Tips for starting your freelance career

This story was originally published on the Career & Professional Development Center’s blogPeaks & Valleys.

Freelance work—no matter the industry—can seem like a daunting profession. But for those seeking flexibility and independence, freelance work is the best way to earn a living. Freelancers get exposed to a wide breadth of projects and can focus on the work they love to do and the clients they want to work with. They can work with many clients or just a select few. They also get to avoid the distractions of full-time work in an office, multiple meetings and office politics.

The Career & Professional Development Center asked U alumn and freelancer David Habben for some tips and tricks that might help others who are considering a freelance career.

Habben’s is the owner of HABBENINK, which provides illustration and creativity-focused workshops for a variety of clientele. His unique work has received honors from 3×3, Creative Quarterly, Communication Arts, Graphis Magazine and the AIGA, including a 2020 AIGA SLC Copper Ingot. Habben’s first author-illustrated children’s book, “Mr. Sherman’s Cloud” (Page Street Publishing), was named one of Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books of the Year for 2020. His education includes a BFA in Illustration from Brigham Young University and MFA in Studio Art from the University of Utah.

What advice can you give to students thinking of starting a freelance career?

Remember that a career is a long-term goal made up of short-term decisions and opportunities. As a freelancer, it’s easy to get caught up in the short-term aspects such as your next commission, marketing effort, or competition entry. However, all those decisions should be made with long-term goals in mind.

Some points to consider with each opportunity could be:

  1. Is this the kind of work I want future clients to see in my portfolio?
  2. Does this genuinely open the door to better opportunities or connections?
  3. How does this kind of work relate to my overall identity as a freelancer?

Far too many freelance endeavors end up in disappointment because we’re quick to enjoy the freedom and short-term benefits of an independent career, but we fail to think of the long-term impacts of our choices. The more planning you can do at the start, the greater ability you’ll have in the future to conduct your business as you choose.

Where should freelancers look for their very first clients?

Despite the common belief, I would suggest not looking to friends and family. While this is an easy route, it also sets up an unrealistic concept of working with real-world clients. You shouldn’t expect to have large clients with even larger budgets at the beginning, rather you should expect to be paid fairly for your work based on your experience and skill level. Remember that even though you have the title of “freelance _______,” it doesn’t mean that you can charge the same thing as someone who’s had that title much longer. Be patient and let your clientele grow first, then your fees can increase.

Spread your net wide when looking for new opportunities and be eager and willing to meet new people and try new avenues. Your future decisions about clients and marketing will be greatly benefited through your experience with a variety of clients.

What was your biggest challenge as you were starting your creative freelance business?

There are always going to be inward and outward challenges. Depending on the kind of work you’re looking for, location can make a big difference. I benefitted early on from great opportunities with design agencies whose reach extended far outside of what I could do on my own. Inwardly, my biggest challenge was the administrative aspects of business ownership. Contracts, taxes and overall business planning is something that isn’t taught with enough clarity in an arts education. Now that I’m in the academic world more fully, I’m working on remedying that with my students.

How important is social media for freelancers?

It is important as a marketing and network enhancing tool, however, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Developing a strong online presence is essential because that’s how most marketing is done now. However, putting all your metaphorical eggs into the social media basket doesn’t always lead to the greatest return. Consider carefully where your clientele is looking and then focus your marketing there.

What is one mistake you see many freelancers do?

I often see freelancers give up too early or be forced to give up early because of a failure to either be flexible with their plan or not have a plan at all. As I mentioned above, those early stages of freelancing require fluidity in your plans and goals. When expectations are set too high, it’s easy to become frustrated and discouraged. Patience is key when beginning a business and if you’re not ready for the long haul, you’d do well to consider other ways of building your career.

Did you know that a career coach from the Career & Professional Development Center can support you in developing your freelance career? Schedule an appointment with a career coach here.