My Life as a Freelance Web Designer

My Life as a Freelance Web Designer

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Years ago when I decided that the corporate timeclock was not for me, I convinced myself that the wild and crazy life of a freelance web designer is what I should do. I was younger, naive, but fairly talented.  Friends and co-workers always complimented my attempts at dressing up my WordPress site and playing with memes on Facebook.  I had my college degree from a prestigious institute and a few years of working for the man to help me step out on my own. Oh, how footloose and fancy free it sounded.

Reality set in quickly. There were other things I had to learn fast in order to keep paying jobs arriving in my inbox on a regular basis.  Being a freelancer isn’t just about shedding the 9 to 5 tedium of a boring job, it’s about taking complete responsibility for every aspect of your business and life.  Did you take any classes on that topic? Doubtful.  Here are a few things I learned about the freelancing life:

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Networking is Your Life Line

Even when working in the ethereal world of the internet, who you know is king. Facetime, whether through your iPhone or at a con, is absolutely essential for building a functional relationship with a professional who is willing to pay you a reasonable wage for your work.  There are hundreds of sites out there designed to ensure you never get more than minimum wage for your hard-earned knowledge. That’s not the way to build a respectable client list. You have to advertise, place SEO smart graphics on all the social media platforms and advertise some more.  Then you must respond to every single inquiry immediately. You have to set up your expectations of the client upfront…don’t let them steer the conversation or you will end up being a web design whipping boy that is unpaid for the next decade.  Only when you’ve built positive, personal relationships with a few clients can you take on a more demanding schedule.

I Became a Personal Finance Expert

Back at the high-rise office, all sorts of fees were curated out of my salary every week and placed in the appropriate account for safekeeping. Taxes, social security tax, health insurance, life insurance, disability and even vacation time was all part of that play.  I had to sit down and figure out the percentage of my income should be diverted to each of these “benefits” that I was now responsible for.  It wasn’t easy.  However, the months of research and accounting software I invested in eventually paid off.  I raised my prices from those pathetic “Please hire me!” rates to “I’m a professional and ought to get paid for it!” ones. It was interesting. When I expected more out of my clients, they actually tended to show me more respect. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Skype Reminded Me What Business Casual Is All About

The first day I retired from the corporate community, I donated all my dockers, button-up shirts and tossed out the few ties I owned.  I was never going to dress to please again.  Why should I? It would just be me and my computer with an internet connection, right? Wrong. I didn’t think twice about the lawyer who needed his website redesigned asking for a video conference, to help us get past that “man behind the green curtain” problem that many web designers face.  However, I think it had been a couple weeks since I shaved and months since I considered donning anything nicer than a new graphic T-shirt.  The grey-haired gentleman who intelligently knew he needed to modernize his approach to servicing clients took one look at me and hung up. Yeah, you still have customers when you are a freelancer and they come with all the silly prejudices found in corporate culture, like you should have a button up collar on your shirt, at the very least.  After that I didn’t buy a suit and tie, but I did invest in a few polo shirts with my company logo on the breast pocket.  I make a point of showering, shaving and combing my hair before connecting for a video chat.  I haven’t had anybody else quit on me since.

Keeping Current is a Personal Challenge

Back in the office they offered up all sorts of training opportunities for those of us in the technical fields.  New programming language courses were offered at a discount or for free.  Vendors dropped off information flyers and the watercooler served as a vital means to stay current on the changes that appear like lightning across the internet.  As a freelance designer, there is this temptation to find that thing you do really well and stick with it–winnow down the design menu and offer only what you know.  Well, that’s how your happy customer turns into a non-customer. They don’t come looking for the web design they’ve been clicking on for the past five years.  They want new. They want now. And now it is your job to keep your programming chops on the cutting edge of appearance and application.  Part of your weekly schedule must include research and training, if you want to last any longer than two years in this trade. It won’t be your client who suggests the new language to power their site. They won’t have a clue. They just want it to look and work like the one run by the Fortune 500 company.

Sometimes I Miss Having a Boss

Kicking yourself out of bed every day isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Self-motivation will be the most valuable asset for a self-employed freelancer, in any profession. You need to report to work at least 45 hours a week, and by that I mean actively involved in research, design, accounting, invoicing, networking and keeping coffee in the pot.  You are the CEO and nobody is going to remind you that there’s a deadline looming for a very important client.  That’s you and only you. Don’t be surprised to find yourself in front of your laptop 70 hours a week or more. Because there won’t be anybody else around to do it.

When you think being a freelance web designer would be the easiest thing in this world, think again.  It can be awesome, but be aware it is still very hard work. If you come to the table with that assumption, you have a shot at finding success.

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