Interview with a Freelance Designer

Sean Foskett
Sean Foskett

With over 6 years’ experience in Website design, Cindy Chong decided to leave the corporate environment and become a freelance designer in May this year, starting her own business as 72dpi pixelartist.

What made her choose this path? How has she managed her business? Who are her clients? How is her time and personal life managed? Cindy tells us all this and more…

SP: Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been freelancing for now? And how many jobs have you had in that time? Did you freelance when you had a full-time job, or have you just started since you became unemployed? Also, what qualifications and skills do you have?

Well, I have a traditional graphic design background; followed the "proper path" and got a degree at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. However, during my first stint in the industry, I was more or less hurled in to the big, wide world of Web. I have since accumulated 6+ years of experience, working with various Web development companies, as well as taking on a couple of in-house positions. I’ve worked on numerous client projects ranging from little brochure-ware sites to mega-budget labyrinths. And in terms of roles, I’ve done the lot — from multi-tasker to team leader, cutter-upperer to creative lead. I even dabbled in programming.

Like many others, I began to feel disillusioned, disheartened and dispensable in the work place. After much soul searching, I decided that I have enough experience under my belt to give contracting a go. Armed with a retrenchment package and a contract gig with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I left the security of full-time employment. That was in May 2002.

I’ve kept busy the last few months, but I have yet to see the monetary rewards.

I didn’t freelance before leaving full-time employment. I prepared for the challenge by doing a short course in small business, speaking to friends who’d taken similar paths, consulting recruitment agencies, and just letting friends within the industry know of my intentions.

Getting Work

SP: Who is your typical client at the moment? What kinds of sites have they asked you to develop?

I haven’t been in this long enough to have a "typical client". However, most of the people who enquire about my services are small business owners who are after more than the simple template solutions typically offered to small budget clients. They don’t necessarily require a big, technically advanced site, just a smart one that’s effective.

SP: How have you found the work you’ve had to date — has most of it come from completely new clients, or companies you’ve worked for previously? Did you have a good portfolio before you began, and has this helped you win new jobs?

So far, all my enquiries have been through word of mouth. They are new clients. I don’t see myself as competing for the same market as my previous employers.

Without a doubt, having an extensive folio helps. I also find having an online version as well as a portable printed version useful. Potential clients generally want to have an overall feel of your style, and they gain confidence in you if they know you’ve tackled a good range of work.

SP: How do you find new clients that are interested in your services? Through recruitment firms? Freelancing sites like eLance? Friends? Cold calling? And how has the economy affected your ability to drum up new business?

In all honesty, I haven’t really got around to promoting my services, although I have a pretty clear idea of who I should target and how I should go about it. I plan to do a combination of things. I expect to make some cold calls, advertise my services through marketing materials, and do a few proposals. I’m not in a position to tell you which is more effective, but I suspect that different approaches for different markets will be necessary.

I’ve registered with a couple of recruitment agencies, but I can’t rely on them to get me work, especially in the current environment.

I’ve never bid for a project on eLance. The system seems to benefit the client more than the service provider. It looks as if it’s a very competitive arena. You’re asked to invest a lot of time and effort as well as fork out a substantial membership fee, and at the end of the day, you may not get the job. For me, it just doesn’t seem worthwhile.

My friends and family had been an invaluable asset. They’ve nudged projects my way and are helping to spread the word.

In terms of getting work in general, I find that I have to be more resourceful and intentionally keep my options broad… not limit my services to just Websites. Offering print work, logo design, banner ads, invitations and illustrations will only increase my chances of landing a project.

SP: Considering the skills you have, which ones do you consider to be the biggest asset for securing clients?

My industry experience is definitely my biggest asset. I am able to consult and offer solutions because I’ve learnt the dos and don’ts through my previous work. I was also able to gain extensive client liaising, presentation, and project management skills. Every little bit helps!

SP: Do you freelance internationally? How do you compete with international freelancers and the availability of abundant talent often times willing to work for a fraction of the cost that you were used to seeing while you worked for a company?

You don’t have to compete internationally to have to confront issues in regards to costs. And pricing is never an easy question to answer because it’s all rather subjective. Personally, I set my rates based on what I know I’m worth to an agency, and how much my target market is paying for similar services. It’s not necessarily a disadvantage to be a little more expensive than your competitors, as long as you can justify that the additional cost covers services and benefits that your competitors may not be offering, for example consultation time, research or maintenance.

I’ve adopted a process whereby I ask the client what their budget range is, understand their requirements, and then offer them a solution I can deliver that falls within that range.

I guess it also helps to remember that some jobs just aren’t worth it. For example, are you really willing to spend a full week developing a site and be paid only slightly more than a KFC family meal deal?

Time Management

SP: How many more or less hours are you working on a daily/weekly basis compared to your old job?

Well, some weeks I’m really slack and may only put in 3-4 days of work. Other weeks I may only get 3-5 hours sleep for a few consecutive days. But then you have to understand that the time I spend is rarely on paid work. Mostly I’m getting my act together, sending out applications, putting together a folio, contacting people… things like that.

I think it comes down to discipline. I’m working to the deadlines I set for myself. When you work alone, you have to provide your own motivation. I also find that by keeping productive, I am able to stay optimistic.

