As an alumn of the EHD team who ventured out into the freelance world at the end of 2019 and started growing my team (from me to 6) beginning the following year, my old friends reached out asking if I’d want to do a post on ‘how to be a freelancer’. And while I was crazy flattered by their confidence, I’m still chuckling at the thought that I ‘know’ anything yet. Does anyone self-employed or running a startup ever feel they do? Does imposter syndrome go away? Do the freelancer-fears and nighttime panics eventually subside? Just starting year three, I can tell you it has all gotten a lot better. And since I have 1000% found tools along the way to implement that being the case, I’m happy to share. I don’t ‘know’, but here are:
Now, since this process is consistently one of discovery, I’ll owe it to you to report back if any of these early methods eventually land us on our bums. After all, I’m 2 years and 1 month old now. I’ve just started walking and may need a diaper change now and then. Or maybe I’m in preschool starting to count? Can I speak yet? Never mind, I know nothing about children… except that they need durable textiles, rounded edges, and lot of creativity, color, and whimsy in their design worlds (*Inserted Free Ad: Hire VHD for kids’ playroom and bedroom virtual designs!).
You’re a freelancer, you’re busy. I know! So, Let’s get started… Wait… But where to do so? We’ve never done this before. Agggghhh… HELP!
Exactly. While most of these tips are in no particular order, this first one, in my book, should be numero uno:
1. Get Help
There are layers to the types of help you’ll need as you start and grow. Not all can be done in the beginning. But some can.
One thing I am SO glad I did early (and I mean before filling out S Corp paperwork or setting up a site)… was talk to people who already had experience doing what I was hoping to do myself. The kicker here is to realize that time is valuable. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend/mentor in the field (as I did in Emily Henderson), I’m sure a lunch or call would be welcome. But if not, don’t expect strangers to dedicate their time for free; offer to pay for a consultation with someone you respect (or find someone who already offers such a thing in your field). $100-300 for an hour of your average professional’s time is a fair price to expect/offer from what I’ve experienced. Don’t get ripped off.
Now, if you’re going to break this rule I just made up about paying for consultation time, be really concise with your ask when you reach out to a stranger. Think: ‘what could someone answer in 15 seconds that would send me in a direction (ie. I was wondering: Did you like the school you went to/would you recommend your program? What software do you use most?). Perhaps you’ll discover someone is really generous and this opens a further conversation, but starting with overwhelming questions (ie. Can I pick your brain? Can you tell me how you started your company?) isn’t respecting the value of time and may not get a response. Be concise and specific instead.
Speaking of specific, I have a really easy suggestion for interior design firm startups out there: Carly Waters. She offers hour-long consultations. Doing two of these may be the wisest thing I did in the beginning. While I learned SO much about design from Emily, the company she runs is entirely different from the one I was starting, so I needed additional help. Carly Waters couldn’t have been more generous, intelligent, or resourceful. Several of the tips/tools I’m passing along are ones she shared with me. Thank you, Carly!
Find your ‘external team’. Maybe you can’t afford to hire yet, but do you really want to spend all of your time learning how to be a bookkeeper & lawyer… Or take on potentially great financial risk by making mistakes out of pure ignorance? Before I did my interior design program, I got a bachelors in business. Pretending I recall more than the 4% I actually do about economics, let me give you this piece of knowledge (that actually stuck). It’s more cost-effective to specialize than to have a team of ‘jack of all trades’. Hire specialists. You focus on what you’re good at and hire the best you can afford to handle things such as:
- Legal Paperwork – I used Rocket Lawyer because that’s what my money could buy.
- Bookkeeping – Found through a friend’s recommendation. Love her.
- Taxes – Another friend recommendation. I’d marry him if either of us were straight.
- Logo & Web Design – I haven’t afforded this yet and have lost much time and many tears stumbling through myself.
- Photographer – I was lucky to have great project photos thanks to years of working with EHD alumn Sara Tramp. But even if you make a site yourself, you MUST have professional pictures in pretty much any field. It. matters.
- Specialist Support for Something You’re Just Not Good At Yourself – For me, this is social media. I am so grateful for the ideas, reminders, and scheduling/programming my freelance team, Good Things Done Right provides. They do in minutes what would take me days. It’s not my skill set. It’s definitely theirs.
