10 Tips for Moving from Part-Time to Full-Time Freelancing

I know that there is a great deal of variety among the readers of this blog. Some are full-time designers, some are part-time, and some are more interested in design as a hobby. In this post I’d like to take a look at a topic that was very relevant to me in the past, and one that I think is probably on the minds of some readers.

Last week I wrote about the need for inexperienced freelancers to gain confidence in themselves and their work, and in that post I mentioned that I think it’s a good idea for freelancers to start out part-time so they can maintain a full-time job while getting their feet wet. This is the approach that I took, and the problem is that it’s hard to know when and how to make the jump to full-time freelancing. I’d like to share some thoughts based on my own experience that I think will be helpful for those who are freelancing part-time and are hoping to go full-time at some point.

1. Know what income you need to live on

Probably the biggest key to making the transition is knowing how much income you need in order to live the lifestyle that you want (or one that you’re at least comfortable with for now). It sounds obvious, but this is critical. If you’ve been freelancing part-time for a while, you probably can sit down and make a pretty good estimate about what you would be able to earn if you were to increase your hours and work full-time. Of course, this income minus your expenses needs to be enough to support yourself and your family, if you have one.

2. Save the money you’re making from part-time freelancing

If freelancing is currently a part-time commitment for you and you have a full-time job, don’t get used to living on your combined income. Chances are, with your full-time job and your freelancing on the side, you’re making more than you could as a full-time freelancer, at least for the start of your career. If you get accustomed to living on this larger, combined income you’ll have to reduce your spending and change your lifestyle significantly if you want to quit your full-time job.

The best thing that you can do is to base your budget on just your full-time income, and live like you’re not making any additional money. Stick your freelancing income in an account somewhere as soon as it comes in. From that account you can take money out for whatever business expenses you have (and this way you’ll be more willing to invest in your business since it’s not affecting your lifestyle).

Not only will this approach help you to avoid a bad transition to a “lower” income when you go full-time, but the money that you build up will serve as a safety cushion for when you do make the jump. If you’re expecting to be able to make a certain amount of money when you go full-time and you come up short, you’ll have that money tucked away to support yourself while you get your business off the ground.

This is definitely my biggest piece of advice from my own experience. When I was looking to make the jump from part-time to full-time freelancing the last thing I wanted to do was make less money than I expected and place more of a burden on my wife to pay the bills. Fortunately, that was a situation that we anticipated in advance, and the part-time income was still sitting there in the bank as the extra security that made us more confident in the decision to quit my job.

3. Look for long-term, repeat clients

Finding client work as a new freelancer is difficult, regardless of whether you’re full-time or part-time. Established freelancers get much of their business from referrals, word-of-mouth marketing, and from building their reputation. As a new freelancer you may get some referrals from friends and family, but not on the same scale as someone who has been in the industry for a long time.

From my experience, the best clients in terms of building a steady income are those that keep coming back. As a designer you may work on a site for a client and when it’s done and you’re paid you’ll have to move on and find another new client.

On the other hand, you could land a gig with a client that needs some sort of on-going maintenance or work on multiple projects. These clients will allow you to spend more time on income-generating services and less time prospecting. Even having one steady client as a new freelancer can make a big difference in building a steady stream of income that you can expect to earn each month.

4. Have the support of your family

Especially if you’re married, having a family that understands your desire to move to full-time freelancing and encourages you in pursuing a career that you want is a big part of being comfortable in your transition. Simply knowing that your family supports you in your decision can help to reduce your stress and give your more confidence. If you don’t have the support of your family, particularly a husband or wife, can make the move incredibly more difficult.

5. Hire an accountant

Being a freelancer is much different for tax purposes than being a full-time employee of another company. Most of us don’t enjoy dealing with taxes, and more importantly, we don’t know the requirements and laws nearly as well as a professional accountant. If you’re planning to make the move from part-time to full-time freelancing the last thing you want is to be surprised at tax time about how much you owe. Meet with an accountant to discuss your plans and see what the tax implications would be.

An accountant can help you to know what you need to do throughout the year to prepare for taxes and what you can do to minimize the amount that you’ll need to pay. Chances are there are some legitimate deductions that you could easily be taking if you were aware of them.

6. Analyze your income sources

One of the things you’re going to want to do before you make the jump to full-time freelancing is to evaluate how you’re currently making money and to see what your options are for full-time work. Of course, the number one source of income for freelance designers is client work for building websites, but that doesn’t need to be your only source.

Especially if you anticipate having trouble finding enough client work to stay busy and to support yourself, you may want to consider some supplemental sources that could boost your overall income and help you to build your skills at the same time.

