Can you relate to this common story? While moonlighting as a freelance designer, burning the midnight oil, sacrificing weekends, you dreamt of one day freelancing full time. Then it happened. You picked up a couple good clients and it seemed like it was time to make the leap. You quit your day job and set up shop. But soon you discovered that running a one man operation is hard work: administration, communication, scheduling, billing, and the dreaded sales and marketing. You began to wonder if finding a business partner, or hiring a couple employees would help? Unfortunately making that step made you even busier. Not only were all the original tasks needing attention, but now you also had to manage those employees and work through every decision with your business partner. And the pressure on sales was greater than ever.
At some point along the way you began to reflect on how you got here. And what ever happened to creating? It had gotten to the point where if you do any design at all, it had to happen at night and on the weekends–wasn’t that the problem you were trying to fix in the first place?
Too often creative service freelancers stumble into their careers rather than charting out a deliberate professional path. And having set off on an uncharted path they often don’t end up where they expected. And it can be very difficult to adjust such a course after the fact.
So if you’re in the early stages of making these kinds of decisions, you might want to consider a few things before heading down the trail.
Freelancing is a Business
If you’re still in the moonlighting phase, or maybe you’ve just graduating from art school, and you’re considering a full time freelance career, you’ll want to think this through carefully. Leaving your day job is a risky thing to do. Freelancing full time will take a lot more effort than setting up a personal website or BeHance portfolio. Starting a freelance business really means starting a business—with all the accompanying responsibilities and tasks.
First, you should do some self assessment. What are your strongest motives? What is your temperament like? How well do you handle stress and anxiety? How detail-oriented and disciplined are you? How will you do when you’re not sure where you’re next check is coming from? Do you have the risk tolerance for this kind of lifestyle? Are you in a financial situation that can flex and tolerate some early ups and downs? (I’ve developed a freelance readiness survey designed to aid in this self-reflection.) You may also want to take a DiSC survey. DiSC profiles, while not determinative, can indicate some basic work tendencies that would either favor your decision to take this path, or suggest particular challenges you might face. After careful consideration you may decide that you’d be happier with a full time design job with a bit of moonlighting on the side. But if, after a sober self-assessment, you do decide to move forward there are still more things to consider.
Where Is Your Path Leading?
The biggest question you need to ask yourself is where you intend to end up. Do you intend to remain a freelancer indefinitely? Or do you have hopes and dreams of building your freelance practice into a design boutique or growing design firm? Believe it or not, that inclination should inform some early decisions about how to position your freelance practice—even as it is just getting off the ground.
A professional freelance career does not have to grow into a small business in order to be sustainable and lucrative. But if you do intend to build it into a firm, you’ll need to focus your efforts accordingly. Here are some things you should consider as you set your path.
Long Term Freelance
If you intend to remain a freelancer indefinitely, you’ll need to establish some practices early on. Anyone can be a freelancer for a season. But if you want a successful career, you’re going to need to develop some professional practices. Make no mistake, freelance design is a business. Unfortunately, even the best art schools tend to go light on the business aspects of professional practice.
If you’re currently single, you may be able to live on a relatively low income. But you should establish your rates and fees based on long term goals and needs, not your short term reality. If you intend to freelance for the long haul, you’ll need to anticipate a future where providing for a household may become necessary. If you’re married, consider the cost of kids—and not just the financial costs—you’re going to need more control over your time as you enjoy family life.
So don’t establish patterns that require you to burn the candle at both ends in order to keep your practice viable. You may think that those kinds of needs are in the distant future, but your pricing and new business practices, once set, can be very hard to change. The clients you build, and their pricing expectations will not change when your circumstances suddenly do.
Besides, what’s the harm in preparing the way for higher income? Working toward higher rates and fees, better clients, and more control over your time has few down sides. And you’ll be able to build up some cash reserves—keeping your options open for the future.
But maybe you don’t intend to freelance forever. Maybe you do have ambition to form a design firm. If so you should think ahead to which path to take when you come to an inevitable fork in the road. Not all firms are the same. And they are not led in the same way. You’ll need to think about what kinds of firm you want to build.
What Kind of Firm Will You Build?
If you would like to build your freelance practice into a firm you’ll encounter one crucial fork in the road. Do you want a boutique firm or a growing firm? By boutique firm I mean a firm that intends to stay small (less than five employees or so) and more importantly, what I mean by a boutique firm, it keeps the owner involved in the creative work. In fact, it may be the principal’s vision and talent that sets the very framework of the firm’s positioning and focus. In contrast a growing firm is one that might have many more than five employees and the principal will not likely be doing much of the actual design work in the long run. Instead they will be leading the firm and running a business. This is a very important outcome to think through. Because if you don’t decide up front, but rather let circumstances lead, you may end up somewhere you never intended to go—where retracing your steps back can be costly.
These two types of firms have very different end points. Build either kind will have long term implications and business considerations. For example, in a boutique firm, you’ll want to keep your service offerings well within the sphere of the principal’s abilities and talents. Too much diversification will require hiring staff from too many different disciplines. Managing that staff will draw you further away from design work and vision setting. On the other hand, if you build a growing firm but continue to ache for hands on design work, you’ll create a frustrating and demotivating career, and you’ll not likely lead your business well.
So there’s a lot to consider as you set out on your freelance path. Not only are these basic big picture decisions important to think through, but whatever path you choose there are many smaller decisions and practices that need to be established to make any of the choices succeed.
If you’d like help working through these decisions, perhaps talking through your readiness survey or DiSC report, and figuring out next steps once you’ve set your course, perhaps you should consider a professional mentor relationship? After all, it’s far easier to set your business in the right direction right out of the gate than to have to correct your course later.