How I built a successful freelance business from literally nothing

how i built a successful design business from literally nothing graphic design blender

With the new year approaching this is the perfect time to start something new.

Something about a fresh start really motivates us to dig into the work we’ve been putting off and take on some new challenges.

What better time could there be to start your freelance business? But if you are starting from absolute scratch there is a lot to do.

Building a successful graphic design business is a lot of work and just the thought of it can be really overwhelming. Where should you even start?

Looking at this as one massive undertaking can make it seem impossible.

I actually went through this process not so long ago, and although it seemed like a ton of work at the time, it went faster and better then I could have imagined.

I found it extremely helpful to break the work up into tasks. This made my progress easier to track, and gave me things to celebrate along the way to help stay motivated.

Here’s the basic list of steps I took to go from absolute zero, to having a successful design business. I will also include some tips I learned along the way.

Whether you want to start freelancing full time, or maybe start transitioning to freelancing by doing it part time, this is a great way to get the ball rolling.

Evaluate Yourself.

A great way to start any project, especially potentially life-changing ones is to take some time and evaluate yourself. This is a good way to gauge how ready you are, and make any changes that might better prepare you for success.

Some really good, freelance specific, questions would be:

  • do you have the time? (Are you willing to work some long hours?)
  • are you self motivated? (There is no one else to hold you accountable when you are working for yourself.)
  • do you have the resources? (Work space, software, some financial stability)
  • do you have a passion for freelancing and design work? (This might be the most important one)
  • can you handle an inconsistent income? Freelancing by nature is not as steady as working for another company. This can be a plus (you get the reward when you land big contracts, instead of your boss) and it can be bad (when things are slow you will take a pay cut.)

Build A Brand.

Your brand is the face of your company.

It’s what people will recognize, how they will pick you out of the crowd, and it’s the thing that will give people comfort in its familiarity.

A blind Coke / Pepsi taste test published in 2004 proved this point perfectly, showing that people’s taste preference actually changed considerably when the branding was present vs. when it was hidden. (More here)

The process of branding yourself is a lot more then just slapping you name on a card in your favorite color.

Pick out the core values you consider most important to you in business and in life and think about how those translate into a brand image.

I found that creating a “logo use and brand guide” (example) for myself was a really great way to insure I stayed super consistent with the look and feel of my personal brand. Consistency increases brand recognition like crazy!

Once you have your brand settled, you can work from this guide while you start to build your business assets (website, business cards, letter head, invoices, social media profiles, etc.)

This will result in a perfectly consistent brand on all levels.

Decide on your focus.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to do it all, but putting a focus on one area will help you improve faster and attract a clientele.

Here’s a couple of the obvious ones:

  • web design
  • web development
  • graphic design
  • branding
  • logo design

For more, Preston put together the best list of “design niches” I’ve ever seen here.

Get to work!

The only way people can tell if you’ve got what they are looking for is by looking at your past work. If you haven’t got any, that’s a problem!

Do as many projects as you possibly can to start building your portfolio.

Focus on projects that will look good in a portfolio as a start. Those amazing looking portfolio pieces are what’s going to attract more work.

There is no denying that there is power in a name. Work with well known, or important people whenever you can.

Getting to work with big names can be easier than you think!

One great way is to keep an eye out for established professionals who are launching new startups. They will often be looking for new people to bring on board and they are more likely to succeed than your average startup.

There is a lot less people trying to work with a company when it is a startup then once it is wildly successful, so reserve your seat early.

Do your 100% best work, even when you think no one is watching. You never know when a project, that you consider low profile, might catch the eyes of a potential high profile client.

Keep looking forward.

Throughout this entire process it’s important to keep an eye to the future.

Set rates that are sustainable for a professional, even if you aren’t one yet. If you charge an unrealistically low amount while you are just starting you could get stuck with clients that expect those rates to continue and it will be a lot harder to change once you are more established.

www.yourrate.co is a great website for calculating your hourly rate if you need some help deciding where to start.

Never burn bridges, even ones you don’t have any more interest in right now.

Even if you can’t work with a client, or fellow designer anymore, be pleasant. You never know when someone is going to tell another potential client what it was like to work with you (good or bad!)

Word of mouth is your most honest advertising.

Now over to you!

What concerns do you have as you get ready to take the challenge? If you’re already a freelancer; what tips did you find helpful in building your brand?

Comments here.

