Freelance in Style – Advice, Tips and Tricks for Graphic Designers

December 9, 2009 in Articles, Featured by admin

Freelance Advice – Tips and Tricks
(Any Software – Design Business Type)

Welcome to the introduction to starting up a freelance operation. In this article we will cover the various mistakes and hardships of beginning this type of venture. Most of the topics covered can be applied to just about any type of freelance operation, from 3D Design to Graphic Design to Mechanical Design, the list could go on.

The items I will be discussing have come up many times over the course of my career and if you know these things in advance, you’ll surely be freelancing in style.

Starting up a freelance operation is a lot of hard work that most cannot fathom until they step into the shoes as owner / operator. Perseverance is a key item in this venture. Most operations do not take off for quite some time and at first you may make barely enough to survive. Keeping your focus on the big picture is extremely important. If you are looking to make fast money then you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

This is by no means a complete list of everything to watch out for. I will be updating this article as time goes on and new topics present themselves to me. If anyone has any thoughts on new topics that I should cover regarding freelance operations, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Author: Ryan W. Knope

Ryan W. Knope is a freelance 3D Artist / Consultant with 13 years experience in the 3D and 2D industry. His main expertise lies with interior and exterior rendering. Ryan is also the architectural / interior voice for 3D Artist Magazine’s Question and Answer Panel. He lives with his wife in sunny Denver, Colorado.

Tutorial Details

  • Programs: None (Advice + Tips + Tricks For Freelance Operations)
  • Difficulty: Beginner

Topic 1: When And When Not To Go Full Time With Freelance

This topic is a tough one on so many levels.

I worked as a freelance artist for 8 years at the start of my career. This was an easy choice because I was living at home with my parents. Once you are out on your own it becomes much tougher to rely on a freelance operation to pay all the bills. I then worked for firms in Baltimore and Denver for a few years before deciding to start back up my full time freelance operation. This decision I owe mainly to my wife because she made it possible and was able to cover much of the income that I lacked at startup.

Ask yourself these questions:
• Do you have someone to assist bill payments during tough months? (A Spouse, Parents, etc)
• Are you disciplined enough to save the extra money from each month for those times when you’re a bit behind on your monthly income quota?
• Have you built up enough of a sustainable client base?
• Do you have a vast enough knowledge of different design sectors? Often you have to switch from different niches to get the bills paid.
• Are you business savvy or willing to put the time in to learn?
• Can you sell yourself?

The wisest option is usually to maintain freelance on a part time basis over the course of a few years and build relationships little by little. Once your base is big enough to attempt the jump you will know.

Topic 2: Selling Yourself Short. When And When Not To

When first starting a freelance operation often you have to undersell your product to get into the market share. This is especially prevalent in these hard economic times. Of course you can only do this for so long before you start realizing that you are working 100 hours a week at minimum wage.

Once a strong client relationship is built I tend to raise prices slowly. Speak with the client directly and let them know that you need to raise your pricing due to increased work volume and rising company costs.

Most importantly in the beginning you need to build a large client base even if you are making less on each job than you feel that you are worth. With some thought and work you can turn a vast cheap client base into a growing monetary situation.

On another note, as your volume expands you can weed out the clients that are troublesome or extremely cheap with the buck. Your expanding client volume much of the time means that clients either have to find another service provider or make it worth your while to fit them in.

There are times when I get booked up for the next month or 2 and a client comes to me and asks if I can accommodate them. In this situation I tell them that I am very busy and booked up although I can fit their job in for an extra fee. This is a good point to raise your pricing one at a time.

Topic 3: Being Noncommittal

Many new freelancers run into problems with being non-committal once they see that there is more work to be done than the original quoted monetary value. This definitely becomes frustrating for you, as you can see the hourly rate drain away to nothing.

I have been sucked into this several times in the past year alone. When this happens you cannot go back to your client and ask for more money. Doing so will tell the client that you do not know what you are doing and again the trust factor falls another level.

