How I went from losing my job to being a profitable freelancer in 18 months

successful freelancer after losing job graphic design blender
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If you would’ve told me when I got laid off I’d have a profitable freelance design business a mere 18 months later, I’d have laughed at your absurdity.

Heck, I may have even snorted.

Losing my job = best thing ever?

Looking back, getting laid off was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to take action. I couldn’t just put in my 8 hours anymore; I had to decide where I wanted my career to go, roll up my sleeves, and take myself there.

So literally the day after I got laid off, I started looking for another full-time job. That’s right, freelancing wasn’t even in my scope of career paths. And you know what I found out?

My portfolio sucked.

After 5 years of in-house design, I wasn’t impressed, and neither were my potential employers. The majority of my printed portfolio was college pieces!

I knew I needed to ramp up my portfolio, so I took a graphic design continuing education course that promised portfolio pieces at a local art college.

It was fabulous – not only did I create neat stuff, I also learned a lot and most importantly, boosted my self esteem.

I was reminded I am a good designer, and I can create masterpieces! (If you’ve never been laid off, it’s a real kick in the ego pants.)

How you can best prepare for making the switch to freelancing

  • Invest time in yourself. In what areas do you need to improve? Tackle a project that lies in one of your weaknesses. Brush up on your design techniques, bolster your self confidence, or learn the basics of business accounting through online resources, seminars, peers, and continuing education classes.
  • Save. There’s no guaranteed paycheck in freelancing. While you’ve got one, bank some of it for survival while you build your client base.
  • Create an awesome portfolio. Take a design class or do non-profit volunteer work. Make both print and digital portfolios – check out mine on Behance – and don’t forget to share work on Facebook, too. Think quality, not quantity.
  • Change your mindset. Profitable freelancers generally need to be focused, thick-skinned, self-motivated beings.

Moving Forward

Reunited with my mojo, I continued seeking out a new position, and I let EVERYONE know I was on the hunt: friends, family, Facebook. I joined LinkedIn and many job boards and spent a good portion of each day not only pursuing full-time leads but networking with peers.

Through networking I started acquiring freelance projects.

An old coworker with a friend in need, here.

A new LinkedIn connection with a project, there.

Within months I started to realize that I didn’t have time to work a full-time job!

How you can find clients

The most common question GDB readers ask is how to find design clients. Here are a few tips that served me well:

  • Get the word out. Even your third cousin twice-removed should know. I just sent my brand new business cards to 10 of my closest family members.
  • Show off your portfolio. If your non-design network is like mine, the term “graphic designer” doesn’t mean much. Once I started showing my friends and family my work, they were totally impressed…and started spreading the word.
  • Network! Like Preston said,“all the talent in the world will not help you if no one knows you have it…” (click to tweet)Join LinkedIn groups, respond meaningfully in peer evaluations, go to meet-n-greets in your area. Some of your best clients may also be your competition!

Getting Serious

By the end of the year, I realized this was for real.

Working for myself was putting food on the table and paying the bills. Wow! I didn’t even set out to be a freelancer!

However, I’d been (sort of purposely) procrastinating on some critical aspects of owning a business that I knew I needed to face. Little things, you know, like a business name, identity, goals, website, business cards, bookkeeping software, a license.

No wait, those are BIG things!

So how did I create a foundation (goals) for my business, choose an awesome business name, design a great logo, create business cards, and launch my website with a client-focused blog (oh, and enjoy a 2-week vacation) in less than 6 months?

I set aside time for what mattered to me. I know what you’re thinking – that I didn’t sleep, I’m lying, or I had no clients.

It’s true I worked long hours at times, but Preston’s book, From Passion to Profit, provided a road map and exercises to get me going quickly. And instead of playing video games (big fan) after a day of client revisions and conference calls, I sketched my logo or created website content.

Also, I hired a business consultant.

