Here are the steps to landing your first freelance design projects.
Marielle Briant is a graduate of UX Academy and currently helps mission-driven companies turn complicated products into human-centered experiences and realize the benefits of a well-working design organization. She spent the first 8 years of her career on the client-side, helping enterprise companies and some of the fastest-growing startups (seed to series C) launch their products through an understanding of customer needs. She is currently on contract with Google where she gets to learn from experienced designers and with a world class design organization. Outside of work, she loves creating community and talking to people about their career paths, favorite eats and upcoming travel plans.
When I started freelancing two years ago, I had an endless supply of questions and didn’t know anyone who could answer them. Before each interview, I’d scramble through my Slack groups to find the right place to ask my question. Other times, when I needed more help, I’d purchase a membership to a new freelance platform, only to be disappointed with the quality of the advice I was getting.
Ultimately, I had to learn to rely mostly on myself. I prepped for each client meeting like my life depended on it, and with each interview, or in my case sales pitch, I became more comfortable talking about myself. After a couple of months, I realized I’d mastered the art of pitching when I started to get offers for projects immediately after my first interview.
A few short-term projects helped me to gain traction. It wasn’t long before that I began scheduling multiple projects at the same time. After consulting for a large healthcare company as a Senior Designer, I started contracting with Google, which brought me some much needed stability. Looking back on my journey so far, it’s been a wild ride and I’m excited to share some of my learnings with you.
In this article, I offer up five steps that I took to land my first few clients in the hope they’ll help you out too!
1. Get Into a Freelance Mindset
Freelancing gets a bad rep, and to be honest I’m not surprised. One of the hardest things that I still have to work to overcome is my employee mindset. Let’s face it, we live in a world that encourages full-time employment. That’s all we’re ever exposed to, and our society does not really help us explore possible alternatives.
A lot of people are still convinced that freelancing is “risky business” and that a 9-to-5 job is more secure and stable. One thing’s for certain: it has taken a global pandemic to show people that their jobs might be in jeopardy and that they cannot purely rely on their employers for their paychecks.
It’s taken me some time to realize what I want from freelancing. I didn’t know until recently just how much I found daily office life to be stressful. Working remotely, setting my own rates, controlling my own office hours, and the kind of work I do means that I’m free to manage my own schedule.
It’s worth spending some time thinking specifically about why you want to pursue the freelancing path before diving in. While it’s not for everyone, freelancing can help you to feel more empowered in your own life, and it can help you achieve the life you want.
2. Draft Your Sales Pitch
A lot of designers that I meet with are excited about freelancing but only as a means to an end (usually to getting a full-time offer). While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, from my experience it will not get you very far. Showing just how committed I was to freelancing specifically, and being able to accurately represent myself to a prospective client has helped me come across as more focused, deliberate, and sometimes even more experienced. It has also directly resulted in higher value clients and higher quality projects.
Having sat through many interviews in the past where I did not feel empowered to share authentically about myself, it was important to me to control the narrative and the image I wanted to project. The main way I was able to regain some control over the interview process was through a portfolio walkthrough. This is basically a condensed version of my website summarized in an attractive and easy to digest format; a 10-page slide deck that I run through during the first 5-10 mins of every interview, usually unprompted.
Think of this as your personal sales pitch. Here are some pointers to get this right.
Your portfolio should be tailored towards freelance projects. Remember who your audience is. You’re interviewing with clients, not hiring managers, and for project-based work, not full-time opportunities. There are some key differences here that often get overlooked. Try using specific language that might be valuable for the project. Think about skills like communication, flexibility, and project management.
Get to the point quickly and visually. Use concise language, such as bullet points. Charts and graphs depicting your skillset work really well especially if you want to highlight some of your visual design skills. Avoid descriptive text and always try to distill your most important points when presenting an overview of your project(s). Part of freelancing and specifically consulting is guiding clients through complex topics. Clients should be able to get a good idea of your communication style during your presentation.
Remember that the more you sell yourself upfront, the less you will have to sell yourself later (like during negotiations!)
I generally keep a template on hand that I occasionally edit and customize depending on who I’m talking to. I might swap out a case study or emphasize certain skills over others depending on the client and project requirements.
3. Set up Your Communication Strategy
Once you’ve drafted up your sales pitch and shared it with a few people in your network for feedback, you’re ready to start planning your outreach.
One of the first things I did when I decided to start freelancing was to look for tools that other freelancers were using to manage their communication with clients. Due to the sheer volume of interviews I was getting, I learned what sort of questions clients always asked and how the quality of my responses could help me obtain a more favorable outcome.
