I’ve recently been getting a lot of questions around what it’s like to start working for yourself as a designer/developer. Here’s a bit about my journey and some things that have worked for me.
How did you get your start as a freelancer?
Many years ago I started as a photographer. Not the kind that makes money, the kind that makes art. And then someone I respected said they thought that my images would look great with text. I loved that idea, so I taught myself everything I could about typography.
That lead to creating posters, album art, business cards, and learning everything about commercial printing — your pretty standard path to becoming a designer. Eventually people needed more web work than print work which lead me to teaching myself enough HTML/CSS.
How were the first few months working for yourself?
My process was very gradual. I worked in a camera shop for 6 years while building my business on the side. I eventually cut my day job to part-time hours, and I started teaching myself to design for the web, basic HTML/CSS, and taking on bigger projects. Eventually it made sense to take the plunge for real. Shortly after that I was getting more and more projects and eventually started teaching a part-time design course at a university.
How did you go about finding your first clients?
At the very beginning I just made sure everyone knew what I was doing, and I made sure my friends and family also spread the word. People eventually reached out asking me for design work.
Every single client I have ever had since then, without exception, has been via referrals, either from past clients or people who know what I do.
Bottom line: people feel comfortable hiring someone they trust. Make them feel confident that you can do a good job and then no matter what, DO A GOOD JOB. They will happily refer you.
Did you find it was a struggle to find clients? When did you feel like you got into the groove of it all?
The fact that I was in a two-income household and I kept my day job as long as I did means that I didn’t have to stress as much.
But I did anyway. I still do. It’s in my lineage. I’m working on it!
I wouldn’t say I’ve ever gotten into a groove as in “I just go to work and I’m on autopilot”. I’m constantly learning, adapting, tweaking my processes etc. But I have been doing it long enough to know deep down that, if I just keep doing good work, focus on solving my clients’ problems and treat people well, projects and opportunities will keep coming in.
Whats a typical day like for you now vs. when you first started?
A large part of freelancing is about running a business. So there’s the creative/coding work, but 50% of my time is spent following up on emails, doing project management, dealing with accounting, networking (be it IRL or online), and continued learning. I’m also just getting back to teaching a new course at DecodeMTL in Montreal this Spring.
To avoid lost time on context switching, I try to organize my schedule in 1/2 day blocks which means I work on one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon. I also process my emails 3x/day using the Google Inbox snooze feature, so client emails come back to me on the day and block I put aside for them. Some days will be more productive than others, but it’s definitely important to organize and maximize your time because there’s no boss to tell you what to do!
Is there anything you hate about freelancing?
There’s nothing I hate. There are challenges which will vary from person to person. My business is all on me and sometimes that can be tough. I can’t just clock out at 5pm and feel like “it’s someone else’s problem”.
On the flip side, this is also what drives and empowers me because my wins are all me too. So it’s not all black or white. Depending on your personality traits around confidence and anxiety, that could be pretty tough to surmount long-term if you don’t develop coping mechanisms and/or a support network.
To counter this, I make sure that I don’t feel isolated. I’m an introvert, but I still need minimal contact with others who are in my situation. I need to bounce ideas off of others who do the same kind of work I do and get constructive feedback (vs the crazy-alone-in-my-head feedback). I live out in the country so do a lot of this connecting-with-others via Google hangouts. It’s a real game changer for my mental health.
Another big challenge has been getting friends and family to understand that I’m working and not chillaxing all day. I’ve had to set limits around “dropping by” while I’m coding, or assuming I can just run errands in the middle of the day “because I have time”.
What about freelancing do you love?
A lot, but the biggest is this: My time belongs to me and I am never bored.
I make my hours, make my decisions on projects, and all of my successes and failures are my own. And when I say I make my own hours, that doesn’t mean I sit back eating bonbons and watching cat videos all day #freelanclife!
As a solopreneur I often work more hours than many people in a 9–5 job. However, I can structure my days and weeks the way I want/need to without asking for permission:
- If I’m feeling a bit run down this week, I can back off and push harder next week.
- If the weather’s good, I can plan a Wednesday-Friday kayaking trip and make up for it by working over the weekend.
- My work is 95% remote. If I wanted to go work from Thailand for 3 months I can just do it.
I hear that this level of flexibility works really well for folks with kids as well. Most importantly it leaves me open for all sorts of opportunities which would not be possible if I had to be punching in for someone else.
Do you do design as well as development?
Yes, but for at least 3 years I did only design and outsourced dev. The opposite is also completely possible. Most people don’t do both. A year ago I relocated to take a 9-week front-end development bootcamp in order to level up and stop outsourcing the development work. Best investment ever.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start freelancing?
Do it! But know yourself.
Unless you have a beefy 6 months of savings, or a pretty full pipeline of work, or a super zen personality, it can be rough to just dive in. The first few projects can be a pretty steep learning curve around onboarding clients, scoping projects, managing time, managing expectations, and learning to be assertive all while delivering great feels for your clients.
The ideal is to have some sort of job (even part-time) so you can ramp up gradually without burning out. This way you can really pour your energy into building your business without having to say yes to every job that comes your way.
In my experience, good clients lead to more good clients. The reverse is also true. The sooner you can develop your “gut” and learn to say no, the sooner you will be working on rewarding projects.
What about managing finances?
First thing: get an accountant. As a solopreneur there are a million things to consider around taxes, write-offs and maximizing deductions and chances are you don’t know half of them.
Just pay someone to save you money.
Additionally, tracking receipts and invoices without systems is horrible come tax time. I was super late to the game on the systems bit and it was pure hell.
So do you take vacations anytime you want?
When you’re self-employed you can decide when you want to take time off, but the bill’s all on you, baby!
You have to factor in the cost of the vacation plus the cost of the money you’re not making while you’re on the beach (especially true if the bulk of your income is based on hourly billing).
If you don’t plan and save for that, a $1000 all-inclusive could actually be costing you closer to $3000.
Any networking tips?
Yes! Get out on a regular basis, no matter how much you think you hate it. Also:
- Go to conferences. They’re fun. And don’t be that guy/girl who’s secretly looking for “better” people to connect with when someone is talking to you. Be present and kind, and don’t underestimate people.
- Go to meetups. They suck. Keep going. Eventually they suck less.
If you’re in Canada, find a local chapter of Ladies Learning Code and volunteer. You teach. They learn. You feel good. They feel good. Everyone wins.
- Get involved in multiple Slack communities. Just don’t live in the shadows of DMs for too long. Answer and ask questions in the open. That way everyone benefits from the exchanges, and you get to build relationships.
- Don’t isolate. Create a little posse of other freelancers you trust and schedule regular meetings. Accountability and support are crucial.
- Create a co-learning environment for yourself. Find a group of people with different skillsets but common values, and build something together.
- Put time aside from client work each week for learning (tech or business)
Ok, your turn! Do you have any other questions? Maybe you’ve been at this for a while and have some tips/tricks/thoughts to add? Either way, drop them in a tweet!