How can I become a freelance designer?

So you got your design chops and are ready to take on some cool projects to show off your design skills and make some good money.

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Life as a freelance designer is good and also rewarding. You can be your own boss, work when you have to and enjoy the perks of being a freelancer. Though it sounds easy and exciting, you will still need to keep on top of things when it comes to customer experience and marketing your brand.

Remember you are a one man band who will have to take care of your projects, accounts, marketing, client servicing and liaising with suppliers. There’s only so much that you can do in 24 hrs.

So where do you start?

Know your strengths & weaknesses. Keep on top of your skills and slowly work up to improve those weak links. If you are fresh out of design school, it would be good to get your hands dirty with a design agency for an year or 2 before you take the plunge.

This is because you will get first hand experience on the market position, how clients are serviced in the current climate, costing and most importantly developing some good relationships with senior designers and suppliers who can help you out when you are on your own.

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The biggest hurdle in going solo is convincing new clients to work with you. Those big boys from the agencies and design houses rule the top end of the market, followed by design startups who are heavily funded by venture capital.

Tech is slowly overtaking print and digital media is exploding with tier 1 brands like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google etc, dominating the advertising side of the market. This is where the industry is heading and the traditional agency / print model has been disrupted by the tech startups.

But thats not all bad news. Its good that designers now have a varied range of work to choose from and find a niche where they can freelance and make a name.

Getting your first few clients will be hard and painful. Look out for your immediate friends / family circle. People who know you, can give a good recommendation to get the wheels moving.

Make sure you give the best customer experience possible to these clients for life (if there is such a thing). These super delighted customers will bring in more clients through word or mouth and word of mouth is the biggest viral coefficient to take your freelance work to the next level.

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Print design is still a good revenue stream if marketing is done diligently and customer satisfaction is at the core of your freelance work, but do keep an eye on whats happening on the digital / social media side. Your print clients will require some social media coverage or marketing and you should be the go to person when that need arises.

A good mix of traditional (print) and digital design will strengthen your position when your clients have a requirement and they know you can deliver.

Keep your projects well managed and respect peoples time

Under delivering on a promise made is the single most factor that can destroy a relationship with your client. If something can’t be done on time, make sure your client know about it straightaway.

They will appreciate and possibly ask your advice on an alternate arrangement than giving them the bad news when things cannot be reversed and they have lost a crucial deadline because you did not admit the delivery delay upfront.

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Most clients start looking for a new supplier when a delivery time promise has not been kept or they were not made aware of the delay in advance. Do this a few times and you can say your deep pocketed client goodbye! Its in the clients interest to be with you when they know that you are reliable and they don’t have to look out for a new designer / print supplier try few months because the freelancers have been taking them for a ride.

Keep the basics straight and stick to them. No matter what.

Keep the clients happy so they come back to you again and again. Inform them of any price changes / updates well in advance. Always keep track of what they are doing apart from the design / print side that you are handling.

Are they working with another agency to take care of any special projects? If so what is it that you can’t deliver and why you are not working on that project. Show interest in their business and they will reciprocate. Its not something that happens overnight but takes time as trust builds in and they can trust you with bigger projects.

Bigger projects only happen when small projects were not screwed up in the first place.

Start small and steadily build trust, skill up and build your network of freelancers, print suppliers, software developers and marketing specialists because you will need them soon in future when your clients have a specific need and you can deliver because you could not develop that Wordpress website.

These are the times when you dip in to your network of professional contacts and make sure the client maintains that relationship with you even on projects that are beyond your list of skills. Thats how big agencies started. They started small, worked with a few clients — made sure that they were super happy and moved on to bigger projects when the clients developed their own businesses.

Its a two way street and you need to constantly monitor the oncoming traffic. Miss a few and you would have missed a whole lot of opportunities that could have been converted as long term clients.

