It’s been nearly 10 years since I decided to begin freelancing. Six of those years I’ve been a full-time freelancer. I’ve gone from not knowing how to find clients to working with billion-dollar brands. Freelancing has offered me the chance to design my own life. I’m in control of my schedule, the kind of work I do, how I do it all while making a comfortable living. For many creatives, making a six-figure income while freelancing is the ultimate goal.
I’m passionate about design, intentional living and business. This is the first in what I hope to be many articles on the topic of freelancing, entrepreneurship and business for designers. I want to offer guidance, encouragement and inspiration to those who want more than a typical 9-5.
Why you should begin freelancing
There are lots of benefits to running your own business. Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for most people. Here are some reasons you should begin freelancing.
Don’t like being told what to do and how to your work? Autonomy means you are self-governing, or in control of what you do and how you do it. Autonomy is one of the vital components of personal fulfillment which highly correlative to one’s happiness. Working as a freelancer allows you to complete autonomy.
As a freelancer, you’re often playing the role of many, from sales to project manager to creative director and more. While this can be challenging, it forces you to stretch your creativity. Rather than relying on others to bring alternative solutions to the table, you must broaden your ability to offer creative solutions to the problems that need solving.
When you freelance, you’ll be wearing many hats. Each job you inherit will require a unique skillset, some of which you were never taught. Being accountable for completing every aspect of a project will force you to learn new skills and improve some of your weaker areas.
Throughout your freelance career, you’ll be exposed to a wide range of clients, projects, technological issues general disasters. Having to speak about money, explaining timelines, presenting your solutions and learning on the job will boost your own confidence. This will have immense benefits for your ability to close new business deals as well as in your life outside of work. I personally think this is an undervalued side effect of freelancing.
As time passes and you begin to broaden your portfolio of completed freelance jobs, your ability to identify and solve valuable problems will increase. This means that your value increases. Your portfolio should demonstrate the value you bring to your clients. Whether you’re at a job interview, or a company is considering hiring you as a freelancer, the value demonstrated in your past jobs will allow you to charge a premium for your services. Your experiences as a seasoned freelancer will translate to value down the road.
Last but certainly not least, freelancers are offered a taste of freedom. Many people feel trapped by the job they work. As a freelancer, you’re in charge of who you work with, what days you work, where and how you work from and more. You can decide to only work with companies whos morals align with your own. You can do work that gives you a sense of purpose and pride. Most people feel drawn to freelancing because of the perception of freedom.
Drawbacks of freelancing
Now that you’re all hyped up and sold on freelancing, I’ve got to shine a light on some of the darker areas of freelancing. You have to be aware of these areas you’ll likely face when you finally take the plunge. The more you know, the more you can safeguard against them.
Feast, famine cycle
The first to come to mind for many is the idea of a starving artist, or a feast and famine cycle. Freelancers often don’t have a sales team or producer finding clients and lining up jobs. This means when you’re focused on completing a project, you aren’t setting up the next opportunity. When you finish a job, it may take a few weeks before you get another freelance job. This can make it difficult to establish steady cashflow which is needed to be able to pay your bills consistently.
Challenged by business
Most creatives who decide to freelance do not have a strong set of business skills. Sales, budgeting, forecasting, taxes, contracts, negotiating, marketing, scheduling and more all fall under business skills. When you freelance, you are running a business. Having to make time to learn about and improve each of these business skills as you work on each project is no small task. But if you expect to survive, becoming competent in each of these areas is vital.
Usually, this is not as big of a problem as most would think. As a designer, you’re a technician. You’ve developed a specific creative skill and you’re likely better than average at it. Usually, this is the reason you decide to begin freelancing. Your skills must cross a threshold of competency or you must be confident enough to decide to freelance. However, for some, their confidence outweighs their skills and they are punching above their weight-class. Jumping into freelancing before your technical skills are developed enough can get you into trouble.
We’re no stranger to stress. When you freelance, you’re held accountable for every part of a job. There’s nobody to fix your errors or pick up the slack when you’re at the edge of your knowledge or capabilities. I’ve struggled with this a lot in the past. Too much stress makes it difficult to sleep, to live in the moment and focus on anything other than work. It can quickly lead to other metal health issues and unhealthy coping habits too.
