13 Keys to Success as a Freelance DesignerPublished in Business
Being a freelance web designer is an appealing job for many people. There are perks like a flexible schedule and the ability to work from home that encourage people to move towards a career as a freelancer. Unfortunately, many people do not consider everything that is involved in being a successful freelancer and all of the challenges that come with being in such a crowded marketplace. In this post we’ll examine 13 keys to achieving success as a freelancer. These are all areas for would-be freelancers to consider before making the jump, and potential areas of improvement for existing freelancers.
Being successful as a freelancer requires you to be rather well rounded, as you will notice from the diversity of the keys on this list. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an expert in all of these areas, but you do need to consider them and recognize their impact on your work. You’ll be able to develop your skills in theses areas with time and effort.
1. Discipline and Commitment
Working as a freelancer or an independent designer is much different than working as an employee for a design studio or as an in-house designer. As a freelancer there will be no one to hold you accountable, no one to tell you what you should be working on at any given time, no one to set your hours, and no one to hand work to you. Everything is on you.
While there are significant benefits to working on your own and being in control, there is also great responsibility. In order to achieve any type of lasting success as a freelancer you will need be disciplined with your work and time and committed to your own success. Some people are naturally driven and well-suited for working as a freelancer, and others tend to have more stability and less risk.
Freelancing can be many things to different people (see Is Freelancing Right for You?), but if you are hoping to make it a long-term career choice, don’t jump into freelancing before considering the discipline and commitment that will be required. For most freelancers, the first few months and years are the most difficult, and as you become more established it should become a bit more natural and easier. However, making it to that stage will require a great deal of work.
2. Time Management
Time is a valuable asset for any freelancer. The more efficient you are with your time, the more time you will be able to spend on income-generating activities and the more money you will make, or the fewer hours you will need to work. Time management skills are critical for anyone who is self-employed, and the first step is knowing where your time is going. You can use a simple time tracking app like Toggl or Tick to see where your time is going, and chances are you will be surprised.
After you know how you are spending your time you should be able to identify some areas for improvement, things that you can cut out in order to spend more time on client work that brings in the money.
Time management is a pretty large topic (see 15 Steps to a More Productive Workday for a more detailed look) but for a freelancer it really can be summed up with a few basic goals:
- Know how your time is currently being spent
- Have a prioritized to-do list for each day or each week
- Recognize your strengths and your distractions so you can maximize and minimize them respectively
Recognizing your strengths involves knowing what times of the day or what days of the week are typically the most productive for you, and organizing your schedule so that you can do the most intense or most important work during these times. This way you maximize the strong parts of your day or week and you don’t let them slip by without good productivity.
Recognizing your distractions involves knowing and understanding the specific things that get in the way of your productivity, and working to minimize them. For instance, constantly checking your email may be a big distraction to you. By getting in the habit of working with your email closed and only checking in at certain points in the day may help you to improve your time efficiency.
For any web designer, regardless of whether you are working as an employee or a freelancer, communication skills are critical to success. You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively with clients in order to understand their needs and wants, understand their business and their customers, communicate how you can help them and what you specifically have in mind for their site, and work with them throughout the process to tweak and improve the project. Without effective communication, clients will be frustrated and it will mean more work for you as you’re likely to have to re-do some things that could have been avoided.
For freelancers in particular, communication is even more important. As a freelancer you will not only be communicating with the client throughout the process, but you’ll have to be able to land the business in the first place, something that most employed designers are not responsible for. Additionally, you’ll have to communicate with clients to determine the scope of the project and to determine an estimate or a quote for the project. Ongoing customer service is likely to also be a part of your responsibilities as a freelancer, something that will require frequent communication with some clients.
For more on the subject of communication skills for freelancers, please see Client Communication: The Most Important Part of Freelancing and Five Communication Tips that Make You Money.
