January started off with 60 degree weather. Today’s temperature is in the negatives and there is a horizontal interstate of snow outside my window, cruising at thirty mph and piling up between one and two feet. You need ski goggles just to walk to the dining hall.
Classes are closed for the day so I’m working on homework inside rather than freezing my butt outside. I’ve been catching up on news feeds during food breaks and Cameron delivers yet another great article, concluding his full-time freelance lessons. Motivated by his findings, I decided to make a list of all the important lessons I’ve learned from the last couple years of freelancing.
Network. Tell people your ambitions, let them know you’re diving into freelance and would appreciate if they kept you in mind for future work. Tell your mom, your professors, friends, everyone. I’ve found the majority of my jobs comes from referrals. Past internships, clients, and web friends sometimes have too much work to handle or don’t possess the needed skills for a certain project and will offer you the opportunity. As many designers will attest, the work flow for web design is often up and down and rarely consistent. Be sure to return the favor to designers you have an established relationship with and forward any excess work when you get the chance.
Set up a blog. As I’ve stated in the past, one of the many benefits to a blog is the ability to display your knowledge in an informal, comfortable fashion. A resume, for example, is a generic, impersonal summary that contains limited information. A blog is often a regularly updated peek inside the methods of a business that may include the process for completed projects, current work focus, future goals, or other details that may describe their quality of work and subject command better than any resume or online portfolio.
A well put excerpt from one of Jonathon Snook’s freelance articles:
The blog has been my sales and marketing. I haven’t had to make sales calls or answer RFP’s or do pitches. People have either just come across the site or I’ve gotten work through referrals. If anybody asks if running a personal site like this can be worthwhile, let me be the first in line to say yes. I’m sure many of the freelancers out there would agree.
Learn the business! Understanding how to handle a client and their project is equally as important as finding the work. Learn how to effectively communicate with clients, deal with RFPs, assess the project scope, deliver an accurate estimate, find your appropriate work rate, contracts, invoicing, project management, etc.
Become a feed glutton. Working on your own is often most difficult simply because there is little, if any, human interaction throughout a work day. Without a company full of colleagues to bounce ideas and keep up-to-date on the latest news, it’s important stay in tune with the online web community. Find a good RSS aggregator and subscribe to all the top blogs and news sites related to your field.
Don’t just research. Contribute! On top of reading design blogs and books, contribute to the community by joining discussions, attending web conferences and gatherings, and sharing knowledge through your blog. This will also aid in networking and making connections that could expand your business. Active collaborating and sharing of ideas is largely reason why CSS has become what it is today.
Anticipate design slumps. When I used to play baseball, hitting or pitching slumps were common challenges during a season. The trick is finding a remedy that works for you. In my case, the problem was always over thinking and the cure was returning to the basics. The same applies to my design. When I’m stumped, I return to basic design principles such as the grid and typography. I ask myself simple questions like, “Who is this design targeting?” and, “What is the main goal of the site?” Other times I’m just burnt out from sitting inside for too long and need a good hike or drive. The best thing to do is think of something you enjoy that you absolutely cannot do wrong. As Travis put it:
…burnout is not a simple case of being exhausted. Rather, the ratio of gratification to perceived work input is what mostly accounts for the sensation of burnout.
Avoid the trap of CSS design galleries. How many are there now? That’s right: way too many! First off, if you’re a fan of CSS galleries, you can usually determine the good from the bad by the number of sites displayed. Some take pride in only displaying the crème de la crème while others push batches of daily additions whether they’re truly good designs or not. While the occasional gallery skim may help spark the imagination, be careful not to mimic trends or add meaningless elements to your designs because they looked cool on some other website.
Find what interests you. A good test is to ask yourself: if you were given enough money to live the rest of your life without financial concerns, what work would you still be doing? In 2005 I interned for Hatchling Studios, primarily a 3D animation studio with some very talented Flash and 3D creators. Learning the rates an ActionScript guru could command, I knew I had to be a Flash developer. After months of research and wearing the confused puppy dog face (head cocked sideways, ears half raised), I found myself lost in programming and missing front-end development. My RSS feeds were divided with exciting CSS bug fixes and daunting Flash tutorials. My web enthusiasm, production, and knowledge were stifled by a forced interest in Flash. Not long after starting my fall 2005 semester, I received my first real freelance project which involved some CSS work. An old flame was rekindled and I’ve been happily practicing design and web standards ever since.
Don’t promise the world. A common mistake of beginning freelancers is claiming to do it all. Chances are, you’re not an expert at everything, particularly at the start of your career. It is wise to offer only the services you are confident in, ensuring a) you’ll be able to handle the tasks, b) the client will be happy, and c) your reputation will benefit from a job well done. Seasoned designers with years of experience can probably get away with on-the-job learning, especially since the web changes so rapidly, but at the beginning stick with what you know already. If a project mainly requires your area of expertise but contains small technological elements you don’t know, consider outsourcing part of the work.
A friendly goodbye. Eventually, as your business grows, you’ll be moving on to bigger and better jobs. But what do you do with your smaller clients? Offer to find them a quality replacement designer to continue the work. This way you’re not abandoning clients and potentially harming your reputation, not to mention helping fellow web designers. In the end, the client doesn’t care who does the job, just as long as it gets done.