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The graphic designer’s guide to growing your freelance business

by Hollie Arnett

As freelancers, there are always things we can do to start, grow, or scale our businesses. But it can be hard to know where to start or what to focus on. 
In this article we’ll cover three main areas of your business that will help you with each stage, whether you are just starting out, beginning to grow, or ready to scale. 

 

Part 1: Starting your freelance graphic design business 

As you take the leap and venture into freelancing for the first time, there are some foundational things that you need to learn before you can get started. Your focus should be on finding your first clients, getting paid, and doing a great job on their projects.
 

Finding Your First Clients


Tip 1: Utilise your existing network

Finding your first client can be easier than you think. You likely have an existing network of friends, family members, colleagues, classmates, or online connections who you can reach out to about working together. Even if they don’t need work, they might know someone who does.

Reach out to them personally, or put out a request on social media for any referrals. You can also do some volunteer work for a charity or other organisation to get your first clients, gain some experience, have some testimonials to share to get your first paying clients, and do some good in the process.
 

Tip 2: Build your portfolio

Another great way to find your first clients is by building your portfolio. In the beginning, this could include volunteer work, school projects, and/or self-initiated work. You don’t need to have 50 projects to start getting clients - 3–5 high-quality projects is a great place to start and would be enough to get that first client.

Building a portfolio is valuable for two reasons:

  1. It gives you more work and testimonials to put on your website or show to prospective clients, and
  2. It grows your network, giving you access to more prospective clients.
     

Tip 3: Share your work

Once you’ve got some volunteer work, school projects, or self-initiated designs together, don’t forget to share them with your network! Send it to your personal connections and share it on social media to start getting your name out there, making more connections, and building a reputation for the kind of work you do.
 

Onboarding Your Clients


Send Proposals

Once you’ve found a client who is interested in working with you, it’s time to quote them for the project and send a proposal for the work. Your proposal should include an overview of the project, the price, payment terms, a detailed description of what’s included in the project, and a list of the deliverables. If you’re quoting a client for the first time, you could also include a section about you and why you’re a great fit for them, with some testimonials to back you up. 
 

Sign Contracts

One of the most important things for a freelancer is to always have your client sign a contract. This protects both you and the client, and makes all aspects of the project clear to both parties. It is rare that you will need to enforce a clause from your contract, but on those rare occasions that you do, having a signed contract will protect everyone involved. Contracts can include things like:

  • The project price
  • Payment terms
  • Late fees for unpaid invoices
  • How expenses are treated
  • The project timeline
  • Who owns the work
  • Confidentiality
  • Whether you can include the work in your portfolio
  • What happens if someone wants to cancel the project
     

Welcome Clients

When all of the practical aspects of your project are accepted and signed, you can welcome your client! Celebrate this moment and make it exciting for them. They’ve just invested their money in your work and it could be the start of an amazing partnership. You could email them a welcome document that outlines the process, record a welcome video to say how excited you are to work with them, send them a gift to welcome them as a client, or any number of other things to mark this occasion!
 

Getting paid


Price your services

One of the most difficult things about freelancing is knowing how to price your work. You need to decide what pricing strategy you will use and how much you will charge. 48% of freelancers get paid on a fixed fee, while 29% are paid hourly, and 23% experience a mix of both, but there are many options for pricing your work: 

  • Hourly (X amount of dollars per hours worked)
  • Fixed (a fixed $ amount for the whole project)
  • Retainer (an ongoing arrangement where you are paid the same amount per period of time)
     

Set up your payments

Deciding how much you charge is one thing, but getting paid is another! Setting up an easy invoicing system will make sure you can accept different types of payments from different clients and make it easy for them to pay you. Doing this now will have you invoicing like a pro from the beginning. Your invoices should include: 

Manage your money

The ability to save moneyas a freelancer is the biggest worry for an astonishing 76% of freelancers, followed by saving for retirement and having an unpredictable income. Also concerning is 6 out of 10 freelancers feel like they live paycheck to paycheck. But being financially savvy isn’t something all freelancers think about when they get started. However, if you set up a system and learn to manage your money now with a budget, savings, and your taxes covered, you’ll be much more prepared to weather any financial challenges that freelancers can face.
 

