How I Quit My Full-Time Job to Pursue a Freelance Career As a Data Visualization Designer
It’s been four months since I quit my full-time job to pursue a career in data visualization (data viz) design. I thought I’d talk about what I’ve learned thus far so that others might learn something from my journey. Full disclaimer: everything I talk about in this article is specific to my situation. Consider what I’m advising and if it could work in your own context. My goal is to provide my story; I hope it might help if you are thinking about freelancing.
Why I Started Freelancing
I used to work as a Data Design Specialist at Kantar, a market research company in Toronto. I worked on PowerPoint reports, made sure all charts conformed to brand guidelines, were clear, and looked good. I worked at this job from 2017–2019 and it was my second job out of school. During my time there, I knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to stay for long. Don’t get me wrong, I had no issues with the company or the people, I learned a lot and the experience was amazing. I left because I wanted to move beyond PowerPoint and create projects that were a lot more ambitious. At this point I was stuck because I couldn’t find any jobs in Toronto that aligned with what I wanted to do. I wanted to work as a designer to create bespoke work, and more specifically, I wanted to work with small data. Left with no choice, I decided to make my own job and my own opportunities.
How I Started Freelancing
I developed an interest in data visualization through various sources, the first being Information is Beautiful by David McCandless. It was the first time I realized that there was a profession visualizing data. After I graduated from school, I started to explore a bunch of directions. Data visualization was one of them. I did a lot of side projects while working a full-time job. I worked to develop my style and technique. I posted my work on social media and after about two years someone DM’d me on Instagram in March. They said what I was doing looked cool and they had a project in mind for me. I took on the offer and that was my first ever data viz client.
Four months in, I am still working things out. There have been hiccups along the way but it’s all a work in progress. I’m going to share some key things to think about and do if you are considering a data viz freelance career.
Figure out what you really want
It’s important to know if it’s a career you would truly enjoy and not some sort of phase. So before you decide to freelance, try it out! This is important because it will help you persevere. There are lots of challenges when it comes to being your own boss and it doesn’t help if this isn’t something you care about. I spent two-plus years building personal projects on my own time to see if this would stick. And it did. It stuck so well that it made me quit my job.
My personal projects have helped me develop experience. While I don’t have much experience working directly with clients on bespoke data viz work, I have experience of doing it for myself. What this means is I can detail my process, timelines, and lay out resources I need. I track my hours so I know how much time I spend on my projects. If you are doing side projects, keep track of metrics and process. Break it down. If you are going to pitch to a client, use your side projects to determine the project phases. So maybe it’s: research > data cleaning > design iteration > finalization. Experience is still experience, whether it’s paid or not.
Have at least one to two years of work experience
If you’ve just graduated and don’t have any work experience, I wouldn’t recommend you to jump right into freelancing. It’s very important that you learn how to work in a team. It’s even better if it’s client-facing.
- Do you know how to ask questions so you understand the problem you need to solve?
- Do you know how to ask for something you are missing to complete your work?
- Do you know how to stand your ground on your ideas and defend them?
- Do you know how to manage expectations if you are not on-track with timelines?
- Do you know how to give constructive feedback?
These are skills I learned while working for others. I learned to advocate for myself and focus on what I needed. I was lucky that places I worked at supported this working style. I wasn’t expected to just do as I was told. I was trained to speak out if I thought something could be better and I learned from experience that this was very important. I’ve lost count on the number of times I’ve kept quiet about something, then watched as things turned out as badly as I had expected.
These skills are hard to learn alone, so I would strongly advise getting experience where you handle projects, work with others, and in teams. These skills will serve you well when you work directly with clients.
Have a plan to save money
This is very important. I saved up money to fall back on. A great way to start is cutting expenses and downgrading where possible. I live with my mom and saved a lot of money. I do my part while living with her: I pay my share of the bills and do most of the chores. I’ve cut my expenses to the bare necessities: I learned to cut my own hair, I mend my own clothes, I shop clearance items, and I bring my reusable water bottle when I go out. This afforded me to leave my job with a financial safety net.
So how much should you save? This really depends on your needs. Think about how much money you really need to survive and how long it will last. How long are you comfortable living without getting regularly paid? These answers will vary on an individual basis.
