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?