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Episode #142: How to Make 6 Figures as a Freelancer

A female freelance designer holding a wad of money standing next to a male freelance designer holding a laptop.Want to make $100,000 a year as a full-time freelancer? Find out what I did and what you can do to make 6 figures as a freelance designer, even in your first year of freelancing full time. Also find out what to do before you do it.


In this episode of Design Domination, I’m sharing how you can make 6 figures as a freelance designer, especially in your first year of freelancing full time.

I’ll share my own experience, and I’m also going to be very transparent here and give you numbers about my job and my business at the time that I went out on my own.

Stick around to get lots of tips that I hope will help you knock it out of the park if you’re about to go out on your own full time as a freelancer or to propel your existing freelance business to the next level. And guess what? You don’t have to be the best designer to do this. (I wasn’t!)

Have the Right Mindset

Many graphic designers don’t think making six figures on your own is possible. Most graphic designers don’t make that, and salaries are quite less than that, so why should they think that it’s possible? Well, it is.

But you have to get yourself into the right mindset. First off, you have to stop comparing your rates to what other designers are charging. There are soooo many different factors there. What works for one designer doesn’t necessarily work for you.

Second, if you base what you think you can make off of what others make, you’re just limiting yourself. This makes me sad because I see so many graphic designers comparing themselves to Fiverr or people in other Facebook groups, and thinking that’s their competition. And most designers there don’t make much, so how could they?

If you think this, please do yourself a favor and get out of this mindset right now!

Just because another designer makes x amount of money has nothing to do with your skills or your situation.

Here’s what I mean. I’ll use food as an analogy.

There is a food service for every budget.

  • Fast food, which is fast and cheap and serves a large quantity of people.
  • Restaurant chains, with medium and high pricing and serving a large quantity of people.
  • Gourmet chefs, who are higher priced and more specialized, serving fewer people.

The problem is that most graphic designers seem to think that all clients want cheap—the fast food—but that is so not the case.

If they do want cheap, though, they can go to the fast food designers. That’s fine. Let them. But if you want to be in a different category, then don’t put yourself in that category with everybody else!

Pick which spot you want to be in. Differentiate yourself. Believe in the work you do and how it helps your clients and the end users. You’ve got to know what you bring to the table.

Otherwise, if you constantly compare yourself to other designers, you will always make excuses in your head for why you can’t charge more or be more successful.

I know because I’ve been there myself.

I’ve also cried and fought with coaches in the past on doing things that were very uncomfortable for me. But that is where growth happens—for you and for your business.

Build Your Client Base

Another thing to do before you go out on your own—and this is very important—is to build your client base and continue to build it after you do.

Going out on your own doesn’t have to be like a light switch—one day you’re working a full-time job and the next day you’re self-employed. In some circumstances though, like if you get laid off or quit your job, it may be just like that.

I’ll share what I did.

I’ve been in the graphic design industry since 1997. That’s when I graduated from college. I got a job as a graphic designer at a nonprofit organization. While I was at that job, my boss would sometimes get asked by other nonprofits in the area if she knew any good freelance graphic designers. They didn’t have anyone on staff.

She would give my name to these other organizations, and I did freelance work for them in the evenings and on weekends.

So I started building up a client base immediately. Those freelance clients would then refer other nonprofits to me, and it snowballed from there.

I left that full-time job after two years and went to work for a publishing company.

I continued freelancing for the nonprofit clients and even for my previous employer. I think I may have actually been the only full-time graphic designer they ever had.

I stayed at this second job for a couple of years. After I left, I did some freelance work for them too.

After that job, I went on to a design firm, then another publishing company, who I also did freelance work for after I left. Then I went back to my second employer…

Gosh, it seems like I had a ton of jobs. It didn’t seem like I had that many but I guess it was. I stayed there for a good amount of time though.

I did some more freelance work for them after that.

When people I knew at these jobs left and went on to new jobs, they would usually contact me to do freelance work for their new place of work. So my freelance client base continued to build and build.

I was also getting new clients outside of this through friends and email lists I was on. There was a lot of word of mouth.

