freelance tips

My journey to full time freelance design and 5 tips to get there!

In June it will be 3 years that I have been freelance designing full time. It is both humbling and exhausting. I thought I should take a minute to walk you through how I got to this Etsy selling/corporate clienting space I find myself in. 

During my BFA in Design Communications, our professors stressed getting a job at an agency or boutique design firm. They won awards, wore flip flops and drank beer at the office... every college kid's dream. But those jobs are extremely hard to find, pay even less and designing pizza coupons for a well known brand isn't always glamorous. So when I landed my first job out of college, which was a small start up selling NFL merchandise, I was grateful to be working. I pretended like I didn't mind pulling hours in a sweaty warehouse, or shooting product photography in a closet. After a year of that I applied for my first corporate marketing in-house design job and loved it. We worked with internal clients to drive traffic to our sites and produced collateral for the field. It was 8 to 5 and I was pretty good at it.

After 3 years I got a bit restless and decided to pursue a life goal of getting a Masters degree. Education is just very important to me and I get a lot of personal satisfaction from having those extra letters after my name. Luckily.... I was smart enough to listen to my father's advice and get a Master's in FREAKING LONDON ENGLAND!

It was an incredible year. Living in central London was such a blessing, my coursework basically required that I go to new gallery openings and every major museum in London. My ocular glands wanted to explode. Throughout the year I found myself contemplating a career change to museum curating or exhibit design. But my heart still hung on graphic design, and when I returned to the US, I landed corporate job #2.

I spent the next 3 years working for a big Dallas hospital on the internal brand team. It really reigned me in, in terms of sticking to a brand and finding new ways to use the same elements. After a few years there, my previous boss recruited me to come work for her at well known .com with a traveling gnome. I was enticed by the brand and a promotion and well... that whole drinking beer at my desk and wearing flip flops thing. 

By now I had gotten married and my husband and I wanted to explore life outside of Texas. He accepted a job transfer to Denver. I had started my Etsy shop with a koozie design for my best friend's bachelorette. Orders started rolling in slowly at first, and then rapidly as customers would reach out with ideas or phrases they wanted me to design. 

Once we moved to Denver I landed a great in-house corporate marketing Design job (go figure). But it really gave me the mental headspace to expand my shop and beef up my own brand. I think that was a crucial part of my freelance journey. Tip #1 Not jumping from my day job too soon. I wanted to make sure there was a viable business that would replace (and eventually triple) my day job salary. We also made the decision that I would keep working 70 hour weeks (40 at the day job and 30 nights and weekends on Etsy) until our student loans were paid off. #adultingsohard. It seemed like I would never be able to quit my job with roughly $90K in loans between the two of us. But we buckled down, shared a car, lived in a cheap rental and paid those suckers off. Tip # 2: Being financially stable and having that burden off my back made jumping to full time free lance even easier. When you aren't encumbered by debt, you can make risky moves!

Which leads me to Tip #3, establishing clients before you make the move. This may seem counter-intuitive, how can you build a client base while working a full time job? Well, you have to hustle and grind. Volunteer to re-do your Uncle's landscaping website. Remember that friend who brews beer, design his label. Not only will these side projects get you in the groove of talking clients through their needs, it will help build your portfolio and side-hustle muscles! I started volunteering for the American Cancer Society and its been some of the most rewarding design work I've done in my career. And it just landed me another ACS office's work, this time for cash money!

So here it is June 2014 and I'm ready to go full time freelance. I had to work out my brand, build a website, establish an invoicing system, get an LLC, aka get my Ducks in a Row. Tip #4. I wish I had been more thorough about this step before full time launching on my own. I was basically putting out one fire after another when suddenly quarterly tax payments were due (hire an accountant) or a new client would ask for a formal proposal (research contracts) or even worse, when my designs were being highjacked on Etsy (hire a lawyer). 

Lastly, Tip #5. Farming it out.

And this tip is definitely something I am still working on: Farm Out What You don't know. Or even better, what you don't enjoy. Running your own business means you are now CEO, CFO, CMO and all the other C-suite functions. There is a reason each one of those roles gets paid big bucks. Its a lot of work. For me, social media has always been a struggle. So I'm giving myself 6 months to get in the groove of posting, and if it still feels like a chore, well someone is getting a check to do it then. I've started talking to photographers to do a new product photo shoot to take my brand to the next level. I don't own a nice camera and there is a plethora of talent in the Denver area to cross that item off my to-do list. I plan to enhance my website in the next few months, and since I don't code, I'm hiring a former co-worker to help out. Again, crossing it off my own damn list! 

So to sum up... here are my 5 tips to breaking out on your own:
1. Don't quit your day job [just yet].
2. Be financially sound. [Even if that means you have to wait another 6 months to 2 years!]
3. Establish some clients. [side hustle]
4. Get your ducks in a row. [Hire an accountant, start a SEP retirement fund, etc]
5. Farm out what you don't know. [pay the experts, its a business expense and tax deductible]

Holler with any questions, or leave a comment below!