If you’re considering a freelancing career, congratulations! Working for yourself can be highly rewarding and more importantly, a great way to grow. I’ve learned a lot working in full-time roles, but I learned a whole different set of skills working for myself. It gives you a unique perspective that you can’t find in full-time employment.
I freelanced for different startups in New York City for almost six years as a UX Designer. It was a great time to freelance; the tech scene was bubbling up and didn’t stop. I loved it. There are pros and cons to both freelancing and working full-time. What you really need to figure out is if freelancing is right for you.
Here, I’ll share some tips to help you before and after you start freelancing.
Think about the right time to transition
Knowing when to quit your job to begin a full-time freelance career can be difficult. When I made the move, I transitioned out of a full-time job at a financial technology company. The timing worked for a few key reasons:
- I had work lined up. I had been moonlighting for a while and had a handful of clients. I lined up work before quitting my job, which gave me some stability.
- I had a cushion. I had some savings so I knew that if I weren’t making money right away or all the time, I would be OK.
- I was confident in my skillset. Even though I still had more to learn, I knew my skills were good enough; I could run my own projects.
- There was market demand. It was easy to see that my skill was in demand, which gave me confidence that I could find freelance projects.
If you’ll have no problem getting a full-time job again, giving freelance a chance is less risky as you can always go back to working full-time.
If you aren’t confident in at least three of these points, it might not be the right time for you.
Being successful at freelancing has a lot to do with the setup. I tried (and failed) once before being successful because I didn’t meet a few of these criteria.
Work out the logistics
There’s a handful of fairly mundane but super important things that you need to do when you freelance: Things like project tracking, pricing, invoicing, and contract and proposal writing, to name a few. Work out the logistics ahead of time so you’re not scrambling to do so on the spot.
Know how you will manage projects, keep track of your time and invoice. Get a basic working contract together to protect yourself and start to think about what a proposal that you write for a project might look like.
When it comes to pricing — don’t be afraid to charge what you’re worth or cost based on the value you’re delivering. Clients usually have a harder time with a price before they work with you as you haven’t established trust yet. If you do great work and the client is happy, the price will be less of an issue.
If you’ve never written a contract before, that’s OK. Find examples — it’s easier than starting from scratch! Here are some services that can help:
- Bonsai: www.hellobonsai.com
- Let’s Freckle: www.letsfreckle.com
- Design briefs: www.holabrief.com
- Legalzoom legal forms: www.legalzoom.com/legalforms
- Pricing design : www.abookapart.com/products/pricing-design
- How to scope work: www.danmall.me/articles/how-to-scope-work
- Cushion: www.cushionapp.com
- And Co: https://www.and.co
- Double Your Freelancing: www.doubleyourfreelancing.com
- Freelancers Union: www.freelancersunion.org
- Jack: www.withjack.co.uk
Don’t forget: when you are self-employed, you must buy your health insurance (in the United States at least). Check out what The Freelancer’s Union has to offer. freelancersunion.org/health
Go deeper into pricing
Pricing technically falls into the logistics category, but it’s worth calling it out separately as it’s a tricky topic to get right. There are different ways to price, the two main types are hourly and per project.
I always try to avoid hourly rates or billing as it’s too granular. Granular in that, it’s very easy for money and pricing to become a target when it’s broken down on an hourly level.
There is more opportunity for the client to nitpick and make comparisons about the work and the time it’s taken to create. It also opens the door to the client micromanaging the project to “save money,” all the while making it harder for you to do your job and good work!
The reality is, when you are making, there’s a lot of work that happens behind the scenes that clients don’t necessarily see. All the brainstorming and internal rounds of design you did, or the drafts of copywriting, before having work to present.
My preference has always been never to reveal an hourly rate but to work on a project rate instead. Project-based pricing means looking at the project as a whole, scoping it — usually with the client — and then putting a price and timeline on it. In this scenario, you and the client are looking at the overall value that is being delivered instead of an hourly, line-by-line setup.
There are times when I’ve agreed to an hourly rate, however. Hourly arrangements can be an excellent way to supplement the income from larger projects. I’ve worked with clients who needed design support on a weekly or monthly basis and usually in these situations, the client has an understanding of the hourly rate. Or at least the overall time you might spend in a week or month and the price, which is easily broken down into an hourly rate.
Hourly rates can also make sense in cases where you may be needed intermittently after completing a project. For example, you might design something, then make yourself available on an hourly rate basis for implementation issues or questions.
Ensure you’re getting paid what you’re worth and for the value, you are creating for your client. Check out Dan Mall’s book on Pricing Design, as well as Freelance, and Business, and Stuff by Amy Hood.
Benek Lisefski wrote a massively awesome post about value-based pricing and it’s worth a read: What to charge as a freelancer: does value-based pricing live up to the hype?
Define your process
If you’re a designer, you should work out your design process before freelancing. That’s not to say that your method is the same for every project. You’ll encounter different scenarios and clients will have varying needs, but you should generally know and be able to articulate your process.
