Freelancing is an art, and a science. It is difficult to master, and notoriously hard to continue doing. Creativity is hard to call on a moments notice, and almost impossible to squeeze out with barely any sleep. Freelancing in general though is a way for us to take the things that we have done, and would enjoy doing on a day to day basis, and turn it into a lifestyle. It is more than work. It’s a way to be thorough in what we do, to be measured and critical, to be creative and artistic, to be judged and critiqued appropriately (and not appropriately), and most importantly it’s a way to learn.
We can explore, captivate, love, and impassion with our work when we freelance, and we can do it all in one blow. And on top of all that it’s one of the last true ways to get an MBA in Business Administration (so-to-speak) without attending a school or University. You will never have more challenges, more self-doubt, and more excitement than when working for yourself on projects that you care about. That quote up at the beginning of this article really resonates with me, and I hope it resonates with you. Because that is simply the truth of the matter. Though, it is a glamorous lifestyle indeed, it can be notoriously difficult to start. In this article I hope to walk you through some of those steps, and let you in on some of the lessons I learned the hard way. Also, I hope to give you some insight on the why’s of freelancing, as I know there is a large contingent of people out there who really are debating what to do next.
“You know what fascinates me? What fascinates me are the people who, in order to pay the mortgage, literally create something where nothing used to exist – every day.”
Freelancing isn’t just about helping clients, and working for yourself. It is more than doing things you love and getting paid for it. It’s, at the core, a lifestyle wrapped in a degree wrapped in a passion. The ultimate burrito as I like to call it. One thing to note right off the bat, is that it is very difficult to maintain a freelancing career if you don’t absolutely love what you’re doing. The reason for that is because the trials and tribulations you will face are numerous and plentiful, and it simply is difficult to deal with without appropriate passion, energy, and drive. For instance, the love you may have had for that one passion project you did, or that one site you helped a family member with really doesn’t do justice to what you will experience as a freelancer. I often will tell people to do 10 passion projects, or help 10 family members and friends with sites, and then decide if this is for you. The number 10 is rather random, but it signifies an importance in the number of people you have to deal with, and by the tenth person you will have gone through a very minuscule yet representable amount of ‘client drama’ that comes with being a freelancer. Then you’ll have a taste, and ironically by the tenth person people are either hooked or totally turned off. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this article.
Let’s get right into the How. Suppose you are currently a web designer or a developer, perhaps you just got out of school, or are into a 3/6-month process of learning HTML/CSS/jQuery/ or Back-end languages and you want to know how to actually start as a freelancer. Well, get ready because this is a loaded question and one with a lot of what you don’t want to hear. In order to actually start giving this advice, you should rid your mind of any legal red-tape you may be thinking about. “Should I be an LLC, or a Sole-Prop?”, is totally unimportant right now. Get all that out of your mind and start fresh. Blank slate. Now it is time to take a step back before you begin any work (one of many steps back actually), and realize how hard this will be at times. Perhaps you won’t find clients for 2 months, or 2 years. Perhaps you will hit brick walls when creating your logo or site, perhaps you will have clients that won’t pay you – ever. Perhaps you will run into any number of situations similar or related. This all happens to every freelancer. Don’t be discouraged. You have to have a drive like no other if you want to start doing this. The motivation comes and goes, but the drive – that internal drive – has to always be there. Be ready, and you will be okay. Also, remember one other thing. Craigslist is really lackluster when it comes to getting responses from potential clients. You may send out 1,000 emails there and get 2 responses, but again don’t be discouraged. It’s just the nature of the business. Alright, now that you know all that how do you actually start your career as a freelancer? Well, let’s walk through it step by step.
Simply put, work on as many personal projects as you can. Remember that 10 projects rule? Here it is. You are not only building out your future portfolio you are gauging how you’d do in this industry. Also, a very important preliminary note before all of this is you should be active on Twitter! I can’t over-state the importance of that, because it is endlessly important in this industry. Do make sure that you use Twitter as a professional tool though, and do not abuse it. Always remember it this way, “Social media is the good cop to all the bad cop stuff you do in life.” Use that as a guiding theme everytime you post something, ask yourself if you would be proud or if this is a good-cop posting. If you don’t know what that means, or want some personal coaching on how to use Twitter please do email me.
Now that you have all those personal project completed to your best available standards go ahead and toss them all in a folder on your desktop labeled “For Portfolio”, and take a deep breath. You have made some significant progress already, and you will find that being a freelancer can be very time consuming so taking time to relax and breath to remind yourself of your progress is always very helpful. Next to reflect on is that you have to take into account the fact that you want to create a cohesive “brand” so to speak. You want people to be able to recognize you from your profile picture, your logo, your portfolio, your style of artwork/or code, and everything you do. Now, that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be diverse, but you have to always remember you are a brand, not just a person now. You are “Sally Mae, the Digital Artist”, or “Timmy Turner, the Rails Developer”, not just who you used to be. Next action step is to create a color pallet for your portfolio site, and then a logo in that pallet. For instance, the site below is a great example of that. Remember though, your logo will be on estimates, invoices, business cards, and other official documentation – so keep it very simple yet representative of who you are. Simple enough to scale to any size, yet complex enough to represent the artistic person behind it. Note: If you are a programmer or back-end developer then simply outsource your logo design, but tell them the requirements you’d like it to be and think about the rest of what I’ve said here to come up with said requirements.