Finding recommended/qualified people to fill these roles is a game-changer. This is your ‘outside team’. You could even consider hiring a virtual assistant early on to help as well (after all, it’s just you right now and you may be busy crying in the shower). Just know you’ll have to train a virtual assistant and have specific tasks for them to handle, so get organized.
Find your inside team. I have limited tips here as I had pure luck in this arena (getting to work hire my friends from EHD), but my talented team has made every project and step toward growth/improvement possible. I need them. Those I’ve hired outside of my EHD collaborators, I found a few different ways:
- “We’re Hiring” – social media announcement
- Word of mouth recommendations from other designers
- Hiring Sites: Business of Home & Zip Recruiter (We aren’t hiring at the moment, but anyone know of others?)
Other than lucking out, my tip for ‘team building’ would be to understand the team is getting a ‘newbie’ experience and are taking some additional risk coming aboard an unestablished company. As they’re being patient with you, be so in return.
And here is the bit you ‘real pros’ may just want to skip to avoid skin crawls. I’m totally making up my own team policies, being as generous/flexible as I can possibly afford to be. Having trustworthy employees makes this possible, at least so far. As a recent employee and reader of articles on Covid-caused changes to the way we work, I know this is an employee’s market. My team is top-notch and could go anywhere they want. Shhhhh…. My secret mission is to manipulate them into wanting to stay with me until the day they die. How:
- Paying competitively (I’d rather have 1 person paid well doing a great job on my team than 3 people paid poorly, growing bitter and bumbling tasks)
- Offer every PTO/Holiday pay I can afford (and forgive, within reason, additional days taken off)
- Consider ‘full time with benefits’ as 30 hour weeks (with the option to work up to 40)
- Cover health insurance
- Work from home
- Flexible work hours
- Encouraging travel (I signed my team up for Scott’s Cheap Flights)… after all, we can mostly work from anywhere!
(Pros should probably skip this paragraph too) How to know when to hire? I’ve decided when to hire the first couple of years based on some loose-at-best projections of client flows and an employee cost calculator spreadsheet that I paid $10 for online. My patient team was far too slammed at the end of year one and there have been a couple of times since I’ve been nervous someone on my team of 6 may be empty-handed, but this past year proved our size is sustainable for now and I have much more insight moving forward if we need to grow again. A few things that helped:
- Hiring freelancers or part-time employees first then building to full-time as projects build.
- Paying hourly vs salary, having employees log time (which is common in our field for billing clients) – this enabled the flexibility described above while making sure I didn’t take a loss if employees weren’t working. It also helps make sure I can predict which of their hours are client-billed and what tasks belong to the VHD bill, without VHD picking up any difference… allowing me to afford more benefits to the team!
2. Make Your Website Your Assistant (And Automate!)
Want an almost free team member? Get your website working hard for you. I’m not talking about what you probably already know: make sure your site looks professional, reflects your voice, shows off your brand, etc. I mean, pretend your website works at a desk, picks up a phone, answers questions, and takes down numbers.
Not every field will find this easy to do, but putting the ‘A’s to the most common ‘Q’s we receive on our site, along with adding information on what to expect through our process where our pricing stands has saved us hundreds of admin-level hours. This means we are designing instead of answering the calls and emails of non-clients.
Beyond that, if we find ourselves repeating emails or information to multiple clients, we create an email template, collecting them in a shared spreadsheet and each programming them into Gmail via Google’s email template feature to adapt as needed.
Want to go a step further in saving admin time? If you have services or goods to sell, there are software resources that will allow you to automate your entire lead capture/client intake/package purchase, questionnaire process, and more! We use Dubsado and this automation is what gave me the idea for our E-Design process. By honing our process step by step, automating what we could within the communication process and cutting out most admin time it takes to onboard clients, our process became more ‘affordable’ and our team ‘reachable’ from anywhere. It took some time to learn the software, but it has proven worth knowing myself so I can adapt as we learn and continue to carve the details of our client communication.
3. Keep Your Overhead Low
Ob-Vi-Ous-Ly. “No Sh#!, Velinda”. I’m not trying to repeat Business 101 here, so I thought I’d just do a brief rundown of some of where I balanced ‘Save vs Splurge’ in my own start-up process. This is a balance we love to ride in our designs too!
