The best way to get started as a freelancer, in my opinion, is part time. There are many benefits to starting off in a limited role (which we will discuss in this article), as opposed to jumping in full-time. Here we will take a detailed look at the subject and provide tips based on experience. This article is intended primarily for those who have some experience with design but are looking to gain more experience and improve their skills before going into full-time freelancing.
I’m constantly in contact with readers who are at the early stages of freelancing or designing for a career, so I hope this subject will prove to be of value to you.
1. Keep Your Full-Time Job
Freelancing is a great opportunity and many people desire to be able to set their own hours and work from home. But earning a living as a freelancer can be difficult (especially when you are first getting established) and it usually involves unnecessary risk that can be avoided by sticking with your full-time job until the timing is right. Additionally, some people find out pretty quickly that they really don’t enjoy freelancing. If this is the case for you, it’s best to realize this while you still have a full-time job.
Working a full-time job and freelancing in your “spare time” can take a lot of discipline and sacrifice, but it will help you to try it out part-time and build up your business a little bit before quitting your job, which will obviously help to reduce risk. Maybe even more significant than the risk factor, when you are freelancing part-time you will have the luxury of taking the projects that are a good fit for you, and you can even dedicate a lot of your time to learning without the need to be making any money at that time. However, without a full-time job there will be much more pressure to make money immediately and you will have to take whatever work you can find without being able to prioritize learning and your own development.
2. Set Up a Basic Portfolio Site
Having a quality portfolio site is one of the best things you can do for attracting clients. Of course, this assumes that you have some work to include and showcase in the portfolio. If you’re just getting started as a designer you may need to work on some projects specifically for the purpose of building your portfolio first.
Make sure you take as much time as needed to design a portfolio site that reflects your best work. One-page portfolios are very common and could be designed and coded fairly quickly. Additionally, there are templates and WordPress themes for portfolios that you could choose from. In this case you could use the theme as a starting point and make some customizations to get a unique design.
3. Prioritize Experience Over Income
As you decide on projects to pursue, place more emphasis on learning and developing your skills as opposed to just taking jobs that will pay you the most. If you have other income you’ll be able to accept projects that may not pay that well, but maybe you will get some valuable experience. This may include doing work for non-profit organizations, businesses with small budgets, or just working on projects of your own that may not produce income.
By taking this approach you will earn less in the short-term, but you will be able to improve specific skills and gain valuable experience that may prove to be incredibly helpful in the long run.
4. Work on Your Own Projects
One of the struggles of almost every new freelancer is finding enough work. If you are not able to get many client projects, you always have the option of working on your own projects just for learning purposes. While working with clients is a necessary step towards moving to full-time freelance work, you’re probably not learning very much or improving your skills if you are spending all of your time looking for clients. Instead, why not choose something specific that you want to learn and incorporate it into a project of your own that you can work on whenever you have time. For example, if you want to learn more about WordPress take some time to design and develop a theme for a blog of your own, or even design a theme that you can give away for free from your site.
5. Establish a Basic Work Schedule
Working a full-time job and freelancing on the side will require you to manage your time efficiently. From my experience it is best if you have at least a rough schedule that allows you to block off some time for your freelance work. For example, maybe you will plan to work 4 hours on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and 5 or 6 hours on Saturdays. Whatever the case may be, this will help you to have time in your weekly schedule that is dedicated to your freelance work, but it will still give you some flexibility to change things up when you need to.
For part-time freelancers it’s very easy to get distracted by other things and spend less time on your work. If this happens to you it’s very likely that you’ll look back a few months down the road and realize that you’ve made very little progress. If your goal is to build a freelance business that will provide a full-time income so you can quit your other job, setting up a basic schedule will help you by providing some structure.
6. Open a Separate Bank Account
Keeping track of income and expenses can be a challenge for those who are not used to managing their money in great detail. One of the problems is that it can be difficult to distinguish what money is from freelancing as opposed to your full-time job. The easiest way to keep things separated is to set up an account just for your freelancing income. Everything you make from freelancing can go in this account, and whenever you have business-related expenses it will be there for you, and you won’t have to touch your other accounts for these expenses.
7. Re-Invest the Money that You Make
One of the reasons that freelancing is a possibility for so many people is that it requires very little financial investment and comes with low barriers for entry. However, there will be some times when you will want or need to spend money on something that will help you to do better work or to save time. You may need to buy some software, basic equipment for your home office, cover hosting expenses, or pay for training or education. All of these things can be covered if you are willing to re-invest the money that you are making. The idea is not that you need to find some way to invest your income back into the business, but when there are things that will genuinely help you to do a better job, be willing to spend some of the money that you have made and you will be better off in the long-term.
8. Don’t Forget About Taxes
Another reason that it is best to keep your freelancing income separated from your other money is that you may wind up with taxes that are higher than expected. If you have your freelancing income in a separate account it will be available to cover the taxes and you won’t need to dip into your other accounts. Of course, tax laws vary depending on where you live and the amount you owe will depend on your income and expenses. If you are moving towards full-time freelancing or making any kind of significant income through freelancing, you should hire an accountant to make sure that you have everything covered and doing things correctly and legally.
