that I really wanna get into, but let’s [start by letting] people know what it is that you do as a freelancer.
Jess: I am an SEO consultant — search engine optimization consultant. I deal with organic traffic between websites is the most layman way of doing it. Then I work with agencies and startups and tech companies or regular companies about their organic strategies and anything organic in that world. I have a heavy background in development as well, so I deal more on the technical side of SEO than the contents side specifically.
As I see [it] there [are] a lot of wonderful content writers out there and the ones I work with have journalism backgrounds, I have no journalism background. So I tend to stick to like the heavy of the tech side and talk about Schemas and AMP and web stories and hreflang and internationalization and all these wonderful things that come up as speed is the biggest one that people like to talk about lately.
Back in the day, this was the story from Google, one of the guys who started Google used to load websites and he used to look at his watch on his wrist and he would time how long websites would take to load.
Mohammed: What’s the thought process behind being something that you’re noticing people are talking more about recently?
Jess: There are these new metrics that have come out that Google [defines] your website by called “Core Web Vitals.” [It takes] into account a lot of technical things like [the] “Largest Contentful Paint” and all these other things that have nothing to do with this conversation but are just super nerdy.
And kind of actually lean more towards the development side actually, so they take into a lot of account of how fast websites load and how fast they load with all these modern browsers that we have because back in the day, this was the story from Google, one of the guys who started Google used to load websites and he used to look at his watch on his wrist and he would time how long websites would take to load.
So, developers would get very anxious about like oh, oh, oh, websites need to load faster so he was like I want the web to load faster so that’s like a big thing in ranking depending on how large your site is and all these other things because SEOs like to throw the word it depends a lot which it does.
Mohammed: So, there’s quite a lot of thought process behind how to optimize websites from a technical standpoint. What I’d like to get a better sense of is how did you get into freelancing as an SEO consultant?
Jess: I started as a web developer [at the] end of the 90s — if [it] was even called a web developer then; I think we were called webmasters. And then I went to school for like development and doing that kind of stuff which was called multimedia at that time too. And then I kind of itched and scratched my way into development firms and [worked] for about five years as a front-end developer through the 00s is I think what we call them as a front-end developer.
But the CEO of that agency in 2007 sat me down and was like do you know what SEO is? And I was like I have no idea what you are talking about. And he was like we will hire you as a front-end developer but you also need to learn what SEO is. So, he sent me the one website that was out at that time and I learned about that one website and through — I was there for about five years of that agency.
So, through the five years there I did front-end development and learned about SEO as they were small enough [of an] agency that you kinda needed to do multiple roles. So, I just kind of learned both and I learned how both could be wonderfully intrinsically linked together is working on the code of your website and optimizing that code of your website especially at that time was just gold or anybody scrolling around the internet.
SEO is drastically different than it is today but through my time I’ve worked for agencies and I’ve worked in-house as both on the marketing side and the development side and then my last role was as a senior strategist for a large agency in the city. So, I primarily did SEO strategies for them which was pretty cool.
Mohammed: Got it. And at what point did you start getting into the freelance side of things?
Jess: Right. Okay. So, that was part of the story I needed to end off with, yes. So I worked about 15 years straight through all those agencies and startups and tech companies and didn’t realize that I didn’t take more than a two-week break throughout that whole thing. I even moved to Toronto over a weekend and stopped my one company on a Friday and started the new company on a Monday which looking back on just felt insane.
So, that last agency that I was working for was a pretty high-stress environment and I didn’t have a boss that was supporting me in a lot of ways emotionally or any of those wonderful ways that you hope a boss would be supporting you. So, I maxed out [my] stress level. I maxed out a whole bunch of different ways that reflected on my work and realized that I needed to take a break.
So, I did and I said I was going to quit and as soon as I said I was gonna quit, I had three freelance clients who just came out of the work and we are like we wanna keep working with you, we wanna keep doing stuff with you. So, I was able to and lucky enough honestly to be able to leverage my network and start with some wonderful people that I worked with before or were interested in working with me outside of the agency.
