Freelancing is quite addicting. Being your own boss, setting your own hours, working from your favorite location, just to name a few. But every freelancer knows that the job comes with more than a few difficulties: dealing with clients, accounting, invoicing. And then there’s the part where you have to know how to sell yourself well enough that clients keep knocking on your door for more work. Your freelance website is one way to make sure that this happens.
In this post, we’ll examine 13 keys to achieving success as a freelancer (plus two bonus segments on vacationing as a freelancer and tips for in-person meetings). These are all areas for would-be freelancers to consider before making the jump, and potential areas of improvement for existing freelancers.
Being successful as a freelancer requires you to be rather well rounded, as you will notice from the diversity of the keys on this list. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an expert in all of these areas, but you do need to consider them and recognize their impact on your work. You’ll be able to develop your skills in theses areas with time and effort.
1. Discipline and Commitment
Working as a freelancer or an independent designer is much different than working as an employee for a design studio or as an in-house designer. As a freelancer, there will be no one to hold you accountable, no one to tell you what you should be working on at any given time, no one to set your hours, and no one to hand work to you. Everything is on you.
While there are significant benefits to working on your own and being in control, there is also a great responsibility. In order to achieve any type of lasting success as a freelancer, you will need to be disciplined with your work and time and committed to your own success. Some people are naturally driven and well-suited for working as a freelancer, and others tend to have more stability and less risk.
Freelancing can be many things to different people (see Is Freelancing Right for You?), but if you are hoping to make it a long-term career choice, don’t jump into freelancing before considering the discipline and commitment that will be required. For most freelancers, the first few months and years are the most difficult, and as you become more established it should become a bit more natural and easier. However, making it to that stage will require a great deal of work.
2. Time Management
Time is a valuable asset for any freelancer. The more efficient you are with your time, the more time you will be able to spend on income-generating activities and the more money you will make, or the fewer hours you will need to work. Time management skills are critical for anyone who is self-employed, and the first step is knowing where your time is going. You can use a simple time-tracking app like Toggl or Tick to see where your time is going, and chances are you will be surprised.
After you know how you are spending your time you should be able to identify some areas for improvement, things that you can cut out in order to spend more time on client work that brings in the money.
Time management is a pretty large topic (see 15 Steps to a More Productive Workday for a more detailed look) but for a freelancer, it really can be summed up with a few basic goals:
- Know how your time is currently being spent
- Have a prioritized to-do list for each day or each week
- Recognize your strengths and your distractions so you can maximize and minimize them respectively
Recognizing your strengths involves knowing what times of the day or what days of the week are typically the most productive for you, and organizing your schedule so that you can do the most intense or most important work during these times. This way you maximize the strong parts of your day or week and you don’t let them slip by without good productivity.
Recognizing your distractions involves knowing and understanding the specific things that get in the way of your productivity, and working to minimize them. For instance, constantly checking your email may be a big distraction to you. By getting in the habit of working with your email closed and only checking in at certain points in the day may help you to improve your time efficiency.
For any web designer, regardless of whether you are working as an employee or a freelancer, communication skills are critical to success. You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively with clients in order to understand their needs and wants, understand their business and their customers, communicate how you can help them and what you specifically have in mind for their site, and work with them throughout the process to tweak and improve the project. Without effective communication, clients will be frustrated and it will mean more work for you as you’re likely to have to re-do some things that could have been avoided.
For freelancers, in particular, communication is even more important. As a freelancer, you will not only be communicating with the client throughout the process, but you’ll have to be able to land the business in the first place, something that most employed designers are not responsible for. Additionally, you’ll have to communicate with clients to determine the scope of the project and to determine an estimate or a quote for the project. Ongoing customer service is likely to also be a part of your responsibilities as a freelancer, something that will require frequent communication with some clients.
For more on the subject of communication skills for freelancers, please see Five Communication Tips that Make You Money.