Remember why most businesses fail – because their owners don’t know how to operate a business. Not only does my business consultant prepare my tax return, he provides sage advice and wisdom backed by decades of experience. And he is awesome at QuickBooks.

How to make your freelancing business a reality

  • Schedule work hours for your business. Work for your clients, then work for yourself. For example, conventional wisdom says 30% of your work time should be devoted to marketing.
  • Stop making excuses. As the saying goes, “if it’s that important, you’ll make time.”
  • Get some advice. Snag a copy of From Passion to Profit, scour the GDB archives, start with the 50 best GDB posts you might have missed, hire a professional, and/or find a mentor.

Staying Motivated…and Keeping the Ball Rolling

Sometimes this is the hardest part. You work hard to get established and then have no idea what new progress needs to be made.

My goals this year (not to be confused with my overall business goals) are to publish new, client-focused content on my blog at least once per week as well as a source of passive income, and find cost-effective, creative ways to increase my client pool.

To achieve this I’ve developed a marketing plan designed to encourage existing clients to refer new ones and turn one-off projects into repeat clients. I’ve also launched my website and my first blog post.

How to take your freelance business to the next level

  • Set short-term goals. Yearly, quarterly, or monthly goals help you see progress and stay motivated to put your business in the best position.
  • Find passive sources of income. Preston is the king of the passive income theory, and I subscribe to it. At some point, you’ll hit a plateau where you’re doing all the work you have time for (or want to have time for) and, without charging more, can’t increase your income. Enter passive income streams.
  • Stay educated. Workshops, continuing education classes, business surfing, and online tutorials are excellent ways to keep up on new trends, new software, and new techniques for not only honing your design skills but also every aspect of running your business.

What do the next 18 months look like for you?

Now could be your time! How do you make freelancing a profitable venture? What tips and tools do you use? Share your story and your opinions in the comments on this post!

About April Greer

April is a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. She is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.

Comments

  1. This article was incredibly insightful, especially for new freelancers like myself. I appreciate the concrete steps provided, and the resources for other helpful material. I recently started my own graphic design business, and am always on the look out for these kinds of blogs that give great tips to keep me motivated. This was an excellent read, thank you!

    • Cindy,

      You’re quite welcome! Thanks for your kind words.

      GDB is here as a resource and a community – read the archives, comment on posts or others’ comments, ask questions, and reap the rewards! Not to toot our own horn, but GDB has an amazing amount of superb business tips. I suggest devoting an hour to a specific topic you need advice on; you’ll be surprised what you come away with!

      Good luck, and happy reading! Hope to see you around here in the comments again.

  2. I’m hoping to start my freelancing journey very soon.. I just graduated college, and after three internships in graphic design in offices, I don’t really think the cubicle life is for me. I’m going between moods of excitement to crushing fear of failure. This blog is really helpful though, and gives me hope that this is indeed a possibility for me. I’m currently working on completely overhauling my website. I hope to be up and running by fall! If anyone has any general advice, it is always welcome.

  3. Very, very, very encouraging article.
    Just what I needed to read!

    For myself, I have a mentor and seek advice from a lot of respected professionals, but I also read a ton and work with clients on projects. Not being a college-educated designer can be discouraging at times, but I feel that it also has its benefits and “edge.”

    I enjoy my job :)

    -Reilly Newman
    @zangaroo

  4. Great article, April, thank you for sharing such great information.

    I’ve been in business a while now and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m NOT very good at business management. I also enjoyed your article about why businesses fail. I’m considering hiring a business manager and was wondering if you had any advice on finding a good one…? What should I be looking for from this person? What kind of questions should I ask? Perhaps this aspect of being a freelancer could merit it’s own article?? I’d appreciate any help you could provide. Keep up the great articles!

    • Flopspop,

      You’re welcome! Glad you found it useful!

      I would love to answer your question in a new post. Keep your eyes open in the coming weeks.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for another motivating article, April! I have been working hard to move my previously part-time web and graphic design business into a my full-time business.

