The 15 golden rules of successful freelancing

I spent 7 years as an interactive and UX design freelancer and was extremely successful at it. Here are a few rules to help you start freelancing and be successful.

Mike Reed  –  published Mar. 10, 2021

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Stacks of money.

1. Your portfolio is your life blood

Make no mistake, your portfolio site is what will get you hired.

Not some clever resume. Not a heart felt email. Not a mailer with a foot in it. Your website is what hiring managers, etc look at. This is what they keep on file. This is the end-all, be-all of your existence before they meet you.

So make sure your portfolio is polished and up-to-date. No broken links. Nothing half finished. And merchandise the hell out of your projects. An average project will shine if you put in the effort to present it well.

2. Use a simple introduction

Do get cute. When you send out your introductory email or LinkedIn invite, make it short and to the point. The goal is to get them on your portfolio site, not sell yourself. This introduction has got me hired on more projects than I can count:

Hi xxx,

I'm a freelance interactive UX designer based in San Francisco. If you have any upcoming projects, I'd love to be considered for them.

Here's a link to my portfolio:

Thank you,
Mike Reed

3. Be prepared for the shitshow

As a freelancer, you will get hired to work on the worst projects.

Projects with tightest deadlines, the most anal-retentive clients, stressed out project managers, angry bosses, etc, etc. Expect this going in.

To be successful, learn to cut through the chaos, focus on the goals and get the work done. Find solutions, not problems. Build your reputation on getting a job done - period - and doing it well. Deal with all the shit well, get good at polishing turds and you'll be rehired and recommended around.

4. Learn to work well with (almost) everyone

Ask any account manager, design manager or producer what they remember most about a freelancer and the first thing they'll say is "Great / Horrible to work with."

Notice nothing about the actual work they produced. Because it doesn't matter how good the end product is, if you're an asshole during the process, no one will touch you again. So pick your battles carefully. Arguing about a button color for 10 minutes is a sure-fire way to never get hired by that client again.

5. Be extra nice to the hiring managers

They're to ones who get you hired much of the time. HR will come to them, asking them to recommend someone they've worked with in the past. It pays to be on their good side.

6. Know when to quit a project

Two weeks in and the project scope, timelines, the project itself has changed 6 times for no reason. The design director comes stumbling in late, alcoholic circles under her eyes. She gets to her desk and starts screaming that she can't find anyone's wireframes in her tornado of an office. The executive creative director shows up randomly at your desk, asking for the same changes (you think) that the design director told you to change back. He talks way too fast, half in Dutch, half in English. Before you have time to ask questions, he runs away with a wave.

On projects like this, chances are you'll be fired anyway.

Freelancers make a great scapegoat. Go to the hiring manager that brought you on. Be honest. You're grateful for the opportunity but this particular project isn't working out the way you expected. Resist the urge to trash anyone. They aren't stupid. They already know everything that's wrong with their shop.

7. Learn to talk about money

Make sure you know your market rate. Don't over charge / under charge. Don't be afraid to negotiate.

Places will respect you more if you know your worth and aren't afraid to counter a lowball offer. If they don't come up, respectfully state your position and walk. Normally places that lowball talent aren't places you want to work at anyway.

When given the choice between quantity and quality, it's better to charge a little more and do quality work versus taking on more projects and doing a mediocre job.

8. Get more by saying no

You check your inbox and 3 new emails. Three places want you on projects. All three of them you've been courting for a while. You lick your lips – could you do it? Triple up?

This is a great problem to have, but also a pitfall. Doubling or tripling up can be great in the short term but start missing deadlines and burning out, and the crash will be worse than the reward.

Flirting without dating will cost you nothing in terms of the relationship. Burning a bridge by missing deadlines will. Saying you have too much on your plate keeps them wanting you. They know you're in demand.

You're the hot designer with too many suitors after them.

9. Enjoy the slow periods

Three days into a down period and that familiar panic hits – "Oh man, nothing! I suck! Quick, let me email out everyone I know. Maybe if I cut my rate, I'll get something right now."

Learn not to freak out between projects. Hiring managers can smell panic and desperation – not good. Take a deep breath and put your situation in perspective: you have a ton of cash in the bank from your last project, you're getting caught up on sleep, and a month ago you had 2 other places trying to get you why exactly are you in a panic again?

Learn to relax. Something will come up. It always does. Go on a long hike with your girlfriend. Enjoy light that's not flicker from a fluorescent bulb. Enjoy the fresh ocean air. Enjoy life again.

This is also where it pays to have a good relationship with a legit talent agency or two. They always have short-term and part-time projects coming in – great when you have a slow period but still want to be productive.

10. Always, always, always network

Keep your LinkedIn fresh with people you work with, especially with fellow freelancers. Got some downtime? Go to a random Meetup gathering. You never know who you'll meet.

11. Give and you shall receive

Share gigs you can't take with fellow freelancers. Trust me, the more you give, the more will come back to you. Don't keep gigs, connections a secret.

Hook a recruiter up with people and you'll move to the top of their list. Hook a freelancer up with a gig and the next job they can't take, you'll be the first person they email.

12. Keep your mouth shut

The quickest way to get shown the door at a gig is to start complaining (or bragging) around the water cooler about your rate. Once you get settled in, it's not a bad idea to pull a fellow freelancer aside, give them the secret handshake, and ask them about their rate. Comparing notes among freelancers is always a good idea.

To full-timers though, don't go anywhere near this. You never know what someone with tenure might (or might not) be making – bitterness is easy to come by among creative professionals, so don't be the catalyst for it.

And definitely don't gossip about places you've worked at either. Chances are someone within earshot worked at that place in the past and still knows people there. Start panning them loud enough and there's also a good chance you'll get blacklisted. Unless you have something nice to say, be as general as possible.

13. Remember, you're in the reputation business

This is the reason you get paid what you do. Ad agencies, interactive shops, design firms and clients hire portfolios. They PAY reputations.

They PAY to know that this person will get the job done. That PAY to know you're not flakey, you won't miss deadlines, you'll be easy to work with, act professionally, etc. They PAY for piece-of-mind.

14. Respect the workplace

Wash your dishes. Keep your desk clean. When you empty the coffee dispenser, refill it. Don't get shitfaced at the company outing. You're rolling the dice in Vegas that you'll say something or do something stupid.

Bottom line: respect yourself and the place you work.

15. Most important, be your own CFO

You had a great year! Did everything right, made a ton of money! Then you get your tax bill and shit yourself! $25,000 OWED TO THE IRS! That 3K Prada Vitello bag you love so much just ended up on the display shelf at Plato's Closet.

You are a business, meaning you have to wear an accountants/CFOs hat too.

To start, get an EIN (Employer Id Number) here from the IRS. It only takes 10 minutes to fill out and they'll email you a PDF with your EIN that day. With it you can be paid as a vendor on a W-9 when hired; no taxes taken out. Always insist on this – never go on payroll if you can help it.

Why go on a W-9?

Because you can literally write off everything you buy as a business expense, as long a you keep the receipts. That purse you bought, business clothes. That new computer, a business expense. The commute to and from work? The miles are deducted at the end of the year.

One year I got my tax bill reduced about $25,000 doing this. That's real money folks.

Always keep good books on your invoices and billings. You don't need any of those complex billing software. A simple Google sheet will do. Lastly, find a good accountant that specializes in freelancers when tax season comes rolling around. They cost more than H&R Block but are well worth the money. They'll find deductions you never imagined existed.