Everything I wish someone had told me (about freelancing)

I’m putting together a talk about freelancing at my old school, the Art Institute of Vancouver, for the new grads. Why not share it here, too!

What is freelancing?
Freelancing working for a number of companies on your own terms. You’re managing a business: the accounting, accounts-receivable, client relationships and everything in-between, while simultaneously generating the product that you’re selling. This leads to more time spent working, not designing than you might have originally thought when you set out to “work for yourself.”

Let’s be clear. I have to laugh when every blog about freelancing starts off with “I quit my job so I could work for myself, and be my own boss.”  

You’re not working for yourself, you’re working for about 20 different companies. You’re not your own boss, you’ve got about 30 different bosses (but you are the guy you check with about vacation time, and you’re usually pretty easy to convince). Freelancing is what you make it, it can be a hobby, and it can be a full time job. If you’re going to make a real go of it, it’s not a free ride.

Cool with working a little harder? Me too. Check out the upsides

  • Set your own hours
    Amazing for those of us who like to work erratically, sleep in and moved to Vancouver just to snowboard when the snow report says to & a perk that you’re not likely to find anywhere else. That said, if you’ve got a lot of work to do and a fast approaching deadline, it doesn’t matter how you shuffle the day, you’re still working for most of it.
  • Creative freedom
    You are the lead on every creative decision in all projects that you’re involved in & that’s why we’re all here, right? But be prepared to back up all of your decisions with more than “well it looks good” 
  • Credit
    When you finish a successful project, and everyone is talking about it and pointing to you and only you it feels really, really good, and it’s really, really good for your career. But, when you finish a project that flops, and everyone blames the design, it feels really, really bad (that is.. I assume it would). 
  • Choose all your projects
    The best way to fast track your career is to specialize in something - become in icon designer, UI/UX expert or typographer - people will quickly recognize that’s what you do and seek you out. The only way to do that is to be picky about what projects you take on, a perk only offered to freelancers at this stage of the game. 

There are a few downsides, that you also have to keep in mind before deciding if freelancing is right for you…

  • Lessons are harsh
    Apprenticeship exists for a reason, working at a firm where you can ask questions and watch how things are done is pretty invaluable. You also learn a lot when you’re freelancing, but when you do something wrong, there’s no one there to tell you that you’re doing it wrong until it blows up in your face, and there’s no one there to share the blame.
  • Short one business degree
    I think it’s safe to assume that the majority don’t have a business degree, yet you are trying to run a business. Suddenly half your to-do list is about invoices and taxes. Inevitably you’ll have to tuck your tail between your legs and tell someone that you made a poor business decision, or didn’t bill them properly. 
  • Solitude
    You’re a one-man (or lady) team. This means that you’re not socializing (outside of twitter and the 8 coffees you order) with anyone all day. Likewise, it means that you’re not getting any feedback or other ideas when you’re solving a difficult problem.
  • Income is very unsteady
    Particularly in the beginning, while you’re still trying to fill your roster of clients and just beginning to market yourself, you can find yourself going months without getting paid. Even as a busy and experienced freelancer, you still encounter problems with payments. You don’t have the time to hassle clients, and you often find yourself on the bottom of the list when it’s time to get paid. 

Still interested? Cool. Me too. Let’s talk clients

So how do you get clients? Be awesome. Tell everyone.

Your first goal should be to get your work in front of as many people as possible, as often as possible. This means contributing to the design community, being proud of what you’re working on and sharing it with anyone who cares to see it. As it turns out, there are a lot of people looking for you, but they’re not going to find you if the only web presence you have is the portfolio you made when you graduated and never updated again don’t update as frequently as you might want to. Here’s a few goodies to get you started:

Twitter: Twitter is a fairly obvious one. If you’re not on twitter, it reflects poorly on you. The design community is strongly linked to the start-up and web-dev communities. When someone is intrigued by you and sees that you’ve tweeted twice and have six followers - it looks like someone forgot to invite you to the internet. Twitter is also important to be a part of as many people use it as their means of communication, by not being a part of it you are losing opportunities. 

