Advice & Tips
Working from the Road
Our path from students to busy freelancers and some of the (un)fun stuff that comes along with that
In this second post about working from the road, I’d like to get into some details about how we both got started in our careers after we finished school including finding clients, setting your rate, tax considerations, and getting paid. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 3 if you’re interested in our set up in the van for working from the road, . If you missed Part 1, check it out here.
We often get asked about how we find clients and how we made the transition to working remotely for our clients from the road. Like I mentioned in my previous post, Jorge and I were both freelancing for clients before we finished school which definitely helped with that transition.
When first getting started as a designer, copywriter, illustrator, photographer, etc it’s great to start small. Start while you’re still in school by asking your peers, instructors, family, and friends for referrals. Offer services for free for a school project or at deeply discounted rates to get your feet wet in a project type that you would really like to add to your portfolio. Take on a challenging project to stretch yourself, even if it’s not going to make it into your portfolio so you can gain some valuable experience for that next project that will make it into your portfolio.
If you choose to take on a project, any project, treat it like it’s the most important project you’ll ever have.
If you choose to take on a project, any project, treat it like it’s the most important project you’ll ever have. If you do that, you won’t take shortcuts and you’ll put everything you have into it…and it will show. Of those school projects or first side gigs you do, one of them might turn into a regular client or a referral for something much, much bigger.
Once we got past those first projects and referrals, Jorge and I posted our work online in a number of places in order to try and gain more exposure and expand our client base. Here are some places I’d recommend you start when posting your work online:
1. Portfolio website – this would be your personal website where you showcase your work. It’s important to always remember that your “worst” project is what you’re going to be judged on so view your work as a whole and only include work you feel best represents your strengths. Less is more. Don’t feel the need to post EVERYTHING you’ve done. Just post your best work. You might get asked by a client if you’ve ever completed a specific style that’s not represented in your portfolio and in those cases you can share other work as needed on a case by case basis.
2. LinkedIn – It’s important to keep an updated and full profile on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a great resource for recruiters and talent coordinators to find your work. You can follow companies you might be interested in working for, post updates about your career or work, and actively promote your most recent projects to your peers. LinkedIn, in particular, is a great place to get in contact with, or be contacted by, creative recruiters who specialize in placing creative professionals into open positions at companies and advertising agencies.
3. Behance – Behance is an online creative community where you can post your work in a free online portfolio. You can follow other creative professionals, post full projects of yours on your profile, and even pay to upgrade your account and turn your Behance profile into your personal portfolio website. If you are an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber, a Behance portfolio site is included for free.
4. Dribbble – Dribbble is another website where creatives showcase their best work. The idea is that once you have received an invitation from another Dribbble user, you can create a profile and post “shots” of your work. These are little screenshots of your work in progress or finished projects where you can link to the live project or post additional attachments with your screen shot showing a larger version or the finished project. Both Behance and Dribbble have allowed clients to find us online and have resulted in work for us.
5. Social Media – Use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and whatever other social media you use on a regular basis to your benefit. Always keep working on personal projects, particularly when you don’t have client work, and post your work (and work in progress!) regularly to your social channels to gain additional exposure.
In all the cases outlined above, make sure you are properly tagging your posts and work with relevant keywords so potential clients or recruiters can find you. For example, if you’re a designer you probably don’t need tags related to copywriting and don’t forget to include the city you are in or major markets you would like to work in in your tags. You would be surprised how including both “designer” and “San Francisco” helps in steering the right folks your way if you want to be a “designer in San Francisco”.
Currently our clients include a mix of small arts organizations, musicians, advertising agencies, corporations, and fellow van or overlanding brands. I’d recommend you try and maintain a mix so that you aren’t too dependent on one single client to pay your bills while on the road.
Setting Your Rate
This is an ever evolving and difficult topic to nail down. The going rate for the work you are doing will vary greatly depending on the market (city or metro area) you are in, your experience level, and the timeline for your project just to name a few. Even so, I still want to mention a couple more universal issues when it comes to setting your rate.
Like I mentioned above, start small and keep things humble when you are first breaking into your field. There comes a point, however, when giving your work away is simply not productive for you or anyone else. The unique perspective you bring to any project is another value you add for your clients. Over the first couple years, create a plan to gradually increase your hourly/project/day rate to be on par with the going rate in your market. For example when you are still in school and trying to gain experience, start your rate at 50-60% of the going rate in your market. Then as time goes on and you have work under your belt, slowly increase your rate, perhaps to 75% of the going rate. Eventually increase your rate to be on the same level as professionals in your market once you are comfortable enough to market yourself as such. As your skill set improves and your services are in higher demand, keep increasing your rate as the market allows. This is one area where having a network of instructors or peers to bounce questions off of in the first couple years is invaluable. One great resource for folks in visual arts fields such as design and illustration looking for some baseline information on what to charge for various services is the Graphic Artists Guild book: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. The Graphic Artists Guild has since changed the format of their bi-annual release of the Pricing and Ethical Guidelines books to a digital format and new title called The Primer Series. The Primer Series is the same helpful content, but digitized and split up into three smaller ebooks. Check them out if you would prefer a digital version. You also might want to consider joining professional associations such as AIGA to expand your peer base.
