21 Lessons Every Graphic Designer Should Know When Starting Your Own Business
I started my own freelance graphic design business officially in May of 2021. In the past 9 months I have learned SO much about freelancing, so here is the inside scoop.
21 lessons learned starting my own business in 2021
You’re not supposed to have it all figured out right away, just start.
Listen, I don’t mean just quit your 9-5 job right now because you have an idea in your head of what you want your business to be. But you also don’t need to wait and create every aspect of your business before you begin. Create a website and add to it as your business grows, you don’t need business cards ASAP, and you don’t need to have every single social media account ready and up and running to start your business. Those things come as you grow and you build your business. The more you wait until you have everything perfectly set up, the longer you are holding yourself back and stalling. Just hit the ground running!
2. Research the best online business management tools
I was so lost when I was first trying to figure out how I would make sure I was backed up legally, where and how I would have clients provide payments, and what I should even have included in a contract. Thanks to Youtube, I came across a lot of freelancers that were using a program called Bonsai to onboard their clients seamlessly, send proposals, contracts clients can sign virtually, create invoices, track your time spent on projects, and keep all your contact information and notes organized by client! It gives you a professional edge compared to other freelancers, and helps you work smarter, not harder so that the onboarding process is smooth & you can focus on your job – designing! To try out Bonsai, check out my affiliate link! https://www.hellobonsai.com/invite?fp_ref=emelia82
Unfortunately scammers target freelancers on a daily basis, always copy & paste a part of a potential client inquiry email and pop it into Google’s search engine. These scammers do an amazing job of making you think they are a startup company that needs a logo and branding and it all seems awesome at first. I luckily caught on to the scam before I got scammed, but it was such a waste of my time communicating back and forth with a fake guy named “Brian.” Here is a link to a thread that goes back almost 3 years of the same scammers trying the same thing over and over: https://elod.in/veehaus-scam-theres-a-new-scam-targeting-designers/
4. Set Boundaries!
Client’s do not need your phone number. An initial call to get to know each other and talk through your process is great and 9/10 times essential to starting a project and creating a relationship with your client but you need to set strict boundaries of when and how they can contact you. If you are traditional and stick to work within the hours of a 9-5– let them know a 7 am text or a 9 pm phone call is not going to work for you. Same with contacting on weekends, because we all need a work/life balance! Freelancers & entrepreneurs often joke “I quit my 9-5 to work 24/7” and it's so true! When you love what you do and you have created a business it's like a child, and it’s hard to pull yourself away from the screen even to get a glass of water. But I always remind myself, that is not why you did this, you did this for the freedom of being able to walk at lunch and get sunshine before the sunsets at 4:30 pm.
5. Down Time
There will be months when you feel so busy and overwhelmed but blessed, and there will be slower months when you end up spending a lot of time marketing yourself & working on your brand and that is 100% okay!!
6. Work Smarter, Not Harder
When you are first emailing back and forth with a potential client and they ask for you to explain your design process, pricing process, and so on, you don’t have to retype an answer every time! Save your time and have a google doc filled with all your processes and explanations that you can copy and paste into an email!
Some freelancers don’t mind being paid in full at the very end of the project– depending on the type of work they do and how much time a project will take. I however learned that it’s best to ask for a 20% deposit of the end of project flat rate if you are doing a flat rate, this gives you a payday and also shows the client is truly serious about moving forward with the product. If you are doing a project hourly, send them an invoice for each week of work. My design process is complex and takes up a lot of time, so for design, I do not charge hourly since I could easily spend 30+ hours on a project, so instead, I estimate a flat rate at the beginning.
8. Join the Freelancing Females FB group!
This Facebook group is filled with amazing entrepreneurs, many of who have worked for themselves for over a decade and are well versed in anything that may be thrown your way as a small business owner. This Facebook group is like a tips/trick book filled with knowledge, you can ask questions, get feedback, ask for help when dealing with a tricky client and there are thousands of women ready to respond and help out. It's truly an amazing resource.https://www.facebook.com/groups/freelancingfems/
9. Skillshare Classes
I am a big believer in continuing to grow and learn! I am obsessed with skillshare courses because it helps me stay on top of design trends, grow my portfolio, and create pieces I may have otherwise not even tried to create. It challenges you and has so many amazing classes by industry leaders. Check out Skillshare here: https://skl.sh/3FTLWkj
10. Be Versatile
Years ago, my sophomore year in high school, my JV field hockey coach awarded me “most versatile” at the end of our season. He gave me this because he knew if he needed someone on defense, a midfielder, or a forward, I could run right on the field and be in any position our team needed. I’ve learned throughout life, in order to succeed you really do have to be versatile and challenge yourself. Do not put yourself into a box or a niche right away, explore all different options when starting your own business, it can open new doors and opportunities for you! Then eventually you can dial it down to your specialties because we can’t do it all without getting burnt out.