My Start-Up ‘Saves’
Website – It’s not award-winning and I’d love to upgrade when I can afford a pro, but I opted to go SquareSpace/Wix – style and handle this element myself. It took time upfront, but I can easily make changes.
Rent/Mortgage – It’s worth noting my overhead was exceptionally low upon starting up since I began January 2020 (laugh-cries welcome) and was promptly working from home like the rest of the world. Not that I had office plans as it was just me at the time, but Covid restrictions certainly forced a lot of us to find creative ways of working as a team… a plus for majorly reducing overhead. Do we need that office?
Software & Supplies – My first year, I bought my most expensive software during Black Friday at 50% off. I also bought the 3D scanner we use for scanning sites second-hand from another designer. She was upgrading, so I got a deal on the ‘old version’ that works just fine and has been great for learning whether or not I need it (I do!).
I still haven’t forked up for a new, fancy computer since going freelance. The Mac laptop that got me through my design program is serving just fine and instead of getting a pricey Apple home setup (my initial instinct) for the large screen I knew I needed (it’s harder to see designs details on a laptop), I instead bought a well-reviewed $350 27” Dell screen (another Black Friday deal) and a $30 cable to make this PC equipment compatible with my MacBook Pro.
My Start-Up ‘Splurges’
Photos – If you can’t tell, I’m a huge proponent of making sure you professionally photograph your work. I was lucky enough to already have beautiful images of projects I worked on with EHD (and Emily was gracious enough to let me use them, something I know from my design program isn’t always the case with a firm). But as we rolled out reveals in the first year, I splurged on high quality. This included renting props and hiring the stylist necessary to make productions run smoothly and image compositions curated. Give the photos all you got… this is what will last after all your hard work, become your social content and have clients deciding whether or not to trust you.
Help – We covered this, but quality help is worth investing in.
Time & Tools –
The first year and a half was more ‘all-consuming’ than desired by any standard, but without a lot of money to invest and knowing I wanted it to be ‘good’, time was what I had to sacrifice in the famous trifecta (ie: You can’t have good, fast and cheap… pick two). I couldn’t go fast (more on that soon).
When it came to taking the time to learn, plan and get organized, I splurged. While I abide by hiring specialists over trying to know & handle everything yourself, there will be apps, software, and tools worth researching/learning to make life far easier as you move forward. And if I could say I did any single thing ‘right’ (besides finding the right inner & outer team), it’d easily be getting organized.
The thought was to make the ‘newness’ of being, well, brand new an opportunity. There were no messes to have to ‘clean up’ or unfiled closets to have to sort yet… if I was careful now about the ‘rules’ of where everything lived and how the ‘steps’ worked when it was just me, I hoped it would become something I could more easily explain and hand over as the team grew. That has worked! Now a team of 6, we all know where to find project questionnaires/inspiration, measurements, and emailed concerns provided by clients and visual boards throughout our process without having to ask. We can look at a spreadsheet and know what step of the process a project is in and how much time remaining is estimated (this has helped with project flow too). I’m proud of the efficiency of our team’s process/organization and while it has adapted as we’ve learned, the seeds were planted from the start, taking a lot of initial time, but sparing so much of the same down the road… along with many headaches.
4. Think As Your Client While Thinking About Your Client
Yes, figure out your target market, think about how to find clients and such… but in the beginning, you don’t have a single client to ask ‘did you like this… did this work?’ So… you roleplay. While you’re worrying about getting clients, pretend to be said client… “What would I want?”
For me, especially when working virtually, the answer was:
- A clear understanding of what to expect and how the process works
- Visual examples of past projects to earn my faith
- Quick communication
- An opportunity to make sure my aesthetic, ideas, and needs were fully understood
- Individualism within my design (nothing ‘copy & pasted’)
- Fair pricing
I set up our process based on these ideas then started testing. Let’s be very clear, I was all the while worried about whether or not I would have clients. But early on, I was also turning clients away! Counter-intuitive, I realize, but I wasn’t sure if the process worked yet. I needed to go slow. I needed to test. I will always have a fondness and gratitude for my very earliest clients who taught me.
