Lay the Foundation for a Strong Freelance Practice.
Churning out self-guided projects, keeping your head down, and waiting for the elusive “big break” is not a viable strategy to build yourself a successful or sustainable freelance creative business. Big breaks happen, but they’re so few and far between that you may as well be buying lotto tickets and hoping to hit the jackpot. The best freelance practice is one built carefully, brick-by-brick, into something sturdy that can withstand whatever adversity comes your way.
Just like anyone else, I’ve had my ups and downs since going freelance, but I strongly believe that my adherence to a set of basic principles has kept my success and profitability trending upward. I narrowed these principles to six major categories that I think ALL freelance artists should build in order to thrive.
Build a network of creative professionals
I highly recommend that you maintain a social media presence. As of 2018, Instagram and Twitter are my two go-to sources, but I won’t pretend like they are a one-size-fits-all solution. See what sites other artists who work in your medium and market niche are using, how they’re using them, and what kind of engagement they get.
Find artists who make work you admire, follow them, and engage with what they post. Connect with people further ahead in their career than you just as much as people who aren’t quite on your level yet. Answer questions other creatives pose and ask questions yourself. Suggest collaborating with artists in the same niche as you (or in totally different ones). In my personal experience, I can say that building genuine connections with other creatives online has been my single best source of inspiration, new points of view, technical tricks, and project referrals.
Build your skill sets
As a freelancer, you should be an expert in the tools of your trade. Be they pencils, paints, or software, your success is a direct function of your mastery of these tools. In this day and age, there are a wealth of completely free resources to improve your skills, and you should be using them as much as you can. I personally enjoy watching live streams of other artists working with the same software as me (Photoshop and Illustrator). It’s enlightening to see how other artists take different workflow paths to arrive at the same visual results, and oftentimes I learn new tricks or shortcuts I had no idea existed.
The second facet to building your skill sets is to add entirely new ones to your repertoire. I am a big advocate of mastering a specific medium or style, but just as often as I’ve been asked to create work in my “trademark style,” I’ve also had people ask me to bring my expertise to totally different realms. Now, I’m not saying as a graphic designer you should start learning welding necessarily, but think of skills that complement what you already do. Could motion design skills open up a new realm of contracts for your illustration work? Or maybe you’ve always wanted to bring three dimensions to your work by learning product design. Sometimes one of your secondary talents can be a foot in the door to get to a larger contract.
Build your visibility and referral sources
Visibility — or more importantly the lack thereof — is your single biggest enemy as a freelancer. No one can hire you if no one knows you exist. There is no magic conversion system that turns every 100 Twitter followers into 1 paid design contract, but the more quality followers you have, the better your visibility, and ultimately your reach, will be. If your followers are fellow artists who support you, fans who admire your work, and businesses who are curious about what you do, that’s a powerful group to have eyes on your content! I’ve been hired by numerous people via Twitter and Instagram, and most of the time it’s involved nothing more than consistently posting and talking about the art I make.
Speaking of getting hired, in my last post I outlined how to utilize customer service to grow your freelance business. Aim to close out projects with your clients absolutely delighted about having worked with you. It may be days, weeks, or even months, but those happy clients will think of you immediately the next time they talk to someone who needs the type of work you do. It’s tough to build a sustainable business by expecting to get referrals, but they sure are a great icing on the cake when you’re able to get them consistently.
Build your processes
There’s plenty of work to do on the front end of a freelance business, but there’s also a lot of housekeeping and organization you absolutely must do for the back end. If you don’t have processes in place to manage projects from inception to completion, things will get unwieldy as soon as you’re juggling more than one or two contracts at a time.
For project management, I use Trello, which thankfully has a free account tier with enough features for the type of work I do. I am a spatially-oriented person, so arranging my projects on cards with image thumbnails and color coding really helps me visualize what tasks I have at any given time and where my different projects are in their lifespan. A physical corkboard or post-it wall could be an equally viable solution to keep track of what’s on your plate.
I also suggest having boilerplate contracts on hand for the different types of work you usually do. I have one with easily editable lines for client name, project description, payment structure, and so on. It makes client onboarding less stressful for me, and helps protect both me and my clients by ensuring all projects have their details outlined and verified by both parties.
Invoicing is important, too. There are a handful of free or cheap accounting services online, or you could build out your own invoice template if you feel ambitious enough. Something that is clean, professional, and branded to your business ensures that you look like you know what you’re doing. You should be keeping documentation of your income sources for tax purposes as well.
Build your communication skills
This should go without saying, but communication can really make the difference between a client enjoying working with you and it being excruciating for them. When you are engaging with new or potential clients, conduct yourself professionally. If there’s a conference call or in-person meeting, make sure you’re there on time. Be polite, listen to what they have to say, take notes, and ask questions when appropriate. Be prepared to explain the type of work you do and your personal philosophies. Offer your expertise and insight strategically — not to inflate your own importance, but to show the client that you’re paying attention and have a plan to address their needs.
When you are working on a project, are you communicating expectations and timelines to the client? Try to avoid technical or industry jargon unless the client has expertise in your field. Throwing around buzzwords just causes unnecessary confusion, and when your goal is to arrive at a great end product for your client in a timely manner, why make that road harder than it already is?
Build out your niche
Discovering your own unique style as an artist and building a niche for yourself is supremely challenging. It’s something I still battle with myself, and it could very easily merit its own entire post. Don’t expect that discovering your niche will happen overnight. It’s a continuum where your interests, skill sets, and the types of contracts you get all intersect.
Sometimes a single client project will pry open a part of your artistic practice that you never explored before. Taking advantage of these opportunities and exploring new types of work can yield surprising results. Share the resulting work on social media and in your portfolio, and you’ll start getting more clients seeking that type of work, and in a few months the entire focus of your practice could change.
If you don’t even know what niche to pursue because you are unsure of your voice as an artist, do some research. Build a list of the artists in your field that you most admire, check out their portfolios, and see what types of clients have hired them and the kinds of work they’ve done for those clients. Look at your own body of work and think about whether those same types of clients would hire you. If they wouldn’t, start making new art to shift your portfolio in that direction. I also highly recommend some kind of visual collage and bookmarking system like Pinterest. Pin any art that you like, and periodically go back to your boards and look for trends. Sometimes reoccurring colors, styles, or subject matter you aren’t even consciously aware of will emerge. Try and incorporate those preferences into new work you make.
The next steps
With a strong foundation for your freelance practice, you can stop worrying as much about the minutiae and shift your focus to big-picture issues: charging more for work, building your brand and reputation, teaming up with higher-caliber clients, and perhaps even expanding your business. Instead of having to fight to get each and every job, your reputation and referrals will start bringing work to you. Your portfolio will evolve from being a patchwork of random, unrelated pieces to something highly curated from an impressive body of client work. It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but with persistence it will happen. I’d love to hear about what kinds of challenges you face and what steps you’ve implemented to stabilize and grow your freelancing endeavors. We’re all in this together!