17 Tips for Designers on Starting a Freelance Business

by Steven Snell

August 5, 2009 in Business/Freelance

As I interact with readers of my blogs, I continually encounter designers who are just getting started in the world of freelancing. In some cases they are very experienced designers/developers who are going out on their own for the first time. Others are trying freelancing part-time to see how it will work for them, and some are planning for a transition process but have not yet started to freelance. Since a large number of readers are facing issues that go along with getting started as a freelancer, I thought it would be helpful to share some tips from my own experience.

The tips in this post will cover all aspects of freelancing and the lifestyle that comes with it. In many cases unexpected issues and adjustments are what new freelancers struggle with, so hopefully this article will help to prepare new freelancers to meet the challenges that will be presented.

1. Make Sure You Have Some Experience

It’s very easy to get started as a freelance designer. There’s no need to have a particular education (although it can certainly be helpful) and there is no governing body or licensing that requires freelancers to be experienced. For these reasons there are a lot of freelancers out there, so you will need to be good at what you do in order to be successful.

If you have several years of experience working for a design studio or in-house somewhere, most likely you have many of the skills that you need to be successful as a freelancer. However, if you are just getting started as a designer there is a need to gain valuable experience. Getting experience doesn’t mean that you have to land work with high paying clients. You can gain a considerable amount of experience by working on personal projects or by taking some work for a non-profit organization that may be looking for a lower-priced alternative. Look for opportunities to take on work where you can stretch your skills and make yourself as valuable as possible to future clients.

2. Acknowledge the Downsides to Freelancing

Insurance – Another thing most people do not consider before freelancing is getting insurance to protect their business since most companies or agencies are already enrolled in a plan. Getting business insurance is critical in that it will help protect you from any allegations of negligence or property damage that might occur. Be sure to consider the cost of insurance when deciding if freelancing is for you
When I talk to friends about the type of work I do, most of them assume I sleep in late and have a lot of freedom to do whatever I want. While there are significant benefits that come with being your own boss, the freelancing lifestyle has plenty of downsides as well. If you are going to pursue this type of work, do yourself a favor and consider the pros and the cons and make sure that it is something that you (and your family) are comfortable with. Some of the negatives to being a freelancer include:

Work/life balance – Working from home is great, but it also makes it more difficult to separate your working time and space from your personal time and space. In fact, most full-time freelancers work longer hours than they would if they were an employee somewhere. Be sure that you are prepared for the difficulties that can arise with finding an adequate work/life balance.

Benefits - One of the biggest reasons to choose to be an employee over freelancing is the lack of benefits for freelancers. If you have a spouse that works, you will probably be able to have health insurance through their employer. Otherwise, this can be a huge expense. Other benefits like paid time off and 401K plans are non-existent for freelancers (although there are other investment alternatives for the self employed).

Steady Paycheck – There is a big comfort for most people in knowing that they will be getting a paycheck every two weeks and knowing exactly how much it will be. Most freelancers have very little consistency in terms of income. Some months will be good and other months won’t be so good. If you have trouble dealing with inconsistencies in your income, be sure that you have given this sufficient thought before jumping into freelancing full-time.

Personal Interaction – Working in an office as an employee will give you the opportunity to interact with co-workers, as well as customers/clients. Even if you are not the type of person that cherishes your daily interaction with others, working from home as a freelancer will take some adjustment.

3. Start Freelancing Part-Time if Possible

Because of all of the unknowns that come with freelancing, in my opinion (and from my own experience) it is a good idea to start freelancing part-time while you are working a full-time job. With this approach you won’t face the same pressure to produce immediate income because you will still have your full-time salary, which means you can focus on building your business and improving your skills without the need to devote all of your time to work that will produce income.

Another benefit of starting part-time is that you can use the money you are making to invest in your business. If you starting freelancing full-time you will most likely need all or most of your income for living expenses, and you may have little to invest in your business.

In general, freelancing on the side while working a full-time job will allow you to get a taste for what full-time freelancing will be like, but with very little risk.

