We’re more than halfway through 2020, and the freelance gig economy continues to expand full-throttle as a viable primary source of income for all types of professionals. Growing by 15% in the U.S. alone within the last decade, freelance work will only continue to thrive – presenting more and more opportunities to the solopreneurs and side hustlers of the world.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you want in on the ever-increasing demand for freelance work from individuals and businesses alike. Beyond its intrinsic motivators, such as a more rewarding career or complete ownership of your work, freelancers enjoy a level of flexibility, autonomy and room for growth that few 9-5ers are able to experience.
That being said, reaching full-time self-employment is not always a simple feat. Even with incredible amounts of dedication, time and effort, it may take years before you start to see the fruits of your labors. From securing each new client to chasing down late invoices, the world of design freelancing is a challenging one to handle without the right preparations.
To begin earning your own profits, creating your own hours and hiring your own resources, here are a few key pieces of advice for any design professional looking to leave their office job for good.
1. Test The Waters
Unlike the leap from one regular job to another, the transition to full-time freelance employment doesn’t have to be an immediate one. So long as you haven’t signed away the right with your employer, picking up a side gig while still working for an organization allows you to test the freelance waters before you take the final plunge. Perhaps this is why 45% of Americans in the workforce have some sort of money-generating project outside of their 40-hour jobs.
It becomes infinitely more manageable to mitigate the risks of freelancing when you still have the securities of a regular paycheck, health care provisions and a retirement package. The smartest freelancers use this transitory period as an opportunity to take larger, calculated risks that will further point them in the direction they want to head in, knowing they still have a safety net should their side hustle go drastically wrong.
For you, this might mean testing your hourly rates, exploring design software that you’ve never used, learning what types of projects are worth your time or sharpening your freelance productivity skills.
Entering the world of freelancing gradually provides one other major advantage: the ability to experiment with your markets and find a sustainable source of business. Because you’ll be responsible for acquiring your own sales and projects, you’ll have to make sure there’s enough demand for freelance work in the specific type of design work you do. If not, the testing the waters period is the ideal time to work toward developing your skills to better suit a larger or more accessible audience.
Once you’ve secured a few customers and acclimated to the cadence of freelance work, you’re ready for the next step.
2. Fortify Your Finances
The single largest barrier for many aspiring freelancers is money, or the lack thereof. The average person starting their own business shouldn’t anticipate seeing a penny of profits until their third year of operations, which means you’ll have to be wildly efficient with both your personal and professional finances.
If the name of the game is surviving until you reach this year three benchmark, the solution is to build up a cash reserve that’ll supplement your living and business expenses. And because there’s no single method best suited for securing your finances, it’s up to you to decide which strategies will be the most effective for you and your business.
The first – and most obvious – is increasing your monthly savings goals in the months or years leading up to freelancing full-time. If you’re like the six out of 10 Americans who have less than $500 in tucked away in their piggy banks, this might require a complete overhaul of your current money management practices. The easiest way to become more rigorous in your saving efforts is to sign up for a monthly automatic withdrawal or to divert a higher percentage of your income directly into your savings account.
For aspiring freelancers seeking a much shorter timeline than the months it may take to save, it may be worth researching other methods for injecting resources into your funds. For you, this might mean borrowing from family or friends or applying for a type of personal loan to acquire the backing you need. If you happen to be a home owner, one option is a home equity loan, which allows upcoming freelancers to tap into their home’s existing equity to tackle many of the upfront costs that come with starting a new business.
If neither of these options feels like the best fit for you, another alternative to look into is crowdfunding. Defined as the practice of funding a project or organization through a large number of small contributions, crowdfunding has been popularized with the help of online platforms, where backers from all over the world can invest in an array of funding campaigns – everything from medical procedures to new businesses.
With the right crowdfunding strategy in place, you might be able to jumpstart your freelance career while simultaneously building an audience of highly invested customers.
3. Build Your Brand
At a certain point in your freelance career, your list of personal connections and opportunities will run dry, making the hunt for new leads and projects more challenging. In fact, a study conducted by Freelancermap discovered that nearly a third of the freelancing professionals surveyed find landing new client opportunities as the most substantial obstacle in their careers.
To get ahead of this inevitability and secure your cash flow, you need to begin building your freelancer brand from your very first project.
Think of your brand as a series of choices – everything from the name you choose for your business to the voice and tone you employ while writing on your website. A great brand won’t only make these choices wisely, but they’ll also do so in a way that helps these individuals stick out in saturated markets.
We often talk about great branding that’s affiliated with larger, name-brand companies, but a strong branding offers many benefits for freelancers as well. A freelancer with an established brand will spend less time prospecting new clients, instead continuing to generate loyalty within their existing customer base. What’s most valuable for freelancers who may otherwise not have a name for themselves, however, is the boost in credibility and authority within your industry that effective branding can provide – both in the work you do and in your reputation as a one-person operation.
