How to Build Solid Foundations for your Design Business

I’ll kick this off by saying that there is, unfortunately, no secret sauce that will guarantee your business to succeed. We all know that and I know you know that, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves before searching for answers.

In order to start and to continue a career as a freelance creator, or any kind of freelancer for that matter, you need to be prepared to put in the work. You should never be comfortable and you should always be challenging yourself. It’s the only way to take your business to the next level and beyond. If this puts you off, maybe being your own boss isn’t for you (or maybe you will surprise yourself).

Okay, let us set the stage. You’ve just lost/left your job at a design agency and you want to use this moment as an opportunity to pursue a career freelancing. You’ve always loved the idea of working for yourself and to have more control over your work, but where the heck do you start? And are you good enough?

Let us start by focusing on the latter question: ‘Are you good enough?’ This dilemma is one that you will always struggle to answer. We all have self-doubt when things don’t go as planned (and often when we succeed!), it’s perfectly natural. What I do, and it’s something that I’d recommend you try, is to look at the question from a different perspective. Rather than doubt if you’re good enough or not, try asking yourself ‘can I do something for someone that they cannot do for themselves?‘ It’s a very simple question and if the answer is yes, then perfect. At some point in that someone’s life, you will be in demand. So let’s start by making yourself available to them.

1. Create a Portfolio that Shines (More tips here)  

It’s super important, super effective and it’s often your only opportunity to make a first impression, get it right and you’re winning already. If you have existing work, choose carefully. The genre of work that you choose to share within your portfolio is likely going to be what future clients will request from you. Take this opportunity to drive your future down the road with the best view. If you do not have existing work, then use this time to craft some of your best work for your dream (fictional) clients. If you want to be a logo designer, then design logos!

On your portfolio, your best work should be front and center and everything that you are not proud of should be scrapped. Keep the design of your portfolio nice and simple and let your work do the talking. I recommend adding a quick and snappy introduction to who you are and what you do (“Hi, I’m Tom and I handcraft creative design assets”) and an easy way to get in touch (if you use a contact form, always have your email somewhere in case the form fails). In addition to these vital ingredients, you should have a page that allows your visitors to dig a little deeper and to read more about you and your process. This content is great for both potential clients and bloggers.

Side note: One of my businesses is an art and design blog (Inspiration Hut) and there is nothing worse than finding a great designer with zero written content, it makes our job more difficult and we usually will not feature them or their work. Context is key. From personal experience, having my products featured on other websites has opened many doors, in fact, one article brought my work to the attention of Penguin, (the book publisher) which resulted in large custom licenses for a few of my fonts.

If you want to learn more about how to create a portfolio that shines for your online design business, then you might want to check out this article.

2. Get Social! (More tips here)

Competition is tough! You might have a polished portfolio to attack the world with, but so does Tom, Dick, and Harry. You need to stand out from the crowd and to do this, you need to push it through as many avenues as you can. I’d start with contacting art and design blogs, registering to portfolio sites (Behance and Dribbble are fantastic!) and being active on image-based social networks (Instagram and Pinterest are ideal).

Make it as easy as possible for a potential client to find you and to get in touch. Share one thing every day if you can, or at least, every other day. Not just anything, but something of quality and of interest to other designers and potential clients. Share your sketches, your WIPs, and your concepts. Be open and honest and you will slowly be building your brand.

Side note: If a blog refuses to share your work, don’t instantly think that it’s not good enough. We all default to this setting. It could very well be that it’s not ‘shareworthy’ enough. Blogs thrive on traffic. A website redesign for your local dog groomer might not be what tickles the fancy of their audience. Study what articles do well online and brainstorm what share-worthy project you could create. Projects like this will do wonders across the board. They increase the number of links to your social profiles and portfolio. You’ll appear higher in search results and more people are exposed to your work. Win, win, win.

If you want to learn more about how to use social media to build your online business, then you might want to check out this article.

3. Generate Leads 

Okay, so you’ve created a portfolio that you’re proud of. You’ve sent plenty of emails to art and design blogs explaining who you are, what you do, and how you would love to have a specific project shared with their audience. You’ve set yourself up on Behance (Tip: really focus on presentation. Well presented projects can do very well on Behance and it’s a hive for potential. Check out some of the top projects and take note) and you are regularly sharing on your social profiles. All of this is great, however, it’s not enough. You can’t sit back and wait with crossed fingers, it’s time to actively seek new clients.

The next step in my strategy is to generate yourself some leads. A lead is a potential client/consumer that has at some point shown interest in what you do and provided contact information. Typically, a lead is generated through advertising, trade shows, direct mailings and other marketing efforts. So how does this apply to a freelance designer and how do you find a lead. My favorite (and most successful) way to generate leads has been through using what marketers call, ‘Lead magnets’. A lead magnet is exactly what you think it is, it will help attract leads to you and your services.

