18 essential tips for freelancing as a student

Kick-start your freelance business while studying with part two of our student guide to freelancing.

Succeeding as a student freelancer requires a smart approach to managing your time and money. In part one of our essential guide to freelancing as a student, we looked at the process of setting up as a freelancer, including essential equipment, declaring your income, and key things to put in contracts and invoices.

Here, in the second half of this two-part guide, we explore the practicalities of freelancing alongside your studies. Here are 18 top tips for tackling the day-to-day challenges of running a freelance business, from finding new work to managing your money...

01. Don't wait for clients to find you

Be proactive and approach clients first. Small businesses are often keen to work with local suppliers so it's worth focusing on your immediate neighbourhood. Hand-deliver flyers, give out business cards, advertise on local listings boards and check sites like Eventbrite for local networking opportunities.

Some universities list freelance opportunities – University of the Arts London's Creative Opportunities website is just one example. Look for details of graduates, too, as they may be open to hearing from students at the same university they attended.

02. Spread the word

Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, whether you're networking on Twitter or asking friends and family to recommend you. Portfolio sites like Behance and Arts Thread can help bring in the work, but you'll probably get your first projects through personal contacts – so ask them to spread the word.

03. Testimonials can work

When a happy client signs off on a project, thank them for their business and ask if they'd consider writing a testimonial for your website. Will clients care that you're a student? They might. Generally though, clients focus on what they're getting for their money and what it's actually like to work with you, not what you do the rest of the time – so make sure you're professional, focused and enthusiastic.

04. Be honest at all times

Don't misrepresent your skills or experience. Aim to impress people with what you do, not what you say.

05. Don't say yes to everything

Some clients may push prices from students. In these situations, focus on what the job is actually worth. Ask yourself if the client seems to value what you're selling. In the beginning it's tempting to say yes to every opportunity that comes along, but you have a limited amount of time in which to freelance.

University of the Arts Bournemouth graduate Lewis Bartlett created this typographic print series for the National Literacy Trust during his time as a student

06. Be polite when refusing work

Refusing work won't sabotage your career, so long as you do it politely. Do say: "Thanks for the opportunity, but I'm unable to go below the rate I previously quoted." Don't say: "I can't believe you expect me to work for peanuts. I'm going to tell everyone you suck."

07. Good chat wins repeat clients

As a freelancer, relationships are essential. It takes more than good work to win repeat business. Take care over your communication with clients. Reply to emails promptly and professionally, include a polite sign-off (such as "Kind regards") and avoid text-speak. Be honest about any problems or delays and do your best to solve them quickly.

08. What about client meetings?

If you've been invited to a client meeting, before deciding whether to go, find out as much as you can about the purpose of the meeting. Is it solely about your project, or is that one item on a long agenda? Will it be a useful networking opportunity? It's fine to say you can't go because you have other time commitments. Offer to send over any relevant information beforehand.

09. Don't forget your business cards

If you do go, remember to take business cards – and avoid booking non-refundable travel in case the meeting is cancelled or delayed.

10. Always back up your work

Ideally, back up your work in multiple ways. Never rely on just one hard drive, or one cloud back-up, to keep all your files safe – things can and do go wrong, such as files becoming corrupted or simply inaccessible. If you use Adobe Creative Cloud or Dropbox for online storage, consider making a physical back- up too. It's also worth emailing key files to yourself on a regular basis.

Bartlett was tasked to create bespoke illustrations for this rebranding of the House of Dorchester chocolate collection, on sale in John Lewis

10. Keep your workflow non-destructive

Save multiple versions of each project rather than overwriting the same file each time. Destructive workflows might be slightly faster in the short-term, but long term they're disasterous. Don't do it.

11. Plan ahead

When you're juggling work and studying, it's essential that you plan ahead. Don't just think about final deadlines. Consider what needs to happen for those deadlines to be met, how long each step will take and what equipment and resources you'll need to complete the project. Then set yourself some mini deadlines.

12. Don't rely on memory

Even the most experienced freelancers can forget important tasks, so use a calendar, wall planner or task management app to keep track of what you need to do and when. Approach task management in a way that works for you. Keep things as simple as possible. Choose a system that makes things easier and that you'll actually use – there's no point putting everything on a wall calendar if you won't remember to look at it.

13. There's an app for that

There are plenty of free and cheap task management apps and online services to help you keep track of what needs doing, and when, such as Clear, Remember The Milk, Swipes and 30/30. Think about what else you need to do, too, and don't forget to factor in time for rest and socialising.

14. Stay on top of money

It's easier to manage your money if you keep track of things from the start. Some freelancers use apps like Wave or Xero to help with accounting, or you might prefer to create your own spreadsheets and invoice templates. Again, make sure you set up a system you're actually going to use – if you're not using it, you need to change it.

15. Send invoices promptly

And keep track of when they should be paid. As mentioned in part one, invoices are usually sent by email but they must always include your name, postal address and contact details, and those of your client. Include all the details of the project and ask clients if you need to include a purchase order number or other reference information.

16. Don't be scared to talk about money

Freelancing can feel very personal, but remember that you're conducting a business. For your clients, it's just part of their working day. So be upfront about costs from the start and agree a fee in writing before doing any work.

17. Chase late payments

If clients are late in paying, it's worth chasing this up. Be polite and assertive, not aggressive or rude. Start by saying your invoice hasn't been paid and you're hoping they can help. Is there someone who can check everything is okay?

If they mention a specific problem, ask who can solve it and when. If you haven't agreed a payment deadline in writing, the legal default is 30 days in the UK. After that, you're entitled to charge interest on late payments.

18. Don't go in all guns blazing

There might be a genuine hold-up, so start by assuming the best. That said, always trust your gut instinct, whether you're chasing a late payment or debating whether to step out of your comfort zone. If you have a nagging feeling about a potential client, don't ignore it.

Words: Anne Wollenberg
Images: Lewis Bartlett

This article first appeared in Computer Arts issue 233, a special issue with a photochromatic cover revealing the UK's top 30 studios, plus how to craft the perfect folio and make more money as a student...