4. Financial Management
Being a successful freelancer is just as much about running a profitable business as it is about being a talented designer, and part of running a business involves financial management. Being a freelancer presents several financial issues that employed designers do not have to deal with, including:
- An inconsistent income
- Managing business expenses
- Tracking income and expenses
- Tax issues
- Impact on pricing of services
- Paying for insurance and other benefits
- Keeping business and personal finances separate
Freelancers don’t need to be business or finance gurus, but you will need to have a grasp of your financial situation and be organized with your record keeping. The bullet points above often create problems for freelancers that prevent them from achieving long-term success. For example, some freelancers struggle with differentiating their business income from their personal finances, and this can lead to misinterpretation of how much money they are really making. Other freelancers may not manage their business expenses well. Maybe they spend too much money on things that are unnecessary, or maybe they are hesitant to spend any money on their business, even when it would lead to increased productivity or allow them to do their job better.
In order to manage your finances properly you should know how much money you need to live on, what your likely expenses and taxes will be, how you should price your services accordingly, and have a plan to track your finances and keep accurate records for your accountant. For more see Financial Management Tips for Freelancers.
Organization is important on a number of different levels. We just talked about the need for organization in your finances and record keeping, but you’ll also need to be organized in your time management, client communications, project details, quoting and invoicing, as well as in the home office setup.
Most people find that the level of organization in their environment has a strong impact on the organization of their thoughts. On several occasions, I’ve had difficulty staying focused and getting work done, and after taking a few minutes to straighten up my desk or office I found the situation to be much better. Having a cluttered and disorganized workspace can be highly detrimental to your work and it can add unneeded stress.
Organization can involve developing your own system for staying on top of your projects, or you could use a tool like Basecamp. What methods and strategies you choose for organization is not so important, different things work for different people. But what is important is that you have some system of organization that keeps you from wasting time and keeps you in effective communication with clients.
One of the reasons being a freelancer is so difficult is because you will always have several different things that you could be working on that are competing for your attention. You may have an upcoming deadline on a client project that still needs a lot of work, an overdue invoice for another client that requires some follow-up, bills to pay, a quote that needs to be developed for a potential client, and maybe a few emails from existing clients in your inbox. You must be able to effectively prioritize to deal with the most important and urgent items on a daily basis.
One of the most effective ways to deal with priorities is simply to create a to-do list on a daily or weekly basis. You can make a list of everything that needs to get done and then prioritize the items against each other. This will help you to stay on track and to avoid spending your time on things that can wait. You can keep your to-do list on paper or you can use an app like Remember the Milk.
7. Pricing Strategy
Determining a price for your services is likely to be one of the most challenging parts of your work, especially for those who are new to freelancing. If you’re fortunate enough to have more work than you can handle, pricing isn’t such a big deal since you can afford to miss out on some clients that choose to go with a lower-priced option. But most freelancers are looking to land the majority of potential clients that they speak to, and pricing has a major impact on landing the work.
Pricing can be difficult because no two projects are quite the same, and package-based pricing does not work very well for most freelancers. Instead, you will have to communicate with the potential client to determine the scope of the project and make an estimate of the hours needed to complete the project, and multiply that by your hourly rate. But for many freelancers, there is more to pricing than just this. For example, if you are desperate for work or looking for a new project to add to your portfolio you may want to charge a little less to increase the chances that you’ll get the work. On the other hand, if you are already busy or you’re not especially excited about the project, you may want to slightly increase the price so that if you do land the work at least it will be worth it to you.
For more on pricing see the following articles:
- 12 Realities of Pricing Design Services
- How to Set Your Freelance Rates (an overview)
- 11 Factors to Consider When Pricing Design Services
- How to Price Freelance Projects Successfully
8. Customer Service
A lot of time and effort goes into landing clients for most freelancers. Once you have the client you’ll need to provide them with excellent customer service in order to give them the best experience possible. Having happy clients means more long-term clients and more word-of-mouth referrals, both or which are excellent sources of income. If your clients are pleased with the work and the service that you have provided to them they may be interested in hiring you to do some routine maintenance or updates to the site, or they may hire you for other services that you offer, such as search engine optimization, social media marketing, business card design, brochure design, etc. Even having just a few ongoing clients can make a big difference to your bottom line.
