How To Be A Full-time Freelance Designer From 9 Creative Experts
Me and eight other successful freelancers will teach you how to become your own boss, get clients and lead the freelance lifestyle you’ve been longing for.
This week, I reached out to my newsletter subscribers asking them to share their struggles with me on going freelance full-time. I was floored by the overwhelming response I received with over 60 eager creatives responding to my request. I then picked the 5 most asked questions to interview eight other creatives working right now as freelancers in the design industry.
For most of us, freelancing full-time seems like a dream come true. We get to be our own boss, work our own hours, and are responsible for our own success. It all sounds great – but it's a lot more work than it seems. So before you take the freelance leap, there are a few things you should know.
What should a part-time freelancer do in order to prepare to go full-time?
No matter how confident you feel about going full-time freelance, you need to put the right steps in place before you can leave the comfort of your 9-5 job. This means building up a large portfolio of quality work and saving enough money to give you a financial buffer.
Get started with the overlap technique
Let’s face it, going full-time freelance is no easy task and will take plenty of time, planning and determination in order to get a view of the finish line. The best way to prepare yourself is to use the overlap technique to work at a day job while pursuing freelance in your spare time. This way you can gather up all the things you need to ensure you're a success before you start working independently.
Freelancing while at a full-time job will build up your experience, confidence and contact list. Think of it like training wheels. Once you feel self-assured, you can take the plunge to ride on two wheels/go full-time.
See how Sarah, a part-time hand lettering artist leverages her day job, so she doesn't have to compromise on the projects she takes on for her freelance business.
“For now, I have a day job that covers my bills. It's important for me not to feel stressed out with how I'm going to get by this month, because it will eventually hurt my business. I don't want to be put in a situation where I'm accepting projects I don't want, rushing projects and making business decisions out of a scarcity mind set.
If you do client work, you shouldn't depend on how many clients a month you work with, but how good you are, so you can price accordingly and work on one project at a time. It sounds naive to many people but it's what everyone secretly dreams of, so why stop dreaming? I'm working towards making it a reality.”
“I’ve placed myself in a position where steady work is not a concern for me. Being too worried about income leads to desperation, which leads to poor client choices, and ultimately a less than a desirable portfolio. I saved up for years while working a full-time job and doing work on the side until I had enough money to last awhile when I started. This has taken the fear of paying bills out of the equation for me. If someone is not in the position to do that, there is no shame in having a side job to cover your bills.”
Create different revenue streams
Offering services is the easiest way to make money as a freelancer but have you ever thought of selling physical or digital projects to help fill the gaps when the client inquires stop flowing? Think about it. How can you use your talents to make some extra cash? Maybe you could sell stock graphics and fonts on Creative Market, share your expertise with an ebook or even try your hand at selling your art online.
For my own business, I started to develop monthly hand lettered prints, each depicting a different core value for creatives and entrepenurs. So far I've put up a few different prints up on my online store and the sales contribute to about 25% of my monthly income.
Set goals and achieve them before taking the leap
When considering going full-time freelance, you need to set up goals for yourself that will make you feel more comfortable so you can take on this new career path confidently.
Figure out how many months it will take you to make a profit from your freelance and work towards saving enough from your day job to reach your goal. Limit your expenses and try to knock out any unwanted student loan or credit card debt to make your monthly bills less stressful when your income is wavering.
See how much experience and savings professional illustrator Shauna Panczyszyn recommends for freelancers to have before they go full-time.
“If you want to go full-time, start planning. Don't just dive into it with no savings and no clients. Save up, so you have six months worth of living expenses in your account because the work won't always be consistently steady. Start building up your client base so that when you do go full-time, you already have a relationship and reputation with your clients.
I highly recommend having at least two years of experience in the field working professionally. This way you can learn from the mistakes and successes of your fellow employees and employers. This time will teach you how to talk to clients and run a business by learning from those who have been doing it for years.”
That feeling of risk will never go away
The big roadblock that prevents most of us from following our dreams is fear. We take comfort in the everyday grind. We feel that pit in our stomachs that’s screams at us to quit our day jobs but we never quite feel ready leave. I’m here to tell you that there is no defining moment where you’re finally going to feel safe and perfectly taken care of. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.