Mohammed: You can’t see my face but I am staring at the screen in confusion. How did you have three clients waiting for you as soon as you said, “Hey, I’m gonna go do freelance.”
Jess: Yeah. I just I’ve kind of always been a networker especially internally at the companies that I’ve worked for so I’ve kind of build up this level network of people that enjoy working with me specifically and that we have a great working relationship with.
And as soon as I said I was going freelance some of them had left the agency, the agency that we were working with and working in a different agency or we had coffee chats and they were like I would love to do some stuff with you outside of where we are working at and those were the two situations that I kind of started my freelance with.
It was agency friends who I had worked with at different agencies who had gone to different agencies and now needed SEO help if that makes sense.
Mohammed: Got it. And so you’ve now been freelancing for how long?
Jess: Two years. Two years in July, yeah, it’s been two years.
I actually started the agency job hoping that I could start a family but all the things that I mentioned before the stress level and the bad boss and everything kind of stopped me from going down that road.
Mohammed: So, in the two years that you’ve been freelancing you decided to start a family.
Jess: I did. I actually started the agency job hoping that I could start a family but all the things that I mentioned before the stress level and the bad boss and everything kind of stopped me from going down that road. So, that was another reason to go freelance [as] my partner and I were looking at starting a family and knew that it wasn’t gonna be possible with that place.
So, yeah, about eight months or nine months into freelancing I got pregnant. So, I’ve really been freelancing for probably about a year and a bit honestly with everything taken into account, but yeah, that was a lovely piece of news.
Mohammed: I guess me being self-employed I think I’m always so scared of what will happen when you start a family that, hey, are my financials gonna be in order? What government services are available? What’s gonna happen after? How can I go back to work? How did you plan for all of these?
Jess: I wanna preface by saying family planning looks different for every single family and that this is just my experience but this is the whole reason that I wanted to talk to you because I made some mistakes along the way that I hope other people don’t make is number one, I saved some money for us as you said like financial planning is a thing.
So, my partner and I have planned to take three months off completely and he was gainfully employed at that time so thanks to Canadian EI, it’s then adopted to not just the human who is having the child but their partner in whatever sense that means. So, I was lucky enough that my partner was able to take advantage of that.
So, he was able to take three months off and go through the standard EI because he was fully employed, he had X amount of hours contributed to the government and they all knew about it and the company that he was working with processed that paperwork and he was able to take three months off. But for me, it was me saving some of the money that I made from freelancing and then ahh this is where I fell into it is I kind of went into it thinking that the government was going to have my back financially like, "Oh, yeah, I’ll just have my baby and then they’ll pay me EI, right?"
Jess: Yeah, which I learned is not how it works at all. For freelancers, there is something called the EI benefits for self-employed people and I literally have the website open because this is the biggest part if you’re freelancing is you have to register for this EI special benefits twelve months from the date of your confirmed registration you’ll qualify for EI special benefits which [are] different than full time working EI benefits. So, you have to go in and apply for this as a freelancer which I never did.
I [also] learned that it isn’t backdated so you can’t apply when you’re having the baby and be like, yeah, I’m just gonna get EI. You have to apply for it a year before you’re planning to have your baby if you’re planning on going this route which was a huge thing that I learned and I had never signed up for any of this, so I lost out.
Your EI benefits for having a baby count to the day that your human is born. So, I wasn’t working [in] November 2018, so I couldn’t count anything or any of that year.
Jess: Yes. Because if you’re fully employed it works out pretty standard and I also learned that I had quit my full-time job in July 2018 and my daughter was born [in] November 2019. So, your EI benefits don’t count for the tax year which I was also kind of counting on because if it did then I would have got six months of standard EI benefits.
Your EI benefits for having a baby count to the day that your human is born. So, I wasn’t working [in] November 2018, so I couldn’t count anything or any of that year.