Forrst: Forrst is the perfect place for you (new designers). It’s a site for designers to post their work and get feedback from other designers. The community is largely new designers, so it’s a great place to share experiences and help each other out. What’s more, people who need designers know about forrst, and will look there to find them, likewise they will post the freelance contracts on the forrst job postings. 

Dribbble: If you’re only going to contribute to one design site, there’s no contest, dribbble is your first choice. While there are opportunities to provide feedback, that’s not the central focus like on forrst. The community is more curated (the invites are difficult to come by) and as a result the community is filled with more experienced designers. This makes it the first stop for most employers who are looking for a freelancer. 

Tumblr/Wordpress: Keeping a blog is an important way to stay active on the web, and makes it very easy for people to share your thoughts/work. It’s not as hard as it seems - you don’t always have to post elaborate essays, just a sketch or a screenshot will work just fine. 

Scoutzie: Scoutzie is just for mobile designers, so you’ll probably have to wait until you have a mobile client, but if you have the opportunity to contribute to scoutzie, you absolutely should. Mobile designers are hard to find and very sought after. Scoutize will most certainly put your work in front of the people who want to hire you, the rest is up to you.

As a particularly amazing bonus to posting your work to get clients, you are an active member of the design community. An absolutely wonderful community of people who just want to collaborate and learn from each other. In my mind if you’re not an active member of the design community, you don’t stand a chance as a freelancer. Building relationships with other designers creates an invaluable resource. Now you have people that you can go to for critiques; people who will think of you when a project comes along that suits you and people who provide inspiration. Not to mention, friends.

Of course, these will only get you so far. Being active on the web gets you the introduction, drives people to check out what you’ve done. With that in mind, you can see the importance of updating your resumé and portfolio. 


Your efforts have paid off, and something you posted caught someones eye so much that they want more? Amazing. They are prepared to be impressed from the beginning, so it’s your turn to deliver. Keep your work up to date and portfolio on the cusp of design trends (remember, you’re a new designer, your biggest asset right now is that you’re up on the trends, and you know what’s coming next). Easier said than done.

So you’re posting work, you’ve made some friends, your portfolio is kick-ass, and they’re still not knocking down your door? For most of you, that will be the case for a while. Start now because I promise it will pay off eventually - but the fact is, no matter how beautiful your portfolio is, if a client can’t visualize how your work will look for their company, they’ll probably move on. Likewise, they tend to be skeptical of anyone who doesn’t have a list of real companies that they work for. Stop waiting for them to come to you, just go to them. 

Apply to job postings. There are a million job boards around the web, if you don’t have enough work, your full time job should be applying to freelance positions. In particular, dribbble and forrst are both a great place to start, as they have a job board targeting designers. Twitter is another one that people forget about. If a company is hiring they will often post the position to twitter a few times a day until the position is filled - search key words to find these tweets. This is where that trusty cover letter and resumé come in. The content of your email should be treated as a cover letter, tailor the level of formality to match that of the posting. 

Still not working? That’s cool. You’ve got one more trick up your sleeve. The start-up community is flourishing, and everyone wants to be Steve Jobs. Unfortunately their current status is short a few dollars - that’s where you come in. There’s no one like a start-up to take a chance on a young promising designer {read: cheap designer}. Go to startup events, read startup news, learn about what’s happening in the local startup scene and the not so local one too. Every one of them needs a designer on their team.

So you’ve got some clients, what now? How do you keep your clients happy? Aside from just doing beautiful work, there’s a few things you should keep in mind. 


