Whether you're fresh out of college or stuck in a dreary job, most creatives will sooner or later ponder the freelance life. The independent lifestyle of a freelancer provides a powerful lure, with its flexible working hours, varied work and the chance to be your own boss.
But is the freelance grass as green as imagined? Budgeting, forecasting, payment-chasing, tax-returning, accounting, invoicing and networking are as much part of freelance life as creative and professional freedom, expanding horizons and offering the potential for a superior work-life balance.
We've spoken to experienced freelancers who have been there, done that, faced the cash-drought, side-stepped the pitfalls and kept at bay the burnout.
So read on for their advice. A fruitful freelance existence might be just around the corner...
01. Control your finances
Freelance life is one of famine and feast. Make sure you have adequate savings to fall back on in the event that your cashflow dries up, and educate yourself on the business staples of invoicing and chasing payments, advises illustrator Rod Hunt. (opens in new tab)
Understanding pricing, copyright, contracts and so on is just as important as the creative work if you want to be successful and sustain your career in the long term.
Joining the Association of Illustrators (opens in new tab) is a great starting point for budding freelance illustrators, as it offers constant support and advice on contracts. But any freelancer can seek help from someone who has a business brain – an accountant, ideally – or scour resources provided online, to make sure terms and conditions on contracts are in order.
Freelance designer Andrew Warwick (opens in new tab) suggests charging new clients a deposit upfront. "If you make a new business connection, a deposit is a really good way of gauging how organised they are and how they are with money. If they faff about with a deposit, it's a good indication of how they might be with the actual payment."
Keeping on top of credit control, and knowing when to remind accounts departments when payment is due, is also crucial, but Molly Cockcroft (opens in new tab) rings a note of caution: "Remember that we all forget to pay bills sometimes, so don't go in all guns blazing when someone is a day or two overdue."
02. Make contacts
Getting yourself noticed is one of the most important tasks for newly minted freelancers. Drawing on personal contacts is the most natural place to start, and often the most effective.
Sign up to all the usual social media suspects to get your portfolio noticed, participate in the wider creative community and research the right people to link up with. Having a social media feed on a website also boosts search engine optimisation, increasing your chances of getting noticed.
Well-researched speculative emails can still bear fruit with potential clients, but there are also a number of online tools that can help.
Bikinilists.com (opens in new tab) allows freelancers to send out work to targeted lists of potential clients, YunoJuno.com (opens in new tab) is an online platform for work opportunities, Workingnotworking.com (opens in new tab) does a similar job and portfolio platforms such as Behance are also a no-brainer.
However, there's no substitute for getting out and about. Attend events as much as possible, from informal industry meet-ups such as YoIllo.com (opens in new tab), to private views or industry shows such as New Designers (opens in new tab).
03. Manage your time
All freelancers approach time-management differently. Andrew Warwick swears by time-tracking software FreeAgent (opens in new tab), which helps with invoicing and project management. Others stick to a notepad, pen, sticky notes and a diary, or draw up a list every evening with tasks for the next day.
Whatever your approach, set a clear list of achievable tasks every day and try to stick to it as much as possible within the standard working hours. You also need to be flexible and prioritise on a daily basis, as requirements and deadlines can move.
Make time for activities that aren't directly project-related. Put days in the diary to allow yourself to catch up on your books, make new contacts, explore your own creative projects, do your emails and so on. You need time to do the things that keep your business moving.
"The one thing you cannot avoid or miss is a client's deadline," says Dale Edwin Murray. "However and whenever you do the work, you must make sure you leave yourself enough time to complete and deliver a job on time."
04. Deal with clients
As daunting as securing a commission might seem to freelancers starting out, it is the relationship that follows that can test your mettle most. Every client is different, and you will need to show respect, manage expectations, be able to hand-hold and know when to push back against unreasonable or creatively unsound demands.
Outlining what a client gets for the fee you quote can be helpful, says designer Molly Cockcroft: "For example, how many concepts you will provide and how many amends they can make. Sometimes things need to be more fluid than this, but if you can start this conversation at the beginning, it saves all sorts of hassle."
Generally, if you are efficient, honest and fairly easy-going to work with, clients will come back to you, reckons illustrator Ben O'Brien (opens in new tab). Many illustrators make the mistake of worrying too much and emailing the client again and again, he adds.
If a relationship with a client nonetheless gets a little tense, try to keep a positive attitude, recommends designer David Bonas (opens in new tab). "Don't let the situation get the better of you, and seek advice from someone with more experience before making rushed decisions."
After all, the client is king, and even difficult clients may merely be suffering pressure from their bosses. If you remember to treat clients like people and not merely clients, says illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen (opens in new tab), you will begin to understand where they are coming from.
05. Manage your money
Dealing with the legal and financial requirements is one of the more overwhelming facets of self-employment. Learning the basics and finding a good accountant with experience in the freelance market – or using an online service like Crunch.co.uk (opens in new tab) or Ship Shape Pay (opens in new tab) – is key.
"I have always had an accountant to do my years' taxes so that I know everything is above board, even when I started out," says illustrator Ben O 'Brien. "I was pretty sure that the fee I was paying was less than what he was saving me in taxes."
Putting aside the relevant percentage of takings for tax every time you get paid is also a no-brainer, but all too often neglected. "You have to quickly get your head around tax and make sure you set enough aside to pay your tax bill when it comes," says illustrator Dale Edwin Murray (opens in new tab).
"I actually enjoy the sticking down of receipts," says illustrator Serge Seidlitz (opens in new tab), "and treat my ring binders with the same kind of respect that I used to have for the handmade scrapbooks and sticker books I kept when I was a kid. It's much easier and less stressful to do as you go."
Next page: 5 more steps to freelance success