I have been dabbling in the freelance field of web and graphic design ever since I first started teaching myself how to use a computer in the early 1990s, but four years ago I decided to jump in with both feet and make it full-time, partially out of necessity and mostly out of a desire to pursue making a living doing something I love. There are many lessons I have learned (and am still learning) along the way, numerous mistakes I’ve made, and countless adventures I would have never otherwise experienced.
In this post, I will share some of my story of how I got started in the hopes that it will provide insight, encouragement and assistance in your own journey through and exploration of the wild world of freelancing.
When I first came out of high school, I decided to skip college to chase my dream of playing music. I joined a successful local band, went on tour, and lived the life of a musician for the next five years. While this was definitely a blast, it was not the wisest of decisions if I wanted to progress toward a typical future. Fortunately for me, I never desired what others considered success. Sure, I wanted a stable income, but dreams of riches never occupied my fantasies. Still, the lack of a college degree was the first brick in the foundation of my path toward freelancing, and the taste of freedom that comes with a musician’s life on the road contributed greatly.
Through the years that followed, I enjoyed experiences and career phases that fanned the freelancing flames significantly. I started teaching myself web design by building websites for little or no money for small businesses, non-profits, churches and other organizations that couldn’t afford to pay someone. Mind you, this was the early days of the internet as we know it, and I’m not sure I would suggest the same route in this day and age when most organizations actually understand the necessity of a web presence and budget for it accordingly. At the time, though, most of my “clients” weren’t even sure if they needed or wanted a website, so it worked out well for me as a way to hone my skills, both as a web designer and as all the other job titles that a freelancer inevitably takes on.
Soon I came across clients who were actually willing to pay, and I began to realize that I could charge for my services. What a concept! I spent my off hours building websites and making money on the side, and it wasn’t long before bkmacdaddy designs was born. Word of mouth provided a relatively steady stream of work that continued to grow over the years, and it wasn’t long before I had to start looking seriously at how I would manage a day job that required 60 hours a week, a growing family with three children, a marriage and a budding part-time freelance business.
Why freelancing? Because the nibbles I had at a taste of being my own boss, providing services in my own personal, unique way, experiencing the joy of a more-than-satisfied customer, and making people happy with the work of my hands became an overwhelming hunger that consumed my being. It was never in my plan, but plans should always be subject to change, shouldn’t they?
How I Took the Plunge
Designing for clients on the side is safe–and a lot of extra work. The day job paid the bills, while the night jobs fed the hunger. It wasn’t long, though, before I was reminded that we only have a single, short life to live, and I certainly didn’t want to reach the end of it without experiencing every possibility. Events played out (or were influenced to play out) in a way that a choice was placed before me: pursue the next step in my current career, or leave the safety net behind and go for full time freelancing. It is a key component of who I am to explore the unknown, challenge the status quo and take the path less traveled, so this was a relatively easy decision for me. Still, I had my family to consider, so the decision was not taken lightly. Lucky for me, my family is just as (if not more than) adventurous, so together we knew we needed to dive into this next chapter in our lives.
My situation didn’t involve a huge, dramatic break up with the corporate world, because I never fully embraced that life in the first place. Instead, it had more to do with making a conscious decision to no longer do what I was doing as a primary source of income (writing curriculum, working with college students, etc.) and focus on growing my part-time web and graphic design business into a full-time one very quickly.
Up until this point, I had been avoiding any use of social media, dismissing it as a waste of my time and unproductive, but it suddenly seemed a simple way to start branding myself and my business in hopes of attracting new clients. I am a bit of an introvert, so traditional networking in face-to-face, work the room settings was a route I was hoping to steer clear of, and social media appeared to be a tool that would fit my networking style better. It did not take long to discover how right I was.
In one evening, I gave in and opened up all my social media accounts. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. I added links to my website and tied everything together, and then I started trying to figure out how to best use them to connect with others who would help grow my business. What I didn’t anticipate was how these connections would not only bring new clients, but would also introduce me to amazing people and tools. I discovered flourishing online communities of freelancers, designers, SEOs and more–each contributing to my overall development as a freelance web and graphic designer. The benefits were and continue to be immeasurable!
Within months I had become a part of a widespread, global network that spawned word of mouth advertising for my business and began bringing clients that I would have otherwise never encountered. That network and word of mouth has become my primary source of new clients, accounting for about 90%. Not too shabby for online tools I had previously dismissed as unproductive!
Since taking the plunge into full-time freelancing, I am happy to report that my income is significantly higher than any previous occupation I have held–doubling some, in fact! More importantly, I absolutely love what I am doing, and the financial benefits have given me and my family the ability to move back home to San Francisco, one of the more expensive places to live in the United States, but our favorite city by far. Don’t get me wrong–it’s been a little rough, and still there are days and weeks when I am not sure when the next check will come or if I’ll have another project to work on after I finish the current one. All the usual ‘joys’ of being a freelancer are still very real for me. However, I have not yet had a moment of down time, and my family continues to remain clothed and fed with a roof overhead every day. We are happy–truly–and that’s all I ever set out to pursue in the first place.
What Is Your Story?
Have you been considering taking the plunge? What’s holding you back? Or, have you already found success in full-time freelancing? Please share your thoughts, insights and stories in the comments section below, so we can all learn from each other as we travel this path.
Image by CRASH:candy