People are e-mailing me with all kinds of questions. One of the recurring questions is about how I started my own business and if I could spare a few tips. In this article I’ll share my experience and what I’ve learned together with some tips and advice. Hopefully this will give people who are about to start freelancing some guidance in this big step.

Be motivated and be passionate in what you do

The very first question I would ask myself is: Am I motivated to work long days and to go all the way to get jobs done, seek new clients and work? Am I willing to go the extra mile to achieve what I want? If this answer is yes, than this is a start and it also means that you’re probably passionate in what you do. This is very important, if not maybe the most important question at all. A doubtful answer is not allowed here, you would make the wrong decision already.

Believe in yourself

The other question is that is related to the one we’ve just asked is: Do I believe myself? Of course you’ll say yes to that, but I mean when things are going though, will I still have the courage to stick it out and fight for it? Will I put all my efforts, energy and courage into this to bridge this period without even considering giving up?

Some healthy stubbornness is needed when things are not going as planned. The very first days when I started freelancing I was so motivated and thought I could conquer the world, but reality told me differently and I needed a lot of courage and energy to put myself over this and not to give up. Financially it was very difficult to survive and you start to wonder if it’s worth the effort. In these times friends are very important. I was fortunate to got to know Geert back then. It was my 2nd year I went freelancing and so far it was more of disappointment then the vision I had in my mind of how it would be. He really was my big motivator who believed in me and my work. I was thinking of giving up. All I thought was “what the hell was I thinking? I’ve must have been dreaming”. He gave me the push I need to get going and he was (and still is) very good in giving me the right advice. My approach to get new clients and work was totally wrong, too passive and I didn’t address the ‘right’ clients either. It took me a lot of energy to get over that and even more courage to do it. Geert’s idea was to approach and confront potential clients directly with my work. This was something I didn’t dare to do, but I had no choice and so I did it and after a while I might have gotten the hang of it even. One morning, I visited about 20 companies, handed over my business card and even had a chance to present my work here and there and landed myself two real jobs.

You could argue that in this day and age why I would want to visit clients when I have the World Wide Web? Right, the internet, that great place of endless possibilities! If I would do it all over again I would use the combination of both. For both worlds you need a portfolio and when you haven’t got anything to show for yet build it using a fake brand. Think like Adobe for example and their showcase for the CS3 suite. Let’s face it when you don’t make it into any of these galleries with your work you could wait a long while until you have your first customer or even visitor via the internet. It’s all about finding something what you are really good in and using it to your advantage.

Be eager to learn

If I look back over the past 15 years of my career I’m astonished about what I’ve learned and how fast things evolve these days. Especially if you are involved in web design it’s hard to keep pace and stay on top of the latest techniques and technologies. I learned the basic principles of design and printing at school, but all the rest, expect from an evening course in Photoshop (version 2) and Quark XPress, is self-taught. This learning never stops and is a very important part of the job. This is probably the same for people who are in a full-time job, but I believe the difference is that you have to experience this as a constant hunger for more and you don’t have the luxury of the paycheck at the end of the month no matter if you learn or not. In a full time job it’s easier to do just your job because the pressure isn’t there to find work or be the best in what you do, others do that for you. If you are passionate in what you do, than this will almost feel like a healty addiction and not like an obligation.

Don’t rush it, give your decision some serious thought.

After I graduated I did an internship for one month at an ad agency. I really didn’t like the job there. In the end after endless revisions, the few things I designed, the few logos, didn’t feel like my creations anymore. It just felt like I was drawing on demand and the boss didn’t leave any room for my ideas or creativity. This is a receipt for frustration and de-motivation. After looking for a job for months, I decide to give myself a deadline. If I didn’t have a job before end of June (1992), I would take the jump. Big mistake to make a decision like that. There were some people pressuring me a bit as well, asking me when I could start. Still, my decision was really too hasty.

Do your research and spot the warning signs

A big part of why it didn’t go as I had imagined was to blame on a lack of research I did before I decided to take the jump. My parents knew a few people and I got to know an interior architect who’s activities were focussed in shops like bakeries, fish shops, chocolate shops etc. He delivered a full package to his clients which includes logo, house-style, product packaging etc. He could give me a part-time job he said. The thing is, I trusted him on his word. If people start making promises, never take them serious unless you get it in writing and you’re absolutely sure. I didn’t, lucky for me he meant it and he was serious, he did give me a few nice projects and for a while this was good. However other people who promised me the same and where I was counting on too didn’t. So yes, I did check if I would get work, but I took a big risk since I wasn’t sure and even if they were all telling the truth it was still far from enough to cover all my costs and earn a living. Another warning sign is clients telling you that they could give you tons of work if you just dance to their tune. For example making endless logos because they can’t make up their mind. Put a number on this from the start to avoid this kind of thing. Believe me when I say that you will be surprised to what length some people go to make you do what they want. The guilt trip is something I experienced, the client makes you feel you didn’t do enough and hopes you will do more for free.

Make your calculations

Not that I want to go into the financial part of this into detail, but this is about making a living. Make a list of what you’ll need as investment : computer, software, printer etc. Calculate the total cost. Make a total of your fixed monthly costs and add what you need to earn to make a living. This total is the minimum you need to earn each month. Then look at the work you would get and try to estimate what you will earn on that. This is of course the hardest part of all. Even today for me every estimate I need to make for a project is like a job on its own. Analyzing the different stages, calculating the revisions on a design, estimating the hours of work etc. it takes time and insight. Also be prepared to play collection agency and don’t be afraid to phone clients or even visit them when they are late paying. Always work with pre-payments!

The big question is of course what is my hourly rate? This is very subjective and differs a lot from person to person and from type of job. As for a designer I think the three major parameters to base this rate on are talent, knowledge and experience. Because of my experience I can do certain parts of the job faster then I would a few years ago. Well OK, technology has a very very big part in this also. If there is one advice I would give you, especially for the designers out there, don’t set your hourly rate too low, then again don’t go astronomical with your rate either. If you are just starting people won’t pay huge hourly rates because you haven’t proven yourself even though you might be very talented. Just calculate this rationally and try to be reasonable.

So that’s about it and I hope you get something out of it so that all goes according to plan. Good luck!

posted by Veerle

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