Matt Lambert

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Everything I Know About Freelancing

By admin on February 13th, 2015 in Freelance

For roughly the past 17 years I’ve been working as a part-time or full-time freelancer. From late 90’s angelfire hosted client sites up to national web and print campaigns, I’ve pretty much done it all. Nowadays I don’t do that much client work. I prefer to work on building and growing my own products and teaching. As I was brainstorming new topics to teach about, my experience with freelancing was an obvious choice. Instead of breaking this down into a bunch of posts, I figured I’d write a monster one. These are my experiences, I hope you find them useful.

Lifestyle

One of the first things that comes up when one thinks of becoming a freelancer is lifestyle. I’m gonna sleep all day and work all night! Make my own hours, be my own man! Well this is true but it’s not always the holy grail of work environments. Yes, you do get to make your own hours and take a day off whenever you like which is great. Yet in my experience taking a week off could set my flow of client work back a couple of weeks. When you freelance, work never goes away. You are Creative Director and Janitor rolled into one. You might take two weeks off for vacation and come back with nothing to work on. There are things you can do to avoid that pitfall and I’ll get into them a little later.

This is hard work

Freelancing is a ton of hard work. It’s harder than a regular job because you are the sole employee. If you want to be successful as a freelancer you have to be ready to hustle. If you are just starting out you may want to consider freelancing on the side to start. Get a full-time job, where you can learn from senior designers/developers, and do client work on the side. That way you have the security of a full-time job but can bring in some extra cash in your free time.

Passive Income

If you are going to jump into full-time freelancing you need to understand passive income. In my experience I often had a hard time filling up all my time with freelance work. I was ready and willing to work but it would be a slow week or month. During this downtime, the best thing you can be doing is create your own products which you can sell online. There are many marketplaces online like Creative Market, Graphicriver and Themeforest where people are making decent livings selling files. This is called passive income because you do the work once and then continue to get paid for it over a long period of time. This kind of stuff is great for a freelancer because you can get some monthly cash flow coming in for work that is already done. Yes, you should provide some level of support to your customers but the impact will be minimal compared to the rewards. You might even find that this is a more lucrative path then client work and do it full-time.

Commitment

Another point that is important to mention is commitment. Back in my hockey school days, I remember the coaches always saying you will get out of this what you put into it. The same holds true for a freelance design business. If you work your butt off, do excellent client work, and focus on passive income in your free time, you can make a good living. If you’re lazy and your heart isn’t in it, don’t bother starting.

Never Work For Free

This is a big one. I often get new freelancers asking me how much they should charge and if they should work for free. You should never work for free because it devalues yourself and your industry. You likely spent a good amount of money getting an education and spent countless hours honing your craft. That is worth something and you should never allow anyone to tell you otherwise. Something import to keep in mind is that clients that want free work are usually the hardest to work with. Avoid these people at all costs and just move on. As far as how much you should charge, this was my personal pay scale

  • Years 1-5: $50/hr
  • Years 5-10: $75/hr
  • Years 11-15: $100+/hr

I don’t do a ton of freelance client work anymore as I prefer to work on my own products. But when I do pick up a side job, it starts at $100/hr and can go up depending on what the project is. My time is valuable so it needs to be worth my while. Working on client work will take away from time building my own products and my family so that time doesn’t come cheap. Value your time, you can’t get it back.

Business

The business side of freelancing was never the fun part for me. I’ve always been a creative person so having to approach clients and deal with business related tasks was not my passion. Yet this HAS to be done if you want to be successful as a freelancer. I live in Canada so the following advice is geared to Canadians. Some or most of it should be reusable but please talk to an accountant. I’m a designer not an accountant so don’t take my word for it!

Registration

Make sure you register your business before you start anything. In Canada you can register as a Sole Proprietor for about $60. This is a must to make your business legal and it will also allow you to write off business related expenses when you do your taxes.

Expenses

Once you’re registered there are many expenses you need to track. Here’s a list of some of the items you can write off: car lease, car gas, car insurance, car maintenance, parking, car wash fees, bank fees, miscellaneous office expenses, advertising fees, loan or credit card interest, donations, utilities if you keep a home office, part of your rent or mortgage, entertainment, travel, office maintenance, postage, education, professional services, conventions, business clubs, transit, software, hardware, books, art supplies, and more. Make sure you keep all your receipts! In Canada you need to keep all your receipts for the past 7 years in case you’re audited. This is just a list to get you started, talk to an accountant!

