My freelance journey and how I got started is one of the most frequently asked questions I get on a monthly basis. I sat down to write this email to a reader and ended up with a novel-long response, so instead here it is turned into a blog post about my early beginnings and how it led me to where I’m at now.
Q: How did you get started? How were you able to grow your business? Was it mostly word of mouth or social media? Is getting work ever a problem for you?
Art and design have always been parts of my life. Literally, I’ve been drawing ever since I could pick up a pencil, and designing things ever since I’ve been on a computer (hello AOL Kids, pixel dolling, Neopet stores, and Xanga layouts, haha). So becoming a professional creative “just sort of happened”. There wasn’t ever a conscious decision to pursue these things; I was just always doing them because I loved it, and people eventually started hiring me to do more of it. That natural progression fueled by pure passion is why I’ve been able to do this for as long as I have.
At 16, someone who had seen my custom Myspace layouts, reached out to have me design her logo. That was the moment of realization that this hobby could be a real service, and potentially a career. I had an obnoxiously large Myspace following back then (xSceneQueenx for lyfe), and it gave me an outlet to promote my design work. Eventually I was designing layouts, logos, websites, album art, and t-shirts for hundreds of clients all through word of mouth. Although, things were very different back then. I don’t think a lot of people had yet fully realized the potential of social media, so the few of us out there using it to our advantage were really on the cusp of things. There were only a handful of other people servicing the niched audience of scene kids and bands, so it was easier to stand out and be in high demand.
After Myspace died, a major source of my clientele went with it, and I had to reinvent myself in a way. For a while, I focused mostly on music photography and designing for bands, lending itself to more word-of-mouth work and free promotion from the musicians. Not wanting to put all my eggs in that basket like I did with Myspace, I decided to get a degree in graphic design to leave the door open for more professional opportunities.
In school, it was easy to feel like a know-it-all at times, having already been freelancing for the last 5ish years. But my instructors acknowledged my skills, and pushed me to be even better, refining my process and challenging me to think beyond what I was used to doing. One professor actually gave me a D on a project because I skimped on sketches – even though she said it was the best final design of the class. Needless to say, sketching is now one of the most important parts of my process. In my final year, I fell in love with branding, and completely revamped my entire business model and services, catering specifically to small businesses and “creative makers and doers”. Which leads us to where I am today.
Throughout all of that, social media was going through a major evolution and it changed the way people stumbled upon designers and influencers. Before, I was used to people knowing me because of the presence I had years ago on Myspace. Now suddenly, I have to hustle a lot harder to be at the forefront. It seems like everyone is now a designer, developer, branding coach, Squarespace specialist, yada yada. So there’s a lot of crowd to stand out from. Nowadays, Instagram, blogging, and a few design sites like Behance and Dribbble are huge for promoting my work. If I neglect those, I’m sure my business would suffer.
I cannot stress enough how absolutely necessary and vastly important social media is for a freelancer in this day and age.
If you don’t put your work out there and make it possible for people to find it, no one is just going to come along and hire you. And I get that not everyone is going to be good at the whole social media thing – it’s definitely a full-time job of it’s own. But if you want dream clients of your own, it’s 100% necessary. I have friends who are so ridiculously talented, but they suck at social media promotion. So the only client work they get is the random word-of-mouth jobs from friends/family/coworkers/etc. Now don’t get me wrong, those jobs can then snowball into other jobs and so on. But you’re leaving your success in the hands of other people when you can be out there hustling for yourself.
In the end, everyone’s experience is going to be different. As a zillion other designers will tell you, there’s no magic formula to this. All of that to say, the biggest takeaways you should get from my experience are:
✳ Do what you love & don’t stop.
If you’re passionate about something, work at it every day, and don’t expect success to be handed to you. Just because you get a degree, doesn’t mean you’re obligated to a design career. Just because you make an Instagram account for your designs, doesn’t mean anyone’s going to follow you, let alone hire you. You have to hustle for it, constantly.
✳ There is always learning to be done, & challenges to be had.
Just when you think you know everything, dig deeper. When I thought I was hot shit in school, I got a D on a project, and that opened my eyes to how much growing I needed to do. Read books, take classes, join groups, set goals, and grow.
✳ Lastly, put your work out there.
Use social media to your advantage. Use hashtags. Be authentic and make genuine connections. Don’t just promote your ego. Share stories. Inspire others. (Read Austin Kleon’s Share Your Work if you want to learn more about how to share like an artist and not like a salesrobot.)
Hope this has helped and/or inspired your own experience. Feel free to reach out to me either in the comments below or via email if you have any questions or need any advice about anything! Happy to chat! :) Also, I plan on doing more posts like this, so if you have any burning questions you’d like me to cover, feel free to shoot me an email!