Good morning. Many thanks to all of you who attended
my Dynamic Graphics web seminar on Tuesday.
I hope you found it helpful. You can download a recording
of the talk for free right here.

In the course of the Q&A we only had time to answer three questions,
so I’ve answered the rest of them for you in writing right here.
Why? Because 344 LOVES YOU


Last names have been abbreviated to protect the still-employed.

Lisa A.: What do you need to start going solo freelance as a private business?

You need to make the decision that this is what you want to do.
Then work your ass off to make it happen, and make it happen good.

One pitfall of working alone is that freedom cuts both ways: You have no art directors or creative directors that push you conceptually or aesthetically. Whatever makes it into your designs is up to you and you alone. Don’t go easy on yourself.

Casey T.: I am just beginning a freelance career, after 13 years with a company. Any advice on how to find business?

The best way to find work is to put out the word that you’re open for business. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell your old boss. Tell clients from your old job that are no longer connected with your past employers. (Poaching is bad karma.)

Build a great little website that represents who you are
and what you want to do, then invite people to take a look.

Melissa B.: What about prospecting for work? How elaborate is your proposal?

I never really go prospecting. I put out the word and people find me. As hard as I’ve tried over the years, I’ve never managed to do work that doesn’t somehow look like mine. When people call me they usually know what I do, and that’s what they want.
(I know that I’m very lucky.)

Beyond that, I keep it very simple. My proposal is basically a one or two page document: Here’s what I think you need; here’s how long it’ll take; and here’s how much I need to be paid to make it happen.

Lee A.: Starting to work more Freelance, I work nights and weekends now. It’s hard to keep motivated to do work after working a full 8 hrs at my full time job. How do you keep motivated to do that after spending 8 hrs on a computer 5 days a week already?

I spend about 12 hours a day on the computer every day including weekends, but that’s very different from your schedule. I can take breaks as I please. I don’t need to look busy when I’m not. I’m not under observation. And of course, I’m working on building my own business.

Freelancing on top of a staff job is awfully hard. I’ve tried it and couldn’t do it. That’s one of the reasons I moved to 344.

In your situation I’d say be extremely judicious in the freelance work you take on. Take only the kind of work that pushes your portfolio forward. Be very, very lean. Don’t do anything that duplicates what you’re already doing during the day. Make the most of the extra two or three hours you can squeeze out of the day beyond your job.

Deb M.: I am working full time for a non-profit and plan on going freelance full-time, but would like to keep them as a client. Any advice?

If you want to keep them as a client you’ll have to be very upfront with them about your plans. Tell them that you plan on leaving, but that you want to make sure they’re well taken care of. You’ll stay full-time for as long as they feel they need you before they can make a transition. Tell them that you’d like to keep handling their design. Formulate a concrete proposal (in writing) that shows how you can give them the work they need for less money than they’re paying you now.

It’s dicey, because you are still rejecting them a bit, and that always hurts. Make sure that they know it’s not personal, and that you’re looking to expand the assignments you get to work on.

Jeffrey R.: Did you ever have a dry period where the work (or payments) did not come in? And how did you “encourage” clients to pay on time?

Sure. In 2002 my billings went down by 38%, and in 2003 they declined another 36%. I was barely, barely scraping by. But there is always so much stuff you can cut back on. It’s not fun, but it became a challenge. As I said in the talk, success means not having to get a real job.

I’ve certainly had delinquent clients over the years. Basically, all you can do is write strongly worded letters that eventually (as a last resort) hint at public shaming or litigation. At that point, it’s good to openly CC your lawyer. Or somebody the other side doesn’t know isn’t your lawyer.

Really, all you can do is cross your fingers. It would have to be a huge fee to warrant an actual lawsuit. And those drag on for years and poison your soul. That’s why I now take a 50% deposit, though. It takes a bit of the risk out of things.

Alan L.: What are the most effective ways of expanding your client base?

Sarah O.: What are some of the better methods to find clients?

Marcia C.: What do you recommend to promote
your business and attract new clients?

Christina N.: How to you find work, clients?

Janelle D.: What is your best way to find work?

Do great work, and make sure people can see it. Make sure that your clients have only good things to say about the work you did for them. People may forgive some personal conflicts that happened in the process as long as the work is great. But it certainly helps if they love the work and like you personally, too.

