Regardless of What You’ve Heard Freelancing is a Tough Business

posted in: Freelancing | 4

Freelancing is a Tough Business

Like most designers I know, I’m a person who doesn’t thrive in a corporate world. I tried for many years and although I was good at it from the perspective of my employers, I didn’t feel that I belonged.

Then again, maybe it’s my personality. I’m a go-getter who likes to take charge and lead something from start to finish. And let’s be honest, working for an agency or as an employee you don’t have much freedom. You have no say as to who you want to work with and what projects you want to take on. You are assigned to whatever is in the pipeline.

Frustrated and unhappy at my job I was quietly considering freelancing but life kept getting in the way. Then, the stars simply lined up properly and I hit the ground, running. I thought I was ready.

My first two prospects decided to work with but as I started they walked away (lesson learned: have a contract). Another client took forever to answer my emails asking for feedback and so a simple 10-page website design project dragged on for 6 months (see previous lesson learned). I took every project that came along. Sometimes things worked out great for both parties, sometimes I walked away burned out, frustrated or without much profit.

Turned out I wasn’t ready. I had no real plan or strategy. My only plan was to get my hands dirty and see if I can make it. Good luck!!!

What Makes Freelancing Tough?

  • Juggling marketing, accounting, designing, customer support, growing your skills and everything else in between can be exhausting. The sheer amount of non-design work that needs to be put in is amazing.
  • Speaking of marketing, learning how to gain new (and great) clients is the most challenging part of freelancing, in my opinion. Repeat business is great down the line but when you are first starting out nobody knows you exist and nobody trusts your promise to deliver the results. Earning that trust, reputation and what comes with it takes a lot of effort.
  • Everything seems to be trial and error and that takes lots of time and energy. It can also lead to frustration and doubt. How to screen potential clients to find the right fit? How to write a good contract that will be fair, protect you and work well for your client? How to estimate properly? How to handle accounting in the most efficient yet effective way? Whether you should blog or tweet?
  • Which brings me to information overload. Once might argue that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Tons of other designers have done it before so why not adopt what worked for them? This works well, on many occasions. The trick is that there are so many right answers you still have to figure out what works best for you. There are so many tools out there and they all have many great benefits. How do you choose the “right” one?
  • Learning how to deal with potential and actual clients takes a long time. From a positive fresh impression to retaining customers, client relations can be difficult to master for any designer.
  • Properly pricing your services is difficult and can make or break your business. Charge too low and you will scare your clients away being seen as just a rookie. Charge to high and they will go to your competition. Figuring out the perfect, or close to perfect rate can be very frustrating and hard on your ego.
  • Speaking of egos, many clients will think that what you do is easy, in fact anyone could do it. After all, if they had a bit extra time on their hands, they would have designed their own sites (And many did. That’s why you are dealing with them now). That kind of thinking can be very damaging to your sense of self-worth and to your freelancing business bottom line. Avoiding clients who don’t appreciate the skills you posses or not caving in when your clients request revisions, extra (read “free”) work all take experience.
  • The truth is that your business skills matter just as much as your design skills, if not more. Your business skills help you attract new customers, take them through the project and have them come back for more. There are plenty of successful freelancers out there with quite limited design skills but their businesses thrive nevertheless. You are not only competing with other designers, you are competing with other business people.

Freelancing is a tough business, one that takes lots of energy, passion, dedication and devotion. New freelancers pop up daily but only the true entrepreneurs with great skills survive and thrive.

Freelancing has been quite an experience and I’m only at the beginning of the road. When I look back I realize how unprepared I was for all the difficult realities of being self-employed. While I had a solid background in design and customer service, I had no clue about marketing, PR, accounting. All of these areas are crucial to a successful freelancing business.

I’m sure I’ve missed other difficult aspects of freelancing. Share your experiences? What else makes freelancing a tough business?

4 Responses

  1. Oh man, what you said here is so true. I have been freelancing as a web designer for the past 10 years and still have not mastered the business side of things. I have gotten “fired” or fired myself several times because of communication issues between myself and a client who needs to be educated about good design principles, usability, and all the cost issues you mentioned. For example, I just got burned good and it was my fault. A client on Joomlancers was considering outsourcing a huge project to convert their 10-year old site from Joomla 1 to 1.5. I bid a standard amount for the level of work but the outsource companies bid way low ($300) and stupid me agreed. I did it for the promise of future full-paid work.

    Second mistake was not realizing that the client didn’t understand the scope of work even after three tries to define it together. I had added an amount of money to be held aside to pay for all of the upgrades to extensions–and you are right it is trial and error in both designing and people pleasing (doing too many revisions) and now the client accuses me of padding the expenses (which I most certainly did not — I had warned him that everything had to be replaced).

    Third mistake was not explaining the technology and web standards clearly. The client wanted to continue his old way of data entry which produced a site that was disorganized. Trying to get him to see that his organization was too literal was hopeless. I hadn’t communicated Steve Krug’s mantra of “keep it simple, stupid,” clearly enough.

    Final mistake, trying to please the client by adding extra touches for free (video, photo gallery, widgets, calendar, and so forth.

    All these communication errors and business errors added up. I’m now going to a lawyer because the client wants twice as much money returned as what he paid me.

    Lesson learned: communicate clearly the scope of work, about the technology, the limitations of effort based on fee, and most of all stand fast on what I know from 28 years in the business about web standards, technology, and usability while listening carefully to what the client needs.

    Thanks for writing this column. It made me think hard.

  2. Nice Post. Joanna. I guess, you have learned the art of marketing now 🙂

  3. Yes, freelancing is tough, especially in the beginning, but eventually you get the hang of it with time. It’s not unusual to make a ton of mistakes along the way either. It’s just all a part of the learning curve.

    One thing that does help with the learning process is to take the time to get to know and communicate with other freelancers on Twitter. Just in the last year or so since I’ve been on, I’ve learned an incredible amount through shared links, visiting other users’ blogs, leaving comments on them, etc. My knowledge and income has risen steadily during that time too.

  4. Hello, I came in off of LinkedIn. This blog is really nicely done. I’m also starting out on the freelance road. I just finished up my bachelor’s, thinking I’d be able to leverage it into a better full-time position but the timing just didn’t work out so I’m coming from a place of desperation (not good, I know, but the truth is I had fantasized about doing freelance for a long time.)

    I’ll definitely come back and read some more. Good luck!

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