    I have been thinking about, and plotting out, both my business goals and short-term business goals since reading your last article addressing these issues.

    For me, having a list I can work off of helps me stay at a good level of motivation. This way, I know I am making progress as I check items off the list! Thanks for reminding me to work out my road map so I know where I am trying to go!

    -Morgan
    @OneAnd8Designs

  6. Thank you, April for this encouraging post! It is really useful to read the detailed path to success!

  7. Networking is critical, both online and face to face. Do not underestimate the power of LinkedIn if you are a B2B business. I just found this article online and it really helped spell out how to do it: http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/linkedin-case-study/

    Also, join business groups in your community and don’t be afraid to donate a sampling of your services to the group. I just donated a new website to one group and the response from the membership has been fantastic. The prospects for new clients from that alone are staggering. It doesn’t have to be something big either. I have donated business cards to several groups with great results. It puts your product in many new hands and they seem much more willing to send work your way when you have given something to the group.

  8. Michael,

    Sage advice – network, network, network. Often it’s who knows you that’ll get you business, and goodwill is always a great way to make new connections.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. I normally don’t comment, but this article was well written and it hit close to home.

    I lost my job as a graphic designer in June after the agency closed down. While I wasn’t disheartened, I began applying to openings and “cold” applying to agencies. My portfolio is average, haven’t done that much great work, but yet I am a good designer.

    I have had 2 clients that I have been freelancing for for the past few years, but I don’t do much work for them, but its consistent. Just this week, I have been asked to be an independent designer for a company, and they want me there 40 hours, but not as an employee. I am not sure business-wise how to go about/think about this. I am thinking, would this be sign to try to go freelancing permanently? Would I just make my self a company? How to deal with the instability. How to get all these things to start the business, when cash is LOW, really LOW?

    Any advice would be helpful?

    I am also not sure how to cold call to start spreading the word about me now starting to freelance full-time, but I am about to browse the blog to get some help.

    As I said, any advice would be helpful — and this article was a lot of inspiration!!! Great!

  10. This is going to be useful for me, I’m studying my final year in University and was very anxious about my future (not very good in a way), I haven’t had much clients around my area and was wondering what more tips I need before going on a journey as a freelance.

    Any advice for a beginner like me? Thanks!

    • Adrian,

      GDB has a ton of resources in the archives for starting out – poke around and you’ll find answers to a lot of your questions. Also, figure out what you want to know, and you’ll have a better chance of getting specific answers to specific questions.

      See directly above your comment for some links to get you started, and watch for a post in the near future about getting the most from asking questions as a newbie!

      Good luck!

  11. When I first started my education I’d tell myself that I would go for a bachelor degree in graphic design, it’s just three years and I get some sorta status right? But after awhile I went away from that idea. I went to a college in Oslo, Norway, and it cost me alot of money and to get a bachelor I had to pay even more and study outside the country, and I wasn’t really into that.

    I’ve just graduated from my two years in college, and I’ve decided to go freelance! So for my next 18 months I’m gonna start up my business, make a new and better portfolio and website for myself, create a postalia, and all the other elements of my brand. I’ve consistently had several clients for over 5 years now, I’m 20. I was one of the few in my class that took time to learn webdesign, take time to learn wordpress and all that, it seemed like this has given me a good advantage that others in my class didn’t have.

    This is my first post at GDB, and great post by the way, April. Oh, and I love your website, Preston. Keep up the good work!

  12. I also got fired and it’s been pretty great! No long commute anymore and working for myself! The hardest part I’ve found is keeping up a steady flow of clients. Did you find that within 18 months you developed several steady clients? I’ve been at it for 9 months now and it’s pretty slow still.

    • Stephen,

      Finding steady clients is ALWAYS on my mind. I found one repeat client, found another, lost one, found another small one, and also have one-offs. Times will be slow, and times will be busy.