Probably the biggest hallmark of freelancing is ‘the grind’. Many creatives really struggle with time and project management. This usually leads to overwork. By taking on too many jobs at once, not charging enough or underestimating how long a job will take you’re likely to get overworked. This eats into personal time or leads to the neglect of other responsibilities.
The book Manage Your Day-To-Day is an awesome book packed with actionable tips from top creatives. It’s an easy read and doesn’t need to be read cover-to-cover to be helpful. It’s not just about managing your time and being productive but also comes at it from a creativity-centric point of view.
Since 99U is part of Behance, the goal of this book is to help creatives avoid falling into overwhelm and distraction while helping them get more done.
How did I begin freelancing?
If you haven’t yet, please watch the short video above. In that, I describe the details of my first freelance job and how it happened. Otherwise, if you prefer, read on.
How I got my first freelance client
I created an ad on craigslist.com and I explained my skills and uploaded some pictures from my portfolio. It was a brief post that explained the kinds of services I could perform. Because it was on craigslist, I knew I was targeting local clients that would likely lead to in-person meetings. I made a list of the kinds of things business owners usually need like business cards, flyers, websites, ecommerce images, product renderings and more.
With a bit of luck, I was contacted by a local business owner who needed renderings as well as an in-store retail display designed.
What I was hired to create
For my first freelance job, my client needed an in-store point-of-purchase display. This ended up taking the form of a folding cardboard carton that could be assembled to hold the client’s products. For this project, I had to design the display, create renderings and graphics to be printed on the display and provide a 3D model and renderings of the completed display. Below are some images I handed over in completion of the project.
How much I charged
At the time, I didn’t really know how to quote a job well. This resulted in me charging far less than I should have. I think this should be expected especially for your first few freelance jobs. I estimated how long each deliverable would take me to complete. Then, I charged $60 per hour. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t realize how poor of a strategy this was. Watch this 60-second video below to prove out this point.
Below is the breakdown of my quote for my first freelance job.
- $30 for sketching and designing the PoP display$60 for creating a 3D model of the PoP display in Solidworks
- $72 for creating renderings of the Scoonel to be printed on the PoP display
- $90 for creating renderings of the final PoP display design
- $120 for creating dimensional drawings of the PoP design for the production facility
- Total of $372
Was it worth it?
Based on this estimate, I thought the project would take 6 hours to complete. In fact, it took 3 months. From a monetary standpoint, it wasn’t worth it. However, when you begin freelancing, experience should be valued more than money. Without experience and improving skills, you’ll find it difficult to earn more money. This first job allowed me to experience lots of things for the first time. I was able to add a project to my portfolio that I was paid for and I was referred to my second client.
When you begin freelancing your first few jobs won’t feel ‘worth it’ in some way or another. This is because everything is difficult and new in the beginning. However, these are foundational experiences that will enable you to become a better freelancer.
3 things you need before you begin freelancing
Drive is desire and a willingness to work. Freelancing is hard. If you’re freelancing on the side, then when your friends and family are relaxing and enjoying their evenings and weekends you need to have enough drive to choose to do the hard work instead.
If you’re working two jobs, caring for an elderly parent or taking care of children of your own, it’s going to be super hard to make time to freelance. It’s going to take more time than you expect. You must be willing to adjust your schedule to make time.
A portfolio isn’t 100% necessary. But it’s going to be super hard to get someone to trust that you have the skills they need without one. My portfolio wasn’t very good and it was just some images I uploaded to Craigslist. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should show what you’re capable of. I recommend at the very least using Behance to create a free, good-looking portfolio especially since it’s got a built-in search and audience. You might even have a project featured which will certainly give you a lot of traffic and potential opportunities.
What about going freelance full-time?
This is a much bigger leap to make. I’ve done it twice and one time it didn’t work super-well. The second time around, I did quite well. I can do a deep dive on this in a later video, but the same principals apply with one key difference.
If you will be going freelance full-time, you need to have plenty of money saved up. I recommend 6 months of living expenses. This will help you pay bills when clients haven’t paid you yet or you don’t have any new gigs.
Hopefully by sharing my humble beginnings with you, you’ll be inspired to get started. You don’t need to be great to start, I clearly was not. But you do need to start if you hope to someday be great.
Until next time, happy rendering!
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