4. Set Your Working Hours

As I mentioned already, separating work from the rest of your life becomes a challenge when you are freelancing and working from home. Because of this, you may find that you are working considerably more hours than you had intended, and you may struggle to break away from your work for some personal time. From my experience it helps to set a schedule that will let you know when you should be working and when it is ok to relax. You can either have a set schedule that you work every week or you can have more flexibility and set your schedule each week or each day. Whatever the case may be, it’s a good practice to start every workday knowing how long you plan to work and when you will be wrapping it up for the day.

5. Set Up a Comfortable Office

If you are freelancing full-time you will be spending a very large amount of time each day in your home office, so make sure that it is a comfortable place that allows you to focus and work without distractions. Ideally, your home office should be separated from the living space in the house to keep distractions away and so that you can stay out of the office when you are not working. For more information, see Essential Qualities of a Home Office.

6. Set Up an Effective Portfolio Site

One of the biggest assets for a freelance designer is the online portfolio. For many successful freelancers, their portfolio site is responsible for generating most of the leads that convert into clients. A quality portfolio site that draws a lot of interest and links can help a new freelancer to get established pretty quickly, so be sure to give plenty of time and attention to your portfolio site.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for designing your own portfolio, check out my gallery of well-designed portfolio sites, Folio Focus. And if you are looking for ways to gain exposure to your portfolio, see 9 Ways to Get Your Design Portfolio Seen.

7. Invest in Quality Equipment

Earlier I mentioned that one of the benefits for starting as a part-time freelancer is that you can re-invest the money that you are making in your business. This includes equipping yourself with everything you will need to be more effective in your work. This could include a computer, software, a scanner, a printer, general office supplies, and anything else that you will need to do your job well. There is a tendency with most freelancers to avoid as many expenses as possible, but investing in the necessary tools and equipment will allow you to be more efficient and effective in your work. Of course, you’ll need to use discretion in what is necessary and what is not, but don’t be afraid to spend money on the things that you need to do your job.

8. Work on Reducing Your Living Expenses Wherever Possible

The amount of money that you need to bring in as a freelancer will be directly proportionate to your living expenses. If you can reduce unnecessary expenses you will relieve some of the pressure to make money. Take a look at how you are spending your money. Most of us have a number of ways that we can easily cut back on our expenses if we want to or need to. There are probably some areas that you could cut back on while you work on building your business as a freelancer, and this will help to improve your chances for success.

9. Find a To-Do List System that Works for You

One of the challenges you will face as a freelancer is that you will have to manage yourself and decide how to spend your time. You will most likely have some type of deadlines with most of your projects, so keeping track of them and setting up some milestones that you need to achieve in order to meet those deadlines will keep your clients happy and keep yourself from facing unnecessary stress.

I find it to be a big help to have a list of things that I need to get done each week and each day. That way whenever I finish working on something I don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what to work on next, and I can get more efficiency out of my time.

If you prefer, you can simply keep a list on paper and cross things off as you get them done, or you can use an online to-do list. [LINK]

10. Have an Established System for Tracking Time and Invoicing Clients

Dealing with the business aspects of freelancing is dreaded work for most freelancers. As a result, keeping things as streamlined as possible will help you to stay organized, on top of things, and avoid mistakes. There are plenty of great resources for helping with these aspects, some are paid and some are free. Some popular options include Fanurio, FreshBooks, and Zoho. For a more complete list, see 20 Invoicing Tools for Web Designers at Six Revisions.

11. Plan for the Time it Will Take to Run the Business

Many new freelancers are surprised to find out how much time is required for non-income-generating tasks that are necessary to run the business. This would include all of your work with finances, responding to emails, finding work, networking with other professionals and much more. All of these things are needed in order to be a successful freelancer, but none of them will directly bring in money. Don’t expect to be able to spend all of your working time on client projects that will be producing income. Instead, plan your schedule accordingly and account for this time when you are determining your prices or giving quotes to potential clients.

12. Consider Specialization

Some freelancers are able to stand out from the crowd and attract potential clients by being an expert in a particular area or type of work. There are pros and cons to specialization, but it is something that is worth considering. Are there types of work that you enjoy and that you would like to spend most of your time on? Do you have areas of expertise that would make you more valuable to potential clients?