11. You can actually say NO!
In the very beginning I constantly took every project thrown my way, I needed clients and exposure and was taking anything I could get. But I soon realized — not every project will be the best fit for you and that is 100% OKAY! You can tell potential clients when you think a project isn’t up your alley, and recommend other people in your network that would better fit their needs. You can also explain your role & specialties that would better suit other projects on their plates and say in the future to reach out if any of those opportunities come about.
12. Consistency is the key to success
Continue pushing forward and striving towards your goals. The ones who are consistent and persistent are the ones who succeed, the ones who give up when things aren’t going 100% lose out on the opportunity
13. UpWork isn’t for everybody…
When I first started, I signed up for UpWork and applied for a bunch of potential freelancing projects people posted. Unfortunately, the freelancers who charge way below their worth are always the ones that get the job. I learned very quickly that the application with the cheapest rate would win the project, despite your degree & qualifications. UpWork is not for everyone, it feels more like a side project site when you want to make a quick $50.
14. Tell Everybody!!
I have gotten pretty much ALL of my work, from word of mouth!!! Post about it on Linkedin, Instagram, Facebook, hell even SNAPCHAT & Twitter, let everyone know that you are starting your own business, and don’t be afraid to remind everyone.
15. Passive Income
If you can capitalize on your designs or create a virtual product that people can purchase & download – do it!!! It never hurts having extra $$$ coming into the bank. Create timeless how-to guides or designs and occasionally post about them. I have a bunch of work on Society6 and made above $100 within 3 months, the gift that keeps on giving. Another example of working smarter and not harder.
16. Sign up for all those free virtual webinars!
There are so many industry professionals that host free online webinars via zoom, you just have to sign up with your email. It never hurts to create connections with people within your industry and learn from the pros!
17. Not everyone is going to support you.
I am so blessed that my parents, sister, and my boyfriend & best friends were and still are so incredibly supportive since the beginning when I first said I was going to quit my full-time job and start my own business. Even my 13-year-old little brother hypes me up when I say I got a new client! There will, however, be people who don’t share your work, don’t reach out to you, and ask when you are getting a real job again (that one HURT) but at the end of the day, YOU are the person getting yourself out of bed every morning and logging on to chase your dreams. I am here to support all freelancers on their journey!! Feel free to email me if you need a boost of confidence, we all need a cheerleader and there is room for everyone to succeed!
18. There is room for everyone
I learned this from one of my favorite designers Bonnie Christine. It’s easy to feel competitive with others in your profession chasing similar dreams, but the truth is, there really is room for everyone!!! Lift everyone up, support everyone, recommend freelancers for projects you know they would THRIVE at!!! Build a family & community out of the people in your industry, not enemies.
19. Create an effortless workflow
Sometimes all it takes is a BOMB playlist that will keep you energized and motivated for the day, sometimes you have to make a fancy iced coffee in a beer glass (it's a trend right now) whatever it may be, have a strict schedule for yourself. Maybe Monday you plan out your week & top priorities, respond to emails & feedback from clients. Tuesday you can map out for meetings, phone calls, & design flow. Wednesday can be spent at least half the day planning outposts and marketing materials for yourself, the other half working on client projects. Thursday can be a day where you make it your goal to send out rounds of mockups, Friday you can take a skillshare class before starting your client work. The choice is yours! But the more scheduled you stay, the better your workflow and the less stressed you will be knowing what each day's goal is.
20. Don’t schedule meetings on Mondays
There is no other reason for this other than, everyone hates Mondays, so don’t schedule any meetings that day!! Let it be a day to prepare for the workweek and get set up, that being said – no meetings allowed on Fridays either. It’s your own business, create a life you love!
Every little goal and milestone you get is a huge achievement!!!! Celebrate your small successes, give yourself a pat on the back. You are your own boss so you have to give yourself the recognition you deserve. Go get a latte from your favorite coffee shop, give yourself a half-day, work outside in the sunshine. Celebrate your life.