At my last full-time job, I think I was making around $40k a year. But I made $61k on the side—just freelancing—in that last year I had a full-time job. I only had nine clients.

I left my full-time job toward the end of 2004 because I was making more money on the side than at my job. Of course, the job offered benefits too, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

But I decided that was the time to start my own thing. I had also always wanted to work for myself. I had just been too scared before then to take the plunge up.

So I worked a full-time job and freelanced for seven years before going out on my own. I had my LLC for a year prior to doing that.

I would work evenings and weekends. I was so busy I would sometimes have to use sick days or vacation days to get large freelance projects done.

In my first full year of self-employment, I made just under $100k. In the second year, I made $137k. Gross, not net.

By the way, I did this with just a website and building a referral network.

There was no social media at the time. If there was, I wasn’t on it.

You also want to create a mailing list and stay in touch with the people on it.

Ask your existing and past clients for permission to add them to your list. You may even want to ask colleagues because you never know when they might need your help or know someone who does.

I have a clause in my contracts that says I will add them to my email list.

In the mails you send out, share your recent work and a recent blog post. This keeps you top of mind on a regular basis, which can lead to getting more work simply by them seeing your name in their inbox. Therefore, it’s good to be consistent and send an email out on a monthly basis.

The benefit to having a newsletter is that you own and control it, unlike social media platforms, which can limit what people even see or could go away at any time, leaving you without an audience.

Social media posts are also very fleeting—there one day and gone the next.

Sometimes people want something they can keep. For instance, I’ve been told many times by people on my email list that they held onto my email newsletter in case they might need my services someday, and then they did! Or they forwarded it to someone else.

Social media posts are also one to many. They don’t have the one-to-one interaction that email does.

Have a Professional Brand

Having a professional brand is very important.

Before I went out on my own entirely, I freelanced under a couple of different business names, which was probably confusing for clients. I had trouble deciding on one (a major branding issue!). I just kind of went by them informally on contracts, invoices and such, until I settled on Gratzer Graphics and made it an LLC in 2003.

Ensure that your branding is consistent and professional from your website to your social media channels to your print and digital marketing collateral.

As designers, it’s important to remember that the work that we do for ourselves is an example of what we can do for our clients.

The other thing with your branding is that it should appeal to the types of clients that you’re trying to attract. What appeals to you as a designer is not necessarily appealing to the clients you’re looking to attract.

I can remember these ridiculous, goofy, silly fonts I was messing around with for a potential logo design. Those would never have worked for the clients I was trying to attract.

Be Confident!

Be confident when talking to clients. I know this is so hard for so many designers. It was hard for me for a long time.

But it’s so important because confidence instills trust in clients and says, “I got this.” They want someone who has done this type of work before and can get it done on time.

Being confident is a lot easier when you understand what you bring to the table. So if you’re not sure about that, go and ask past clients or coworkers what’s so great about working with you. Why you? Why not another designer?

When you’re clear about that, potential clients will be confident in you too.

When you’re confident and understand how you can help clients, it makes the sales process so much easier. It’s not about convincing anyone to do anything. It’s simply about relating your expertise to their problem, if it’s something that is a match.

Trying to convince someone to work with you leaves a bad taste in your mouth and theirs.

If you have trouble getting to this point with your confidence, ask another designer. Get mentoring. Get an outside opinion. Oftentimes, we trust someone else’s opinion—and especially a paid opinion—before we’ll believe it ourselves.

I get it. It was a very long journey for me to get to that point.

Ask Deeper Questions

When contacted by a client, ask deeper questions. Most designers will ask about specs and deliverables and then provide a price.

But you can change the conversation and increase the perceived value of your work (making it easier to charge more) because you put the focus on results, not deliverables.

This helps you get more respect too, because clients don’t want a logo or brochure or a website just to have that. They want what it will do for them.

If you’re not sure which questions to ask, be sure to download my 17 Questions to Ask During a Design Consultation guide.

Have a Strong Work Ethic

Having a strong work ethic goes a really long way with clients.

Early on in my career, I built a reputation for having a strong work ethic. I was known for:

  • delivering on time or ahead of schedule,
  • paying attention to details and
  • responding promptly.