4. Financial Management
Being a successful freelancer is just as much about running a profitable business as it is about being a talented designer, and part of running a business involves financial management. Being a freelancer presents several financial issues that employed designers do not have to deal with, including:
- An inconsistent income
- Managing business expenses
- Tracking income and expenses
- Tax issues
- Impact on pricing of services
- Paying for insurance and other benefits
- Keeping business and personal finances separate
Freelancers don’t need to be business or finance gurus, but you will need to have a grasp of your financial situation and be organized with your record keeping. The bullet points above often create problems for freelancers that prevent them from achieving long-term success. For example, some freelancers struggle with differentiating their business income from their personal finances, and this can lead to misinterpretation of how much money they are really making. Other freelancers may not manage their business expenses well. Maybe they spend too much money on things that are unnecessary, or maybe they are hesitant to spend any money on their business, even when it would lead to increased productivity or allow them to do their job better.
In order to manage your finances properly you should know how much money you need to live on, what your likely expenses and taxes will be, how you should price your services accordingly, and have a plan to track your finances and keep accurate records for your accountant. For more see Financial Management Tips for Freelancers.
Organization is important on a number of different levels. We just talked about the need for organization in your finances and record keeping, but you’ll also need to be organized in your time management, client communications, project details, quoting and invoicing, as well as in the home office setup.
Most people find that the level of organization in their environment has a strong impact on the organization of their thoughts. On several occasions I’ve had difficulty staying focused and getting work done, and after taking a few minutes to straighten up my desk or office I found the situation to be much better. Having a cluttered and disorganized workspace can be highly detrimental to your work and it can add unneeded stress.
Organization can involve developing your own system for staying on top of your projects, or you could use a tool like Basecamp. What methods and strategies you choose for organization is not so important, different things work for different people. But what is important is that you have some system of organization that keeps you from wasting time and keeps you in effective communication with clients.
One of the reasons being a freelancer is so difficult is because you will always have several different things that you could be working on that are competing for your attention. You may have an upcoming deadline on a client project that still needs a lot of work, an overdue invoice for another client that requires some follow up, bills to pay, a quote that needs to be developed for a potential client, and maybe a few emails from existing clients in your inbox. You must be able to effectively prioritize to deal with the most important and urgent items on a daily basis.
One of the most effective ways to deal with priorities is simply to create a to-do list on a daily or weekly basis. You can make a list of everything that needs to get done and then prioritize the items against each other. This will help you to stay on track and to avoid spending your time on things that can wait. You can keep your to-do list on paper or you can use an app like Remember the Milk or Ta-Da Lists.
7. Pricing Strategy
Determining a price for your services is likely to be one of the most challenging parts of your work, especially for those who are new to freelancing. If you’re fortunate enough to have more work than you can handle, pricing isn’t such a big deal since you can afford to miss out on some clients that choose to go with a lower-priced option. But most freelancers are looking to land the majority of potential clients that they speak to, and pricing has a major impact on landing the work.
Pricing can be difficult because no two projects are quite the same, and package-based pricing does not work very well for most freelancers. Instead, you will have to communicate with the potential client to determine the scope of the project and make an estimate of the hours needed to complete the project, and multiply that by your hourly rate. But for many freelancers there is more to pricing than just this. For example, if you are desperate for work or looking for a new project to add to your portfolio you may want to charge a little less to increase the chances that you’ll get the work. On the other hand, if you are already busy or you’re not especially excited about the project, you may want to slightly increase the price so that if you do land the work at least it will be worth it to you.
For more on pricing see the following articles:
- 12 Realities of Pricing Design Services
- How to Set Your Freelance Rates (an overview)
- 11 Factors to Consider When Pricing Design Services
- How to Price Freelance Projects Successfully
8. Customer Service
A lot of time and effort goes into landing clients for most freelancers. Once you have the client you’ll need to provide them with excellent customer service in order to give them the best experience possible. Having happy clients means more long-term clients and more word-of-mouth referrals, both or which are excellent sources of income. If your clients are pleased with the work and the service that you have provided to them they may be interested in hiring you to do some routine maintenance or updates to the site, or they may hire you for other services that you offer, such as search engine optimization, social media marketing, business card design, brochure design, etc. Even having just a few ongoing clients can make a big difference to your bottom line.