Mohammed: Okay, I’d like to understand this better. You had Alice in November 2019. And because you weren’t working [in] November 2018 like full-time employment or like through an employer, so as a result, you couldn’t get that EI either?
Jess: Yeah. So, I kinda got double — but to be fair I didn’t do enough research on this so the number one thing I would tell people is and this is the whole reason I wanted to talk to you is I don’t want anybody to fall into this kind of thing [as] I did. So, number one, I would say Google the EI benefits for self-employed people at least a year before you’re even thinking about having any sort of child.
The kicker was signing off for this EI special benefits which somebody had told me and I think this is why I probably didn’t sign up for it but I was kind of hoping that my taxes would work, anyway, is the kicker with this EI special benefits is once you signed up for it you can never opt out too. So as a freelancer who might have a down period of work or need to have extra cash flow going around for life and what have you that can also weigh into your decision of going this route.
Mohammed: Oh, wow.
Jess: Which is why I say save some money. If you can in some sort of way just save some money away and take a couple [of] months off or take how much time that you can afford for you and your business to be able to do it that way because you can never opt out at this EI thing as well.
Mohammed: And I don’t know if you were able to later sign up or not or you can sign up at all but any chance you know typically what is the amount you would be paying?
Jess: It says on the website you have had to earn at least 7,297 dollars in 2019. So, I can’t imagine that you’re getting much off of that if that’s like the lowest tier, but I know it’s not great. It’s EI, it’s standard EI I think so it depends on how much you made per year.
Mohammed: Got it. Got it.
Mohammed: I guess what has been the state of your finances but also raising a child?
Jess: Yeah, that’s been the hardest part. So once I learned that none of these EI things fit me, I had a breakdown although a mini like, oh my gosh, I made the worst mistake of my life. What is gonna happen to us financially but my partner and I sat down and we wrote out all of our finances together, laid everything on the table and we were like so this is the worst-case scenario if all of these things happen and then COVID happen.
But no one knew that that’s gonna happen so we’ve all just been kind of rolling with how we can figure ourselves through all of these, right? But we put a plan together, so my plan with my partner was that I was going to take three months off and then the lowest tier that we were gonna figure out is I was gonna work for the rest of the year and my goal being that I would make hopefully as much as I would have made on EI.
That was — the goal is we put together how much I would have got for EI based on how much I made last year and just our goal was to be able to make as much as I would have made on EI because you have to reduce the amount of time devoted to your business by more than 40% on EI.
Mohammed: So as you can see I’m just digesting it’s like I…
Jess: Yeah, sorry. It’s a lot of information.
Mohammed: Not even information; a lot of emotions. I’m a little angry at how the EI is set up for people looking to start [a] family and I don’t feel too excited about this EI special benefits for self-employed people because it just seems very much that, hey, at some point if you do this you had to sign up then you’re forever locked in and I don’t know what that means and you know, there are pros and cons because being self-employed there is a lot more uncertainty.
Mohammed: That said I mean many people who were working for a company, especially tech companies and other companies, there also wasn’t any certainty there at this year either.
Mohammed: So it’s just scary, frustrating, overwhelming, all of these emotions so I supposed I’m just digesting it all.
Jess: Yeah, it’s a lot and there’s gonna be so many edge cases that have come out of all of this, of people on tipping points or people who have been furloughed and I can’t even imagine it from a family planning point of view. It’s overwhelming, to say the least.
Mohammed: So you took three months off, right?
Mohammed: And then you came back and started working again just to ensure that you’re making just about the same as you would have been if you were receiving EI this year, right?
As I ramped up and started to connect with them again and have those conversations of both how our business relationship would look again, then the wonderful world of COVID happened.
Mohammed: Now, this kinda takes us back to what we were talking about earlier is that you were planning on starting a family and then started notifying your clients and then you even brought in someone as a backup to take over for you while you were away.