13. Consider Starting a Blog

There are a number of different ways to market your services as a freelancer and one of them is to start a blog, preferably on your portfolio site. Designers generally don’t use their blogs to directly promote their services, but it is an excellent way to demonstrate your expertise, to build some name recognition, and to gain exposure for your portfolio.

Blogging is not for everyone, but most freelance designers can greatly benefit from it. Starting a blog on your portfolio site doesn’t mean that you’ll have to write blog posts everyday, but it will involve some work. However, if you enjoy writing and getting to interact with other designers, blogging can be an excellent tool for networking.

14. Set Aside Some Time for Networking

Most successful freelancers have a strong network of other professionals. This could include other designers, web developers, SEOs, marketers, small business owners, and anyone else that you would have potential to work with in some capacity. Networking takes effort, but it can be one of the best things you do for your business. Your networking efforts ideally should include both online and offline activities.  Last year I wrote a four part series that covered topics related to networking for freelancers.

15. Don’t Ignore Your Local Area

Being able to do business with clients who live in various parts of the world is a big advantage of being a freelance designer, but it makes it easy to ignore opportunities for growing your business locally. Because most designers are not attempting to target local clients, it makes it easier for you to do so. You can optimize your portfolio site to attract local searchers and you can get involved in the community to build you local network. For more information, see Tips for Attracting Local Clients.

16. Have Some Go-To Sources for Finding Work

Most likely, your clients will come from a variety of different sources. Some will probably hear about you through word-of-mouth. Others will come across your portfolio site and contact you. But sometimes you may be looking for work and not getting much interest from some of these types of sources. In these cases it is helpful to have some places you can go to look for work when you need to. Online sources like the DesignM.ag job board and the Freelance Switch job board can be great ways to quickly look for opportunities. For more sources, see 27 Places to Find Web Design Jobs.

17. Focus on Gaining Experience and Learning More Than Making Money

If you plan to make a career as a designer, whether it be as a freelancer or if you want to be an employee somewhere, it is more important to work on developing your skills than it is to make as much money as you can. Of course, we all have expenses and bills that need to be paid, but maximizing your income may force you to pass up valuable opportunities to improve on your abilities or gain valuable experience. Planning your schedule to allow time for learning and growth is a good practice if you can afford to do so.

What’s Your Experience?

If you have advice for freelancers who are just getting started, please feel free to share in the comments.

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About Steven Snell

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design.Connect with Stephen on google+

  • xhuman

    Aug 5th

    thanks for the info!
    as one considering the very same, this is a very helpful article indeed.
    btw, any info on what ‘standard’ websites should cost? i think any info on how designers should bill for their time would be also of great benefit. thanks!

  • Prescott Perez-Fox

    Aug 5th

    There are a million little questions to answer, but only one big one: Where do clients come from?

    My advice to designers who want to go solo/freelance is not to do anything until you have TOO MANY clients asking you to work with them. Once you’re turning away work, you’re ready for full-time. Those clients will give you referrals and set the thing rolling. But until you can generate a client base who is willing to pay you a serious living wage for your work, all the other tips are moot points.

    But great article overall. Definitely going to bookmark it.

  • Ilona Wall

    Aug 5th

    Fantastic article! I’ve been successfully freelancing for over a year (after five years at agencies) and you really seem to have covered the bases. Personal interaction, and the lack thereof, was a big adjustment for me, but I do a lot of networking (i.e. being involved in my design community and special projects) to help overcome that. Really love #17 for a personal check-in to be sure I’m staying relevant and on my game. Thanks for the great tips! I’ll be sending inquiring minds here!

  • George Egonut

    Aug 6th

    Fantastic and detailed article. You point out a lot of issues I had to learn the hard way, and a few that I hadn’t thought about yet. Thanks!

