Growing your freelance design business

Once you’ve got your freelance design business off the ground you’ll want to work on growing it. The first year will be a rollercoaster while you build a client list and figure out what full-time freelancing entails. After the first year, you’ll want to focus your energy on the following activities to take your business to the next level.

Advertising

I’ve never done much in the way of advertising for my business. I think traditional advertising is a waste of time and money. The best way to get more clients is through referrals. Provide excellent customer service and do good work and your clients will tell their friends. If you want to work on building your personal brand and business online, you should look into growth hacking. Growth hacking is what companies like Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin used to build their businesses with almost no marketing budgets. The two main problems growth hacking helps solve are:

  • I don’t have a marketing budget
  • I don’t have a traditional marketing background

Although growth hacking focuses on building up a user base in a product, that isn’t far off from building a freelance business. You need to build a client list (user base) and you have limited resources to do so. Instead of spending money on ads that are hard to measure, you can complete tasks online to help build your personal brand. Check out the following slide deck for an introduction:

Growth Hacking or: Lean Marketing for Startups.

Personal Branding

When you first start your freelance business it’s a good idea to build yourself up as a brand. Whether you have a company name or you’re just going with your own name, it’s important to treat your persona like the business it is. A few simple ways you can do this are to use the same username on social networks and websites. Also, use the same profile picture everywhere. You want yourself to be memorable so be consistent in how you present yourself online.

Another way to build your personal brand is to participate in social networks where you can help people. Gary Vaynerchuk has said in the past that the best marketing plan you can have is to just care. An easy way to care and develop trust with potential clients is to help them online. Two of the best websites for this are Quora and Stack Overflow.

Quora is a community where you can ask a question about anything and anyone can answer it. This is a great way to build trust with potential customers by searching out questions in your area of expertise and answering them. Stack Overflow is similar but it’s all centered around questions about coding. Other users will then answer questions providing coded solutions. You gain a reputation as you help more people and this is a great way to show you’re an expert in your field.

One of the best ways to build a personal brand is to teach what you know. Even if you’re just starting out, you likely have at least a few years of experience with something like Photoshop or HTML. Take that knowledge and start a blog teaching the basics of Photoshop. Make that blog part of your portfolio website and you’ll have a way to drive traffic to your website. Another approach would be to write an eBook and sell it on your website. You can do this easily using an eCommerce platform like Gumroad. If you’re okay with public speaking, volunteer to speak at an event in your area. This is an awesome way to get your name out there and build your network.

Start a blog

Writing your own blog is an excellent way to build your business because it’s one of the best ways to drive traffic to your website. It’s also an excellent way to show that you are an expert in your field. You’ll likely have to research content which will also improve your skills at the same time. If you’re wondering what to write about then blog about what you know. For example, if you’re selling websites, blog about CSS and HTML. Personally I blog about CSS, HTML, freelancing, and design. I’ve also written books about CSS, Bootstrap, freelancing, and design. Are you starting to see the connections and how these fields can overlap to build your overall business?

The hardest part of a blog is to keep it up. I try to publish a new post every week but that doesn’t always happen. It’s a good idea to use something like Evernote to keep a list of blog post ideas. You can then write the draft version of a post and save it for when you need some content to publish. In your downtime, write more draft posts or polish existing content so it is ready to publish. If you can build up a bit of a backlog of posts then you’ll be able to keep a regular posting schedule.

Another technique you should consider is writing guest posts on a more successful blog. This is like public speaking but on the internet. You’ll get exposed to much more traffic and a percentage of those readers will click thru to your website. This will, in turn, help you to build a larger following for your own blog. It also builds relationships with a successful blog that you can leverage in the future when you need help promoting a product or service.

If writing isn’t your thing you can consider other types of blog posts. Video is a great way to teach on a blog. You could create a series of videos explaining how to build a basic website or use the newest features in Photoshop. Another type of content you could post is a slide deck. These can be uploaded to a website like Slideshare and then embedded right into your blog. When you are just starting out I’d encourage you to try a few different types of posts to see which ones your audience prefers. From there you can use that knowledge to produce content that will have the best return and drive the most traffic back to your website.

Growth hacks

I mentioned growth hacking earlier in the book, and it’s a big subject. I may write a whole book about it in the future. Instead of trying to explain what it is, I thought I’d provide a few examples to get you started.

Growth hack 1 — how to get more Twitter followers

Here’s an easy growth hack you can use to build your Twitter followers. We’re going to set up a Buffer account, import a feed, schedule some posts and talk about the best way to organize your posts.

If you don’t have a Buffer account already, go and sign up for one. Buffer is an awesome service that allows you to schedule posts for social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin. They also provide you with analytics on your posts so you can see what’s working the best.