I track all my expenses and income on Excel, which helps me to see where I should cut down. If I noticed I’ve been eating out a bit more than normal, then my goal for next month is to do less of that. Use data to help you identify where you can cut expenses.
Have a plan B to fall back on
I entered this freelance career knowing it was precarious. Remember that first client I got from Instagram? They ghosted on me. They disappeared without a trace sometime in July. Thankfully, I got them to pay me a deposit before I started to work. But stuff like this happens and it’s beyond my control.
Knowing all this, I prepared a plan B before I quit my job. I freelance on UpWork (an online freelancer platform) as a social media strategist. I chose this profession for a couple of reasons. First, there is a demand for this type of work. Lots of people want to build personal brands and there is no shortage of work. Second, everything I learn in this job will help me learn how to market myself on social media. Third, I enjoy this line of work. It’s fun and rewarding helping small businesses succeed.
I had previously done some social media contracts before working at Kantar, and had some good ratings on my UpWork profile, but getting back into it was bumpy. When I logged on again after so long, I had no self-confidence and wasn’t sure if I could get any clients after being away for so long. So the first job I bid, I set my rate super-low at $8/hr. And I got the job! It was a short-term job but it helped me build my confidence. I then got invited to two jobs afterwards and was hired for one of them as a social media strategist. I told my new client during our first call that I was not intending to stay at $8/hr. I said I would raise it after about a month if she was happy with my work. Surprisingly, after I worked for her for a week, she raised my rate to $12. She was really happy with my work and with the value I provided. She said I deserved more. She knew I would raise the rate again and she was happy to comply. Currently, I charge this client $20/hr. Luckily, she has hired me for her other projects and that has helped me get more work.
Another reason to have a plan B is not to give myself too much stress. I don’t think I can be creative when I am not safe. It’s not possible. Imagine that your next creative gig will determine if you get to pay your bills or not. That’s really stressful. So if you can, don’t put yourself in that position.
Let’s talk money
The most critical aspect of all this is money. Is this something that you could afford to do? This really depends on you. Here’s my breakdown.
A couple of important notes.
- I didn’t have any contracts for data viz work until October.
- I was away on a trip for two weeks in September, so I only worked for the remaining two weeks
- I’ve acquired new social media clients in October. These new clients have boosted my income for November. But, it doesn’t look like this amount will be the norm — it will continue going up and down. I have other contracts that weren’t active since early November and will likely earn about the same in January as I did in September.
- Keep in mind that for my freelancing jobs, I still have deductions I did not account for, such as tax and pension contribution.
I am cautious with how much time I spend on my social media contracts. When I first started, I worked about five hours a week and made under $100 per week. I currently restrict the amount of work to 10–15 hours a week for my social media contracts and make anywhere between $200-$400 per week. The main reason is because I don’t want to overwhelm myself. I dedicate a lot of my time learning skills, developing my own projects, and my data viz contract.
Currently, my data viz client isn’t paying me for my work. We decided to approach this by creating something that they could sell on their website and I would take a cut from profits. I am taking a chance here because what we develop might not make any sales. For me, that’s okay. My goal right now is to make a lot of mistakes and learn how to work with data viz clients. I’m taking my time now and I’m in no rush. Building a business like this will take time and I don’t foresee it being my main source of income in the next few years.
Have a portfolio, show your work
A portfolio is vital if you are freelancing. Clients often don’t know what to do with our skills and they need to see how we could apply them. If you know who your ideal client is, then this will help you shape your portfolio. The right portfolio will attract the right clients. If you want to work for non-profits, then the best way to get business is to have a portfolio that shows non-profit-related work. Say you want to work with the Canadian Blood Services. What you should do is look at their website, look at the things they put out. Figure out how you can provide more value for them. Make that project and then pitch that to them. You will have a much higher chance of getting hired than just sending them a link to your site. Don’t pitch to someone if you don’t have a good example for them to identify with.
