Over the years I have been asked countless times about launching a freelance business. I have been a freelance graphic, web and UI designer for over a decade now, and while I cringe at the fact that it makes me sound old, I also can still appreciate what it was like when I was just starting to grow a freelance graphic and web design business.
I am frequently contacted by people who want to freelance and have no idea where to start to find clients. To be honest, I have never advertised for work, yet tend to stay so busy that I have to turn down work, especially as my focus has shifted to my other businesses in the past few years and well, motherhood.
For those of you just starting out, I want to go back in time for you and give you all my best tips on getting started as a freelance graphic or web designer. I believe most of these tips can also apply to other forms of freelance as well. Plus, I am going to share what I would do today if I were starting out as a freelancer.
5 THINGS I DID TO GROW A FREELANCE GRAPHIC AND WEB DESIGN BUSINESS
- Volunteer your time, just at first: One of the most important things you’ll need in order to get paying clients is a portfolio of work you can show, especially if you’re a designer because design is so objective to opinion. The concept of this can sound as backwards as needing good credit before you can get approved for anything to establish good credit. But it’s simple, volunteer! Find some organizations that you are passionate about in your area and offer your services to them for free. You can create flyers, build newsletters, banners, revamp websites among other things for nonprofits. This is a great way to start building your portfolio, get referrals, and gain experience in working on a freelance project basis. Once you start getting paying clients you can choose to continue your volunteer work or not, or ask for a small monthly retainer fee to keep them on your schedule.
- Ask your friends (list): I can’t believe I am about to say this, but “back in the day when I started out” you had to actually ask your friends, ya know, with your mouth and your face. Kidding, we could send text messages, I’m not that old. Asking your friends to hire you is a great way to get started. If you have any friends who own small businesses or have connections with someone who does, you can offer your services at a big discount for giving you an opportunity pre-portfolio. You have the advantage these days of simply posting on Facebook about your new venture and offering your services to friends that way. Remember to make your post public and ask your friends to share!
- Word of mouth: What happened for me, and what should happen for you if you do numbers 1 and 2 listed above, was that people started referring me without me even asking. Next thing I knew, people were contacting me asking me if I could do x, y, and z for them. In hindsight, I would have been smart enough to ask for referrals and offer some sort of referral credit to increase business even more, but it didn’t feel necessary at the time. If you want to increase referrals you can give your clients a little card or send them an email and offer some sort of credit (one free hour of work) for referrals that result in new clients. For me, referrals have created my entire freelance business and sustained it. For example, I worked with one person at one company, and when he went to a new company he called to get my help and 7 years later, I am still working as a freelancer for that company on a regular basis.
- Say yes, learn by doing. Most of the work I have done over the years that has actually made the majority of my freelance income has been on the web/coding side. My degree is actually in graphic design, and I only took 2 basic beginners HTML and CSS classes in college. However, I really enjoyed the web side of things, so I started to pursue that more and just teach myself via good ole’ Google.
I was working as a data entry employee while still in college when the CEO approached me one day and asked me if I could do X (I don’t remember what X was, but I had no idea how to do it). I said yes. He then assigned a task to me that had me on the border of cardiac arrest. Maybe that was crazy, but I just had this theory that if someone else was doing it, and lots of people were, there was no reason why I couldn’t figure out how to do it, so then in fact, yes I could do it.
And I did it. And every other thing that I had never done before that he proceeded to ask me to do. And after that, I started getting freelance work the same exact way: saying yes and figuring it out. If it is something that you don’t know how to do but you want to learn how to do, or think it will benefit you getting more work to have that knowledge, say yes and then figure it out! It’s not that scary, trust me. Besides, in business if you are scared it normally means you’re on the right track.
- Toughen up, buttercup. This was my toughest lesson. So tough, in fact, that over a decade later the thought of this still hurts my heart a bit. I will never forget it. I got a job to create a logo for a new company that was in it’s very early creation stages. I sat with the owners, talked through their vision, made sure we were 100% on the same page even showing them examples to be sure. I worked so hard. I presented my designs to them with naive excitement, I just knew they were going to love it.
