10 Steps to Freelance Success

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(creativebloq article) Anna Richardson Taylor gathers the wisdom of experience from those who have made the leap into freelance life.

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.

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 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 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 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 allows freelancers to send out work to targeted lists of potential clients, YunoJuno.com is an online platform for work opportunities, Workingnotworking.com 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, to private views or industry shows such as New Designers.

> 03. Manage your time


All freelancers approach time-management differently. Andrew Warwick swears by time-tracking software FreeAgent, 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.

The one thing you cannot avoid or miss is a deadline

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. 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. “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, 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 or Ship Shape Pay – 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.

“I actually enjoy the sticking down of receipts,” says illustrator Serge Seidlitz, “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.”

> 06. Set your rates


Pricing is one of the most tricky aspects of freelancing. “At the beginning you will probably either charge too much or, more likely, too little,” says freelance illustrator Dale Edwin Murray. “A lot of times clients come with a set budget for a project, so barring negotiation, the question of fees is taken out of your hands. As you work on more and more of these jobs you begin to get a sense of what the going rate is and can set your own fees accordingly.”

Asking friends in similar fields what they charge is another option, and for illustrators, the AOI provides on-tap advice on license agreement, license fees and standard fees.

If you ‘re considering whether you should work for free to bolster your portfolio, you find yourself in contentious waters. “One of the rules of thumb I use is, if the person commissioning you is being paid, then so should you,” says Rod Hunt.

Protect the licence fees first and foremost. “It’s not even about the money,” says illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen. “It’s about the idea. They are renting your copyright, so they can ‘t have it for free – that’s crazy.”

“I know how long a job takes me; but I also know how long I spent honing my craft and how much I spent on tuition fees, how much I spent on my pens, and all these things come together. I think that I do a better job when I know I am being valued, and people appreciate it as well when they’re paying for better quality.”

> 07. Know when to say no


If you feel you might have to compromise on quality by taking on too much work, it’s time to turn down a job.

In addition, it’s important to have an idea of the type of work you want to do, and try to stick to it when possible, freelance designer David Bonas points out. This might mean turning down certain projects in favour of building the right portfolio in the long run.

Many freelancers also mention ethical considerations. Ben O’Brien, for example, wouldn’t work for a gun company, and Rod Hunt warns of clients that might ask you to do something unethical such as copying another person’s work or style. “I would also turn down a job if the client is demanding assignment of copyright or the fee is unrealistically low and does not reflect the actual worth of the job,” he adds.

Beware, too, of the committee, says designer Andrew Warwick. “Any brief where they mention they have an experienced committee to review the work, is a total ‘avoid’ at all costs,” he says. “You’re going to have to deal with a load of nonsense. Also, any kind of client who says ‘I know what I like when I see it’ – that usually means they’re unwilling to write a proper brief, and expect you to have daily ideas to throw at them. Unless they have an incredibly huge budget, avoid.”

> 08. Sidestep the pitfalls


The biggest danger, according to many freelance veterans, is selling yourself too cheaply. It’s important to understand early on that the fee you receive also needs to cover your business expenses and tax, and you need to price your services accordingly. What is the use of slaving away for weeks, if the fee barely covers your rent – let alone your notebooks and printer ink?

Also, don’t mistake a large paycheck for a lottery win. Fees need to go a long way. Just because you receive a five-figure sum, doesn’t mean you’re “some sort of premiership footballer,” says designer Andrew Warwick, who remembers that feeling well. “You realise after a while it might be a couple of months before you get another one.”

You may be the best designer in the world, but if no one sees your work, you won’t get commissioned

Freelancers have to expect to work hard to be seen by as many people as possible – and invest the time and resources in promoting their work and explore all possible markets. “You may be the best designer/illustrator in the world, but if no one sees your work, you won’t get commissioned,” says illustrator Rod Hunt. “I invest around 10 per cent of my turnover a year in marketing.”

However, the most fatal pitfall is not realising you might not be suited to freelance life in the first place. “Do some serious soul-searching as to whether it’s a career route that suits your personality,” says Dale Edwin Murray.

> 09. Avoid burnout


Taking a break seems to be one of the hardest things to do when you’re a freelancer. As soon as holiday is unpaid, notions of work-life balance go out of the window. Not being able to say “no” means work can encroach on evenings and weekends, and before you know it you have been working five years straight without a break. But beware – freelancers who get worn out can lose months through illness.

“Take at least one day off at the weekend, and never work seven days a week unless absolutely necessary and then only for short periods,” advises illustrator Rod Hunt. “It’s a law of diminishing returns, you become less and less productive.”

Other advice includes marking time in the diary to pursue activities aside from work – a walk in the park, a visit to a gallery or even around the shops can help you see a problem in a new light – and if you find yourself with a random weekday free, says Molly Cockcroft, “don’t panic, treat it like a day off, because I bet you will be working all of the following weekend.”

Personal projects allow you the space to explore different areas which will help you keep fresh and avoid feeling burnt out, according to illustrator Dale Edwin Murray. “Something from these experiments always seems to seep its way into client work, so they are mutually beneficial.”

> 10. Find your ideal workspace


Whether it’s the kitchen table, the back bedroom, a shared studio space or a rented office, a workspace preference usually depends on the individual and their disposition. Is a day without human interaction anathema? Can you effectively separate home from work?

Sharing a space in a creative work environment is a popular option. “It’s a great way to expand your network of contacts and have easy access to advice and feedback from people in the same line of work,” says David Bonas. “Working away from home helps me manage my time better. I would definitely recommend it to start off. If the business grows you can always consider moving to your own studio space.”

Having that studio space allows you to shut the door on your work and go home at night. You are also likely to be more productive. “I don’t think a studio is like a normal workplace where you ‘re looking at your watch to get out of there,” says illustrator Serge Seidlitz. “You should feel comfortable and like hanging out.”

However, remember that your workspace is very personal, and for many, the kitchen table will always suffice. As freelance illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen says: “If you want to draw, you just draw – worrying about tables and chairs doesn’t matter.”

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