Not to belabor the point, but if you’re useful and un-boring, word will spread.

Michelle H.: Stefan, I have THE hardest time setting my rates. I don’t really know what is a reasonable rate and price. You suggested not to mark up [prices for printing or materials]. Do you set a price for the design and then give the prices for the printer and other expenses?

I give a flat fee for the design. Everything else is a direct negotiation between my client and the printer I recommend. Sometimes I’ll ask for bids on behalf of my clients, but the contract is always between the vendor and the client.

Rozanne C.: How did you get your first clients out of your day job?

After I got booted from W+K a few of the creative directors on other teams made calls on my behalf and introduced me around. I was very lucky.

I spent the first two years of 344 working almost exclusively working for Maverick Records. At the end of that I sent out my one and only promo portfolio to a lot of other record companies. After three scary months Interscope hired me to design an album for Don Ho’s daughter.

Cherie W.: Stefan, I layout books, where should I look for work?

New York. Simple as that. You can find book layout work elsewhere, but if you’re looking for water you can try drilling a well or you go to the river.

Robin K.: What process do you use for client proofing/approvals?

In the early stages of the relationship I present mounted printouts or dummies in person. Once everybody’s comfortable, I may just send PDFs. Once things proceed to print all proofs come from the printer and need to be signed by the client. That’s a must. You don’t want to be on the hook for a spelling error or a wrong photo.

Tim V.: How do you know if you’re good enough to go solo?

If you have the need to go solo, then you’re good enough to do it. Once you jump into the deep end of the pool you’ll be supremely motivated to get as good as you need to be to survive. Even when things get scary or overwhelming, you’ll have so much fun, you’ll wonder why you waited.

Bill P.: How many people work for you?

I occasionally get help on technical aspects of the job as the need arises, but other than that, I’m it.

Isabel A.: Do you have a site?

I have two sites: 344design.com and dailymonster.com, of course.

Thaylin P.: How do you quote different kinds of work?
I feel that sometimes I quote a job too cheap or too much.

Be honest: Have you EVER quoted too much? I almost always underbid. It’s a basic self-esteem problem with designers. Take a look at this excellent book on the subject:

The Designer’s Guide To Marketing And Pricing:
How To Win Clients And What To Charge Them

by Ilise Benun & Peleg Top

Audrey C.: What guides would you recommend to help freelancers
determine what to charge for flat rates?

Beyond Peleg and Ilise’s book, I recommend asking your friends who are at the same level as you what they charge. People are very hedgy about revealing this kind of information, because we’re all afraid of exposing ourselves as idiots who under-charge, but ask nicely. And answer honestly when somebody asks you. The industry suffers from its own squeamishness on this subject. If you decide to make a luxury car, you know exactly what everybody else is charging for their luxury cars and you can position yourself accordingly. If you were a client, what would you think if you had no idea what a Jaguar costs before you walk into the dealership? That’s how it is right now. Some firms bid Aston Martin prices for a Toyota Corolla, others let you walk away with a DB7 for the cost of a Mini. It’s maddening for us and for our clients.

Having said all that, I won’t tell you what I charge. :^)

Joshua C.: How do you determine how much to charge your clients?

I always ask my clients if they can tell me their budget first. Based on that I can determine if I can afford to take the job, or if I can change the scope of the assignment to make it work within their budget.

Bernadette B.: What is an 80/20 analysis?

What 20% of your life are causing 80% or your headaches?
Can you eliminate all or at least part of those 20%?

Marlon D.: How can I apply the 80 / 20 rule to finding new clients?

Meet new clients in person if it’s at all possible, then trust your gut. If you like them personally, and trust them, go for it. The ones who’ll be a bad fit will always make your scalp tingle or your stomach cramp up. Or something along those lines. You know what I’m saying.

Practice Greed Control® so you can afford to say No
to people that will be a bad fit for you.

Maria W.: How do you turn down a job you just don’t want to do?

I try to go with the truth, respectfully presented:

Thank you very much for your offer. I’m grateful and flattered that you’d consider me for this assignment, but I’m at the limit of my bandwidth at the moment. I won’t be able to dedicate the time that this project deserves, which is not fair to you or me. I’d love to suggest the following colleagues. I’ve worked with all of them, and know they would do a great job for you.

