Many people dream of being a freelancer: setting your own hours, working from home, and never having to work for a boss again sounds like perfection.
The grass is always greener on the other side, however, and going freelance can be a difficult transition. In this series of education and career interviews, we invite long-time freelancer and entrepreneur Thierry Blancpain, founder of Grilli Type, to talk to us about the hidden struggles of being a freelancer or a consultant, and how to overcome them.
If you’ve been thinking about making the jump to freelance, read this.
The Pros and Cons of Becoming A Freelance Consultant
I worked as a graphic design freelancer before I even went to design school. I was never really a full time employee, but I’ve been a freelancer for a long time, and now have also experienced life as a co-founder and boss. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:
1. Working from home, or by yourself, can be lonely
I worked from home for a long time, but ended up paying so much money to coffee shops that I realized that I could just rent a studio space for that money. Working from home can be isolating and lonely — you don’t have colleagues to talk to, and you have to keep yourself motivated.
Find a place where you can interact and stay in touch with people.
Find a place where you can interact with people, or set up regular dates with colleagues in the field to keep your mental acuity sharp. Sign up for event newsletters and meetup groups to stay in touch with people. Conversation can spark creativity and ideas, and being out in public can generate more client requests.
2. Learn how to create your own structure and schedule
Especially when I didn’t have a deadline, it was sometimes hard to not just go out for drinks with friends and then stay out too long. Working for yourself means it can be hard to get up at the same time each morning.
The best thing I learned was to set a consistent schedule and work regular hours so that I could differentiate between work and play hours.
Ironically, you might begin to miss the rigor of a schedule. So create your own.
Who knew that I’d want the rigor of a schedule again? But remember: there’s also beauty in taking a day off if the right alternative to work presents itself. So stay open to serendipity!
3. Plan ahead for creative “hermit days”
Consider setting up one day a week without any client communication and meetings. I used to mark all Tuesdays months ahead of time as such. Those days help you get things done and move projects forward markedly. Make sure to tell your clients ahead of time, though.
4. It’s up to you to learn how to plan ahead
You need to find new clients months before your old projects are actually finished. Both acquisition and ramping up projects takes time, and so if you have a project that’s supposed to start in September, it will often start in November. Plan accordingly.
5. Planning is important enough I’ll say it again: plan ahead
You will need around 20% of your time for administrative tasks. Plan and offer projects accordingly. I add a blanket 20% admin cost on top of anything I offer my clients. Meetings, phone calls, packaging up files for them, etc. The more corporate your clients are, the higher the number. For a bigger company I would add something more like 30–40%.
Your clients will take up more time than you think. Plan accordingly.
I had a client who loved to call me every day, because for him what I did was all his company was at that point, while for me it was a huge distraction from my other work and clients. And it was also a distraction from actually working on his company’s branding. So make sure it’s worth your while.
6. As soon as you can, prepare for rainy days
As long as we’re talking about planning, your first extra bit of profit should go towards a Rainy Days fund, not your next fun vacation. You should be able to survive a few weeks of sickness or a doctor appointment in case something bad happens — to you or your loved ones.
You’re not “making it” as a freelancer if you can’t sustain yourself in between clients.
Being your own boss also means that you need to build your own safety net.
7. Pricing projects is an art
If you don’t ever lose a project due to pricing you’re probably quoting too low — unless you’re so good that clients will pay anything to work with you, of course. Strive hard for conversations about the value you’re adding to a client’s business, and not about just the money they pay for your work.
8. Don’t “hope” that you’ll get paid — you need to make it happen
I luckily never had major problems with this, but some people get clients that don’t pay on time or at all. Make sure you deal with them properly and professionally, but be clear that you’re not a bank loaning them money. Just because you’re a designer doesn’t mean that you can’t also be a business-minded person.
9. Make clients pay for extras
Negotiations or changes in the scope mean that you also need to talk about your fees. Make clients pay for extras. If they need something tomorrow they will have to pay an additional fee. If they want you to work on a weekend, make them pay an extra 100% on top of your hourly.