Part 2: Growing your freelance graphic design business

Once you’ve started your freelance career and found your feet in the world of self-employment, you’re ready to start growing your business. At this stage, it’s all about elevating your client experiences, growing your client base and reaching new people, and investing back in your business to grow.
 

Keep Your Clients Coming Back


Curate the experience

It’s five times more expensive to attract new clients than it is to keep existing ones. And the key to keeping those existing clients is to curate an amazing experience for them throughout your work together. Think about things like: 

  • How easy it is to communicate with you
  • How they can give feedback on your work
  • How reliable you are at responding to them
  • How clear the process is
  • The quality of your work
  • What extra touches you add to the process
     

Champion your clients

When you have worked with a client and finished up a project, don’t forget about them! Celebrate the launch of their new designs, send them a gift at the end of your project, share their successes on social media, or think of other ways that you can continue to champion your clients even after your project is finished. They’re part of your success story and on your team, so treat them with gratitude and celebration. 
 

Check in on your clients

41% of freelancers find work from their previous clients, so it’s also important to check in on clients regularly once your project is finished. 1 month, 6 months, and a year after you finish working with them, (if they haven’t been back to work with you already,) get in touch. Ask them how things are going, if they need any help with or have any questions about the deliverables you gave them, and if there’s anything else you can do to support them. Keeping in touch, being available, and supporting them on an ongoing basis is a great way to continue building client loyalty as a freelancer.
 

Finding More Clients


Market your business

Your initial clients will likely come through friends, family, and people in your existing network. But to grow your business and get in front of more clients, you need to start actively marketing your business and building an effective sales pipeline that brings you potential clients regularly. This could include strategies like: 

  • Social media content
  • Email marketing
  • Blogging
  • Podcasting
  • YouTube videos
  • Twitch streaming
  • Paid ads
  • Speaking
  • Printed marketing material
     

Grow your network

Since consumers referred by a friend are four times more likely to buy, another great strategy is to grow your freelance business through networking. The more people know who you are and what you do, the more likely you are to be recommended for work or for collaboration and marketing opportunities. So focus on genuinely engaging with people in the design industry, as well as people in the industry you want to be working with, and creating a community of people who know and support you.
 

Encourage referrals

Over 33% of freelancers get their jobs through referrals, so encouraging and requesting referrals could be one of the best ways to find your next contract. When you finish a project with a client, make sure to ask them for feedback, a testimonial, and any referrals they might have for other people who may value your services. You can also offer a referral program where they earn credits or other rewards with you for referring you to others.
 

Investing in your business


Get a mentor

One of the best ways to get to the next level in your business is to learn from someone who is already there or has been there. A mentor will help get the best out of you, guide you to where you want to go, support you along the way, and push you to grow. Find a mentor or coach whose approach and values align with yours, and if they don’t already offer mentoring, see if they would be interested in mentoring you.
 

Level up your skills 

Your freelance business isn’t going to grow if you aren’t. It’s important to regularly uplevel your skills in things like networking, marketing, financial management, project management, or skills to transition to a new field or niche. Depending on what aspect of your business you’d like to grow and develop, make sure to actively uplevel your skills in that area through books, videos, podcasts, courses, downloads, and other available resources.
 

Upgrade your tools

When you started your freelance business, you likely got started with what you had on hand and kept things quite lean at first. But as you grow, it might be time to upgrade your tools to make things easier, faster, and better. That could include better computer gear, design software, project management tools, and other things that you use throughout your business. Investing can be scary, but consider the return on investment, weigh it up in your budget, and decide whether it’s worth the investment to upgrade that tool.
 

Part 3: Scaling your freelance graphic design business

In the later stages of your freelance business, once you’ve been underway for a few years, it will be time for you to scale your operations. This includes booking bigger and better clients, becoming a leader in your field, and starting to think about growing your team!
 

