Design Entrepreneur

I’ve always wanted to learn more about how people started up their own business, whether freelance/consultancy. What made them do it, did it just happen, or was it something they had been thinking about for a long time? How did they go about it? How hard was it? What were the pros/cons? Would anyone out there be willing to share their story of how their business came to be? Or can someone point me in the right direction to learn more about this (book, website)?

Cheers :wink:

Get ready to wear many hats. Much much more challenging than working a 9-5 job. You have to have the stomach for it. Possibly be able to go stretches without any income. How to market yourself, how to deal with clients. How to be a legal pro at drafting proposals and protecting yourself from shrewed and cut throat business people. Most importantly how to get paid what you’re worth and get paid for your work. Most small businesses and freelancers will find clients rarely want to pay going rate and will find ways to squirm out of paying you. Don’t get burned, get money upfront before doing any work at all and never bypass rules of engagement like getting a deposit, laying out clear terms on tasks and deliverables, and taking all remaining balance payment BEFORE handing over the important stuff like master CAD files. Once they get what they need they will toss you aside so the best time to get paid is when they don’t have the plans to the nukes, after that you are expendable. Get everything in writing cause people will have selective memory when it doesn’t benefit them.

Good luck!

Awesome writeup. All very true.

I started my freelance consultancy out of necessity. My fulltime company went totally bankrupt 8 months into the job. Us employees heard about it at 10AM on a Tuesday, and were out of a job by 11AM, same day. I had a lease and bills to pay. I was packing to move (and skip on the lease!), and before I disconnected my computer, there was an email from someone asking about my availability for a freelance project. So I stayed 3 more weeks working on that project, and got paid, so the electricity stayed on. Then when that one finished, I had 2 more emails. I stayed for 2 more months. Then more emails. I have never “marketed” or advertised in any way. In fact, I think I’ve handed out a total of ten business cards in my entire life. I’ve been freelancing strictly, with no other fulltime job, for over 2 years now. My fellow designer coworker tried it out, but couldn’t take the random no-security aspect of it. She took a fulltime job. It is a difficult business. And you learn from experience and the experience of others shared on here. I’ve been enjoying it, but you’ve got to be the right person with the right mentality. Its not being better or worse than the type of person who can’t/shouldn’t freelance fulltime, just different.

@ TaylorWelden

I have never “marketed” or advertised in any way. In fact, I think I’ve handed out a total of ten business cards in my entire life. I’ve been freelancing strictly, with no other fulltime job, for over 2 years now. different.

Do you get your jobs through coroflot, personal website, recommendation?

Yep, yep, and yep.

Its amusing how extremely random a potential freelance project finds its way into my inbox.

I get home from the bar having some drinks with friends at 2:00AM on a Saturday night/Sunday morning… check my email (but never respond at that hour!) and there is an email from a company in Russia ready to begin a project immediately. Respond the next day and get going.
Wednesday at 4:30PM I’ll get three emails from three companies whom I’ve never worked with before, and they all need help urgently for an important deliverable.
Or just a casual email from a local entrepreneur late on a Monday night, asking to take me to dinner to discuss over a potential idea.
Its never consistent, or reliable. It is all over the place. “Chaos is just a form of order in which we do not yet understand.” That is how I look at it. You either have to enjoy it, or trick yourself into enjoying it. Otherwise, I can see how for some it could be maddening.

However, for the first time ever, I am going to hire a small local Austin, TX firm to do some branding/marketing/SEO/overall ideas for my website and how to “get out there” more… in theory, potentially making the next project come in more reliably. But for now, I click refresh on my inbox, and see what comes up, or what doesn’t come up.

Wanted to do it since I’d started out in the trade. But my husband wouldn’t let me. When we split up that was it, you couldn’t stop me. I’d always hated 9-5. Well it was more like 8- 11

I figured out if I must do long hours, then I’d rather do them from home.

I’m not a fan of office politics, business-speak and corporate bullsh*t .You can probably tell that by the plain English on my website.

I like the variety, when I worked on only one brand I was so bored I could’ve scratched my own eyes out. I like the freedom, I work from my houseboat, which is currently shuffling up and down the River Thames for the whole of August.

