Deleted my portfolio, made $30k in my first six months… | Robert Williams Design

About a year ago, I was working full-time as a graphic designer for a pretty large company. Although I was making $42k a year, I didn’t feel like my time was valued. I ended up losing my job when new management was brought in. On my last day, my new boss called me into his office to “chat,” I distinctly remember thinking “God, I hope I get fired.” God was listening. Before I even sat down, a man I had only known for 2 weeks let me know I was getting let go. (This came only 2 months after receiving a raise for my ‘great performance with the company’ – go figure). *** So I was back to having the same 3 career options that basically every designer has: Work at an agency Work at another company or startup Freelance full-time After meditating on my options, and laying out on the beach for a week, I came to the conclusion that I would try to make freelancing my full-time business. In my first 6 months I ended up making about $30k. That may not seem like a lot to you, but it was a hugely liberating for me. Here’s how I did it: (Full disclosure: I took an online course called Earn1k and followed it precisely) Edit: People wanted the link to earn1k. Here it is. *** I began to look at my freelance like a strategic system for getting new clients. I needed to stand out. Failure was not an option. I decided that if I was going to reach clients more effectively than the average designer online, I needed to have a better strategy. So, I looked at all the freelance designer portfolios online – aka my competition. Most had good to great design, all with a similar look and the quality. Honestly, they were not too different from my work. They all had very minimal copy, and usually a short designery phrase like, ”Pixel perfection,” or whatever. You know, you’ve seen them. Basically, sites like this: Anyways, I came to the conclusion designers were focusing on portraying a “cool” image that they wanted to see in themselves, not exactly the professional, trustworthy image that potential clients wanted to see. *** I decided I didn’t need a portfolio website. If a potential client wanted to see my work, they would have to ask me directly, and I could send them a pdf. (I even deleted all but one of my dribbble shots). This allowed me to keep track of every single person who wanted to see my work, (enough to merit an email to me anyway). This also forced me to put an all new emphasis on the words I used in my emails, and eventually things like meetings, proposals, and other forms of communication typical to the client on boarding process. *** I crafted an offer specifically designed for people I wanted to work with. In order to do this I had to decide on my ideal client. I looked at the online communities that were most in need of design, and had the ability to pay for my services. I decided to target Startups, because they seemed to have the biggest need. They also fit perfectly in my price range, being that I was a young designer. So, when I sat down to write my first emails, I avoided broad terms other designers might use to describe their work to a generic client like “great design.” I decided to instead learn niche phrases to startup culture like “conversion rate optimization,” and “lead generation.” *** One of the most effective things I did for my business during this time was focus on one thing: getting clients. This is something that came easier for me because I ran a one person freelance business with a very clear goal – earn money by getting clients. However, having laser focus on one goal is still something that most businesses should take note of. Especially if you have limited time. It prioritized everything I did, because I was able to ask myself ‘is this directly helping me reach my goal?’ – at any point in my day. This focus allowed all my energy and time to be dedicated on the most important thing to my business: making money. Almost as important, it allowed me to see what areas were a total waste of time. Things that weren’t directly helping me generate revenue were killed… this included; twitter, facebook, blogging, dribbble, reading emails etc. *** It still came down to me contacting people directly. Other things, like twitter, might work for some people, but I’m simply writing to say they didn’t work for me. What worked was emailing people directly. I put together a script using the tailored offer I crafted and sent it out to hundreds of startups throughout the six months. I used one site in particular for over 20k of my revenue, Folyo – a curated job board by Sacha Greif. Of course there were other, less-prolific job boards like craigslist, freelance switch, and others, but the main idea was that I was using the same specific script to send out to many people. It felt so much better than sitting on my laurels and just posting stuff on twitter or dribbble. *** I stopped letting the success of my business depend on outside forces like others contacting me. Because I did this, I was also able to track where my efforts were getting the biggest return. I created an excel file, with an area for every source of lead I had. Every time I sent a new lead an email, I would update the file for that particular lead source. Soon I was able to see which of these job boards were responding with the highest frequency (Folyo), and put all my effort into these sources. I also prepared for the future. Whenever a lead would email me back even if just to let me know they were going with another designer, I would put them in a new folder – a pool of past leads to follow up with in the future. *** This pool quickly became my most valued source for new work. Starting and depending on my freelance business taught me that you can’t listen to what other people say will work for you. If you do what everyone says you should do, you’ll be doing a little bit of everything. As Ramit said in his course, “couldn’t hurt, could it? OF COURSE IT CAN HURT.” To be a successful freelancer I needed to focus on one thing, getting more clients, not everything. *** Constantly updating my portfolio website, tweeting, and posting dribbble shots, might have felt like I was working on my freelance business, but in the end it was just a distraction. In the end, contacting people directly has has other benefits too, like allowing me to charge more. I now know approximately how many leads I have to email in order to get a new client. Do you know that number? How confident would you be if you did? Reply in the comments, I’d love to discuss your freelance business. Before you ask why I post on this blog, it’s to network, share my experience, and help others – not make money. Update: There’s been a backlash of comments from Designer News. I want to go ahead and point out that this is simply my experience, and I’m not saying portfolios are bad or you shouldn’t have one. I’m just saying I didn’t need one. Also, make sure you check out folyo, Earn1k if you’re a freelance designer.

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