Thursday, January 21, 2010

So, should I start freelancing

A girl I went to primary school emailed my yesterday wanting to know how I got into freelancing, as she has wanted to for a long time, but has never had the courage to take the plunge. I wrote back to her explaining how I started and giving her some advice. She emailed me back saying that my response had so inspired her that she was going to finally go for it. I feel really flattered that what I said helped her make up her mind. So, even though I'm by no stretch of the imagination a freelancing guru and half of what I said is just my ramblings, I thought I'd post what I wrote to her here in the hope that it might help someone else make up their mind about whether they should freelance or not. My thoughts are: Go for it!

Ah.. The ever difficult question of “Do I freelance, and worry about where my next pay cheque will come from, or do I carry on working for someone, slaving way to make them rich?”

I worked for an agency for just over 4 and a half years and, while I enjoyed the work and had great bosses, I always wanted to try freelancing, but I was always too scared to take the plunge and leave the safety of my job. Rudi, who has been working for himself for over 3 years (he’s a web programmer) kept bugging me to go out on my own, but I just couldn’t get over the idea of not having the stability of a salary every month.

The beginning of last year we decided that we wanted to move to the cape and that this would be the prefect opportunity for me to go out on my own. I was terrified, but we don’t have any major financial responsibility at this point in our lives (no bond or kids) so financially we could take the risk. I stopped working in June and, by some miracle and some good contacts, I was so busy in July I didn’t know what to do with myself. In August we moved to Cape Town and I was so quiet I started to freak out and wonder if I had made the right choice, but I decided that I would just hang in there for awhile and see what happens. That’s the one thing you have to remember; it is going to take time to get your name out there and get regular clients, but it’s actually easier than you think.

I think there are two ways to go about freelancing. The first is to start getting freelance jobs while you still work for a company and to build up your clients until you are happy that you will be able to make enough money each month and then go out on your own. Whether you do this depends on what kind of policy your current employer has about freelance work (and how seriously you take that policy) and how much time you have to work after hours. Most of the freelancers I know started like this and it worked well because while they were still trying to get their business stared they had the security of their other job. You just have to be willing to put in a lot of time and maybe forget about having a social life for a while. This approach can also take a bit longer as you don’t always get time to actively sell your services and might not be able to take on bigger projects. I didn’t go this route as there was a really strict clause in my contract that stated that I wasn’t allowed to do any other design work outside of my job. I also didn’t want to feel like I had to work 24/7. But this can be a very good way of starting out and someone I know if making a ton of money like this.

Then, obviously, there’s quitting your job and just jumping right in (like I did). The first couple of months I stressed so much that I made myself sick, but if I had known then what I know now I wouldn’t have worried quite as much. I still get pangs at the beginning of every month wondering where the work is going to come from, but it always comes. One day I’ll be quite and then suddenly, without actually doing too much marketing, I’m crazy busy. Even in my quietest months I was at least still making what I had at my previous job. And that’s actually easy to do because, even though you might be sitting around doing nothing more than you’re used to and feeling like you have no work, the times you do work you’re making so much more per hour than you would in most jobs. So, if you want to earn R15 000 and you’re charging R300 per hour you only need to work 50 hours a month and that’s 2.5 hours a day. Obviously it’s better to aim high and get as much work as possible, but then the bonus is you’re going to make more money.

When I started I only had one client, a web design company that I did a few template designs for. I wanted to start freelancing because, I was tired of answering to someone else and I wanted to be able to choose the clients I worked for and the type of work I did. I had some money saved up, so that also really helped in the beginning. Except for worrying about where the next job is going to come from, I have nothing bad to say about working for yourself.

The big thing is always to remember that it’s going to take time to get going (I said to myself at the beginning that if in 6 months I still wasn’t getting anywhere I would give up and find a job, but within 2 I was already doing well), to always put away some money in case next month is a little slow and that if you discover that you don’t enjoy freelancing you can always get another job, your decision to do this doesn’t lock you in for life.

I think the best 2 pieces of advice I can give you on how to start is:

1. Get a good website designed that showcases your work and try to do as much SEO (search engine optimisation) on it as possible. It’s taken about 6 months for my site to start ranking high in google, but I now get quite a lot of inquiries from it.

2. Try to get your name out there as much as possible, whether it’s on online directories (have a look at, going to meet potential clients, sending mails out to agencies to say that if they ever need help you are available, starting a facebook group, starting a blog, tweeting and just letting everyone know that you’re doing this.

You can also start pitching for work on some of the online marketing sites, like Just do some searches and you should find some more of these sites, there are lots out there.

I really am a useless marketer. I hate going to sell myself and I loath having to phone clients, but I do it when I have to and, as I said, the work always just seems to appear. I don’t know of anyone who’s stared freelancing and made a complete mess of things. If you’re passionate about what you do these things just seem to work out. I don’t regret going out on my own for one minute and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too. You just have to decide what’s going to work the best for you and then just go for it.

There are some great freelance design blogs out there that give very good advice so have look. Here are a few

I by no means have all the answers and I know that there are a zillion things I could still be doing to market myself, but it’s always just good to start!


  1. hi there
    i actually stumbled across your blog while looking at images (it was the cowgirl cookie jar that did the trick) and well..before i knew it i was intrigued and kept reading through all your older posts. i have recently become a very avid blog reader, and this is the first time i have commented on anyones blog. but once i saw this post i couldnt resist! i too am a graphic designer-and quite recently have decided to focus my all into my freelancing work (i dabbled in owning a design home accessories store-am still importing jewellery from greece-and many other sidelines) but my passion has always been for the graphic design and besides for stuff i have been doing for friends-and then friends of friends, i have been way to 'scared' to take the next jump. so today i woke up thinking -how am i going to do this, marketing myself and finding my next few clients- and like a sweet sign from the heavens i came across your post-thank you for the 'advice' and in a way an inspiration...i thought i was alone in being extremely scared of going it on my own and not knowing where/how that next pay cheque would be coming from. yet you helped open my eyes.
    i look forward to reading your blog posts and have you bookmarked

  2. Wow, it's so great getting such nice comments. I'm glad I could help you just a little one the path to becoming a fully functioning freelance graphic designer. It really is a great career and while you need to get used to some new types of stress (like not having a fixed income) there are so many more rewards than if you worked for someone.

    If you ever have any questions just let me know and I'll try to answer them. Good luck and be brave. If you're passionate about what you do (like you seem to be) others will see it and want to do business with you :)

  3. Hi Natalie! I send you an email not to long ago saying that I want to get into freelance, and I must say I,m even more inspired, I'm slowly but surely putting everything together so that I can get started. Thanks again for your advice and your blog has been a big help. As a beginner I can learn allot from you so I hope you don't mind but I would like to keep in contact and let you know how my progress is and ask for more advice when I struggle with something:)

    You say you don't know everything but know allot because you did for a long time and that is more then enough for me.

    Thanks again!

  4. Hi Daisy

    I'm so glad you found my post helpful and inspiring. Just shout if you have any more question and I'll try to answer them :)