Another important habit to start cultivating from start is the ability to say no. Its easy to accept anything and everything that a client tells you when you are just starting as you don’t want to miss out on anything. This may look like a very simple thing to do but can cause bigger damage in the future.

When you can’t deliver something there’s no way you should say yes. You are in the process of building trust and saying yes when you should have said no, is a sure shot way of breaking that trust.

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There will be projects where you can show your full potential but there will also be projects where you are not yet cut out for the deal and will have to say no. This habit will take you a long way when dealing with third party suppliers / professionals because when you outsource a piece of work, your delivery model is dependent on some external source on whom you have no control.

The client will have little knowledge about who you are dealing with to get a job completed, so decisions will fall on your lap to make sure that you don’t over promise on something that cannot be delivered on time or on budget. Time and again small businesses / freelancers make such mistakes and it leaves a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Clients like to work with professionals who they know will not take unnecessary risks with their projects. Also clients want to get the best value for their money. So keep on top of getting the best deals wherever possible and some discounts thrown in will go a long way in maintaining a steady relationship.

When budgets shrink, marketing usually takes a hit.

Be prepared for such emergencies and wherever possible don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Over dependance on a few large clients could bite you hard when something goes wrong on the client side. Get a good mix of large, medium and small clients from different industries. This will keep your risk distributed and you can change gears quickly when things don’t go as planned.

It may not be possible to be a freelancer for ever.

When projects grow and your work grows you will have to collaborate with other professionals like you to work on large projects. This is where some good due diligence will pay good returns.

When working with other freelance professionals have a good contract signed by both parties with the help of your accountant / solicitor, so all parties know their roles and what they are bringing to the table.

There are loads of cases where you decided to work with your nerdy friend because he / she was a top notch programmer without having a formal contract in place — it all starts very good as both parties are wearing rose tinted glasses and want to get their hands on this large project.

When conflicting situations arise, like — This is my client (the most typical one!), you don’t want to destroy your friendship because of a project. Keep your eyes open for such red herrings.

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Speaking of collaborations — a lot of budding freelancers take the franchise route to provide print services. This is a classic case of red pill or blue pill. When you are starting off this may sound too good and your instincts will compel you to take a franchise route.

Talk to your solicitor / accountant first before you 
sign any papers here.

Since your business is new and banks won’t lend you money, any franchise deal will come laden with Personal guarantees. This is like having a noose around your neck if you make a bad move. Don’t sign any personal guarantee. Never. Period. If in doubt leave it out.

Personal guarantees can hound someone long after a business has been closed down, it can take possession of your property like home, car etc and it puts an immense pressure on family life. Don’t do this at all. A solo freelancer has his/her hands full when starting off to make some decent money and a personal guarantee is not what you want on your plate.

Freelancing can be rewarding and tasking at the same time.

The idea is to have a clear balance and focus on what your strengths can do and where you need to sharpen some weaknesses. Know what you can sell, how you can sell and who you can sell to.

Work on your niche and expand slowly.

Don’t spread yourself too thin — its only a matter of time before you will have to close down your freelance business. Don’t take your eyes off customers. Not once. They are the sole reason you have a viable business, so keep them in your sights. Always.

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Another good skill to develop is to know how to sell. Designers like us spend too much time polishing our work, but if you can’t sell it — it’s a bloody waste of time and effort. Follow the startup mantra — If you can’t sell, don’t build!

Being a freelancer is a lot like being a lone ranger, you have to figure out stuff yourself, till it works. And some days may seem like an endless pit with no sign of light.

There’s a lot of stuff floating around that can get you distracted and it may be too late before you head for those switches because you just realised that the stuff is going to hit the fan.

Take small steps, read like crazy an skill up on your niche idea. There will be times when things don’t work and the cycle seems to repeat itself. Step back and zoom out — Do you need to change something? Don’t do the same things over and over again thinking that stuff will change itself.

You will have to change the way you work to change the things around your freelance business. And you will have the change fast, learn fast, evolve fast.