Consider this advice from successful Logo Designer, Daniel Patrick, on how to take a risk and not be afraid of failure.
“There's no amount of time, money, or experience you can acquire that will take away the fear of risk. Life is full of risk, and that feeling will never go away—in some instances it's what will push you to do better work.
As for me, this is the second time I’ve ventured into full-time freelance, the first of which I failed miserably. I wasn’t ready, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and worse I expected projects just to fall in my lap because I had a website and claimed to be a designer.”
What has been the most effective way for you to get new clients?
The number one question I get asked from my newsletter subscribers is how to find new client work, and the answer is really simple - you don’t. But rather, you put the work in beforehand to have clients come to you. Here’s how.
Stand out by niching down
The days where a designer needs to know every facet of design and become a master of all trades is finally starting to fade. We live in a world where niche services are back in demand and clients only want to hire experts in their specific field.
“One of the best ways to stand out is through niching down and becoming super specialized. It allows you to become a true master, and be seen as a professional instead of a generalist who does a little bit of everything. Very few people have the guts to do it, so this is a great move if you want to make a name for yourself.”
Produce the kind of work you want to be hired for
Once you find your niche, take the time to curate the work you have in your portfolio to reflect your focus. So if you want to get hired for icon design projects, be like Kyle Adams and fill your portfolio with only that. People are more likely to hire you for work that shows your expertise in one subject, rather than if you were only to have a little bit of everything in your portfolio.
“My two guiding principles are being consistent and sharing the type of work I would like to be hired for. I don’t subscribe to “finding work” because it starts things off with the wrong premise. Rather than spending my time searching for clients, I work hard to produce content that appeals to them. If clients aren’t interested in my services and process, we probably won’t be a good fit anyway.”
Put your work in front of the right people
You can’t always rely on people finding out about you through your website or social media. So sometimes if you want to get more eyes on your work, you need to bring your work to potential clients rather than waiting for them to find you.
Rather than looking for clients on job forums or making cold calls, Shauna recommends finding your ideal client and trying to woo them with your talent.
“Last year I created a postcard promo set that I mailed to different agencies and Art Directors that I wanted to work with. Because I had some steady work in, I wanted to focus on targeting those that I wanted to work eventually with, rather than just sending out a mass of mailers to anyone and everyone.
If I see a magazine or company I want to work for, I research and figure out who the Art Director is and then send them a promotional postcard set. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the fun is knowing you got your work in front of awesome people.”
Publish case studies, not just thumbnails
Having a great portfolio showcased on your website is great, but having case studies allows potential clients to see you as a problem solver instead of just a decorator.
Writing case studies will help them recognize your value because it provides proof that you know what you're doing. They’ll think “If he can deliver those kinds of results for them, he can definitely do the same for us.”
“Be aware of your design decisions and write case studies that showcase your process. This highlights your competence and the value you bring to the table. Don’t assume that good work alone has substance for potential clients. They need to understand what you will be achieving for them and how it will achieve their goals. These case studies need to reach a specific target audience, and they need to understand how you can do that for them.”
You don’t have to be a great writer to write a good case study. Just write your ideas down as you work and explain why you made your design decisions along the way. It’s worth taking the time if it means landing more clients. This is your chance to show your worth, explain your design decisions and illustrate the results of your expertise and skills.
Caroline Winegeart, a talented Brand Designer, also believes that case studies can sell your services more than just the images you create.
“The biggest uptick I saw in inbound leads came once I realized I needed to start showing people what I could do, instead of telling them. The greatest web copy in the world can't replace a portfolio or case studies of your work. Once I started investing time in publishing in-depth case studies of my client work on my blog and Instagram, I saw a lift in requests to work with me. People trust what they can see.”
What processes do you have in place for getting steady work?
You can’t just expect always to get a steady stream of clients wanting to hire you. You have to organize your time, have a set process and dedicate yourself to creating work even when there are no clients to create work for.
Staying organized with a set production process
A big part of getting steady work is knowing how to balance multiple clients at once using a set process that helps deliver non-stop value to your clients. So, if you have to think about what your process is, then that probably means you don’t have one.