Comments

  1. Thanks. This has been one of my favourite posts. I think in building a brand it’s also important to ask for referrals from one’s clients.

  2. Thanks. Made my day… or night. I am currently working on establishing a freelancer business and what scares me is that i won’t be able 2 find any clients. But there’s only 1 way of being sure… trying it :)
    I was having an arguement with a friend about the brand name on should choose. I was saying that it can be whatever name and he was insisting that the brand should be the freelancer’s name. What are your thoughs on this?

    • I have an incredibly common name and can NEVER be found on the internet when searching for me. Based on this I opted for a business name. This gave me the option of having others work with me and directly with clients (my gf is also a designer and photographer with her own freelance business, too) as a team as opposed to a one person show. I figured this would also allow me to expand without too much hassle if the time ever did come.

    • Mihai, after 6 years of full time job I decided to quit my job as a branding manager for a not for profit organization. The name you choose will depend in the business model you are planning to take on. In my case I decided to use my name, since the numerous networking and referrals I have received are mostly related to my person. My decision was NOT to come up with a company name at this point but try to brand myself as a branding specialist, and down the road I may consider the option of a company name when the business gain momentum. I hope that helps

    • I chose to use my actual name because I knew that, being so early in my career, I would be more likely to grow out of a name I made up. This isn’t all that limiting to growth either as it lends itself well to partnering with other personal brands; (think Sagmeister & Walsh)

      I think either can work really well and should be decided by a combination of personal preference and consideration for your situation.

      Sometimes your given name is the best choice, sometimes a business name is.

      Thanks for writing Mihai

  3. well this speaks to my situation and plans for next year! love this post. Great job guys, keep it coming.

  4. Thanks Ben,

    Helps a lot when you r in midst of starting a freelance business. and facing the “challenges”

  5. I currently have my freelance biz, I started taking part time jobs & doing a couple of freelance jobs on a side, until the day where I was making enough money in my freelance biz & so I decided to quit my part time.

    One mistake that I did was not saving money for the days when my freelancing was going bad. I was broke & without a job for almost 5 months. So I highly advice you to save money on the side when ur biz is doing good.

    My challenge right now is that I am receiving more jobs then I have been handling before, I worry about being able to do them all by myself. I do know that I have the option to tell clients till a certain date but I’m also thinking maybe it’s an opportunity to grow & make more money. My main priority would be to have satisfied clients at the end of each job. And my question is how do I manage my time properly when I get a sudden flow of requests & orders?

  6. Nikoma Alexander says:

    This post was so timely it was perfect, I’ve been in graphics and signage for years my real love is designing and freelancing. I am going to start a freelance, part-time venture in 2014 and was a bit lost as to the guidelines, this article really shed some light to my path… Thanks a mil

  7. When i started doing freelancing it came out of volunteering. Starting from that angle most people I came into contact with new me by name, and that is how I’m still being referred today. I decided to use my name, but as I came to understand through Googling that there are a vew successful businesses already with my last name. My solution was to use my first initial, last name, and an adjective. So far this solution is working out pretty well. It allows me to easily trasition between non-profit and corporate clients.

  8. Hi Mr.Brush!

    I hope you are doing well. I haven’t been able to find the answer that I am looking for. I am currently employed at a corporation. I recently set up my own online business by creating a website by myself.

    Therefore this makes me employed and self-employed. How do I file my taxes when I have an online business? Do I need get another insurance for myself while having an online business? Pay even more federal and state taxes?

    I use TurboTax if it matters.

    Thank you for your guidance in advance!

    Sincerely,
    Diana

  9. I also have a business I am managing presently, My business Name is Andrealworld Network. Iam a web consultant who consults for any company home and abroad who wants to take their ventures to a higher level as regards the web and internet.

    My business creates the internet and makes it usable for you. Though not quite long I started, the milestones I have reached were through the social media and word of mouth.

    I, also have complimentary cards which I distribute to potential clients and I make sure that even while I am sleeping and get a call from an intending or potetial clients/clients, I dont ignore; I pick up the call immediately and respond to their request and go ahead to ensure that they are satisfied with their quests before going back to sleep. That is to say, I work for 24 hours and Ultimately, God has been on my side as I solely dpend on him. Remember, THE SPIRITUAL compliments the physical for smoothness in Life.

    When I remember some more of my strategies, I shall let it be known to those who wish to gain from it. I also will appreciate more ideas from anyone who could offer some. Thanks so much Ben, I enjoyed your post! Thanks again.

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