Referral business is a primary source of clients for most freelancers that have been around for a while, and it is a goal for most new freelancers. Without effective customer service, this is not possible. In order to provide quality customer service you should:
- Always have the client’s best interest in mind
- Be honest and upfront
- Respond promptly and considerately to any client inquiries
- Communicate at the client’s level so they understand
- Take the time to understand their business
- Keep accurate records of communication with clients
- Follow through on your promises and commitments
9. Experience and Ability
Of course, we would be remiss not to mention that having experience and being able to do good quality work for clients is important. Many designers who are considering making the leap to self-employment assume that because they are a good designer they can make it work on their own. The truth is that this is just one requirement for being successful, and without the others, it doesn’t matter how talented you are.
Ideally, you’ll have some decent experience before trying to make a go of freelancing. Working for a design agency can prove to be invaluable experience, although it is not absolutely mandatory for freelancing success.
If you’re not experienced but you’d like to work as a full-time freelancer, you should focus on learning all you can about web design and gaining some experience by designing sites for yourself, friends and family, or for non-profit organizations or small businesses in your area. Avoid making the jump to full-time freelancing until you have sufficient experience and abilities to do a great job for your clients.
You’ll obviously need clients in order to achieve success as a freelance designer. Most freelancers have to put some time and/or money into marketing themselves in order to stay busy with client work. There are a number of options for marketing yourself including:
- Getting your work showcased in design galleries
- Pay-Per-Click advertising
- Banner advertising
- Writing articles for other blogs
- Attending local networking events
- Networking with providers of related services
- Distributing business cards
- Buying leads
- And even cold calling local businesses
Every designer has a different approach to marketing and there is no one “right” way to market yourself. However, you should take some time to consider how you plan to find new clients and develop some sort of marketing plan.
Those freelancers who are established or who have developed a very strong name recognition likely have to do very little, if any, marketing or themselves, but the rest of us need to consider it and have a plan.
Most of us have no desire to be in sales, but the reality is that a freelance designer will have to do some sales work in order to land new clients. Ideally, you’ll have an established portfolio with high-quality work that can do most of the selling for you, but freelancers still need to be able to close the deal. The good news is that you don’t have to be a great salesperson, in fact having a personality that is not typical of a salesperson will probably be more productive for you as a freelancer. What you do need is to be able to communicate effectively with clients to find out what they really need, develop a plan to help them, and then communicate to them how you will get the job done and why it will be a great fit for their business.
Although I recommend having a daily and/or weekly to-do list that helps you to prioritize what you need to get done, having some flexibility is also key. There will be times when new challenges arise and you’ll have to be able to prioritize on the fly. You may need the flexibility to put off what you had planned to work on in order to deal with something more urgent.
Flexibility is also important in terms of the work that you are able to provide. If you’re an employee for a large design studio, you’re most likely responsible for one type of work and you’ll have teammates that do other things. As a freelancer, you are either going to be doing everything on your own or outsourcing parts of the work to others. It will be highly beneficial to you as a freelancer if you’re able to broaden your skill set, which will give you more flexibility in the types of projects that you can take and the overall services that you can provide to your clients.
13. Continued Improvement
The web design industry is constantly changing, and designers need to stay on top of it. You may be a highly skilled designer today, but if you do not continue to improve and develop new skills, others will pass you by.
How to Sell Yourself on Your Freelance Website
In most industries, companies set up elaborate marketing campaigns and spend millions of dollars to sell their product. As a freelancer, YOU are your product and the biggest key to success is learning how to best sell yourself.
One of the most significant challenges to continual improvement is having the time to dedicate to learning new things or improving your existing skills. I highly recommend setting aside time specifically for the purpose of learning, otherwise, you’ll likely get caught up in other things and neglect the need to take time for this purpose. There are plenty of online tutorials for learning most things that you could want to learn, and you can also start some personal projects if you want to learn things in a real world environment. For more on the subject, please see Challenging Yourself as a Designer.
