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I wish I would have known: Answers from 11 top freelancers

Today we've got an awesome article for any first time freelancers. I've rounded up a few of the top freelancers out there and had them answer the question "What do you wish you would have known starting out as a freelancer?". Needless to say, this article is full of over 2 thousand words of wisdom. I hope you find use for this article and if you know someone who might benefit from it, I'd love if you shared it with your twitter followers and facebook friends. Thank you :)

Jon Phillips

Twitter | Website
When I got started I used to do everything myself, it worked for a while till I realized that I could outsource a lot of the thing I didn't enjoy doing and then spend time on stuff I enjoy. I wish I had known that when I started out, it would've saved me a lot of time and probably some headaches, too :)

Andy Sowards

Twitter | Website

  • There are only 24 hours in a day. And you are most likely going to need sleep.
  • Taxes Suck.
  • Personal Project time suffers.
  • No income is Guaranteed.
  • When you have a big project to work on, your internet gives you issues.
  • Having said all of that, I still love freelancing :)

Steven Snell

Twitter | Website
I wish I would have known that clients tend to not take a project very seriously if they are paying low rates. When I started out I knew that learning and getting experience was more important than making money at that stage, so I did some very cheap projects. I worked with several people who wanted a website, but it seemed that since they were investing very little into it financially, they just didn't take it seriously and put in the effort on their end that is needed to have a successful web presence. Not only did that make it more difficult for me to do a good job, but it really did a dis-service to their business because their websites weren't as effective as they could have been. I'm not sure exactly what I would have done differently because my services weren't worth a whole lot at that point, but I wish I would have at least understood that people tend to not value or prioritize things that are cheap. I should have done a better job communicated with those clients that if their website is to be successful and useful for their customers/visitors, they must be involved throughout the process.

Sean Baker

Twitter | Website
Things I wish I knew before starting out as a freelancer

Tax Write-Offs
You'd be amazed at the amount of things you can write-off on your taxes being an independent designer. Aside from business expenses like hardware, programs and everyday tools like fonts, there's a whole world of things that may qualify as "research" to your business. For example, your music/MP3, movie, magazine and coffee purchases are creative outlets that may be considered for exemption if they pertain to your business or a particular project. No kidding. I was always skeptical and afraid of potential audits when I did my own taxes, so I sought a local CPA to assist me in the handling of receipts. For a CPA in your neighborhood, check out http://www.accountantsworld.com/. Save all your receipts and don't be afraid to ask questions come tax season -- you may be pleasantly surprised at how much you can claim!

Strategizing Your Time
You're closing up your meeting with a potential client. Everything went smoothly and you think you're about to land the job. Said client asks for your hourly rate, in which you give and explain. Unless you're underselling your talents greatly, their next question will almost always be: "Great, and how long will it take you?" Suddenly you're in a corner... and you're panicked. You don't want to scare them away, so you feel implied to answer immediately, usually shorting yourself on time simply to appease. Congratulations, you've just pigeonholed this project. From here you'll either be doing some free work or you'll run the client off once they see a higher rate than you originally gave.

It's critical to never give a time estimate without digesting and sleeping on the specs of the project. You need time to unwind and assess the details on your own. If a client asks for a final gauge in your FIRST meeting, cordially advise them that you need time to review in order to give a fair evaluation. Tell them you don't want to jump to conclusions and "over-shoot". They'll respect the fact that you're trying to keep money in their pockets, even if all you're really doing is watching out for yourself. From here, follow up within a few days with a "thank you" and a working estimate/contract.

Amber Weinberg

Twitter | Website
When I first started freelancing, I wish I would have known that it wasn't as insurmountable as everyone makes self-employment out to be. I spent a lot of time at a job I hated to save up enough money for "just-in-case" and once I went out on my own, I spent a lot of sleepless nights the first month and a half, freaking out because I had zero work. After that, it's been a lot of hard work, but it hasn't been nearly as scary as they want you to think. :)

Brian Yerkes

Twitter | Website
I wish I would have known (and been prepared for the fact that) not every client is going to like your designs / concepts / ideas. I've been freelancing for over 4 years now, and I still struggle with hearing "We don't like it.".

The problem is that when it comes to being a freelancer, you tend to put a serious amount of effort and personal pride into your work, and every time you complete a concept or idea for a client, you are confident that it is the the correct one. When a client says that they don't like it, you have to understand a few things.

1. That the client is not always right. Seriously. They just aren't. If I was having a house built I might ask my builder to use Play-Doh. Obviously, this would not be a good idea, and as the customer, I would be terribly wrong! The builder needs to step in and tell me what correct option is. That's why the builder is a builder and I'm not. He/She is the expert at what they do. So, sometimes when the client says that they don't like your work, you may want to consider having the cojones to discuss the reasons why they are wrong. Often, a professional client will appreciate your confidence and your dedication to the success of their project, but unfortunately there are times when a client will just get even more upset with you and continue to tell you that you are wrong. It just takes some good judgment on what way to respond to each situation.

2. Sometimes your work just doesn't hit the mark for what the client is looking for and what is needed for the project. This can happen for many reasons, but the important thing is to recognize it, understand the value of it, and move forward to developing better concepts. Decent clients are able to tell you why your concept doesn't work, and why they don't like, and this may give you an even clearer brief from which you can work from for the next concept. Rome wasn't built in a day, and clients need to understand this.

and finally

3. You have to ensure that you don't take it personally, ever. This is the biggest thing that I personally struggle with. When a client emails to tell me that they aren't happy with a design, it puts me in a bad mood for a few hours. It's the number one thing that I try to deal with better every time it happens. Fortunately, 99% of the time, my clients are happy with my work, but you can never win them all.