The same applies if you’re a writer or a developer and so on. Clients will want to know what it’s like to work with you and what they can expect. Be transparent and document it somewhere. Share it with potential clients either on your Website or in a nicely designed PDF.
Be ready to market yourself
If you’re going to freelance, you need to embrace self-promotion. But that doesn’t have to mean shouting in the streets and handing out flyers! You just need to be ready to promote your services and expertise.
At the most basic level, this means having a Website with optional, supplemental PDFs. PDFs are an excellent option if for any reason your Website can’t do all the work.
For example, when you’re starting out it might be easier to put your work and references into a PDF if you don’t have the wherewithal or time and money to develop a comprehensive Website.
When I was freelancing, I created very targeted PDFs for different contexts such as mobile design.
Having promotional material for a specific niche allows you to take a highly targeted approach in marketing yourself and connecting with your audience.
Pay attention to the questions and inquiries you get from prospective clients and see what makes sense to turn into a promotional PDF for future use.
- Carrd one-page site builder: carrd.co
- One Page Love templates: onepagelove.com/templates
- Squarespace: squarespace.com
Think in scenarios
When you freelance, there are different scenarios in which your services can be helpful. After having spent some time freelancing, I was finally able to see how the same set of skills could be bundled up and marketed in specific ways. Here are some common scenarios I experienced when freelancing.
A company or founder:
- Has a SaaS product that needs a complete redesign
- Is raising money and needs their app idea visualized
- Needs to design a new feature but lacks internal design resources
- Requires ongoing design support for a set amount of time weekly or monthly (or even longer term)
- Needs an Android version of their iOS app designed
The benefit to thinking in scenarios is that you can use them to better market your services. It’s great material for blog posts or “Services” pages.
By directly addressing scenarios, you allow prospective clients to better relate to you, which is excellent for increasing the chances of working with a client.
Form an LLC
Yes, snoozeville but this is something you need to do.
There are a couple great reasons to form an LLC (or a separate business entity). First of all, you want to protect yourself. An LLC separates your business finances from your personal finances and belongings.
In the very rare case a client sues you, they will sue your business, not you. The other great benefit of an LLC is that it makes accounting and taxes much more manageable.
If your personal finances are intermingled with your business finances, it will not be a fun tax season for you (as if taxes could ever be fun).
I highly recommend getting a bookkeeper or using a service like Bench. Trust me when I tell you, you may think you’ll balance your books, but you won’t.
This is the least fun part of any business — unless you love accounting (if so, what kind of freak are you?) 😉
- Legalzoom: legalzoom.com
- Stripe Atlas: stripe.com/atlas
- Bench Accounting: bench.co
Lastly, a new law has been passed in California that makes it harder for creative agencies to work with freelancers that do not operate as a business.
Specialize in something
Is there a niche in your industry that you’re really good at or want to focus on? Specializing in something allows you to build trust with prospective clients more quickly and in essence, be more “sellable” to people looking for that exact service.
For example, a designer that focuses on mobile design for Android may be more likely to get freelance jobs in that realm than individuals or agencies with more generalized skills. The market is very competitive, so there are no guarantees, but if you position yourself in a certain way, you may be able to increase the odds of getting very specific freelance gigs.
Think about finding clients
One of the top questions potential freelancers have is, “How do I find clients?” Honestly, it can be hard finding clients if you’re starting with no network, but it’s very possible! Word of mouth is the best referral and this is something you can achieve over time as you build a network. There are ways to find clients and projects when you don’t have a network yet. Here are a few ideas.
- Directly market your services. Look around in your area for companies you’d like to work for and create a list. Find contact email addresses. Come up with a simple and friendly email pitch containing links to your site and or work. Start sending emails. Be prepared for low conversion rates but you never know where these inquiries will go! It’s actually quite exciting.
- Use LinkedIn Premium for lead generation. LinkedIn Premium gives you the ability to message anyone. In an effort to drum up business while I was in Philadelphia for a brief stint, I put together a list of startup founders and emailed every single one of them. I didn’t hear back from most people but the effort did result in one paying project.
- Scour relevant sites daily. There are relevant job boards and forums where warm leads are looking for people for you. Invest some time each day in browsing sites and doing outreach. To help manage this process you can set up an RSS feed so the job postings from different sites are all in one places. For designers, here’s a short list of sites to get you started:
- Dribbble: dribbble.com/jobs
- Authentic Jobs: authenticjobs.com
- Design Jobs Board: designjobsboard.com
- We Work Remotely: weworkremotely.com
- Angel List: angel.co/jobs
- Designer News: designernews.co/jobs
- Folyo: folyo.me
- Smashing Magazine: smashingmagazine.com/jobs
- Startup Jobs: startup.jobs
- Workshop: letsworkshop.com/job-boards-for-client-work
- Designmodo Jobs: www.designmodo.com/jobs
See more ideas such as paid acquisition and “feeder products” from Brennan Dunn at Double Your Freelancing.