If you are a designer or other creative professional, you are probably somewhat familiar with marketing design, so this article is not going to outline the pieces of information you need. Instead, I will discuss those subtle details of how to really stand out, make a lasting impression, and keep clients lined up outside your virtual door. Oh, and I’ll provide some killer examples too.
Just as with any brand, the first step in knowing how to sell yourself on your website is to define your target audience. Keep in mind, this definition may change as you define yourself or as you gather more data from your future clients. But starting out with some kind of target market in mind is absolutely necessary.
Start by asking yourself, who is your ideal client? This definition might include information such as
- Business: type, size, income range, location
- Consumers: age range, income range, location, and other demographics
- Problems your clients have that you can solve for them
You will also want to consider what type of voice you will take with your audience. If your clients are businesses in fields related to yours, then by all means, impress them with your technical vernacular a little. However, don’t get too lofty with your terms. Especially if your clients are businesses or consumers with little to no knowledge of your area of expertise, you’ll want to spell it all out in layman’s terms for them.
This hair and makeup artist doesn’t explain who he his until his About page. Instead, he starts his portfolio with a bang by displaying one of his works that shows off his unique style. He only briefly flashes a one-liner of what he does, since he knows that anyone looking up his website already knows his services and simply wants to see examples of his talent right away.
Who You Are
In an article about selling yourself on Less Accounting, the author emphasizes that you have to get specific…down to your personality and style. This definition goes beyond what services you provide. As a freelancer, you have to carve out your own niche to stand out, and the best way to do this is to be honest with yourself and transparent with your clients about who you are.
One of the best questions to ask yourself is why do clients refer you? Is it because of your humor or a down-to-earth personality or your swagger? Do you have an unusual or unique style? Maybe you have an uncanny ability to discover your client’s needs.
Or, if you have not had any referrals yet, ask your friends what it is about you that draws them to you. What are your strong points as well as your weak ones? An excellent resource for defining yourself beyond just a few skills is this article by Scott Schwertly, which includes links to free personality tests.
The blu20 marketing team definitely knows who they are as a group. Their website paints a perfect picture of what they can provide clients while throwing in a bit of humor. The descriptions throughout use nautical language while still showing their vast experience in strategy and branding.
Simplicity: Twitter and the Rule of 3’s
Once you know your client and yourself, you can now break it down by describing (1) who you are, (2) what you do, and (3) and how you can help your client, not necessarily in this order.
Make sure to display these three aspects right away, but don’t go into great detail at first. Carmine Gallo, the communication sales coach for world’s most admired brands, explains that you should be able to describe yourself in one sentence, what he calls, “Twitter-friendly headlines.” Essentially, write a tagline in 140 characters or less and make sure it’s one of the first things that clients see.
Take a look at the second screen of this unique website. The “Who We Are” page gives a 3-word description: “Telling Fascinating Stories.” Clicking on each word gives one sentence descriptions of how Black Negative helps clients tell their inspiring, beautiful, imaginative stories.
Just as on the Black Negative website, when you do go into more details, be sure to stick to this “3 things” rule to prevent overwhelming your visitors. I’ve seen too many freelance websites that go on and on and on without much structure to the madness.
Tom Albrighten in his article about freelance story-telling points out that every good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Keep your story simple by providing a Twitter-length summary first, and then providing a structured three part expansion of your summary.
Make Dreams Come True
Don’t ever make all three of your points about yourself. Describe how you can help your client. However, don’t just tell how you can solve their problem, also show how you can help them reach their dreams.
While you certainly need to explain who you are and what you do, I’ve seen too many freelance websites that put the freelancer as the hero of the story, rather than the client. Keep the focus on the client and what you can do for them. Steve Jobs once said,
“You see, nobody cares about your job search (product ); they care about themselves, their problems and their dreams. Tell them how you can help them reach their dreams, and you’ll have won a customer (or fan) for life.”
