10 Lessons Learned from Freelancing

10 Lessons Learned from Freelancing

I have been 100% self-employed for almost 8 years now. Freelancing as a graphic designer has been (and still is) my full-time job and main source of income. As any self-employed person can tell you, it’s a bit of a bumpy road. Especially if, like me, you never planned on freelancing and kind of fell into it. Not my recommended course of action, by the way. 🙂 If you’re considering doing freelance work, do some research and make a plan before wading in. In that light, here are 10 things I’ve learned over the course of my freelance career that I wish I had known when I first started out:

  1. Two necessities: a good website, and a good business card. What are the two ways you make a first impression for your business? Your website when people find you online, and your card when you hand it someone. Make sure both represent your business well, and are up to date, and quality. (If you need help with either, those are services I offer. 😉 )
  2. Don’t be discouraged when you don’t hear back from a bid or quote. The ratio of quotes you send out to projects you’ll actually land is ridiculously skewed, especially when you’re first starting out. If you’re really interested in the project, follow up. The polite ones will let you know they’ve decided to go with someone else, but in most cases you just won’t hear back.
  3. Always get a percentage of the project fee as a deposit up front. My usual is 50%, but it depends on the total fee and the timelength of the project. It allows the client to reserve your services/time, and it allows you to weed out the bad apples that like to disappear come time to pay the invoice at project end.
  4. Contracts, while intimidating, are your friend. Use them. Or at the very least get something in writing, even if it’s email. If you make an agreement over the phone, send a contract or email afterward laying out all of the details of payment terms and what’s included. Some written record, however unofficial, is better than none.
  5. Don’t depend on projects that haven’t started yet for income. A project isn’t landed until the deposit is received or the contract is signed. If you have a great project lined up and the client is excited about using your services but needs to get a few things in line first, don’t start counting on that money just yet. That project can still disappear into thin air.
  6. Have some sort of system for organizing and naming digital files. Even if you’re the only one that can decipher it. When a client asks you for the most updated version of something months later, it’s good to be able to know at a glance which file it is.
  7. At least 10% of every paycheck into savings. At least. You’ll thank me come tax time, or slow business times.
  8. Find an accounting/bookkeeping program you like and use it. Consistently. Frequently. Keep on top of your various accounts and invoices. This will save you many headaches. And if down the road you want to turn it all over to an accountant, you’ll have nice neat digital files to hand over to them. I personally use MS Money, which has been great for me.
  9. Heed your gut warnings. If a potential client is already throwing up red flags just in the quoting process, chances are good they’re also going to be a problem client when actually working with them. These are rarely rarely rarely worth the time and stress. Which leads me to my next point:
  10. Taking a project just to make money is the quick way to burnout. I know, when you’re first starting out, you pretty much take any project that comes your way, just to have some money coming in. Even if it’s boring. Even if it’s for a company you couldn’t care less about. But the sooner you can get away from doing that, and reserve your time for projects and clients you actually like, the happier you’ll be in the long run.

Admittedly, some of these took me longer than they should have to learn or put into practice. But better late than never, right? 🙂

Are you a freelancer, or considering it? Anything you’d add to the list?


  1. YES to all of these. I’ve learned a few of these the hard way and will never go back. I also have learned that “trades” aren’t always a great idea. I’ve made the mistake a few times to do on partial trade and was a nightmare. I built a website and a store half trade, half payment, it took 6 months to get both. Instead of paying everything after completition and getting the trade ASAP, she made unagreed on payments and I was convinced I was never going to get the trade portion. That was the end of it for me. I always require half upfront now and RARELY do anything with trades. Ever. And I’ll admit I’ve banked on projects, having big plans for projects “in the works” for rebrands to end, business to close or ideas not to launch. Nothing is promised until it’s on paper. And the last one is huge. You have to do it because you love it not for the money, no one wins that way.

    1. Oh, trades – yes! I forgot about that one. Yeah, almost always a bad idea. The only exception I make to that is for a good friend of mine who is also a programmer – he can program all sorts of stuff I don’t have a clue how to do, but design isn’t his thing. So occasionally we trade services. But otherwise, no trades. It rarely ends well.

  2. Exactly!

    Never take on a project just to get money because sometimes they can figure that out and turn into a problem client. I’ll rather have a slow month than be stressed out over one client. Also because I didn’t have a contract, one person nonstop emailed me for days for changes..

    The best part about freelancing is that you’re able to choose clients and you can say no.

    I had someone message me for some things and basically complained about their original designer (found out was a friend of mine and know she’s not rude like that). I thought that was a red flag. If you’re being difficult about someone else to me then nope! I can only imagine it’ll be the same with me later in the process.

    1. Oh yeah. I didn’t specify number of rounds of revisions on a logo project way back in the day, and the client took me through 13 ROUNDS! Craziness. I finally had to cut them off/drop the project (the way they were taking the logo was hideous anyway – they would not be swayed).

      Yes, complaining about a past designer is definitely a red flag.