10 lessons every freelancer should learn

There are many reasons why people choose to ditch a full-time job to go freelance. The opportunity to be your own boss, for example, and a desire to work on a variety of different projects. Then there's the flexibility of working whenever and wherever you want (although it's both a blessing and a curse). And, of course, there's always the prospect of earning a bigger income.

There are thousands of freelancers working in the UK, and the best advice a freelancer can get often comes from those designers and illustrators who've 'been there, done that' - because they've learnt valuable lessons along the way.

01. The art of self-promotion

"Pimp yourself out," says freelance graphic designer Frosti Gnarr. "No one is just going to call you out of the blue. You need to tell people that you are out there." It doesn't matter whether you're an established freelancer or you're building your business from scratch, marketing yourself is vital. Send emails, call people, go to shows, build your own website. Submit your work to commercial portfolios like www.aoiportfolios.com and www.viewcreatives.com; surf design networking sites like www.behance.net. Maximise your visibility.

Regular clients are worth their weight in gold. But don't underestimate the time it takes to create and develop relationships. "I wish I'd known the importance of self-promotion when I first started freelancing," says freelance illustrator and graphic designer Christopher Haines. "Know someone who owns a business? Give them a business card and let them know you are a graphic designer. It's all about networking and getting your work seen."

02. Get a website!

If self-promotion is the key to successful freelancing then building a portfolio site is the most effective tool you can have. "Your website is the first place most buyers and commissioners will look these days," says Rod Hunt, an illustrator and deputy chairman of the Association of Illustrators (AOI). "Back this up with sample postcards displaying your contact details and website address." And what about the traditional, 'physical' portfolio? "It's not as important these days," adds Hunt. "But it's still wise to have one available for situations such as faceto- face client meetings."

It's easier to build a website than you might think. Free web platforms such as WordPress, Joomla and Drupal can be customised to act as your point of contact, blog, digital portfolio, even an online store where you can sell your work directly. Gavin Campbell used Joomla for his portfolio site, www.thewhitehawk.co.uk. "It makes it easier for artists," he explains, "because there is no PHP code knowledge required. Mine took three days to make."

03. Organise your workflow

"It's important to maintain a work/life balance," says Hunt, "so good time management and discipline are essential. You can't afford to miss deadlines in the commercial world."

Consequently, your ability to prioritise is vital. It's easy to stay motivated - if you don't work, you don't get paid. But you want to avoid working those desperate all-nighters. So many freelancers, myself included, find it helpful to allocate chunks of time to their freelance jobs in a calendar, checking off tasks on a daily 'to-do' list. It's the essence of David Allen's Getting Things Done model. This core idea of working 'smarter' has spawned a number of useful productivity-based sites such as Lifehacker and 43folders.

"Never underestimate the time it takes to come up with concept ideas," says graphic designer Simon Saunders. "Be disciplined about booking jobs in, timekeeping, allocating given time-slots to jobs and sticking to them. Remember: if you are working to a fixed price, any time you spend that goes over the time allocated is costing you money. It's very easy to be busy without earning a lot."

04. Pursue your own projects

The very nature of working freelance means that you'll often be working on commissions that require very simple design or illustration. They might not fire you up, but they'll pay the bills. To counterbalance this bread-and-butter work, consider working on your own ideas.

"I think that if you are a professional designer you should always have personal projects," says Gnarr. Not only do such projects keep your mind fertile, but "they remind you of why you want to be a designer".

Freelance illustrator Matthew Dent agrees. "Continue to generate your own ideas whilst doing commissioned work, it'll help you produce new ideas and keep you motivated. I make sure I spend time working on personal pieces - it's important for me to show new ideas while also pushing my work forward. Also, don't be afraid to move away from your computer. Go out and explore but just make sure you have a sketchbook with you at all times. You don't know when you might get a flood of new ideas."

05. Happy clients are repeat clients

There are several elements to this. Firstly, always meet your client's brief. But try to give them something they don't expect. "Step back and look at your work objectively," suggests Haines. "Something you might think is fantastic might be met with indifference by your client. In the end, you have to try and give them what they want, while still trying to push for the best possible idea."

You also need to communicate with your client on a regular basis. "I wish I'd known when I started how important communication is," says Gnarr. "I started out thinking 'I'm in the creative business, not customer service', so I thought I would do just fine on the job if I only did the graphics and sent emails. This might get you through a single, short poster job, but if you are on a large job you will sometimes need to act like you are still pitching."

