If you made it your New Year's resolution to start up your own design concern, but are still being driven mad by a job you can't stand, now might be the time. Craig Grannell gets advice from those who have already made the leap.
Research suggests that it's during the first few post-Christmas months that people become most fed-up with their job and when many choose to jack it in, or at least start thinking about doing so. But this is clearly a good time to drag out the old cliché 'look before you leap', because jumping headlong into the world of freelance is a bad idea if you don't think carefully about what you're doing before taking the plunge.
Why do you want to go freelance? What are the benefits and the pitfalls? How will you get your name out there and make ends meet? And then there are the tasks that until now other people have dealt with, such as taxes and chasing payments. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself if it's all worth the risk.
GOING IT ALONE
Chances are, if you're thinking about going freelance, it might be time to make the move. But when's the best time to do so? And if you've no commercial experience, should you first work for an agency before striking out on your own? Nathan Pitman, who set up web design agency Nine Four, thinks you should: "I worked in studio environments for eight years before going freelance. Commercial experience is invaluable if you're looking to land direct clients, since you'll need to combine managing jobs, doing the work and bringing in new sales."
Sami Niemelä, who now trades as Neocite Communications, agrees, and suggests that the "actual learning for your trade only really starts after you graduate, and that you might even end up liking a regular 'day job'." However,Niemelä also believes that it's natural for those in some professions to veer towards freelancing more quickly than others. "For a skilled illustrator, freelancing is a natural way to go, but for a graphic designer just starting out, it might be useful to gather real-world experience first." Despite this, illustrator Ian Esson believes that if you're brave enough, throwing yourself in at the deep end can work wonders. "There's no better way to learn than from your own mistakes, and eventually you'll know what is right and wrong and how to deal with the situations that arise." Ultimately, Esson argues that the choice to go freelance is entirely your own: "Don't let others tell you that you should or shouldn't do it, but do seek advice from those who've already been down a similar path."
One organisation offering advice to potential and existing freelance illustrators is the Association of Illustrators. Membership co-ordinator Anna Hallam says there are both advantages and disadvantages for anyone thinking of going freelance. "The need for a regular income to meet financial commitments can sometimes limit your options, so ideally you need an approach that secures a steady income and creates new opportunities," she says. "While freelancing brings variety and flexibility, enabling you to fit your work around your life, and although developments in technology mean you can work almost anywhere, freelancers don't get paid holiday or sick pay, and the responsibilities of running a business can sometimes offset the benefits of freelancing."
Freelance new media designer Dan Marsden agrees, saying that anyone who thinks freelancing is an easy ride should think again: "Most of the time, you have to find the work, do the work, invoice the work and then chase the invoice when it's not been paid - and most clients don't pay on time!" Furthermore, there's the prospect of merely making ends meet - taking on unglamorous jobs, rather than cherry-picking exciting work.
STAYING IN CONTROL
Ultimately, despite having to work on the occasional duff job, most freelancers say they are more in control of their lives. "If you don't like how something is panning out, change it," says Pitman, who highlights the fact that if you're employed by an agency you might have a say, but it's doubtful you'll be able to decide one day to change how the company is run.
Of course, in order to be in control, you need to lay good foundations, a process that should actually start at your previous job. Beware of burning bridges - even if you dislike your current situation and your boss, be professional and honest about why you want to leave. This may lead to freelance work via your old company, which can prove useful in your first few months. In Marsden's case, things went a stage further: "When I told my employers of my intentions, they kindly agreed to let me go part-time, working for them two days each week while I built up my freelance work during the remainder of the week."
Freelance designer and illustrator Chris Robinson strongly recommends doing some serious research while you still have the security of a permanent job: "Before going freelance, I read up on the business aspect of freelancing, emailed freelancers for advice, posted on forums and chatted to tutors. There's an endless supply of resources out there - on the internet, in magazines and at business advice centres."
Once you're convinced that freelancing is the right direction for you, it's time to start thinking about some important practical issues regarding running your own business: what type of concern to run, and where to run it from. The majority of freelancers work self-employed as sole traders. Many trade under their own names, mostly for simplicity's sake, but also because it provides a personal touch, which can be useful when courting new clients.
