Freelance can be a dream or an absolute nightmare, it all depends on how you handle it!
I have been freelancing for the better part of the last decade. It’s become a gratifying part of my life, and has freed me from the chains of a corporate office, well before people were working from home for quarantine. I personally do graphic design and illustration, but freelance overall starts at the base of communication with clients, productivity, scheduling, and presentation of self.
Freelancing can be incredibly daunting, especially if you don’t know where to start. That’s why after all these years of freelancing myself, I want to put out a no nonsense guide of the 5 steps every freelancer should do to get started.
Number 1: All Business Needs Branding
Brand gives your clients a vibe of who you are.
You think you’re ready to just jump into the fire of freelance and get making money?
I can tell you, if you haven’t branded yourself, you aren’t even close.
Branding doesn’t necessarily mean a logo, but it definitely won’t hurt. Getting yourself a logo is an excellent way to present a mood/vibe to your clients right away. A good professional headshot can work for this too, but be sure that your headshot fits your brand.
There are a lot of people out there with corporate style headshots and their work is children’s illustration, or something similar. If you’re a freelance accountant or copy-editor, this corporate style may work for you, especially if you’re working for start-ups or other businesses. If you do something really creative you might want to be sure that you are giving off that impression.
Next, make sure you have business cards or that you have a great email signature or newsletter/social media banner. It’s going to depend on where and how you plan on getting clients, which we’ll talk about later.
Why does brand matter so much? Because brand develops trust and reliability between a freelancer and their client. Being consistent is important! Soft blues on your logo or banner design can be calming, seem royal, and produce feelings of trust, which is why you see banks use blue so often. All colors have their own moods that they present to your client.
The same can be said about whether you use a setting as well. Clouds and skies may make someone feel lifted. Beaches may feel relaxing. What do you want your client to feel? That’s how you decide on brand. I highly recommend hiring a branding designer for this, but just basic stuff you can do through things like CANVA while you’re getting started. There is always time to rebrand or upgrade later. Just make sure everything you make looks polished and professional!
Number 2: How to Present Yourself and Your Work
From portfolios to testimonials, how you present impacts everything that happens after.
This part of freelancing can be almost as daunting, or frustrating, as branding can be. You’re going to need a website, or a hub, for your work. If you’re an illustrator, you can use things like ArtStation, DeviantArt, or anything that allows you to post your portfolio (even Instagram, but I recommend you actually have a home base outside of IG).
If you’re an editor, you are going to want a space where testimonials can be posted and links to work you’ve edited. This can be up on Reedsy, a website, or a combination of things.
No matter what you freelance, your “home base” is extremely important for presenting your brand and your work. Remember this, you are your brand. If you’re just starting out there are a lot of options that are completely reasonable to use, including a Facebook Like page, Twitter, or web apps like Carrd. You can also get away with a free WordPress site, but I highly recommend quickly upgrading to a professional website with your own official domain name, because this reflects on your professional aesthetic (which is important to attracting client work).
You have plenty of options, but my go to suggestion is Bluehost because it links to WordPress and has free and easy to use templates, not to mention, Bluehost is extremely affordable (great for a beginning freelance career).
Once you have your hub, you need social media accounts. This is going to be invaluable for presenting yourself. You need a place you can talk not just about your work, but your thoughts. People like people they feel comfortable with, and are more likely to hire you that way.
Social media is also a great way to meet others in your field, like for myself I do branding design and book cover art design, so on my website I have an entire list of editors I recommend to my clients, and many editors recommend me as a cover designer to their clients.
This is symbiotic relationships among the industries you work in. If you’re an illustrator, knowing authors and such is a great way to get character illustration work and concept art work. These relationships can also lead to book cover art or children’s book/graphic novel work.
The best way to know what social media you should focus on is to know your audience. Who is your ideal client base? Stats in 2019 stated that more Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and Queer people were on Twitter than any other platform. That’s changed with the insurgence of TikTok, for ages 13–26, but Twitter is still a key platform for ages 17–41. TikTok has a great art community, so does YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. Facebook and LinkedIn have higher numbers of corporate individuals and tends to range more between 30s and up.
These are just some of the things you need to consider about your audience when setting up your Social Media accounts. Be sure, no matter where you end up, especially if it’s multiple platforms, you get something like linktree. This is an invaluable and free web app that allows you to put all of your links (website, different social media, Patreon, etc.) all in one place. This should be put in your website space or bio on all of your social media, and in your email signature! Curious about social media demographic stats for 2020? Check that out here.
Number 3: LEARN WHAT YOU’RE WORTH!
