This month my business turned five. That's not a sentence I ever thought I would write. I was never one of those designers that dreamed of having their own agency with a crazy cool name. Or one who aspired to the freedom of freelance life. I just wanted to create good design for nice people and get paid. Turns out that's exactly what having my own business has allowed me to do.
I'm not much of a networker, but I have benefited a lot from being part of the online freelance community. If nothing else, it reassures me that the challenges and frustrations I face are just the same for everyone! As our working landscape evolves in the wake of a pandemic, I see posts all the time from people asking for advice about going it alone and setting up their own business. I'm always fascinated by the advice given.
That got me thinking about what pearls of wisdom I've picked up along the way. So, five years, five things I learned...
1. It's not rocket science
Before striking out on my own I spent 25 years working at design, advertising and media agencies. Nine to be precise. That's nine different approaches to design, to pitches, to project management, even to admin. So when I started, it wasn't too difficult to work out which of these approaches I could refine to suit my own needs. Turns out even bad experiences teach you something!
“The team were really impressed with your work. They said it made such a refreshing change to work with someone who just 'got it' from the start and commented on your exceptional attention to detail and fast, low hassle way of working.”
2. Learn to juggle
Something I learned very quickly was how to juggle. My days are rarely straightforward or go the way I plan them. The nature of freelancing generally means you're brought into a project to ease the pressure of a busy workload, help on a pitch or meet a tight deadline. If you are lucky enough to work with quite a few clients, that will inevitably mean you need to balance multiple jobs with ever-changing deadlines. The trick is to never look like you're juggling!
“Thank you so much for everything, I felt you were connected with the launch as more than just the designer and I am certain we will continue to work together! You make your clients feel as if they are the centre of the universe!”
Being crazy organised helps but you also need to manage expectations. Be clear from the outset about what is achievable within the timescale and budget and then deliver it. On-time. Every time. Do that and you'll build up a reputation as the go-to designer for making life a little easier.
“Thank you for the speedy response. We work with a few designers and you are by far the most responsive and best communicator!”
3. Go figure
I don't know many creatives that are excited by a spreadsheet. However, my third lesson has been to embrace the figures as they are the foundation of the business. Yes, I love designing cool stuff, but I try to always keep in mind that I'm doing it for the money. Keeping track of how long you spend on each job and how much project management is involved will help ensure you remain profitable. It also helps price future jobs and allows you to have more informed conversations with clients if you have all the numbers to hand. Hey, if you set it up right your spreadsheet can even help you work out what kind of work makes you the most money.
“Thanks a trillion for this. Your thinking is as crystal clear as the Caribbean and as clever as Einstein! Can we discuss how to work on this together?”
4. Three strikes
I mentioned I'm doing this for the money right? I'm highly experienced, a good designer and am providing a skilled service. If you hire me, we will already have agreed terms. That means I expect to be paid in a timely fashion as agreed. I won't miss your deadline. I'm taking it on trust that you won't miss mine or I start having sleepless nights! I do have a 'three strikes and I am out' policy. If payments are consistently late, I will and have walked away. It's not something I ever do lightly but it is something I stick to. It goes back to point 3 about having a good handle on the figures and this means managing cash flow.
5. Play nicely
The final thing I learned... it pays to play nicely. Tempting as it may be to burn a few bridges in your career or leave a job in a blaze of glory, you never know where you will meet those folks again. Or whom they might introduce you to. Hopefully, you'll be remembered for being a good designer but it certainly also helps to be remembered as someone who is both professional and easy to work with.
“Thanks, Julie. This looks great. You really are a miracle worker - I send you a mishmash and no resources and you create order and beauty!”
When I first started freelancing, I didn't have a plan for bringing in work. Turns out what I did have was 25 years of playing nicely. That's a surprising amount of goodwill to have built up. It has been a real highlight of the last five years to be able to reconnect and work with past clients and colleagues. Some of their introductions have sent my business in directions I could not possibly have imagined.
So a very big thank you to all my clients and the amazing, exciting, creative (and sometimes baffling) projects you have let me loose on. And an even bigger thank you to everyone who has recommended me, introduced me to others, encouraged me or just generally given me a gentle kick in the right direction!
Here’s to creating more DESIGN WITHOUT THE DRAMA for clients of all shapes and sizes.