Jobs come from recommendations, website, but I also have two regular clients who take up most of my time (I’ve worked for them several years).

It’s hard work and it does tend to take your life over, but I wouldn’t change it.

So it seems that companies came across your work online and contacted you. How many years of experience did you have before starting up your own business? Is that a huge factor? Could you give an example of the first freelance job you got, and how it all happened?

I was an employee for 10 years before. I think that’s partly the reason for my success. You need lots of contacts: companies, shoes agents etc. It helps if you have experience of more than one category - you cannot work for competitors and there isn’t enough work to go round if you concentrate only on, say womens high fashion. So I work only in one category per client. I only have one ladies luxury customer, one ladies high street customer, one kids, etc, that way theres no conflict. If people are paying freelance rates they need to know that you’ve had previous commercial success in the areas they are going to employ you. They may sometimes employ graduates on a freelance basis for their creativity, but the type of business that contacts me just needs a shoe line that is going to sell and doesn’t want any nasty surprises.

My first freelance gig was with a factory in Spain that I worked with five years previous to going freelance. A friend of mine who lives in Spain recommended me. I had previously got her a freelance gig at the company where I was an employee.

I understand that freelancing is not consistent like a full-time company job, but whats the longest anyone of you have gone without work? I’ve also had problems with $/hr. I’ve been asked what my rate was, so I asked around and heard that $35/hr was a good rate for my level of work/experience (1 year exp, BFA Degree). I also ask for a deposit upfront before I started work. I’ve been proposed 2 jobs, but once I told them my rate I never heard back from them. Is that too high? I have to figure in the fact that I am paying for my own health insurance, office supplies, rent, and not a constant flow of work coming in. If my rate is not high, do some companies think they can get early grads dirt cheap???

Stonebreezy - I think I can answer many of your questions as I’ve done pretty much what you’re talking about. I had a concept from back in college (junior year, 1999). I continued to work on it during my professional design career that had me moving from Chicago to BFE Kansas and then finally to Greenville, SC. The experience was incredible. And that experience allowed me to finally put all the of the pieces together. So, I sucked it up and actually quit a good-paying senior design job back in November 2009 to focus solely on my own product, Cerevellum, which I hoped to bring to production myself. Let me tell ya, it’s a lot of ups and down. Like, hourly ups and downs. If you have any mental condition, DO NOT DO IT!! It will drive you absolutely crazy. I’ve sacrificed an enormous amount of money towards this project and still have yet to see a dime. The credit-card companies are loving me right now.

At the same time, it’s living a dream (though sometimes a nightmare.) I do what I want. I make the important decisions. Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone. I question many times if it’s for me! But I feel very confident in my product and I see the whole thing working out at some point.

I’ve learned so much about business. I’ve had to create detailed financial statements and projections, business plans, formal meeting with potential investors, etc. I wasn’t prepared for it but stepped up to the plate. Can anyone do it? No. I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, but it takes having something very unique to the marketplace. Having a “me-to” product or service just isn’t enough to get the interest from the banks or investors. And don’t lean on banks. Even though we, the taxpayers, provided them with umpteen bazillion dollars in bailout money, they’re still screwing us over and not loaning any money out without giving them one of your kidneys. And SBA loans…whatever, they’re a joke.

Ping me if you have any questions.

Thanks for the advice, we’ve actually talked on the phone before about investigating my senior project, I decided to hold off on that for now. What I am more interested in is freelancing, getting that going, and later possibly growing. Any tips?

Stonebreezy - oh, that was you? Thanks for the clarification.

From my personal experience, I really feel it’s best to just get a staff job somewhere. Anywhere. Could be exhibit, in-house product, POP, etc. Whatever. You absolutely must get industry experience. That’s how you build connections. And I’m not talking about career connections. There is always a “better” job out there. I’m talking about connections when it comes to suppliers, tooling companies, rapid-prototyping, etc. These connections are worth far more than just doing an internet search and only come from years of working in the industry. In my opinion, trying to do freelance design full-time with anything less than 8 years experience is pointless. Granted, I’m sure you have the talent. And I"m sure you have the skill. But do you have the background of putting all of those things together? Only experience does that. Get a design job and suck that puppy dry. Then move on and do the same. After a while, you will have built up a massive amount of resources at your disposal and can perhaps go into freelancing full-time.