Now that you have a logo and a color pallet, it is time to come up with some theme’s and ideas for your portfolio site. Let’s toss up an example to get the flow down. Perhaps you think to yourself, “Oh, it could be brown and have Earthy tones to match my logo which is also those colors. It could be as though the site were under the Earth, and that would explain such a use of those color tones.” That is a great start, but hold on one minute there! You are thinking for not only the present, but for the future as well – you have to remember that. So for instance you may have considered having an “under the Earth” vibe to your site, but what does that say about what you do? Does it say that you only do sites for Organic brands? Perhaps you only do sites for Graveyards? Either way, it states something very important about your business, not just your brilliant use of color and ideas. Always keep that in mind, because finding a Niche is really important in the later stages of creating a freelancing business. Remember your niche is an extension of you, and what you like to work on as well as the type of person that you are. And trust me, it is much more appealing to certain companies if you specialize in only “Organic Web Site Design for Organic Companies”, than if you just “Do Websites”. Talk about a difference there, but in the beginning you will want to probably take on anything you can get – so we can table that for now. Always keep that in mind though, because the decision you make now could in fact effect the future.
Now that we have brainstormed the portfolio, we can actually start to create it! Time to get our hands dirty. In this phase you will want to spend as much time as you can polishing and making your portfolio look really nice. Always remember that you want it to stand out from the crowd of other designers representing themselves. Go on Twitter, look around the web, whatever it takes to find out what other designers or developer freelancers are doing and then do the opposite or do something very unique and originally to your tastes. This isn’t exactly an article on how to make your portfolio site look nice, I could perhaps do one on that in the future, but I won’t be discussing that right now. Though I will say that when creating your portfolio remember that you are designing based on content, so let the portfolio revolve around the content of your designs or development. Leave little squares so that you have room to import your previous personal projects, and are able to really fill out the site, which is the next step.
Go ahead and import all your projects into the portfolio. My favorite way to do this for website design is to have small thumbnails, or rather a grid of small thumbnails, that repeat. And then upon clicking one it expands to show the full resolution image of the site you created. Then perhaps there is a link under that to take you to the “live” version, which simply means the version that lives on the web so they can play around with it themselves. The image below is a great example of this. This is a portfolio site for Aure Gimón, and it is one of the best examples of a portfolio that I’ve ever seen. Take notes on that one.
Now that you have all your personal projects in your portfolio, your portfolio looks great, you have a nice logo, and everything feels ready – it is high time to give yourself a nice break and compliment. You have seriously made massive progress, and by this point you should be very proud of yourself. You’ve gone further than a lot of people do in this industry, even if it is just on your own requirements. Take yourself out for a nice lunch to celebrate, and remember that you need to get used to doing these mini-accomplishment breaks. This is also an exercise, because freelancing is a grueling task. You can easily work all day everyday without feeling like you are making progress, if you don’t take the time to step back and reflect. Starting now will come in handy later on, trust me on that, and also by doing so you are saving yourself from a potential burn out. Burn outs are very common in freelancing, especially if you aren’t taking these breaks.
It’s time to find clients. Oh, what a sad state of affairs this may turn out to be, and if so that is totally fine. Prepare yourself for that and be ready for rejection, despair, not having people return your calls or emails, and constant searching. Though, I will be showing you a secret weapon that I feel like very few freelancers are using, do make sure you realize this could be a grueling process. Relax, take it slow, and be patient, but always keep up the hustle at the same time. Goto sites like Monster, Craigslist, Freelancer [dot] com, and Dice. Find as many freelancing opportunities as you can, and draft up an email template to be ready to send to them. Here’s an example of such a draft:
Hey there __name here___, I saw your post on, __site name here__, and I noticed you are looking for a __designer or developer__. Paragraph or two describing your history in the tech world and why you enjoy it, and then describe the languages and CMS's you are familiar with (don't embellish at all here)! Link to your site/portfolio. Link to your twitter. Thanks so much, Your signature.
Then create a TextExpander snippet for that such as “.designer_email_posting”, and then literally blast that off to as many emails as you can do in a week period. You may get some responses, you may not, and if so just continue being cordial – give them your estimates, and be reasonably priced. Do the work in a timely and professional fashion, and then invoice them. Once you do a few small jobs like that you really get the flow of what is going on. Make sure you save all the PDF’s of the invoices and estimates in a folder structure for “Clients” or something similar.
