One Year into Full-time Freelance, Here's What I've Learned

Last September, I committed to making The Homegrown Studio my full-time job. A year in, I can say that this has been the fastest, craziest, most challenging, and most fulfilling year of my life, and I’m not looking back. Last September almost feels like ten years ago when I think of all I have learned, and the good news is that I feel like that shows most of all in the work I’m producing now.

I had shared some of the lessons I’d learned in my first month of freelance life, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect now on a few key things I’ve taken in during a whole year of The Homegrown Studio. 

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1.     How to make connections.

 I talked about this a lot last time, but it still holds true and is still the single most important element to the success of my business. Pushing myself to meet people in-person and genuinely get to know them has been essential for gaining and keeping clients, but more importantly it has given me the opportunity to be part of a community that is full of amazing people, valuable resources, and fulfilling experiences. Sticking my neck out there was hard at first, but now it’s just something I require and expect of myself. I set a date, put real pants on, get in the car, get a stomach ache on the drive over, awkwardly locate the person I’m meeting, engage in an interesting and inspiring conversation, and leave saying THAT WAS THE BEST MEETING OF MY LIFE. Then I drive 100 mph back to my studio to sketch out ideas and send a note of thanks. It’s always, always, always worth it.

 Also! Ladies Drawing Night is going better than ever. Created with the sole purpose of meeting cool, creative people IRL, it has served that purpose and more. Thank you, thank you, thank you, to everyone who has bravely come out to join our little group each month. I still get a stomach ache every time I leave the house, always have an amazing time drawing and chatting, and wake up the next morning feeling energized and excited about the women I met.

 Bonus tip: when you do meet people, no matter where or who, tell them about what you are doing! Whenever I’m heading to an event or meeting or even a family gathering, I make a mental list of the big projects I’m working on right now so that they’re on the tip of my tongue. People are interested, and you never know what it might lead to!


 2.     How to make money and manage it.

 Money has taken on a whole new presence in my life since I said goodbye to the regular paycheck twice a month. There were months where I barely made enough to pay the bills. There were months where I raked in more than $12,000. There were new, large bills to pay, there were Quickbooks to routinely screw up, and there were hefty taxes to fork over. The good news is, through prosperous times and plain old loss, it all evened out. I am on track to nearly double what I was making at my full-time corporate job at the end of 2019. I’m not bragging; I’m letting you know that this is all very doable. This is the tangible result of a lot of hard work and careful management.

One of the hardest parts was learning how to deal with the finances, and I’m still figuring it out. I hired an accountant as soon as I could afford it, because I knew this wasn’t exactly in my skill set and I wanted to do things right. I wouldn’t do well in jail. My accountant helped me understand how to pay my self-employment taxes quarterly, explained the correct way to pay myself, gave me a crash course in Quickbooks, showed me how to reconcile (I should really do that), and more.  I asked so many dumb questions, twice sometimes, and she was always patient and informative. I’m feeling much more comfortable now. 10/10 would recommend.


 3.     How to streamline my process and become more efficient.

 I love working for myself, but sometimes I could really use an extra pair of hands. My cat does not have hands. Hiring help is not in the cards just yet, so something I really had to work on was my process, and finding where I could save myself time and effort.

 I’d say I really hit my stride with this in late spring. I completely standardized my client on-boarding process, vowing to never waver from it, even if my own mother needed a logo (turns out she does, by the first week in October). I created several presentation templates that are on-brand, display my work beautifully, and are easy to use and reference for clients. I created a file system that isn’t a complete embarrassment, and have regular deadlines for the reoccurring monthly tasks that must be met at all costs. This is all stuff that is easy to get bogged down in, but once I took the time to really streamline it all, I found I had much more time to spend where I ought to be: creating brilliant work for clients (and sometime for myself!).

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 4.     How to get clients saying YES.

 I hit a big rut in the depths of winter, and felt like I was banging my head against a wall. I had a full schedule of clients I was excited about, who had hired me because they liked my work and style, but repeatedly, my logo concepts were being rejected. They all appreciated what I’d come up with, but for one reason or another, it wasn’t what they’d had in mind. I deeply questioned my abilities and whether I could handle all this critique. And, going back to the drawing board so many times really backed up my schedule, pushing back deadlines again and again. I needed to take a hard look at what was going wrong here.

I talked to a lot of fellow designers about this, took part in an AMAZING workshop with the Hoodzpah gals, and concluded that I needed to put a lot more effort into two things: discovery, and selling my work. Discovery is the marketing research work that takes place before any designing happens, and while I was doing a little of this already, I wasn’t diving in nearly deep enough to make sure my designs met all expectations. Now, I include a thorough Discovery Meeting and Discovery Presentation in all of my branding packages. As far as selling clients on my designs, I knew I could do more there. I invested a lot of time in creating professional, engaging presentations that showcased the value of my work, explained my process, and allowed my designs to really shine. I learned how to speak about my work with confidence, and defend it when anything came into question.

 This has all made me much more deliberate about the design decisions I make, and ultimately it’s pushing me to create better brands. I’m happy to report in the last four logo concept presentations I’ve submitted, every client has chosen Option A (always my favorite, shhhh…) with little to no revisions. You can bet I am breathing a sigh of relief, and I can’t wait to share some of my strongest work yet!

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 5.     How to balance work and life.

Work and life balance, whatever that means, was something I was really grappling with my first month into freelance, and for a while after. It’s something I still think about a lot, but do feel like I have a much better grasp on what feels right.

 In the beginning, I was having a lot of trouble sleeping because I was thinking about all the things I needed to do. I was excited about work, but I couldn’t shut it off. I never knew if I had done “enough” at the end of the day, and there was certainly no one to tell me if I had or not.

List making was the savior here. I’ve always believed in writing things down, but now I’ve taken it to an extreme. Each morning I write a list of everything I’d like to work on that day, and each evening I write a list of things I need to follow up on tomorrow. Even the smallest of tasks. This empties my brain sufficiently; I can leave it on the paper. Each Friday, I write down a list of my accomplishments for the week, and the big objectives I need to focus on next week. I find this weirdly satisfying, and feel like I can stop working for the weekend – I’ve done enough. I do not work on the weekends. There have been a few small exceptions, but I do whatever it takes to keep to this rule. I feel great about it.

I’m very fortunate that work and life are beautifully intertwined, my passions commingling happily and creating interesting tensions that I’m inspired by over and over again. Whether it’s digging in the garden and incorporating sketches gathered there in a logo, or spotting a particularly lovely typeface on a weekend excursion, or noting the color palette during a trail ride, I’m so lucky that my daily experiences can so often be translated into my work. Freelance design has allowed me the time and space to make a living out of these moments, and I’ll sure be grateful if I get to do it for another year.

Photos by the amazing Jennifer Bakos Photography