In addition to client work, some good options are:

Selling templates/themes – There is a growing market for premium template sales, and there are a number of existing marketplaces where you can start selling your work right away. Theme Forest is a quickly-growing marketplace where plenty of freelancers are already supplementing their income.

Selling stock images – If you’re a good graphic designer you always have the option of creating images or vectors to sell at stock photo marketplaces. Sites like iStockphoto and Stockxpert accept work from designers who earn a commission each time one of their items is sold. While this may not be a good option for a primary source of income, it can easily add some supplemental revenue each month. For a list, see 11 Places to Sell Your Graphic Art.

Freelance blogging – If you’re interested in writing articles or tutorials, there are a number of design blogs that pay contributors for articles. While this may not be for everyone, it can be a good source of supplemental income, and even a full-time income if you want it to be. Personally, this is a decent income source for me. To find blogs that you can write for, see the list that I put together a few months ago.

Maintain your own sites – One of the great things about being a designer is that you have the ability to build websites for yourself with very little financial investment, just your time that is involved. Many designers, myself included, are earning a portion of their income through websites that they own. The possibilities are endless, you just need to find something that you enjoy and that you have the ability to make money with.

7. Evaluate your client sources

As a part-timer, where are you getting your clients? Take some time to go back through your past clients and see how they found you or how you found them. This is important for a few reasons. First, you’ll need to consider if these sources will still be reliable in the near future. If most of your business is coming from one source, you won’t want to go full-time and have that source dry up in just a few months. Can you reasonably expect that these sources will continue to send business your way in the future?

Second, you’ll want to evaluate the sources so you can identify areas where you’re missing out on opportunities. Maybe you’re not getting any business referred to you from past clients. If this is the case, when you’re preparing to go full-time you may want to contact your past clients and see if they know of anyone who could benefit from your services. You could find a few new clients pretty easily with this approach.

Or, maybe you’re getting more clients than you realized through your online portfolio. If you could increase the amount of traffic to the site or make some tweaks to the ease of contact or to the way you’re displaying your portfolio, you could see even better results and more new clients.

8. Contact those in your network to let them know about your move to full-time freelancing

As a part-time freelancer, you’ve probably built a small but valuable network of other designers and professionals. Take some time to send a personal email to everyone in your network just to let them know about your jump to full-time work and let them know that you’ll be able to help clients that they don’t have time for. Many designers get more potential clients than they can handle, and if you get a few referrals this way it will be more than worth your time to send the emails.

For those in your network who are not designers, you may be able to help their clients in ways that they cannot (such as if you have SEO consultants in your network), or they may even be in need of a new website themselves.

9. Have a plan for cutting unnecessary personal expenses

Ideally, you’ll be able to make enough money in full-time freelancing to maintain your current lifestyle. But it’s possible that it could be slower than expected at first, and it can be a good idea to think about your typical expenses to see what you could cut out if it comes down to it. Hopefully you won’t need to, but if you’re prepared you’ll be able to get rid of the expenses that aren’t that important to you, and it will have a minimal impact on your life. Not having a plan can cause more stress than you need and it may even lead to some bad decisions.

10. Make it happen

Ultimately, making the jump from part-time to full-time freelancing really comes down to taking action and just making it happen. When I made the move it was something that my wife and I had prepared and planned for, but it was still difficult to leave the “security” of a full-time job (in quotes because no one’s job is truly secure in this economy and I would probably be laid off by now if I hadn’t quit). Looking back, I probably could have made it work earlier than I did, but at some point you just have to trust your preparation and your work ethics and take the plunge.

What’s Your Experience?

Have you ever made the jump from part-time to full-time freelancing? If so, what advice do you have for others? If this is something that you’re currently facing, what is the most difficult part for you?

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.

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  1. January 12, 2009

    The first 2 tips are the ones I think I need to focus on in order to make this switch. In addition, gaining new clients as a newbie is difficult as hell, but I have some oppurtunities for mass advertising in a few weeks.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. January 12, 2009

    Great tips Steven! I have somewhat jumped into full-time freelancing and my biggest advice is to create your own product (in my case I create and auction web templates). At day time I work on my templates and at night I work on tutorials. Sometimes the most difficult part is staying disciplined and focused on your work.

    Thank you for this article again.

  3. January 12, 2009

    Thanks for the feedback Raymond. It’s great to hear a little bit about your story. Excellent advice with the product. That’s not something I have done yet, but should be sometime within the next few months.

    By the way, where do you sell your templates? I checked your website but didn’t find them. I’m curious to see what you offer.

