4 reasons you still aren’t successful

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November 28, 2011
There are a lot of articles that will try to tell you what you are doing wrong and how to fix things, but the truth is the majority of them aren’t super honest. They want to get you to sign up for something to sell your work, and that’s supposed to put you on your way. Not necessarily true. This time around we’re going to explore some of the real issues many of us freelance designers aren’t seriously successful. You may have tasted a bit of success—for example, you may have a couple paying clients who are pretty good—but you haven’t reached any great individual (or financial) goals. You don’t have people knocking you door down asking you to work for them or you may not have enough to buy a brick and mortar spot. Whatever your goals may be, don’t give up on them. These are just a few of the things you could do differently.

1. You haven’t found your niche

I’m a firm believer in creating or finding niches. Far too often, people desire to be a jack of all trades with no real focus. You tell one person you’re a web designer then you tell someone else you’re a print designer, then you go on to tell another you can edit videos. It’s great to be knowledgeable but carving out a niche and being good at that makes you extremely unique. The more unique or different the service you have to offer, the more chances you have to stand out and gain more customers. To use a broader example, someone can describe themselves as being a wedding planner—because of this, they put themselves in a huge pool of hundreds of thousands of other wedding planners. At this point the only real thing they can do to set themselves apart from being a general wedding planner is to perhaps offer great customer service and value. However, if a wedding planner were to create a niche, such as rock-and-roll themed weddings or weddings with smaller budgets, it makes them easier to find and more unique. Designers often come up thinking they have to have a deep skill set to be successful. Everyone tells us we need to dabble in everything. There are two main issues with that: 1) we try to be skilled in everything and end up being sub-par in everything, and 2) some of us actually have no passion or interest in “complementary” skills (i.e., we are designers trying to learn coding but have no real passion for it). Find your niche and then perfect that niche. There’s no point in begrudgingly learning a skill because you’re told to. Put an emphasis on what you love to do no matter how pinpointed it may be. You may just enjoy designing web sites for clothing companies—perfect that and don’t worry about going too far outside your comfort zone to design a site for a church. And one last thing about niches—find the RIGHT niche. I had been freelance designing for six months and promoting myself as the designer for small business. I worked within (what I thought was) their budget and had some complementary skills that could help out a bit. For six months I did this and didn’t get ONE customer shopping to enhance their small business visuals. I was discouraged but I realized the work that I did get was coming from a completely different audience: one that I knew was there but I really wanted to ignore. I eventually shifted my focus and have been having some good success. Don’t make picking a niche super hard; sometimes it comes to you.

2. Freelancing is still a side gig

There is no way you can expect to be a successful freelancer if you are putting in part time hours. I’m not saying it’s for everyone to take the plunge and figure out how to make money from home. A lot of us are responsible adults and can’t tell the cable company to wait a couple days. That is fair and understandable, but if what you are doing as a freelancer is your passion, you’ve got to put some work into it. Now for myself, I understood that I have a hard time focusing, so I decided to freelance full time right out of college. No matter what kind of full-time job I could get, I’d probably end up focusing more on that rather than my freelancing desires, which I feel are extremely important to me. Far too often I see folks with full time jobs that try to do some freelancing on the weekends and that’s it. And while they have that passion, two days out of the week probably isn’t going to shoot you off to the success that you need. I’m not saying you have to have a full-time job and then come home to work 40 hours on your freelancing, but I am saying don’t just do enough to get you by because then there’s really no point in being a freelancer. Do a fair amount of work—find out what works and what doesn’t work and focus on the things that work. I’ve also figured out that if I happened to have a full-time job, I’d spend any extra money on growing my freelance business. With the growth of social media and the Internet, people believe you can become successful for little to nothing. While this is true, this takes lots of time of which most people with jobs don’t have. Spend money on yourself and your business to make it grow and eventually take the plunge. And quite frankly, if you aren’t thinking about taking the plunge to be successful, then freelancing will always be a side gig that yields side gig results.

3. You aren’t being yourself

Before I get into this one, I want to say this reason isn’t always your fault. For most of us, when we come online to research ways to make money or be successful or use a certain type of technology, many folks who are already successful try to sell you a dream. Basically, they reflect on everything they did, write it up in a nice guide book or record some videos and slap a crazy title on it. You buy it, read it and start trying to follow every step they laid out for you. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but most times, that won’t work for you. If you aren’t being sold a dream, perhaps you’ve got an idol or two. You feel like your expertise and skill set is almost the same so you attempt to do the same things they’ve done or get into similar situations. Maybe you even measure your success by being better than that person or looking at numbers across the board. This is a poor plan as well. It takes a little time to come to the realization that we are individuals and we tend to have our own places and ideas and walks. Trying to be like someone else just throws us off and slows us down. We obviously have to make our mistakes to figure out where we are best at landing, but no one person can achieve long-term success by trying to be another person. Being yourself and being unique is one of the things that can take you extremely far. A lot of guide books and success stories should be looked at as inspiration and not to be imitated. Figure out what’s right for you and no one else.

4. You aren’t really networking

Networking and relationships are easily the key to success in pretty much any arena. When someone knows what you do, whether it’s good or not, they are going to come to you. If someone knows what you do and you do it extremely well, they’ll almost always come to you. Don’t you often wonder how amateur designers (who look the part) get good clients and work and such while charging higher prices? I do and I’ve figured out it doesn’t have a ton to do with marketing strategies, but it has everything to do with who they know. I was pretty bad at networking. I felt like my talent should speak for itself and if someone wanted a terrible designer to do work for them, that’s their fault. And with that mentality, I stayed unsuccessful. I really started networking, talking to people—not just letting them become familiar with my service list but also building relationships—and my business started growing. Networking isn’t blabbing about yourself and how great you are. It’s about making a connection, and if you can do that, you will do well.


Being successful is completely subjective—some of us have higher goals we consider "success" than others. Whatever the desire is, the end point is the same. You obviously want to complete a certain set of goals to get to where you want to to be. As a designer, the common thing many successful people can agree on is that success is completely separate from your level of raw talent. As long as you are ready and willing to work hard and set realistic goals, success will surely come . Have you found anything that has helped catapult you into success?

Kendra Gaines

Kendra Gaines is a freelance designer from Virginia, USA. Connect with her.

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