The best way to get a grip on what process would work best for you is to write it down. Be sure to include every step along the way. This includes everything from what to do when a client first fills out your contact form all the way to ask for a testimonial after a job well done.
Writing your process down will help streamline your workflow so you can better estimate your time for projects while knowing your limits on how many clients you can take on at one time.
Check out how Caroline explains her process.
“When I was most secure in my freelance design business, I was booking about three months in advance. I'd get an inbound lead, set up an initial meeting (phone or Skype) and then put together a proposal with a cost estimate, scope + timeline in place.
Then I'd ask for 25% upfront (to secure the project start date), 25% by our first kick-off call and the final 50% after project completion. It took me a few months to feel out how many projects I could take on at once, but I was diligent with my time tracking so I wasn't losing money by getting distracted.
I also kept a Google spreadsheet showing all my open projects to stay organized. This showed how many weeks each project would take and when each money installment was going to be paid so I could see at a glance what my cash flow was. This helped me get to a place where I could manage multiple projects at a time!”
Show up to work, even if there is none
Even if you don’t have any client work on your plate, you should always be practicing your craft and trying to improve your skills. Even when you're experiencing a long dry spell, you should still get up every day, sit at your desk and work just like it was any other day. Doing this will not only help you create a routine, it will also allow you to continue posting new work online that could help get you new clients.
Remember, just because someone may not be able to hire you right now, doesn't mean they won't need to hire you for something in the future. And you posting that one personal project on Dribbble or Instagram may just pop up at the perfect time, right when they were looking to hire someone for exactly the kind of work you just posted.
“I believe you just have to show up to work—even if there is none. I once observed an Apple Store "Genius" teaching a class to an empty table in New York City. No one was in front of him, no one at his table, but he was working—he was going through the motions in all the best ways possible. He could have waited until someone sat at his table, but he didn't. He put himself out there, speaking to no one, and by the end of my visit he had a table of curious viewers.
I don't know where the next few paychecks will come from; I don't have an enormous savings account. Those are part of the drive that keeps me working and not stuck on the couch. If you wait for a project to land on your desk to get started on your work, then you're already too late. The real work is what you do before the client calls you.”
How should freelancers be marketing themselves without having to pay for advertising?
When you first start out, you shouldn't be paying for advertising. Especially when there are so many other free ways to make a name for yourself using things like social media, blogging, and networking.
Focus on your convictions
I truly believe that by being genuine with your following you will be more popular and get more clients than you would trying to be something that you're not. But in order to portray your true self to your audience you need first to figure out what you stand for.
“As a freelancer or business owner, there are an enormous amount of tools and resources available for advertising. Every medium is a channel to tell who you are, what you do, and why it matters. Once you have that down the rest falls into place.
Apple is a great example of this, every announcement, every ad, every interview Tim Cook does, speaks to who they are, why they do it, and what it means. This clarity is not something to be overlooked.
We are given opportunities to "advertize" ourselves all the time, but we're constantly caught up in what should our voice be rather than just speaking about what we believe in. I say forget the medium, get laser focused on your convictions and speak to them every single time.”
Become a social butterfly
We all know that social media can help us advertize our services, but so many people make their feeds all about their work and forget to talk about themselves. But in order to be relatable you need to sprinkle dashes of personality into your platforms so your audience can get to know the person behind the profile. If people love both the work you do and feel drawn to your personality, you're much more likely to make a stronger connection with them.
“Social media is key. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Dribbble, and Behance are your greatest figurative allies. I think the biggest thing that has worked for me is that I curate my posts to an extent. I show other parts of my life, so my feed isn't just a bunch of progress shots.
I show photos of my dog, the occasional selfie, and images of my other passion-ice skating. I still keep my feed filled with my work mostly, but I like showing people that I'm not just a robot behind a computer churning out work."
Share your expertise
Blogging has completely changed the way I think about marketing. Creating valuable content not only helps brings more eyes to my portfolio but also showcases my expertise in a way that paints me as a leader in my field. The more expertise I gain, the more I teach. The more I teach, the more popular I become.
My blog gives me a unique leg up on the competition and has single handedly put me on the first page of Google for the term “hand lettering” in the United States. So it’s needless to say that content marketing works, and it should become a key player in your client acquisition strategy.
