Rocking your first year as a freelance designer (Months 1 & 2)

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Honest thought: I love fresh pieces of online advice just as much as the next guy.

Especially if they’re about business.

Especially if they’re actionable.

There’s no rose without a thorn, though, and much of the stuff you can find out there is aimed at folks that already have their systems set in place. For instance, if I have a good working machine for getting freelance design leads then any tip on how to make it more efficient is gold to me!

But what if I don’t have anything? Where do I even start? I mean, if someone says “here’s the most effective template for responding to job listings” then how is that actually helping my business get off the ground? Should I take this template and run wild with it?

Probably not. It’s only making me more effective at one specific thing, which I don’t even know if I should be doing or not. In other words, what about the big picture?

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This is a three-part miniseries on how to plan and execute! How to get started today and have a real, profitable freelance design business within 12 months. Sorry, no get-rich-over-night advice here. The three-part series will then be turned into an ebook (don’t worry, we hate lame ebooks too, so it’s not just a standard PDF; it’ll be packed with custom design, bonus content, tools, resources, and more.).

***

So the big picture is exactly the topic of this guide. I want to go through the individual elements of building a promising design business and show you things from the bird’s-eye-view, so to speak.

We may get into some detailed stuff on the way, but that’s not the main point here, so don’t get caught up in the individual tactics.

Disclaimer. I’m assuming that getting into the freelance design business is in tune with your skillset and graphic design abilities. So we’re not going to talk much about Photoshop or WordPress (or both), or other stuff like this. I’m sure you’re well covered in that department.

Disclaimer #2. The following list puts emphasis on just one range of tasks for individual time periods. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should be doing only that one task during its designated time period. The emphasis is there just to indicate what you should focus on during a given month, but at the same time, you should also work on everything else that was mentioned prior to that point.

Month #1 / Days 1-14: The set up

In this day and age, it’s very difficult to imagine a designer who doesn’t have the bare minimum of things set up as their assets before going out and looking for business.

So let’s get the first biggie out of the way – you obviously need a website.

And not any ol’ website, I’m afraid.

Whether we like it or not, a freelance designer’s site needs to be in tune with the modern trends of web design. You simply need to look like you’re relevant this year.

This also means that you need to re evaluate your site regularly. The thing is that if a prospective client comes to your site and gets the impression that “well, this looks like it’s still 2010″ then you’ve lost the deal right then and there, no matter how great your recent projects are.

So the first thing you need to do is really take care of your own site the best you can, come back to it often, and improve it often. This element isn’t as important for other types of professions, but it is crucial for a designer.

To give you an example, I guess you wouldn’t hire a writer who uses bad grammar in their own promotional material, right?

There are many great resources on the actual how-to when it comes to proper business site building, but my approach is kind of simplified. Four elements: find, steal, replicate, adjust.

  1. Start by finding a site you absolutely love when it comes to presenting the business in question.
  2. Steal the basic ideas and replicate them on your site.
  3. Finally, adjust everything to who you are and what you have to offer. (Don’t steal the final product though, just the ideas.)

Now, when adjusting, it’s important to tune the feel of your site to your desired starting niche – the type of clients you want to attract. And please notice the word “starting” niche. You can never know for sure that you’ll stay in that niche for good, so it’s only a place where you will be starting.

Some examples:

  • Do you feel confident designing corporate-style sites?
  • Maybe small business sites are more interesting to you?
  • How about WordPress sites?
  • Apps?
  • Custom online tools?
  • Whole business branding?

Decide on your approach and make sure your site reflects it.

Month #1 / Days 15-30: Your content game + socializing

Nowadays, you need a blog (preferably), or a podcast, or a YouTube channel; anything that can help you make a name for yourself in the world. You need a way to publish and showcase your content.

That’s because you talking about how good you are at what you do will never be as powerful as you showing your expertise through content, and effectively proving that you know your way.

And don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to go crazy with promotion. The main reason you’ll be publishing content is for your clients to see it when they’re checking you out and making the decision whether to hire you or not. The goal is to make them think that “wow, this person really knows what they’re talking about!”

Need some ideas for content you can create yourself? Check what other designers are writing about, what type of content they’re into. Then – again – steal those ideas and give them your own spin.

Need a simpler and quicker way? Interview other well-known designers. Ask them questions your clients would care about. Then prepare a transcript and publish it on your site.

Apart from the fact that you get content, you also get to position yourself alongside someone who’s already successful. This will boost your credibility significantly.

Start planning and publishing this content, and as I said, don’t worry about promotion all that much at this point.

