7 Ways to Kill Your Freelance Career Before it Starts

Moving into a career as a full-time freelance designer presents a lot of changes regardless of whether you are coming from a full-time job as an employed designer, completion of education for design, or a change in career paths.

There is a lot more to freelancing success than just being able to design. Some very significant factors should be considered ahead of time, otherwise you may be dooming yourself to a rough road as a freelancer.

In this article we’ll look at some very important things that you should be considering and planning for prior to starting your career as a freelancer. Knowing the potential roadblocks can be a huge help as it allows you to prepare yourself and have a plan in place.

Here are 7 ways that you can kill your freelance career before it even begins.

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1. Go Full-Time Freelance Too Soon

The ideal situation to move into full-time freelance work is to start part-time and gradually move towards the point where you can smoothly transition from your full-time job into full-time freelance. This can be extremely helpful financially as you will not face the same pressure to make a certain amount of money right away, and you can focus on building your portfolio, gaining experience at managing client projects, and develop your business plan.

The same situation can apply to students as well. Part-time freelancing during your education can teach you more than you’ll ever be able to learn in a classroom, and if you work at it for a while, by the time you finish your education you’ll have a portfolio of work and some extremely valuable experience under your belt.

Some freelancers are forced into the situation through the unexpected loss of a job or some other career-changing or life-changing event. In these situations there is often very little that you can do to prevent it, but in an ideal case you’ll be able to work your way towards full-time freelancing so that the transition goes smoothly.

Jumping in to full-time freelance work too early can lead to a lot of pressure to make money right away, and if you’re not able to, it could have a serious impact on you and your family. In addition to just having that pressure, you’ll also be likely to feel that you need to take every potential project that comes your way rather than focusing on those that are a good fit for you, and you may even charge less than you are worth for fear of not getting the work.

2. Don’t Have Savings Set Aside

Even if you move from part-time freelancing to full-time freelance work at a time when you’re workload is steady, chances are the first few months (if not longer) will include some times where your income is not as much as you need to get by.

If you have savings set aside specifically to help you get through these slower times you will have a much better chance of making it in the long-term, rather than being forced back into full-time employment because of client work being slower than expected.

If you’re planning to make the jump to full-time freelance work, make sure that you leave enough time to build up some savings before doing so.

3. Assume it is Easy Because You are a Skilled Designer

Being a talented designer will certainly help you to be able to achieve success as a freelancer, but it is not enough on its own. Even the best designers need to be able to manage their finances, market their services, provide quality customer service, and manage their working and personal time.

If you haven’t freelanced on a full-time basis before you may be surprised to find how much time you will spend on things other than design work. Freelancing requires being able to run a business successfully. Even though you don’t need to be a business expert you do need to embrace the broad responsibilities that will be yours.

4. Don’t Have a Marketing Plan

If you’ve worked as a designer for an agency you were probably only responsible for doing the actual design work and communicating with clients. Finding and securing the business was probably not your concern, but it is a major challenge for most new freelancers.

Before you go into full-time freelance work think about how you will market yourself to find the clients that you’ll need to earn a full-time income. Hopefully you’ll already have some experience with finding clients on a part-time basis and you may even have some referrals coming in from your past clients and friends and family.

Here is a post on writing a marketing plan. It is written for freelance writers, but it is applicable for designers as well.

5. Don’t Focus on Organization

In order to run an efficient freelance business there are a number of different ways that you will need to be organized. Some of the most significant ones include organization of your finances, organization of your record keeping, organization of your time, and organization of your workspace.

Online apps like Ronin, Freshbooks and FreeAgent (among others) can help with finances and record keeping. How you organize yourself is not important, we all work best in different ways, but what is important is that you have a plan that will work for you.

Without organization you will find that the majority of your time is spent on activities that bring in no money, and the income-producing client work often takes a back seat. For help with knowing how to organize your time see our post 15 Steps to a More Productive Workday.

6. Don’t Consider Expenses Needed to Run the Business

Freelance designers have an excellent opportunity to run a profitable business from their home without the need to invest a lot of money and take large financial risks. The financial requirements of running the business are rather minimal when compared to other types of businesses, but there are some necessary expenses that need to be considered.

When determining how much money you’ll need to earn as a full-time freelancer don’t forget to factor in the expenses. Some common expenses include hosting, marketing/advertising, software, computers and equipment (which you probably already have, but will need to be replaced eventually), and office supplies.

7. Don’t Consider Taxes

Most designers and freelancers are not experts at taxes, and why would you be? My advice is to hire an account who is experienced at working with small business owners and freelancers, and seek some guidance before even going into full-time freelance work. Your tax situation can be quite different when moving from full-time employment to full-time freelance work, so anything you can do to avoid surprises will improve your chances of success.

Before I quit my full-time job I met with an accountant and he ran estimates based on a few different scenarios, based on varying amounts of income. That information helped enough to give an idea of what to expect and how much to set aside from taxes, and one of those estimates wound up being almost dead one for that first year.

Want More?

If you’re moving from part-time freelancing towards full-time freelance work we have an ebook specifically on this subject in the members area of Vandelay Premier. See Part-Time Freelance to Full-Time Freelance: A Guide for a Successful Transition.

