The only barrier between you and your freelance career
By Tobias van Schneider
The answer: your own anxiety. A freelancing career has never been more attainable. Yet many who aspire to it still find it daunting. So we asked successful freelancers how they went about it, and what they recommend for those who want to strike out on their own.
Working for yourself comes with risks, so it’s reasonable that anyone with a cozy full-time job would hesitate to make the jump. In fact, if you didn’t have any reservations about going freelance, that would be cause for concern. We’ve written about the downsides of this often glorified career path before, which includes an unpredictable schedule and equally unpredictable income. It's not always the work-from-bed dream it's cracked up to be.
For some, however, the benefits of freelancing far outweigh the challenges. If you feel like it might be the right fit for you, here's a good place to begin.
"A chat I had with my friend about his own experience gave me the confidence to make the jump, and since then I’ve never looked back."
Start freelancing on the side
Providing you didn't sign a contract that says otherwise, you can start taking on freelance gigs right now. As you become more comfortable managing your own clients and work, you can ease in a bit more. Eventually, you will build up your client base (and your confidence) enough to make the transition to full-time freelance.
This approach allows you to buy your time and save up money as a cushion, so you don’t have to panic while finding your footing as a freelancer. You can also use this time to build up your portfolio. Most importantly, it allows you to test the waters while keeping your full-time job as a safety net. Before you’ve fully committed to it, you can see if you enjoy managing clients and projects on your own.
That’s how Jordan Gilroy, a freelance digital designer, went about it. Gilroy worked at an agency for seven years before deciding it was time for something new.
“I’d always done freelance work on the side but never thought about it as a full-time option, mainly because of the business side of things," said Gilroy. “[A] chat I had with my friend about his own experience gave me the confidence to make the jump, and since then I’ve never looked back.”
Gilroy started with a retainer client, working just a couple days a week to keep himself a to keep himself afloat. He spent the rest of the week marketing himself through self-initiated projects. Eventually, he was able to fill his week with client work.
“It wasn’t long before I found myself in a much stronger position than I ever was working in an agency,” Gilroy said.
By planning your move strategically, you remove a considerable amount of anxiety and uncertainty from the situation. You’ve bought yourself a few months to try it out and see what happens. If you work hard and find the freelance life is suited to you, those first few months will lead to more.
Embrace the risk
Slow and easy is one way to go about it. Or, you can just dive right into the full-time freelance deep end. That’s what animator and illustrator Simone Tufvesson did.
“When I graduated a year ago, I didn’t feel that any of the jobs in Copenhagen lived up to what I dreamed of,” said Tufvesson. “I love the whole process of making animations. I like managing my own projects and completing a project from start to finish. So just before graduating, a client contacted me on Instagram, asking if I could produce an animated explainer video for them. And after that, it just felt natural to start my freelance full-time career.”
Freelancing is decidedly riskier than working full-time for a company so you may never feel it’s the perfect moment. Planning ahead helps but at some point, you just have to embrace the risk, stop "protecting the cake" and go for it.
“Just do it,” says Tufvesson. “Be visible. Contact studios and potential clients. Promote your projects on social media, and if you haven’t done any client work yet, show your badass personal projects.”
Take every opportunity to promote yourself
Marketing yourself and your work will always be important as a freelancer, but especially at the beginning. Once you start building up your network and doing more projects, happy clients will hopefully help you spread the word. Until then, you are solely responsible for getting your name out there.
Every new project you do, whether it’s client work or a personal project, is another opportunity to promote yourself. Post it across your networks and send a quick personal email to anyone who might be remotely interested. This is a great way to build and maintain your professional relationships as well. Sending a friendly email is the beginning of a conversation that may eventually lead to your dream freelance project.
Your website is not only your first impression, it’s your main place of business as a freelancer. It’s the neon “OPEN” sign on the front of your office building.
Gilroy used this strategy at the beginning and still does when he has downtime between client projects.
“I’m fortunate to be busy most days of the year, but whenever I hit a quiet patch I always create a self-initiated project,” says Gilroy. “You need to stay on your toes and keep being active on social media so that when there is a drought, you’ll be at the forefront of people’s minds.”
Social networks are a great place to promote your work, and I know plenty of freelancers who have found opportunities via Instagram or Twitter. But all of it should constantly point back to the same place: your portfolio.
A personal site (insert shameless Semplice.com plug here) should be the first item on your list when starting out as a freelancer. People make jokes about the one-person team behind “award-winning studio” portfolio headlines, but it’s a strategy that works. Your website is not only your first impression, it’s your main place of business as a freelancer. It’s the neon “OPEN” sign on the front of your office building. Whether your position yourself as an independent designer or “creative studio” is up to you, but a personal site is non-negotiable.
This is only the beginning. A successful freelance career requires discipline, time management, and a knack for business, among other skills. But at the beginning, all it takes is a little self-confidence. You don’t need a degree, a special certification or permission from your peers to call yourself a freelancer. You just need to do it.