Right after I quit my job, I made a mobile PDF travel guide incorporating data visualization:
I made this just because I wanted to, it was a personal project. I had no intention to do anything with it beyond creating it. But in September 2019, I met up with someone who worked in the travel industry (funnily enough, I met her through UpWork. She interviewed me for a contract which didn’t work out, but we decided to stay connected). We caught up while she was visiting Toronto and coincidentally, I had just finished my travel guide project. I showed it to her and she said she knew a travel blogger who would be interested in something like this. I didn’t think too much about it at the time. I was scared to reach out to people and pitch my ideas. But I thought to myself: “When I am 80 years old, will I regret not giving this a chance?” With that in mind, I mustered the courage to reach out to the travel blogger. I pitched my project and eventually, we came up with a project that would give them value. And this was how I got my second data viz client.
Learn business and provide value
I have a background in strategy so I am comfortable with doing the first client call and figuring out what their problem is. If you don’t, then take some courses on how to do business. Listen to podcasts or read some books. Get some ideas on how to provide value. Working for a client isn’t about providing your solutions, it’s about solving their problems. A great book that talks about this is the Value Proposition Canvas. It talks about identifying what your client’s pains are and how your skills can alleviate them. This is why a portfolio or an example of work is so important. It helps clients see how you could give them value.
Here are two resources to help you get started:
Value Proposition Design by Strategyzer. Strategyzer is probably more well-know for their Business Model Canvas, which is a bigger picture on how to build a business. I recommend their book on value proposition design because it’s more relevant for freelancers. If you want to delve more into this, they also have a YouTube channel.
How to charge clients
There are a couple of strategies to get client work. Depending on your goals and experience, you should be strategic in how you approach this. In the case where you are struggling to get paid work, you could try projects where clients pay you in experience.
You could try to do free work for projects and causes you care about such as non-profits. Free work is often misunderstood. It’s not free in the sense you get nothing out of it, it’s free in the sense of ‘freedom.’ If a client you want to work with is not paying you in money, but in experience, then that means you have more say in how the end result will look. Free work isn’t doing what the client wants, it’s doing what the freelancer wants. The client has no power unless they pay. Sure, you should still listen to the client and understand their problems, but they have limited control over the project. Make these kinds of projects short. Set your own timeline and let your client know what to expect. Maybe dedicate no more than two months and then move on. Do your best with this type of work: challenge the client, don’t be afraid. If you lose this client, it’s not like you are going to lose business. So use this chance to learn how to fight back on ideas, test new things out, or create work that doesn’t exist in your portfolio. Doing free work could also be useful for those with more experience in the field. Is there a topic or project you want to try out but have no experience in? Then try it out as free work. It’s low risk and it means there’s lots of opportunity to play. Keep in mind that you should be strategic about how you do free work and understand what you want to get out of it.
If you don’t work for free, then work for full-price. You should always charge how much you think a project is worth. If the project is going to cost $1,000, then charge $1,000. It’s not a good idea to de-value it. If you are offering a discount, e.g. 50 percent off, then that should be clear. This way, the client will know that the project you are doing is valued at $1,000. If you let the client believe the project is only worth $500, this could become a problem as it will set an unrealistic expectation of how much these projects cost. In the future, the client will expect the same rates. So set them at a rate you are comfortable with. If they say ‘no’ then move on. You will eventually find someone who will say ‘yes.’
I am not very experienced as an independent freelancer. You should take my perspective with a grain of salt, but do talk to more people and ask about their experience. If you need help to determine your rates, there’s some data on this in this survey from the Data Visualization Society.
There is no real way to know how much to charge. It involves trial and error. Charge at a rate you are comfortable with. Once you get clients, raise your rates, play around with it. When I charge, I set a fixed price. It just makes it easier for payment. I estimate the time it takes for me to complete the project and that’s the amount I quote to the client.
If you need help on determining how much a project is worth, here’s a great video by The Futur: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivKnj9ffcmE
Take chances, put yourself out there
When I think about the people I aspire to be like in the data viz space, most of them to some degree got known because they did personal projects and put them out there. Before I joined Kantar, I was working at a start-up in operations and my job was not even remotely close to data viz. I wanted to start a data viz career so I e-mailed a couple of people asking for advice. One of them was Stefanie Posavec. In her response, she talked about a piece she did for her MA called Writing without Words. This went viral and helped her land freelance projects. Stefanie’s response helped me realize the importance of showing work and getting seen.
