Advice for Graphic Design Freelancers: 6 Mistakes I’ve Made in 5 Years
I didn’t realize this much time had passed, but this November will mark 5 years that I’ve been in business as a freelance graphic designer. In 2011 I discovered a site known as Elance (at the time,) and decided to try it out and see if my design work was worth paying for. Fortunately, I had a great deal of success on the site early on, and the rest was history. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, so I figured I’d share them with you and offer my own advice for graphic design freelancers.
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Being at the 5 year milestone has naturally enticed me to reflect on how far I’ve come in a relatively short time and question if I would’ve done anything differently if I could do it over again. And the answer to that question is yes, I certainly would. There were a lot of mistakes I made and opportunities I missed along the way, and since I know a lot of you reading this are working towards becoming freelance designers yourselves, I figured it may help to share some of that with you in hopes that learning from my mistakes may assist you in your own endeavors.
After thinking it over for a while, there’s 6 primary lessons I would inform my 26 year old self of if I could time travel back to the year 2011…
Advice for Graphic Design Freelancers: 6 Mistakes I’ve Made in 5 Years
1. Stop Chasing After Low-Paying Projects
Like any other designer just starting out, I didn’t have much experience to lean on, testimonials to assure prospects, a body of work to point to, or a network to refer clients my way. Finding work was a grind, and because of that I was much more open to the types of propositions I would normally disregard today. Potential clients would low-ball me on pricing or try to negotiate my prices down so low that it would rival minimum wage.
Being as inexperienced and unaccomplished as I was at the time, I usually caved and accepted those offers because I figured a little bit of pay would be better than nothing at all. That’s not always the case though. The time you would spend working for pay you’re not satisfied with is sometimes better spent looking for clients who will pay you what you’re asking for. That time could also be spent learning, creating, networking, and so on. All of these things are conducive to your success as a freelancer and lead to great things.
Although I can be flexible with my pricing, today, I’d much rather create a Youtube video or write a blog post than work on a project where I felt I’m not being paid what I’m worth, because I’m well aware of the value it brings me.
2. Start Building Your Own Business Assets
In 2011 I was getting all of my work from a freelancing site. This was not ideal because I was completely beholden to that site and their often whimsical and chaotic policy changes that made for a very turbulent work life.
When your career exists solely on a freelancing site, you don’t really have a business; you have a job, albeit a casual one. You don’t own your profile on the site, the site owns your profile. You don’t own your contacts and network, the site owns that data. And the site can shut your career off like a light switch at any moment of their choosing. You don’t even own complete control of your future, it’s the site’s responsibility to market themselves effectively enough to always have more and more paying clients coming into the ecosystem. If they fail to achieve this, you go down with them.
In addition to all of that, when you do a great job for a client on that site, the client usually attributes that great experience to the site itself and not you. So when they recommend a friend or colleague, they’re recommending them to the site; not you. This isn’t always the case — there have been many clients who’ve attributed the great work they received to me and continued to hire me — but all of my hard work was mainly a good reflection on the freelancing site itself and not me as a provider.
Eventually I wised up to this and launched my own website and marketed it, developed a network of contacts (data that I own), and started sourcing my own clients. My website, contacts, content and intellectual property are all business assets that I own and can’t be taken away from me. I cannot be banned from my own website (unless a hacker does so, and that is not a challenge by the way), I cannot be forced to lose contact with my clients, and I am in complete control of my success.
Because of this, my career as a freelancer is much more durable than it was when I was just siphoning off of someone else’s business. I wish I would’ve been doing this from the start, and I really hope anyone reading this does so as well.
3. Start Leveraging Content Marketing & Social Media
The biggest challenge in building your own business assets is building all of it on your own without the help of a freelancing site. This is where content comes in. Content creation (Youtube videos, blog posts, etc.) offers discoverability on the internet, and social media gives you a platform to promote that content.
Because of my Youtube videos and blog posts, I have people finding me in search and on social media every day and hiring me for design work.
Think of content as inventory in a store. Each individual piece of content you create is indexed in search and discovered by viewers. The larger your inventory of content is, the more people you’ll have discovering and hiring you. Not only that, but once you do the work, it pays off residually. That content lives on the internet forever and is working for you day and night. I could shut my computer off and go off the grid for the next month and I’d still receive dozens of design requests. It’s much better than sifting through job postings on Upwork and competing with dozens of other freelancers placing bids.
As of today I have over 150 Youtube videos and over 50 blog posts in my inventory, and I’ve only been doing this for the past year and a half. Just imagine how much better I’d be doing right now if I had been creating content since 2011. Big mistake.
4. Build Additional Streams Of Income
Being a freelancer is a lifestyle of peaks and valleys. Some weeks I have more work than I can handle, other weeks I have nothing to work on and no money coming in. Because of this, you have to be smart with your money and ration it off during the good times so the bad times won’t put you out of business once they inevitably roll around.
