It was the summer of 2021, I was just about to complete my internship at Axis Bank working on their design system, Subzero. I had the best time working there, good problems but better mentors. It was my last college semester and I had to figure out what to do next. Should I start cold emailing again or should I do something more risky? What did I do? I replied to a tweet. It was Dann Petty’s tweet asking for people to share their portfolios so that prospective clients can discover them. And I got discovered. A few calls later, I started my first freelance gig as a product designer. It’s been 2 years so far and I haven’t looked back since. My advent into freelance was rough, unprepared, and daunting but there were quite a few things that I learned along the way.
What separates being employed as a designer and being a freelance designer is what you represent in public. Being an employee, your design opinions and quality of work are perceived as being attached to the company you work for. It adds to the maturity and recognition of the company, you’re just an enabler for it. As a freelancer, your work represents you, regardless of where you work. It becomes part of your brand. And your brand becomes you. Your brand is the pitch deck that flashes through everyone’s eyes when they think of you. More than anything, having a brand builds trust. A client needs to know if you can do the job and having a strong brand reinforces their trust in your craft. This is why bigger companies go with creative agencies instead of hiring a novice freelancer. Bigger agencies have a stronger brand and hence come out as more trustworthy. Getting to that level as an individual takes work, get comfortable with that idea. No need to beat yourself up just because your work is not on par with the agencies. Also, not every company can hire a big agency to delegate their design efforts. This is where you come in.
The general idea is that you should show how you work and what you work on. You need to show your clients that you can do this job and you can do it right. A brand could be anything public facing. For me, it was two things. First, making a design portfolio. It was a representative of my work and my own practice. Second, being active on Twitter. If you’re a nobody and want to be seen, you need to put something out there to be seen. And posting on Twitter did just that. It made it easier for people to discover me which led them to my portfolio. If the portfolio resonated with them, the job was done.
There are two ways of getting discovered and finding leads - inbound leads and outbound leads. Social media and broadcasting your work gets you inbound leads i.e. people reach out to you with work “for you”. Outbound leads mean the opposite i.e. you reach out to people to find work. Best way to do that? Cold messaging. I say cold messaging because it can be anything from a cold email to a cold DM on LinkedIn. How to cold DM is an art of its own and beyond the scope of this article but here’s a great guide by TK Kong. Pro tip: Always follow up twice.
Another way freelancing gets different is your flow of income. A salary is a consistent flow of income that seems stable for most individuals. Freelancing is a series of projects for which you get paid. It means that there will be days when you don’t have a project and hence no income. On those days, your job becomes to get projects. And you know how to do that - Get discovered and be on brand. When you’re just starting out, it’ll be harder to get clients. Hence, I recommend that keep looking out for clients all the time - even when you do have an ongoing project. If an opportunity comes, get on a call with them, discuss their needs, and let them know you don’t have bandwidth now. Even if you don’t get the project, you got a connection. That’s what all networking is about. For days when you don’t get projects, it’s good to have some money in your savings as a safety net. Personally, I recommend keeping 6 months of expenses as your safety net at all times.
If you’re fresh out of college or doing a full-time job, don’t quit your job and start freelancing. Instead, make something tangible that you can show to clients and start broadcasting it. Let yourself be discovered. Once you get a project, start working on it alongside your job i.e. moonlight. I know it’s tough, but it’s much safer than quitting your job. Keep that up for a few months. In these months you have to do two things - expand your network & get confident in your work. Once you feel like you are ready, take the leap.
Let’s say you got your first lead. You’re so excited that you can move a mountain. They ask you to set up a call to discuss the details and see if you’re a good fit. The rush is real but you don’t have the project yet.
Getting a project or not depends on these 5 events -
Since they asked you to set up a call, they did notice you, they did like your work, and they “may” have a job for you. This is why having a portfolio is important. People can know a lot about you way before they reach out to you. That’s your very first impression, make sure it’s a great one. This call now is for them to check if you’re a right fit for the job and if you are under their budget.
