Simple DOs and DONTs for Creative Freelancers

Simple DOs and DONTs for Creative Freelancers

We’re entering an age where more and more people are working from home. We’re also in a position where people with creative talents can realistically make their own living with their art. While there are many hardships in the freelancing creative business, there are a lot of opportunities. If you’re hoping to be your own boss and make your own living, please read on…

DO – Network.

You need to network. The best way to get new clients is to network. Most of my awesome clients come from other awesome clients (or friends). You should constantly be on the prowl for the chance to get new work from your existing clients. If they like you they will want to help you.

Although it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, people love to help others. It makes them feel important. You should ask your existing clients if they have any extra projects for you, or if they know anyone who could use your services. I’ve never met someone who I had a good relationship with that didn’t send new clients my way. This is a very powerful tool for you.

You just may have the people you need right in front of you.

DON’T – Do free work.

This is a death trap for freelancers resulting in millions of dollars of unpaid freelance work. There are two big misconceptions about creative services that exist today:

  1. Artists love making art, so I can easily find someone to work for free.
  2. I don’t care that you put in 10 hours. I just don’t like it so I’m not going to pay you a penny.

From an outside perspective this can make sense, but it’s completely unfair. You (the artist) are incredibly talented and valuable. The only reason someone can be morally responsible and NOT pay you is if they could do it on their own, but want to give you an incredible opportunity. Let me save you some time and tell you that it is very rarely worth it for the opportunity alone, and they CAN’T do it on their own. They CAN’T design their own logo. You are providing a service and should be paid for your time and your art. Make sure you work for people who understand that what you do is valuable and want to pay for the service that they need.

The rest can take their crappy free work from someone else, not you.

DO – Be organized and firm.

This will help you get paid what you’re worth. I don’t think you should charge tons of money for your work, but you should have a system in place. Too many people complain about having to accept shitty clients who walk all over them. Well, did you ever stop to think that they walk all over you because you don’t have a clear system? I’m always amazed at how responsive clients are to firm guidelines. Sometimes I try something new with a client and they usually just go with it (if I am firm and confident). Here are some ideas:

  • Create your own branded invoice and be clear about when the payment is due. New freelancers will often request payments and not get them in time for their bills. Send an invoice that says the payment is due in ___ days.
  • Send your clients a detailed project description that includes what you will do for the price. Otherwise you might end up doing tons more. What started out as a simple logo design becomes an entire design package. What started out as a 50 picture photo shoot becomes a 300 picture photo shoot. It happens quicker than you might think.
  • Create a revision limit for projects. If you are making $500 on a commissioned illustration and the client makes you redraw it 12 times, that $500 is going to start looking very small. Tell your clients that you’re happy to make revisions, but your policy is to include (up to) three revisions for that price. Any other revisions will be at your hourly rate. This is very fair and reasonable for small projects (if you’re charging thousands of dollars than suck it up).
  • If people are shorting you money, establish a pay-in-advance plan or ask for half up-front. This is a scary thing to do because what if you lose out on new client work by scaring them away. Just remember to be firm and trust your gut. If they seem great, go with it. If they seem risky, tell them that you need half up-front. If they scoff, then drop them.

If you want to be respected, demand it. You’re in control.

DON’T – Accept all work.

The idea is to put yourself in a position where you have more work than you can do. I think freelancers are so scared to lose an opportunity, that they often refuse to say no. Listen, you need to say no!

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m looking for new clients during a dry spell and I find 3 new opportunities. One is a lady on craigslist who wants a logo for her blog, but can only pay $50. The other is a company that wants a book designed but is requiring an unpaid test project before they even talk about price. The third is an independent consultant who loves your portfolio and can offer you $650 to design some basic print materials he needs.

You need to put on your grown-up hat and prioritize these projects! What’s the probability that you will make money off of each prospective client? Here’s how I would prioritize the list:

  1. The consultant who needs materials – Sounds like this guy will pay and probably will have more work in the future. Write up some guidelines and get started!
  2. The craigslist blogger – Yeah, she’s only going to pay you $50, but she’s up-front about price and needs. Send her some guidelines, ask that the logo be paid for in advance and see what happens. Judge if it’s going to be a quick afternoon $50 or a disaster. This one isn’t as important as the one above, but it can be easy if you’re organized.
  3. The company – This is only worth doing if you are really bored. Honestly, I’d rather apply for new freelance gigs than take this job. There are so many red flags! They aren’t telling you how much they’ll pay and they are going to take your work for free (who knows how many other applicants they are leeching off of). This sounds like a project that will result in hours of work leading to a dead end.