By now you have probably gotten maybe 1 or 2 jobs, but if not, you are ready for the secret weapon. The secret weapon is massively important in a freelancer’s tool chest. This is a secret weapon like no other, and I say that from my own personal experience of trying to find clients for 5 years. As a brief aside, as freelancer you constantly want to be in the silicon valley frame of mind, as it’s where the most jobs are. Therefore, any place online you can find to actually help be in that frame of mind can help, or any place online where you find others in that frame of mind can help. The best place for that which I’ve found? Build it With Me. These are people looking to build startup ideas, and you can email them. They are real people, who leave real ideas, and their real emails for you to get in touch with them by. They are posting here because they want to be gotten in touch with. Every person you email on this site, I guarantee you will get a response. I have even found this is a great way to find people in the industry to talk to. I have met and worked with clients from Ebay, Living Social, and even worked on projects with the FDIC itself, through people I’ve met on this site. It is truly a hidden gem for freelancers. Get to it!
Use things like Basecamp and invite clients to it so they can see your progress (if it is a big project). Make sure you use a tool to send estimates professionally like Freshbooks (linked at end of article). After the project you will need to send invoices too, which you should always do promptly, and you should also use a professional tool for this like Freshbooks. Make sure you have your logo on there as well. Always communicate in nice, friendly, yet professional way with clients at first. Remember that you want to be inviting, but not too casual. And lastly, always ask how they would like the final deliverables and what formats, then go above and beyond and get them various versions and entire formats based on their requests plus what you think they may need. And now you are off to the races! Just make sure you take plenty of breaks, and don’t over-work yourself. Avoid burn-out at all costs, and you will be just fine.
I always thought it would be really fanciful to become a freelancer. I thought I could sleep all day, play all night, code in my free time and make enough money to get by. I always wanted to be able to create things but also to be able to do it on my own schedule. Come to find out though you really get hit with all the hard lessons you never imagined. Somedays you’ll sleep a lot, some weeks you won’t. You will realize that you can work all the time, so you do. You learn more than that though in all honesty. You learn about business, finance, life, your passions, your skills, how to deal with people, and how to get the things you would like. You learn about motivation, productivity, how to keep going when you just cant anymore, and how to stop when you just don’t know how. You’ll learn about gaining and creating followers, keeping people happy, being frugal. You’ll learn to deal with the most difficult of people, and how to stand out amongst a crowd, and perhaps most importantly of all you will learn how to run and keep a business growing, how to manage and secure financing (from clients), how to budget your income, how to do taxes, and more legal red tape than you ever wanted to know. This is invaluable information for continuing on in your life, especially if you ever want to start a corporation or a family.
Now that I’ve mentioned all those lessons, you probably are expecting me to give answers to all of those for you, well that’s not quite how it works. Besides, could I really give you answers to a lot of those? Perhaps to some, but the more important thing is that you learn them. I showed you how to start, but to give you the answers to all of those would make the point of being a freelancer completely null and void. It would ruin the experience. The experience is stressful, it is realistically challenging, and it is forever something you will remember. How could I take that away from you? Don’t let me get you wrong though, there are times you will have to read blog posts about taxes, business tactics, and things related. But nobody is going to give you it all on a silver platter. It is up to you to do the most of it, and for good reason. You are the one that enacts the change. Not anyone else, but for good measure at the end of this article I will link to a bunch of valuable resources for more information.
So why put up with all this? Why put up with all this ridiculousness that comes with being a freelancer? If this is so stressful and challenging why even do it? Well, what in life is rewarding without challenge? Name one thing. I challenge you. Everything is challenging. That’s life. You are looking for real practical help on situations throughout, and you will find it in your own missteps and guidance that you get and give to yourself as you correct course. That is all something most of us know, but always and forever will forget just in time to want to be fed the answers. Another reason that is equally important though is to future proof yourself. Let’s take a look at what that means and why it’s important.
The future is littered with uncertainty, and so are all of our lives. There is one thing, though, that we can do to add a bit of certainty to it. We can know a trade or skill that will never diminish in need. Not just that, but being able to stand out amongst a crowd of people with said skills is what will really and truly future proof you. Often times tradesman of the old world talk about this, because we will always need plumbers (unless we change the technology of the toilet), and that is the same advice I’d give now a days for programmers and designers. We will always need these trades and people hence forth, regardless of bubbles, markets crashing, etc. The good programmers were employed even when the last bubble crashed, and they will be for the next one as well (if it is even going to). In short, don’t undervalue the ability to brand, market, and represent yourself.
A side-note on why I think this is so important from a freelancing perspective, is that I think we are coming into the era of humanized businesses. Brands are becoming more human, and what is more human than a business run by just one person? Wether it be Instapaper or just you and your iMac, a business run by one person is just so efficient and personal feeling. I use Instapaper just so I can support Marco. This directly relates to you being a freelancer, and the future of business. You can be a part of it. Do you take that challenge?