    As a technical professional, I value the quality of a comfortable work space. However, as an artist, I find that sometimes my creativity is dulled by comfort. Many years ago, when I was a in a gigging band, we used to practice for eight to twelve hours at a time. We had a pole barn in the middle of nowhere, with barely enough power to run our equipment, no AC, a 250,000 BTU diesel heater for the winter (not pleasant), no furniture … it seemed miserable. However, when we would practice at one of our houses, we get very little done. There were too many potential distractions. When you got tired, you could just sit down and detach yourself, whereas at the shop, there was little choice but to be engaged.

    While web design is obviously very different from making music, I still find that having only the most basic comforts in my workspace tends to allow me to create my best work.

  • Mirko

    Aug 6th

    Nice article, pretty much everything I should have known before starting to freelance. I would like to emphasize the “buy quality equipment” advice, everytime I tried to buy cheaper I had to buy again, so I ended up paying more for the material, lesson learned now…

  • David Platt

    Aug 6th

    That was good. Especially the point about specializing. I’ve been thinking a lot about that these days. A lot of folks want to be everything to everybody and what happens is that you get work that you are uncomfortable doing because it’s not something you really excel at, or even want to be doing. Thanks much -dp

  • paul

    Aug 6th

    very interesting article, thanks! I’ve just started as a freelance in web design, I’ve created a portfolio with previous websites I’ve built, mostly personal projects. I’ve got a couple of leads that are more experience builders (friends and charity work). I hope I can bring these projects to completion.
    As you mentioned specializing, I was just thinking about targeting my portfolio and services in a more specilized manner to differentiate. I enjoy working with wordpress, and I’m more skilled at PSD to HTML, more like junior designer or web technician stuff. Maybe I could offer my services to more experienced designers who need help?
    hope that wasn’t too long a comment!
    cheers
    Paul

  • Amy

    Aug 6th

    As a FT freelancer in my first year of business, I found it nearly impossible to build critical mass before quitting my job. (I took the plunge when I was so fed up with my current situation that I was not willing to live my life that way for one more day.)

    Freelancing isn’t just about grinding out soft copy at your desk; running a business takes up your time in a big way. Networking alone is a fulltime job (good comment/suggestions from Ilona on that). I envy those who have already cultivated relationships with clients who feed them a steady stream of work, but you should never count out the possibility that you will have to put considerable time into prospecting for new clients on an ongoing basis. Not to mention developing products, marketing materials, etc.

    I appreciated Item #1, but I’ll add that the jobs don’t necessarily go to the best designers but rather to the best salespeople. You cannot ignore that part of your business. It’s very frustrating to see freelancers or Web design companies cranking out poor work at an alarming rate while you are scrounging for projects, but most small business clients need to be educated about what constitutes good-quality work, and even then many of them prioritize cost over quality.

    Right now the Austin market is glutted with freelancers, and quite of few will work for $10 – $15 an hour. I do believe that the key is to persevere and put 110% into marketing yourself. Freelance if you love what you do and are prepared to put in a lot of hours doing some tasks that you might not enjoy too much.

    I’m happy to share my experience re: billing/fees, so please feel free to contact me directly if you’d like my $0.02.

  • Steven Snell

    Aug 6th

    Hey everyone, thanks for the great feedback on this post.

    xhuman,
    I don’t think it’s possible to say what a “standard” website should cost. There are too many variables to give any kind of an accurate range.

    Prescott,
    I agree with your points, but I wouldn’t say that is the only big issue. Even for freelancers who have no problem getting clients, if they can’t manage projects, communicate with clients, meet deadlines, manage their finances, their freelancing experience will not be positive.

    George,
    That’s interesting, and I can understand your perspective. I don’t really consider myself to b every artistic so I don’t feel constrained in that type of environment. Whatever works for you!

    Paul,
    Yeah, I would think you could definitely market yourself that way. One thing to consider is that there are a lot of PSD to HTML companies located in parts of the world where they can charge rock bottom prices. So you may have to compete with that, but personal interaction with the designer and quality work will usually win out over the cheapest pricing.

    Amy,
    You’re absolutely right, there are lots of other responsibilities of running a freelance business. I’m always amazed at how much time I spend on non-income-generating work. Good point about sales, it’s something that is a part of landing work.

