10 things I wish I'd known before I started freelancing
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
1. How the industry works
Not one person during four years on Ba Graphic Design Degree explained to us how the creative industries work, or what to expect. We did two years of professional practice as part of our degree which was essentially a checklist of things you have to tick off to pass the course, research company branding, build a website splash page, see how brand identities develop etc. I remember there was one brief discussion with one of our tutors over what a graduates hourly rate should be, but other than that there was no practical advice about what to expect when you graduate. In my opinion this should be one of the core things you learn on a creative degree. The first client meeting I had after graduating was a complete car crash, I had no idea what to ask, what to charge, how long the project would take. These are all things that would be useful to learn at University, certainly more than how to protect an egg from a 20 foot fall! (Yes, really, protecting eggs was a whole week of my degree)
I know this is a hot topic at the moment, but pricing is the most important aspect of freelancing. You need to make enough money for yourself and your business to survive. If you under value your time you will hurt yourself and other freelancers, If you over charge you might not even get the job. Understanding what someone with your experience and skill level is worth is vital. Talk to other freelancers about it, ask Uni tutors, use online resources but understand before your first job what you should be charging.
3. Understanding how best you work
Anyone can pick up a pen and draw, I'm a firm believer in that, there will be differing results but anyone can do it. What not everyone is cut out for is spending days on end in a studio by themselves. You have to be disciplined to keep churning out project after project, so it is important to figure out when and how you best work to make the most of your time. I know people who are more productive in a morning, some who are more productive at night, some who like to work while watching tv. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. Personally I am the most productive between 6am and 1pm, with loud music on in the background. What is important is finding whats right for you, so when you are working to a deadline you know you are doing everything you can to hit it.
It's a fucking horrible term but in a way is necessary. I don't mean those awful breakfast seminars that cost £200 and are run by the guy from the local car dealership. Don't go to them! I mean, get out there and get face to face with people. A lot of work is found through being recommended by people you know or meeting new people at the right time. So get to know the people who run your local coffee shop, talk to people in the pub, hand out flyers to local business. I was very guilty for the first three months of freelancing of relying solely on the internet to find new clients, which is a difficult way to find work when you have a portfolio full of uni work and a limited social media presence. If you get to know people and they need work, chances are they will at least inquire about your prices.
5. Learn to say NO
Its ok to turn projects down, you don't have to accept everything that comes your way. When I first graduated I would accept anything and everything. I would agree to clients prices, produce work I hated that I knew would never get near my portfolio and take jobs on that I had no idea how to complete. Ive learnt that if a client comes to me with a £50 budget for a logo or wants me to build them a website, it is better for me and the client to turn that work down. Somethings just aren't worth your time.
6. Find something you love
The single best bit of work advice I have ever received, find something you love and do it better than anyone else. There will be dark times when you are freelancing, times when you don't know how to pay the bills, when you feel isolated maybe even depressed. If you know what you are doing is something that you truly love, it will help you get through those bad times. For me it was making the transition from mainly digital design work to mainly traditional illustration work. Find a style or subject matter that you love and strive to do it better than anyone else.
7. Unusual working hours
I'm based in the UK but take jobs on all over the world. If I have a client in America or Australia I can't expect them to work to my time, I have to work to there's. There paying for a service. If that means working through the night or answering a Skype call at 4am then I have to do that. Be prepared to be adaptable.
As I touched on above there will be times when you don't have work coming in and you have bills to pay. Make sure every job you take on you save whatever amount would be reasonable on that job. As a rule of thumb I try to put 25% of every payment into a savings account. This takes the pressure off when work is hard to find or clients are late paying invoices.
9. Know your legal rights
Freelancers in this country need more protection, workers in general do, but unfortunately this government doesn't seem to be doing anything about that anytime soon. My second job out of Uni was producing a t-shirt design for a company making table football figures. They skipped on payment, I called and emailed and tried to talk them into paying. They didn't so I just accepted there was nothing i could do and moved on. I learnt quickly this was wrong, I should of taken them to the small claims court. I have unfortunately had to do this a couple of times since where companies haven't paid. Knowing your rights and how to protect yourself with contracts is vital, you can't rely on people being decent human beings.
10. Enjoy what you do
It's that simple, enjoy what you do for a living. Freelancing can be incredibly rewarding but it can also be incredibly difficult and time consuming. It's hard on your finances, it's hard on relationships, it's hard on your mental health, so If you don't enjoy it, don't do it. Don't start freelancing because you think it is a get rich quick scheme. Ive met so many people in the last ten years who got into it because there friend did, or they were told they could draw a bit, or Kirstie Allsopp made a cushion and it looked easy. All of them have given up because it became too much like hard work. Do it because you love being creative, your passionate about it and you want create something you care about.