Prices are about your skillset, education, and income needs.
Before you get started finding clients, it’s time to make sure you aren’t screwing yourself out of what you deserve.
Do you have a degree or certificate in your field? That’s value you’re bringing to your clients.
Do you have years of experience in your industry? That’s value you’re bringing to your clients.
Do you have a specific amount of bills? That is a cost of production.
Your internet, phone, any software you need, and so on, are all things that are “production needs.”
What do I mean? Have you ever made crafts? Say you have to make a popsicle house. You need things to build it. Things like glue and popsicle sticks, are needed for a basic one. Then you might need paint, or a base, or scissors to make cuts for the doors, roofing, or so on. Everything you’ve put into making your product the best it can be counts toward cost.
Your education cost you money, charge accordingly. Your experience was emotional labor, charge accordingly. Did you do unpaid internships for experience? Charge accordingly. Everything counts toward your value.
“Your education cost you money, charge accordingly.”
Someone designing your book cover on CANVA, that’s self-taught, and just starting out, shouldn’t charge you the same as someone who has 10 years of experience, a degree in graphic design or art, and has worked with publishing houses.
There is a Venn diagram for this as well, that every single freelancer must keep in mind.
This Venn diagram is how you need to approach client work. Do they need it fast and great? It costs more. Charge more. You are not responsible for their inability to manage their time. That is on them. And unless you have no portfolio, the answer to free work is Absolutely Not. You cannot pay your bills on their tiny platform of exposure. You cannot eat gratitude.
“You are not responsible for their inability to manage their time.”
There is a great book on setting up pricing and getting paid what you deserve, “Art Money & Success: A complete and easy-to-follow system for the artist who wasn’t born with a business mind.” by Maria Brophy. I highly recommend you pick it up and read it. There are also worksheets inside for setting up your prices based on need of income.
Number 4: Finding Clients & Word of Mouth!
People hire people they trust.
As mentioned above in Presenting Yourself and Your Work, we talked about picking your website, social media, etc. That is a big part of finding your clients, of course, but there is a lot more to it than that.
Building a client list can take a lot of time, but it is faster and easier if you develop good word of mouth. I know this sounds like the “way we did things before advertising,” but it’s still the best way to find clients as a freelancer, because an advertisement only expresses a part of your branding, and can be often ignored by people with ad blockers, or who scroll away from anything marked “sponsored.”
Outside of being your authentic self and building a brand for yourself on social media, you want to show off your work, and testimonials from clients. This can mean posting on social media about your work and tagging your clients who are also on the platform while showing work you did for them. You don’t need to obligate them to give testimonials, but you will likely get some praise anyway! If they don’t have time to comment on posts, you can always ask they leave a review on your Facebook page, Reedsy page, or send you a testimonial for your website — this all depends on you, who your demographic is, and your platform.
The better you are to work with, and the better your product is, the more likely you are to be tagged or recommended by others on social media (another reason that it is important to be on social media).
I recommend that once you talk to any client on any social media platform, you find a way to move it to email. This isn’t just more professional, it is easier to keep track of your messages and keep people accountable to what they said. Paper trails are important, don’t let anyone try to trick you or trap you into something you didn’t agree to, and always set up boundaries at the beginning of your project! (We’ll talk more about that in the next segment.)
Number 5: Keeping Track of Clients, Scheduling, Invoices, & Terms and Conditions!
Forgetting a client, not following a healthy schedule, not getting paid, and loop holes in a non-contract project are dangerous pitfalls for any freelancer.
If I struggled with anything when I first started freelance, keeping track of client work, my schedule, invoicing, and perfecting terms and conditions that were safe for me, was the absolute hardest part. That’s why I’ve added them as the last and most important piece to this puzzle.
This is a lot to digest, so I’m going to go through them in parts. This way you can take what you need and make it work best for your own practices.
Keeping Track of Clients
This can be anything from a spreadsheet, notebook, or planner. Personally, I used Monday. I have used different methods throughout the years, in fact, all of the ones I just listed. But for me, the best method I’ve found is a nice, clean, project manager. Monday is a web app that does just that. It also allows me to put client information, notes, status (paid/unpaid/critical, etc) and where I am in the process, as well as my project timeline on a calendar. There are other programs like this, and it’s about finding what works best for you. Trello, Clickup, or even Microsoft Project. There are plenty to choose from!
Scheduling Yourself Like A Pro
When I first started freelancing I found myself over-working. I fell into a pit fall of “take every client” and “hustle.” I am telling you not to do this. I was listening to another freelancer suggest this not too long ago, and when you’re young, and hungry, I can understand how tempting this might be. Clearly, since I did it myself. But…
Burnout is real. Listen to me, read it again. Burnout is real.
