Some tidbits from chapter one.
What Does It Take To Be A Successful Freelance Web Designer?
You’ve decided to hang out your shingle as a freelance Web designer. Congratulations! You’re in good company. In fact, according to the Freelancers Union, freelancers, independent contractors and similar monikers represent roughly 30 percent of the U.S. workforce. However, this also describes temporary workers, small business owners, part-timers and contingent employees. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 10.3 million freelancers working today or, 7.4 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. Nonetheless, the numbers are impressive.
But, what exactly is a freelancer and what is like to be one? Dictionary.com defines a freelancer as, “a person who works as a writer, designer, performer, or the like, selling work or services by the hour, day, job, etc., rather than working on a regular salary basis for one employer.” For some, the term conjures up a life of freedom and flexibility. To others, it means unstable fly-by-nights. Still others relate freelancers to a feast-or-famine, stress-riddled life. The truth is that it can be all of those. The trick is to build a solid, sound foundation for your freelance business. It is a business and should be treated as such. When done right, you can realize freedom, flexibility and other benefits so many seem to miss.
The term, “freelance,” is relatively new, at least in the manner used today. Its origins date back to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, circa 1820, to describe medieval warriors who were not aligned to any specific Lord. They were a “free lance,” similar to today’s mercenaries. The term in modern times is often interchangeable with independent professional, consultant, solopreneaur and even in some cases, small business owner. Many start as sole proprietors and grow into Limited Liability Companies (LLC) or corporate entities. For the purposes of this book a freelancer is a one-person business that may be either full or part-time.
The Freelance Life
With our term defined, the big question on the minds of those considering taking the leap is, “What’s it like to be a freelance Web designer?” That’s a fair enough question. It’s always a good idea to get a handle on what you’re getting yourself into. I’ll answer it with my experiences first and follow that up with the insights of a few working freelancers.
Most Web designers, graphic designers, and other creative folk find themselves freelancing at some point in their career. For many, it comes early on, either due to the inability of finding a full-time job or the opportunity, and sometimes the need, to make extra money. That’s how it was for me. I began my career as a freelance photographer because I couldn’t find a job as either a photographer or assistant when I got out of school. Starting my own studio was out of the question. I must have been absent the day the professor talked about just how much capital is needed to launch a professional photography studio. Although the competition was stiff, I hustled and found some paying work. Soon, I landed a great client, a cosmetics company, which became my primary patron. Suffice to say I became quite full of myself seeing my work on billboards, in major magazines and on product displays in fancy department stores. Alas, that fullness was short-lived. The Art Director at the cosmetics company left and the department head asked me if I wanted the job. I was about to get married and thought a regular paycheck might be a good thing. So, I entered the world of gainful employment, benefits, a designated parking spot and the nine to five grind.
This was also my entrance into graphic design. I had studied it a bit in art school, but hadn’t planned on making it my career choice. I found I rather enjoyed it and the cosmetics company job lead to design firm and ad agency positions. But, through it all, I found myself to be a closet freelancer. Inevitably, a friend’s friend or a relative would need a logo, business card or the occasional brochure. The extra cash here and there was great so I decided that freelancing part-time would be a continuing part of my life. It wasn’t a lot, but it definitely helped.
It should be noted that working for someone else has always been something of a foreign concept to me. My parents both had their own businesses while I was growing up. My grandfather was self-employed, as was his father. It runs in the family and my plan had been to have my own design firm some day in the not-too-distant future.
After roughly twelve years of working for other people, learning all I could about design, marketing and business, along with making detailed plans, Tortorella Design was born. My wife at the time was my partner and, as luck would have it, she is also a gifted salesperson and project manager. The beginnings of my business were still based in freelancing, though. My wife would handle the sales, client contact and business tasks during the day while I worked at a local newspaper. I’d do our clients’ work in the evenings and on the weekends.
This all worked quite nicely until I thought it would be a good idea to add some employees and get an office outside of our townhouse condo. This was, arguable, the single biggest mistake in my career. I found that having employees is akin to being a parent. I was now responsible for these peoples’ livelihood. Add a little pressure to the mix. Our office came with rent, utilities, equipment, phone systems, and various other forms of monthly overhead. Add some more pressure to the mix. Plus, having the office was something like throwing a party and nobody showed up. We rarely had clients visit. After a few business slow downs and other snafus, we closed the office and started working from the condo as we had before the office shenanigans.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s and enter these new things called the World Wide Web, HTML and Websites. Yet another skill to learn, but also a new service to offer and I found myself to be a Web designer. It didn’t take long for Web design to become a major player on my project roster.