Published January 14th, 2011 by

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16 Responses

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  • Fix The Sky, January 14, 2011

    Good article. – I’ve always considered moving into freelance work, as the lure of being your own boss is tempting. I think the hardships and reality of it all can be a lot more than people expect.

  • UPen, January 14, 2011

    I Love this, A great guide to freelancer. I hope i will learn much from this. What do you say FIX THE SKY? are you also freelancer?

  • UPen, January 14, 2011

    You are correct, same things happened to me when i quit fulltime job and started freelancing.

    This will really help newcomers .

    Thanks a lot

  • Andy @ FirstFound, January 14, 2011

    Considering relationships is important too. Do you have a developer you can rely on, if times are getting tough? What about someone who can write content for the sites you’re making?

  • web design hull, January 14, 2011

    Great article, should be very useful for people considering going it alone. I thought I was quite well prepared but still struggled with a couple of the situations mentioned. Thanks for sharing.

  • Toronto website designer, January 15, 2011

    Great Post ! Thanks for sharing such a useful information………

  • Bara Website Design, January 15, 2011

    Great resource.
    I’m finding many of these things daunting for myself at the moment, as I’ve moved from education to full time freelance work. The biggest one for me is marketing my services.
    I’m writting a business plan now, but the marketing side remains the most difficult.
    Thanks for the tips!

  • Lee Cole, January 16, 2011

    My favorite is taxes. It’s so easy to think you’ve made $10k one month, when you’ve made more like $7k that month.

  • Magento Themes, January 17, 2011

    The most important major reason that wakes me up is becoming full time premature. Which will definitely kill the process and your career.

  • Bob from Sydney, January 17, 2011

    I don’t understand your 7th point i.e taxes? How does it matters a Novice freelancer ?

    • Vandelay Website Design, January 17, 2011

      Bob,
      If you are a freelancer you will not have an employer taking taxes out of your paycheck. So you will have to be disciplined to plan for taxes and set aside money from each project. If you don’t, you’ll find that you owe a lot in taxes but have no money set aside for it.

  • Graphic Design Boss, January 19, 2011

    Really great post!

    You are now in my RSS reader. Well written and thought out post….

    I would add another point here. As a designer who left his employer to become my own graphic design boss I think another thing that will kill your freelance career is:

    8. Don’t have a loooong list of prospective clients from day one to call and develop business relationships – and a strategy on how to reach them…

  • Graeme, January 27, 2011

    Awesome post – very insightful, thanks! A must read for all starting freelancers, or those considering the profession.

  • HiveMind, LLC, April 13, 2011

    Good post. I agree about the part-time to full-time jump. We’re a three partner outfit into a solid year two and looking to transition next year. It is a lot of work. It’s daunting to do both.

    We have learned so much in terms of client management, BCR’s, estimating, even basics you don’t think about like tracking even the tiny expenses for taxes purposes (ex. MILEAGE) We’ve had the chance to do this in a phase that wouldn’t trash our mortgages or health insurance and make the mistakes everyone runs into.

    The biggest thing I can pass on to anyone about to freelance or transition to full-time is this. Save your money on doing self-promos, and fancy letterhead. Get your basics, a real honest well-designed unique business card, a professional set of paper work forms like RFP’s and estimates and invoices so you don’t look like a noob.

    And just do good work. Work you would show someone you really respect and be proud of it. Do good work, clients will talk and the business will follow.

    If you suck at something learn about it and make it a strength or at the very least a solid skill that allows you to capture more billable like a print designer learning coding and back-end dev.

    Lastly, and this is really important, know what you are good at and what needs to be passed off. You can make good money. But focus on your own niche and what you are very efficient at and be that guy (or gal).

    Form a network of friends who you respect highly that do compatible things like photography and high-end web development. You don’t have to be an expert at everything you just have to deliver a solid home-run to the client. Having pros in your pocket allows you to take the good jobs and not waste a boatload of time trying to learn on the clock and making a ton of mistakes. Save the “learning” for pro bono or self-generated work again with the mindset this will allow me to capture more billable.

    My two pesos.

  • Simon, August 6, 2011

    Good Info and Guidance.
    Tips to well take on board for sure, Freelancing is great, but has some harder times and long days, but that equally comes with easier times and the knowledge of you are your own boss and control your future.

  • Allison, September 26, 2013

    I am being offered a part time graphic design position… I know it’s not freelance, but I do some of that on the side. I just graduated from college in May with a BA in Graphic Design and I am really new in the ‘civilian working world’… I have had a couple of internships with some great experience and have a handful of mentors, but really want to know other people’s perspective. In an ideal world I would love to work a full time position with full benefits (who wouldn’t), but this isn’t the case atm. The timing and position of where I am in my life is ‘take what you can get’ and that’s that. The position is for a great local company and they are wanting to know what I would expect to make hourly… obviously it ranges based upon experience, but what would be a good start to suggest? Also, is it okay to request an hourly retainer because the position is a part-time? I would love weekly hours to be expected and well… consistent.