Advertising

I’ve never done much in the way of advertising for my business. I think traditional advertising is a waste of time and money. The biggest way to get more clients is through referrals. Provide excellent customer service and do good work and your clients will tell their friends. Another option you could try is Billings. It has a built in timer for when you’re working on projects and you can create and send invoices when you’re done. It also has some built in reports that are handy for seeing how you’re business is doing.

My expense tracking system is much more analog. I just collect all my receipts in a shoe box all year. When tax time comes around, I pull out the shoe box and divide the receipts by categories (as mentioned above). I then create a Google spreadsheet and enter in all the amounts by category. Next I use TurboTax to do my actual taxes. They have a good wizard tool that will take you through all the expenses to make sure you don’t miss anything. When you’re done you can export your taxes and submit them. Depending on the size of your business, you may want to use an accountant for this. It will cost you more but may be easier.

Should I Use Contracts?

I don’t use contracts for clients. I have a system for payment that is the same for all clients. If they don’t want to follow the system, I don’t take on their work. My system is pretty basic:

  • 50% payment up front to start a project
  • 50% due on completion of the project

I never work hourly for new clients, only for a flat rate. For existing clients that I trust, I will work an hourly rate and allow them to pay me at the end of the job. New clients do not get this luxury. It will take you getting burned once to stick to your guns on that rule. Asking for a deposit is critical because it will often expose bad clients before you do any work for them. If they are balking at paying a deposit, they will likely not want to pay you at all. Thank them for the opportunity but politely turn down the work and move on.

Clients

The all important question… Where do I find clients? Back when I was freelancing full-time I actually found some decent clients using Craigslist. DO NOT DO THIS. Craigslist has become the go to place for scammers so avoid it at all costs. Like I mentioned the best place to get clients is from referrals. But if you’re just starting out, you might want to try looking for work at some websites like or here. If you’re having trouble finding clients then concentrate on building your own products. Those products can be used to pull in potential clients while making your some passive income.

Customer Service

Customer service is more important that design skills. Yep, I said it. I’m a competent designer but I’m by no means the best in the world. The way you differentiate yourself from your peers is by offering something they don’t. In the case of design and development that is usually really good customer service. It’s simple things like being on time, answering calls and emails quickly, making sure you client is happy with a job no matter what. I actually wrote a post about this before at cardeo.ca.

How many clients do I need?

I’ve found a smaller stable of good clients is what you should shoot for. You should be thankful if you are lucky enough to find 5-10 clients that you like to work with, pay on time, and allow you to do good work. In this case less can be more. I’d much rather work regularly with a small amount of good clients compared to a large of amount of mediocre clients that don’t pay me on time.

How much should I charge?

Like I mentioned above, if you are just starting out I’d charge around $50/hr for your work. Wait, you said not to charge hourly? Yes, for new clients charge a flat rate but base that on an hours estimate from the project brief. After a few years, up your rates to $75 and when you feel you have mastered your craft, go to $100+ / hr.

How to spot bad clients

Bad clients should be avoided at all costs. In reality you’ll likely have to deal with a few before you start to recognize some of the warning signs. Here’s a few things to watch out for:

  • They don’t want to pay a deposit
  • They don’t have or want to fill out a creative brief
  • They have unreasonable expectations (eg: they can call you at 11pm at night)
  • The don’t really know what they want and regularly change direction
  • They don’t give you any creative freedom and micro manage the design
  • They complain about a past designer & developer they’ve worked with

Should I do spec work?

I did. This is a controversial subject but I honestly don’t see the issue. As long as you’re being paid properly and it’s a good client, I don’t see the issue of doing one off jobs. The spec work complaint seems to mostly come from agencies and I have to wonder if they’re just trying to avoid freelancers from taking their business away. Anyhow, use your best judgement here and if the job passes the smell test than take it on. At the end of the day, you’re a company of one and you need to put bread on the table.