This initial stage is also a great time to start socializing. Where? Twitter is the must-be of social media today. For designers, Instagram and Pinterest is a great idea as well.

(The web is full of great advice on how to make either of those platforms work, so I won’t get into this here.)

Month #2: Joining a community and finding business training

Apart from social media, there are also design-specific communities that can be of great benefit to you.

You don’t have to go far to find one – here at Design Blender we have Stoked. Granted, it is a paid program ($15 a month; admit it, you’ve spent more than that last night on a couple of beers), but it gets you in on a number of great resources, and what’s most important, gives you access to many likeminded people in the Stoked forums.

Those people – your peers – are often the best source of insights, advice and help. And it’s not only about knowledge here, it’s just as much about connection.

The situation with business training is very similar. Once you find the right place, you not only get education, but also access to actual people who are interested in similar things.

One place I could recommend as a great starting point is Quick Sprout by Neil Patel. Granted, it may look like just yet another blog, but the content there stands out. Neil went out of his way to create some of the top ultimate guides out there.

Spending the entire second month soaking in into a community and getting business training will give you a huge advantage over 95 percent of other designers who try building a business on their own without any outside help. This will really save you a lot of stress later down the road.

Next part?

That’s it for the first part in the series! We’re kicking the next one off with some info on how to start getting your first gigs and what sort of gigs to focus on.

Until then, feel free to share your own story and questions about being in the freelance design world. What’s on your mind?

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About Karol K.

Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a blogger and writer, published author, and a team member at codeinwp.com. Check us out if you don’t like converting your PSDs to WordPress by hand, we’ll take good care of them for you.

 

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About Karol’s business: Karol is a freelance writer working with codeinwp.com, The top-notch PSD to WordPress service. YOU DESIGN, THEY CODE. As simple as that.

Comments

  1. Wow! Now these are the kinda articles that I need to read more of. Amazing information provide, thank you! I am just kicking off my freelancing career and am soaking in every single word. Brilliant. Look forward to the next post :)

    • Karol K. says:

      Thanks Nicola!

      Feel free to share your journey with us. I’d love to have a look at your site when it’s done. :)

    • I totally agree! Very helpful and looking forward to the full series!! I think finding the community is the hardest part (at least for me!). I am always waffling between connecting with other designers or those vendors in the wedding industry as that is my design niche.

      Also, I like your landing page Nicola!

  2. I’m actually trying to leave the corporate lifestyle for my life of freelance as well. I’ve always had a website portfolio, but within the last month I turned it into more of a blog to talk about design. I opened up a Facebook page and am getting some followers, and am watching to see what type of traffic is coming in, from where, and what pages the traffic looks at. I just moved to the Ohio area and decided to focus on getting some local clients since there are not very many graphic designers in my little town. So far, so good, but I need to get more content. Then I came across this post, and was very excited! It’s good to know that I made some good choices in how to do this. (Although I need to join more forums). It’s also nice to hear how someone else started out. I look forward to the next chapter of this post!

    • Karol K. says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      Going local is actually one of the things that many people overlook, especially in the modern age of the online. It’s a great move and in some cases you can make your whole career out of being the local person to go to.

  3. Extremely helpful! Im Currently a Comm. Design Student and want to star freelancing at the pair of my studies as I feel it will be good for me and my career. This series will sure help me out..
    Thanks!

    • Karol K. says:

      Thanks!

      I wish you well and I hope you’ll find just the info you need in the second part! :)

  4. Brenda Zapka says:

    I am just starting out in my freelance career. I am transitioning from print to web. Your advice in this article is so invigorating and insightful. I am although struggling at the present time on trying to connect with a community that can help me in this difficult transition. I have been doing commercial print design for the past 20 years and I am self teaching threw tutorials and blogs to learn web design. One thing I can say is my career as a designer has never been dull, I guess I just have so much creativity flowing threw my head that it makes it difficult on some days to focus on one aspect and build on it. I just want to keep learning it all. I look forward to the next section. Thank You for sharing.

  5. When is the next part of this series coming up?! I’m biting my nails in anticipation! :) The first was so good and informational! I’ve been in the 9-5, commercial, unfulfilling design business for 5 years now, I’m looking to get more freelance to move onward and upward. This blog has been exceptional on giving info in business building tool and tips!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Rocking your first year as a free­lance designer (Months 1 & 2) […]

  2. […] first part was all about getting your wheels rolling: handling the initial business setup, your content game, building a presence on social media, […]

  3. […] first part was all about getting your wheels rolling and the second one was about why thinking big but starting small is the wise man’s approach. […]

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