Because so much goes into developing a brand, you should prioritize your efforts based on your own personal skills and the areas of greatest opportunity for your business. Thanks to the technology and tools available today, graphic and web designers can perform essentially all their work remotely over the internet. This means that you should place greater emphasis on your online brand and reputation – everything from engaging with followers on social media to establishing brand awareness through SEO.
If you’re looking for further resources on building your freelance brand, continuing your learning experience with a business branding coach is a great place to start.
4. Create Your Design Toolbox
Certain kinds of freelance work, such as copywriting or transcription, require little to no additional equipment beyond a computer and a connection to the internet. The designer’s toolkit, however, is rarely as small or simple. Designers who previously enjoyed the workspaces provided to them by their employers will find that creating a productive work environment on their own is no small feat.
From high-resolution monitors to laser-sharp printers, the cost of creating a designer’s toolbox and workspace might be more than you can presently afford, regardless of how important these tools may be to your job. That’s why it’s important to decide where you can save money and where you should fully invest. Your computer hardware, office furnishings and any other physical equipment is typically more difficult to cut serious costs on, but the digital components of your design toolbox will offer more flexibility in terms of savings.
As opposed to buying a digital license outright, many software providers offer the opportunity to subscribe to their services instead hosting their offerings through the cloud. For freelancers, this drastically reduces the upfront cost of building out a toolbox. Opting for cloud-based alternatives also helps ensure the tools you’re paying for are fully up to date without having to face a repurchase. Some offer decent savings, like 40 to 70% off Adobe Creative Cloud.
The advantages of a cloud-based design toolbox prove true for many creative platforms, but this model also works very well for any administrative technology you need to operate on a day-to-day basis. Tracking your invoices, billing customers, communicating with your points of contact and logging your work hours all becomes infinitely easier when you aren’t juggling it all yourself. To find the best collection of tools for your approach to work, make use of the free or freemium options that are ideal for small-scale operations before you set up your subscription.
Finally, to stretch your dollar and make the most of the benefits afforded to single-person businesses, you should fully investigate opportunities for tax deductions, as you might be able to write off many office supplies, tools and equipment come tax season. IRS guidelines dictate that your deductible expenses should be vital to running your business and separate from your personal life.
5. Leverage Your Value As a Freelancer
Just because the path to full-time freelancing is not an easy one does not mean that this career path is without its advantages. This is reflected in the relatively recent change in company perceptions around freelancers and the distinct value they bring to the workforce. One 2017 report from UpWork revealed that 55% of businesses that worked with freelancers in the past planned to partner with more freelancers that year.
And there are good reasons why these businesses are intentionally seeking out help within their freelance networks, as opposed to hiring new, internal employees. In addition to a regular salary, employers have to incorporate paid time off, health care and retirement packages into their employee expenses. Compare that to a freelancer who charges only for the hours they work on a project.
Freelancers are also a better decision for businesses looking to rapidly scale that don’t have time to source, hire and train new talent. So long as these organizations have the budget, they can work immediately with freelancers with years of experience and require little to no onboarding. Couple this with the fact that the average salaried employee only yields 2 hours and 23 minutes of meaningful work in typical workday, and it’s even more transparent to businesses just how much of a return on their investment they receive while working with a contracted freelance team.
Image source: Emma Jayne Creative
So what does this spell out for you and your freelancing strategy? Primarily, this increased realization of value from businesses means that you should be recognized and compensated for your expertise, your adaptability and your agility for each project that you take on. As this article by Workfrom emphasizes, calculating your rates and selling your services is more than covering your baseline expenses. Freelancing longevity requires you to charge rates that consider your time, the service you are providing, and the monetary value your client will receive from your efforts.
For many emerging full-timers, this requires a change in mindset: you are not solely worth the work you provide to a business, but you are worth how difficult you are to replace.
6. Connect with Your Clients
There is one final advantage that freelancing merits over any business or agency that offers competing services: your ability to meaningfully engage with your customers. When comparing your freelancing venture to a company with infinitely more resources, personnel and industry connections, it’s reasonable to feel like there is no way to level the playing field.
But at the same time, a massive company that services tens, hundreds or thousands of customers in order to net profits will never be able to deliver the same customer experience as a lone freelancer who can afford to build relationships on a much smaller and more intimate level.
Where an organization’s products are often standardized, the freelancer can provide their customer with a finished result that is tailored to that person’s unique requirements. Should anything go awry, the freelancer is only a call – not a call center – away from their customers. This is critical in an era where 4 out of 5 consumers are more likely to spend their money with brands that personalize the customer experience.
Working as a freelancer also makes any unexpected changes or personal requests from a customer more feasible. Where businesses need to spend time booking out recap meetings, slogging through email threads, or pitching proposals when they need to shift gears, you can adjust on a pinpoint and continue to satisfy them in a timely fashion.
By capitalizing on these distinctions and fortifying your relationships with existing and potential customers, you will naturally attract those who are looking for an improvement on their experiences with bigger businesses.
If you are a full-time freelancer, what types or strategies have you employed to stay successful? Make sure to share your thoughts or suggestions in the comments section down below!