Tales from an ex-freelance newbie

Everyone has to learn somehow...

Given that I am a few years out of college and have been actively maintaining a freelance career alongside my typical day-job, I've learned a few key lessons along the way. I'm nowhere near calling myself a "veteran" but I do know these few key lessons made (or broke for a certain time) my freelancing career.


Yes, I know. It sucks to start off this brief rundown with that awful of a word but it means all the difference in the world. Write a kickass proposal to start. Include a concrete timeline (and stick to it). Clue the client in on how in-tune you are with their needs. Start with a contract and an invoice for partial payment. Keep track of your hours even if you're not getting paid hourly. Include your emailing, inspiration browsing, and follow-up stuff in this hourly tracking. It will give you a much more clear idea on how to quote on a by-project basis in the future.

In the same vein, keep track off all expenses! I finally completed my first year using a detailed expense tracking system and it finally paid off! I didn't completely screw myself in taxes and started the year on a fresh foot.

It sucks initially, but in the end you will thank your past self for all of the work you put in.

Give your client a package for success

You may think the job is over once your brand spanking new logo has left your email box, and yeah, that probably could be the end of it. But honestly, guess how many times I would get an email a few weeks later asking what color I used for this or to get a white version of that, or how they could use the letterhead in Word.

I have learned to go out of my way to set up my clients, mostly small businesses, with everything they will need beyond that .eps.

Normally here's what I include, depending on the job:

  • Any and all logo files! .eps, .png, .jpg versions of full color, one color, and reversed - And organized so a client can figure it out! I'll also include a stock writeup I created on which file to use when.
  • A PDF with best practices and their specific color breakdowns for web and print. 
  • If I'm designing letterhead and such, I'll also include word template versions. A great majority of my clients may not ever have to reason to order a large batch of printed letterhead, so why not design the letterhead to be a template (and printable on any printer!) 
  • Finally, follow up contact. Be it phone call or email, definitely keep in touch and be sure they and happy with the product. Of course, this is always a great opportunity to see if they have additional needs!

Manage your time

And by manage your time, I mean segment your freelance mode into it's own time blocks. At first with a normal day-job and freelance and my own life, it was overwhelming to get emails and phone calls about freelance work that I could not necessarily address at the time I received them. I would often get involved in an email chain while I was out doing personal things. Resist! Everything can wait until you sit down at your desk with a mug of coffee and a few hours to power through.

...Just don't push back that solid freelance desk time weeks into the future.

Manage your files

I can easily become one of the most un-organized people on the face of this earth, as evidenced by my 50 browser tabs, hundreds of screenshots on my desktop, and my multiple folders called Junk, To Organize, and Important.

But after a few years of freelancing, there is one folder that NO MATTER WHAT I keep neat and tidy: Work.

Believe me, if you sort out research, text, old files, working, and final into their own folders, even that will save time and hassle in the future. 

And finally... a word on finding clients

One thing I hear over and over is "How do I find freelance work?"

Honestly, it took me a long time to even have enough freelance work to fill enough to call "part-time". If you're just out of school, take anything and everything. Work yourself hard and you will prove to yourself how much you can accomplish. Dig through craigslist ads, search online, ask around everywhere and eventually you will get a few jobs. After a while your portfolio will fill out, even if maybe only every 5th project is worth showing.

Initially in your career, don't be afraid of grunt work. I've outlined thousands of product photos in photoshop, laid out the driest of book content, and retraced artwork into vector format. This type of work accomplishes:

  • The type of technical skill-set that cannot be taught, only learned through hours of excruciating pen tool work. 
  • An appreciation for getting beyond that type of ditch digging work later in your career, and an appreciation for those who do it for you.
  • Contacts! Even if you start off doing something like photo editing or resizing ads, fear not. These are also the people who can throw you better work if you prove yourself.

Overall, I've found the number one way to gain clients is to never say no to work until you have to. A few years in, I'm now able to turn down work that I know isn't paying enough and my projects are drifting more toward actual design ideation and execution. So trudge through, and I promise it gets better and more fulfilling!