August 15, 2014

A Little Older, A Little Wiser: Lessons I learnt from my first year freelancing

By Anya Rangaswami

A lot of designers have had moments where they wished they were working independently. For a while, I did too. When I finally decided I would make the move, those moments were replaced with moments of panicky what-ifs. What If I didn’t get enough work in? What if I couldn’t manage without a regular income? What if I didn’t get good work out? One year in, I can safely say I needn’t have panicked. No, things don’t always work out, but a lot of the time they do. There were, of course, things I wish I’d known, lessons I learnt the hard way. If you’re thinking about freelancing too, this list might be useful.

1. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork

There is nothing more soul killing than chasing after clients for payments; than wrapping up a project knowing that you got walked over, that you deserved to be paid more, that you should have communicated better, and that basically, you made a mistake.

After dealing with payments that never came in, emails that went unanswered and phone calls that were ignored, I found a solution. Always use contracts. This is one of those evil things that smacks you in the face later. Insist on advance payments. Send out invoices. Plan. File. Organize. It gives you tremendous peace of mind.

2. Don’t Undercharge

When I began freelancing, hopping from meeting to meeting like an Energizer bunny, I made the classic mistake (I assume) every beginner makes. I got caught off guard, I hesitated, I didn’t account for taxes or the hours I’d spend on the project and I undercharged.

This is possibly the most important lesson I learnt and one that I learnt fast. Do your research, figure out what you’re worth and stick to your number. While a bad month may push you to desperation, know that the feeling of being exploited is just not worth it.

3. There will be bad months

And there will be good months. The sooner you make your peace with this, the easier things will be. Some months are packed with projects, incoming cheques and a fist-pumping feeling of running a successful business; and there are months of misery. Proposals you’ve sent out that haven’t got a response, clients who’ve bailed or just a lack of enquiries coming in.

It’s easy to take this personally, I did at first, but then I realized just how many external factors affect my business. Things I can’t control. The best thing you can do is to stay optimistic and plan your money.

4. Make friends with Excel

I don’t blame you for not wanting to. But the perks that working independently bring you, come with costs; one of which is being your own accountant. Unless you’ve hired someone to do this for you, take some time to understand taxes, investments, and overheads and be able to calculate profits.

This might seem like a drag, but knowing what your financial situation is and managing your cash flow, allows you to be a far better businessman. It also gives you the confidence to say ‘no.’

5. Choose Intelligently

There comes a time, in every freelancers life, where he/she gets a terrific project from a not-so-terrific client. Take your time to think about whether or not you want to do this. Be honest about what you need- sometimes, if you’ve had a few bad months, maybe you just want a client who pays well. That’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with this. But make sure you’re taking up a project that you know you’ll get something out of.

Another mistake I made, was to take on too much work. Things were going great, work was pouring in, and I took on every project that came my way. I stretched myself too thin and overworked myself to exhaustion. Sometimes, you just have to say no.

6. Figure out your process

With my first few projects, I was figuring things out as I worked. Slowly, I began to identify a process that worked for me- I began to get a clearer idea of how many projects I could take on simultaneously, how much time I needed for certain kinds of projects. I gave myself a questionnaire that I filled out after each project where I asked myself, Was I happy with the project? Was the client happy with the work? Will he come back for more work? Did I charge right? Could I have used more time?  Comparing the answers on my first few questionnaires helped me nail down a process that worked. And once you do that, things get so much simpler.

7.  Take charge of business development

This is something that doesn’t always come easy, it didn’t with me, but it’s something you just have to do. Identify what differentiates you and your service; identify the value you bring to your client. There will always be more designers, better designer and cheaper designers out there. What’s important is what you can do that’s different. Identify that, and communicate that to clients.

8. Read. Write. Know.

Freelancing takes you out of the bubble of an office environment, and into the world- a world where it’s important to know what you’re talking about, a world where it’s important to know what’s happening around you. The best way to do this, I’ve found, is to just keep reading. So often, a conversation I’ve had with a client is what has brought work in. Take the time to understand the business they run, the industry they work in. Write. It shows that you understand context. A client is far more likely to have confidence in you, if they know you have initiative and knowledge; if they know you’re just another artist.

9. Make sure you keep growing

It’s important for everyone, and certainly important for a designer, to do more than just work. With the ups and downs, the months of crazy and the months of restlessness, it’s easy to burn out, or worse, to plateau. Make the time to meet with your friends, to do other things that interest you. These are the things that help you grow personally and professionally.

There will also be times where you realize you can’t do it all alone. With a lot of projects, I exhausted myself trying to figure it all out, and finally decided to ask for help. I roped in a few more designers, collaborated with illustrators and as a result, got out work far better than I could have managed myself. I realized if I were to continue freelancing, that I needed to keep growing.

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  1. Zain Naqvi



    Thanks for sharing this. Great read!! Contract’s are a life saver as for the bad months and run away cheques well in time one learns to deal with these. One more important thing one needs to do is establish boundaries in terms or iterations and redoes, specially if dealing with a South East Asian client.

  2. Vishal



    I din’t see any difference in your freelancing for a client or others designers going to office. In the end it’s the same amount of energy you are spending. Plus you have to do your own paperwork now. :)

  3. Mira Malhotra



    I have had, literally, the same experience. The contract was and still is the thing that gets me serious clientele whom I know will pay. An online folio helps me understand whether the client is into my work anyway and whether we’ll be a good fit. Asking the right questions to clients is also important and googling them online to check out their reputation is another very important thing. I also learned not to be scared to fire a client. Some clients are just plain unprofessional, and we should make time for the ones who are good to work with rather than people who are uncooperative or who underpay.

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