“I believe in growing an audience organically. Apart from social media I write a weekly blog and this has been key for growing a healthy audience. I get to know people, and they’re happy to share my content, which brings others like themselves on board.
The key to great advertising is to share your story and have a voice. Don’t assume that nobody wants to hear about your experiences, they do. If you’re writing and sharing with others, there is no need to pay for advertising because you’ve attracted an audience that cares.”
What are some resources that have helped you become a professional freelancer?
Pursuing a freelance career is no easy task, but it can get easier with a little help. You don’t have to go on this journey alone. With over 53 million Americans now freelancing there are a ton of resources available right at your fingertips. So don’t hesitate to look for help. There are too many creative communities to join, podcasts to listen to and articles to read that can keep you inspired and motivated to be the best freelancer possible.
Go find a local creative community
There’s nothing quite like connecting with like-minded people in your field, especially when they're in your hometown. You can find a mentor and have life-changing conversations with experts that can give you in person advice right when you need it.
“I’ve been a member of AIGA for years. I love it and have built some wonderful friendships through it. I am also involved with a local illustrators group in Orlando called Giant Illustrators, where I get to interact with some amazing people in the industry. These people have helped me get where I am now and they still continue to give me some wonderful advice and encouragement."
Fill your lulls with podcasts
I’m a huge fan of podcasts. They're a nice way to relax or keep you entertained while working. Almost every time I’m sketching, working on production or traveling I always have a podcast streaming in my ear. Listing to podcasts helps me stay on top of trends, teaches me how to improve my business but more importantly it’s one of the driving sources of inspiration for my blog.
For me, I need to absorb good content in order to produce good content. I need to hear new stories and different points of view so I can always tackle a topic with a fresh perspective and a deeper understanding.
“My favorite resource is the Seanwes podcast. It's a goldmine for every entrepreneur. If you can't decide which episode to start with, go to episode 41 or 68, it will change you forever.
Also, being on the Seanwes Community and having the possibility to chat with like-minded individuals from all around the world at any time has helped me more than I could ever dream of. It's like a virtual coffee shop with all your entrepreneur friends in it. The feedback you can get on your work there is ten times what you can expect on Dribbble. And that's just one of the many aspects that make it awesome.”
Go to creative conferences
There is no greater way to connect with other people in your industry than with a solid creative conference. You get a “conference high” from the electric atmosphere full of down to earth people, inspiring work, and career changing conversations. You're able to make connections with people from all of the world that are all there for the same reason; to be inspired and to inspire others.
Laura and Dave from the AGSC run a graphic design studio all the way in Australia but still took the time to hop on an international flight to go to a creative conference in Georgia.
“We just went to Creative South and it changed our lives. It's important to get involved in the creative community and make real friends. I believe this is far more important than the number of followers you have on your accounts. Don't get me wrong, there are a ton of podcasts and resources out there that help with the practical aspects of your freelance career. But, there is something so special about having friends that do what you do and struggle with the same things as you. We are not alone!”
Don’t drown out your own voice
Now just because there is a plethora of knowledge to be learned doesn’t mean you should stop following your own voice. Don’t dilute your message by adopting too many outside influences and become just another copycat. There is such a thing as too much inspiration.
“In the beginning, keeping up with other designer's blogs helped me get a sense of processes and daily life. However, there came a point where I just had to stop watching what other people were doing and go with what felt right for me and my business.
I didn't want to be distracted by the way other people were running their businesses. So I stopped reading their blogs, and I just spent some time building the business based on the experience I'd want to have if I were a client. That meant doing some things differently, but ultimately I knew it was for the benefit of my clients. So I guess my biggest business resource would be...your own intuition!”
I hope that you took the time to read every word of this 4328 article on becoming a full-time freelancer. This article represents the collective knowledge of 9 successful freelancers with a combined experience of over 100 years.
All end with this final gold nugget from Joseph Alesso, one of my hand lettering heroes.
“Be relentless. Nothing is achieved easily, whether it's work, skill or opportunities. Never stop learning, keep working hard, and who knows what goals you'll reach!”