AMA – How to start freelancing with little to no agency experience. Is it possible?

I have been receiving so many great emails with so many interesting questions. But this is a particularly good one that I think a lot of people starting out can appreciate and gain from. It was sent in by Marianne and with her permission I'd like to share it with you guys. Her email in it's entirety is below, and I've bolded her questions at the end as well.

Hi Nguyen, 

I recently came across your site while browsing through Dribbble. Really great work! I love how clean and easy to navigate your site is. A lot of what you have written has inspired me. 
My dream is to become freelance and to make money while maintaining a level of freedom where I can come and go as I please. I love to travel and don't want to be tied down by the 40 hour work week (but as designers more like 60+ ha!)

My issue is that I didn't start out at an agency. I actually didn't go to design school so my path into this field is kind of twisty. I graduated with a degree in communication at a state college here in the US and after a string of terrible jobs, I took a couple of classes in Graphic Design. I got a job as a Graphic Designer at a fashion company and did that for a year until my boyfriend got a job in Hong Kong, which kind of threw a wrench in my grand plan of becoming a freelancer. 

I moved with him to Hong Kong, but I don't have enough of a portfolio to become a freelancer, and I feel like I need years of agency experience like you had before even bothering to attempt charging for design services. I constantly fear even putting myself out there because I feel my work isn't good enough. Or imposter syndrome sneaks in and I think people won't think I'm worth being charged. I think most of this stems from having no idea what the industry norm is.

What advice would you give to someone like me who has virtually no agency experience but has dreams of making it in freelance?

Also unrelated, but thought maybe I would throw it in there. To be proficient in frontend development, what languages are essential? I know HTML, CSS, and Javascript/Jquery are musts, but any others?


I think it covers a lot of interesting things. About the difficulties of starting out and sometimes feeling like an imposter. My response to Marianne is below, it contains some tweaks and edits. Hopefully it can help some of you out there who are starting out and are in a similar situation to Marianne. 

Many great designers have started off on very different paths and many did not receive a ‘formal’ education on design at all and are entirely self taught. There is a great book by Khoi Vinh titled “How they got there” that chronicles the journeys of many seasoned design leaders in our industry and the odd paths that they took to get to where they are today. I believe working in an agency definitely helps but it is not mandatory to be a successful freelancer. 

1. Experience

The biggest gap you need to make up is experience if you haven't worked for an agency. You can build experience by doing 2 things. 

Through learning - Read as much as you can on design, workflow and metrics. Read up and understand how you can make a difference in helping your clients. Once you understand this you can educate and let them know why you would be a good fit for their business. How you can add value to their business and give them the best chance of achieving their desired outcomes. We are lucky that there is so much information readily available so make use of it. 

Through doing - Another way is actually through doing. Trial and error.  In my post on how to make more money as a freelancer I said to work with only good clients that are willing to pay you what you worth. When you are starting out you just need to hustle and just do as much work as you can. Find people in your immediate circle and help them out. You must realise that you are going to FAIL. And that's normal, you are going to have issues that need to get resolved, or identifying what businesses are a good fit for the work that you do. You'll stuff up a whole bunch but know that that's ok. Because that's not going to be the end of the road. You are going to get through these experiences and each time you do you've gained a little bit more knowledge and experience. I can't count the amount of times I've stuffed up in my career so don't sweat it. 

Fun fact: I once wiped 2 weeks worth of work from my work computer as I tried to partition my MAC to install a game that we all wanted to play in the office. I didn't back any of that up. Subsequently I didn't sleep for the next 5 days and worked 14+ hours straight daily. That was 6 years ago. 

2. Confidence

Nearly everybody experiences imposter syndrome. It's just a mindset. If I told you I still occasionally think I am a fraud would you believe me. I think why am I even teaching? Or blogging and am I qualified. And I've been doing this for 10 years and have worked for global clients - helped them earn millions in revenue as well as contributed to helping others through non profit jobs. So go figure. It definitely is now just a floating thought that's once in a blue moon but early on in my career I definitely thought about it more often. So no you're not an imposter. You've made a conscious choice to do this as a career so act like you mean it, you want it, understand it and you are confident in doing it. If it's your passion it should light a fire in you. Use this energy to build confidence - and with more experience that you get either through learning or doing you will be more confident. 

3. Your work

From here is to build a presence and get your name out there. Don't be afraid if you think your work is not good enough, maybe it is, maybe it isn't but let the world judge it. And then you'll know if you need to move forward by a lot or by a little and keep honing in on your craft. Find your community and get as much feedback as you can. 

Next is to keep designing, make sure your work becomes so good that people just can't ignore you anymore. Do self initiated projects if you have to. Build up a solid portfolio of the work you would like to do and find your market. If you've shared your work enough someone will find you, there's so many people in the world that your work will resonate with more people than you think. 

Lastly to be proficient with front end - yep those are definitely the musts. With regards to others not really - I would just find frameworks/platforms related to these technologies that you enjoy working with and sticking with them. If you build from scratch or work with squarespace, shopify etc. or even enterprise solutions (You can potentially earn more but it's usually more boring). There are so many great tools available these days to streamline our workflow and output. When you start out it helps to find a niche and you can specialise in that platform/market. It makes it easier to get clients early on. 

Hope that helps.