The last year was a significant one for me, mostly because it was the year I got to quit my day job and start freelancing as a designer and branding consultant. People have asked me if I was afraid to make the jump. Yes, freelancing means giving up a dependable paycheck, employee benefits and the general sense of security that being part of a company lends. It means having to find my own clients. It means pitching and writing proposals with no guarantee of a payoff. And especially in this first year, it has meant discerning my strategy, proving my abilities, and generating what I hope is long-term traction.
I learned a lot (understatement). After spending some time reflecting on and gauging how it went, I’ve put together an abridged summary of everything I learned from my first year freelancing… Here goes:
Know where you add value, and say no when it’s not a good fit.
I’m by nature a people pleaser. I hate saying no and feeling like I’ve let someone down. I fear missing out on an opportunity to expand my network or portfolio – even if I know the project isn’t a good fit. Worse than that, I tend to overestimate my abilities and underestimate the limits on my time.
This translated into me taking on project after project without a filter.
The problem with this is that by trying to please everyone and do everything, it kept me from developing expertise in the area I add the most value. Or in business terms, it prevented me from developing a strategic competitive advantage. For example, in the last 12 months I’ve worked on websites, logos, flyers, videos, t-shirts, hand lettering prints, product packaging, business cards, book covers, e-books, social media promotions, market research, branding analyses, and more.
While I may not have ‘missed out’ on any of these opportunities, I restrained myself from building excellence in one of these fields. And by accepting projects that aren’t a good fit, it kept me from experiencing the meaningful, fulfilling work that I sought in the first place by becoming self-employed.
On the flip side, I also realized by accepting these projects I wasn’t even necessarily helping the client. If you and the prospective client are not a good fit, you are doing them no favours by agreeing to their project (even if they insist). Instead, wouldn’t they be better served by another designer who’s actually excited about and an expert in the field the client needs?
Evaluate your progress, often.
Early into the year I went through a very discouraging phase, where although I was busy with lots of projects, it seemed no one was willing to pay me what would make it worth my time.
After explaining my frustrations to a business mentor, she helped me take a step back from the situation and evaluate my own pitch and brand positioning. It became evident that I was so transfixed on (and stressed out about) the work in front of me, that I neglected to craft a compelling value proposition for myself. My website was visually attractive, but the content and copy targeted the wrong audience.
Over the next week I launched a new website with copy that underscored what makes my service valuable, and saw a nearly immediate effect on client conversions.
I learned that if I don’t take deliberate, repeated time to evaluate my progress, I’ll begin ‘spinning out’. I easily become reactive to my long to-do list, instead of making deliberate, sustained headway in reaching my goals.
Surround yourself with smarter, better people.
One of the best things to happen to my career was joining what I now know is called a “Mastermind group” of like-minded, creative business people. What started as an informal networking lunch turned into a community of creatives that I meet monthly with to discuss business ideas, issues, and collaborations.
These friends are wiser and more seasoned than me. They’ve helped me improve my pitch and business model. They’ve referred me to significant clients. They represent a sounding board and community for me as an otherwise solitary business person.
100% of my clients have come from personal referrals. Especially as a freelancer just breaking into my market, I can’t expect to develop as a creative or reach great clients without help.
Love your clients and their work.
I’ve been privileged to work with people who are truly excellent in their field, passionate about their work, and who leave a positive mark on our world. It’s been thrilling to advance their causes and vicariously experience success through their success.
All I’ll say about this point is that it matters if and when I work with love.
When I’m genuinely sold on the product or service my client offers, it shows in my work. When I genuinely care about my client, I naturally seek their good and serve them better.
This has sustained me through a year where, honestly, I didn’t charge as much as I wanted. But my reward has been manifold, from the referrals they give me, encouraging feedback, invaluable portfolio pieces, to the joy I get from seeing them succeed and seeing my work make a powerful impact.
Thank you to all my 2015 clients who trusted me with your creative vision!