Next, you’ll need an RSS feed for a blog that’s related to the product, service, or website you are promoting on your own Twitter account. Let’s say you have a blog about web design, then you would grab the RSS feed from a successful web design blog like Smashing Magazine. Once you’ve copied the RSS feed, head back to Buffer.

After you’ve signed up for Buffer and logged in, hook up your Twitter account. Next thing we want to do is import the feed we copied in the previous step. Head to the feeds section for your Twitter account in Buffer, it’s under the content tab.

From here, hit the Add & Remove Feeds button. With the free plan, you can only add 1 feed. The awesome plan, which is $10 a month, will allow you to add unlimited feeds. This is the plan that I currently use. Click that button and import your RSS feed. Now that you have your feed imported we can start filling our Buffer.

With Buffer, we want to schedule some posts so you get in the habit of posting and you don’t have to remember to do it every day. You just need to remember to keep your Buffer full. The free plan gives you 10 posts I believe, unlocking the awesome plan makes it unlimited.

You’re probably asking yourself how does this get me more Twitter followers? Let me explain. For every 5 posts you add to your Buffer, you want to make 4 of them from a respected web design blog like Tuts+. You want to piggyback off their high-quality content to make yourself a trusted source of valuable web design content. The 5th post in your buffer should be a link to one of your own blog posts, a product, or a service.

This way you are mixing in your own content with content from a reputable source. When you are starting out, the best practice is to insert links to your own blog posts. Don’t try and sell to people right away. You need to build trust with your followers and show you aren’t just a spammer. Then you can slowly start to introduce links to products or services you’re selling. You may not want to insert links to products at all. Instead, allow your users to find them organically when they visit your blog.

I’ve been using this tactic for about a year and I’ve seen it help my follower count. In my first month of using Buffer, I added about 250 new followers at @cardeo.

Growth hack 2 — build your email list by giving away something for free

I’ll get into why you need an email list in the next section but for now, let’s just assume you have one. If you don’t already, head over to mailchimp.com and sign up for a free account. Once signed up, login and create a new list. Finally, head to your website and set up a signup form for your mailing list. Many people will stop here and then wonder why their mailing list doesn’t drive more sales or leads. When you set up your sign up form, make sure you’re giving something away for free to your subscribers. This could be a website template, a PSD file, some exclusive content or a free eBook.

To set up a free file download on a mailchimp list follow these steps:

  • Login to mailchimp and go to the Lists page
  • Select the dropdown menu for your list and choose Signup Forms
  • Select General Forms to open up the form builder
  • Select the Final Welcome email from the forms and response dropdown
  • While on the Build it tab, click inside the red dashed lines to open the editor.
  • Type some text like Download and highlight it.
  • Click the Link icon and in the modal choose the File option from the drop-down
  • Upload your file and click Insert
  • Click Save & Close to apply the changes

Once a user signs up for your list, on the final welcome email they will see a link to download your free file. If you haven’t already, make sure you tell your user what they will get for free for signing up on your website. This is a great way to start building an email list that you can take advantage of in the future.

Building an email list

Perhaps the best business-building tool you can use is an email list. What that doesn’t sound very sexy? Who cares, it works. Nathan Barry has written an entire book about it called Authority and I would highly recommend you pick that up. As a freelancer, you want to build an email list because it’s a great way to keep in touch with clients and potential customers. You can remind them that you still exist and show them the high-quality work you’re producing. You can also provide unique content or offers that are not available to the regular public.

Another great way to drive sign-ups is to give something away free like I explained in the growth hack above. The great thing about that little automation is that you do it once and you don’t have to worry about it again. You may want to change the freebie up at some point but that would be a minimal amount of work. I’d actually encourage you to change it up so you can measure and determine what type of freebie works best.

In the end, it’s never a bad idea to build a mailing list. Take my word for this and just do it. If you build and sell your own products, this will be your most valuable resource for initial and repeat sales. Forget trying to sell on Facebook. Email works so don’t overcomplicate it.

Networking

As I’ve mentioned, a great way to grow your business is through networking.
You never know where you’ll meet your next client but it likely won’t be from home. You need to get out there and meet people. A great resource for finding events is meetup.com. Also, open yourself up to events outside of your expertise. Recently I attended some Bitcoin events and this lead to some new customers. Regardless of what you feel about Bitcoin, the industry is booming and designers are in short supply.

Another important reason to network is to get that human to human interaction. Working from home is great for many reasons but it’s not awesome from a social standpoint. You need to interact with other people to avoid burnout and keep your creative juices flowing. You never know where your next rush of inspiration might come from. Yesterday I decided to take a stroll around the Vancouver Art Gallery (I have a membership) and I stumbled across a book from a skateboard artist that really inspired me. I went home last night and did a solid hour of drawing which I had been putting off for a long time. That’s just one example of not knowing where inspiration will come from. Get out of the house, meet people, and enjoy new experiences to help grow your business.