The best route to take with lead magnets for a freelance designer would be to offer a small part of your services at an irresistible price (or even for free) either locally or online. If it’s local, you may prefer to visit businesses individually or by phone/email (via the phone would be preferential). If you choose to go for it online, create an attractive landing page or website specifically for your offer and send traffic to that page using the techniques that I talk about in step 4. Another way you can approach lead magnets is with content, as explained the last two examples below.

A few examples could include:

  • Lead Magnet – I will create your website for only $200, making it easier for customers to find you online
    • Execution – Make a basic website to cover the clients’ basic needs (I recommend WordPress, it’s super quick to set up, and should only take a couple of days to complete). Follow up with some useful links to resources that explain how they can add content to their new website (the good thing about WordPress, is that there are a ton of resources like this). Use this opportunity to upsell some more design work. A custom theme maybe or, a new Facebook page with a fancy profile and cover image. You could even offer some new stationery to match the website design. This offer is simply the start of a relationship with a new and hopefully returning client.
  • Lead Magnet – I will create your Facebook page for free, so customers can easily find you on Facebook
    • Execution – If you request for the client to fill in a form with fields similar to what Facebook request when making a page, then actually completing this job takes no time at all. If they have an existing logo, add that to the profile image and cover image. Follow up requesting if they would like a website that Facebook and Google can send traffic to or if they wanted a custom profile and cover image (show examples from previous clients – real or fake – to help explain what they could have).
  • Lead Magnet – How to find the perfect designer for your business needs (Short Article + Downloadable Guide)
    • Execution – This will require a bit of time, but if you can write a short article that provides a brief answer to the question, followed by a detailed downloadable guide that requires an email to view. Then after a couple of days, you can get in touch and ask if they have found a designer yet? Use this opportunity to introduce yourself and explain what you can do for them.
  • Lead Magnet – A free step-by-step guide explaining how to create a website for your business (Short Article + Downloadable Guide)
    • Execution – Same situation with the previous example. Follow up email could be ‘Have you created your dream website yet?’ Introduce yourself, explain what you can do for them. Offer examples.

These are some very basic examples – the possibilities are quite literally endless. You simply need to be prepared to give value without receiving anything in return. Lead magnets are great for building your business through gaining the trust of strangers (cold traffic), thus providing you the opportune moment to pitch a sale. The best thing about lead magnets is that you can create them for any genre. For example, if you notice a sudden influx of dog breeder websites, crack on and create a lead magnet for that. Advertise through relevant sources and try to convert your leads.

By generating leads, you are creating possibilities and once you find a good combination of converting strangers into leads, leads into clients and clients into long-term projects then you will have full control over your business and full control over the type of projects you work on.

4. Traffic

Naturally, the next question is going to be ‘how do I get traffic?’ and that is a good question. One that I am going to be covering very soon in another article, in far more detail. But for now, I’ll give you a few tips. If you are sharing regularly, you will naturally be driving traffic to your website. It might be other designers, or it might be potential clients that are simply following the breadcrumbs. So that’s great.

Another way will include a little research. Ask yourself, who is your ideal client and where do they hang out online? The best places to start are forums (or Quora). There’s a thriving forum for every niche and in most niches, there are aspiring and established business owners. Search for questions relating to your subject and be as helpful as possible to as many people as you can (again, be prepared to give value without receiving anything). Name drop a related lead magnet that might help further, or an article you’ve written, or a project you’ve worked on. Be relevant and non-intrusive. Digging around like this will give you ideas for more lead magnets, articles, mock-up projects and more. All this juicy content will help you build your brand and be super targeted for your perfect client.

I mentioned articles, which brings me to my next point, start blogging! The best way to generate traffic to your portfolio/website is through blogging. If you specialize in logo design, why not write a few tutorials on how to create a logo (if someone wants to know how to make one, they might eventually pay someone to do it for them), another idea could be to document your work process on an actual project and share it.

Not only will you provide your clients an insight, but you will also be helping others. By sharing valuable information, you will be perceived as an industry leader and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather work with someone who knows their stuff and proves it, than someone who doesn’t. Every piece of content you publish must have a reason behind it; you write a tutorial to exaggerate your knowledge on a topic and to get traffic, you share free downloads for more traffic and links to your website, you share your process to encourage clients to work with you.

5. Be human

My biggest piece of advice is for you to be yourself! I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again. Competition in our industry is tough. Plenty of people can do what you do and what I do, but the one thing that will never change is that they are not you and they are not me. The relationship you build with a client and their familiarity with you is key and that is what will help you and your business thrive for years to come.

Any questions?

I’m not sitting in a luxury home and I don’t drive a ridiculously priced sports cars. Maybe one day, but not right now. In fact, I’m still doing much of what I described above and only recently have I been doing it successfully. It was only when I had taken a step back and looked at things from a marketers perspective did I realize what and how to improve. With articles like this one, the goal is to help you build your dream business by providing what I learn, as and when I learn it. If you have any questions or feedback, fire away in the comments below!

Very nicely done, Tom! A lot of useful info for startups and freelancers.
I am working on my new furniture design company and I will definitely use some of your advises.

Thanks a lot!


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