How I earned $15,000 last month from freelance design

Hint: there’s no shortcut. I’ve been working at this for 17 years.

Benek Lisefski
Jun 13, 2018 · 15 min read

What I didn’t do

How did I set a personal best in monthly freelance earnings?

It’s all about reputation

Earning good money as a freelancer starts with having great clients. I’ve spent my entire career defining who my ideal clients are, and then working towards landing those projects. There is no magic bullet here. Without a stroke of luck, rookie freelancers don’t land the kind of clients they dream of. Everyone successful in this business has been willing to put in the work to get there.

What if I never get word of mouth referrals?

You will over time. But if you’re not quite there yet, don’t fret.

Takeaway lesson:

Your reputation is what earns the trust and respect of great clients. Nurture that reputation, always. If you haven’t been doing it since day one, start now. No amount of effort put into building your reputation is wasted effort.

Charge what you think you’re worth.

Now add at least 20% more.

Warning: what follows is actual talk about real dollar figures. Yes, it’s OK to talk about money.

How do you know if you can justify it?

Simply put, do your clients feel like they are getting good value from you? That’s it. Ask them straight up if their behaviour doesn’t make the answer obvious.

Takeaway lesson:

Research pricing in your industry and location. Know how you fit into that market. Do your skills and experience align with that position you sit? If you work quickly and efficiently compared to your peers, consider how that may give your clients more value, and increase your rate accordingly. Don’t be afraid to test the waters. You can always reduce your rate if an increase fails.

Embrace long, complex jobs.

Over the last few years I’ve been doing more and more work designing web apps. Big, complex, responsive web apps. The kind of jobs that may take 2+ months just on IA, user flows, and UX wireframes before you even get into the visual design. The kinds of jobs that might last a year of continuous work.

  1. Build variety into your work by being choosy about what projects you take on. If I’m 6 months into a complex web app interface design, the last things I want is another similar project. I’ll go out of my way to look for something on the opposite end of the spectrum to balance it — perhaps a really visual brochure or ecommerce site. Something with a smaller timeframe that will let me flex a different set of design muscles for a while. That may mean turning down great jobs for clients I love, but maintaining joy in my work is more important.
  2. Get invested in your client’s success. Really, seriously interested and passionate about it. This starts with picking clients who run businesses you admire and can find some personal interest in. You need to build up your career to a point where you can afford to turn down a lot of work so you can be very choosy about what you accept. Only accept work that aligns with your interests, strengths, and ethics so you can confidently invest yourself into the process and outcomes. I know this is a luxury that many people don’t have, and I feel privileged to have it. If you don’t have that luxury, start small. That first little “no” may empower you to say the next harder “no”, which paves the path to choosing your ideal projects.
  3. Control the process so it doesn’t control you. Remember, your client isn’t usually an expert in design. They are looking to you to outline the best creative process for how you achieve their goals. Setup a process that works well for you and know how to justify that process. This is important because it means you always feel you are doing something valuable and worthwhile. You are always on the right trajectory towards the finish line. There’s nothing worse than doing work you feel isn’t worth doing.

Takeaway lesson:

The bigger and more meaningful a project is to your client, the more they should value your guidance. Hunt for the sweet spot of large, complex projects balanced with the type of work that best suits your strengths and schedule. If you find the right balance, you will be rewarded with both good pay and more peace of mind.

Use your time efficiently

Most people, no matter what type of work they do, in some form or another trade their time for money. Of course there are other ways to price your services, and there are more lucrative methods to earn money. But at the end of the day, trading your time for money often turns out to the easiest and fairest way to operate. It’s how most people work.

Takeaway lesson:

I’m not going to advocate a certain style of work or routine right now (I’ll save that for another article). People are so different and what works for me may be the opposite of what you need to get the most out of your day. The important thing is that you’re thinking about it. There are things you can do to make your work time more efficient. Identify them, and then do them. Now.

Have you hit the trifecta?

It’s taken me over a decade of freelancing to put all these pieces together. Sure, I’ve had good periods in the past and glimpses of these elements converging. But these aren’t things that come overnight no matter how much of a rockstar you think you are. They are layers that need to be seeded, nurtured, built up, and supported over years of giving your best effort over and over again.

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Benek Lisefski

Written by

I’m a UX/UI designer from Auckland, New Zealand. Writing about freelancing & business for indie designers & creatives at

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +791K followers.

Benek Lisefski

Written by

I’m a UX/UI designer from Auckland, New Zealand. Writing about freelancing & business for indie designers & creatives at

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +791K followers.

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