What else did you have to go through to ensure that there [was] some form of business continuity for your clients but then there is also proper ramp up onboarding set in place to ensure that you don’t have to start from scratch again?
Jess: Yeah, fantastic question. I was kind of lucky in the sense that I told everybody I was gonna take three months off. So I planned a couple [of] people that I was gonna contact at that three months [mark] and get working with again. And as I ramped up and started to connect with them again and have those conversations of both how our business relationship would look again, then the wonderful world of COVID happened.
So, I go out about three weeks, maybe a month and to start to ramp up again because I took November, December, January off, yeah, so I started to reconnect with people at the end of January and sort of February and then February was wonderful and then March hit and we all know what March did. So, it was great. It all made sense of, you know, you reconnect with your clients, you re-engage with them, you take a fresh look at what your relationship looks like and how you guys were gonna move forward in this new world.
I have taken the big side of that I tell everyone I’m working with that I have a child now and with the understanding of that I will be doing work off-hours and there may be crying baby at some point in a meeting somewhere, which has worked out well because most people are living, well not most people, but people who have families are living in that kind of reality now anyway.
Jess: But COVID happening really nixed my whole ramp-up process. I applied for CERB for two months because my ramp-up process took an extra two months longer because nobody wanted to talk to me in lockdown. It’s understandable. It’s only been within the last two months that I’ve been able to continue those conversations. And I have had some interesting ones.
I’ve started talking to a farm which has been interesting because through this whole thing, people have realized that they need to get online and farms need to also be online. So, I’m talking to a wonderful farm who [is] working on a new website and we're figuring out how that would look and how we can help each other through this time which has been really cool.
So, it’s been kind of above around the side if it has taken longer to ramp back up to freelancing, but it’s been interesting in the fact that I can expand the people that I talk to, to different people that I would have never thought of before.
Mohammed: So, this farm is not a client that you’re just in the early stages right now, right?
Jess: Yeah. Without getting too much into it, they pretty much sold their whole stock and realized and their website crashed like four times. So, they realized they needed a more sustainable solution moving forward.
Mohammed: Wow. Okay, I’m very keen to learn more about this farm when that contract is signed. Now, to go back to I supposed freelancing and starting a family, I recognized that when somebody has a baby or adopts a baby there is I think it’s called postpartum depression?
Jess: Yeah, postpartum.
Mohammed: So, not to get into postpartum depression but the other part of it which is that if you’re self-employed, a lot of your identity is related to the type of work you do, right? And the value you bring to the table from your partner can sometimes be tied to that income that you’re generating through that work. And then to then further add the uncertainty of being self-employed.
I guess in a very long-winded way I’m trying to understand what was it like to not be freelancing during your parental leave?
Jess: For me, it was great because it’s the first time I’ve taken that much time off from working at all, but I have to say in the back of my mind I was thinking about how I was gonna ramp back up and get back to work even when you’re holding a tiny little human. The piece that kind of kicks in is that babies aren’t like a working date so it’s not like you can check out at the end of the day and go back to your family.
She has a 24-hour schedule and especially for the first three months in my situation it was a lot of me healing as much as it was for healing. So, I was very much forced to take a look at myself and take care of myself and take care of her. So, I did not have a lot of time to think about work other than except for like 4 a.m. when I’m sitting up just holding her ensuring that she’s hopefully going back to sleep at some point.
But between the sleep operation and me taking care of myself and taking care of her and my partner taking care of himself too, it put a lot of focus on us taking care of ourselves instead of me thinking about work for the most part. But in the back of my head, I was planning like who I was gonna reach out to and when I was gonna reach out to them and what that conversation would hopefully look like and what we will talk about and look forward to those things at some point.
Babies take up a lot more physical things than you think of and every baby is different. Ours specifically wouldn’t go to sleep unless she was in like a swing because she was very — she didn’t want to let go.
