I recently gave a presentation about my freelance work to a graphic design class at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was asked to speak about why I do freelance and give some tips about entering the freelance market. Here is a condensed version of the presentation.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of freelance work?
Advantage: Unlimited income
You can make as much money as you ask for. As long as the client says yes and pays you, the money is yours. If you feel like you should be paid more, ask for more money on your next project. You can give yourself a raise any time you want.
Disadvantage: Inconsistent income
When you work at a business, you’re generally guaranteed a salary. When you work for yourself, there are months where you are flush with cash, and there may be months where you have almost no income. This is a new concept to a lot of people. It means you have to do income projections and determine how much you can safely pay yourself.
At most normal jobs, you will be expected to be there between a certain time period and expected to dress a certain way. There will be someone you have to turn your work in to who will be critiquing it before it goes to the client, and they will be imposing their opinions on how your work should be done.
In the freelance world, I can work at midnight in my pajamas in Nebraska. I can work on a beach in Florida in my swimsuit. And no one is telling me whether or not my project is ready to be presented to the client.
You are the only person you’re answering to about getting things done. If you wait until the last minute to complete a project, you are the one who deals with the consequences. If you have a hard time motivating yourself, you are the one who has to figure out how to focus. There won’t be any classmates to do your projects with, no teachers checking in on how the project is progressing, and no supervisors making sure the project is done right.
Advantage: Variety of work
You often work on the same kind of projects repeatedly at a lot of offices. You might get bored because you don’t feel challenged. In freelance work, one day I may be editing an article about finance, the next day I am creating cover art for a podcast, the next day I am designing and writing marketing material for a flyer. The variety is endless.
Disadvantage: You are the entire agency
You may love graphic design or writing, but doing freelance work involves a lot more than these. Suddenly you are the art director, HR director, marketing director, copywriter, project manager, finance director, and more. You have to learn how to do all of these jobs well, or at least adequately, to maintain your business.
How do you get clients?
Personal connections: These are one of the easiest and best ways to gain freelance work, especially when you are just starting out. One of my clients is a friend from college who started his own business. When he found out I do freelance work, he turned over some of the marketing work to me.
It helps to bring up the fact that you do freelance work at every opportunity possible. Eventually, assuming your work is good enough, other people will start doing the promoting for you. But you have to do the initial promoting.
Direct email: One of the longest clients I’ve had is a magazine I edit for. The way I connected with them was emailing the then editor asking if they had any writer positions available. They took several months to respond, but when they did I started writing articles on a monthly basis. I do overflow work for a marketing agency, and I found them through direct email as well. I emailed the art director asking if they were in need of someone to handle overflow work.
Online promotion: This includes social media such as Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and it includes other methods such as a personal website and personal blogging.
Ways not to get clients
Cold calling: This includes physically going to businesses and dropping off business cards. Generally you are not able to even have a conversation with the person who is making marketing decisions. This is both uncomfortable and a waste of time.
Job boards: Online job boards are useless. Jobs are posted by businesses and freelancers bid to try to get the job. Typically the bids go lower and lower in price as more bids come in, and you are usually bidding against workers in areas of the world that don’t require as much money to live on. The work tends to be monotonous, and to add to that, the sites that host the projects take a cut of your income.
How to market yourself
As a freelancer you are also the marketing manager for your business. Everyone finds different ways to effectively market themselves, but in my experience there have been several essential marketing strategies.
You should have a separate social media account specifically for your business. Clients want to connect with you through your work life. This doesn’t mean you can’t post pictures of yourself or your life, it just needs to be done in a way that is directing your audience to your business.
You need to have a website to send your clients to. It needs to include examples of your work and what you have to offer to your clients. It is best to continually refer your social media audience to your website so they can learn more about you and hopefully reach out to you.
Something I’ve found useful to establish myself as a respected freelancer is blogging. Even if you post other people’s blogs (with their permission) on your site, it could help drive traffic to your site through SEO. Being found through Google or being shared on social media is a plus for getting your name out there and letting people know you exist.
Connecting with other freelancers
Freelancers are great at following other freelancers on social media, so it is easy to connect. Once they follow you, you can reach out and ask their advice. While you are technically competing for work, it doesn’t feel that way. I’ve received jobs by being referred by freelancers. And I’ve done the same for other freelancers.
Attend events or do speaking events
Even attending or speaking at virtual events can get you connected with people in your area and make people know who you are.
Join local organizations
Local organizations have all sorts of events that you can attend where you will be able to meet other people in your industry.
Some organizations include:
Forms and paperwork
The two that I’ve found essential are a client contract and invoicing. It can be awkward to ask a client to sign a contract, especially if the job is low paying. It is important to do, though.
The main purpose I’ve seen for it isn’t protecting me from being cheated out of money. If someone refuses to pay, the likelihood of me paying to take them to court is extremely low. What it does, though, is it outlines the terms and conditions of a job so that they are clear in case a dispute ever arises.
There are paid versions of invoicing software, but the best free version I have found is Wave. Invoicing clients is essential, because it is easy to forget what is paid and what isn’t.
Tips for working with clients
Bill by project (not hourly)
Billing hourly works in some cases, but generally I recommend billing by project. The main reason is as you get faster at doing a project, you should be rewarded. If you always bill by hour, you’re going to end up making less and less money as you get better and better at your work.
Clients want consistency. This includes following through on everything you say. If you give an estimate, do not deviate very far from that estimate. If you tell them you will turn something in, turn it in. This is often the hardest thing for a client to find: someone who simply follows through on what they say they will do.
Be confident in your skills (and knowing where those skills end)
Don’t behave as if you are new to the game, even if you are. Behave as if you have it under control. Clients are looking for someone to turn over a portion of their work to, and if they see you are uncomfortable with it, this will make them uncomfortable too. But be careful to be too confident and take on more work than you can handle.