Don’t burn yourself out. Burnout is a major set back that can be easily avoided if you sit down and make a weekly or even monthly schedule for yourself. It doesn’t have to be an hourly breakdown, in fact, I recommend it isn’t a traditional schedule because they can feel way too oppressive and certain will-types are not made for them. By will-type, I mean people who are not likely to follow set goals even if they set them. This is common with authority issues, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We’re trying to escape the corporate trap, after all.
Make a point of setting up what works best for you. I work best in the morning to afternoon, so I wake up early and work until just after the lunch hour. Be sure to set alarms for a lunch break and two smaller breaks between the larger chunks of your day. I use those breaks to stretch and get coffee or tea. Also drink plenty of water, and don’t forget to go to the bathroom! You don’t have to ask permission or hold it, don’t get a bladder infection over something that can wait.
Another point is to schedule tasks accordingly throughout your day. I do project work after emails. I do this because I have a tendency to forget to email people who’s projects I won’t be working on, if I were to do it after. You might be different, find what works and stick to it. You might even schedule it so you only answer emails at specific times or specific days. Which brings me to another point about scheduling…
You need to have days off. Remember burnout? Yeah, burnout.
Set days that you will take off from work. Set after work hours where you don’t do any work, don’t respond to work, don’t look at work. It can wait. If you get a DM on social media, kindly DM back, “Hi, thanks for your message, I’m off work right now, but you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get back to you as soon as I am back in the office.” Why do this? Because if they wouldn’t ask a Wal-Mart employee to get out of their car and go find them soap, would they? (I hope not, so rude.) So, they don’t get to do it to you.
Last part on scheduling! Set projects with enough space to cover sick days or your vacation. I take one week off every year, at the end of the year usually, and I email all of my clients when I am out of office, or I make a major social media post. You could develop a newsletter, which is a great idea for word of mouth also, you can post whenever you have discounts or new services with a newsletter as well. Just be sure a newsletter fits your audience.
On the note of a vacation, I heard you yell at your screen just now, “BUT I CAN’T AFFORD A VACATION!!!” I refer you back to the section on knowing your worth. Add a vacation savings budget into your income, seriously. You don’t have to even go anywhere, just don’t work for a week.
Setting Up Invoices and Terms & Conditions
This is about getting paid, not getting screwed, and not letting people take advantage of you, because they absolutely will if you let them.
Be up front how many changes to an art piece are available under the cost of the project. Be up front what is included in the project as a whole.
Don’t cut corners. Charge for extra work. Charge for tighter deadlines. Charge for additional anything. And charge for consultations if they want more than just an email. Your time is valuable, also only do these during work hours.
I recommend PayPal Invoices to all freelancers. It not only protects you but the client. PayPal is great at working between both parties if necessary. An invoice can protect from someone trying to pull their money back they sent and keep you from getting a hood pulled over your eyes.
Not only that, Invoices on PayPal have a Terms & Conditions. Now this is something you can add as a contract separately through something like DocuSign if you prefer. No matter how you do it, make sure you have it. Your Terms & Conditions protect you and the client. They are your agreement to one another on how they can use your product or the project they’re buying from you or services rendered, and a great place to put in caveats about ending a client and designer relationship if necessary for any reason.
You need to be sure to include information on refunds, commercial rights, labor, extra changes, and details of the contract here. I recommend looking for templates online for your particular service and finding a contract that works best for you. In my case my terms and conditions include that by paying the invoice the client is going into a verbal and written contract with me the designer that attests they have read my website FAQ and understand how I operate, as well as any other information we agreed upon.
You should also make sure your pricing in the invoice includes labor, customer service work, research time, back and forth for changes, and commercial use if that is something you offer with your work.
Do not skip this step! You deserve to get paid!
Okay, so let’s recap:
- Branding builds trust!
- Presentation of yourself and your work is key to professionalism and audience catching!
- Learn your worth and get paid!
- Find clients and don’t discount word of mouth!
- Keeping track of clients, your schedule, invoices, and terms and conditions!
Good luck. Remember your worth. Remember to make time for yourself, and stretch! Don’t sit in your chair for 12 hours a day working!
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Mato J. Steger is a full-time Freelance graphic designer & branding coach, who is currently a full-time university student getting his second degree in Graphic Design, after 16 years working in the field. He holds a BA in English & Creative Writing as well as a certificate in Healthcare Science. He is an agented novelist working on his first fiction publication. He lives with his family in the Midwest of the United States and spends way too much time on social media.
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