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How to Prepare for the Freelance Design Life

Ben Gremillion
Ben Gremillion

    Going freelance is a risky business. Designers who want to switch from full-time to independent work face many hurdles, some of which begin long before the designers are prepared.

    According to the US Small Business Association, about 50% of new businesses fail within five years. That number will likely increase for designers who set out before they’re ready, or who underestimate the amount and type of work involved.

    But designers who wish to freelance can take steps that mitigate the chances of failure by following simple advice.

    Don’t neglect the business side of freelancing

    Designers should go into full-time freelancing with their eyes open. For example, knowing that the business itself occupies more time than most expect can help them find their daily, weekly, or monthly rhythm.

    Ilise Benun (@ilisebenun ), Author, Speaker and Founder of, knows this well. “Business tasks could take 30–40% of a designer’s time, including email, marketing, project management — all the things you don’t get paid for,” she said in a phone interview. “Some people say, ‘Well, I’m getting paid so that’s the priority.’ But marketing is an investment. I advise my clients to spend the equivalent of one day per week marketing themselves.” Many of her clients do just that, dedicating a single day per week to self-promotion and bookkeeping rather than breaking their flow for a few hours per day.

    No matter the when it occurs, knowing how much time each project is taking is critical to success because bookkeeping can warn designers when a given project is running over budget. But when it comes to taxes, Ilise said there’s only one solution.

    “Do your own bookkeeping if you can. If not, you need a separate person. But definitely find an accountant,” she said. “Don’t do your own taxes.”

    Earning clients at pace

    A sudden switch to freelancing is less likely to succeed than a gradual move. Ilise recommended doing side jobs before taking the plunge. And should you make the leap, you can’t expect it to happen automatically. Building a network and reputation is vital before starting a business because getting clients isn’t easy.

    “People don’t realize how much time and effort it takes to get clients you want,” Ilise said. “I have a pet peeve. When people ask how to get work, word of mouth isn’t actually a marketing tool. You can ask for referrals and will probably get them from people you know, but when you do, the person referred may not have a need for you.”

    At the same time, such leads aren’t without value — if a freelancer is willing to keep the relationship going. Just because someone isn’t interested in a freelance designer’s services at the time doesn’t mean their needs won’t change in the future.

    “I think (freelancers) misunderstand silence or a ‘no.’ They assume the referral is not interested. Stay in touch with them — it might turn into something later,” Ilise said. “Money in the bank is helpful, but it’s better to have that network.”

    Working on the side requires dedication

    Employers may not take kindly knowing that one of their designers is looking to freelance. But a new trend is emerging. Designers are switching between freelance and full-time work more frequently than in past years, Ilise said. Making the switch repeatedly is a good way to keep one’s network going, although it reinforces a common notion about freelancers and their work ethic.

    “Freelancers have a bad rap,” Ilise said. “People assume they’re unreliable or flaky. They have to overcome that preconceived notion by over communicating and over reliability.”

    So it’s no surprise that extra work is involved, keeping designers active in the community and nimble in their self-promotion, even during full-time jobs — not to mention possibly working on the side without creating conflicts of interest.

    “The way that works is if you keep freelance business going. That way you don’t have to start from scratch,” Ilise said. “Keep cultivating your network and keep your portfolio up to date.”

    So what’s a freelancer’s time worth?

    Money is a sensitive topic, especially for many new freelancers. Setting expectations too high is one concern. Having to pay rent is another.

    “I’m a proponent that your hourly rate is not your price (per project). You can use it to determine your price, but it’s about negotiating with each client,” Ilise said.

    Freelancers know what they need. Clients know what they’re willing to pay. Finding middle ground that satisfies both parties isn’t easy for new freelancers, who often price themselves under what they’re worth. Ilise has a solution.

    “Here’s the trick for that: you ask the client for their budget. They’ll stop if they don’t have numbers. So ask if they have $500, $5,000, or $50,000. That restarts the conversation,” she said.

    Gauging estimates by orders of magnitude may seem extreme, but Ilise said having a ballpark figure will give everyone a sense of the project’s scope that will lead to a fair price.

    Taking the plunge

    While no advice can substitute for practice and experience, new freelancers can prepare for success by deciding what it looks like. The old adage, “begin with the end in mind” rings true for people whose career no longer depends on meeting quotas or filling out time reports.

    Almost by definition, freelancers risk a lot in starting their own business. Those who wish to try can take gradual steps to improve their odds of success.

    Ben Gremillion

    by Ben Gremillion

    Ben Gremillion is a Content Strategist at UXPin. He’s worked as both a web designer and a back-end developer. On the side he builds and maintains a CMS for webcomic artists, and participates in annual NaNoWriMo challenges.

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