Whether you have an interest in design or want to work in the digital space, freelancing is a great way to begin a full-time/part-time business (or to just make some income on the side).
Before I got into design, I knew I wanted to start a service-based business online, but I had no idea how I would make that happen. How would I find clients? What types of services would I even offer?
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How I got started…
I wish I could say I studied design in school or had some sort of relevant work experience to boost my credibility as a designer but:
I graduated with a degree in Economics and…
When I started freelancing, I really only had a basic set of graphic design skills under my belt (i.e. from watching online tutorials and tinkering with Adobe CS).
With neither formal training nor professional experience in design, the only thing I could do was to learn by doing.
Thankfully, a few months prior to booking my first client, I enrolled in a 90-day online coaching program that gave me the courage to start an online business. Because of this program, I had at least created a professional website, decided what my first offer would be (unrelated to design), and brainstormed the paths my business could potentially take. Initially, I chose digital project management as my focus, but eventually design would become the center of my business.
A short while after completing the program, I randomly joined a Facebook group called the Bucketlist Bombshells Tribe and encountered a community of VAs, copywriters, web designers, and more. Being exposed to this group of female business owners convinced me that turning my digital design hobby into a source of income could actually become a reality.
Benefits to freelancing (specifically in design):
Freelance work can act as a stepping-stone to other opportunities for business growth and supplementary income (e.g. products, courses, membership subscriptions, etc.).
You can work with clients 1:1. (Ehem, introverts…)
You’ll be able to build your portfolio and attract more of your ideal clients.
It’s a great way to transition into a career in design. Freelance web design would eventually pique my interest in UI/UX design and some coding! (TIP: Rather than simply take classes, you can build your portfolio WHILE making money!)
If you want to build a business around your passion for design, have hopes of leaving your 9-5, or just want to start a side hustle online—guess what? Freelancing is a great way to work up to those goals.
Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend the design route if you don’t actually enjoy design. You might want to consider other types of freelance opportunities that align with your interests and expertise!
The Steps I Took to Get Started:
1) I decided to invest in myself!
As I mentioned earlier, I invested in coaching. Prior to offering any design services, I joined a mastermind program that gave me access to two amazing business coaches who would help me clarify my business mission.
Personally, the program was a big investment. But the guidance and accountability I left with proved to be invaluable. I’m thankful to my coaches for helping me develop and solidify a business plan (to which I still refer when brainstorming new services and offerings). Sharing my progress with other women in the mastermind helped me stay on track as well.
That said, you don’t need to invest in coaching to get started…BUT if you’re willing and able, it can certainly help you get to where you want to be faster.
2) I created a professional website.
During the program, I spent a lot of time working on my professional website and making sure it had only the pieces I needed to get going. This didn’t mean that I agonized over every single line of copy and made sure every single page looked perfect. Our mentors encouraged us to take a “done is better than perfect” approach to our websites and to focus on how to market ourselves with our first clients in mind. I could always iterate on the website after I launched it. And iterate I did.
Two months after launching my business site, I booked my first design client with neither an official sales page for my design services nor a semblance of a portfolio. At the time, the only thing I had was my website. But because it had what it needed and looked good, people trusted my aesthetic and my professionalism.
3) I established my client process from the get-go.
At first, I didn’t even have a sales page for my web design service. However, I did make sure to outline my client process before doing anything else. I wanted my future clients to be confident that I knew what I was doing.
Clueless as to how to package my services, I decided to see what other people were doing. I spent some time reading blog posts and searching facebook groups for answers on how to handle the client process, invoicing, contracts, and other relevant topics. I surfed the websites of other self-employed or relatively new designers.
That being said, don’t spend too much time on this part. And don’t worry if your initial process isn’t super detailed. You’ll learn as you go, and you will start refining your process more and more with each new client.
4) I joined facebook groups.
While I don’t spend as much time in facebook groups anymore, I did find them incredibly useful for finding initial leads and opportunities. They’re also great for connecting with other designers and entrepreneurs. In fact, I met my friend and current accountability partner in one of those groups.
Here are some helpful communities (especially for women):
5) I signed up for third-party freelance platforms.
While I no longer rely on third-party platforms, I did find them (somewhat) useful in the beginning. This is something that you may want to consider doing as well. If you don’t have any client testimonials yet and are not getting any direct inquiries, consider joining third-party platforms to find gigs. This can help you kickstart your freelancing journey and find your first few clients.
