9 Things I’ve Learned Freelancing

I’ve been freelancing in some form or another for close to 10 years. Over that time, I’ve grown as a professional designer and a business person. I look back to when I started and I can’t believe how bad I was at my job. But, I had amazing clients, and I kept grinding and learning. I’ve recently stopped freelancing to focus on my design agency for non-profits, Glean. But I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve learned over the years as a freelancer.
1. Focus on Serving Your Client
As a freelancer you are in the service business. It doesn’t matter if you’re a designer, developer, writer, marketer, or whatever else, you serve people. Your client has problems, fears, and needs that they are hiring you to help solve.

For a client to hire you, they are placing a huge amount of trust in your abilities. It’s our job to learn and understand the problems and fears our clients have. Once you understand their needs, focus on delivering services that exceed their expectations.

2. Clear Communication is Key
I would venture a guess that close to 99% of any problem you have with a client is from communication. Either a lack of, or not clear communication can cause a lot of problems for you and your client.

If I look back on any of the projects I’ve done where things have gone wrong, usually it’s due to a breakdown of communication between myself and and the client. Our focus needs to be on clear communication. I have found that creating weekly status reports for my clients is a helpful way to provide them transparency in my process. I also use Basecamp to manage all our milestones and communication which let’s the client check what I am working on at any point in the project.

There is also one other phenomenon I can’t seem to understand with a lot of freelancers, not returning emails. I am not really sure what it is, but I’ve worked with a lot of other freelancers who don’t return emails within 24 hours. If you run a business, a simple way to keep your customers happy is to just return their email within 1 business day.

3. Get It In Writing
At the start of any project both the client and the freelancer are excited to get going. It’s all rainbows and unicorns as you talk with your client about their upcoming project. During this phase it becomes easy to skip over or speed through the contract negotiations and statement of work. I’ve been guilty of this myself, I just wanted to sign the deal, and it caused plenty of problems.

Before you start any project, slow down. Make sure your contract terms, payment schedule, statement of work and deliverables are all clear and signed by both you and the client. You will be much better off if you’ve taken the time to get the proper paperwork in place before starting the project.

4. Ask for a Testimonial
Looking back, I wish I asked more of my past clients for a testimonial from them. A lot of the work I get is usually from a referral, or because I did a similar project for another client.

Having quotes from past clients is a fantastic way to build trust between you and your next potential client. Building trust between you and your next potential client is huge, and having a list of clients that rave about you is a great way to build trust.

At the end of each project, before you ship, ask your primary contact if you could get a simple testimonial for your website. I’ve never had someone say no, clients are more than happy to provide a recommendation.

5. Become a Specialist not a Generalist
Being a generalist as a freelancer is not a good thing. It’s important to specialize in an area, to find a niche to focus on. When I first started freelancing, I attempted to do everything, design, development, marketing, and writing. What happened was that I was not able to develop my skills as deep as I could of if I had I focused on a niche. I spent too much time doing stuff I wasn’t good at and it didn’t provide value to my clients.

By becoming an expert in one area of your field you land more clients. Clients are looking for experts to help them solve their problems. If you spend time growing and developing your skills in one focus area, you can start to market yourself as an expert in that area.

6. Build Your Network
I am an introvert. My wife knows this, my family knows this, but just about everyone else doesn’t know this about me. It takes a huge amount mental energy for me to network and meet people. I’ve had to learn how to network over the years, despite being someone who loves his alone time.

As a freelancer you will have slow seasons, or you might run into an problem that is difficult for you to solve. Having a network you can reach out to is key to help keep your business moving. We all have networks we are naturally apart of, just look around at the things you are involved with. In your local community there are probably a few meet-up groups for your field, the local chamber of commerce is a great group to join, and attending conferences can be a great way to meet other freelancers. Get out there, meet people!

7. Save for Down Seasons
I like to think of the flow of life in terms of seasons. Seasons come and go, they change, and they happen to us, as try as hard as we might, we cannot change the season we are in.

In your freelance career you are going to have a slow season. Clients will stop calling, your once super busy project load will drop off to nothing. It will seem that no matter what you do, you can’t get a new project. Keep pushing through the season, it will change, just like the weather, this season is just for a short time.

Putting away money from each project is a good idea to help weather these slow seasons. I keep a business saving account that I put 20% of my project income into. This builds up a nice cushion for those slow times.

8. Build Additional Revenue Streams
It’s important to keep revenue flowing into your business. As a service provider, you have a core part of your business that is your main focus. But, it’s important to look for additional areas of your business you can monetize.

Are you always creating guides for your customers? You might think about creating an E-book, or if you are always designing the same elements, release a PSD file to download for $5. Gumroad is a great service that will allow you to easily sell these goods.

I am constantly exploring this myself, always keeping an eye out for ways I can increase other streams of revenue. Right now I am working on an e-book about user experience design.

9. Invest in Yourself
Always be learning. It’s indelibly important for you to continue to develop your skills as a freelancer. We live in a great time, there are a lot of training sites now available. Personally, I use Treehouse for helping develop new skills, but there a ton our there. Conferences are also good (You can find a great list of conferences here). Read books (I keep a Goodreads list for this), goto meet-ups, talk with other freelancers.

Also keep an eye out for opportunities to exchange knowledge. Just recently I agreed to design a friend’s (he’s a professional video guy) website in exchange for a few videos produced as well as some advice on how to setup and shoot my own videos. These types of deals provide a great way to learn other skills. Always be on the lookout for opportunities.

About the author

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

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By Jesse Orndorff

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

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