So, to sum up, I wish I would have known that not every client is going to love your work. If I had known that, it would be a lot easier to deal with it internally when it happens!

Chris Spooner

Twitter | Website
I wish I had known how to put across my 'professional' opinion as a designer. In my early days if a client wanted a change or didn't like a particular element. I'd simply cave in and agree, then I'd not feel as happy with the final design. Nowadays I don't think twice about offering my opinion in return, and explaining how I think my solution would work better. Often a client will agree once they hear the underlying reasons behind a particular element. At the end of the day the client has a better end product and I'm happy and satisfied with the outcome.

Brian Hoff

Twitter | Website
Having started freelancing I wish I would have known and planned out better organization and maintaining a structured work flow. Its something that I still struggle with from time to time being a one-man-show. Often when you start freelancing you only thing of how to organize your actual design work that comes through, not details such as a better system for replying and saving emails, making it easier and more efficient to get contracts/proposals out the door, saving client information that show interest in your work, as opposed to those you only work with, in additional to other areas such as schedule time to market online using Twitter, Facebook, commenting on blogs, starting a blog or writing guest articles, etc — the aspects that you overlook many of times when it comes to online marketing, but can go a long way. I actually detailed a full article on some of the ways I organize my business that has helped in recent years, titled How to effectively organize, manage and maintain your freelance design business.

Sneh Roy

Twitter | Website
Things I wish I knew when I started freelancing.

  1. Thou shall always create a logo in vector format
  2. Thou shall not jump through hoops for a client.
  3. Thou shall not be afraid to say "No".
  4. Thou shall not crumble, falter and surrender to your client’s whims and fancies.
  5. Thou shall set a wide, comfortable time line for project completion.
  6. Thou shall not have a life, or evening off, or proper eating hours in the first few months.
  7. Thou shall never let someone else present your work.
  8. Thou shall never bow down to corporate red tape.
  9. Thou shall not be afraid to increase your hourly rates.
  10. Thou shall not succumb to "Just make this one change, I promise that is the last one!"

Rob E. Bowen

Twitter | Website
I wish I had known before I started freelancing that there was such a rich and active community that existed online waiting to be engaged. A community ready to help with learning and invaluable advice. Collaborations and varying degrees of other opportunities woven within this expansive base of people all a part of a larger whole. It was really cool, and a little unexpected. The community made the entire undertaking more approachable and not as maddening as I had anticipated.

The community has played a large part in my freelancing growth and success, and I think that the trepidation that slowed my entrance into this forum would have been eased considerably had I known how inviting and welcoming the waters were. So much so, that the community actually altered my initial mission that I entered with. I initially got into freelancing for the opportunity to work for myself, and I found instead, that I am working for the community. Now what I mean by that is, that I found a purpose that fit and served me better. Not that it was like the community demanded it.

So I began to focus more on working to give back to that community, and along the way, ventured in directions that I thought followed in suit with those desires, but that actually were only in that vein on the surface. So I would have to re-adjust my course from time to time, always trying to be aware of what could best serve and give back to this amazing online collective. And allowing myself to evolve and be as fluid and dynamic as the community itself. This is something I never thought would happen before I started freelancing.

I never saw this job, evolving and changing me in ways. Becoming a career of communal collaboration and inspiration. And that inspiration reaching beyond the 'job' part and into my creative personal work and life as well. I never knew that freelancing was more of a way of life than simply another job where the boss wasn't as much of an asshole as I was accustomed to.

Kostandinos

Twitter | Website
I don't take on many "freelance" projects, but I wish I would've known that even with a signed contract, you still have to go through the court system and pay all kinds of fees to get the ball rolling if something terrible happens... like say a client cancels a check. After $160 in court/paper costs or so and no response from a loser client, I also wish I would've trusted my instincts. Which leads me to this: Don't be afraid to say "no" to a project. If I could only pass along one small piece of advice to kids starting out, and even to those who've been at it for a while, that's it. Sometimes it's really not worth it... in more ways than one. Have a bad feeling about a client? Trust your gut and walk away.

One more thing: Sometimes the most important and best projects are the ones you do for yourself, including working on your portfolio and re-branding yourself. The devil is in the details... get out your pitchforks.

What do you wish you would have known?

Let us know in the comments if there's things you've learned along the way that you can pass along to the first time freelancers who may be reading this post. I know we can always learn something new - new freelancer or old, knowledge never stops.

Additional Reading: Computer Arts has an awesome article, asking 11 freelancers (freaky, huh?) what their freelance secrets are. It's really in depth and worth checking out. Read it here

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Comments

  1. Andrea says:

    I wish I would have known how important it is to have a contract that encompasses the entirety of each project down to every last detail. Costs. Ownership. Amount of changes that can be made. Etcetera. It is helpful to begin a client experience with clear goals and budgeting.

  2. Katie says:

    I’m relieved to see that some folks responding or commenting know that it’s just plain bad grammar to say “I wish I would have known”. It should be “I wish I had known” . Period. This usage is not evidence of linguistic change, it’s evidence of not knowing any better.

  3. Denim Geek says:

    Great read, a few tips to pick up in there! Wish I had read it earlier as unfortunately I some of this the hard way.

  4. Ben Shape says:

    I wish I had known that sometimes, there are simply ‘bad clients’

    Every article will attempt to tell you otherwise, but after 10 years in the game, I can confirm that it’s true =)

  5. Lisa says:

    This is some wonderful advice. Especially for those of us just starting out. While all helpful, the ‘thou shall nots’ are my favorits.

  6. Rhonda B says:

    What a good read! I can totally relate to many of the things talked about. I have learned that as a freelancer you have to stand your ground and stick to your policies (and in the first place establish some). I will definitely keep this article bookmarked for future reference. The comments are interesting also.

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