Never give an outright No, and always
try to keep the job in the family.
Your friends will thank you.

J C: What programs do you recommend for automatic backups?

I use ChronoSync, but I’m sure Time Machine will do the trick, too.

Ruben B.: What was the biggest hurdle to get over starting up?

Inertia (a more insidious form of fear)

Edson F.: Did you create a business plan before starting your business?

Lisa H.: What is your opinion on creating a business plan?

I didn’t, and I still haven’t, but I’m probably stupid not to do it. Maybe my plan is simply to do work that’s fun and get it seen. I’d be willing to bet that David Baker has this covered on his excellent site.

Genevieve C.: Any advice on self-promotion?

Make it represent what’s important to you, and make it as great as you possibly can. This is the job where you pay for the printing, so make it exactly as you’d like it to be. Tiny type? Weird colors? Strange crops? Nudity? Foul language?
It’s your dime. Go for it!

Lisa P.: have you ever had a client that did not pay or tried to negotiate you down after the job was done?

Sure. The only time I said Yes to lowering the price after the fact was when my client lost one of her major clients within 24 hours of hiring me. Otherwise that’s always a No. You never want to set that precedent.

Valerie P.: When you were talking about finances, you suggested charging a flat rate. Does that mean by the hour or flat rate per job?

By the job.

Sam B.: Does networking play a role in generating new clients or do you have better luck with repeat clients and word of mouth advertising?

Networking plays a role for me now, because a good chunk of my work is sort of meta-design, by a designer for other designers. Based on that the network generates lots of low- and no-paying jobs. For the actual money makers… it doesn’t hurt to network, but really it’s repeat clients and referrals that make it all stay afloat.

Deneen T.: How successful are self-promo mailers, pdfs?

It really depends on the quality of the work. If it’s amazing stuff, I’m sure it’ll work great. At that point it’s just a matter if the recipient needs work done at that moment.

If you’re sending unsolicited e-mail attachments, be respectful of the recipient’s inbox limitations. They may be traveling, for example, and unable to retrieve their messages. Next thing you know, you’ve clogged their inbox, and they’ll be very, very mad at you. Keep unsolicited attachments under 1MB.

Dawn C.: How do you stay motivated?

Boy… Sometimes I’m really gung-ho, other times I just put one foot in front of the other and make sure the work gets done. Somehow stopping just isn’t an option. It’s how I’m wired. I just keep going past the point of exhaustion until it’s fun again. This is the life we’ve chosen.

Derek: How do you handle medical insurance and 401k, etc?

I have private PPO health insurance through Blue Shield with a $2,500 deductible. There’s no 401k, but I have a Roth IRA, because my accountant told me so.

Melanie W.: Did you get fired for thinking too far outside of the box?

Nah. I wish. It was just a bad match. By and large, ad agencies are driven by testosterone and I had no idea what to do with that. They wanted somebody who really loved advertising and was ready to push the boundaries of that world with brash, aggressive work that dripped hip.

I had no idea how to give them any of that. All I had was my own work, and that wasn’t useful to them. As frustrated and hopeless as I felt, I’m sure they looked at me and said “Why isn’t he giving us what we’re asking for? We’ve been so clear.” But I didn’t even understand what they wanted back then. We were on different operating systems.

In retrospect I’m glad they fired me when they did. I would’ve just kept going to the point of mental and physical collapse. I’m very bad at walking away from intractable situations. I always think that I can fix it by trying harder.

That said, it really was just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. So many people from back then have become good friends, and most of my U.S. career is founded on that year in Portland.

Beth W.: How do you determine your going rate?

It’s a combination of the market climate, my overhead,
and the state of my self-esteem. I charge what I think
my time is worth, minus the insecurity discount.

Beth W.: Do you recommend client contracts on jobs vs. verbal agreements?

YES! If only to focus everybody and get a clear definition of the job at hand.

Elizabeth V.: how do you recommend marketing ourselves?

Do work that you care about and do it with as much love and dedication as you can. Then make sure people see it. Put it on your site. Submit it to competitions and books. Talk about it at schools. Get it seen.

Fred R.: Please give us a basic list of equipment.