  4. January 12, 2009

    Thanks for the tips.
    I am at that exact situation you describe and I would say that the most difficult part is finding enough work to support me through full time freelancing. Not only for a few months of the year, but all the time. This of course is very difficult when having a full time job at the same time.
    If only days where longer than 24 hours!

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  7. January 16, 2009

    These are all excellent suggestions! Unfortunately, not all freelancers have all of these opportunities available. For example, if you get laid off and need to make money right away, you probably won’t have a comfortable amount of savings. Also, some people have families that just don’t understand what freelancing is all about. Having that support is wonderful, but not always possible.

    Still, if you have time to prepare before making the leap, this list is the way to do it!


  8. January 16, 2009

    Yes, being laid off is a whole different ball game.

  9. January 17, 2009

    Your article is very interesting, i bookmarked your blog for future referrence 🙂

  10. March 3, 2009

    Thanks Steven for these advices. I’m a part time freelance living in Spain and I’ve always got this feeling I want to move on and go full time, but as always, having a secure fulltime job income makes life easier. Anyway I’m close to make my move and I just wanted to thank you to encourage me! 😉

  11. germaine
    March 3, 2009

    I’ve done this jump but after being laid off, which is totally different, indeed. I’ve been back to a full time job and i’m preparing myself to making the big move once again – but well prepared this time – ! 🙂

    What i’ve found the most difficult is finding long-lasting clients, not just one shot works…
    Super advice though, thanks for sharing!

  12. mWalk
    March 3, 2009

    I’m glad I read this because this is something I’m struggling with right now. I strongly feel that I’m not suppose to have a normal or average job, that I should be working for myself.

    I’m just having a hard time with being confident in myself right now and making it all happen. It’s not easy.

  13. Pingback: 10 Tips for Moving from Part-Time to Full-Time Freelancing | 4MLA

  14. April 22, 2009

    excellent post dude. I used to work at a part-time job, but did not freelance much. Now, I’m still thinking and struggling myself if going full-time freelance or get another job… so this post means a lot to me. Thanks again for these advices

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  16. December 19, 2009

    I am scared to make this switch! haha.

    Great post indeed. I like your other ones as well regarding this topic. Thanks for the tips, very much appreicated.

  17. July 23, 2010

    Right now I’m trying to achieve tip #6.

    Great post.


  18. July 24, 2010

    This is a Great list for both making the full time leap as a freelancer and for someone like me that has started a boutique design firm. I find that many of these principles apply as a successful full time entrepreneur. I began my company Nouveau Concepts, under similar scenario and these steps are exactly the ones taken.

    One thing to add is the power of networking! Learn about networking events in your respective areas, take the time to develop formidable relationships. Include networking into your company or marketing expenses – you will be surprised to meet the variety of people that are in need of our services. This economy has given way to many new entrepreneurs and companies in need of new branding…these are golden opportunities for us as creative professionals.

  19. June 4, 2011

    The most difficult part is knowing when you’re ready. I’m currently part time freelancing, casual crew at McDonald’s, and full time university student. Considering quitting McDonald’s now, then full time freelancing after my degree.

  20. June 20, 2011

    Good points! I was laid off and catapulted into doing freelance, but to back up a few steps… While I had a full time job, I paid off debt, loans and put a little cash away. Something I suggest to everyone who can currently do that! The blow wasn’t as hard with those things in order and a strong family support was a bonus, but if you don’t have that, create your OWN family of supporters and get your finances in line. Then when you are ready to take the plunge or are laid off, you can transition. Staying positive, moving forward and keeping yourself motivated are extremely important too! There is plenty of work out there for all of us!

  21. Chidambaram
    June 23, 2011

    It is really painful when the first contract is completed and we are looking for next one. Passing the days of uncertainty of new contract may force new freelancers to give up and get into a salary mode; but persons who manage this uncertainty will succeed.

  22. September 10, 2011

    hi thanks for the article, I actually don’t know if I’ve actually leaped yet , I mean I started doing freelance graphics job just this feb, so I can make good use of my time and hobby , then graduated april *im not a design student sadly, but I have passion for good design* , and now still stuck at home doing freelance jobs which I enjoy too *as I write this*, but I am actually applying as a graphics artist on this government agency, i dont know, there’s something telling me to explore more. I also have landed some good design projects on some popular freelance sites, but most jobs posted there are as low as $10, omg , and the clients say that any pro can do this in an hour. omg.. I get insulted by that… and I think I am actually applying for that job not because of the money but because I am curious of the difference of a day job, against a full time freelance career, and if ever I get hired and see that I like freelancing better, hell I’ll do that Leap!

  23. September 10, 2011

    Great post. Funilly enough I’m approaching this decision in my career, so this has given me the map of bits I need to consider. Awesome!!!

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