  • Chris

    Aug 6th

    Great post, very helpful!

  • marcell

    Aug 6th

    I agree most people always go out of there way trying to get clients when they should focus on people in their surrounding area.

  • marcus

    Aug 6th

    Good tips. Thanks.

  • Victoria Web

    Aug 7th

    Great article, I’m always interested to read articles about freelancing, even though i work for a company. Its heightens my awareness about the rest of the design community and quiet often there are aspects to the article that can be applied to how you manage your working day or time in employment.

  • Nic

    Aug 7th

    Very good advice, particularly for someone looking to make the jump soon.

  • Kati

    Aug 7th

    Thank you for this great article. I’ve been considering diving into freelancing (part-time, since I finally got hired full time) and you presented some things that I thought about but also, more importantly, things I didn’t even consider.

  • Dan Denney

    Aug 10th

    Thank you for the time you put into this article. As I make the switch to part-time freelancing, I am consuming as much information as I can from the successful designers.

    This list is a great foundation to build on for everyone going into business for themselves.

  • Tim Read

    Aug 10th

    Prescott Perez-Fox made the most important point: get the clients on board before you start thinking about the other stuff…

  • Jenny

    Aug 10th

    #1. I started freelancing right out of college and I am in my 7th year in business doing quite well. Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams even if everyone doubts you. I would recommend interning somewhere while you are starting off freelancing.

  • Jason Aiken

    Aug 10th

    Great Article…Great Tips.

    Agree completely that specializing is great way to stay focused and really carve out a niche.

    Cheers and Good Luck,
    Jason Aiken
    99designs.com

  • Urviho

    Aug 11th

    Great article! A lots of good ideas, that are really helpfull :)

  • Ardhian Satrya

    Aug 13th

    Nice article! I’m also in a transition on becoming a full-time freelance. Your article gave me some great insights. Thanks for sharing :)

  • Joseph Scrivener

    Aug 19th

    Thanks for this article mate. I think it will help me. I’m planing to start my part time freelancer business now, I’m still working on my portfolio site and branding and so. I’m wokring now for KarmaFx design based in London, but would like to freelance too.
    Thanks again.
    Cheers

  • Becky

    Aug 24th

    Yes thank you for the great advice you have offered in this post. Until recently I never would have thought that I could have my own Personal freelance business. However I stumbled across Jack Hatfield’s latest book, “Natural Success Principles,” and know that I have it in me to be successful at it- always have since before I was born. It made me decide to go forward with this dream 100%. It is going to take a lot of work and I will definitely be putting some of your great tips to practice! Thanks again!

  • satrya

    Jan 4th

    as a new freelancer,this article is realy help me….

    Thx a lot Mate :)

  • murat

    Mar 12th

    Thanks for sharing this! Nice collection, good inspiration.

  • eGrove Systems

    Mar 30th

    Great This article was contains useful information about web designing keep doing

  • Carmia Cronje

    Apr 6th

    Thank you for the article. It was very helpful for me, as I have decided a short while ago to start freelancing. Number 15 caught my attention – “Don’t ignore you local area”. If you live in a country with many languages like I do, except for having only an English website, you can translate in another language as well. My website’s homepage is in English and Afrikaans (my language) and that helps attract local clients.

  • May Phat Dien

    May 12th

    Great article! A lots of good ideas, that are really helpfull

  • austin seo web design

    Jun 10th

    I like your point number 12, as a student I have it particularly hard with time management. Yeah there are bills to pay, but when designing a website, it takes a lot of interaction/time with clients. But you got good points overall this is a great article with alot of good ideas to consider.

  • oxidizzy

    Jul 6th

    Good tips for starting. :)

  • Semmu

    Jul 6th

    wow. i’ve read many articles like this, but YOURS is the best. nice tips for beginners, thank you!

  • Website designers chennai

    Jul 12th

    good tips for starting freelance business. thanks for sharing.

