My dear young friend,
I’m pleased you want to work for yourself. If done correctly, it can be rewarding, enjoyable and one helluva good time. If done wrong it can lead to grey hair, stress and a lot of screaming at a screen. I’ve been in both places. Luckily I’m now more in the former category than the latter.
As I approach two decades of working for myself, I thought I’d share a few thoughts. Not because I know everything (far from it) but because there are a few things I’d like you to consider. Treat these more as loose guidelines and not rules.
Solve problems with beauty.
There are two important things to consider with the statement above.
The first is the “solve problems” bit. Use your skills and experience to help other people solve their problems - both in the work you do for clients and the products you make for you and your audience. This is the crux of having a long-lasting freelance career. Solving the right problems makes you indispensable and being indispensable is the best (and let’s be honest, most profitable) position to be in.
The second part relates to beauty. This doesn’t just apply to visuals. Whatever you provide to clients, make sure it’s as beautiful as it can be. Pay attention to the small things, agonize over the details and present work that you’re proud of. Then stand behind it and argue for it if you’ve got to.
If you were just simply solving problems, you’d be an engineer or a scientist (their solutions can be beautiful too in a way, but you know what I mean). If you were simply putting beauty out into the world, you’d be a hobby artist. Nothing’s wrong with either, but you can’t simply choose one without the other and hope to make a living using your creativity alone.
Be responsible for your work.
The power of working for yourself lies in what you create. Not just for yourself but for the people that hire you. The world will judge you by your work (for good or bad) so make sure you can stand behind it. You’re responsible for what you put out into the world, even if you’re paid to do it.
Your portfolio is not just a record of your past but an indicator of your future. You will be hired to do more of what’s in your portfolio, so make sure it’s full of what you want to do more of. If it’s not, be a relentless editor of it.
If you don’t care about the problem you’re solving, leave. It’s akin to being a teacher and not caring if your students actually learn anything. Your time, your effort, your skills and your name are all going into the work you do. The world doesn’t need more apathetic work. It’ll be a much better place with your focused and energized effort.
Stand up for your boundaries.
Young freelancers often tell me that the reason I am picky with clients and stand up for my opinions with them is because I’m lucky enough to be a place where I can do that. Truth is, I’ve always been like that. If someone is giving me money, it’s because they trust my opinion and skill enough to put money behind it. Use that to your advantage when a client asks for something you disagree with or know isn’t the right call.
Saying “no” to clients (with a polite explanation of course) has never gotten me fired from even one project.
Standing my ground has led to two things.
The first is respect and appreciation for my expertise. No one wants a “Yes (wo)man”. So when a client asks for something I don’t think is in their best interest, I tell them. Every time it’s led to a better end result and a happy client.
The second is that it’s allowed me to let go of clients who weren’t interested in collaboration. I’ve let clients like that go (mostly before money was on the table), even if it meant losing their business. I’ve always played the long game with work. I figure it’s better to lose some money in the short term than be stressed out or unhappy with a project or client who wasn’t interested in listening. This also has the benefit of removing clients who aren’t a good fit from the equation and opens up my schedule to clients who are.
A client that fits with your work well is one that respects your expertise and is just as excited about the work as you are. The better the fit with a client, the better the end result will be. Every. Time.
Your word is your contract, so buffer it accordingly.
Get an agreement in writing before you ever start work. Until there’s money on the table and deliverables in writing, that money can’t be considered yours (and your time, conversely, can’t be considered theirs).
Almost as important as securing a contract before work begins is doing every single thing you say you’re going to do. Not just for people who are paying you, but to anyone you come into contact with. If you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it. And on time.
Because you can’t control your life sometimes, and it can all go to crap and screw up what you’ve promised, make sure to build a buffer into every promise. That means always tell the other person you’ll get something done while leaving yourself space for life to shit on your face. Because sometimes it does. Setting deliverable dates in a project? Buffer a few extra days for each. Need to turn around revision requests today? Tack on a few extra hours in case your pet rat needs to go to the vet.
Buffer your promises with a little extra time because life is too complicated to know how long anything will really take.
Money and budgeting.
As above, you want to buffer what you make in case life gets out of control. You can’t plan for car breakdowns or dishwasher replacements or emergency trips to the vet.
So put aside money for taxes and life. Both are inevitable and cost more than you expect. But if you assume they will cost more than you think they will, you’ll be covered.
The money you bill isn’t 100% yours. All that’s yours is what’s left after you pay taxes, expenses, rent, savings, etc. Your hourly rate or project rate isn’t what you make, it’s just what people have to pay. They’re unfortunately two very different amounts.
Figure out your version of hustling.
In order to be sustained by your work, since you’re responsible for every aspect of it, you’ve got to come to terms with the “selling” part of it. No one can teach you the right way to sell, because the right way for you will be deeply personal. Yes, it can be uncomfortable and you’d rather be creating, but it’s necessary.
Selling ideas is as important as the skills you’ve got. Talk about your work, not in terms of technical details or facts/figures but in terms of how you’re in a unique position to solve the other person’s problems. Listen to what their business does and what isn’t working and figure out how you can help. You sell your helpfulness, in whatever way makes sense and feels the best to you.
Above all else speak up, but listen just as much (if not more). You don’t know everything (neither do I) and every client you ever work with will teach you something new if you’re open to learning from them.
Ask questions and go deeper whenever possible - with your own beliefs, with requests from clients, with where you feel your industry is holding you back. You can shape the world around you and shift paradigms that don’t serve you or your work.
Like a muscle, your skills and creativity will atrophy unless used constantly. Never stop, never slow down, never assume you know everything. If you lack client work, start your own projects. Experiment and play with wild abandon.
Lastly, you both frighten and encourage me. You are no doubt further along and brighter than I was when I started. One day you’ll be much better than I am, and I’m excited for the day that I’m as obsolete as 5¼-inch floppy disks (don’t worry, you don’t need to know what those are).
Don’t let anyone ever extinguish your passion and drive for what you do.