So You’re Launching a Freelance Career?

Early on and years ago, there was a point when I thought all I needed was a website, and business would just start coming in droves and knocking on my door (or, submitting a contact form & calling the phone number). Surely all that’s needed is some SEO work and building links to your site in local freelancer directories. Maybe a little Adwords to give things an early boost. Right. RIGHT? Yikes, was I ever wrong.  I usually tell that story when other businesses are facing the same misconception about how much websites, SEO and paid search may or may not open the floodgates.

Sure, a lot of us go into to a line of work with the goal of avoiding certain lines of work. Someone who hates being on the phone might feel successful if they never have to pick up a phone in their career. Perhaps someone who had a struggling salesman for a parent might aspire to never have to work in sales.

No one should go into design, especially freelance, with dreams of never having to be a salesman or picking up the phone. Selling your work and networking is key if you want to freelance. Even working in-house, you have to be able to pitch and sell your ideas or you’ll be very frustrated.

Going to local meet ups and being in networking organizations, or in the social channels, is all what’s really going to get you out there. Then, you have to compete and stand out in what is a pretty big crowd. Especially in a city, where most of the business is.

Freelance graphic designer in a small town

Small towns are a little different. There’s actually great opportunity if you’re in a small town, and it’s probably easier to go door to door (fewer gatekeepers at small town companies). You’ll find small mom and pop shops using really low end, outdated websites, and in a lot of cases they aren’t using any real branding at all. And in a lot of cases, they’ll be pretty receptive to the idea of making it better. So you can just go from business to business, selling yourself and your services.

I was a little late to the party in the little town i’m living in, as there’s an individual who is very involved in the community and has sold their services to most of the local small businesses here. I admire what they’ve done and it’s a great case study, not only have they made a name for themselves and grown a business, but they’ve done so by being involved in the community, so giving back to the community and building a business simultaneously. That has to be pretty rewarding. I wish I’d thought of it first.

So that’s how you get things started. But while you’re getting started, you’re going to face some challenges with the type of work you take in….

Widen your range of clients/work

Make sure you widen your range of clients. If you’re in that small town, don’t just sell to the coffee shops and the little grocery stores because it’s easy, hit up the big manufacturing company, too. Not only will you inevitably run out of work at some point, you’ll get passed for work because you seem too niche.

Get on the phone and sell yourself to organizations further out from your area. Even check the job boards which frequently have freelance and contractor positions running for bigger companies. You just don’t want to ever be turned away because “Well, you just do work for little car dealerships, you couldn’t possibly understand my software startup.”

Avoid Spec Work

Every kid out of college who puts a portfolio and name out there is going to get faced with offers to do speculative work. “Hey, do a bunch of work for me and when my business takes off, then you’ll have your foot in the door and I’ll be able to pay you!” Unpaid internships with a legitimate business are one thing, but this spec work is an absolute trap and you need to avoid it. It’s an absolute lose-lose every time. Don’t sell yourself short, you’ll be better off spending your time designing websites and ads for businesses that don’t exist, because I almost guarantee you this shark who has approached you is going to have moved on to something else in a few months and won’t remember what you did for them. Anyone who puts no value on the work they hire someone to do for them will always value it that way. They’ll never change.

Avoid Crowdsourcing

A lot of freelancing sites popped up in the early 2000s where people bid against each other for the work. This is another lose-lose. You’re up against people who will design logos for a company for $15. An entire website for $100. Why? Because they don’t have the same standards that you do. They’ll plagiarize, they’ll outright rip people off. They have no shame the people hiring them don’t either. I actually worked for an organization that got a logo this way. Not only did the logo make absolutely no sense to the business, it held the rest of the design back and made the company look small and undeveloped years later when they were stuck with it. I know there’s desperate times, and it feels like you need to get some real work under your belt, but don’t settle for this. It’s easy to find this work, but these are clients who want to pay bare minimum and don’t respect the craft. They’re as bad as the spec work sharks, frankly.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t loop this in with design competitions for magazines or organizations. That is a great way to go if you want to get some work under your belt. So definitely do those…just know that they’re going to be highly competitive, so don’t devote 100% of your time to that. Be realistic, what’s actually going to get your business started?

One thing you can definitely do is seek out a non-profit organization that will really value your time and efforts, even though they can’t pay you much or might not pay at all. You’ll feel better having worked for free for a good cause, rather than for a shark. But always remember back to that first point, about widening your range of clients. You don’t want to become the designer who just does websites for churches and “couldn’t possibly understand my real business challenges.” What people don’t know, is that designers are wired to figure out challenges better than many people through the processes we learned about to create. The creative process you bring to projects is always similar, but some clients don’t understand that and believe you must have worked for their competitors or in their industry to know anything. Don’t let them fall in to this misconception.

Just in case things go wrong

Lastly, as a freelance designer, don’t forget that you’re a business, and sometimes there are disagreements. Many businesses have contracts to protect themselves and the client, so don’t feel bad about approaching a client early on with a contract and estimates in writing to cover your bases. Make sure you have a standard Graphic Artist Agreement that is going to protect you from a disaster, because not everyone is going to see your perspective nor even care about it when things go wrong. Make sure you don’t find yourself stuck in a cycle of making 30 rounds of changes for free. Make sure it’s clear who owns the rights to the work. Make sure there’s a due date for when you’ll be paid, so that if they don’t, you have a leg to stand on.

Here’s a good starting place to find some standard agreements you can base yours on:

Other things to have are a good template for estimates and scopes of work. You should also have some questions ready for a discovery meeting or call, that find out the company’s situation, goals, their audience’s attitude, and other things that I can outline in a later blog.

Be a multimedia designer

On top of those challenges, you’re going to be in a better position if you can handle a lot of types of projects. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself as a logo designer, or a brochure designer, I’ve seen far too many recent grads saying that and they always end up leaving the field or settling into a role that just doesn’t pay well and they end up stuck there. Make sure you can do a basic website and even a little video or motion graphics editing. Get handy with a camera. The more you can offer a small or medium sized company, the more likely they’re going to want to work with than someone else, because you’ll be able to work on their variety of projects and help them keep their work consistent. Those challenges will be really fun, and really rewarding.

Good luck out there.

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