Culture / Freelance Advice

How to Start Freelancing

Being a freelance illustrator can feel like you're competing in a triathlon. Here are our tips to prepare for this multi-skilled race

How to Start Freelancing

I began freelancing over a decade ago, straight out of university, with little guidance and without a clue of the challenges that lay ahead. Inevitably, I made mistakes, more than I care to count. But I learnt from my mistakes and from other freelancers around me.

Today, I want to share a few lessons; things I wish I’d known before becoming a freelancer.

Ready, steady…

Most creatives are attracted to the freelance life, tempted by the chance to be their own boss, set their own hours and handpick their clients.

But do not be fooled, the road to a successful freelancing career is exhausting with constant uncertainty and doubt.

In addition to your role as a nifty illustrator, freelancing demands that you are a consultant, marketer, project manager, salesperson, spokesperson, skivvy and more. This means you’ll be working much, much harder than any typical nine-to-five job.

Before making the leap, have a clear idea about what you are embarking upon by talking to freelancers, listening to podcasts and reading about their experiences.

Tell people

Before you begin and throughout your freelance career, it is important that you tell everyone that you meet what you do.

Your first client will not come from an enquiry from your website or a social media follower. Your first client will come from someone you know. Someone who trusts you.

Trust, more than anything else, gets you work. It takes time to build trust but with a few enthusiastic client endorsements, you’ll find more the work comes your way.

A client from a referral will trust you, even if they have not seen your work. Which sounds strange, and feels strange when it happens. But this is because they extended their trust in the referrer to you.

So, don’t be shy, tell everyone what you do, repeatedly, be brief and be clear. 

Before you quit your job, have some clients lined up. If you don’t have two or three lined up, you need to tell more people.

Standing out

Be unique. Don’t aim to compete with thousands of other illustrators. Whether it’s style, techniques, medium, personality or something else. Have something that others don’t. Something that is distinctive and desirable. 

To stand out, it helps to understand the crowd. You need a good knowledge of the illustration industry as a whole, as well as the particular field you would like to be in. You need to know its history, who are the key people, who are the up-and-comers, the current trends and how to predict future trends.

It’s a good idea to look for gaps in the market that you can fill. What can you supply to a sector or industry that others are not supplying?

This level of industry insight is invaluable. It will help you plan your first steps and serve you well throughout your career.

Standing out is all about making your freelance career path as smooth as possible. The more you distance yourself from the competition, the less you have to fight to be noticed.

Obviously do not literally isolate yourself from others, make as many creative friends as possible.

Planning ahead

Another ‘must’ before quitting your job is making sure that you have savings that will last 3-9 months, the more you can manage the better.

Setting up your freelance practice can take a couple of months; tinkering with your branding, website and portfolio, dealing with accountants, banks and HMRC.

Then, once you finally get a client, think about how long the project may take to complete, followed by how long the client will take to pay you.

So at first, there will be little to no money coming in. You need to prepare for that, saving before you leave a job will make the transition more comfortable. Learn to be frugal. Use this time to get in the habit of monitoring your income and outgoings.

Company or sole trader?

Whenever a freelancer asks me if they should register a company, my answer is always the same. No.

A company, legally speaking, is a person. It has all the rights of an ordinary person as well as the responsibilities. Companies have a right to enter into contracts with other parties and to sue or be sued in court.

One of the most alluring benefits of having a company is that, heaven forbid, you run into debt or get sued, the company is liable to repay those debts or be sued. You remain unscathed, free from personal liability. This gives you the option to close your business and move on.

However, there are a few disadvantages of a company to be aware of, such as corporation tax, additional filing and reporting requirements, more complex accounting and taxation requirements. Companies are also required to publicly disclose information on directors, shareholders, assets and revenue.

Money put into your company is not yours; it belongs to the company. You cannot simply take money out like it was your own personal bank account. There are four ways to take money out of a limited company: PAYE, dividends, director’s loan and expenses. 

In short, running a company is a lot more complicated and in most cases more expensive than being a sole trader or in a partnership.

NB. I am based in the UK, so some of my advice is UK-centric, if you’re not based in the UK, you will need to apply the rules and regulations of your country. Advice about registering a company, banks and tax is all from personal experience, if you have any specific questions, you should seek professional advice.