Speaking

I’ve always had a healthy fear of speaking in front of a large group of people so it took me a while to do it for the first time. After getting over the fear, I actually enjoyed the experience. Even better it was a great way for me to build my personal brand. Talking to large groups of people and showing that I’m an expert while helping to teach them something for free is a win/win situation for everyone. Here are just a few of the benefits of public speaking in your town:

  • Great way to build your personal brand
  • Gives you a platform to show your work and ideas
  • Great way to meet potential clients
  • Great way to meet other designers and developers
  • Great way to give back to your design or development community

If you’re wondering how to find speaking gigs, I’d recommend checking out meetup.com to find events in your area. Groups like that are almost always looking for speakers. That’s how I ended up finding my first speaking gig and you should be able to find one too.

Subcontracting out work

If you’re really good at finding clients and closing deals, you may want to consider subcontracting out some work. Subcontracting means you hire another designer to do the work for you at a reduced rate. If you close a website job for $1,000 you could hire another web designer to complete it for $800 and then keep the difference. This is a great way to build up a larger client base if you plan on growing into an agency one day.

There are a few things you need to be careful of when you go this route. You need to make sure the designer you hire shares the same customer service and work ethic values. You don’t want your personal reputation to suffer because your designer delivered something late. You also need to find a designer who’s skill measures up to your own. The final thing that is most important is that the person is reliable. You don’t want to have to waste your limited time chasing them for work or a simple update on a project.

Another aspect to keep in mind when going this route is that you are moving out of the designer role into more of a management role. If you fancy yourself an art or creative director then this new role might be perfect for you. If you prefer to be working on projects all day then you might not want to follow this path. The management role is about working with people and reviewing design work, where the designer role involves actually doing the design work. Subcontracting is a great way to grow your business but make sure it’s the role you want for yourself.

Seek out larger firms to work for

In the past, I’ve had a ton of success working for larger agencies as a freelancer. These are really good jobs to work on because other designers are your clients. They understand where you are coming from and the challenges you face in any type of project. The flip side is they’ll expect more out of you than a traditional client because they understand the design process. This shouldn’t be a problem for you though because it will push you to become a better designer.

Another excellent benefit of working with an agency is that you’ll be able to work on some higher profile client work. This can be invaluable for a designer who is just starting out and wants to add some legitimacy to their portfolio. Just make sure you okay it with the firm before you publicly take credit for any work. In my experience, they won’t have a problem with it as long as you say that you did this work while working for Acme Design Company.

Working with an agency is also a crash course in how they work. If you want to start your own agency one day, keep your eyes and ears open to see how they run their business. As the business grows, the business-related tasks grow so you need to learn how to keep up with them and not lose your mind or your shirt. It’s also nice to see how the big agencies operate so you know what you are working towards. Make sure you act professionally and do a great job and an agency can be a great source of repeat business for you.

Passive income

If you’re jumping into full-time freelancing you need to understand passive income. In my experience, I often had a hard time filling up all my time with freelance work. I was ready and willing to work but it would be a slow week or month. During this downtime, the best thing you can do is create your own products which you can sell online. There are many marketplaces like Creative Market, Graphicriver and Themeforest where people are making decent livings selling files. This is called passive income because you do the work once and then continue to get paid for it over a long period of time. This kind of stuff is great for a freelancer because you can get some monthly cash flow coming in for work that is already done. Yes, you should provide some level of support to your customers but the impact will be minimal compared to the rewards. You might even find that this is a more lucrative path then client work and do it full-time.

What type of files should I create?

What are you’re strengths? Are you a killer WordPress developer? Then make WordPress themes for Themeforest. Are you an amazing illustrator? Then create icon sets and sell them at Creative Market. You can also sell your goods in your own marketplace. Setting up an eCommerce store isn’t complicated. You can use a service like Gumroad to easily sell products on your website; that’s what I use.

Regardless of where you sell your products, it’s a good idea to create a web store to display them all. Some of the types of files I’ve created in the past include:

  • eBooks
  • Bootstrap Themes
  • WordPress Themes
  • HTML Email Templates
  • Website Templates
  • Magazine Templates
  • Resume Temples
  • Logo Templates
  • Presentation Templates
  • InDesign Templates
  • PSD Brush Sets
  • Stock Vectors
  • Book Templates

Over the last few years, I’ve made in the tens of thousands of dollars selling these products online. What are you waiting for? Start building your own templates now!

Head of Design @ Stellar Labs

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