Freelancing is all about having options; choosing when, how, where and with whom you work. Taking responsibility for these decisions can be incredibly exciting and, by producing work that directly affirms the talent behind it, deeply rewarding.
Make no mistake though, excitement and reward are products of risk. There are many advantages to being your own boss, but there are plenty of pitfalls, too. Before you take the plunge, it pays to ask around and get the lay of the land from those that have gone before.
The best policy
"If everyone could be freelance they would," says New York-based designer Mike Perry. The lifestyle is better, the earnings are higher and you have a free hand creatively. Well, if Perry's right, why isn't everyone freelance? The answer is that not everyone can handle it.
Working for yourself can - as with any professional situation - have its downsides too. Even in a city with as many people as New York, Perry explains, the freelance life can get pretty lonely, and this is specially true if you work from home: "Really, there were weeks when I didn't leave the house."
Even if the idea of being a hermit is appealing, self-reliance doesn't suit everyone. Making your own decisions, relying on your wits, taking responsibility for business decisions - working for an agency, especially a big one, you don't have these concerns; you do the creative work, you collect the pay cheque. On top of that, you have the camaraderie, the resources, the chance to work on huge projects and learn from your colleagues. This is not such a bad situation to be in. Be honest with yourself, is freelancing for you or did you just have a bad week at the office?
How will I know?
If you're still reading, you must be determined. So, you're sure you want to go freelance, but when should you make your move? "All this depends on your readiness at the time," says Ravi Vasavan, who, as DirtyLipBalm.com, has been freelancing for years. True as it may be, Vasavan's advice can only take you so far. In practical terms though, opinion is divided.
"I would recommend doing it directly out of college," says illustrator Janine Rewell. "That's the time to try different things before you settle down. You also get a better job position at an agency if you have some life experience." Plus, as Rewell points out, if you're an illustrator there aren't that many full-time positions around, so you may not have too much choice.
Then there's the gradual approach. "Go a year or two in college, and after that another year or two at an agency, and then go free bird." Oddly, the multi-talented Miika Saksi didn't take his own advice. Aged just 15, he told his dad he wasn't enjoying college. "He said that maybe I should quit school and start to work as a web designer. So next morning I didn't go to school."
Which brings us to what you might call 'the snowball scenario'. That's what happened to Ravi Vasavan: "I saw my first job as a portfolio opportunity, so I took it on and things have spiralled since then, in a good way." This situation is probably the least advisable but most common - the lack of planning could mean you're spinning too many plates for longer than you need to, but a few commonsense measures should keep you out of deep water.
The first thing to ensure is that the commissions keep flowing. "Everyone says the market is saturated," says French-Canadian designer Dominic Prvost, "but there's always space for good people. It's about motivation and heart." If you love what you're doing and you do it well, that will come across. There is work out there for you, it just requires a sixth sense to detect it.
Prvostreveals why this is so: "I used to take guitar lessons, and you had to wait in the lobby for the lesson before yours to finish," and the student before Prvost was a girl whose father always waited for her in the same lobby€¦ "One day we just started talking, and he had a media company and I was like, 'Hell! We should totally work together'." That job led to another, and things built from there. "Never snub any opportunity," says Prvost sagely.
Those first clients, first jobs even, will be what forms the foundation of your business. The resources they provide are crucial, and they must be conserved, explains Mike Perry: "I did the first three years in my apartment. That definitely helped by keeping the overheads low." Even if a job pays well, and even if you don't know where the next commission is coming from, that money has to last. "Save, save, save and save," says Perry. "Just focus on doing the work. Don't go buying fancy desks and chairs and computers." And before you spend, ask yourself, 'Is this essential to the business?'
If you lack the contacts yourself, there are creative recruitment agencies in most big cities, which often form the backbone of a freelancer's income. "When I first got to London and began freelancing it was super, super scary," says Prvost who, being from Canada, knew nobody at all. "I got myself an agent, Represent. That pretty much covered my back. I still searched on my own but they brought enough in for me to get by."
The threat of global financial meltdown will undoubtedly have some effect on the design business eventually. If you work for bankers, builders or estate agents, you may already have felt the pinch. Overall, though, this should not be a determining factor in your freelancing considerations because the jury is still out on the implications. "I've been thinking about it a lot," says Mike Perry, "and it's maybe because I listen to the news and it's telling me its slow that I think it's slow." So far, it's psychological. It could even work in your favour if the economy does take a bit of beating: "A lot of bigger design agencies are 'outsourcing'," says Janine Rewell.
As a freelancer, you're never too comfortable to lose the passion that spurs the production of interesting work. "There's still work out there to get," says Mike Perry, "you just have to fight a little harder to get it." If you're happy with that, and with doing it on your own terms, get out there and fight for your share.