Remember that you are the professional providing a product. If a client says that they know it is a quick and easy project then it should raise a red flag. You need to take the time to assess and gather the material and make your own judgment with how easy it is and how long it will take you. Often television shows make our jobs look easy and everything is quick as can be… we all know that this is not the case.

Commit to the job at the price that you feel is appropriate and if the client disagrees then barter a bit on pricing but don’t jump too far in the hole, otherwise you could be stuck if that client has similar work for you at an ongoing basis.

Topic 4: Marketing – Cold Calls, Portfolio, Sites

Image is everything when you are marketing yourself. Dress sharp for meetings. Spend time on creating a professional portfolio website. There have been so many times that my website has saved me numerous hours of explaining different elements to a client. It gives the client something to compare their vision with. Adding client testimonials to the website is a great way to show future clients that you have a happy list of satisfied companies and gives them the feeling that they too, will be satisfied.

Speaking on design community forums, irc, and posting to website galleries are great ways to gain credibility. With credibility, the word about you will spread.

Cold calls tend to be less productive than you may think. When restarting my freelance operation I contacted about 1,500 firms. All of this work yielded one job, although that one job led to another job and so on.

Keep a document of who you called / emailed along with the dates, This makes it much easier to sort through who is left to call.. and firms that receive double calls really don’t appreciate it.

I tend to resume my cold calls when I have no more leads from my contacts or from the freelancing website’s. Which brings us to the next topic… freelancing website’s.

Topic 5 – Places To Find Clients Fast – The Web

There are many freelancing website’s that will aid greatly in finding clients and creating long lasting relationships. Unfortunately you often have to bid much below your cost estimate, although in my experience it is a good way to get clients hooked fast and then raise slowly.

With Craigslist you simply put up an ad for service and you can haggle at your own will. This works great on so many levels, because you can post tutoring, commercial 3D and 2D design, consulting etc, just about anything you desire.

Sites like Turbosquid work fantastic because you upload a product once and every month you have residual income for doing the work once. Of course this takes time to build a steady stream. Keep in mind that these sites sell more than just 3D models. Check each site to see what categories they have. I personally swear by Turbosquid 100%.

Below you can find a list of a few website’s that may help bring in some design income.

Topic 6 – Trade Shows And Local Events

Local trade shows and events can be crucial in starting one’s operation. They allow you to make personal contact with a representative from the firms in your target groups. For example, I not only attend “Siggraph”, but I also attend architectural and interior design trade shows.

Find your niche markets and use those trade shows to get your name and services out there. Making your presence and services known is one of the biggest battles in starting a freelance operation. These shows give you a chance to touch base with hundreds in one day, in contrast, cold call emails are almost never read, which means that you probably will not get a response.

Topic 7 – Deposits Are VERY Important

Requiring a %50 from each client is another reason why you should not have to watermark your progress images. (Which is covered in Topic 11) With requiring a %50 deposit you dedicate the client to the project before you even start designing.

You should provide samples of high enough quality to view the progress properly, although do not supply the images in full size or even close to it, otherwise you risk never seeing the other %50. For example, many of my renderings I output at 3500px as a final size, when I show progress updates I send about 1000px to 1500px sizes.

There are always exceptions to this rule. If you have had a client – provider relationship over the course of years without any trouble or faltering, then I sometimes do not require the deposit. I only have 2 such clients.

Also, many large corporations have their own contracts which state a 30 day payment or so. Sometimes getting the deposit from large companies is a bit difficult. Most of the time when dealing with large corporations that have contracts regarding the issue it is not a problem

Topic 8 – Taxes – Savings

Taxes are often a troublesome subject for new freelancers. Watching the money come in gets exciting and newbies tend to spend it all. That my friend is a very bad idea. You should estimate the taxes for your country / state and put aside that figured percentage of each job that you work on. Being regimented with this will save you a huge heartache during tax time, which is already hard enough.

When I was first starting as a freelancer I spent all the money that I made each week. When tax time came around I was notified that I owed over $4,500 USD. This quickly became a huge problem and I had to pay it back with interest for quite a long time.