Having additional income streams helps in bridging those valleys, and this is something I wish I would’ve been doing from day one. At first, client work was my only source of income and I sometimes struggled at times when business was slow. Now, it isn’t so bad because I also have income from Youtube ads and ebook/product sales, which keeps me above water during the slow times.
If there’s one piece of advice for graphic design freelancers I could give, it would be to start building additional income streams. Make videos, blog posts, create digital products, ebooks, design templates, and learn how to market them. Take full advantage of the skills you have. It’s a lot of work and it takes a long time before it starts paying off, but your future self will thank you for it.
5. Use Something Like Quickbooks For Bookkeeping & Taxes
I promise, this is not a plug or promotional post and I am in no way affiliated with Quickbooks – this is just what I did to correct the really dopey method I was using to keep track of payments and transactions at the time.
In the beginning I was manually recording each and every transaction in a spreadsheet file, then breaking out the calculator and manually doing math to figure out how much I had to put aside for taxes. As you could imagine, this was an enormous time drain. Eventually I discovered Quickbooks and decided to give it a try. I loved it and still use it today.
Quickbooks links up to all of your financial accounts (bank accounts, Paypal, Payoneer, etc.) and lists every transaction. All you have to do is simply go down the list and mark each transaction as “business”, “personal” or “split”. You can even establish rules within the software so it’ll automatically remember where money regularly comes from and goes to, then it classifies the transaction for you instead of having to do it manually. It then calculates how much I owe in taxes and even tells me when and where to pay them.
This saves me an incredible amount of time and is definitely worth the 12 bucks a month. Again, this is not a promotional post and I gain absolutely nothing by telling you this. It’s just something I know will make your life much easier. You don’t even have to use Quickbooks. There’s many other services like this that exist. Shop around and choose the best one for you. I personally chose them because it’s a web-based application, which is something I really appreciate as a Linux user.
6. Work Harder
This is something I have to be honest with myself about. When I first became completely self-employed, I was kind of treating my business like it was a job. I would do just as much work as I had to do and nothing more. The rest of my free time was spent screwing off.
Unfortunately, I had to learn (the hard way) that you can’t treat a business like it’s a 9-5 job. It’s an around-the-clock commitment, and if you don’t dedicate yourself you will eventually fall behind and possibly find yourself in a financial crisis. I don’t like the idea of a financial crisis, so my “free” time is now spent planning & recording Youtube videos, writing blog posts, replying to comments, creating products to sell, learning about marketing and SEO, managing Facebook ad campaigns, networking, sourcing new opportunities, and so on. I am now completely committed to my business and it is reflected in the results.
Being successful as a freelancer takes a lot of grit and determination. I certainly wish I could go back in time and drill that into the younger Nick’s head.
Plans & Goals Moving Forward
I can’t look back without looking forward as well. Here are some objectives I have in mind in order to make the next 5 years as rewarding as the previous 5…
- Figure Out Instagram & Twitter – For the past year and a half I have been focusing primarily on Youtube and Facebook. Now that I have those platforms up and running and have a solid understanding of how to leverage them to my advantage, I’ve been looking to duplicate this success elsewhere. Some of you who have been following what I’ve been up to lately will know that I recently started using Instagram and Twitter. I think these platforms have incredible potential if I can learn how to master them, and when I do I will be sure to enlighten you with a blog post about it.
- Figure Out Pay-Pay-Click Search Advertising – This has to do mainly with those ads that are displayed when you search Google and Bing for terms like “professional logo design services” or something along those lines. They can be pricey, but the leads are red hot and have a high chance of converting into paying clients. I’ve been meaning to try split-testing some ads and seeing if I can make this work. Since it’s so expensive, efficiency is going to be key. Once I figure this out as well, I’ll be sure to write a blog post teaching you how to do the same.
- Network More – I’ve always been somewhat of an introvert, so I naturally turn to the internet to find design work as it’s what I know best and feel most comfortable with. I really think I could benefit from forcing myself out of my comfort zone and networking with businesses locally at trade shows, the chamber of commerce and my local AIGA chapter. Since I live in a such a big, diverse city, I know I’m missing out by not injecting myself into the local scene.
- Start Leveraging Influencers – I’ve been learning a lot about growth hacking from Gary Vaynerchuk lately and I think it would be in my best interest to start reaching out to larger Youtubers, thought leaders, social media personalities, etc. and offering to do some design work for them in exchange for a shoutout. I think that would be a great way to expand my outreach and put me in front of large, targeted audiences that could potentially become clients.
There’s many other things I have in the works, but those are my main objectives for the near future. If you have any experience with them yourself and could offer some insight, I’d be glad to hear about it. The past 5 years have been, by far, the happiest and most fulfilling of my life. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep those plates spinning, and hopefully you can learn from my own experience in order to share in the wonderful and rewarding lifestyle that being self-employed provides.
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