Taking the Plunge: How to Become a Freelance Designer

Tom TumbushContemplating the leap into freelancing? So were several of the attendees at the recent Strategies for Creative Freelancers session in January. Many of the questions they asked were familiar because I had asked them myself—or should have—when I was starting my career nearly a dozen years ago.

As I surfed the discussion boards, many lessons from those early years came flooding back. A few were things I did right the first time, but many more had to be learned from repeated trial and error.

Here then, in no particular order, are the things I wish someone had told me before I took the freelancer’s leap of faith. Here’s how to become a freelance graphic designer.

1. Save your pennies

I highly recommend starting your freelance career with a savings cushion. If you can launch your business with enough saved up to cover six months of expenses or more, you’ll have a lot more peace of mind going in. (I had four when I launched my business.)

2. Know thy customer

Know who your target market is going to be and get to know them well before you start. Learn what they need and what challenges you are best suited to solve for them. Beware the temptation to market yourself as someone who can do any type of design work for anyone. Even if that’s a business reality for you at first, your self-promotion will be far more effective if you nail down some specifics about what it is you do.

3. Crank up the marketing machine

Freelance work can be sporadic, especially when you’re getting started. Regular self-promotion will be critical to your survival. Many new freelancers fear and loathe this task, but here’s a message from the other side: there is no better way to protect yourself from the dreaded “feast or famine” cycle. Conquer your fear by mastering the skill.

One of the best resources out there is Marketing Mentor’s Marketing Plan + Calendar. It’s one of the few publications that will tell you exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to make sure that it doesn’t take a lot of time. Your “marketing machine” will take some time to get up to speed, but you’ll be very glad to have it once it’s humming along.

Two final points about self-promotion:

  1. The most important time to do self-promotion is when you have plenty of business coming in. Think of your marketing machine as the tool that generates the work you’ll do six months to a year from now.
  2. You don’t have to do it alone. One of the best deals I’ve ever made was a recent trade with a graphic designer—I ended up with an awesome redesign of my website, and he’ll soon be launching an awesome newsletter campaign. Which leads us to…

4. Build a partner network

Make connections with other freelancers whose skills complement your own. Freelancer networks offer multiple benefits: you can team up on jobs, refer one another to clients, hold each another accountable for business tasks, trade ideas, and more. One of the best places to forge these connections is the Creative Freelancer Business Conference coming up in Boston this May. (Use the code “HDLSPEAKER” to get $50 off.)

5. Consider a specialization

Specialization not only makes it easier for prospects to understand what you do, it enables you to justify higher rates in your specialty field. You can define a specialization “vertically” (i.e. by industry, such as healthcare, finance, nonprofits, etc.) or “horizontally” (categories of work every business needs…ex: annual reports, websites, packaging, and so on).

You can start with the type of work you have deep experience with, choose the type of work you get the most satisfaction from, or declare a specialization in a niche where you’re already well-connected with potential clients. I became a specialist in financial copy practically by accident because I happened to land a lot of that type of work early in my career.

Specializations don’t have to limit the type of work you accept, especially if you need cash flow to pay the rent early on. And remember that specialization doesn’t mean forever. You can add additional specializations or let them lapse as your business grows and changes.

6. Pay yourself a living wage…or better

When you set your rates, remember that you are paying for all of your business expenses, from equipment to taxes to insurance, etc. In his book Secrets of a Freelance Copywriter, Bob Bly offers the rough calculation that freelancers should charge about 2.5 times what you would make working as someone else’s employee to make a comparable wage as a freelancer.

If you think you’ll lose business if you don’t charge rock-bottom prices, you’re right. You won’t get business from cheapskates who want to take advantage of the lowest bidder. The clients you want to work for understand that they get what they pay for, and there are plenty of them out there. Do yourself and the rest of the freelance community a big favor by charging what you’re worth.

Above all, do your best-quality work for everyone, and know that what you do has a value that many businesses and organizations are desperately looking for. You’ll need that for the days you feel like a fraud for having one of the best jobs in the world.

Good luck!

P.S. I’ll be doing a presentation on work/life balance at the Creative Freelancer Business Conference in Boston this May. Use the promo code “HDLSPEAKER” to get $50 off. And if you plan to get a Big Ticket for the full HOW Design Live Conference, don’t wait: the cutoff for the Early Bird discount is almost here!

Tom N. Tumbusch writes copy that creates action for designers, creative agencies and green businesses. He publishes a free writing tips newsletter each month and periodically shares more casual wisdom on the WordStream of Consciousness Blog. His tiny solar-powered corner of the Internet can be found at www.wordstreamcopy.com.

For more on living the freelance life: Want to get the scoop on how to get started? Want to find out how to best balance work and personal time? How to brand yourself, and launch a successful passion project? Check out the latest Strategies for Creative Freelancers virtual event April 16! 

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