Become a full-time freelancer

Become a full-time freelancer

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

So you’re a web designer and you’ve been bit by the freelancing bug. It happens! It can be really exciting to think about life as a freelancer. No more managers breathing down your neck, no more feeling constrained by the amount of money you can command, no more being locked into working between a specific number of hours on a specific set of days.

It’s easy to mull the concept of freelancing and have one of two reactions:

  1. I must do this. Life will be so much easier!
  2. I could never do this.

Either camp is a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Is life easier as a freelancer? That depends on how you define “easy.” For some of us, knowing that the work is coming (and so is the paycheck), and having a routine schedule is what makes life easy. For others, the routine is soul-crushing.

And some of us think about “everything it takes to run a business,” and write it off before really understanding just how little is really required to start working for yourself, even if we’re well-suited for freelancing. Then others know themselves well enough to know that having zero accountability would be disastrous.

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If you’re interested in going freelance, though, it’s worth looking into. It’s not necessarily a walk in the park, but it’s also not necessarily an unending series of insurmountable obstacles. These are some of the basics to becoming a full-time freelancer.

Step 1: You’ll need a website. Check out these inspiring examples!

Know the money, honey

The most important factor when shifting into freelance work, if you ask me, is finances. You need to know your living expenses and you need to have a good idea of what to expect, income-wise, your first year of freelancing. Figure out your non-negotiable, “fixed” expenses — the ones that don’t change each month, like rent, wireless service, and loan payments. Then figure out your variable expenses — things you pretty much have to buy but it might look different each month, like food and transportation costs. Look at where you spend the rest of your money — for example, Netflix, sports, clothes, subscriptions, etc. — and see how much (if any) you have left over after that.

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Once you have a good idea of how much it costs to support yourself as-is, it’s time for a little bit of math. You probably already have a good idea of a decent hourly rate for a web designer at your level of experience, maybe because you reverse-engineered it from your salary. When you’re freelancing, your rate needs to be a bit higher (because you are covering more of your own expenses that got eaten up before your salary by office rent, paying HR, and providing benefits). Settle on a decent rate for yourself and start there.

How many hours a month would you have to bill to make ends meet? That breaks down to how many hours a week? (Back-of-the-napkin math is just dividing the monthly hours by 4).

You need to be aware that you’ll be spending several hours a week doing non-billable work, such as invoicing, marketing, consulting with prospective clients, and other managing-your-business work. Plan on a buffer of at least 5-10 hours a week on non-billable time. Factoring that in, does it seem feasible to be working as many hours as you need to each week?

If so, awesome! If not, you have some options:

  • Command higher rates. You can beef up your experience with extra training or take stretch-projects now in the lead-up to freelancing.
  • Reduce your living expenses. What are you willing to go without for a while to make this freelancing dream a success? Maybe it means not getting so much take-out or reducing your cable package, or maybe it means putting off purchasing a new car and driving the one you have for a while longer. And for many of us, this means paying off our debt. Not very glamorous, but absolutely critical if you want to be afloat a year into freelancing.
  • Save up a cushion for Quitting Day. If you’re currently working and you want to transition more slowly, start cutting your expenses today and put what you’re not spending into a savings account. You can also start freelancing as a “side-hustle” now to simultaneously build your savings cushion and build your business.

Build some structure

The easiest assumption to make when you think about freelancing is that you don’t have to work as much, or implement as rigid of a schedule. And while in many cases that’s accurate, it’s not the whole story. Freelance work is still work, and it still requires significant hours. Get a feel for what your energy patterns and work needs are, and set up your days accordingly. For some, that means we work specific hours each day. For others, the goal is to work a specific number of hours each day or week without a strict adherence to when they get put in.

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Likewise, think about the work environment you need. Some people spread out on their bed with their laptop. Others need a whole separate office with a door that shuts so they can “feel like they’re at work” to actually get things done. And others need to leave their homes entirely, camping out at coffee shops, the library, or a coworking space.

Find your (client) people

The other critical aspect of freelancing as a web designer (or freelancing as anything, really) is a client base. This means you’re marketing for new clients, and you’re building a referral network with your current and previous clients. If you’ve done web design for an agency or company before, be careful to read your contract and make sure you aren’t violating any non-compete clauses – you don’t want to cause a legal problem for yourself by sending out a broadcast to all your past clients saying you’re striking out on your own.

And while it’s nice to have a cache of previous clients to draw on, you don’t necessarily need to have that to start out. When you’re starting out, spend some time every single day marketing yourself (you’ll soon start filling those hours with client work). Once you’re humming along, I recommend spending the first 30-60 minutes of every day doing marketing and business-building before you do anything else (even before checking email). This is how you grow your business.

Does the idea of networking or marketing yourself make you shudder? Don’t dismiss it; instead, find some good resources. A go-to favorite for me is Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid in book format and wildly popular illustrated format. There’s also scads of advice, programming, and coaching available. Spend some time learning what marketing really looks like, and do the things that resonate with you.

Find your (community) people

A final thought I’ll add here, because it’s often overlooked in the canon of advice about freelancing, but it’s absolutely critical, is to find your community of practice. A community of practice is a group of people who are all doing the same thing. In this case, you’ll want to connect with people who are freelancing, whether as web designers or other related fields (like copywriting, SEO, and CRO, etc.). These can be forums, facebook groups, or anything else, really. Reach out, make yourself known, and find your new colleagues. This will prove invaluable when you need new insight, want input on a tool you’re considering, or just get lonely (because it happens sometimes).

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But that’s just the tip of the iceberg

There’s a lot more to freelancing than can be covered in one broad-strokes blog post, but these are the cornerstones. Above all else, have a good grasp of your finances. Once those are established, begin building your business and see yourself emerge as a successful freelancer. And above all else, keep asking questions. You don’t have to figure this out all by yourself.

What’s your biggest hurdle when it comes to making the leap to full-time freelance web design?

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