Freelance Consultant work... Getting Started

I’ve been throwing around the idea of doing some freelance work, or setting up a consultancy of my own simply to supplement my current income. The idea being that I can either make a little extra cash on the side or (if I do well enough with it) have that be my full time gig.

I know some of you out there currently do freelance work and consultant work.
I’d like to hear from some of you.

How did you get started doing this (not design in general, but freelance work or consultancy work)? How did you get a client base built up? Did you treat it as a job (i.e. contacting firms, doing interviews, etc.)? Or did you simply go word of mouth?

The type of product doesn’t really matter, because the business practices are probably similar.

Thanks for those who post.

I think what you do is just go out and get some work and do it.

All my work has been word of mouth. I turn down 5-6 projects for every one I take. I take stuff that is interesting, and try to focus on things I haven’t done before.

It’s almost all word of mouth referrals for me and they tend to be the better clients. The ones that walk through the door from seeing a weblink tend to be clients looking to get dirt cheap work and you don’t really want to waste time with those.

I just started doing it and after a few years, built up a portfolio and reputation and long term relationships. You got to be someone people like to work with. Talent only takes you a certain distance. Some guys are ultra talented but hard to work with and don’t get repeat customers.

Some answers-

How did you get started doing this (not design in general, but freelance work or consultancy work)? How did you get a client base built up? Did you treat it as a job (i.e. contacting firms, doing interviews, etc.)? Or did you simply go word of mouth?

I’d already been the trade for ten years when I went it alone, so I had lots of contacts. They can take a while to materialise into work though, so in the meantime I developed a website. If you decide to take this route, it HAS to be optimised for search engines, otherwise people will never find you. It took about six months to get a decent showing on search engines and I’ve never stopped looking at how I can improve that. We often sit there and decide what terms we will compete for next.
Agencies (for me, anyway) have been a waste of time. They don’t seem to like older designers, you know, the ones with all the experience. :laughing: They don’t get much commission out of freelancers either, so the urge to work hard for you is just not there. In five years I’ve had only two jobs via agencies. I’ve never shlepped my portfolio around a trade show and I’ve never asked for work. It can be the hardest thing, the first bit of advice my friend (who went freelance before I did), gave me was ‘Don’t act desperate, never look as if you are actively looking for work’. You can actively look for work, of course, but be clever about it. That’s why the web is such a great medium. Promoting yourself on the web rarely looks deseprate.
Now, five years on, most of my work is repeat custom.

Main advice I have to offer is as follows

Use an accountant and learn about tax etc.
Always ask for a deposit payment upfront.
NEVER work without a contract.
Be discreet. I rarely disclose to strangers or other clients who I’m currently working with. I never show work until it’s in the market place. As a freelancer a client has to rely on you like an employee to protect their trade secrets, they don’t want you bragging it all over the place.
Never give potential clients new work without recieving money upfront. If they ask for examples of my work, I send stuff I’ve done that’s already in the marketplace. If they want new concepts they have to pay.
I also use a debt collection and credit referencing agent to check people out too. Before I send work, I like to find out a bit more about them, like mpdesigner I agree there are lots of timewasters, but with experience you’ll be able to spot them coming a mile off. Like mpdesigner also, I agree when you are freelance you have to be a joy to work with :smiley: , you cannot be a primadonna, try and take over or be difficult, you will lose the client and they’ll go find someone who does’nt give them such a hard time. Sure you can have an opinion, but be a diplomat!
I have one particular client who is very difficult, uses lots of freelancers, we are still working with him three years later, most last about a season.

I’ve just started up my consultancy this year, and can offer the following advice on top of everything already mentioned (i wont repeat the good points others already offered)-

  1. have a unique service principle or position. there are tons of freelancers and consultants out there, and you’ll do best if you can offer something others dont. it may be specific to an industry, type of product or combination of services.

  2. have a business plan. doesnt need to be a 40 page b-school type of thing, but you should have in mind when you start -
    a. who you are targeting
    b. what you will offer
    c. your rates (do some research beforehand. over or undercharging will be the first sign to potential clients you dont know what you are doing)
    d. a plan to attract new business (i suggest to focus on one method, but actively do others) ie. internet, trade shows, etc.

  3. put time and effort into your business branding and identity. “Bob’s house-o-design” put across a certain message… think of it as a brand, not just a company with a name.

  4. put time and effort into presenting your brand. this includes your portfolio, corporate ID, website, etc. if you dont have good graphics/web skills, hire a professional. your 15year old cousin doesnt count.

  5. work your contacts. dont expect to sit at home and wait for the phone to ring.

  6. work your contacts more. keep calling, follow-up, and push.

  7. keep your existing clients. happy clients will give you more work and recommend you to others. 1 good existing client may be worth 5 new clients. think of it this way.

  8. always put time into business development. even while/if you are busy. its easy to get overwhelmed with current work, but you should always also be working on finding the “next” client/project.

    As for how I got into starting my own consultancy-

Basically I have been in the industry for a while (6+years) and have been on the hiring side of lots of consultants in my corporate job. I’d never really been happy with the work i was getting, even from seasoned pros, and also always felt that the creative services offered by most were pretty limited. Thought to myself, “i coudld do better than that!” i saw an opportunity to offer better work, are more complete range of services and something different than what everyone else was offering. I started The Directive Collective this past Jan, and have been happily busy and working steadily since.

Best of luck,


Thanks everyone for the insightful comments.

One other question I thought of, have any of you taken business courses to help you in that end of the business? Or do you hire that kind of thing out? Accounting, etc. I know shoenista mentioned learning taxes and using an accountant, but do any of you take care of that yourself? I just think that may be a bit overwhelming at first. I want to concentrate on building my brand, but knowing where I’m at financially is also important to me.

No, I didn’t consider a business course, but I have been working a long time, I’ve been a design manager, I’ve worked for a variety of companies so I had plenty of experience of what works and what doesn’t. As regards getting an accountant, I just feel alot more confident outsourcing something that I hate doing and don’t fully understand. A good accountant (in the UK, anyway) will look at all areas of your expenditure advising what you can claim back, I’m certain I’d be paying more tax through my own ignorance had I complied and submitted the returns myself.

I agree with what R says - to oursource what you are not good at.

at least starting, i dont think you need to worry too much about hiring an accountant, lawyer, etc. perhaps for taxes it may help, but if you already do your own taxes its not much different than personal income.

it’s pretty basic- you charge money, and then collect it. you’ll know where you are financially by looking at your bank account!

there are lots of resources online to give you info when you start. for example choosing between running a sole proprietorship, incorporating a business, etc.

pretty much all you’ll need to do to get going initially is register your business, perhaps register to charge tax depending on how much you will be bringing in and where you live, and then go out and work!