Map Your Freelance Path Before You Hit the Trail

freelance design pathOne surefire way to get lost is to not know where you want to end up in the first place. Graphic designers often dream of how their practices will grow, but those ambitions rarely impact how they run their practices today. Instead they follow the trail wherever it leads. But the trail will eventually fork. And the first major decision usually involves whether to hire help.

That is a huge decision and making that choice leads to very different destinations. So you should think this through before you get there. You might want start by reviewing the path that got you that far. Maybe you started out moonlighting, burning the midnight oil, sacrificing your weekends, dreaming of one day pursuing freelance design full time. Then it happened. You picked up a couple good clients and took the leap. Boldly quitting your day you hung out a shingle. But running a one man operation is hard work: administration, communication, scheduling, billing, and the dreaded sales and marketing. You began to wonder if finding a business partner, or hiring a couple employees would help? The path forks.

How To Decide Which Path to Take

Before you make this big decision, keep one important thing in mind: The hiring path will likely make you even busier at first. Not only will all the original tasks still need to get done. Now you’ll have employees to manage, or if you bring on a business partner you’ll have to devote time for meetings as you decide together where to take the company. And of course, the pressure for new business will be greater than ever.

If you don’t count that cost up front you may soon wonder why you chose this path at all, you might start thinking, “Whatever happened to designing?” The demands of running a business can make doing actual design work almost impossible—forcing you to start using those nights and weekends you sought to gain when you started down this path in the first place.

Too often designers stumble into these kinds of career decisions rather than mapping them out ahead of time. And so they don’t end up where they expected. And unfortunately it can be a very long walk back to that original fork. And retreating back may affect others—your employees or coworkers, and the clients that count on your organization.

So if you’re at this fork in the road—or better yet, if you’re just starting your freelance design career, you might want to get out that trail map, and make some key decisions before you head out.

Freelance Design is a Business

If you’re still in a moonlighting phase, or maybe just graduating from art school, and you’re leaning toward a full time freelance career, think this through carefully. Leaving a day job is risky. And freelancing full time takes a lot more effort than setting up a website or BeHance portfolio. Starting a freelance business really means starting a business—with all the responsibilities and business tasks included.

Begin with some sober-minded self assessment. What are your motives for freelancing or building a design firm? What is your work temperament? How do you handle work stress? Are you detail-oriented and disciplined enough to run a business? Will you lose sleep when you’re not sure where you’re next check is coming from? Is your financial situation flexible enough to tolerate some early ups and downs? (Check out my freelance readiness survey to guide this self-reflection.) You may also want to take a DiSC survey which will help you access your basic work tendencies which might favor one direction or another. After careful consideration you might decide that a full time design job with a bit of moonlighting on the side would suit you best.

What Kind of Freelance Design Business?

But if, after assessment you want to move forward and start a design business you still need to decide what kind of business. Do you intend to remain a freelancer indefinitely? Or do you have hopes and dreams of building your freelance practice into a design boutique or growing design firm? Believe it or not, that inclination should inform some early decisions about how to position your freelance practice—even as it is just getting off the ground.

A professional freelance career does not have to grow into a small firm in order to be sustainable and lucrative—though it does need to be treated like a business. But if you do intend to build it into a firm, you’ll need to focus your efforts accordingly. Here are some things you should consider as you map out your path.

Long Term Freelance

Remaining a freelancer indefinitely will require that you establish some important business habits early on. Anyone can freelance for a season. But if you want a successful sustainable freelance career, you’ll need to give careful attention to the business aspects of your solo company. Unfortunately, even the best art schools tend to go light on the business aspects of professional practice.

The freelance design world is dominated by the young—and that often means single. In your early professional years low income may not be a huge problem. Nevertheless you should establish your rates based on your long term—not your short term flexibility. If you’re going to freelance for the long haul, anticipate your future where contributing to the needs of an entire household may become necessary. If you’re married, consider the cost of kids—and not just the financial costs—you’re going to need more control over your time if you’re going to enjoy family life (take it from a father of seven).

So don’t establish estimating or quoting patterns that will require you to burn the candle at both ends in the future. And while that future may off on the horizon for you—keep in mind that changing your rates and fees after years of building a client base on those lower rates can be very hard to change. Your clients pricing expectations will not change even if your circumstances suddenly do.

Besides, charging more will only force you to find better clients (something most freelancers sadly compromise on regularly). And earning more money is always a good thing. Those profits will keep your options open as you approach the next fork in the road. Especially if you don’t intend to freelance forever, if you have ambitions to build a design firm. But financial health is not the only consideration and preparation for working toward building a firm—you’ll need to think about what kind of firm you want to build.

What Kind of Firm Will You Build?

There are two basic kinds of small design firms that I see: boutique firms and what I call growing firm. (Of course, both kinds can grow either in size or profitability, but growing firms tend to be more scaleable than boutique firms.) In my definition, a boutique firm is one in which the owner stays actively involved in the design work. The principal designer’s creative vision sets the very identity and positioning of the firm. In contrast, in a growing firm, the principal will not do much design work (at least not for long). They will focus almost entirely on leading and running the business.

Building either kind of firm has both long term and short term business implications. For example, if you work toward building a boutique firm you’ll need to ground your service offerings firmly in your own abilities and talents. Too much diversification and you’ll need to add diverse staff which would introduce too many management issues—drawing you away from design.

On the other hand, building a growing firm, and not doing design will allow you to focus on the business itself. But if this is not what you wanted you may ache for the days when you did more hands on design work. That might be a frustrating and demotivating career choice, and under those conditions you’ll probably not lead your business very well.

So there’s a lot to think about as you map out your freelance path. There are basic big picture decisions to make, and many more smaller decisions that follow on from whichever path you choose.

Maybe a trail guide would be helpful? Check out that readiness survey, and take a DiSC report. And if you need some extra navigation, let’s talk. After all, it’s far better to map out a course from the beginning than to have to hoof it back to the trail after getting lost along the way.

mds_creativefreelancerconf-500Creative Freelancer Conference Collection

Enjoy some of the best presentations from the 2013 Creative Freelancer Conference. With nearly 19 hours of creative packaging program time, you’ll learn how to beat the “feast or famine” cycle, get new business from clients who recognize your value and tame the “business side” of freelancing so you can concentrate on the creative work you love.

Just because you are self-employed doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Whether you are thinking about making the leap into freelancing or you’ve been doing it for years and consider yourself a veteran, you’ll find all the resources you need to run a successful graphic design business – big or small – in this Creative Freelancer Conference Collection.