You will have to learn to fix your problems first hand and so them next time you face a similar situation, it will be a walk in the park, or so. This way you will learn to sharpen your own personal brand, a brand which the clients will feel good associated to. Fix simple things without procrastination and fixing bigger things will become a habit.

10 steps to a sharp freelance designer

1. Time management

The strategy is to respect the clients time and yours. Follow this to the T and you will keep all your clients happy.

2. Keep customer experience at the core of your business

It means you always deliver on your word. If it can’t be done, be as transparent as possible — the customer will know you are a trustworthy partner.

3. Nothing is free

Don’t commit to unpaid work just because the client wants to test out. Always agree to a mutually agreeable position. Once you give out things for free or undersell your work, you lose your position as a professional designer and people will expect the same thing next time.

4. Don’t hard sell with new clients

Add value to what the client requirement is and you will see that selling becomes easier.

5. Ask past clients recommend you/your work

Nothing works like a good word of mouth. Most clients will recommend you of you ask. Don’t be shy and ask for it. Even if it does not come your way straightaway, you made an effort to ask. Just remember to thank the customer in any way that works for your business. Small gestures go a long way.

6. Send periodic emails (And why you need to build an email list — a separate story on that later!)

Keep your customers in the loop and talk to them about the new things in the industry, chances are you are way ahead of them in tech / design than they are. So help them with quality content and stuff that adds value to their business.

7. Repeat business is good business

You will be surprised to see how easy its to get repeat business from existing clients than chasing completely new clients. Go and do a bit of upsetting with your existing client list to keep a steady flow of dollars.

8. Go where the customers are

Your customers are on social media — sharing information with their friends and families. Chances are you can connect with them there more easily than trying to connect over the phone on a cold call. Use social media to promote your brand and build up a thought leader position in your niche that customers will listen to.

9. Content marketing

If you don’t have a blog, you are already late. Start writing regularly on your blog post (maybe on your Wordpress website or use Medium or both) Blogging about what you are passionate about and what you want to share to your potential customers is a good way to build up a community that listens or reads your content.

It’s not easy writing regularly, but start with something like 1 post a month. Publish it faster than trying to polish it. The first few blogs may suck (its ok), but the idea is to get into the habit and improve as you go.

10. Invest in a good kit

You are only as good as your tools. Get yourself a good desktop PC / laptop or a macbook pro. Install the design suites (originals — not the dodgy cracked ones). There are few free ones as well. And you are ready to go.

A lot of people want to go solo and get onto the freelancing bandwagon. It sounds very easy, but is a different experience altogether when you start it. You may have a full time job and would like to start off something on the side.

A passion for great design is what makes you get up in the morning but you want to do more than a 9–5 job. You know you can do more. So what comes next — Freelancing, that won’t hurt anyone. You love the freedom that comes with it and the excitement to do radical stuff and the dream that one day your freelancing work will make you go places and make you a globetrotter in a few years.

All that sounds good, but theres a lot of ground work to be done (apart from the whole post that you just read above). Have you got a slick portfolio site thats well oiled and running, what about marketing your stuff to new clients and god help with the blogging part.

Everything that goes out to your potential customers should talk about your personal brand — be it your emails, blogs, invoices, stationery, logos — everything.

Thats where “Doing stuff that adds value” comes into play, so you don’t spend time doing unwanted stuff no one will look at. Keep on top of time, projects and people and you will have a whole lot of extra time to work on directing your freelance business in the right direction.

All this is not to scare you off. But show the facts in the life of a freelancer. Do things in a planned way and on time and you will go a long way.

Thanks for reading this far. I know it was a long read. Here’s your opportunity to tell me what you think about this and what your biggest blockers are at the moment. And I will reply.

  1. Design needs. Trouble with your brand? Website? Content?
  2. Tools of the trade? What tools do you use?
  3. Why haven’t you started blogging? Not sure where to start?

Looking forward to your replies & yes, I answer all feedback.


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