Freelancing 101: The Typical Life

Freelancing 101: The typical life.
Plus tips and advise from a professional.
By Elle Phillips

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about twenty-five percent of all Graphic Designers (or Graphic Artists) do freelance work, full-time or part-time. Many more have aspirations of doing freelance because of the money, creativity, and the appeal of working from home. But the question often comes up, “What does a Freelancer do all day?”

I started freelancing part-time in 2002 and dove into the pool of chance two years later by starting my own full-time freelance business, and let me tell you- working at home is not at all what I expected. So, I would like to share with you some of the daily responsibilities that come with not only doing freelance graphic design, but also with running a successful business from home.

organizationGet Organized
First off, you have to get rid of what most of us “creative” types feel most comfortable with: unorganized clutter. Er… at least, that was one of my biggest hurdles!

As you can probably imagine, one of the nice things about working for someone else is that you can leave your “cubie” and go home every night knowing your garbage can will be empty and the floor around your desk area will be clean when you return.

When you work from home, you get none of these luxuries - unless you do it all yourself. And in order to work in a clean and efficient manner, you need to keep your workspace as clean as you can, and most of all: ORGANIZED. If you can’t do that, you have no chance at running your business, because there is too much involved!

A Typical Work Day
So, I start my day with a big cup of coffee and a review of the projects on my desk. To laymen’s eyes the mound of papers and folders left on my keyboard may look like useless clutter, but I keep a manila folder for every job in progress and I know on Friday afternoon I set my “to-do” projects up in a nice stack so I will remember where I am on Monday morning. You see? I have a system. A routine. If you’re going to freelance, I suggest you find a routine and stick to it for your own sanity, as well as your clients’.

Once I’m done with my to-do review, I check my email immediately. Ninety percent of my work comes from my clients through email, so I go through my inbox thoroughly and add any projects that may need priority, then continue to organize my day by adding new projects to my to-do list in order of priority. Once that’s done, it’s off to work checking those to-do’s off my list.

When you’re working as a freelancer, you might think you have all the free time in the world to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Wrong. If you want to make a living, you work all day just like you would in the gray Kingdom of Cubicles.

Unlike the nice salaried position you might have had at an Agency, you now bill by the hour or by the project. So you only get paid when you actually work, and the only way you’re going to continue getting work is if you meet deadlines. Just keep in mind that your clients will have expectations just like your boss did, and you need to meet and often exceed those expectations to stay successful.

clockTypically, my most productive time of the day is the morning: from about 7:30am to Noon. I’ll get up once to grab a quick breakfast or a second cup of coffee, but I tend to have the most focus in the morning and I can really bang out the work.

I’ve also found that I get the fewest requests for new or emergency projects in the morning, so if I can get through my list of to-do’s first thing, I have more free time and an open-ended afternoon to take on last-minute requests or, if I’m lucky, relax and work on invoicing, tax assessments, entering receipts, cleaning up my workspace or any of the other countless things you have to do when you run your own business, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Right now I have enough clients to keep my days pretty full. I have three major clients who I consider my “Bread & Butter”, and probably 20 or so smaller clients. The Bread & Butter clients keep me busy roughly 20 to 30 hours per week. The smaller clients fill in extra time whenever something is needed.

If there is any advise you take away from this article it should be this: Retain your existing clients by treating them all equally well, and ALWAYS be on the lookout for new ones. You never know when you’ll lose a client, and if you do you must be prepared to take that loss in income. NEVER depend on one sole client for full-time income. As a freelancer you’re very easy to hire, and even easier to fire.

So back to the daily grind: Once my to-do list is complete, I’ve usually received another round of emails from clients asking for revisions to past projects or introductions to new projects. It’s a never-ending cycle, so pace yourself. Give accurate time quotes, keep all of your clients updated on when you’ll be able to get back to them with a new proof, and try to stay focused as long as you can.

I usually hit my wall around 2:00pm. To get beyond the mid-day munchies or the late-afternoon crazies, I try to do some sort of activity. Ten minutes of jumping jacks will sometimes do it, or if it’s a nice day I’ll go take a quick walk. Whatever it is, get away from your computer for 20 minutes. Even the most dedicated workers need a break, and if you don’t get away you’ll likely get burned out that much faster, rendering yourself completely useless for the last 2 or 3 hours of the day.

home_officeSet Some Rules
I own my business, and I have most of the control, so I like to make a few rules to live by. One very important rule for me is I don’t work after 5:30pm unless it is ABSOLUTELY necessary. If a client calls at 5:00 and asks me to do a quick emergency job, I know business hours have ended, so I simply ask if I can get it to them the next morning.

I tell all of my clients when they hop on board the E-train that my hours are 8am to 5pm, MST. I usually make myself available from 7:30am to 5:30pm, leaving room for anything that may come up at the last minute.

If you’re going to start freelancing full-time, I suggest you make a few rules for your own personal comfort as well, or you’re liable to get walked all over. Don’t be stubborn about bending them every once-in-a-while if you have to, but stay firm. If I didn’t, my clients would expect me to work all hours plus weekends. That is no life to live. Set your times, set your pace, and make sure your clients are aware. Everyone will be much happier.

Wrapping It Up
At the end of every day I do two things: Take care of any billing/accounting matters, and set my office up for the next day’s work. Sometimes this takes an hour, sometimes only a few minutes. It just depends on what I’ve done that particular day.

Some of my clients prefer to be billed weekly, some monthly, and some per project. So, I make it a habit to go through what I’ve completed at the end of the day and do whatever is appropriate. Also, if I’ve made any purchases throughout the day for office supplies, stock photography, or anything else that may be business related, I enter all of my receipts. That’s just good accounting practice. I use QuickBooks, which makes it very easy to run a small business. As long as I stay on top of my income and expenses on a daily or weekly basis, then by the end of the year it’s only a matter of clicking a button and my taxes are ready to go to the Accountant. So, I’ve made it a daily habit.

The next thing I do is back to that circle of organization: I go through my email inbox and file away all of the jobs that are complete, I leave the emails I have yet to respond to or finish the project, and I set up my project folders to the left of my keyboard in the order of highest priority (on top) to lowest priority (bottom). I file away all completed projects and leave my desk knowing it’s ready for the next morning.

Although not every day is going to be the same - I’ve had my share of days that were jam-packed with work as well as days where I sat around doing nothing for hours - you need to realize that freelancing is still a job. You WILL be the janitor, personal assistant, accountant, office manager, art director, production coordinator, copywriter, IT guru and anything else that may be required, so be prepared. Freelancing is extremely rewarding, both financially and personally. Knowing ahead what you’re in for will only better prepare you for success.

Freelancing is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had, and I love every minute of it. If I had to choose, and hopefully I’ll never have to, I would never go back to working in a corporate office. Never.

Elle Phillips is the owner of Elle Phillips Design, www.ellephillips.com. She is an award-winning Freelance Graphic Designer with over 12 years of experience. She currently resides in Pullman, Washington with her husband and two kids, and is in the process of writing her first book.

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2 Comments

  1. Rae of Design
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    So helpful! I am just starting to break off on my own in Cleveland OH and its a scary thing but I cant wait! Good post…

  2. Posted November 16, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Great advice all. I’d also recommend looking at FreshBooks for invoicing and hours tracking. It has a free version, and is very easy to use.

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  1. By Business Classes for Freelance Designers on February 9, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    [...] and working from home can be extremely valuable as well. Check out this post for a look at one freelance designer’s typical day, or this one about keeping your freelance [...]

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