And, they hated it. Or so they said. I’ll never forget receiving the response that it just really wasn’t what they were looking for at all, and that they didn’t think we were on the same page. Therefore, they did not want to pay me. (If you gasped for air here, thank you, thank you very much.)
I felt like I had just been punched in the gut, nope…punched in the heart. I am a people pleaser. Basically my entire being, every move, revolves around trying to make other people happy (especially back then before I became older and a bit wiser), so the mere thought that I had disappointed someone was soul-crushing. I was done. I was quitting. I was going to join the Navy instead. (I am actually not kidding, I almost did.)
But then, a fellow freelancer whom I went to for pity gave me some priceless advice: “If you want to be in this business, you’re going to need to develop a thicker skin. Design is subject to opinion, not everyone is always going to love what you do.”
After I mentally stomped my feet and puffed gusts of air out of my nose like an angry two-year old, I realized he was right. And besides, the Navy didn’t appear to be a viable option for me, so I figured if I was going to toughen myself up it might as well be by doing what I actually wanted to do.
Turns out, those people actually never launched their business and probably just told me that to get out of paying me when they had changed their mind about their business. Either way, I thank them. If it hadn’t been them to give me that first experience it would have been someone else. You’ll be there one day, and you’ll need to have thick skin, confidence, and know that as long as you did your very best and treated your customer as you would wish to be treated, you can move on with peace. Just do yourself a favor and have a contract signed first so you still get paid for whatever work you do.
5 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO GROW A FREELANCE GRAPHIC OR WEB DESIGN BUSINESS TODAY
- Create content: Show that you are knowledgeable about the things you are doing by creating a blog and writing content on the topic. You can publish 1-4 posts per month which will help you market yourself, show that you’re an expert on the topic, and drive more traffic to your site through SEO. More traffic, more chances to connect with new customers. I recommend using BlueHost or Siteground for hosting.
- Facebook ads: Make sure you have a Facebook business page, and then create ads! The great thing about Facebook ads is that you can target your audience very specifically, and you can set your own budget. This is a great, affordable way to reach customers outside of your current network.
- Linked In: Business professionals network on LinkedIn, and recruiting professionals search on LinkedIn to hire. Also, LinkedIn profiles tend to show up high in search results when people Google your name, which most people looking to hire you will do. Keep your profile up to date with your latest and most relevant work to attract the right clients.
- Pinterest: It wasn’t until I got into the world of blogging as a business that I learned about the benefits of using Pinterest for marketing. Create Pinterest graphics for your website and pin them to relevant boards on Pinterest often to drive more traffic to your site. I highly recommend this e-book, Pinteresting Strategies by Carly Campbell. I learned so much from this book that has significantly increased traffic to my site.
- Market your Portfolio: We talked about building a portfolio, which is a must. But this isn’t one of those “if you build it they will come” scenarios. You have to get it out there, market it. One great way to do this is by utilizing searchable portfolio sites, like:
You can have the best portfolio that showcases your work, but if you don’t promote it, it will do you no good.
Becoming a freelancer has allowed me to stay home with my kids, pay off debt, and take trips. I love that I can create my own schedule, take on as much or as little work as I wish, and say yes to the projects I really want to do and not the others. If you are starting out as a freelancer I recommend making sure you have a contract with every client before you begin work, don’t sell yourself short on your rates, and set clearly communicated deadlines.
If you have any questions, I would love to answer them as best I can. Leave a comment and I’ll reply as soon as possible!
Here are a few tools you’ll want to have:
- Freshbooks: the #1 invoicing software for freelancers & solopreneurs
- Bluehost: for affordable, easy-to-use web hosting—because every business needs a web site.
- Chrometa: Time tracking to ensure you never lose time you spent working on a client’s project.
- ConvertKit: for sending marketing messages to previous or potential clients.
- Siteground: Another great option for web hosting with awesome customer service and great speed.
Hi, I’m Jessica! I am wife to Chris, and mom to Kaiper, Alana and our silver lab pup, Maui. We are expecting baby #3 right now, and excited to become a family of 5! I am a freelance website & blog developer, Co-Founder of Moxie Girl Fit Club, and aspiring author. I share about everything from parenting, how to make money from home, tutorials for my fellow bloggers, fitness and being a new homeschool family. Learn more about me here.