Deciding to freelance can be one of the most challenging, but rewarding, experiences you’ll ever have in your career as a designer.
On one hand, you’ll discover a new sense of creative freedom approaching each individual project. But on the other, freelancing will quickly present you with unique challenges, increased responsibilities, and unfamiliar obstacles. And trying to find that perfect balance between designer, creative director, accountant, and entrepreneur can leave some aspiring freelancers running for the door.
To help you make it through the first few days (or weeks, or months) of the transition, we asked ten successful creative entrepreneurs what they wished they’d known when they first started freelancing. The answers we received proved to be both insightful and inspiring for any web designer aspiring to move into the freelance space.
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1. Start with a solid foundation.
“I wish I knew more about how the industry worked. Too many freelancers start out with insufficient industry experience. As much as you may hate it, go and do some time in an agency or a development house so you know what to expect with clients. That way, clients can rely on your knowledge of the ins and outs of client work.”
— Ross Allchorn, ShopCreatify.
2. Prioritize accounting from the start.
“Be diligent with your bookkeeping and organization of client billing information. Things will get busy, and things of that nature will begin to fall through the cracks. At that point, it’s difficult to review data and forecast for the future.”
— Chris Pointer, Pointer Creative.
3. Go where customers are already looking.
“In the beginning, I was cold calling websites that I knew didn't have a great experience. As you might guess, the results weren’t great — it was too much work for them and they didn't know or entirely trust me yet. Eventually, I started promoting myself where potential customers already were, and that’s when things really started to take off. Websites like eLance, oDesk, and eventually the Shopify Experts Portal proved to be extremely useful at the start of my career. Customers on these sites have money to spend and are already looking to hire a developer.”
— Tristan King, Shopify Ninjas.
4. Focus on your sweet spot.
“Identify what you do really well and focus on it. You may not have that luxury if you are just trying to keep food on the table initially. It may take a few months of trial and error to figure out what really works and where your sweet spot is. Trying to be all things to all people means you are nothing to anybody.”
— Kim Carruthers, eChic.
5. Work just as hard on promoting your business.
“In the beginning of my freelancing career, I was working 70-80 hours a week. I was constantly so busy with client work that I didn't take the appropriate time to promote myself and my company. I've realized now how important it is to build a tribe of loyal customers and how much easier it is to market to them than someone entirely new. I wish I had come to this realization sooner and had set aside more time in the beginning to grow my audience.”
— Elle McCann, Curious Themes.
6. It’s okay to refuse work.
“I wish that I'd had the confidence to say no to work more often, especially when I had a bad gut feeling about a particular client or project. A couple of times I ignored my instincts and ended up working late nights on stressful and, ultimately, unsuccessful projects — which wasn't fair for me or the client.”
— Gavin Ballard, Disco.
7. Never stop working on passion projects.
“I wish I knew how important it was to always continue working on personal projects. I spent so much time focusing solely on client obligations that I began to dislike what I was producing. Now that we are five years in, it has become obvious that my personal work encourages me to grow as a designer and, subsequently, help evolve our brand. I currently work on personal passion projects almost every day.”
— Nick van Gorden, Duck & Cover.
8. Don’t get taken advantage of.
“I wish I would have said no to the free work and the low paying clients. These were the clients that provided the least amount of money and the most amount of stress. They were the most demanding and the hardest to please. They always promised that the free work would lead to large paying jobs to follow and high exposure for my business. That never happened once. At the time, it was hard to say no when I needed the money and experience. But the constant stress was not worth it.”
— Rachel Farabaugh, Bohemian and Chic.
9. You can’t always do everything yourself.
“You need to learn the fundamentals of leadership; prioritize, delegate, inspire, and continually grow your skills working together as a team. This is the only way to continually increase your output of great work and build an environment where creativity and innovation thrive.”
— Sara Mote, Sara Mote.
10. Maintain a healthy work-life balance.
“Whenever you are the boss, producer, accountant, and support agent… there is always something to be done. There’s always one more feature, one more email, or another new idea that you could be working on. You have to be relentless about protecting your time outside of work, or you can end up working yourself into your own grave. It’s the hardest thing to remember as a freelancer, but probably one of the most important. Spending time with family and friends and getting outdoors in nature have been some of the most productive, important times for me mentally. It overflows into my work and I end up producing great work because of it.”
— Andrew Johnson, Rehash.
What advice would you share with someone thinking of going freelance? Let us know in the comments below.
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