Five lessons from my first year of freelancing
An honest look back at my time as an independent designer
I’ve always wanted to be a freelancer. The idea of running my own business however I wanted to was so appealing, and 2020 was the year I decided to make the leap.
In the middle of a global pandemic, I set out on my path to independence. At the start it was so tough. Design roles had dried up across the world, and nobody wanted to take a chance on a freelancer with no track record. The doubts started creeping in, and I considered giving up.
Eventually I found my footing. I learned from my mistakes and I started to get a steady stream of work. Things picked up for me, and I’m happy with where I am now.
A year has gone by, and I want to share the lessons I’ve learned.
Referrals have been a blessing
Nothing sucks more than looking for a new job. This is especially true for me now that I’m no longer in the comfort of a permanent role. It can get exhausting.
At the start I was applying for jobs through boards, but it never worked. When people are being cautious, taking a chance on a random unknown freelancer doesn’t seem safe. It’s why referrals have been so important for me.
All of my successful contracts have landed through someone I’d worked with before. Just like when you’re buying anything new, it helps to have a friend recommend something to you themselves. And this works both ways. If you trust your mutual connection, then you know that you can trust the people you’ll be working with too.
Having people who can vouch for you will help you find good work.
I think about the value of my time differently
When you have total control over your hours, it changes the way you behave. Instead of a fixed 9–5 window, you get access to the all-you-can-work buffet. Every hour becomes potential, and this is both a blessing and a curse.
At the moment, I ‘work’ four days a week. That precious fifth day is for self-teaching and side projects. This balance means I can work my main job as a designer but still make time for other things.
Putting more of my effort into smaller projects means that I’ve been able to diversify my income. Although most of my income in 2020 came from client work, I picked up smaller bits of work and started writing more. This is a new way of working for me, but it’s changed the way I think about my incomes.
I still make time to do things for the joy of it. Not all of my work needs to be monetised, but I think a lot more about what I’m willing to do for free and what I should be getting paid for.
There’s a difference between doing something as a hobby, and working on it for profit.
I’m happier and more productive being my own boss
One of the things that drew me to freelancing was the freedom. To work in a way that suited me and made the most of my potential. And it’s working! I can go harder when my energy peaks, and give myself a break when I need it. Each day looks different, and that keeps things fresh and exciting.
Another thing that’s been great for my wellbeing is controlling my working space. I can organise my home office to suit my tastes. I play what I want on the speakers. There’s no dress code, and I can spend my lunch hour in the comfort of my own home with food that I’ve cooked myself.
With the pandemic, everyone’s had a taste of flexible working, and it looks like it’s here to stay. I can’t see myself going back either. I feel so much happier and more productive than I ever have now that I can choose how I work.
Being your own boss gives you the opportunity to work in your own, unique way.
My impostor syndrome has never been worse
Impostor syndrome is a common affliction for designers. It’s the fear that you’re not good enough, or that you’re tricking people into thinking you’re capable. It’s a toxic influence on your confidence. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, this feeling hasn’t gone away.
If anything, being the only designer in a team has made my impostor syndrome worse. Knowing that you’re the voice of authority on anything design-related is pressure, and I get anxious that I’m not making the correct decisions.
Sharing my experiences through spaces like The Fearless Community has been crucial. I’ve spoken to other designers from around the world, learning about their lives and what they’ve been going through. If I’m stuck I can ask them questions. Plus, it’s a great way to meet people in a time when face-to-face contact is much trickier.
Talking to other designers has helped me a lot. It reassured me that I’m on the right track, and that there’s value in what I do. I’m not alone in my fears, and it’s okay for me to feel unsteady sometimes.
Remember what you’ve achieved, and know that you’re doing fine!
There’s more to me than my work
I used to believe that my value as a designer only came out through work I did for my company. I published a lot of my earlier articles to my design team’s publication rather than my own. And this was fine at the time. But after becoming independent, I have a much healthier relationship with my work.
By taking the company I work for out of my identity, I feel like I can do more things for myself. I don’t feel guilty for making things only I will use.
I care about the missions of the companies I work with, but I also do things for myself. There’s a clear line between what I do for them and what I do for me, and I’m enjoying the boundaries.
It’s healthy to draw lines between what you do for someone else and what you do for yourself.
This first year has been a rollercoaster. Freelancing is much more effort than working as an employee, but it’s also been so rewarding. The lifestyle works for me, and overall I’m glad that I took the leap!