When I think about cases similar to Stefanie Posavec’s story, I think about Data Sketches. This was an intense collaboration between Shirley Wu and Nadieh Bremer. They became famously known for their monthly D3 work. Data Sketches was labour intensive, but it was great marketing in that they put out consistent work and went into a lot of detail on how they executed it.
I saw that people became known for doing unpaid projects on their own terms. These projects turned out to be new, innovative, and ground-breaking. Having gained attention, people would ask to interview them. This in turn helped them get more exposure and ultimately be noticed by potential clients. This trend isn’t new. It happens all the time. People make great work, they get seen by the right people, and new doors open up for them.
I continue to build personal projects because I want to be known for work I want to do. I try to be strategic and think about how someone could benefit from what I create. Would it help save time? Would it make it easier for someone to plan their travels? How could it help someone better understand mental health?
An important aspect of getting seen is being active on social media. Being present on social media is a good way to build credibility. It helps you get noticed and there’s a chance a prospective client will spot you. My social media strategy at the moment is to share my learning experience and career stories. I provide value to people by explaining how I’ve overcome challenges. I post new data viz work when I can and share my process where possible. In itself, this Medium article is part of documenting my journey.
*Warning* The not-so-sexy part of freelancing
This might change as I get more work and expand my network, but for the most part, it’s really lonely freelancing. I used to work in an office and all the micro-interactions I had with people was socially healthy. I now work alone most of the week and have a client call here and there, but I generally don’t have many social interactions. This has been quite detrimental to my mental health. It can get depressing at times but this comes with the package of working for myself. It was something I was expecting to happen and wasn’t a surprise. And I have my ways around it:
I exercise about two to three times a week and bike at the gym. Biking has been tremendously helpful with boosting energy levels and moderating my mood. I used to hate exercising, but now, I look forward to it. I usually listen to a podcast as I bike. I plan my workouts early in the afternoon as a way to take a break from working in the mornings. After exercising I go back and get more work done. I usually feel energized for the remainder of the day.
I share this side of freelancing because I want to be transparent. I am giving a lot of practical advice in this article, but haven’t talked much about the emotional side. Freelancing is great, but not all the time. It’s important to have realistic expectations before committing to it.
I don’t think you need to be a freelancer to be successful. Not at all. Self-awareness is very important in the process of finding the right fit for your own goals and your lifestyle. I think freelancing is great. I also think it’s great to work in a company. Think for yourself and decide what will make you happy.
What’s next for me
I’m at the point where I am still figuring things out. Data visualization started as a hobby for me and I’ve made a career out of it. I’m still deciding if this was the right move. My current goal is to build my network and get more data viz projects, either with clients or with collaborators.
A lot of my energy and drive comes from fear of regret. I don’t want to live a life with any regrets that I could have controlled. A lot of people tell me I am brave. But I don’t see it that way. I don’t feel that I am taking a huge risk. I worked hard to set up a safety net (e.g. saving money and having a plan B) to catch me if things go south. It’s hard to feel the effects of failure if I expect it to happen. But it doesn’t mean I am invincible. I still fear failure and it’s something that has held me back before. However, because I know I fear it, I developed ways to not see failure as a threat.
I hope this helped some of you out there who are thinking about freelancing in data visualization. I don’t see many stories from new folks who freelance in this field and I thought my story could fill that gap. I know it might seem like I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. It’s still scary. I have no idea how this story is going to end and if it would be a happy ending or not. But I guess that’s why stories are interesting, we stick around to see how things will turn out.
Special thanks to Clare Harvey, editor at Nightingale, for helping me write this. Her feedback has been extremely valuable in helping me gain clarity and for helping me shape my thoughts. Thank you, Clare.
I am a Data Visualization Designer based in Toronto, Canada. I studied sciences and design strategy. After graduation, I worked at a start-up during the day and began exploring my interest in data visualization in the evenings. I later joined Kantar as a Data Design Specialist. Currently, I work as a freelancer in both design and social media strategy.
To see my work, check it out on my website at www.janezhang.ca.