A Day In the Life of a Freelancer
These days, I get up early. Most days, early means 4:30 AM. I’m in front of my main computer by 5:30 AM, working away, although my business hours are 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM and I don’t take client calls before 8 or after 5. I start with my daily marketing tasks. That can mean working on an article, scheduling tweets, Facebook posts and other social media activities, researching prospects and drafting emails. Around 7:00 AM, it’s time to jump on the client tasks. That can mean working on a Website for one, social media management for others, writing or working on a marketing program for yet other clients. If I have a meeting scheduled, I’ll get out of my gym shorts and t-shirt and put on my professional attire. When I get back, it’s off with the suit and on with a t-shirt and jeans. If I’m speaking that evening, it’s back on with the professional garb. Needless to say, my washing machine gets a workout and my dry cleaner loves me.
For me, that’s a typical day. From what my freelancing friends tell me, theirs are pretty much the same, although they may not do as much laundry. Flexible? Sure. But, the work still needs to get done. It is a business, after all.
Michael J. Hultquist, owner of Quist Interactive, Inc. located in Lake In The Hills, Ill, works with his wife, Patty, a similar arrangement to my early years. Perhaps that’s not the hardcore definition of a freelancer, but their day is pretty much what typical freelancers experience. Hultquist said, “The alarm goes off at 7:30 am, and we’re at our desks between 8 – 8:30 am. I work with my wife and we keep mostly the same schedule. We typically have a large number of ongoing projects so we jump into those while also answering emails and performing other priority tasks that come in via email, such as a quickly needed update or graphic.
Lunch is around noon. We like to go out since we’re in most days, or I’ll make something quick in the kitchen. We’re back to work until anywhere from 5 – 7 pm, depending on workload and deadlines.
Also, if we experience any slower periods, we work on our own web site projects as well as study trends and learn new skills.”
Kurt Elster, owner of EtherCycle in Park Ridge, Ill, starts a little later in the day and keeps a bit more of a flexible schedule, but ensures the work gets done. “My scheduled hours are 10am to 6pm, but I frequently work longer to meet deadlines. I begin my day on Twitter and Google Reader, where I catch up on the day’s news, bookmark inspiration, and engage in social media. I then review my inbox, reply to emails, and create action items for the day. The most important thing I do during the day is ignore my email. By not checking my email during the day, I avoid distractions and stay on task. At 5pm, I open my inbox up again and start replying. It’s my belief that push email is the worst thing to happen to productivity since smoke breaks,” said Elster.
An eight-year veteran, Jenny Leonard is the owner of Pirata Design, a Houston, TX-based freelance business. Her day is often different than that of a typical freelancer. Leonard has built a nomadic lifestyle and her freelance business is central in achieving that goal.
“When I was graduating college I asked a friend of mine who worked at one of the best advertising agencies in town to give me a tour. When I was there he described what the first five years of working would be like for me. He painted an awful picture, by saying things like I’d be fetching coffee, not doing actual creative work, would be the last one to leave the office, would always be the one who had to work nights and weekends while the senior staff got to go home, would stay up so late at the office my only option to get some sleep would be to sleep under my own desk until everyone came into the office in the morning. He told me that I’d have no life, but then after I “paid my dues” for five years I’d be slowly rewarded. All of that sounded horrible to me. I couldn’t fathom why someone would want to waste five years of their life being held hostage to a job like that,” said Leonard.
She continued, “When I graduated, I didn’t waste any time. I never went to one job interview, never sent in one application, and never talked to anyone else about actually getting a job. I started my own freelance business straight out of college. It was crazy at the time and everyone I knew called me stupid. But you know what? I’ve never had a job and I’ve lived a happy successful life. I’ve had the freedom to live the life that I want to live like volunteering in Vanuatu for six weeks, spending five months backpacking South America, and now I’m selling everything I own to travel indefinitely and run my business from the road. Freedom is what lead me to become a freelancer.”
Jenny added, “You get to choose your own clients, choose your projects, and choose your income based on how hard or how little you want to work. You can tailor your work to fit around the lifestyle you want to have. What more could you ask for?”