Designers that've transitioned from working for a company to full-time consulting & freelance: What's helped your transition and what wisdom would you pass on?

8 years ago from , Human

After a few years of working for start-ups and tech companies, I've switched to full-time contracting/consulting/freelancing/whatever it's called these days. Those of you've done the same, what are some valuable things you've learned that you wouldn't mind passing on?



  • Chris ArmstrongChris Armstrong, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    Put the word out quietly to your network before you leave. If you know other freelancers, chances are they're getting queries for work that they don't have time to do and are glad to have someone good to pass it on to.

    Also, ask them what they're charging, chances are it's a lot more than you thought you'd be able to earn. I nearly choked when someone told me they charged £2,500/week, but it gave me the confidence to ask my first client for £400/day. They negotiated me down to £270/day (and guaranteed me 150 days work), but that was still 3 times what I'd been earning as an employee.

    There's lots of work out there, particularly in startups (for now, until the bubble bursts), but you can only do so much. In the beginning it's tempting to say yes to everything and do a Scrooge McDuck on a big pile of cash, but in reality you're probably less productive now than when you had a boss breathing down your neck, and you can only work so many evenings and weekends before burnout. Figure out how many projects you can juggle without dropping the ball and letting someone down. For me, it was 2. Any more than that and the project management overhead became to much for me to handle, and I wasn't able to do good work.

    I was fortunate to find a couple of early stage startups that basically needed a part-time designer. I basically had 2 concurrent contracts for 2 days a week each, giving me a day to do paperwork and work on my own stuff. It meant I had a very steady income for 6-12 months, didn't have to spend time looking for clients, and didn't have to split my focus too much. With both of them there came a time when they needed someone full-time, and since I didn't want the gig it was time to move on, but by that time I had other clients lined up already.

    If you can get one client to guarantee you 100 days work or whatever, at a rate that covers your living costs, you're in good shape. It means that when someone else comes along you don't need the work, and will have the courage to ask for more money... and you'll be surprised how often they say yes. These jobs will likely come from someone who knows someone you know or have worked with before. In my experience, most startups aren't looking for talent on LinkedIn or jobs boards... it's too risky. They want a personal recommendation.

    Oh also, it's good to do a small project with a client to begin with (2-3 days) just to ensure you work well together. They'll want to get a discount if you're going to work together long-term, so price those initial days 10% higher so you can give them 10% discount afterwards and everyone is happy.

    Be firm but fair about payment. If you're doing a fixed scope project (5, 10, 20 days or whatever) then 50% up front and 50% on completion shouldn't be a problem (I would send an invoice with '50% commencement charge' on it). If it's a rolling contract, then I tended to just invoice at the end of the month. If they paid me then I kept working the following month. I was fortunate never to have anyone screw me, not sure if that's just because I was targeting startups who tended to want me to do more work the next month.

    Use Freeagent or something to send all your invoices, and get a receipt spike for your expenses. I thought I'd track expenses digitally but I didn't, and going through receipts at the end of the year takes a couple of days. Find a decent, but cheap, accountant. I managed to find a local one that target small businesses and was only £150/yr or so. You may outgrow them but to begin with they'll be able to keep you right.

    You need to have a better memory than your clients. Managing scope and expectations is the main thing that will lead to a recommendation or not. Even if you do amazing work, but suck at setting their expectations, they'll be disappointed at the end of it. It's ok for clients to change their mind about what they need throughout a project, they have more information now, but it's your job to say "ok, initially you wanted A, B and C... you're now saying we need D as well. Are we increasing the budget, or swapping it out for A/B/C?". If you don't do this, you spend two weeks working on D and the client asks "why isn't A done?".

    Oh, and call yourself a Consultant, not a Freelancer. You can charge more.

    3 points
  • Jason HegyessyJason Hegyessy, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    Top five recommendations from when I freelanced.

    1. Keep a nest-egg/buffer that would sustain you for about 3 months if you can't find work or as a reserve for when you want to take vacation. This should not be your savings or retirement fund.

    2. Set up finder-fee deals with clients, fellow freelancers (not necessarily designers – lawyers, accountants, etc...) to incentivize cross promotion of services.

    3. Always sign contracts for work. A lawyer is not only for when bad things happen.

    4. Use "Anchoring" as a negotiating tactic. Personally I always found it easier to negotiate day rates vs. hourly or project.

    5. Stay on top of your taxes, get an accountant if finances end up taking to much of your time.

    5.5 Have fun, work on side projects, and stay physically and mentally healthy.

    1 point
  • Nick NobleNick Noble, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    Off the top of my head:


    Always have a contract.

    Anchor the cost of your services to the outcome they provide.

    Charge more than you think you should, but always deliver the best you possibly can. Try to make every project better than the last.

    When negotiating prices, remove services instead of discounting.

    Pitch like you already did it and they already own it.

    If your gut says no, you say no.

    You don't actually (and probably don't really) want too much work. I max out at about three projects at once.

    Don't be afraid to recommend a competitor if you don't want to or can't do it, but make sure it's a good one.

    Don't be afraid to go a little outside of your experience, so long as you still think you can solidly deliver.


    Make a routine / set work hours, it will help you focus more consistently. Remember to sleep enough and eat at the right times (I can't stress this enough, it's very easy to lose your rhythm — when you do something you love it's easier to become workaholic than a procrastinator)

    Be nice to everybody, and give advice / feedback /suggestions /help as freely as you have time for. You never know which good impression will turn into a client, or which bad impression would stop you from ever getting in the door.

    Other notes

    IMHO, subcontracting for agencies sucks. Just find your own clients.

    Once you get the ball rolling, referrals will come in.

    The best clients are the ones that didn't know they needed you.

    0 points
  • Gilli Sigurdsson, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )
    • Charge upfront
    • Make sure you aren't undervaluing yourself. You have to remember to account for unbillable hours, like when dealing with your own business but not clientwork. It is likely that 1 hour a day or more will go into this, so up your hourly rate to make up for that.
    • If a potential client has issues with your pricing and/or paying upfront, he is most likely a trouble client and you should walk away.
    • Don't waste your time with clients you can tell will be trouble. You will find other, better clients. Don't worry.
    0 points
  • Chris ReevesChris Reeves, 8 years ago

    Use contracts so you don't get taken advantage of, track your hours to make sure you're charging enough and ask for referrals when you finish a job.

    0 points