A strong work ethic makes clients want to work with you over and over again. Clients don’t want to spend time looking over your shoulder or asking about or wondering if their project will get done on time and correctly.

Provide a Great Client Experience

Providing a great client experience is important, and it’s much more than doing good work.

A good client experience means you make it easy for clients to say yes to working with you—signing a contract, for example. Electronic signatures are a must. Make it easy. Don’t give them time to rethink working with you. I talked about this in the episode on improving your processes and client experience.

Also make it easy for clients to pay and give you feedback on the design and edits on proofs.

Specialize

I didn’t specialize in a type of work. But I did become known as a designer who worked with nonprofits. So I got pegged as that simply from working at my first job out of college at a nonprofit.

But I do wish I had picked a specialty earlier on, because there are so many generalist graphic designers out there, it’s hard to stand out.

I’ve done every type of design out there—branding, marketing materials, event collateral, everything print, web design, web development, email design and coding, presentation design…

I was super busy and took on every type of work. I was constantly switching between different skill sets.

But I could have just focused on certain types of work and charged more as a specialist, which would have reduced my competition and increased the demand for my skills. I would have been more efficient, more profitable, made more money and worked fewer hours.

If you’re looking to go out on your own, you’ve likely worked at a few jobs, had some freelancing clients and have an idea of what you want to do or even don’t want to do.

Specializing really helps you differentiate yourself from other designers and makes it easier to charge more. That’s what accessibility did for me. It was a complete game-changer.

So specialization is definitely something to consider.

Price Profitably

You definitely need to know how to price projects profitably. There is no point in being in business if you aren’t making enough to be in business.

Every dollar you make is not profit. You must know what your bare minimum to charge is just to be in business, because you’ll be spending your own money on software, insurance of all kinds, cloud storage, fonts, project management and proposal software, etc. And let’s not forget all the taxes you’ll have to pay.

Also, I say all the time that I’ve lost way more projects due to underpricing than overpricing.

Underpricing causes clients to doubt your expertise and the value of your work. I know because they’ve told me that when I asked why I didn’t get the work.

So make sure you understand the value of your work and how much it costs you to be in business and then charge accordingly—and not just for your time either.

Recurring Revenue

Recurring revenue can be a huge boon to your income. It gives you a base income every month, which results in less stress to make a certain amount every month.

I worked on a monthly publication for 10 years on a freelance basis. That gave me some nice recurring revenue.

Get creative and find ways to help your clients on an ongoing basis—monthly or quarterly.

  • Do they need social media images created?
  • Do they need website maintenance?
  • Do they need you to advise on anything?
  • Could you create and then charge monthly access to a resource?
  • What do they need help with regularly that you could help them with?

Ask for Testimonials

Testimonials are crucial, especially when you are new in business. No one wants to be the first and try you out to see what happens.

Post testimonials on a page on your website. Post the testimonial from a client about a particular project on the project page on your website. Share the testimonials on your personal and business Facebook page and social media channels.

You can also ask clients to post testimonials as a Google review under their Google account to your Google Business Profile.

That can have big impact when it comes down to you versus another designer they may be considering.

If you don’t have testimonials from clients yet, you can get them from people you’ve worked with in the past at jobs, people who have experience working with you and can speak to the quality of your work, your work ethic and so forth.

Then just replace them with testimonials from clients as you get them.

Ask for Referrals

Referrals are also good for business—at least when they are from good clients and for the work you want to do. You don’t want a bad client to refer another bad client.

At the end of a project, if the client is happy and it’s work you want to do again, ask for a referral. Just say something like, “Do you have a colleague who you think would benefit from my services?”

Then ask for their email and phone number, so that you can reach out to them. That puts the control in your hand, and you’re not waiting for someone else to reach out to them—if they’re willing to provide that, of course.

Make $100k as a Freelance Designer

So those are my tips for making $100k in your first year as a freelance designer. I hope these were helpful.

Did any of these surprise you? What did you think of them?

A lot of graphic designers don’t think of themselves as a business, but you are! The IRS probably thinks you’re a business.

So you’ve got to act like one.

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