Referral business is a primary source of clients for most freelancers that have been around for a while, and it is a goal for most new freelancers. Without effective customer service this is not possible. In order to provide quality customer service you should:
- Always have the client’s best interest in mind
- Be honest and upfront
- Respond promptly and considerately to any client inquiries
- Communicate at the client’s level so they understand
- Take the time to understand their business
- Keep accurate records of communication with clients
- Follow through on your promises and commitments
9. Experience and Ability
Of course, we would be remiss not to mention that having experience and being able to do good quality work for clients is important. Many designers who are considering making the leap to self-employment assume that because they are a good designer they can make it work on their own. The truth is that this is just one requirement for being successful, and without the others it doesn’t matter how talented you are.
Ideally you’ll have some decent experience before trying to make a go of freelancing. Working for a design agency can prove to be invaluable experience, although it is not absolutely mandatory for freelancing success.
If you’re not experienced but you’d like to work as a full-time freelancer, you should focus on learning all you can about web design and gaining some experience by designing sites for yourself, friends and family, or for non-profit organizations or small businesses in your area. Avoid making the jump to full-time freelancing until you have sufficient experience and abilities to do a great job for your clients.
You’ll obviously need clients in order to achieve success as a freelance designer. Most freelancers have to put some time and/or money into marketing themselves in order to stay busy with client work. There are a number of options for marketing yourself including:
- Getting your work showcased in design galleries (see Gallery Rush)
- Pay-Per-Click advertising
- Banner advertising
- Writing articles for other blogs
- Attending local networking events
- Networking with providers of related services
- Distributing business cards
- Buying leads
- And even cold calling local businesses
Every designer has a different approach to marketing and there is no one “right” way to market yourself. However, you should take some time to consider how you plan to find new clients and develop some sort of marketing plan.
Those freelancers who are established or who have developed a very strong name recognition likely have to do very little, if any, marketing or themselves, but the rest of us need to consider it and have a plan.
Most of us have no desire to be in sales, but the reality is that a freelance designer will have to do some sales work in order to land new clients. Ideally, you’ll have an established portfolio with high-quality work that can do most of the selling for you, but freelancers still need to be able to close the deal. The good news is that you don’t have to be a great salesperson, in fact having a personality that is not typical of a salesperson will probably be more productive for you as a freelancer. What you do need is to be able to communicate effectively with clients to find out what they really need, develop a plan to help them, and then communicate to them how you will get the job done and why it will be a great fit for their business. See Selling Website Design: How to Overcome the 3 Most Ignorant Objections.
Although I recommend having a daily and/or weekly to-do list that helps you to prioritize what you need to get done, having some flexibility is also key. There will be times when new challenges arise and you’ll have to be able to prioritize on the fly. You may need the flexibility to put off what you had planned to work on in order to deal with something more urgent.
Flexibility is also important in terms of the work that you are able to provide. If you’re an employee for a large design studio, you’re most likely responsible for one type of work and you’ll have teammates that do other things. As a freelancer, you are either going to be doing everything on your own or outsourcing parts of the work to others. It will be highly beneficial to you as a freelancer if you’re able to broaden your skill set, which will give you more flexibility in the types of projects that you can take and the overall services that you can provide to your clients.
13. Continued Improvement
The web design industry is constantly changing, and designers need to stay on top of it. You may be a highly skilled designer today, but if you do not continue to improve and develop new skills, others will pass you by.
One of the most significant challenges to continual improvement is having the time to dedicate to learning new things or improving your existing skills. I highly recommend setting aside time specifically for the purpose of learning, otherwise you’ll likely get caught up with other things and neglect the need to take time for this purpose. There are plenty of online tutorials for learning most things that you could want to learn, and you can also start some personal projects if you want to learn things in a real world environment. For more on the subject please see Challenging Yourself as a Designer.
What’s Your Opinion?
If you have experience as a freelancer (or based on what you have seen from others), what do you consider to me the most significant keys to success?