Always keep in mind: you’re not obligated to work with every client that comes your way.
There are typically red flags with people that may not be good to work with for whatever reason. It may be around pricing, how quickly they respond to emails or the level of control they want to have over decisions made in the project. When you’re working with people you’re comfortable with; you’ll produce better work.
— AFTER YOU START FREELANCING
Build great rapport with clients
Your clients are your lifeblood. Always offer excellent customer service by treating them with respect and running projects to the best of your ability. If something goes wrong and it’s your fault, own up to it. Take responsibility! Think about what your relationship pillars are.
Mine are honesty, transparency, and communication. Honesty in that I will always be truthful and direct. Transparency in that I want clients to have clear insight into the project and process, an understanding of its status, and easy access any deliverables. Communication in that they’ll hear from me frequently with updates and questions regarding the work we’re doing, so we can all move forward together, productively.
When you build great rapport with clients, they will refer you to other clients. When this cycle begins to develop and repeat, you may never have to go looking for work.
Set realistic project expectations
When you start scoping projects, it’s difficult to understand how much time and effort a project might take. You get really good at this over time.
It’s tempting to bend to a client’s timeline or budget because you want to please them or you really want the work. This is not good business though.
Be realistic with time and cost. If their budget is too low, offer a way to decrease the scope. If their timeline is unreasonable, be honest and communicate what you can actually do within the timeframe.
Some clients do expect that you’ll do whatever they ask, but the best clients listen and adapt with you.
Set up the project schedule (deadlines) and stick to it. This is actually really hard in practice but it’s a very good habit to get into it.
Put the project milestones in a calendar and send calendar invites to your client.
If you have a project that is supposed to last a month but the timeline gets blown out, that impacts your future income and your ability to schedule work. A project schedule will help keep you and your client accountable.
One of the main reasons projects go over schedule is the client gets feedback to you too slowly or wants more design cycles than you’ve scoped. Deadlines help reinforce expediency.
Don’t forget that meetings with clients take your time as well — and you will have a lot of them!
A good rule of thumb is, whatever the project cost is, add around 25% for meetings and general project management. So, if the cost of a project is $5k, add $1,250. Consider anchoring your percentage to the size (and bureaucracy) of the company. The larger the company, usually correlates to more meetings and well, inefficiencies.
Be a leader
When you work with clients it’s easy to get wrapped up in their vision and approach. However, what separates great freelancers from mediocre ones is the ability to understand where the client is coming from and propose a different plan if you discover theirs is not suitable.
Perhaps a client wants to build a fully functioning mobile app with their idea that hasn’t been validated. You know that this will cost thousands upon thousands of dollars and will likely fail.
It’s OK to have an open discussion about this and propose a different, lower risk approach. In the end, if the client decides to proceed anyway, you gave it your best shot, and you can still do some exciting work.
Document projects as you go and have fun
I can’t tell you how many times I completed a project with a client and kicked myself because I didn’t take any photos of the workshops and epic meetings!
Documenting projects allows you to create really lovely case studies after the fact, which will help you land more work.
Plus, it’s nice to have photos of you and your clients — oh the memories! Oh, and you can use pictures and such for social media…remember that self-promotion thing we talked about?
Don’t forget to have fun!
Remember, a client’s perception of you is the entire experience of working with you so bring some good vibes. If it’s anything like the movies, people remember the peak moment and the ending!
Write about what you do (content marketing)
Writing about your craft is part of your portfolio. Writing showcases how you think and problem solve, which is what the best creatives do well. Writing is also a great marketing tool and can be a supplemental part of your Website.
Is there a question you get asked a lot of clients? Make a blog post out of it and point clients to it!
Write about topics that involve working with clients or about the work you’ve done. This type of content resonates with prospective clients and helps you build trust without even meeting them.
Your articles may also show up in search results for potential clients that are searching for the exact thing you’re writing about, allowing them to come to you! Writing can be a great lead generation tool and will help you create a reputation in the community.
Ask for testimonials and referrals
Following up on building excellent rapport with clients. When you do this, it’s much easier to ask a client for a testimonial, which you should do!
Testimonials are part of marketing yourself and are “professional proof” which increases trust in other prospective clients.
Testimonials can be published on your Website, in marketing PDFs, and on LinkedIn. Having recent testimonials is vital as the older a testimonial gets, the more irrelevant it becomes.
Referrals are a great way to drum up new work and clientele. A referral means either asking your client to directly recommend you to people in their network who may also need your services, or asking them if they know anyone who might be in need of your services so you can reach out to them yourselves.
As with anything new that you try, there will be stumbling blocks, but it’s all part of the learning process — and the learning process can be exhilarating.
Once you start to form some mastery around freelancing, you’ll be thinking of ways to solve new challenges such as increasing your freelancing rate or finding bigger and better projects to work on. Take the time to get your feet wet and learn the ropes!