6) I made sure to ask for testimonials.
Once I started booking my first few clients, I made sure to ask for testimonials at the end of every project. Testimonials are crucial for your website and not to mention a great way to understand how you can improve your existing processes. I’d use Typeform, Google Docs, or Dubsado’s survey form (if you have Dubsado), to send your clients a brief questionnaire.
7) I started promoting my work on social media and anywhere else I could. (Optional)
While I did not (and still do not post content regularly on IG and Twitter), I was able to connect with other designers through the platform. As a designer, I like hopping on IG and Twitter for inspiration and staying updated on the latest design trends.
Instagram is not at all my main source for generating leads. However, one former client actually found me on Instagram back when I didn’t even have a lot of content. While the app hasn’t done too much for me, I know that my designer friends who are active on the platform get lots of inquiries from Instagram. After all, IG is first and foremost a visual platform, making it a great place to showcase your work.
8) I took free classes!
The internet is your best friend—especially when you're broke.
As somebody who found herself in between jobs, I wanted to save as much money as I could by investing only in the programs that I knew I would benefit from (i.e. design classes, business webinars, etc.).
To get my self-taught design training off the ground, I enrolled in a combination of free and super affordable classes online beforehand. In addition, I took it upon myself to do some extra research and study the portfolios and service pages of other freelance designers.
great free courses for beginners:
Skillshare - I specifically recommend Aga Naplocha’s classes on using CSS in creative ways. Click HERE to sign up for a free trial and start taking Aga’s classes today. They’re actually fun, trust me.
Udemy - If you sign up for Udemy, look into Derrick Mitchell’s “Graphic Design Bootcamp: Part 1.” This one isn’t free but super affordable (when on sale) and comprehensive. Quality content at a great price!
Learn UI Blog/Newsletter - Subscribe to Erik Kennedy’s newsletter for insanely helpful UI Design tips that you didn’t know you needed.
Every-Tuesday Youtube Channel - Teela Cunningham’s easy-to-follow video tutorials show you how to use tools such as Illustrator and Photoshop to create patterns, illustrations, and other beautiful graphic designs.
CreativeLive Courses - Sign up for a free account with CreativeLive and tune into their live courses on freelancing, design, and tons more. All of their live classes are free and for a limited time.
Brit + Co - Brit+Co offers a curated selection of courses geared towards those who love DIY’ing things. You’ll find courses taught by creative entrepreneurs on everything from HTML/CSS, illustration, logo design, lettering, branding, and more.
Can’t afford to sign up for design or business-related courses?
Examine the websites of past students (on the course Testimonials page), as well as advice from members of course-affiliated facebook groups (if you can join). This is a great to soak up information without necessarily signing up for courses!
Build upon what you see and use that as inspiration. For instance, you can always refer to other people’s sales pages and then put your own spin on the services that people commonly offer. You honestly don’t need to enroll in a bunch of courses. Focus on what is needed to get you to the next step—not the next 10 steps! :)
9) I worked on self-initiated projects.
The power 👏 of 👏 personal 👏 projects!
If you aren’t getting any work, create the work you want to get hired for! Build spec sites. Join a daily challenge. Improve your design skills by working on self-initiated projects! Not only will you get better at design but you’ll have something to show to potential clients and/or employers.
FYI: Here’s a really helpful article on building a UI/UX design portfolio without much experience.
10) I focused on one platform/tool at a time.
For instance, I focused on Squarespace before learning how to use any other platform for web design work. Of course, you don’t have to use Squarespace, but I would suggest choosing one platform in the beginning and sticking to it for a little bit. That way, you can really learn the ins and outs of a platform before moving onto another one.
Again, I don’t advocate that you put all your eggs in one basket, but I do think it’s important not to spread your attention thin. Whether you’re loyal to Wordpress, Squarespace, Showit, Webflow, etc. focus on the one you like and become a master at it.
If I could go back to the beginning, these are some tips I’d give myself:
Work on more self-initiated projects
Join facebook groups and Slack communities early on
Reach out to and become friends with more designers
Go to more design-related/networking events!
so I know that was a lot…
But I do hope you find this information helpful.
As always, let me know if you have any questions, and I wish you the best of luck on your freelancing journey!😎