If you’re looking for more creative freedom, control of your time, and a good excuse to avoid working from a cubicle ever again, becoming a freelance designer is a smart move. But before you make the big leap, there are a number of less creative factors to consider — those back-end business functions normally taken care of by salespeople, marketers, and project managers in more corporate settings. This is what we call the Art of Going Freelance.
The sooner you think these out, the sooner your business can center on a core focus, the sooner you’ll have more clients than you can handle.
Developing a Brand
First and foremost, you’ve got to develop a brand. Yes, even if that brand just employs you, yourself, and you. Having a clear, compelling brand builds your credibility, and it also helps clients remember you in times of need.
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It is much easier, for instance, to remember a catchy headline than it is to remember, a long rambling “About” page that vaguely proclaims your love for design in one sentence and discusses your trip in 5th grade to Tahiti in the next.
1. Create an Elevator Pitch
While not everyone works this way, it’s often very helpful for many new freelance designers to develop their elevator pitch before they create anything else. Why? Because doing this means sitting down and really thinking hard about what you do, why you do it, who you do it for and how you’re different. One of the best ways to start is to write these things down or to have a friend interview you. From there, narrow down to the essentials, until you have both a one paragraph and a one sentence pitch that says all you need to say as concisely as possible, adding in relevant details here and there to make it memorable.
Once you have a clearer sense of what you’re all about, it’s time to choose a name that represents your business mentality, your voice, and where you’d like this whole business to go. That means anticipating your future with a name that can represent more than just yourself if you plan on expanding.
Your name and logo go hand in hand. Create one that represents your style and that will look great on a wide range of materials, from business cards to your website and everything in between. The dynamic nature of logo design needs to be able to span multiple mediums.
Finding your First Clients
Once you’ve branded yourself, it will be easier to reach out to clients through the following means:
1. Your Website
Your website should have your logo, reflect your aesthetic, include testimonials, have a passionate About page and should lay out your services and pricing structure, and it should do it all in your unique voice. It’s also a good idea to write a blog regularly, using Google’s keyword tool to incorporate optimized terms.
2. Social Media
If you’re not on social media, get on it. Twitter is one of the best ways to reach out to and follow customers, while Facebook will help you create an online community to which your customers will want to return. Sites like Craigslist and Elance are a great option, although they can be a little overwhelming for someone just starting out.
3. Old Fashioned Networking and Referrals
Even though you might be working on the web, nothing beats some good old fashioned networking and referrals. Reach out to friends, family, former coworkers — everyone! — to let them know you’ve branched out on your own. Join Meetup groups — both those just for freelance designers and those for small business owners who might be interested in what you have to offer.
While you may have gone freelance to better go your own way, you can reap many benefits from joining up with boutique ad and marketing agencies, SEO analysts and writers, and other website designers, who can help generate leads in more areas than you ever could on your own. Teamwork can be extremely beneficial in a startup environment.
Many people venture into freelance because they want to have more control over their time, only to find themselves working more hours than they ever did before. Freelancers, after all, have to wear many hats, and all of those little tasks can add up throughout the day. Just a quick check of email can lead to half an hour lost to answering something “urgent,” and even a two-minute reply can get you out of the work flow. Even managing client appointments can prove tricky, as you feel the squeeze to please.
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To get the most out of your time, it’s best to put your own structure in place. You can do this by blocking off time based on how you work best. A few tips:
- Block off half an hour for email at the beginning, middle and end of your day. You’ll get through emails more quickly when you process them all at once, and you’ll get more work done if it’s uninterrupted.
- Schedule regular times for the tasks you don’t want to do. If you hate accounting, choose a regular day either once a month or once every two weeks for getting it done, rather than pushing it off indefinitely.
- Shut off the internet. Or at least, the sites that distract you the most. You can block all access off with apps like Freedom, or selective sites with Self Control.
As your business gets busier so too will the time you spend on accounting, whether it’s tracking and invoicing for your time, billing for materials, or getting flaky clients to pay. It’s important to have tools that streamline your efforts.
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And, it’s got to be said, having an accountant or a book-keeper on your side can save you both time and headaches, especially when it comes to understanding your tax obligations. They’ll likely you save you more money than they cost.
Managing Client Expectations
Right along with managing time comes managing client expectations (as managing client expectations can take up a fair amount of time!). This starts, continues, and ends with listening for the deeper desires behind what clients are actually saying, and guiding them towards a joint vision with your expertise. To manage clients, you’ll often to take the role of teacher, laying out how the process will go from beginning to end and establishing goals and timelines. This way, clients will always know what they should be expecting when, while you’ll also have a little wiggle room.
Prompt and complete communication is also key, even if it’s just to say, “I see your email and will be back to you shortly.” The more responsive you are to your clients, the more comfortable and respected they’ll feel, the more likely they’ll refer you to their friends and family. That said, don’t give in to the pressure to respond instantly, especially if it’s not urgent.
With the right tools and systems in place, you’ll spend more time designing and less time worrying that you’re doing everything you can do. That’s just the right game plan for not just establishing your own design business, but letting it thrive, too.