Now that I had a few clients going through the experience that I hoped was working, I could simply ask, “did this work?” If it makes any sense at all in your field… DO IT! From day one, I had a ‘follow up questionnaire’, which was short with a blend of easy ‘yes/no’ questions and ‘free response’ space. My god, has it been helpful for improving. Clients give us genius ideas! What’s more, I ask on that questionnaire whether or not I can use their feedback on social media/as a public testimonial. Most say ‘yes’. This means I don’t have to go back to clients later begging for marketing material. Win-win-win.
I can’t exactly say where you’ll find clients in your specific industry, but one mindset shift that has been helpful to make on our team is ‘forward thinking’ clients. At first, if we were ‘full’ of projects, we were taking a waitlist and opened/closed projects monthly…. But that meant closing projects monthly too. Which meant shutting the door on clients. Not great.
Now, we’ve been working on more of a rolling system, with time frames that we adapt on our site. This way, we can book projects up to three months in advance. It seems to be a better flow on our end and also means shutting down fewer clients along the way. Finding the right project load was like hitting puberty’s awkward stage at every level of our team’s growth. But we’ve now grown our first mustache and learned how to kiss without getting our braces stuck. I hope we’ve grown into our foreheads for good! (Turns out, I’m far more familiar with puberty than infants/toddlers).
5. Free the Freelancer In You
Imposter syndrome and overwhelm can be powerful, but there’s so much combative power to be found in getting to carve things out for yourself; find your own measure of success, set your own time, and hold your own boundaries….
Even early on, I tried to balance the very public information of ‘I’m a startup’ with the guarantee, ‘you’ll be safe with me’. This was not a promise of not making a mistake, but I knew that while I couldn’t trust myself to know everything upfront, I could trust myself to handle any arising issue with integrity and aim to always make things right. That goes a long way.
I would rather take a loss than defend a mistake done on our part and I’ve found being really upfront about intentions versus taking the stance of said defensiveness is immensely helpful.
Example: (Your version of something like this…) “My aim for this call is to work together to find a fair solution and I owe you an apology for contributing to this frustration…”.
It’s okay to admit you’re wrong or have missed something, even if the client isn’t 100% ‘right’.
You will make mistakes (Going slow and researching will help prevent these… but early on they can be expensive to correct). I find handling these misses with character will go a long way in a world of big-business capitalism and narcissistic greed.
Still, you can say ‘no’. Even when you’re ‘fresh’, it’s okay to steer your clients back to your process and it’s fine to set up boundaries within what to expect. Overcommitting or getting bullied won’t do anyone any favors and sometimes, a client may just not be the right fit. Your client is trusting you, so trust yourself. And when you don’t know, ‘yes’ doesn’t have to be the answer.
Example: (Something like…) “Let me consider that and get back to you in XXX days/hours” is a great way of buying time while you navigate getting familiar with… well, navigating.
But onto the HUGE perks of freelance. You get to make this up. Yes, there are standard business hours to consider. Yes, we are trained to ‘earn’ for validation. Yes, you will have to forego fun/need to have self-discipline to succeed… but what is succeeding, really? YOU get to decide… not your boss/company.
A freelancer’s freedom to set their own schedule is widely spoken about, but I’ve found even more ‘adventure’ in deciding what the aim, in general, is as an individual and team. Of course, doing cool sh$! with projects and making sure our clients are consistently happy is key, but… then what? Is it building flexibility around travel, showing up for events, and resting when you’re sick? (for us, yes). Is it making a fine living by working shorter weeks vs maximizing annual profit? (for us, yes). Is it more time with family, scheduled days to find new inspiration or learning one new software/skill a year? Yes, yes, yes. The global community may not report you to Forbes for such ‘successes’, but you have won according to you… and you decide when and what to celebrate. So don’t forget to celebrate the ‘small things’. I’m convinced that’s what matters most anyway. And surround yourself with people who will celebrate as well.
Shall we quickly wrap this up? You’re busy and your time is valuable. I’ll leave you by sending my best wishes for success and kudos for being so bold! It’s scary, but pretty soon you’ll be looking back on your days as a (2-month-old?) who’s dropping cereal and ungracefully climbing your playpen walls and say, ‘that was worth it!’
Opening Photo Credits: Lead Designers: Grace De Asis & Julie Rose for VHD | Styled by Emily Edith Bowser | Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | From: The 3 Best Ways To SAVE $$$ On Your Kitchen Reno (+ Our EHD Alumns’ First Reveal As a New Boutique Team)