Something else to keep in mind is insurance premiums and the fact that Uncle Sam hits you with an additional 15% tax for being self-employed. Deduct everything you can!!

I think it’s better at 1 year experience to get a job and gain more experience. Don’t make the mistake I made trying it out of school. I took a lot of crappy gigs with low ball clients before I built up enough of a background doing it on my own to be able to charge what I need to charge to survive and eeek out a living. 3 years at a good job gives you more expereince than 10 years learning and making mistakes alone from scratch.

Connections, clients, vendors can come with working elsewhere first.

Building up some portfolio and “street cred” is important if you want to get serious clients. Otherwise you may end up fielding penniless inventors on goofy projects. It’s important to know how to talk like a seasoned pro and give the clients confidence that you know what you are doing and aren’t fresh out of school. If they are serious about using your designs in production, they would want you to do more than pretty sketches and renderings you see from college kids. You have to back it up with some technical knowledge and make sound decisions based on real world experience.

Good luck.

I understand that freelancing is not consistent like a full-time company job, but whats the longest anyone of you have gone without work?

I’ve gone five months without work - but that was when I started. I haven’t worked April to July this year, but out of personal choice. I nearly killed myself this spring, I needed a break and have turned down plenty of projects. My regualrs don’t need much work from me in the ealry summer, now I’m getting busy again.
You need to have savings, to tide you over lean periods (especially at the beginnining). Low overheads help too. I don’t pay rent or mortgage, which enables me to save. Once you have been freelance for a while you start to understand why your employers used to throw a fit over the amount of office supplies you got through.

I’ve also had problems with $/hr. I’ve been asked what my rate was, so I asked around and heard that $35/hr was a good rate for my level of work/experience (1 year exp, BFA Degree). I also ask for a deposit upfront before I started work. I’ve been proposed 2 jobs, but once I told them my rate I never heard back from them.

IME if you ask for a deposit and then never hear back, then they’re not gonna pay/ they had no intention of ever paying. It’s a great way of weeding them out IME. Be especially careful with contact via Coroflot/ or your website. There are alot of chancers out there who want the work for free. Never undersell yourself. I charge more than the UK average yet some jobs come up and the average is all they’ll pay. I have to stick to my principles. I have nearly 20 years experience, so I’m not about to undersell myself.

I agree. In my trade I see freelancers come and go. Very few make a career of it. It tends to be a stop gap, you know, lets see if this can work and if it doesn’t I’ll go back to FT employment. Those of us that do it as a career choice and have survived (five years plus) have had lots of experience as an employee - usually a minimum of five years.

I started my own consultancy after working corporate for 6 years. Primarily I made the leap as had been on the hiring side of consultants for that time, and always felt their services lacking. I saw that most freelance shoe designers while perhaps having a good design background, very rarely had technical development skills (so the product designed wasn’t always feasible to produce), graphics skills (so product graphics were weak or non-existent), little or no marketing savvy (so couldn’t really create much in the way of a product “story” or salable concept), and little understanding of branding, design DNA and collection planning (so it was tough to get concepts to fit into existing design languages, brand DNA, ranges, etc.). I saw an opportunity for a full service consultancy that could offer everything from strategy to design to development to marketing support (POS, catalogs, etc.). Sort of a Frog Design for footwear.

I launched my consultancy 3 years ago, and it has been going strong since. I initially did some marketing (going to tradeshows and cold calling), but rarely if ever got work from those efforts. Most of my clients find me somehow online (a lot through my First Pullover blog it seems). I get a lot of diverse clients and projects, but have come to somewhat specialize in start-ups as they are the ones that really need the full suite of integrated services from A to Z I offer.

I’ve also worked for all my previous employers as a consultant and in addition for all the companies of the colleagues I’ve worked with in the past who have gone on to other brands/companies.