  • kai

    Jul 19th

    great tip’s…. thank you…

  • vuitton hanbags

    Jul 23rd

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  • Dia oc

    Jul 25th

    I enjoyed this article thanks

  • Makx

    Jul 31st

    Let´s move then… Thanx for the this article, really enjoyed…

  • RCA-IEFTIN.COM

    Sep 1st

    Thanks for sharing this! Nice collection, good inspiration.(rca ieftin)

  • Jethro

    Sep 9th

    Great article, re-affirms what I already know and need to remember :)

  • boo

    Sep 22nd

    I am fultime designer and parttime designer too, it’s so usefull for me..

    great, thanks
    boo
    myboodesign.com

  • Web Development service

    Oct 9th

    That was good. it is useful for web designers

  • Karthik

    Nov 16th

    I have started my career as a freelancer in 2004. After 2 years i will start my own office. The Most important thing if you consider to be better freelancer try something new, innovative techniques in both marketing & development.

  • Impotence Remedy

    Nov 17th

    some office supplies are low quality that is why you should always check your store if they offer high quality products **:

  • stone crusher for sale

    Nov 23rd

    That was good. it is useful for web designers

  • Web App Jobs

    Jan 6th

    Fantastic advice! I would like to reach out and let freelancers know about the website webappjobs.com. It’s yet another resource to add to anyone’s “Have Some Go-To Sources for Finding Work” list.

  • rca ieftin 2011

    Jan 11th

    The freelancing is a difficult task because you must solve all the existing problems. If you think the best option is to be freelancer you must work a lot for this, to improve your skills as well.

  • arbizz web design chennai

    Jan 29th

    Thanks for sharing this! Nice collection, good inspiration.

  • Freelance L.A.

    Mar 7th

    freelance should be exciting, not something to fear, there are a lot of cons, but a lot of pros.

    I guess it depends on people, people who are positive and people who take life blows better than others will do better. You can work from anywhere you want do anything you want as long as you get the job done in time and keep your relationships well.

    If you easily get down freelance might be scary, there can be a month out of six where you wont make anything but for bills. It can easily make you give up on freelance.

    I recommend anyone to you read about emotional intelligence, and about financial education, if you can manage these 2 skills you will be off better in freelance and in your income. Reading articles like this one helps, but don’t just read get out there and experience, rise and fall life is about learning and growing.

    good luck

  • khushpal kaur

    Mar 28th

    NICE ADVICE….

  • Creative Network Belgium

    Apr 20th

    Great article! Also for freelancers who are in the game already.

  • Cocco VON Cocco

    May 1st

    amazing article, I’m am going to bookmark this one! Been working for free doing art direction and web design for some local bands trying to gain more experience and to build my portfolio, and these are all really good things to consider when I’m ready to start working it part-time. Thanks for your hard work, great job!

  • Neeraj Balani

    May 2nd

    This is very knowledgeable.We want to start our business could you advice us on the pricing strategy to be adopted by us. Since we are new to this business i would also like to know from you on how to built our portfolio. This would help us

    Thank you

  • wdalhaj

    May 5th

    really awesome n useful article..all the points are critical & important.

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  • Joyoge Designers Bookmark

    Jun 19th

    helpful tips, thanks for the post.

  • asigurari locuinte

    Jul 1st

    That’s about ten more than I had previously.

  • Vincent

    Jul 5th

    As the post says, it is important to have a good time tracking software.

    That’s why I would like to recommend OroTimesheet for time tracking and invoicing.
    It is really easy to use and very affordable.
    It helps me keep track of the time I spend on each project. I can easily create an invoice from my timesheets. I used many timesheet software over the years and this one is my favorite.

    It is free to try so make sure to visit the company’s website at http://www.orologic.com/

  • jaw crusher

    Jul 7th

    one considering the very same, this is a very helpful article indeed.
    btw, any info on what ‘standard’ websites should cost? i think any info on how designers should bill for their time would be also of great benefit. thanks!

  • Dam Bau

    Jul 9th

    im vietnammes, i readed ur article but i dont know how to apply to my coutry. maybe it cant useful with me, so thanks u so much, someday it make me remember ur article.

  • Guido Langenhagen

    Jul 13th

    Very helpful tips and amazing article!

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    Jul 19th

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