I love how this website puts the “dream” front and center in simple black and white. This bold statement put in such plain sight leads visitors to scroll down to the beautiful, full screen featured project:
So, even though you will want to eventually list your skills and give details of yourself (such as in the About section), you first should describe what dreams you can help your clients reach.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is where some people make a huge mistake: instead of showing in a story, they tell. The problem with telling vs. showing is that you bore your readers. Too much explanation, too much text is overwhelming. The internet is a visual place, so give clients what they want – concrete examples of how you can help them reach their dreams.
There are several ways to give clients that perfect picture of how you are their ideal freelancer:
1. Images of your projects
As a photographer, Kirsi Makov wanted to send a simple message about how she can take photos beyond the simple selfie to reveal personality or a brand through a different perspective. Her website starts with a simple message overlaid on some of her best photos.
2. Examples of your handiwork in your actual website design
Sometimes, a freelancer’s work speaks for itself. This very simple website displays an animation on the home screen. The services page includes a simple graphic and one sentence description. The portfolio page shows the projects in a clean slider. Yet, this design streamlines the developer’s smooth, organized skills.
3. Case studies
This is the one part in which you can provide a bit more text than usual. Just be sure that you don’t put the whole story on your home page. The following portfolio website includes clickable images of Jonathan’s work on his home page, which lead to excellent descriptions and visuals of exactly how he solved the client’s problems.
4. Testimonies from past clients
A believable testimonial comes with some kind of verifying detail. For instance, along with the client’s name, include a link to his or her social media, the name of the business and website link, or a photo of your client. (Don’t forget to ask your client which information they prefer for you to display.) Sarah Kolb-Williams, a freelance writer, places short snippets of testimonials right on her home page with links to the longer versions as well as the client description.
Wrapping it Up Neatly
The Viens-la website is an excellent example of an independent agency that impressively incorporates all of the above advice…with flair! In the hero section, three points are displayed in a slider of funny videos, demonstrating the team’s personality and skills along with how Viens-la helps clients reach their dreams. In fact, they do this perfect melding throughout the website.
The website even includes a link to fun “drinking” game that took up way too much of my time.
This is what I encourage you to do as well on your own freelance website: use your ideal client description and your own personality and style to really show off. You can keep it simple and straightforward or humorous and stylistic. Just be true to yourself so that you can give clients an honest visual of how you can take them beyond their problems to meet their dreams.
Before we go…
Switching from a conventional 9-5 job to freelancing in every kind of profession- from writing children’s book to web design, comes with all kinds of great new standards of life – and some real slaps in the face as well. For example, maybe you were shocked to discover that you no longer get paid for responding to emails, or sick days are a thing of the past, or just how much time and effort go into finding new clients. With time, most freelancers who stick with their career change will learn to balance their time, charge their client’s enough to make their time worth it, and start to produce better work faster. However, the one constant that is difficult for every freelancer is vacation time.
6 tips to taking a vacation as a freelancer:
Step #1: Keep Up Your Quality
The first step to going on vacation without losing clients is to be a reliable freelancer in the first place. Only take assignments if you can meet the deadline and produce good work. By starting out from day one with quality and customer service as your main missions, you will build up an arsenal of goodwill to cash out later at vacation time.
Step #2: Keep Your Contact List Updated
It can be tempting to just keep up with your work through email, writing down assignments only as they come in, but a current contact list is a great tool to have when vacation time rolls around. On this master list, you should include client information, projects in the works, projects completed, and dates of all your assignments. This will make it a piece of cake to check out who you need to contact and let know you will be out of office, and who you can simply sign-off as a one-time project client you will most likely never hear from again unless you reach out to them.
Step #3: Give Everyone a Heads Up
Start planning your vacations at least six weeks in advance if possible. This will give you time to manage your schedule, get projects done early, and postpone less time-sensitive assignments until you get back. For your regular clients, let them know you will be out of town early on, but that you already have a plan in place to get their work done on time. The unfortunate truth is that you will probably have to do a few extra hours of work before vacation, and maybe a few extra hours after vacation to keep up, but that’s the price of working from home and being your own boss.
Step #4: Send Out One More Reminder and an OOF
Last but not least, send one more reminder you will be out of office, with details of where you can be reached in case of emergency (if you want to) the day before vacation. Then, add an auto-respond email that will pronounce you out of office for the dates you are away.