      We have a ton of posts here at GDB devoted to finding clients, passive income, spending wisely, preparing for tough times, etc. Use the search bar to find some great posts on survival!

      Thanks for sharing!

  13. Crissie Briggs says:

    This article was very insightful and inspiring – I’ve wanted to do my own thing as a designer for a while now… I know I can do it and do it well, I just need to take that leap of faith. Thanks for getting me that one step closer :D

  14. I recently started reading alot about Graphic Design and freelancing in general. I usually design Logos and Logo Design has a LOT of competition both from talented Logoists as well as the prefab market.
    So yes I see the next 18months for myself as pretty tough but I’m optimistic about it. GDB serves as a great source for learning about freelance work. Good work guys.

  15. Designer_Problems says:

    I’m an in-house designer now. Just started, and recently out of college. I already realize my portfolio is just terrible, but I’m not getting good portfolio pieces from work. In fact I find that even though I badly want to redo my portfolio now, I have very little time after putting in anywhere from 8-10 hours at work, and am totally exhausted!

    Did you find that being laid off actually gave you the time to do it? Or did you have time to do it before?

    • Hello,

      First of all, props to you for working on your portfolio while employed! Most people ignore their resumes and portfolios until it’s time to look for another job, and then it’s a big hassle to update. Doing it as you go is SO MUCH SMARTER!

      I was one of the idiots. I thought I’d have plenty to show for working 5 years at a company, but when I got laid off and started going through my files, I realized I had very little. That’s when I realized I needed some side jobs, which turned into a freelancing career.

      Working and freelancing is exhausting – I know people who do and you have to be excellent at time management, especially if you have a family. However, many love it, so it’s certainly doable.

      Also, since you just started and are recently out of college, it’s understandable that your portfolio isn’t jam-packed with high quality pieces. Five years from now, you’ll look at the work you’re doing now and think, “man, I was a newbie.” A great portfolio takes time – years – so be patient in building it.

      Here’s my theory on “having time.” If it’s that important to you, you’ll make time. It’s not that you don’t have time, it’s just that you value that time to do other things (like sleep, your in-house job, kids, pets, etc.) over updating your portfolio. I’m not saying that’s bad thing – sleep is good! – and I understand how exhausting work can be, but you have to prioritize updating your portfolio if you truly want to do it.

      Spoiler alert: As a freelancer, you’re going to put in more hours than you ever did at work. Many more.

      Good luck with building your portfolio – it’s a work in progress, even for experienced designers!

  16. Hello April. I know this article is about a year old, but I’m still curious (since I’m in a very similar situation) how long did it take you to get your first clients?

    • Brittney,

      My first clients were the motivation for me to perhaps start a freelance design business and perhaps be successful at it. One of my first clients was actually a request from a friend of a friend on Facebook – he knew someone who needed a designer and he asked if I were taking customers. (I still do work for them.)
      My second client was more traditional — I saw a post on Craigslist and responded to it — and landed the job! Both of these came up probably 3ish months after I lost my job, while I was looking for another full-time job. And then shortly thereafter I landed my summer temporary position.
      Stay positive, keep responding to requests, and remember that even motivated new clients take time to get their projects started.
      Good luck!
      April

  17. Some good reading here. I studied multimedia a few years ago now which turned me to a jack of all trades. Before that I had no real ambitions, whereas now my personal problems, not having 1 single specialism and family concerns over wether I can support myself are the things holding me back from pursuing freelancing.

    I did volunteer work for several years and frankly feel like I should never have to again, got my first paid job as part of the BBC TV guide team and now I do part time photography and graphic design for a small business. I don’t really see much long term prospects here, since they are so easily impressed I think my skills may grow dull and/or out of date if I became full time, but I also keep thinking I need more experience in work and creative training before I’ll ever feel brave enough to try and survive freelance. I say all this because I wonder how many are in a similar position to me?

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