I think one of the hardest things for folks in creative fields is knowing how to value their work and then sticking by that when their value comes under attack from ignorant or misinformed potential clients. Try to keep in mind that you will need to educate your clients on your process and sometimes about certain design principles. Their expertise lies elsewhere which is why they are hiring you. Sometimes, though, the best thing you can do is learn when and how to say no. Often times that no is in regards to an excessive amount of edits or tasks that fall outside the original scope of your project (or perhaps offer clear options on additional charges for the additional work), other times it can involve not taking on a client or project in the first place. A client that does not value you or the work you do is not a client that you want anyway. Set clear boundaries about what is included for the rate you have quoted including the number of revisions allowed before the rate increases again.
One last thing about your “rate” is that term can apply to your hourly rate, a day rate, or a project rate. There are pros and cons to each approach and your client may be more inclined to one than the other. Usually if you are working with an agency or corporation you will charge by the hour or day. Smaller clients tend to prefer project rates as they are usually working within the bounds of a set budget. Again, the more boundaries that are established, the better the project will be for everyone which leads us to our next topic of discussion: the business side of things.
It’s Business Time
Taxes! Accounts Receivable! Contracts! Oh My! Those are all the words we flocked to creative careers to escape from in the first place, right? Well unfortunately in order to do this whole shindig on your own terms, you’ve got to come to terms with all the less glamorous sides of the business too. The good news is that once you have a solid plan and procedures in place, it’s really not all that complicated or time consuming to keep it up.
First up: taxes and insurance. Seeing as we are roaming constantly we have a bit more choice as to where we set up shop. When we first hit the road, we had spent the previous year living in Austin. Texas is a state that does not have a state income tax so we chose to initially leave our business set up there. After about a year of living on the road and realizing that we weren’t going to stop any time soon, we decided to move our home address to Tennessee (another state with a very limited income tax) as that’s where family lives and they were kind enough to let us use their address for our “home” base. Any work Jorge and I do runs through our LLC which runs through Tennessee and that significantly lowers our tax burden across the board. Choosing Tennessee as our home base also allows for pretty relaxed regulations and less hassle in keeping our rig up to date on registration and insurance.
It’s important to remember that wherever you end up selecting as your home base you’ll need to put some thought into how you want to set everything up. Talk to a small business accountant or do some research online to decide what kind of business you want to set up (sole proprietor, LLC, partnership, S Corp, etc) and what state it makes the most sense for you to “set up shop” in. Will you need to carry any sort of business liability insurance for your line of work? Do you need to carry insurance for your expensive computer or your photography gear? Do you have family or friends in a tax friendly state whose address you could use? Does it make more sense to subscribe to a service that will provide you with a mailbox and check depositing service?
A real quick note about health insurance. If maintaining some sort of health insurance is a priority for you, there are a few places you can check out to find out more about maintaining health insurance from the road. RVer Insurance Exchange is a great resource for that. Professional associations such as AIGA like I mentioned above may also have insight on group plans available to members.
Nobody likes to feel like the bad guy, but a contract is what is going to keep everyone, including your client, protected in the event a project doesn’t quite go the way everyone was hoping.
Next up: getting paid. It is important that once you complete your business set up, you move straightaway into setting up a sustainable maintenance plan for your business administration needs. We use Freshbooks to manage our time tracking, billing, and expenses. Then once a year we coordinate with our accountant via phone and email to file our taxes and make sure all our reporting obligations are met in our home state of Tennessee. There are a number of online services out there that exist to make keeping up with all the hassles of billing and expense management a little easier on us. Some of those options include Freshbooks, Xero, and Quickbooks Online.
Last thing: Contracts. Nobody likes to feel like the bad guy, but a contract is what is going to keep everyone, including your client, protected in the event a project doesn’t quite go the way everyone was hoping. “Hope for the best, but expect the worst” and “Under promise and over deliver” aren’t just nice sayings. They are words to live when it comes to navigating the world of freelance creative work. Expecting the worst simply means you need to try and be prepared for almost any eventuality. You can do that by ALWAYS requiring a deposit to begin work and by having a standard contract in place that is signed by both you and your client BEFORE work commences that governs your working relationship. It should cover things like who owns the rights to the artwork and in what markets, the rate you will charge and what is included for that rate, as well as rules governing how payment is handled in the event one or both parties fail to fulfill their side of the deal, namely if your client doesn’t pay or has to cancel the project partway through. There are a number of resources available that provide templates for industry specific contracts. The book I mentioned before as a reference for rates, Pricing and ethical guidelines, also includes some general forms and contracts you can use as a guideline for creating your own.
As always, if you have any additional specific questions about the business side of working from the road, please feel free to ask in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer in a timely fashion!