  • Don’t take it personally
    Remember that the business goals don’t always align with the design goals, your favourite design might get shut down without a second thought. Take a deep breath, say thanks for the feedback and get back to the drawing board. Option to disagree in there, but you best have some legitimate reasons, not just hurt feelings.
  • Be open to suggestions
    This is right there with not taking criticism personally, don’t assume that you are the be all and end all of design decisions just because you’re the designer. A lot of clients like to be more involved in the process. Take their suggestions and try it, they might have some insight that you don’t.  
  • Learn to write diplomatically
    If there’s any non-design skill that you could magically acquire, writing diplomatically is the one you want. You’re probably going to ignore the first two suggestions once or twice, and be annoyed with your client. What ever you do, do not write an angry email. Take a deep breath, wait a day, and outline the reasons that you are hesitant to follow their suggestion. Get someone to proof read it if you need to. 
  • Answer emails promptly
    Even if all you can do is send a quick note from your phone to let your client know when you’ll be able to reply to their email, it lets the client know that you understand that they are counting on you, and that timeline is important to them. It’s a small task that goes a long way in keeping clients happy with you.
  • Be excited (!)
    Be happy about the work you’re doing, and let that show through your interactions. It’s a positive experience for both you the client when you are as excited about the project as they are. If you can’t get excited about the project, find a new project. 
  • Take notes
    When you’re meeting with clients in person, bring a notebook and take notes. Aside from the fact that it communicates to the client that what they are saying to you is important, and yields some helpful notes about the project, the client is more likely to tell you more information if they see you are writing it down. 

So you’ve got clients, and you can keep them, booyah, you’re a freelancer. What about everything else I wish someone had told me? Good time for a pee break, I don’t didn’t know a lot.  

Time Tracking
Time tracking is so critical to any freelancers day to day, and it is often underestimated. I don’t need to tell you that you need to track your time if you’re working at a hourly rate, but don’t think that the rest of you needn’t bother (looking at you, students & full-time employees). It is critical to a freelancer to know how long it is going to take you to do something. You need to be able to tell your client how many hours it is going to take you to do something, and when they can expect to hear from you based on your workload. "I don’t know" is not an acceptable answer when someone asks you how long a project will take you - if you don’t know you have to guess, and eat the time if you were wrong. Now you know for next time. 

Don’t be cheap when it comes to time tracking. There are so many great applications to choose from, you can find one that fits your work flow, and save yourself a never ending headache. Harvest & Yast are both great web applications, with reasonable pricing models.

Time management 
Treat freelancing like a regular job, get up at a reasonable time and work reasonable hours. Of course one of the perks of freelancing is that you can make your own hours, just remember that you need to do the same number of hours as a regular job, so if you don’t get up until noon, you should be working until 9. (On that same vein of thought, you consider to get dressed, too.)

Make a schedule and stick to it. Budget time for all the things that need to get done in your business, that’s networking, administration, accounting, marketing as well as the actual production. 

Quotes & Rates
When I first started freelancing, I spent all my free time researching what the etiquette was regarding quotes and rates. I asked anyone who would listen to me - teachers, family, friends, followers, twitter-friends … and on and on. Problem is, everyone is so uncomfortable about money, you rarely get a straight answer. Take it with a grain of salt, as this is the only part of my presentation that hasn’t been fact checked, and researched and exhaustively reaffirmed. It’s just what I’ve figured out based on a lot of trial, and a commensurate amount of error. Providing accurate quotes is another underrated skill in freelancing. Unfortunately the only way to develop this skill is time and you’re probably going to be totally wrong more often than you’d expect. When you give out a quote, realistically try to guess how long it will take you to do something, allowing room to get stuck at least once (it usually balances out by breezing through the next part). Increase that number by 5-10 % so that you can come in slightly under what you quoted, and give yourself some space to breath instead of constantly watching the clock. 

You have to be flexible, and willing to change your structure to suit your clients. There is of course the standard flat rate and hourly rate, often clients will insist on one or the other, based on their expectations and existing structure. Unfortunately, both are unbalanced when it comes to the risk both parties are taking. Flat rate places all the risk on you: if it takes longer than you expected, you are not being paid for your work. Hourly rate places all the risk on the client: if it takes longer than expected, the client pays more than they anticipated. The easiest way to solve this problem is providing accurate quotes through diligent time tracking, but until then, I’ve found two successful pricing structures that help mitigate risk for both parties: 

For long term clients, find a hourly rate and number of hours per week that you will work on their project. This way they know exactly what to expect when their bill shows up and you don’t have to provide quote for every little task. I find I am most productive with this structure, as I am not worrying about the business side of things, it provides the opportunity to just put your head down and get as much done as possible. 

