As a freelance designer, you will face peaks and valleys while running your business.
I've said it before, and I'll repeat it. There's nothing better than working for yourself. From deciding who you want to work with to how much you want to charge for your work. Being your own boss is, well, liberating.
As your own boss, you get to set your own hours. Want to waste time during the day and work at night? That's your prerogative. Feel like getting away for a few days? Go ahead. You don't need permission to take time off.
When you're working for yourself, you get to chose where and how you want to work. If you feel like spending the day at a coffee shop working away on your laptop, you can. If you feel like hunkering down at home to avoid all distractions, go for it. As a self-employed designer, a freelancer if you will, you have the freedom to make your destiny. I don't think there's any better career than that.
However, I will give kudos to one aspect of working as a design employee for someone else—a steady paycheque.
With all the restrictions, limitations and handholding that may come with being an employee, the one bright light is the knowledge that every week or two, on schedule, a predetermined amount of money gets deposited into your bank account. This money shows up regardless of how busy or not busy you were. This steady paycheque may be the only way that being a designer trumps being a freelancer.
It's true. As a self-employed designer, a freelancer, you never know when or where you'll get your next payment. Nor how much it will be. And that can cause a lot of stress in your life, especially if you are the primary breadwinner in your household. Because even though your income may be unpredictable, your monthly expenses are not. They show up right on schedule regardless of the balance in your bank account.
I wish I could tell you there's a simple solution to this dilemma, but there isn't. Ask any self-employed designer, and they'll let you know of their experiences navigating these peaks and valleys. Peaks when work, and of course income is in abundance. And valleys when they become scarce. There is no solution if you want to remain a freelancer.
However, there are ways to mitigate the problem so peaks and valleys even out over time. Here's what's worked for me and some other methods I've heard work for other designers.
Recurring revenue is as it sounds. It's revenue (or income) that recurs regularly.
The best way to acquire recurring revenue is by offering a retainer to your clients. I talked about retainer agreements in episode 32 of the podcast and again in episode 255. The gist of a retainer agreement is offering an ongoing service to your clients that they pay for regularly.
In some cases, you may have to sacrifice some income for the guarantee of this recurring revenue. For example, If your hourly rate is $100, you may want to offer a retainer where, if a client guarantees to pre-purchase 10 hours of your time per month, you'll only charge them $90/hr for them.
Or if a client asks you to design social media posts regularly. You could offer a retainer agreement where they guarantee to pay a fixed fee for a certain number of graphics every month.
Since retainer agreements are guaranteed recurring revenue, they act as a regular paycheck similar to what you'd get as a design employee. Some designers work exclusively on retainer agreements, allowing them to predict how much money they earn each month.
There's a lot more to retainer agreements than just this. I suggest you listen to episodes 32 and 255 of the podcast if you want to learn more about them. But suffice it to say, retainer agreements are a great way to even out the peaks and valleys.
Website maintenance agreements.
Another form of recurring revenue if you're a web designer is to offer a website maintenance agreement. A website maintenance agreement states that you will secure, update and take care of a client's website for a fixed monthly fee. It's kind of an insurance polity for their website.
Website maintenance agreements require very little time and effort on your part and offer peace of mind to your clients.
Selling digital products.
Another form of recurring revenue, although not as steady or predictable as retainer agreements or maintenance agreements, is selling digital goods and products.
You are a designer, a creative visionary. Why not use the design skills you offer your clients and put them to use for yourself? There are many platforms such as Creative Market or Design Cuts where you sell your creative wares. These offerings are available for purchase by other creatives and people who need certain assets but may not have the skills to create them themselves.
I've created dozens of designs that I sell on various print-on-demand platforms. I get paid any time someone buys a t-shirt, coffee mug, phone case or sticker with one of my designs on it. This is another form of a digital product.
For me, it's not enough to make a living. At least not with my few dozen designs I sell. But every month, I receive anywhere between $70 - $120 for my designs. Some of them I created years ago, and I'm still collecting money from them. And I'm sure if I dedicated the time to make more of these designs regularly, I could generate a more considerable recurring income.
To learn more about selling digital products, listen to episode 155 of the podcast, where I talked about this exact topic with Tom Ross, the founder of Design Cuts.
So, all in all, recurring revenue is a great way to even out the peaks and valleys you'll encounter as a freelance designer.
Promote when you're busy.
There are other things you can do to help ease the peaks and valleys situation. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard is "Promote your business when you're busy." It's a case of don't wait until you're thirsty to dig a well.
It sounds crazy. When you're pulling your hair out because you have too many projects on the go and deadlines quickly approaching, the last thing on your mind is drumming up more work. But believe it or not, that's precisely the time you should be promoting your business. Why? Because marketing takes time to germinate.
