Last year I had to unexpectedly kickstart my career as a freelance website designer. I took like a duck to water with some things, while others took a lot more figuring out, as I’d previously been working in an entirely different industry. As it’s my one-year birthday as a freelancer, I thought I’d share these top tips for anyone starting out!
- You have to put in the time…
Ideally I would have built my freelancing career in my free time whilst earning secure income with a stable, regular job. This appeals as you don’t have to fully commit to your freelance role and risk failing.
Many people side hustle their way into successful new careers that began on evenings and weekends, but I’m the type of person who would be too scared to throw myself fully into the deep end and hopefully swim.
Keep in mind that if you’re offering a great service, your clients should be able to contact you at all times (within reason). A delayed response never sends out the right message, so make sure you get back to prospective clients swiftly in order to keep them.
The lesson: Be prepared to dive in headfirst and commit to the time and energy that it requires to succeed. Eliminate any safety nets you might have created that ultimately hold you back. By all means, build and prepare while you have the security of a main income, but know that there will be a time when you have to fully transition, and this could feel risky and uncomfortable.
- … So, prepare for it to monopolize your time
When you start freelancing, you quickly learn how much time it requires of you. Prepare to initially invest longer than full-time hours keeping up to speed. Being a solopreneur means you control marketing, finance, operations, customer service and other areas simultaneously. Try to save some cash before launching your new career, which will help make wise, cost effective decisions to automate or outsource a lot of these duties.
Overall, you’ll be putting in far more hours, but in most creative industries, you’ll be able to work them more flexibly. Have a daytime appointment? No problem, you’ll work later into the evening to make up the time.
The lesson: To succeed and establish yourself as a freelancer, you will need to spend the hours building your career, so anticipate this now. There’s always a lot to do, but you can invest time flexibly. This period is a lot easier on everybody if your significant other and family are supportive, too.
- The importance of structure and discipline
As much as I loved those “get up at 11 a.m. and work until 9 p.m.” days, they aren’t really conducive to high productivity. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t feel professional doing work in my underwear under the covers, either.
This is a common pattern amongst people that become self-employed, and one that you should avoid from the beginning. Finding a co-working space in the city center forced me to abide by a structure. It was sociable, too. For days at home, I set up an office in the attic so that I could psychologically enter and leave “work” mode. This really helped set boundaries and prevented the all-consuming work effect on my home life.
The lesson: Avoid the late start, late finish pattern by finding somewhere else to work or imposing a strict structure to your routine. Procrastinating in the morning while watching daytime TV so that you have to work into the night is unhealthy and will put more pressure on you and your family.
I guess you could say that resilience (the ability to bounce back after hardship) is important whether self-employed or not, and I’d agree. I could talk for days about the moments of sheer demoralization I have felt most prominently during the early months of freelancing full-time. The moments when you are ready to hand in the towel because you’ve been turned away for what seems like the tenth time that day can be super tough. Persistence is key during these times and although a bit cliché, if you want to succeed, you’ll need to push through.
The lesson: Know that your resolve will be tested quite often. Be prepared to persist through the hard times.
- Networking and marketing yourself
A big lesson for me in the first few months of freelancing was how unprepared I was for networking and marketing myself. Selling yourself (rather than a company) is unfamiliar, and if you don’t have sales experience from a previous role, this can be hard. You can be at the top of your game technically and creatively, but if you can’t reach out to promote yourself, you will struggle to land any clients.
In the early days, you’ll find you have to meet with anyone and everyone. Even if you feel that an introduction has no value to you or your business, do follow through. Opportunities have a funny way of presenting themselves at the times you least expect.
People do business with those they like and trust, so perfect your elevator pitch and start making connections. Send out emails to potential referring partners and try to secure a meeting with as many as possible. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back immediately. Instead, wait a week or two and send a friendly follow-up.
The lesson: Just because you’re great at what you do doesn’t mean you’ll be instantly flooded with paid work. Building your network takes time. Be persistent (but not annoying) with cold emails or calls, and seek out structured networking opportunities in your local area.
- Patience is a virtue
This point deserves a long *groan.* Now every time a client opts to write his or her own content and take their own pictures, my heart sinks. Designing a website for a client is obviously my top priority when I’ve secured a contract, and it’s important to me to stick to deadlines and keep clients happy. Unfortunately, a website probably isn’t always first and foremost on my client’s list of priorities.
This means you’re sometimes waiting weeks longer than you expect to for content. When you finally receive said content, you’ll probably be waiting another number of weeks throughout each editing stage. This is a lot of dead time for you to balance with other projects and commitments.
The lesson: Be clear in your proposal how many edit stages are included within your services and set deadlines for these. If things get really bad, you might want to establish that full payment be made for a project after a certain date, regardless of which amendment stage you are at. This protects you if you have a particularly despondent client that continually misses reasonable deadlines you’ve already agreed to.
- Cash flow
Poor cash flow is never something I considered in my previous roles, yet all of a sudden it was crippling me. I was over the moon after landing a couple of new clients, as my marketing efforts were finally starting to pay off and I’d overcome the first hurdle of finding people to pay me for my work. A few weeks went by and the projects were ongoing when I realized that I hadn’t been paid yet for over a month’s worth of work.
I should have started out thinking carefully about payment terms, including where on the project timeline I would charge and how much. I quickly resolved to charge a 20 percent deposit, raising this to 30 percent soon after. This kills two birds with one stone: it helps speed up the project timeline and improves the limited cash flow.
The lesson: It’s essential to think about payment terms and reflect this in your proposals from the beginning. There’s nothing worse than putting in the hours only to not get paid until the project goes live. This isn’t so much a problem if you have regular clients, but that blessing is unlikely when you’re first starting out. Consider splitting payment into three stages: upfront, at the first round of edits and when the project is completed.
- The creativity tug of war
In my early web design projects, I was really keen to express my creativity during each brief and thought it important to leave a unique digital mark. So it was hard when, through a series of edits, all of my elements were stripped away and replaced with something more conventional, or a design that was just like a client’s previous website.
I’ve learned to remember that I aim to deliver a result that is in line with a client’s expectations, not how I would prefer to deliver a project if I were making the decisions. A design may be thought provoking and engaging in it’s own right, but completely inappropriate for the tone of the organization’s brand.
View yourself as an advisor and only make critical design decisions when you are confident they fit the brief and the wider tone of the organization you’re working with. Uphold this even when you feel a client’s chosen design is not the best fit for his or her business.
The lesson: Ensure that you discuss what your client likes and dislikes. In the context of website design, I always ask for examples of what they love and dislike, and why. Even if the final design isn’t something that you think works best, it isn’t yours anymore, it’s theirs. And at the end of the day, having happy clients is what matters most.