Mohammed: I suppose I don’t even know what the ideal world would be in the future given everything that’s happening now and who knows if there will be a second wave or when maybe is a better question. So, if you were starting again or perhaps if you decide to have another child, how do you see yourself preparing this time around or maybe doing things a bit differently at this time around?
Jess: A fantastic question because it’s one that my partner and I have had exhaustively is because of everything that’s happened in life and like the way that all of this is going we were definitely saved probably more money moving forward but we also because we’ve had one now we have a whole bunch of things that we don’t have to worry about, things being actual physical things.
Babies take up a lot more physical things than you think of and every baby is different. Ours specifically wouldn’t go to sleep unless she was in like a swing because she was very — she didn’t want to let go. She was very tense for the first three months so she loved anything that would hold on to you so she would either fall asleep in our arms or a swing. So, we had to have a swing so I would recommend [it] and I have recommended [it] to a whole bunch of friends since to have some sort of swing in your room or your house or somewhere because she wouldn’t feel asleep in her bassinet.
It was too much like she didn’t like to lay out. She wanted to be held. She wanted something that would cradle her. So, I would make sure that all the stuff is in place that you have the money saved away and then I would talk to your family. This whole COVID thing has kind of thrown a wrench into that third one but I think once there is some sort of situation where we can all be safely around, there’s a reason that they say it takes a village to raise a child because it actually does.
Having some sort of people around to support you with either like dropping off a meal if they are so wonderful and have the ability too to even just check-in. I was later in life to have kids as a lot of my friends. So usually when they would have kids I would leave them alone for like three months when they would have a kid because I feel like it’s just so overwhelming. But I had people checking in on me constantly and they were all moms and it just warmed my heart deeply to have somebody message me and say like how are you doing like how is the first couple of weeks going?
Just to have that brain kick-off that you’re not just constantly like what’s the next thing I have to do for the baby? What’s the next thing I have to do for the baby? What’s the next thing I have to do for the baby? It was nice to have people who would check-in and to ask you how you’re doing and be able to give them an answer because they are all parents too and they have all been through this too. So, I would in the future as well make sure that you have people that you can check in on with and that can also check in on you, not to dig too much into the postpartum depression side of it but that helped my mental stage in a huge way.
Mohammed: And now that you are freelancing still early raising a baby and there is this pandemic happening, how have things shaping up for you on that end?
Jess: Freelancing is going well as people kind of learned that remote people like myself are available and can help them out. I have continued to leverage my wonderful network and continue to just sit in the background and try to do good work, and those people have referred me on, so I’m very lucky and very blessed to be able to say those things.
I’ve used that network and they have come back, and people have contacted me, so I have been able to get a whole bunch of work, but that means that my daughter is being looked after by my partner because she is eight and a half months now and she just has started to want to walk more literally like we started talking I tweeted yesterday that I helped my daughter walk today and I’ll just be over here crying now because that’s what I did.
She doesn’t wanna sit down. She doesn’t wanna lay down. She wants to walk or she wants to be in her stroller and be pushed around and see the world because she’s very curious. So, it’s been a shift of constantly myself and my partner talking about like what the day is gonna look like and how we are gonna work and he asks how many meetings I have that day, so we kind of organize her schedule around the meetings I have and then I tend to do work once she goes to sleep if it comes to that.
Mohammed: I mean she seems to fit the family dynamics well in that I know you mentioned that your partner is also very much into outdoors and camping.
Jess: Very much so, yeah.
Mohammed: So, that whole walking and exploration will fit right in. Well, you know Jess, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and there’s quite a lot we’ve covered and as we wrap up I’d love to know where people can find out more about you and your work online.
Jess: I have a website jessjoyce.com. It is very outdated but I’m working on updating it. There [are] conflicting priorities with having an eight-month old and working through a pandemic, but I have done a bunch of updates through it. It is available and there’s a form on there to contact me if anybody would like to talk as well as I use Twitter pretty much exclusively.
My Twitter is @jessjoyce. Reach out to me there too. I talk mostly about SEO through there and my daughter now.