When you start your own business, you would ideally have some idea of how business works. But oftentimes, those of us in creative fields such as design don’t know a whole lot about the subject. We may know our particular job quite well, but everything else is a crapshoot.
Back when I decided to go off on my own, I had absolutely no reasonable plan to survive for any length of time. Oddly, it never seemed to cross my mind that I could fall flat on my face.
As it turns out, I made it through many ups and downs (with more to come, I’m sure) despite flying by the seat of my pants. Now in my 20th year as a freelancer, I feel incredibly fortunate to have survived this long.
But I also know that my situation isn’t unique in the industry. So I asked some other veteran freelance designers about their experiences in starting their own businesses. We discussed where they were at the start, what they’ve learned (the hard way) and how they might do things differently – knowing what they do now.
Below are the results of separate text-based conversations I had with fellow freelancers Dean Burton and John Locke. Burton is a WordPress Consultant and head of the WordPress Freelancers Facebook group, while Locke is California-based designer and SEO guru. The content was edited for brevity.
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How did you decide to start freelancing?
Dean Burton: I used to work in the housing and homelessness sector in Bristol, UK before I moved to Spain. Living abroad was what pushed me to find freelance work. I work exclusively with WordPress, building and maintaining websites for clients. My initial plan was to start a drop shipping business and see where it took me, so I built my own website using WordPress and this encounter was what hooked me into learning more about (it).
Eventually, once I felt I could help people, I got confident enough to start working on small projects and took it from there. Each project requires learning something new…I’m far from a developer, but bit by bit my skills improve!
John Locke: I decided to go into business for myself because I had already spent 20 years busting my (@$$) for other people, and I never had the career advancement or money that I was after. I realized that the corporate world was never going to give me what I was after, I had to go out and take it for myself if I wanted it.
What were your expectations for running the business? Did you think much about it?
DB: I didn’t really know what to expect when starting out as a freelancer. I certainly didn’t have any existing business skills, I just threw myself in and worked things out as they cropped up. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that way of working but it’s how I started. I am still continuing to work things out as I go, but now I tend to make decisions with more thought and research.
I didn’t think much about how I would run my freelance work – I did some research on what I should do before starting which resulted in a ‘sort of’ business plan, but mostly I focused on improving skills and finding clients.
JL: My expectations when I first started working for myself were that it would be easier than it actually was from a business development perspective. How wrong I was. At the time, it felt like everybody still needed web design, and I didn’t realize that a lot of small businesses have no desire to improve their situation. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve fully realized that you have to target businesses that already embrace self-improvement and digital marketing.
I didn’t really think about the business end of freelancing that much. I didn’t know anyone else personally that was doing it, but I had read a lot of stuff on the web that made it seem like a lot of people were doing it and having success with it.
Did anything business-related surprise you once you started?
DB: I think a big business challenge for me was dealing with my own clients. I’ve been conditioned to work for other people! Having my own clients to manage is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, if something goes wrong it lands on your shoulders and no one else’s so you have to take responsibility for that. But on the other hand, I get to choose who I want to work with and the way things are done. It’s something I’m still getting used to!
Another business-related surprise for me was how much time you can easily lose during your week when you work for yourself. When you manage everything yourself (your social media, lead generation, client management, the actual client work, invoicing and receipts etc) your time just disappears. You need a good balance of working on your business and working in it to keep things moving forward.
JL: The biggest part of the business of freelancing that surprised me was how hard it is to do business development, and how much of a long game that can be. Today I realize that I was lucky to make it through the first couple years of business, and a lot of people fail because they don’t get enough leads, or even enough good clients to make their business viable. Anything to do with the creative arts on the web, whether that’s marketing, web design, or web development is incredibly saturated at this point. You have to differentiate yourself, and you have to work a sales process. It’s not enough to put up a website and hope that you’ll get customers.
Have your business skills improved over time?
DB: I’m only into my second year freelancing so I have a long way to go, but I do feel much more confident handling my own clients, dealing with taxes and handling my own business tasks in general. The first year was lots of learning, putting processes in place to take care of business tasks and lots of uphill pushes. Now that I have processes in place things should start to become easier and take less time. I think my networking skills are also improving and as a freelancer your network is so important.
JL: I hope my business skills (have) improved over time. I realize I still have a long way to go, but I am much more acclimated to at the business side of freelancing now than when I first started. I got my first paying client by putting up flyers downtown, and for the record, don’t do that. The business side of freelancing is the hardest part for most people and it something that you have to continually stretch yourself with.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?
DB: If I could give myself some advice when I first started I would say network as soon as possible and go to events/meetups. I spent a long time questioning my skills and wondering if I was good enough to ‘put myself out there’. I would say get out there as soon as possible, have confidence and start speaking to people!
I’d also say be conscious of your time and how you use it. You have to have patience when starting a business from scratch, keep pushing forward.
JL: If I could go back in time I would tell myself to be more aggressive about business development from the start, and to spend more time in sales. Aside from that I wouldn’t change a thing. A lot of things people can tell you, but it doesn’t truly sink in until you experience it. There are a lot of people that do good work, but the biggest hurdle they have to overcome is continuing to adapt to the landscape and having a pipeline of leads that will become good clients for a well-positioned business. That’s more like four things, but hopefully you get my drift. It boils down to this: You always have time to do the work fulfillment, but you have to make the sales first.
A Unique Challenge
Starting a freelance design business almost feels like being dropped off in the middle of a forest with the challenge of finding your way home. Before you know it, you’re in the thick of a situation that you may not have expected.
But as time passes, you start learning your way around and picking up skills that you didn’t previously have. You may even surprise yourself quite a bit in the process. Even with no or limited business knowledge, you can find your way to success.
Many thanks to Dean and John for sharing their freelance journeys with us! They are living proof that we can indeed grow into our roles as business owners.