Why should your clients respect your soft boundaries if they don’t have to pay for crossing them?
Why should your clients respect your soft boundaries if they don’t have to pay for crossing them? Projects often become much less urgent if that urgency costs extra.
10. If you’ve never managed projects, you need to learn how to.
If you’ve never managed projects, you need to learn how to. As a freelancer you’re also a project manager, account manager, secretary, accountant, and more. Find the tools to help you get all of those roles done quickly. I use Harvest for time tracking and Slack for team communication. Selecting the right tools might seem like a waste of time, but if you find the right one, you can free up huge chunks of your time.
11. Legalese: Invest early on in a good contract
Invest early on in a good contract. Make it as restrictive as you can, and then be happy to make it less so if a client asks you. I for example had a stipulation in mine that I can cancel any project after I don’t hear back from the client for two weeks and then invoice them for any work that I’d done up to that point.
In many jurisdictions the party writing the contract is at fault for any unclear or lax portions, so be clear and be tough. Talk to freelancers in your area about this — and consider shelling out for a lawyer — to find the right way of dealing with your clients. Contract-writing is also very much about defining the way you want to work, and that of course is always an important topic.
12. Be clear about how reachable you are, and how and when you aren’t
Manage your communication expectations with your clients. They should know when you are reachable, and when you aren’t. There’s nothing more frustrating than not knowing how long someone will take to get back to you. Clear boundaries are the best form of professionalism.
Be clear about how reachable you are, and how and when you aren’t. A friend of mine for example does not do any phone conversations unless it is really necessary. Instead he is always reachable by email during office hours. He finds that clients too often just want to chat a little bit and everybody loses focus because of it. So unless something is incredibly time-critical or best discussed in a back-and-forth of a phone call, he just doesn’t do it. Another friend only offers phone calls from 1 PM to 4 PM.
You don’t need to agree with either of this, but be aware and clear about how you communicate with your clients. What will your preferred modes of contact be? When will you take meetings? When won’t you?
It’s often best to set up a clear structure with your clients, especially if they are not paying you for full-time work. Clear boundaries and articulation of when you’re available can be really helpful!
13. Communicate, communicate, communicate:
With all that said, always tell your clients what’s happening. Don’t be a black box. Having an open, honest line of communication with your clients builds trust that is essential to our trade.
14. Be on fucking time:
Your work can be less than amazing as long as you reply to people in a timely manner and are reachable. We all have bad days and we have all designed projects that don’t hold up to our best work. If you deliver on time people will recommend you again and again.
If you deliver on time people will recommend you again and again.
Being on time is one of the most important factors for how clients judge their designers. Most clients really don’t know good design either way, so they will judge you on how you communicate with them instead. Of course you should still design great work. Just do it on time.
15. Be very clear about what you offer:
As a designer, you could “design websites”, or you could “bring brands into the digital age”, or you could “help clients communicate with their customers”. Think hard and long as to how you want to portray your work, and try out different approaches before settling on yours.
Think hard and long as to how you want to portray your work, and try out different approaches before settling on yours.
It’s better to be more specific about exactly what you offer than to be vaguely promising something that will result in confusion and disappointment. You should also be clear about what you don’t offer.
16. Learn your client’s language:
Last, but definitely not least, learn to speak your clients’ language. Learn a bit about technology, about business, or if you’re working for a petting zoo, maybe about goats. Who knows. But only when you speak your client’s language can you actually understand their needs fully, and communicate their business to their potential customers.
Freelancing can be an amazing way to work, but freelancing also means that you run your own business. Treat it as a serious business and plan accordingly.
Freelancing can be an amazing way to work, but freelancing also means that you run your own business. Treat it as a serious business and plan accordingly. But most of all, enjoy your life: what I really love about the freelancer lifestyle is that random hour of sun-bathing on a beautiful summer day, that way too long lunch with friends, that day off when projects are slow and you can make it a three day weekend. And then working hard when I’m in my studio.