Written byRichard Palmer
2nd February 2022
Being a freelance designer can be a really rewarding career path. It gives you a flexibility that full time employment cannot. It gives you more control over who you work with and the types of projects you take on. I could go on about the pros and cons of freelancing, but let’s focus on how to get you started!
It might seem obvious, but you can't really start freelancing without your first piece of work! Getting work is the most critical piece of freelancing as it's how you'll pay the bills.
The first piece is always going to be the hardest. Especially if you're new to the industry entirely.
The key here is networking and letting everyone know that you're a freelancer, and you're available to work. How else can people hire you, if they don't know what you do and if you have availability? It can feel a little strange at first. Declaring to the world that you are indeed a freelancer, before you've taken on your first piece of work. But I promise you, it's enough to tell people "I'm a freelance designer" for them to understand.
When I started, I spent a lot of time at design events talking to other freelancers, asking them "how do I get my first client?". They all had the same answer. You’ve got to put yourself out there, meet enough people and have enough interesting conversations. Networking is more than just telling people what you do. It's about building relationships with people. And to build relationships you need to find where the people you want to work with hangout.
This means finding your niche. Consider what sort of work you would like to do, and what sort of clients you would like to work with. It's tempting to say "anything and any one", yet casting your net wide you'll make it harder for everyone to understand who you are and what you're good at.
Once you've figured out your niche you can figure out where they spend their time.
If your dream clients are in the music industry, then you better start going to gigs and talking to the bands, organisers and venue staff. If you're keen on the tech industry there are plenty of meetups for entrepreneurs out there. Time to attend a few.
Also consider your extended friendship group. They might be a good starting point. I got my first gig through a friend, when their housemate needed branding for their Personal Trainer business. This work led to referrals for my next two clients. Referrals are like magic, and can become the bread and butter of how you gain new clients. According to Why word of mouth marketing is the best social media, “64% of marketing executives indicated that they believe word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing”. 64% of marketers! Make of that what you will.
Networking isn’t for everyone, but you don’t have to think of it as networking: just an opportunity to meet cool new people in the space you’re interested in.
While having these conversations may give you the opportunity to work with folks. There's an inevitable moment when the conversation turns from relationship building to potential work. This is where you need a portfolio of work.
If you're not already asking "but how can I have a portfolio if I've never done freelancing before?" then now is the time!
I'm making an assumption here that you've either studied design in some capacity at school, university or you've worked full time. As a starting point, consider how you can present the best pieces of work from these in a way that will appeal to your prospective client.
Pick only your best few pieces, and make them relevant to who you're talking to. There's no point in including videography in your portfolio if the job is to design a leaflet, for example.
I could write an entire blog post on creating your portfolio, so I'll save that for another time. In the mean time, get started by by setting up your portfolio on Behance, Carbon Made, or if you can snag an invite, Dribbble. Honestly though, even a Twitter account (see the #BuildInPublic movement) would suffice.
Now I'm going to assume you've convinced the client to work with you and you're now thinking about getting paid!
Before you start work with any client. You'll need a contract. Contracts sound boring. They are boring. But they're really important.
A contract is how you get yourself and the client on the same page. It should clearly state what you're expecting of the clients, and what they should expect of you.
It should include, and is definitely not limited to:
Typical advice is to include some kind of deposit upfront to protect you from non-payment from the client. I'd recommend you start with a template, such as Contract Killer (£9.99), and adjust that to suit the project and your needs.
What you'll likely find is that this contract forms the basis for all other contracts going forward, and you'll be able to adjust it as you learn more about what works for you and your clients.
With the contract signed, sealed and delivered, now you can get on with the work!
Now to get paid.
Invoicing is probably the most straightforward piece when you start out. You should create an invoice for your client whenever it's time to get paid. There are tons of templates out there which you can repurpose for what you need. We’re fans of Slimvoice for it’s simplicity. Just remember that each country may have different requirements when it comes to creating legit invoices.
In the UK, the key things your invoice should cover are:
Now you might be wondering what your business name is, or what the tax implications are of getting paid.
To register in the UK, go to the gov.uk and register for a UTR number, which informs the Government that you're trading and that you'll need to fill in a self-assessment.
You have ~2 years to register after you start trading, and if you make under £1000 in that period, you may not even need to register at all.
I will point out that being a sole trader is not the most tax efficient means of freelancing. You may want to consider creating a limited company or using an umbrella company service. To understand the differences check out the official Government guidance, and this guide.
You're about to send your first invoice. Now you need to add the bank account details to it. If you've opted to be a sole trader (like this guide assumes), you can get paid into your regular personal account.
This isn't ideal, as not all of the money you receive is yours. Some of it is the tax man's.
No stress however. If you're using a modern bank like Monzo, create a pot specifically for the tax money (I called mine "Tax" 😉) and move somewhere between 40-50% of what you earn into it. Save that money for the day when you need to pay tax and you won't have to worry about it again.
In an ideal world however, you'd separate all of your business transactions so you can keep track of them, make use of expenses, and get a clear picture of how your freelance business is doing. You can do this by registering a business bank account. Here's a few options:
As you’re starting out, you should keep a list of all your income and expenses related to your freelance business. There are some intricacies with what expenses are, but to keep it simple, in a spreadsheet log:
And save the receipt for payment! Do the same, but in reverse for the money you make from your clients so you can keep the balance in your bank in sync with the spreadsheet.
As you grow, get more clients and more expenses, then consider getting accountancy software, which will allow you to keep on top of your accounts. If you're unsure what I mean by that (it's quite complex and is a total pain in the arse), check out this blog by Zapier on the best accounting software for freelancers. This will also make creating and sending invoices a lot easier.
With all these bits in place, the only thing left to do is to continue finding and doing the work! That means more networking, more executing, building your reputation and your portfolio.
If you’ve any thoughts or questions about the above, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to help. Wishing you all the luck with your freelance journey 🚀