The work is pretty steady, but of course there are slower times. I’ve found that for piece of mind alone, I try to take advantage of the ebb and flow of work. If I’m busy, I put my head down and work. If not, I enjoy the time off. If you are always worried about when the next job will come in slow times, you will drive yourself crazy.

The key I think to freelancing (in addition to being good of course) is to know what your USP is. What can you bring that others can’t? What is your specialty? It sounds pretty obvious, but I’ve seen so many people try to go freelance for one reason or another and fail because they just figured that they would start and work would come. WHY would someone choose you over 100 other freelancers?

I would never recommend anyone go freelance without working corporate or in house first. Even better is to have experience on the other side of the freelance table hiring and working with them. This will give you insight into what the competition can offer and perhaps what you can do different/better.

Freelancing is not for everyone. You need to have so many skills in addition to solid design chops. Business skills, marketing skills, Sales skills, time mangement, the right mindset and outlook, etc.


@ rkuchinsky:

Thanks for your input, this really helps me out a lot. It is my goal to be able to freelance (comfortably). Could anyone go into their experience with cold calling? Do you have a specific example?

Thanks :wink:

I have never done any cold calling, never touted my portfolio around shows.

I’ve been on the other side of the fence as a design manager and IMO it’s not the best way to market yourself at all. You need to get your name out there and be seen without seeming desperate for work. At the beginning of your freelance career you may be feeling very desperate for work (been there), but whatever you do, you must not project that feeling to potential clients. It doesn’t look good. We all see people posting on Linked In week-in week-out asking for work, after you’ve been doing it a few months people start to think, ‘what’s wrong with this guy?’ (Even if the answer is nothing, nothing at all wrong with him).

I go to as many shows as my budget allows and I network like crazy, but I don’t take a portfolio. I always add which shows I’m going to and when I’ll be at them on my website. This seems to work well, because I do get contact to meet at these shows (in fact I just fixed an appointment up today). I put it on my Linked In too. But 'coz I’ve been doing this a while now, I don’t take much new business on, there either isn’t time or it’s not a good fit. I do pass work on though, I recommend other designers, all the time.

I never cold call either. It usually annoys people more than anything. Just get yourself and your name out there using less intrusive methods. You’re a designer, design your business like you are designing a product. Figure out creative ways. With the internet there are many free ways to “advertise” and not look like you are “advertising.” Get work into blogs and news stories, enter competitions, write editorials and opinions, become an expert, send a Xmas card, etc.

Don’t look desperate. That’s when you will either get low balled or seen as not good enough and passed on. In my early years when I charged too little, the client actually went to an ultra expensive firm thinking I am not good enough or not legit. Turns out the firm put a classmate of mine on the same project who was kind of mediocre in school. He was an intern there too. The client didn’t get real value and frankly paid a lot for a weaker designer. Hiring managers at the client’s company aren’t necessarily ID people so they may feel safer going to a big name firm than risking going to a small fry freelancer. It’s all about covering their own behinds and it’s their bosses money not theirs. That’s why freelancers tend to get more work with smaller start-ups/small companies where the guy you deal with is the guy directly affected by fees. They’ve been to the big expensive firms and realized they can’t afford them.

It’s like wine, some people think the wine is good cause it’s expensive. You have to modulate perceptions and expectations. Use your Jedi talents to influence! Show them your value proposition.

Usually, those who can survive freelancing for over 10 years are really the toughest and best of the best. Your friends who went corporate have mostly lost the competitive edge and are dinosaurs in terms of skills. Are probably not even designing and are managers if still in ID. Freelancers get to keep desiging even into “old” age. They have to be on top of their game and keep that edge. They have to constantly update skillsets and be a jack of all trades. They are not cogs in a big wheel, they are every part of it. It’s not for everyone and freelancing has its ups and downs but there’s also a freedom that comes with this lifestyle that money can’t buy. You call the shots and can take or walk away from things. You’re the captain of your own ship. But like any respectable captain you may have to go down with the ship if things don’t work out. But without a make it or break it attitude you may as well get a job and a sure bi-weekly pay check.

Very well said!