Learn to prioritize and protect yourself. Next time you find yourself looking at a red-flag client, read a book instead.

DO – Apply often.

It’s true that networking is the best way to get new clients, but you should still be on the hunt for new ones! One of the biggest reasons I see folks fail as creative freelancers is that they expect work to fall in their lap. When it doesn’t, they usually give up and cry (potentially cry, not definitely).

It’s so easy to apply to jobs and there are so many! I’ve made many good connections by applying to jobs. YES I usually get 1 job for every 30 that I apply to, but it’s totally worth it if you really want to work for yourself. It’s also very important if you’re shy or don’t like networking as much. Here’s a great system for you to find jobs all over the world and apply easily:

  1. Create a email template that you can apply to many jobs with. You’ll want to customize this for every job you apply to, but if you are looking for the same type of jobs why do you have to rewrite the same email over and over? How you do this is up to you, but it can get very exhausting if you don’t have a system. My system allows me to shoot of a ton of good-looking applications that result in more opportunities than I can accept.
  2. Create an RSS feeds full of jobs. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done for my freelancing. I use Google Alerts to specify certain job board sites and keywords for jobs that I want. Google Alerts lets you deliver these alerts to an RSS feed. Now I can scroll through my RSS Reader and see thousands of freelance jobs that are relevant to me. Suddenly finding jobs isn’t a problem anymore! Picking the best ones is the problem (and that’s a fun problem to have).
  3. Apply to more jobs than you can accept. Remember that (looking on the bright side) only 1 in 10 contacts will contact you back and only 1 in 3 will be worth your time.  Don’t be the person who sends 1 email per week because you’ll probably only get 1 new job every 30 weeks. Oops…

Try adding Google Alerts to your RSS reader. It works great!

NOTE: You may have to experiment with the best search for you. Some results will come up with a lot of people looking for work. I’d also make sure to deliver these to RSS (like Reader for iPhone) so you don’t clog up your inbox.

DON’T – Get offended.

Always take the high road. In the creative industry you will get criticized and even disrespected at times. Keep your head high. Be honorable! If someone emails you and says, “I don’t like it,” YES that’s rude. You’ll want to yell, “Why don’t you like it? What DO you like? Also, why didn’t you even say hello? Do you not like it that much that you forgot your manners?” Instead, take the high road and demand respect.

I had a client recently who praised me for being the best designer they had ever worked with. The weird thing was that I don’t think they were as impressed with my designs as they were with how I ran my freelancing practice. They said that every other designer in the past couple years rudely took offense to every revision they asked for and cut off contact. The funny thing is that this client was super super nice! Honestly, I am the most sensitive guy I know, but this is not a business that has room for it. I use my sensitivity in positive ways and keep my defensive sensitivity to myself. Apparently there are a lot of people who don’t understand this, so use it to your advantage.

If you feel bad about criticism and talk back to clients who piss you off, you will feel like shit and they will fight you for it. If you take the high road, you’ll look better than them and they’ll know it. That not only feels good, but demands respect from your clients.

You don’t have to be passive aggressive, just genuinely and awesomely professional.

DO – Use your own voice.

You can be too professional. I know so many people who run their business like they’re a super creative and professional robot. Professionalism is good, but please be yourself. Companies are hiring freelancers because they want to work with real people, not companies. Being yourself is in your best interest. I’ve gotten new clients because I was a dork on the Internet. Those clients are usually the kind of people I want to work with too! When you’re using Social Media, be yourself. When you’re talking to clients, be respectful, but be yourself. Otherwise you aren’t be honest to anyone, especially yourself.

Don’t be boring. Be you. The awesome clients will love you for it and the bad clients will walk away.


If you are a creative professional, be creative in how you run your business. Constantly evolve. Set yourself apart from the masses. Let’s work together to make creative freelancing an actual thing and not just a dream. Good luck and thanks for reading.