9. Talk to People You Know
One of the best sources of business for freelancers (full-time or part-time) is word-of-mouth advertising. Talk to your friends and family about the services you’re offering and you may find that they know someone who could use your services. Even if you don’t think that the people you know would have any need for your services, they will each have their own network of others that you don’t know, and that can be a great way to get in contact with potential clients.
10. Visit Design Job Boards
There are a number of design job boards online where you can find opportunities for work (see our post 27 Places to Find Web Design Jobs). Sources like the Freelance Switch job board, Smashing Jobs and the DesignM.ag job board are great because you will find listings from people who are looking to hire freelancers for specific projects. Job boards are unlikely to ever be your sole source of work, but they can be a nice supplement to word-of-mouth advertising and attracting clients through your portfolio. Best of all, whenever you are in need of some work you can visit job boards and respond to the appropriate postings without dedicating huge amounts of time for trying to find new work.
11. Be Comfortable with Your Rates
Pricing your work can be a very difficult thing for new freelancers. In fact, even designers who have been at it for a while often struggle with determining how much to charge. There are a lot of articles that have been written on the subject (see 12 Realities of Pricing Design Services), although most of them have been written by full-time designers with the same audience in mind. As a part-time freelancer who is just getting started, you may be intimidated by charging high fees, and you may even feel added pressure in these situations.
The most important thing to consider in pricing your work at this time is to charge a rate that you are comfortable with. Making the most money possible is not your priority at this time, so if you would like to keep your rates low while you feel that you are still learning, there is nothing wrong with that. From my experience you will want to charge your clients enough that they will take the project seriously (charging very small amounts will usually result in clients that don’t put much priority in their website since they have very little invested in it), but don’t charge more than you feel the services are worth. Once you get more experienced you’ll have greater confidence in your work and raising your prices should not be a problem.
It’s also a good idea to be upfront with your clients about where you are at in your own career and progression as a designer. There are plenty of clients that are willing to work with less experienced designers if the situation and the price are right. If your clients are under a false impression about your level of experience or your skills, it could come back to cause problems down the road.
12. Don’t Take Too Much Client Work
One of the mistakes that some new freelancers make is taking every possible project that comes their way. Especially when you are getting started, you will want to be able to take all the time that you need to learn from the projects that you are working on and to produce the best work that you are capable of. If you are working to build up your portfolio, rushing through jobs will lead to work that is less than your best, and a sub par portfolio.
Also, if you are working full-time in addition to freelancing you will not have a lot of time to dedicate to these projects, so resist the temptation to take on too much. Explain to the potential clients that you would like to work with them, but it will need to wait a few weeks (or whatever the case may be in your situation) until you could get started.
All successful freelancers have a strong network of contacts that they have established over a period of time. This may include other designers that you can learn from, designers that you can share referrals with according to your workloads, other professionals in related fields like SEO, copywriting and marketing, or really any other type of professional. Every business needs a web presence, so there is really no limit to types of people that could be valuable members of your network.
Networking takes time, and most importantly, a commitment to giving something back to others. There are plenty of things you can do online for networking (such as Twitter), but don’t forget about offline opportunities as well. Last year I published a series of four posts that covered various aspects of networking for freelancers:
14. Develop Your Own Business Practices
As you eventually move from part-time to full-time freelancing you will find that a greater amount of your time is needed for things like invoicing, paying your bills, recording income, providing customer service, responding to inquiries from potential clients for pricing quotes, and other things like this. While all of these tasks are a necessary part of the business, they are all taking time that could be otherwise used to perform services that generate income. The more you can streamline your processes for these activities, the more time you will have for other work.
As you are working part-time with the idea of moving forward at some point, take some time to think about how you can handle these tasks in an organized manner that will require only small amounts of time. You may find that it saves you a lot of time to use something like FreshBooks or Billings for your finances and invoices. Each person works differently and has their own preferred methods of doing things, so find what works best for you.
15. Plan for Differentiation
As you plan for the move to full-time freelance work, one thing that you will want to consider is how you will set yourself apart from all of the other designers out there. During your work as a part-time freelancer you may be able to offer your services at lower rates than other designers, but that will likely change when you eventually move to full-time. At that point, one of the best ways to attract clients is to differentiate yourself in some way. For example, maybe you want to specialize in designing custom WordPress themes. If this is the case, by marketing yourself as a WordPress expert, when clients are in need of a custom WordPress theme they will likely contact you over another designer that does not specialize in WordPress. Of course, this is just one possible example, but the idea is that you will have an easier time attracting clients if there is something that sets you apart from the huge (and growing) number of other designers out there.
If you are able to decide on something for differentiation, take some time to think about how you could market yourself in this way. Having a particular set of skills is really not as important as being able to let others know that you have those skills and to lead them to remember you. Also, you may need to improve your skills in a particular area in order for your plan for differentiation to be effective, so you may need to dedicate time to find projects and/or work on learning in other ways.
What’s Your Experience?
For those of you who have already gone through the process of breaking in as a part-time freelancer, what things did you learn that you would like to share with our readers?