Going into a call unprepared is not professional and it can sometimes make you lose the client. I like to do two things before I join a call with a new client. First, I research & learn as much as I can about the company so that I can know the significance of the project, find points to drive good discussions, and make decisions on the go. This shows the client that you know what you’re doing and hence reinforces trust. Second, I set up a base hourly rate I would charge for the project. I keep a number for the hourly rate so I can calculate the project details on the go, be it a weekly project, monthly project, or a fixed-price project (Raycast helps a lot but you can use a spreadsheet too).
For example, I set my hourly price to be $50/hr (not a real amount) and I can work 2 hrs/day since I also have a full-time job. The client says they need a website and they are willing to pay on a weekly basis, time is not a constraint as they want revisions. In this case, the weekly rate would be ($50/hr)(2 hrs/day)(5 days/week)=$500/week. You can do any kind of calculation like this. If they want the project to be done in a time constraint (like a month) and the work is too much, charge higher and go for a fixed-price project. Here, you’re left with your own judgment of how you want to charge them based on your speed, time commitment, and execution quality. For me, if I have to work twice as fast, I’d charge twice as much. This is why you should never go for a rate charge for a time constraint project - the faster you work, the less money you get.
Okay, call prep is done. You know stuff about the company and you know your price. The rest of the call can go as you and the client wishes but when you get to the price part, don’t say your price first. This is where it gets a bit tricky. The client wants to get the job done at the cheapest price and you want to get the best offer out of this client. The one who says the number first loses. When they ask for your rates, say that it depends on who you’re working with and you’d like to know their budget first. Personally, I charge more if I’m working for a company and much less if I’m working for an individual because the value my work brings to them is different. In the best case scenario, they will say their budget right away. If it’s below your calculated price, either you can take the project (you’re being undervalued) or you can tell them that you can’t work on this amount as your project rates are <Enter your calculated price>. The client will either stretch his budget or decline, either way, what happens next is pure negotiation, and you’ll have to learn that skill on the job. During your beginning days, it’s completely okay to work for less, you’re building relations and they are more important to you at the moment than money. That being said, never work for free - neither will it make you satisfied, nor will you do your best work. Freelancing doesn’t work if you half-ass your craft.
If you do get the job, you’ll see that all the 5 events I mentioned before happened. You got noticed. They liked your work. They have a job for you. You are the right fit for the job. They could afford you. Mission successful.
Finally, you got your first project. Your responsibility now is to do a good job and deliver. No, let me correct myself - Overdeliver. By overdelivering, I mean doing something of value apart from what they asked for. You do something extra for them, free of cost. It’s a gesture. It makes the project more than a simple transaction. And they remember you. Next time when they have an opportunity to recommend a designer for someone, they’d recommend you because you overdelivered. This is how word of mouth works. You did more than what people usually do. In my projects, I have been hired as a designer but I’ve helped in product, I’ve shaped ideas, and often solved small engineering issues. It goes a long way.
During the project, it can be easy to get lost in your work. I always keep reminders to check in with my clients and collaborate with them. This helps them understand what’s the progress of the project and shows full transparency of your work. The answer is not micromanagement, it’s collaboration. How & when should you share is something that you’ll learn on the job and it varies with each project. You would also have come to an agreement about your compensation and it’s breakdown. Make sure that you send your invoices at the right time (& for the right amount).
Getting a successful lead will be hard when you’re just starting out. 100 people will see your portfolio, 10 will reach out to you with work and maybe 1 will agree to sign a contract. This is pretty much accurate. The thing is, you don’t have to worry about the 100, you just have to focus on the 10 that reach out to you and make sure that most of them sign a contract. That can be all of them or maybe just one. Because in the end, all you need is one client to start out.
This is but a small part of what freelancing is all about. More than anything, it’s a way of managing yourself with utmost precision. I will not say that you’ll be alone in this journey but it will certainly feel like it because there would be only a few people to guide you as you grow and you’ll rarely find those people to be the ones you work with. But if you do, you got lucky again. Collaborating with another freelancer could be a fruitful experience. It’s a gateway to learning about their way of working and freelancing, both would be extremely helpful to you if you’re just starting out.
I’m not here to convince you to start freelancing but if you do intend to venture in - welcome to the ocean, there’s enough water for all of us to swim.
I may be writing more about the intricacies of freelancing, I’ll see you then.