Dual-processor Power Mac G5 (2004) with 6GB RAM

Adobe CS2

Epson Perfection 4490 Photo Scanner

Epson R1800 Printer

Brother HL5250DN Laser Printer

On the drawing front I use Faber-Castell PITT artist pens, Staedtler pigment liners, Tombo ABT pens, Sharpies (fine point and wedge tip), and Yasutomo Sumi ink on regular old uncoated bond paper.

Beth W.: Changes and proofs — how do you charge?

Changes are included in the flat rate, as are inkjet printouts that I can make here at the office. I usually price on the idea of “until it’s done.” That said, if the revisions become excessive, or have no other basis than ongoing experimentation, I ask for an expanded budget.

Dapo O.: What kind of advice do you have for people
who still work full-time, but would like to do
some freelance on the side?

Boy, it’s hard to pull that off. Stay healthy, and make sure that you only take on as much extra work as you can handle. While you’re a staffer, that is your primary responsibility. You have to honor the fact that your employer is giving you a home.

Beyond that, as I said earlier, take on only work that expands your portfolio. Be smart about how you use your time by picking your extracurricular clients wisely.

Chris H.: How do you create a dollar value for ownership rights?
And long term compensation for them?

I’m not sure I understand the question, Chris. Are you asking about the transfer of rights to work you do for a client? If so, many clients will insist on work-for-hire. Which is a major drag, but it’s not a battle I feel equipped to fight. Rare are the cases where you will be paid a licensing fee over time. It’s just too scary for most clients.

What you can do is use it as a negotiation point. If somebody asks you to design a logo for their store at a discount, tell them “OK, on the condition that I get an extra $1,500 for every new branch they open after the original location.” They may agree to that, which is great, or they may be willing to go back to your original rate in exchange for a complete rights transfer.

In the beginning of the webcast, you talked about incorporating.
What steps need to be made to do that outside of the DBA?

I’m not a lawyer, so take this for what it’s worth, please. I believe a DBA is only necessary when you use a name other than that of your registered business name. My firm is 344 Design, LLC and does business under that name. There are companies that will help you file all the correct paperwork to incorporate. When you’re dealing with the government, always get expert help to make sure you’ve dotted all the I’s and crossed all the t’s. I use Parasec.


  • 19 June 2008 6:49 am

    Thanks a lot for the transcript. I have a feeling, all of it is going to be very useful at some point. Time will tell.
    And I just realized, my printer is almost the same as yours, a Brother HL-5240, bought for crispy text delivery.

  • 19 June 2008 9:00 am

    Stefan, thank you for providing a transcript of answers. My audio cut out when it got to Q&A. I gleaned a lot of value from your entire presentation.
    I just want to support your answer to my question with kudos for realizing, even if in hindsight, that trying harder is not going to correct a situation you’re not designed to be in.
    I’ve been solo for six solid years, and I’ve slowly grown to accept that there’s no right or wrong way to go about your career. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, as there is so much emphasis out there on agency experience and academics. Paying your dues, so to speak. But to live a life fully-explored will bring the greatest satisfaction. All past experiences propel you forward and help define what you really want to do. You seem to have found the best line of work for your skill set!

  • Elizabeth V.
    19 June 2008 11:46 am

    Thank you so much for all of your amazing and wonderful insight. It’s not hard to season that you are a very seasoned solo designer. I appreciate your time, energy, and wisdom!

  • 19 June 2008 2:01 pm

    “Going solo is of course for the crazy ones.”
    Yes! I knew it. Best motivation you can ever ask for, since you won’t find reasonable men on top of tall mountains…

  • Stan Schultz
    21 June 2008 7:23 pm

    The presentation was useful, but the Q&A was great. I especially appreciate the links to the other sites mentioned. Thanks for sharing.
    And thanks to Dynamic Graphics and PS Print. Funny how this worked. My subscription renewal for Dynamic Graphics arrived today.This presentation re-affirmed the value of renewing he subscription. Plus, I popped over to PS Print’s site and now know that they are 15 minutes from our Kutztown, PA HQ. I’ve been looking for a printer there for a while now. I’ll be using them soon.

  • 23 June 2008 8:31 am

    Stefan, thanks for answering all the questions! I’m sure this will be a big help to all those aspiring solo designers out there. This was one of my favorite Webcasts to date.
    And Stan, thanks for sticking with us! We’re always trying to make the DG name valuable to designers. It’s always great to see happy subscribers!

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