Booking Bigger Clients


Niche your business

Once you have built and grown your business, it could be time to niche down. It might seem counterintuitive to niche smaller when you want to scale bigger, but niching makes scaling more achievable. By niching down, you become an expert in that area which makes it easier to design for those people as you already know all the ins and outs of their industry. It also makes you an expert in the eyes of your audience, which means you are more likely to be recommended as the go-to designer for that niche, as past clients know and refer you for being so knowledgeable. 

You can niche in a number of different ways, too. It doesn’t just have to be the clients you work for. Your niche could be: 

  • The industry you work for (ie. designer for wellness brands)
  • The price-bracket or business stage you work with (ie. designer for early-stage startups)
  • The skill you offer (ie. Webflow designer)
  • The style you work in (ie. 3D illustrator)
     

Become an expert

If you’re looking to scale to bigger and better clients, they’re going to be looking for someone who knows their stuff. At those higher prices, they’re not looking for someone who can just execute the design, they’re looking for an expert who can offer expertise, consult on decisions, and guide the process with confidence. Creating content and showing up online in a way that establishes credibility and shows that you’re an expert is going to help land those bigger clients. So think about how you can establish yourself as an expert in your field and impress those dream clients. 
 

Use social proof

If most of your clients up until this point have been friends, family, or referrals from those people, they already know and trust you to do great work. But when you’re marketing yourself to others who are just hearing about you for the first time, they need to know that they can trust you. That’s where social proof comes in. Share testimonials from past clients, results from previous projects, screenshots of positive feedback, and reshare when a client mentions you online. 
 

Automating Your Processes


Create easy onboarding 

One of the best ways to scale your freelance design business is by automating parts of your process so that you can get back to what you do best: designing! Creating an automated, repeatable system for your onboarding process will make it faster, easier, and more hands-off for you to book and welcome clients. You can use software like Hnry for your invoicing, proposals, and contracts, as well as automation apps like Zapier to connect different tools together. For example, you could have an automation that sends a welcome email to your client once their contract has been signed. 
 

Streamline the design process

70% of freelancers manage two to four projects at once, so once you’ve onboarded clients, you want to streamline the actual design process too in order to make sure that you can easily manage all of your projects. You can use automation tools and purpose-built software to make the design and feedback process as streamlined and efficient as possible for both you and your clients. 

For example, with software like Figma, you can collaborate and communicate with your clients in the same software you design in, or you can use Adobe Creative Cloud to share Adobe documents with clients for them to comment on which you can see directly in your working file. Tools like this will help you scale your processes and ultimately, your business.
 

Finish projects in style

The way that you onboard clients is important, but so is how you offboard them. When you’ve finished a project, find ways to make the process of delivering their assets and wrapping things up as easy and amazing as possible. What software could you use to seamlessly deliver assets? Could you send them guides or videos on how to implement their new assets? Maybe you could send them a gift or thank you note, or take them out for lunch to celebrate the project. First impressions matter, but last impressions are what people remember, so make it count! 
 

Growing Your Team


Outsource work

At some point as you grow and scale your business, you’re going to reach a point where you can’t do it all on your own. One of the first things you can do is outsource work to other designers. You could outsource some of your smaller jobs to a junior designer, for example.
 

Collaborate with others

Another way to scale your capacity is by collaborating with other creatives to offer new or expanded services. For example, as a web designer, you could collaborate with illustrators, copywriters or developers. Together you can collaborate on a holistic process and split the payment between you. 
 

Hire your team

And last but not least, you could be ready to hire your own team. This could mean other designers, but could also include project managers, accountants, developers, and other roles that would support your business. Think about which roles you need first and will help you scale the most successfully. 

 

Whether you are starting, growing, or scaling your freelance design business, these tips will help you with where you’re at, and with getting to the next stage. Own where you are, take care with each step, and keep working towards the next stage!


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