The Boy Fitz Hammond uses a pseudonym instead. "It was a name someone called me a few years ago, and it must have stuck in my head," he explains. "When it came to starting out - and I'd already decided to use a name other than my own - it seemed the obvious choice. More importantly, other people seem to remember it, too, which is a good thing!"
Some freelancers have taken a different route, choosing to work under a brand name that doesn't make it obvious that they are a sole trader. Martin McCully of Milk&Two reasons that not only does this enable the 'company' to expand, but it also helps when approaching medium-to-large businesses, which often won't employ a single designer.
"Having a company name definitely helps to open doors," says McCully. "It can provide credibility and help you to be taken more seriously." And some designers have taken things even further - the ability to expand a 'company' from a one-man-band to a de-facto agency led Pitman to set up Nine Four as a limited company.
"My long-term ambition is that it will be more than just me, so it made sense to set things up with that in mind," says Pitman, who also points out that a limited company can be sold on if the opportunity arises - and if the price is right.
Regardless of how they work, many freelancers are seen as designers or illustrators beavering away in a home office, and in most cases that's exactly what happens. "I work from a box room in the corner of my house," says Chris Robinson. "It reduces costs significantly over a studio, and it also enables me to work at night when my creativity is at its peak." He warns, though, that you must be disciplined and motivated if you choose to work this way: "It's all too easy to stop working and turn on the television. Some freelancers need to physically leave their house and go into an office or studio to get them into the right mindset to be creative."
Marsden also works from home, primarily citing the two-hour commute he used to endure as the reason why: "Think of the time wasted each week!" Pitman agrees: "There's no point in paying business rent if you have a suitable space that you can use for free." That said, working from home isn't for everyone, and as The Boy Fitz Hammond points out, there's a very real benefit of his rented desk space at an Edinburgh-based multimedia company. "It's nice, because it keeps me around other people."
Once you're up and running, the next step is to get your name out there. Illustrator Nathan Fletcher says that all freelancers should market themselves. "Keep your website upto- date with new work, send mailouts to prospective and existing clients, and visit clients with your portfolio for face-to-face meetings," he says. In addition, says Robinson, you shouldn't be afraid to directly seek out businesses you want to work with. "Just contact them, explaining what you're about and how working together would benefit them." It's also worth investigating the possibility of any reciprocal deals.
"I have arrangements with a couple of businesses whereby they sell my services on to their clients, so they're essentially marketing my services for me at no cost," says Nathan Pitman. "They put a mark-up on my quotes and their clients are happy because they already have a relationship with the business in question."
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
With luck, time and effort, marketing will lead to awareness, which in turn will result in you quoting for jobs - check out our Expose Yourself feature for a guide to self-promotional tricks. Rates vary massively, though, and many freelancers fear that they might price themselves out of the market. While it may sometimes be tempting to offer quotes that barely cover your costs - especially when work is slow - do bear in mind that companies are suspicious of quotes that noticeably undercut others.
That said, there is no one rate that suits everyone, and a good rule of thumb is to figure out how much you want to earn each year, break this down to an hourly rate, and then double it. Don't make the mistake of working out an hourly rate without taking into consideration the time spent on administration tasks, which usually eat into a third or more of each working day.
Having your finances in order doesn't mean that other people will, though. And it's a fact of life that many clients drag out the payment process for as long as possible, regardless of your terms. Never be afraid of chasing up late payments, but always remain professional. "I find it best to deal with the accounts department directly," says The Boy Fitz Hammond. "Every client has their own timescale of when to pay, so it's best to check that before you send in the heavy mob."
Tax is another major financial consideration when working for yourself. Although you may baulk at the thought of paying an accountant to deal with your taxes, most freelancers agree that it's money well spent, and that good accountants eventually pay for themselves with the money they save you. "Put aside enough money each month to pay the huge tax bill that will land on your doorstep a year or so after you start trading," says Marsden.
Ultimately, dealing with your taxes is just another important facet of being a professional freelancer. "Be as professional as possible from the outset and it's less easy to pick up bad habits, and more likely that you'll work for big clients," Anna Hallam concludes. And that means an income, continued freedom as a freelancer, and hopefully banishing the thought of having to ask for your old job back for good.