At school, any degree related to the digital industry will only teach you so much. In my experience as design student, I found that exploring what was happening in the industry was crucial for my professional development. Combining school and my personal business taught me lessons which will stick for life.
Before you start freelancing, wait. Practice. You want to assure that the quality of your work is strong. If you feel you’re not quite there yet, keep doing demo projects on your own and only show them to friends—preferably those who also have design skills. If you would like some hands-on experience with a project before working with paid clients, work on personal startup ideas on a lark. One exercise is to re-create a website you dislike and try to do it better.
You’ll never be the only student freelancer out there. This is why your own branding, your personal tone of voice is quite crucial for becoming successful.
Online visibility is extremely important. Your portfolio will showcase your work and it’s what potential clients want to see. Do not just focus on the final result, but showcase the process you’ve gone through. Presenting initial sketches helps clients to give a clear idea of your workflow.
Using social networks professionally is helpful to build an audience. Talk and share about subjects you enjoy. Show your personal work and the work of people who inspire you. Be genuine in your words and see social networks as an investment in networking.
Your fellow students are a great starting point for your network. They are studying in the same field as you are and might even be your future business partners. Your teachers can be great mentors, even for projects outside school. Make use of these resources.
Put your work out there, participate in contests, find opportunities to show your skills. Contests give you the opportunity to translate a brief to a finished product and the award ceremony is a chance to network. Never stop meeting people and your network will grow automatically.
Stay faithful to who you are. People buy people. It’s not just the quality of your work, but also your interaction with potential clients. When you are genuine to your brand, it will be easier for people to remember who you are.
As you meet people and work on interesting projects, even if they are your own, there will be a point that people might be interested in working with you. It’s not a matter of luck, but rather of hard work and persistence.
Getting yourself known in the field through free work can be a strategic investment. Look out for working for free though, as it can be pretty tricky. In my experience, free work isn’t always a bad decision. I follow one simple rule: If you see enough value in the project to let it be worth your time, go for it. Don’t listen to claims of the client, promising you visibility or paid projects later. You need to be happy to stick with it. I’ve done some free work and some of them turned out to be paid projects later. If it didn’t become a paid project, I still felt satisfied with what I’ve done.
There’s no secret formula to sales. In my experience, it was the combination of my personal branding, getting my work out of there, and participating in design contests which helped me land my first paid projects.
Remember that you shouldn’t just wait for the phone call or email from a potential client. Take initiative yourself, think like an entrepreneur. You are your own startup.
One of the difficulties is to grow your skill set and take your freelance career to the next level. Attempt to challenge yourself from time to time with projects in a different field, a personal idea you want to accomplish, or try to land a gig at a big brand. As you push the boundaries of what’s possible, you’ll grow successfully in a steady rate, which will put you ahead of your fellow students.
As you’re aware, the digital industry is an extremely fast-moving one. Make it your mantra to stay on top of your game. Never stop educating yourself. It’s a trap which many fall into as soon as they have a degree and full-time job. Make educating yourself a habit and it will pay off the rest of your life.
As your work becomes better and you learn to work with clients you’ll notice how these are lessons you’ll never get taught in class. This makes freelancing worthwhile and will take your professional life to the next level.
[Image: Flickr userJohn Walker]