Sometimes, a favorable outcome would involve negotiating payment terms and ultimately getting a higher rate. Other times, it meant turning down a project with a client I determined would be difficult to work with. Over time, I learned how to be more strategic and give myself the best possible chances to succeed in any situation. And I’m still learning!
I experimented with tools that would allow me to create and save email templates from within Gmail. With services like Yesware, you can set up email templates for just about anything, if you’re willing to take the time to tweak and customize, of course. You can also see who has opened your emails, and any documents you share such as portfolios, invoices, and proposals. This can be really handy for adjusting your communication and knowing whether or not to send follow-ups.
Here are some templates that I often use:
Expressing interest in an opportunity. Yes, you can use a template for this even though you still always need to spend the time to customize it.
Answering questions about your rate. Pro-tip: I don’t typically give out any numbers before I’ve had at least an initial call. That said, sometimes clients want to know if they’re in your ballpark so it’s good to still be able to provide some sort of response. Other times, they’re just looking to collect quotes and are probably not worth your time.
Outlining key details in the proposal you’ve just shared, such as any assumptions you’ve made in the proposal itself, or any clarifications about payment terms. For example, I’ve found it helpful to have a “due date” for clients to accept the terms of my proposal after which I can no longer guarantee my availability for the particular project. I like to call this out in my email to make sure they see it.
4. Prep for the Initial Call
Before I have a call scheduled with a client, I always do a little bit of prep to find out more about the company, the client, and any of their products or services.
During the first meeting, no matter what questions they throw at me, I always set out to get these questions answered in return:
What type of project do you need to be completed?
What services do you need? (eg. brand strategy, design work, design & development work, etc)
When do you need this project completed?
Do you have a budget for this project?
What prompted you to start this project? (eg. why now and not in six months)
What business goals do you want to achieve?
I also like to ask clients about their customers. Whether or not they have paying customers, or how much they even know about their customers can tell me a lot about their focus and priorities, and whether the company is meeting an existing need.
5. Create Your First Proposal
Ok, so maybe you’ve had some conversations with a few clients and even discussed some projects. After you have that initial call, if you like the project and the client, you typically want to be proactive about next steps. In some cases, especially when working with startups or small companies, it can be helpful to let the client know directly what those next steps are and guide them through your process.
At this point, because the client may be considering other options, your focus should be on setting yourself apart from the competition. Clients want to learn how you think and they want to see you have a vision for the project (they also usually want that vision to align with theirs). This is why I always recommend following up with a proposal.
Here are the key elements of a successful proposal:
Use client branding or company colors wherever possible (show off your design skills!)
Include a project summary with background on the project. This is where you can demonstrate your understanding of the project so far and where all of the notes you took from your interview will go.
Tell them why you’re the best person for the project and let someone else vouch for you by including a testimonial.
Outline exactly what you’re offering and be specific about cost, timeline, and duration. Include any assumptions you’re making in the creation of the proposal itself that will need to be addressed before starting the project.
Provide different pricing options (if it makes sense) and if applicable, explain any payment options if you have specific terms. As an example, I usually offer a discount for upfront payment.
In your timeline, suggest project milestones to show your progress and let the client know how you intend to share your work and collaborate.
If you send your proposal and it doesn’t work out, don’t take it personally. It might be that the person you were meeting with was not the key decision maker, or that the client ended up going in a completely different direction. It’s a learning process and you can’t expect to win them all. Keep at it!
One of the great things about freelancing is that you get to build a network around a lifestyle, as opposed to a job or even a career. When it comes to outreach and building community, I’ve found a lot of value in joining specific, affinity-based design groups on Slack (LGBTQ+, International, Gaming, etc).
Because freelancing is not yet as widely understood or accepted as permanent positions, the reality is that it can feel lonely at times. Some days, I have to remind myself that it’s a process, and that I’m still learning something new even if it’s not always what I expect. Something to remember is that although it takes a certain level of commitment to get started, freelancing doesn’t have to be a lifetime decision. You can try it for a few months or a few years and see if you like it. I also know many people who freelance while in a full-time job to help supplement their income.
Whatever you decide, I hope that these tips will help you on your path to achieve the version of success you’re after!
You can check Marielle's her work here or connect with her on LinkedIn.
Want to turn your passion for design into a successful career in the UX/UI design field like Marielle, either freelancing or in a permanent capacity? Explore our UX Academy program!