Finally, always deliver your work on time and on-budget. Be polite, professional, do a good job and, if possible, add in a little extra for free - think of it as customer service. "If you miss a deadline," warns Haines, "chances are that your client will not become a repeat client in the future. If you deliver quality work, on time, every time, that client will want to work with you again and might even recommend you to others."

06. Don't become discouraged

Being a freelancer can be a lonely, uncertain business. "It took longer than I imagined to become properly established," remembers Hunt. "It takes perseverance to establish a creative career and it can take time to really become known. When I was starting out, getting my work seen by the right people and knowing how to find the contacts was tricky. Having belief in yourself and your work is important so you don't become demotivated when things aren't moving along so quickly."

To remain motivated, you have to be persistent. And vice-versa. "It might take a while for you to get your first major break," says Haines, "and it can be discouraging to send your work out to lots of people and have no one reply to you. Unfortunately that is the nature of the business. A lot of people will just plain ignore you. But if you believe in your work, and you are willing to work hard at getting it seen, results will follow."

07. Never to rely on one client

Once you get your business up and running, or you're already freelancing, then you must learn never to rely on one client. People move jobs and tastes change; no job lasts forever. What would happen if you lost your biggest client tomorrow? Would you cope?

"In an ideal world no one client should ever account for more than 10 per cent of your work," suggests Saunders. "But in the real world this is actually very hard to manage. If you do get a big client on board, try to land at least four other clients of the same size. That way if one goes, whilst it will definitely hurt, it's not going to be quite such a devastating blow as losing 100 per cent of your income would be," he explains.

In short, everything that you do needs to have an alternative. Don't just have two or three clients - aim to have 10 or more who will keep coming back. "It's important to have more than one client because, after all, this is business," says freelance visual effects designer Sean Farrow. "Clients will go somewhere else for a myriad of reasons and there's often nothing you can do about it. So you should never rely on any single thing - not one client, not one computer, not one area of expertise and not one way of doing a project."

08. Don't say yes to everything

If you're new to freelancing, or you're going through a temporary lean patch, then you might be tempted to jump at any and every job that's offered to you. But some work is just not worth having. "You should never be afraid to turn work down if you are too busy," says Hunt. "It's important not to compromise the quality of your work just to fit something in for the money. Also, if the client is demanding ownership of all your rights, won't negotiate and is offering a very low fee that doesn't reflect the work they're asking you to do, you should say no."

You should also turn work down if you don't firmly believe that you can do it justice. "Sometimes you simply are not the right person for the job," says Haines, "and it's imperative that you are honest with yourself. If the job requires you to perform outside your skill-set, chances are that you won't do a fantastic job and you'll disappoint the client."

Saunders sums it up best. "There are a whole load of 'clients' out there who buy on price alone. In my experience, the ones who want a cut-price job are the ones who end up demanding the most, take longest to pay and appreciate what you do for them the least."

09. Don't undercharge or overcharge

So how much should you charge? It's a question that new freelancers often ask. As Haines points out, you don't want to scare away a client by asking too much, but you don't want to devalue your work by undercharging for it. One thing that everybody agrees on - never work for free or a 'reduced rate'. If you're good enough to be commissioned, you're good enough to be paid.

Hunt is deputy chairman of the Association of Illustrators. "It's important to get the full information about what the client needs, the usage of the work and the rights they require to give an accurate quote," he advises. "I talk over fees with other illustrators who are friends, and the AOI provides free pricing advice to its members. The membership fee can be saved just on one correct job quote. The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook for Pricing & Ethical Guidelines is also useful to own for the American market."

10. Never forget you're running a business

A small business to be exact. "Attention to detail in the way you approach clients is vital," says Campbell, "not just in terms of design, but also in terms of paperwork, negotiation and chasing those dodgy clients who fail to deliver payments on time."

And because you're running a business, Hunt suggests that you should always maintain control over your copyright. "There are very few occasions that clients need to own the copyright. Your body of work is your livelihood, and you should be entitled to the financial benefits of your talent and hard work."

Our last tip...

While the Government's Business Link website provides further information on accounts and tax, Farrow recommends getting good financial advice from an accountant who is familiar with your area of work. "This will save you a small fortune in both the short and long term," he says.

Words: Dean Evans

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