Topic 9 – Expenses And Receipts Can Save You At Tax Time

This topic is extremely valuable. Look into your local and national laws and figure out what you are allowed to claim as business expenses during tax time. In most situations you can claim the following (Although this is not a complete list):

– Business Travel Expenses – Airline Tickets Etc.
– Software Expenses
– Hardware Expenses
– Dinners With A Client
– Car Mileage To And From A Job Site
– Office Supplies
– Printing And Marketing Materials

The laws in my area (Denver, CO, USA) normally cover anything that is strictly applied to your business. Anything that is used for personal use, home use or entertainment is not usually covered. Unless you are taking a client to a show to discuss closing a contract.

Keep all of the receipts that you accrue over the year and put them all in the same place. There is nothing worse than making a huge tax saving purchase and not being able to find the receipt so that you can claim it.

Keep a notepad in your car. Write your driving mileage for each meeting, event or trip to the office supply store. I tend to log, where, when and how many miles the round trip was. This is a great way to ease your mind from trying to remember everyone you met and where you went in the past year.

Topic 10 – Trust Between Client And Provider

One of the most important things about building a freelance business is building a tight relationship with your clients. This often means going the extra mile or 10. A week or 2 after a project is completed I tend to email the client and ask them how it is working out for them. This shows that you are sincere with being there for them and their needs.

Below are some ways to build trust quickly with new and ongoing clients.

• Sending Updates Often
• Communicating Regularly
• Showing A Strong Portfolio
• A Professional Looking Website
• Providing References And Client Testimonials
• Meet Your Deadline Or Be Early
• Being Straight Up With Your Client

Topic 11 – Watermarks

There are many different perspectives on watermarks and their usage. Some feel the need to apply a huge mark across an entire design or rendering. In most cases this is a problem for clients and they find it counter productive. A client relationship has a lot to do with trust and honesty. A huge watermark degrades the viewing of your work as well as the trust level very quickly.

Another option which many see as the more professional way is to put your logo or watermark quite small in a corner of the image. This works well in a few ways. It shows the client a level of trust and provides a small source of advertising when your client shows people your work during the design process.

The last option is to provide a watermark free rendering, which clients appreciate the most. When it comes down to it, most watermarks can be painted out by a professional. Watermarks are for the most part just quite obnoxious.

There are times when you need to use watermarks though, such as when you are selling images on Turbosquid, IStock or any stock photography website.

Topic 12 – Identifying Your Target Markets And Expanding

When starting your freelance operation you obviously have target markets that you are currently dealing with. Shortly after starting your business you need to begin thinking of other areas that your skills can be applied. The goal should be to diversify.

For Example: My initial target markets were “Interior and Exterior Visualization.” I soon started offering “2D rendered floor plans.” Then I noticed a huge market for “Cross Section Renderings” with engineering firms, then all of a sudden I was providing renderings for furniture manufacturers, then just recently I stumbled upon textile designs.

In this day and age having a diverse set of clients / services will keep you in operation much longer than only offering 1 type of service for a niche field.

My original progression of market expansion is shown below. The entire picture of the web of market expansion would take up the entire page. You can get an idea of how each market influences each other and how I drew from each one meeting contacts along the way via the image below.


Closing Notes

Starting up a full time freelance operation is a ton of hard work. Many think that it’s all fun and games because you get to sit at home and work when you choose. This is not always the case.

I work more now than I ever did before. I tend to work between 50 and 80 hours a week and I rarely ever take a day off. This is often what it takes to build the freelance empire that you desire.

The benefits are also extremely pleasing. I have the option to make as much or as little money as I care to work for. If you build the business in a smart manor, you can go fishing when you want, hang out with friends or catch the game you’ve been waiting for without having to ask the boss. With smart scheduling you can plan a day trip or vacation just about any time.

Remember, that at the end of the day the only person responsible for the success of the business is you. You will have no one else to blame or be angry with. All the weight is put directly on your shoulders to make it happen. Laziness will surely render a failed operation.

Good luck in your ventures. I wish you the best as you freelance in style.

Please do not hesitate to contact me for advice or thoughts.