Step #5: Enjoy Your Vacation
Seriously, take a break from work and enjoy yourself.
Step #6: Jump Right Back In
When you return from your trip, jump right back into your assignments and reach out to clients for more work. It will be tempting to just do laundry, and mope around a little, but the sooner you get back into the swing of thing the better.
Bonus #2: Tips For In-Person Meetings
Tip #1. Qualify Your Prospects
Even though I encourage networking, don’t agree to spend a lot of meeting time with a prospective client until you are sure that they are a good prospect. (This is true for face-to-face meeting time as well as phone meetings.)
The best way to qualify a prospect is by asking questions. Here are the most important questions you need to find the answers to:
- Do they have a budget for the project? If they don’t have any idea what they are willing to pay, it could be an indication that they haven’t given the “project” much serious thought.
- Are they willing to pay your rate? Some budgets are so low that it wouldn’t be worth your time to take on the project. If this is the case, it’s best to find out early.
- Is there a real need for your services? One sign that they may not need you is if they have an inside web designer. If they have someone on staff, why would they need your services?
- Do they have a time frame established for the project? If they have a deadline in mind, it could mean they are hoping to move forward with the project.
And of course, you’ll want to add your own qualifying questions.
Many freelance web designers are shy about asking questions, but remember that you are in business to make money. In fact, a serious prospect should expect questions about time and money.
Once you’ve qualified your prospects, limit the amount of time you agree to spend meeting with them.
Tip #2. Set a Limit on Your Initial Meeting
Unless the client has a huge budget and you think it likely that they’ll hire you, you should limit your meeting time. In most circumstances, an hour is enough time for you to go over their needs and propose a solution.
When you propose a solution, remember to tell them what you’re going to do, but you don’t need to be specific about how you’re going to do it. You don’t want the prospect implementing your design on their own.
For clients with very large projects (and large budgets), it’s okay to meet a little longer. But be careful that your meeting doesn’t turn into a lengthy free training or consulting session.
One way to limit your meeting time is to have something else scheduled afterward. So, if you agree to meet with a client at 2:00 p.m., have a doctor’s appointment (or another client appointment or something) scheduled for 4:00 p.m. To make your second appointment (allowing for drive time), you’ll need to leave the meeting at about 3:00 p.m.
Most business people are busy and understand that you have other commitments. If they’re honest, they’ll let you leave. You can always tie up any loose ends that weren’t covered during the meeting with a phone call the next day.
If you determine that the client wants you to provide consulting services, you can always offer those services to them–for a price.
Tip #3. Charge for Your Time
Some web designers charge for initial pre-project client meetings. While I don’t necessarily recommend that approach, you need to distinguish between a meeting to discuss the scope of a project and consulting or training. You should always receive a fee for consulting or training services.
If you sense the prospect is really after training or consulting when you qualify them, offer the training to them up front. You can say something like this when you’re setting up the meeting:
“It sounds like you need some work in this area, but you’re not really ready to begin a project. I do offer training and/or consulting services. Perhaps that might be a better fit for your needs at this time. Why don’t we schedule a consulting session? My consulting fee is $XXX.00 per hour.”
If the potential client is serious about a project, this may encourage them to be more open about the project requirements. If they were trying to get free information, it may embarrass them into stopping. And in some cases, the prospect will decide they do want the consulting and schedule it.
Tip #4. Limit Face-to-Face Meetings to Events
A final tip for controlling in person networking is to limit it to meetings and events. If you do this, you still get to see and talk to the prospects face-to-face. But, you’re not wasting time driving across town for a single prospect, and you have the opportunity to meet with more than one prospect in a single location.
Event networking also has the advantage of having a schedule, so prospects are less likely to drag out the meeting and pump you for free information. If a prospect does seem to be monopolizing your time, use the event schedule as a ready excuse for cutting the meeting short.
Here are some examples of events that provide an opportunity for face-to-face networking:
- Professional society meetings
- Training classes
As you can see, face-to-face networking at events can be an ideal way to meet prospects.
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