Banks, taxes and insurance

This section is every bit as sexy as the title suggests, but don’t skip it, it’s vital to get this right from the start.

Once you have decided on becoming a freelancer, your first official duty is to inform the HMRC. It’s a good idea to tell the HMRC that you started trading on 6 April, that way your accounting year will match the tax year and will save you unnecessary headaches.

As a sole-trader, you can use your personal bank account for business transactions but I strongly advise that you open up a separate account. It does not need to be a business account.

Nowadays, many current accounts give you the ability to set up different ‘pots’ or ‘buckets’. They are designed to help you save.

I recommend that you create a pot called Tax and every time you get paid, put 20%* of it here. Do not touch the money in the Tax pot, it’s not yours. You do not want to be in a situation where you don’t have enough money to pay your tax bill.

*20% is the current basic rate of income tax you will pay on earnings between £12,501 and £50,000. Everything you earn after £50,001, up to £150,000, you will pay a higher rate of 40%. 

If you earn over £150,000, congratulations. Please email to let me know how.

Get an accountant, at least for the first year. Have them submit your first tax return. They know all about income tax, allowable expenses and National Insurance contributions. Having an expert do this will give you peace of mind. If you are not using any of the fancy accounting software available, ask your accountant to prepare a spreadsheet for you to track your expenses on a monthly basis.

Get insurance. At the very least get Contents Insurance and if you want to be safe Professional Indemnity. Many companies will insist contractors have Professional Indemnity.

Have a goal

Staying on the subject of money, give yourself an annual target income. This will be your measure of success. Trust me, it is a much better measure than the number of projects or clients that you have.

Without a clear income goal, a whole year can go by where you are working every minute, for little pay, and do not stop to note it as an issue. Worse yet, the cycle repeats itself the following year, and the year after that.

Pricing your work

Don’t do anything for free. You are not a charity. Exposure isn’t payment, nor is the promise of more work. Don’t entertain clients promising these things in exchange for paying you less or not paying you at all.

Pricing is a big topic which I plan to get into more detail in a follow-up article.

For now, the best advice I can give is to research other illustrators and companies. Make up a fake project and request quotes from a bunch of them. The project should be one that you would like to do. Once you receive a quote, thank them for their time, then tell them that the project has been put on hold, or it’s not going ahead, or some other reason. Remember, rejection is never nice, so be polite.

This exercise should help you gauge the market and help you position yourself. It also has an added bonus of learning about the process of quoting.

Home office or studio

The general opinion is that freelancers don’t really do any work. They just sit in their bedroom all day watching YouTube not answering emails. No matter how much you tell people that you’re busy and working hard, they remain unconvinced.

Working from home is wonderful but it is not for everyone. It can be lonely and requires self-discipline. If you fail to manage your day, you can end up not eating or going out in order to meet a deadline.

It’s important to establish habits for your wellbeing and your productivity. Organising your day will become easier in time, once you know how long things take. You’ll be able to schedule projects and avoid overloading yourself.

Whether you want to work from 9am to 2pm, like Charles Dickens, or 9pm to 3am like Gustave Flaubert, be consistent, arrive on time, and leave on time. Do not fall into the murky world of if you are at home then you are at work.

No matter how nice your home office may be, I always recommend conducting meetings outside the home. This gives you an excuse to leave the office while maintaining an important boundary between you and the client. 

In my experience, once a client has visited your home office, cogs start turning and they begin to think that because you work from home, they should probably pay less. After all, you don’t have the expenses of an actual office. Not all clients think this way, but be on the safe side and don’t give them that opportunity.

You may be tempted to get a studio to prove to yourself and others that you do have a ‘real job’. But do not rush into it. 

You need to be certain that your minimum regular income can cover the added expense. Not just the rent, but travel, lunches, as well as any extra equipment. You should factor these into the costs before committing yourself.

More to come

What advice do you wish you’d known before you went freelance? Please share your tips in the comments section.

Next, we’re tackling how to set your pay rate and get paid.

Further reading

Illustration by Mr Geo Neo

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