The Fast Way from Freelance Designer to Design Firm

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March 22, 2017
The Fast Way from Freelance Designer to Design Firm.
Picture it: New York City, 2010; you're working full-time as a digital designer for one of the world’s largest advertising agencies. The paycheck is steady, the hours are (somewhat) flexible, and you really never have to take work home with you. To sweeten the pot, there are plenty of perks–free swag from clients and swanky company parties to enjoy. You take for granted the fact that you don't need to worry about where the work is coming from. That’s someone else’s job. You love your job and your co-workers, but something substantial is missing. Perhaps you are dissatisfied with what you are designing or, even more frustrating, you can’t take ownership over the end results. What is a talented, hard-working web professional to do? [pullquote]…quitting your job to work for yourself is easier said than done and does require some planning[/pullquote] That was me a few years ago, before starting my creative digital agency, and something needed to change. In addition to the sentiments previously addressed, I wasn't a huge fan of working typical office hours, especially at 8+ hours a day. Nor was I particularly loving the work I was doing. The only option for me was to make the jump into freelance. I had it all planned out: I would quit my cushy full-time gig and start working with my own clients, as well as on my own web design blog. I’d control every aspect of the projects and would be able to have complete ownership over the end result. However, quitting your job to work for yourself is easier said than done and does require some planning. Before I left the company, I needed an exit strategy. I wasn't in a position to pull off a Jerry Maguire and just storm out. I wanted to make sure I actually had money to survive, so I could still do things (ya know, like, eat and pay rent). Before I left my job, I made a list of everything I needed to have in order before making the move to freelance. If you're planning to make the leap, the following is essential:
  • Money: I made sure I had enough funds for the bare necessities to last at least 3-6 months. This way, if the work wasn't coming in, I didn't become homeless (which is always a plus). Do your best to plan your finances as far in advance as possible.
  • Clients: Over the years I've learned that it's extremely important to network. Every job I've ever had, I made sure to leave with some connections. Whether it's emails, phone numbers or LinkedIn connections. Upon my exit, I contacted all of these connections to let them know I was open for business. Make sure you keep in touch with your network, not only when starting a freelance business, but throughout your career.
  • Portfolio: probably the most important box to check was my portfolio. I wasn't going to land new clients or temporary work if I couldn't present my amazing skills. You may need to work some late nights or weekends, but make sure your website is on top of its game. Include all your best work, (you may need to get permission to use it), be personable, clients want to hire you, so promote yourself, include all your contact info and social media accounts.
  • Blog: one thing I really wanted to do was share my knowledge of web design and development. So, to me, maintaining a blog is mandatory. The idea of blogging about the industry that I loved and working on fun projects was the world to me. I can't stress enough how important a blog is for your business. From freelancers to huge organizations, a blog will help drive traffic to your website and help your SEO. Also don't be afraid to share your knowledge: guest post on other blogs and be active on social media.
Once I had some money saved, and my website and blog were looking great, I alerted everyone in my address book about my move to freelance. I resigned from my job and officially started as a freelancer. The newfound freedom was everything I hoped it would be. I was able to work on the projects of my choice, at my own pace. This meant more time with friends and family, as well as a nice amount of time spent on the couch with my laptop, in my PJs. Life was good.

Full Circle

The freelance life was great, and if you're looking for more free time while working on the projects you love, you'll be hard pressed to find the downsides. You will gain your freedom and the ability to accept or decline new clients as you see fit. However, the more I blogged and published the designs I was creating, the more clients came knocking. It was all the success I had hoped for, and I was in high demand. There came a point where I was turning down work left and right. I had my free time and I wasn't going broke. However, the downside to all this freedom had begun to reveal itself in the very perk I had always wanted: I was spending too much time at home. In addition, I began to wonder what would happen if I took on more work, hired some help, and really tried to build this freelance business into more of a small agency or studio. I was excited to see how this could grow. If I took on all of the projects I was turning down, I would have more funds to allocate to projects and in turn, produce bigger and better websites. I decided to slowly move towards creating a consulting business. I didn't just want to work from home, I wanted a team, an office space, and to actually leave the house. Once again, I created a short list of mandatory boxes to check before officially making the leap to a consulting business.
  • Register your name: If you want to start your own agency or business, you'll need a name, I chose Avex Designs, and registered an LLC. There are a few options for you here, but I felt an LLC was best for me. Depending on your situation and geographic location, another option might be best for you. I used Legal Zoom to get registered and it was around $800. Sounds expensive but once your LLC or business entity is setup, you'll be able to set up a bank account and start accepting payments under your company name. Which is a huge plus. You can also take advantage of tax breaks as well, depending on where you live.
  • Office space: You can continue to work from home if you'd like, but I wanted that NYC address and I really needed a space of my own. That is where a shared office space came in. It was affordable and offered all of the amenities that I needed. The space was all inclusive with wifi, conference rooms, beer, coffee and a great location.
  • Employees: Now that I had an office space, I needed some employees to help take on the work load. I actually hired a close friend who was a designer, so it was an easy choice for me. However, as we started to staff up and bring on more employees, I used services such as Indeed and Krop to find amazing talent.

Wearing many hats

When making the jump from an employee to freelancer and then to an agency founder, you really start to take on various roles. I wasn't just designing and developing anymore. Some roles I took on when first starting my agency—and continue to take on—were:
  • Project manager
  • Accountant
  • Creative director
  • Human Resources
  • SEO specialist
  • Salesman
  • Account manager
  • And more…
When you start your own agency, the first few years are going to be rough. Not only are you responsible for your livelihood, but also your employees. As a freelancer, I only had to worry about myself and occasionally where the next project was coming from. When you're running an agency, the number one thing keeping your dream alive is revenue. As with any start up, money is what's needed to pay the bills, payroll, and of course, pay yourself. Lastly, if you're looking to make that jump from a freelancer to building your own agency, there are a few things you may have to give up. Expect there to be less time to focus on implementing actual designs and understand you are taking upon more of a managerial role. Personally, I still get plenty of gratification from overseeing projects and providing creative direction. However, many will not find that as fulfilling, and that is part of discovering your personal journey. Working as a freelancer were some of my least stressful days by far. On the other hand, if you desire to build something bigger and you have the drive to actually implement that dream, you can gradually make the leap. Build your business organically, network, hire employees only when needed and most importantly, make sure your new venture is fulfilling.

John Surdakowski

John Surdakowski is the founder and creative director at Avex Designs, a digital agency in New York City. John has been working in the digital space for 15 years and loves sharing his thoughts and experiences about web design, development and marketing. When he is not collaborating with global brands and agencies, he's writing music, spending time with his family or in the mountains snowboarding.

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