The more you promote your business while you're busy and experiencing one of those peaks in workload, the less deep the valleys will be that you'll have to navigate once the work rush dies down. If you do this right, you may be able to raise those lulls to the point where instead of peaks and valleys, you'll be cruising across an even plain.
I know what you're thinking. If I'm that busy, how will I find the time to promote my design business? To that, let me say: Promoting your design business doesn't require a massive advertising campaign. All it takes is sending off a few emails to idle clients to ask how they're doing and if there's anything you can do for them. It doesn't take much. And if you do it right, your peaks and valleys won't be that severe.
Draw a salary from your business.
There's another way for you to lessen the impact of peaks and valleys. Remember when I said the one benefit of being a design employee is the regular paycheque? Want to know a little secret? You can make yourself a design employee of your own freelance design business and have the best of both worlds.
What? No way! Yes, way. I know many designers who do just this. They treat themselves as an employee and draw a regular paycheck from their own business. Here is how it works.
All revenue earned from design work, recurring revenue, and selling digital products belongs to your design business. It all goes into a business bank account and gets treated the same way any other company treats its capital assets. From that pool of money, you, the designer, draw a salary.
Running your company this way puts the burden of dealing with the peaks and valleys on your business and not on you, the designer. As far as you're concerned, those peaks and valleys even out because you draw the same salary every week regardless of the business' income. This method spreads out your income evenly over time. Let me give you an example.
Let's use some round numbers here and say you make your salary $500/week. One week you take on a $1200 web project. That $1200 is deposited into your business's bank account, and from it, you withdraw your weekly $500 salary, leaving $700 in the bank.
The following week things are slow, and the only work you get is a $300 poster design. That $300 is deposited into the bank, bringing the balance up to $1000. At the end of the week, you withdraw your $500 salary, which leaves $500 in the business bank account. Enough for your next week's salary should no work come in.
Here's the fun part. At any point, as the funds in the business' bank increase, you can always pay yourself a bonus. The other benefit is since the business has this money, it's available for business purchases such as new equipment or subscriptions and doesn't have to come out of your pocket, which lessens the hurt of spending it.
I know many designers who use this model. In most cases, those designers run their businesses as LLCs or some other form of corporation. I have my business set up as a sole proprietorship, so it's not easy to separate the business from myself.
I even know some designers who use a third-party employee payment service to prevent them from dipping into the business' bank account.
The best thing you can do is check with your accountant to see if this is a good model for you. It may offer tax benefits for you as well, especially if your business is incorporated.
Raise your rates.
The last idea I want to share with you has to do with the rates you charge. Many designers who switch from full-time employment to freelancing use their full-time salary to base their freelance rates. Don't. As a freelancer, you are expected to charge more.
If you were making $25/hr working for someone else, you should be charging your clients double or triple or even more for your services.
As a self-employed designer, you have to pay for your own benefits. Three are no sick days or vacation pay, or parental leave. You have to make sure you are compensated for the risk of lost income due to anything from medical emergencies to vacations in the tropics.
Call the higher rates you charge a form of self-insurance. You should make sure the money you earn today when things are going well will get you through the times when work dries up. You do this by charging enough to make sure your future is covered.
Not sure how to raise your rates? Luckily for you, I wrote a blog post on this exact topic.
It's up to you to deal with the peaks and valleys of freelancing.
These are some ideas for dealing with the peaks and valleys of a freelance income. It may sound daunting and stressful. And knowing about these peaks and valleys may have you thinking that working for someone else is looking more appealing. But if you can learn how to manage the fluctuating income of running your own design business. Chances are you'll not only outearn your employed counterpart. But you'll enjoy greater job security, autonomy and flexibility.
A 2018 study by Upwork shows that nearly three-quarters of full-time freelancers report earning more than when they had a full-time job. And 87% are optimistic about their future careers. In fact, more than half of respondents say no amount of money would get them to switch back to being full-time employees working for someone else. I know that's how I feel.
Remember, running your own design business is two jobs–a designer and a business owner. When you're pursuing your passion, it's easy to get caught up in the former and forget about the latter. If all of your focus is on your design work, you're only doing half your job. It's that business owner side that needs to do whatever you can to ensure those inevitable valleys you'll face are not as deep as they could be. You do that by following the advice I just shared with you.
One last thing.
I've been talking about these valleys as if they are a terrible thing. Something you should try to eliminate if at all possible. But when they do happen, and they will, try to enjoy those slower times. Use them to your advantage. Get out there and network. Contact old clients you haven't heard from in a while. Work on personal projects you've been neglecting. And make sure you use those slow times to work on your business. You know, all the things you told yourself you'd get to one day.
Heck, You can even use some of that slow time to relax and enjoy life. After all, when you're in a valley, it just means there is another peak on the horizon.