Being a freelance designer
Status report after a half year.
Around a half year ago, I quit my full time job at a creative agency in Stuttgart, Germany. I went straight into full- time freelance work and I‘ve never looked back. In this article, I want to share my thoughts about being a freelance designer as it may be a useful resource for others who want to become independent someday or who are already freelance.
Being a full time employee at a company might sound fine at first - safe income, set working hours (this is both good and bad), paid vacations and, in some cases, some kind of a bonus at Christmas. I enjoyed being an employee, but I wanted to achieve something more, not just build boring stuff for mostly boring clients. I wanted to earn more, I wanted to set my own working hours, I wanted to have more free time and I wanted to relocate to a location where I felt more at home. Considering all these aspects, it wasn’t such a big step to just make the cut - which I did.
Being a freelancer is like running a business and you need to be aware of this fact. One of the most important keys to a successful business is having an eye on your finances and calculating how much money you will need on which dates.
Having savings before you become a full- time freelancer is a must, especially if you have no existing clients. Personally, I saved around 25k € before I went freelance and that was a pretty good idea. Luckily I never needed to touch this money, but it‘s good for your psyche when you know that you have something to live on even if you don‘t have any paid gigs. I think that how much you should save before going freelance really depends on whether you already know some people who might be in need of your services or if you at least know where to find these people. However, I think saving enough money to live on for around 6 months, without additional income, should be the minimum.
I started freelancing with three existing long term clients, which is the best that you could ever hope for when starting a new business. Since I‘ve been freelancing, I have earned around twice as much (including taxes, healthcare and pension) than I earned when I was an employee. If you are able to aquire new clients and, more importantly, keep them, it is a sure thing that you will earn much more than an average employee at an average agency.
This is a damn important part - it sucks pretty bad, but you need to do it. Personally, I hired an accountant right from the beginning and that was a really smart decision. I‘m happily paying my accountant around 200,00 € per month for keeping my books clean and letting me focus on what I really want to do: design stuff. By the way, I am still looking for a great money management application, unfortunately mint.com doesn‘t support European banks. If you know any tool that works with major European and German banks, please let me know!
I‘ve been working with the App „On the Job“ since I started freelancing and it‘s ok. It has great time tracking abilities, but lacks support for advanced invoicing. Also, it doesn‘t have any sync or cloud abilities, which makes it really hard to work on different machines sometimes. I might do the switch to the new version of Ballpark soon.
To be honest, I don‘t have a routine. I sleep when I‘m sleepy and I wake up when I feel rested. I work whenever work needs to get done or when I am in a creative mood. My day/night cycle switches for around 12 hours every two weeks, which feels a little bit strange. I discovered that I should do a minimum of one off-day per week to keep myself motivated. I work around 7 hours a day, but there are some days when I‘m really motivated and keep working (often on personal projects) for around 15 hours a day.
When I started freelancing (and also when I was working as an employee) I was mostly eating a lot of unhealthy stuff, especially fast food. However, I didn‘t weigh myself for years and was kinda shocked when I stepped onto a weighing-machine a few months ago which showed around 95kg. To live a bit healthier than before, I started jogging around 30 minutes every day and cooked food on my own instead of ordering out or putting instant food into the microwave. That worked really well and I lost around 15kg within 3 months. By doing a little workout every day and eating more vegetables it seems like I can easily maintain my weight now.
Before I started freelancing I was pretty sure that calendars and GTD applications took more time than they saved. However, when you have to deal with more than 2 clients at the same time these tools (especially a good organized calendar) are pure lifesavers. I couldn‘t tell you how many meetings and deadlines I would have accidentially missed if I didn’t care about organization.
Luckily I have never had to find clients, since they have always found me and, on average, I‘ve more work enquiries than I can accept. I really have to mention that Dribbble is the most valuable tool for finding clients, as it seems like tons of clients (especially from the Bay Area) are looking for designers on Dribbble. Another really nice resource is Folyo, a kind of job board for designers - as a registered designer you will receive around two or three emails per month with some really great opportunities.
Much more important than finding new clients is keeping them. Once you have built a solid client base of returning or long term clients, you will never again have to check out a job board or write emails to possible opportunities.
Keeping clients is actually not that hard - do your work in on time and do it well. Just invest a bit of time for talking to them about their ideas and visions and maybe some work unrelated stuff. If possible, meet eye-to-eye and drink some beers.
I‘m enjoying freelancing more than anything I‘ve ever done before. It‘s a great feeling to have the freedom to choose the people you want to work with and also to choose the projects you want to work on. Making more money is a nice bonus.
If you are freelance, I‘m very interested to hear about your experiences, so please just share your thoughts in the comments if you want. Also, if you are interested in similar articles you should read "A different approach to charging clients as a freelancer".