For short term clients, agree on a hourly rate with an upper limit. This is much like a flat rate in that it protects the client from a big surprise at the end. The upper limit protects you, allowing you to provide more realistic limit, rather than an approximation like the quote. Essentially, you work at your hourly rate, with the understanding that if you totally miss the mark and take too long, it’s probably your fault and should be eating the cost anyway. You can also include a limit of changes with this structure. Once the limit of changes has been surpassed, the upper limit is nullified and you work at your regular rate. 

At what stage do you send work to clients? Striking a balance between beautiful polished work, and the right direction can be difficult. It is important to check in with your clients to make sure that you are going in the right direction, but it is equally important to remember that everything you send them reflects you. 

Whatever your brainstorming stage, and initial concepts (mine is always in my sketchbook)  may be, it’s safe to assume that it’s not polished. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it is worth your time to make sure that it looks presentable, and that your client has the same vision as you. This means if you’re sending photos of your sketchbook, make sure they are good photos, if you’ve got a particular digital style in mind, include examples of what you have in mind, if you’re annotating it, take five minutes to look at the typography. It doesn’t need to be perfect, just presentable. There’s nothing like impressing people when they’re not expecting it. 

Taxes: Know what you can write off
Because it’s a lot, and not always obvious.

  • a portion of rent & utilities
  • unpaid invoices
  • books, classes, conferences
  • coffee shop meetings
  • banking & paypal fees
  • that time tracking software you were too cheap to pay for
  • your phone bill

Use them. It’s the first thing that everyone tells you, and it’s the first lesson you learn when you don’t use them. Realistically, if you have clients in other countries, which as a freelancer you probably will, you won’t be able to enforce them (that’s when make sure you get a deposit). That shouldn’t be an excuse not to use them. Have a contract ready to be signed online, and before you start working send it along needing a quick signature. This serves to weed out any suspicious characters, anyone who intends to pay you won’t hesitate when you ask them to sign something to that effect.  

Learn to say no
When you first break into the freelancing world, and finally have constant work offers, it’s hard not to look back at the days when you were struggling, and accept everything that comes your way. It is important to learn how to say no. As designers, job satisfaction is often reflected in your work, and it is important to ensure that you are invested in the success of your projects before accepting them. Heavy workload, lack of interest or personality conflicts can be overlooked as reasons to turn down a project. Likewise there is no point that it is too late to say no {read: fire them} - as a freelancer you have as much right to terminate the relationship as the client does. 

I hate to suggest to anyone to go into debt, particularly new grads, but IF you’re good with money, get a line of credit. Payments are erratic, and don’t always align with when your rent is due.  Particularly in the beginning, while you’re still trying to fill your roster of clients and just beginning to market yourself, you can find yourself going months without getting paid. Even as a busy and experienced freelancer, you still encounter problems with payments. You don’t have the time to hassle clients, and you often find yourself on the bottom of the list when it’s time to get paid. 

Pay yourself a regular salary - hard to do at the beginning, but a habit to strive for. Since your income is fluctuating, just take what you made in a year and divide it by twelve. This will give you a better understanding of your finances, and save you in a slow month.


Freelancers by nature are meant to be specialists; they are people who get in, scramble to understand all of the components, get the job done well and move on. As a freelancer, you rarely have the opportunity to linger and agonize over whether the shadow should be 6 or 7 pixels. You’ve been sought out because you’re good at what you do and you understand the importance of a quick turn around. 

With that in mind, it is equally important to deliver quality finish. Loose ends & sloppy work make you an unreliable designer. No one wants a finished product that they have to check for mistakes. 

The best freelancers can strike a balance between a short timeline and polished work.

And on that note, I’m finished! I guess I had better go take my own advice and update my portfolio… Find me on twitter if you want to know more! or think I missed anything critical. 

(OH, credit to Todd Smith, for taking the time to send me his suggestions for freelancers. Smart fella, his tips definitely made it in here! )