More on Passive Income

What exactly is passive income? It’s work you do once and continue to get paid for it over a long period of time. An example of this would be designing a WordPress theme that’s sold on Themeforest. You do the work to create the theme but you get paid back for it every time some one purchases it. Some developers make lucrative careers following this path. For a freelancer, this is a great way to make some extra money. The best practice is to work on these types of projects when client work is slow. Treat it as another client and you will easily fill your schedule up.

What type of files should I create?

What are you’re strengths? Are you a killer WordPress developer? Then make WordPress themes for Themeforest. Are you an amazing illustrator? Then create icon sets and sell them at Creative Market. You can also sell your goods on your own marketplace. Setting up an eCommerce store isn’t complicated. You can use a service like Gumroad to easily sell products on your website; that’s what I use.

Regardless of where you sell your products, it’s a good idea to create a website/store to display them all. My online store is at cardeo.ca and some of the types of files I’ve created in the past include:

  • eBooks
  • Bootstrap Themes
  • WordPress Themes
  • HTML Email Templates
  • Website Templates
  • Magazine Templates
  • Resume Temples
  • Logo Templates
  • Presentation Templates
  • InDesign Templates
  • PSD Brush Sets
  • Stock Vectors
  • Book Templates

Over the last few years, I’ve made in the tens of thousands of dollars selling these products online. What are you waiting for? Start building your own templates now.

Personal Website

Another important tool to becoming a successful freelancer is to build your personal brand online. One way you can do this is by creating a personal website and a blog. Your personal website should include a sample of your design work to show clients. Keep it to around 10 pieces and make sure it’s your best work. Having a blog where you post content about your strengths is also critical. This shows potential clients that you are an expert in your field. It also is a great way to get some search traffic and attract new customers. For example, I regularly blog about CSS, Bootstrap, and freelance. These are my specialties and I have lots of knowledge to share. If you teach what you know, people will come and you’re online presence will grow.

One important thing to keep in mind is to keep your portfolio separate from any products you may be building on the side. You don’t want to confuse the user by trying to sell them services and products on the same website. Keep one website for your products and a different one for your actual portfolio. For example, I keep a portfolio of design work over at cardeo.dunked.com which is totally separate from my product website.

Another great advantage to running a blog is that once you’ve built up a ton of content you can roll it into an eBook and sell it back to your followers. This is basically what I did with my first eBook the CSS3 Handbook. I took some of my most popular CSS3 posts, wrote a few new ones and combined it all into an eBook that has generated thousands of dollars in revenue for me.

If you’re seriously interested in writing a book, a blog can also be a good way to test out content to see what is popular. You can also write an epic blog post (like this one) to measure if people are hungry for this type of content. Honestly, the motivation behind this post is just that. I’m considering writing an eBook on freelancing and this post is testing out what the demand for something like that would be.

In a nutshell

At the end of the day, if you want to freelance make sure you are passionate about design and/or development. You need to love this line of work if you want to make it on your own. The road will be hard but it will also be rewarding when you can say you are a self made person. Keep trying new ideas, keep learning and never give up.

Learn everything you need to know to start your own freelance business in the Freelance Startup Guide.
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  • http://eugeneross.com eugeneross

    Awesome article Matt! You bring up some of the most important points that freelancers need to think about, great job!

    • http://mattlambert.ca cardeo

      Thanks!

  • Mando_amador

    Great Article Matt, I think most of these points can be adapted to small business just starting out. Thank you for sharing with us.

    • http://mattlambert.ca cardeo

      Thanks! Glad you found it useful

  • http://www.creative-control.ca Paul Lopes

    Very cool Matt! Love the stuff on passive income. Wish I had done that years ago.

    • http://mattlambert.ca cardeo

      Tell me about it, we could have been zillionaires by now!

  • http://mattlambert.ca cardeo

    This post has been really popular so I decided to write an eBook on freelancing, it will be launching in the near future, more info over at: http://mattlambert.ca/freelance/

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  • Heidi Wise

    This just showed up in my Facebook feed, and I’m glad it did! I’m still relatively new to freelancing, so I appreciate all the words of wisdom I can find. This post is among the best I’ve seen. Thanks for making me a little smarter!

    • http://mattlambert.ca cardeo

      No problem Heidi, thanks for reading! Glad the post was helpful for you. If you’re interested in learning more, I wrote a book last year that expands on this post, check it out at http://mattlambert.ca/freelance

      • Heidi Wise

        I will, Matt. Thanks!