At some point in their career, every designer is going to consider the possibility of going freelance. Before you make that decision, there are a few things you need to get straight…
1) You have total freedom
This is a big one. While it may be true that you have the freedom to live where you want, and you can work remotely, there are some restrictions: you have to work where there’s an Internet connection for example. In terms of creative freedom, it will be a long time before your business is successful enough to take on the projects you want. In the beginning, you’ll end up taking on any project that comes across your desk in order to keep the lights on and put food on the table.
2) You set your own schedule
This is rarely true. Some articles on the web have grossly exaggerated the freedom you have when working for yourself. You’ll have to have some sort of set schedule, so clients know when to contact you. Otherwise, they’ll contact you day and night, or they’ll expect you to work day and night. Another issue is consistency: clients want someone they know they can count on to be there, and not someone who flies by the seat of their pants.
3) You work whenever you want to
This definitely comes up as a big “nope.” Just like a regular day job, you’ll have deadlines you need to meet. If you don’t meet those deadlines, you may be paying for the damages out of your own pocket. Your clients will also expect projects to be completed in a reasonable timeframe; I just acquired a new business partner, due to the simple fact that his old partner would take 4-6 weeks to deliver a 5 page website.
4) You’ll work less
You couldn’t be more wrong on this one. Owning my own business, I’ve never worked harder in my life. You’ll be working late a lot to meet deadlines. You’ll also be working nights and weekends. Chances are that at times you’ll take on more work than you can normally handle, because you’ll be looking ahead at possible downtimes, due to seasonal activity.
5) You get to focus on what you like doing
While you do get to do what you love, you’ll also be doing everything else. You’re going to be the IT person, solving technical difficulties. You’ll also be the bookkeeper, because you’ll have to handle the accounting, budgeting, and paying the bills. You’ll also be the bill collector, chasing after people to pay you. You’ll be the office maintenance person, the janitor, and the secretary scheduling appointments with clients. You’ll even be the tea boy (or girl).
6) Work will come flowing in
It’s a common misconception that once you set up shop, you can just sit back and people will come pouring in looking for your services. While this is a nice thought, it’s merely a pleasant dream. It will take you a while to build a clientele. Simply building a portfolio online and hoping people show up there is wishful thinking.
You’ll have to be your biggest promoter, utilizing every strategy you can come up with to get the word out. You’ll need to learn social media skills, learn where you can advertise for free, and learn how to handle paid advertising that actually works. These same skills will be the ones you’ll be using to promote your clients’ businesses, so it’s a good idea to get good at them.
7) You’ll make more money
I’d love to say that the sky’s the limit when owning your own business. While it may be true that you have the potential to make as much as you want it will take some time to build. In your first year, you would be lucky to make what you made at your old day job. Don’t get discouraged. If you keep at it, you can eventually get where you want to be, but it’s not a get-rich-quick opportunity.
8) You’ll get to dress in your PJs every day
Not quite. At least, not if you want to actually succeed. You’re going to be meeting with clients, business owners, and business partners. People are actually going to want to meet you face to face before they hire you. You can’t throw away your suit and tie, or dress skirt. You’ll need those for presentations, and to look professional in meetings.
You only get to dress how you want when you’re in production mode at home. Even then, you may find yourself dressing up for work — a lot of freelancers find that changing outfits is a good way to shift mental gears between home-home and work-home.
9) You’ll have more free time
100% wrong. You’ll feel like you don’t have enough time. Between client meetings, bookkeeping, accounting, promoting, and everything else, you’ll be wondering when you’re actually supposed to sit down and do the design work. What’s worse is that even when there is a quiet period, you’ll be working harder to shorten that quiet period.
It can be a bit overwhelming at first; but as you get into the swing of things and develop your own system, that goes away.
10) You can sit in front of the computer all day and make money
It doesn’t work that way. You can work remotely, which is great, but you’d better have a ton of testimonials and portfolio work to show. Otherwise, you’re going to have to leave the comfort of your office to go to business events, meetups, and any other place where you may find work.
11) You’ll be able to land tons of work on freelancing sites
While some designers have found a lot of success from those sites, it didn’t happen overnight. Freelancing sites are full of wonderful opportunities to work for less than $1/hour, so if you want to do well your portfolio is going to have to be top-notch.
A lot of these sites require proficiency tests in order for you to promote your services in the first place. This can be time consuming, especially when you’re under the gun to pay bills. This can be something you work towards, but it should be on the backburner. It should be something you do during your downtime, and not your main focus.
12) You don’t have to work with people you don’t like
That’s definitely wishful thinking. You’ll work with people you like, don’t like, despise, hate, cherish, love, adore, admire, and more. You’ll work with just about anyone (or at least you’d better learn to) and you’ll be glad to do it. The flipside of the coin is that you’ll be more willing to do it, because all of the money’s going in your pocket. You aren’t working to make someone else wealthier.
13) Working from home is like working in paradise
This may be true if you’re single, live in a quiet neighborhood or apartment, and you have no pets. In reality, your stress level will go through the roof when working from home, especially if you have a spouse, kids, or pets. I started off working from home, and found I couldn’t concentrate. I was constantly interrupted, the kids needed to tiptoe (which never happened) and every neighbor in my area became barking dog owners all of a sudden.
Many freelancers are surprised how lonely they find the experience of working at home, especially at first, before you establish business connections of your own. Why do you think so many freelancers spend time in coffee shops? Because they’re productive work environments?
Working from home can also put stress on your relationships; and it can be difficult for those close to you to understand when you’re approachable and when you’re off limits. I eventually found an affordable office space, which was a lifesaver for my nerves, productivity, and my sanity.
Despite all of the freelancing myths out there, it can still be a rewarding experience. Working as a freelancer gives you the ability to control your career, potentially leading to the freedom that you’ve always wanted.
It can be tough when starting out, but if you hang in there, you’ll eventually develop your own system, giving you the potential to set your own work hours, determine your own income, and work with the companies you’ve always dreamt of. Understanding the difference between myths and reality will help you to set realistic goals, and to have realistic expectations for your freelance career.