It’s very easy to loose self-confidence because the work isn’t coming in. The temptation to sleep in ’til noon and wake up only to stare blankly at the tv with its mesmerising day-time entertainment is greater than you’ll ever imagine. If you don’t have the strength to snap out of it, working from home is probably not for you.

SP: Do you have a social life? How do you go about managing the demands of life, work and play?

Yes, I’m proud to say I do have a social life. Although I’m far more budget-conscious now and have to resort to cheaper forms of entertainment, such as a video night in instead of a night out at the movies, or sponge off my friends for a free meal at their place instead of eating out. Set your priorities: if something is important to you, you’ll find a way to fit it in.

Earning an Income

SP: Do you make as much money now as you did in your old job? If not, what percentage of your income are you able to generate from freelancing?

No, I most definitely do not earn the kind of money I did in my previous job! At the moment, I’m spending more than I’m earning and that’s the harsh truth.

SP: Do you make a living from what you’re doing now, or do you supplement your freelancing income with other work?

Taking on casual work was always part of my plan. I think it’s smart to because it means you’ll eat even when you’re struggling to get a project. It also doesn’t put you in that desperate place I mentioned where you will take that job that pays little more than the price of a KFC family meal deal.

SP: Are you planning to make freelancing your sole source of income? In what sort of timeframe are you hoping to achieve that?

My ideal working scenario is to secure a part-time design position (2-3 days a week) with a company and freelance during the spare days. I’ll re-evaluate my situation in another 3 months, but I’d like to give myself a year before I decide whether it’s a fruitless endeavour or something worth pursuing long term.

SP: Do you think you can continue working as a freelancer and generate enough income so that you never worry about finding another regular job?

I believe it’s achievable. However, I’m doing this to find out whether I have what it takes and whether it is everything I imagined it would be. At this point in time, it’s still the goal I’m aiming for.

Business Management

SP: How do you manage the business end of things — keep your books, figure out taxes/deductions, etc?

As mentioned earlier, I did a short course in small business. I also consulted an accountant and picked her brains to bits. I told her that she’ll be responsible for my taxes, and asked her how she wants me to keep my records. She’s absolutely fantastic, very obliging, never condescending.

SP: Have you found that freelancing has required you to become interested in areas you wouldn’t have cared about, or didn’t have to worry about, before? For instance, are you now interested in marketing, accounting, and client management, seeing as your livelihood is at stake, and the responsibility for your success rests wholly and solely with you?

Yes. Freelancing is very much running your own business. I’m fortunate I guess. Fortunately, marketing, client and project management aren’t far removed from what I did on a day to day basis in a full time position. Accounting really throws me, though. I just don’t have the head for it. In my mind, professional assistance is worth every cent when it comes to this area.

SP: How much do you rely on the advice of other professionals? When looking for advice do you mainly use the Internet, or do you prefer to pay for professional advice from business advisers, accountants, lawyers etc.?

I paid to get accounting advice, but when it came to general issues, I found recruitment agencies useful. They can tell you whether your folio is up to scratch, whether there’re much opportunity out there, your market rate, and what kinds of skills and qualifications are most sought after.

I can’t say enough about the resources on the Internet, and the wealth of knowledge you can gain from the people around you. Absorb whatever you can, but decide your own path.

SP: Do you use other freelancers to provide skills that you don’t possess? What kind of advice can you give about working with them?

I haven’t yet, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do so, if and when the need arose.

My tendency would be to select people I’ve worked with before, so we’re both comfortable with the way the other works. I think it’s imperative to make the arrangement very clear: to have in writing who is responsible for which sections of the job, what the project involves, what’s due when, and who’s getting how much. Communicate with each other often.

Feelancing in General

SP: How much easier or more difficult is it to freelance than you thought it would be?

It’s pretty much what I expected: both the perks and the depressing parts. The more research you do, the more realistic your expectations will be, and the less likely you’ll be to find yourself disillusioned and disappointed.

SP: Are you happy that you decided to work for yourself instead of finding another job or changing careers? Is there more or less stress?

It’s too early for me to have any regrets. I’m still enjoying it as a challenge. I definitely stress more about monetary, but I’m so much more enthusiastic about the work that I do that the stress is worthwhile!

SP: How do you manage the pressure of meeting all your deadlines and, at the same time, worrying about the business that might not be coming in?

It’s all part of being organised, having a strategy, setting priorities, and being focused. I’m accustomed to juggling numerous projects and tasks through my experience in full time positions. Most people will realize that this is true for them too: they’ll cope. Things are less daunting when you don’t contemplate what needs to be done, but instead, just do it.

SP: What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about going out on their own and being a freelance designer for a living?

I feel it’s very important to have clear goals. Know why you want to do this, what you wish to get out of it, and how you’re going to achieve it.

Stay optimistic. Don’t lose faith in yourself. Enjoy learning from the experience.

And remember: if all else fails, you can always return to a full time job!

This article has given a great insight into getting started as a freelancer. I’m sure many people will see similarities with their own business and will have picked up a number of tips. We’d like to thank Cindy for taking the time to talk to us, and wish her every success in the future.