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How to Position Your Freelance Creative Business (& Stop Feeling Burnt Out)

There’s a plethora of pros when it comes to living the freelance dream: setting your own schedule, working when you feel most creative, and having the option of wearing pajamas all day if that’s your vibe.

The cons, however, can weigh heavily on freelancers if they’re not anticipated and managed. Here at The New Garde, we’re experts in the how and why of feeling completely burned out.

We’re big believers in being able to recognise the wins of the day, rather than constant exhaustion coupled with critical deadlines that are going to require a whole lot of midnight oil, or equal stress from not winning work from clients you want. So if you’re constantly feeling burnt out at the end of your workday, or as though your freelance career is lacking direction, read on.

How to conquer fears and the famous burnout when positioning yourself as a freelancer

Time to ask yourself a few tough questions to ascertain whether freelancing is really sustainable for you. When assigned a new project, do you find yourself desperately trying to learn everything you can because you don’t know anything about the industry you’re designing for?

Are you just getting through the workday?

You’re not alone: this is a common feeling in the freelance community. Grabbing as much work as possible and just-getting-the-job-done is what seems to count most for many. The problem here is that everything suffers. The quality of your work diminishes, you’re not efficient as you have no existing knowledge base of what you’re working on, and your career development languishes because you’re spending valuable time on projects you don’t really want to be taking on. This would result in burnout for even the most motivated freelancer.

Pinpoint the type of work that you truly enjoy doing, and set about becoming a maven that will be remembered for their expertise and dedication to the subject matter.

If you’re new to the freelance industry, ask yourself these questions, and keep asking them as your career develops:

  1. What type of work are you enjoying most?
  2. Who is able to hire you as a freelancer?
  3. Realistically, do they have the budget to meet your expectations?

Keep variability in your projects when discovering your expertise niche

When you’re starting out, take the time to discover your strengths and what really gets your pulse racing. You’ll quickly learn the type of projects you do and don’t like, as well as what you are very good at, and where you need to improve. Experimenting and gaining experience in several different niches is a great way to discover where you can really excel.

Become a specialist and stand out from the crowd

Let’s face it: you’re not the only freelancer out there. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has confirmed that more and more Aussies are opting for the freelance life: it’s estimated one-third of the Australian workforce performs some kind of freelance work. How do you set yourself apart from the crowd? How are you going to make sure potential clients remember who you are? And even more importantly, how are you going to make sure you’re the first pick for hire? It’s all about positioning.

To better understand positioning, let’s put a fashionable spin on it. If you were going to hire someone to design a vintage-inspired print collection for your swimwear range would you:

  1. hire a freelance who advertises themselves as a general graphic designer and can produce all types of designs and prints, or
  2. opt for the freelancer positioned as an expert vintage print designer specialising in swimwear fabrics.

Option b is a no-brainer. The freelancer is niche, has developed the skills and expertise you need and you might even consider stretching your budget to make sure you secure them for the job. It’s a great investment in your new swimwear range because it’s obvious from the get-go that this person knows their stuff and has the contacts to make things happen. There are likely to be fewer development issues and production will be more efficient.

That’s the methodology that I use when hiring freelancers for my business too. Since I’m the one steering the ship at The New Garde, I identify as being a generalist, or a jack of all trades, who can do a lot of things. Still, it makes sense for me to hire specialist freelancers who have a lot of subject matter expertise and authority around something very specific, and can really do a great job for the people that hire The New Garde.

How to be selective when bringing on new clients

At The New Garde, we have the luxury of working with fashion clients we love. When I think back, I remember being encouraged to take on interiors clients and marketing work from sectors outside of my specialty. I was reluctant to say no to anything – I might be missing out on a great opportunity, right!? What I learned is, it’s not about saying no. It’s about being selective and saying yes to the right projects: ones that will help you stretch and grow. Here are two key reasons to be selective when taking on new clients:

  1. You feel challenged and inspired by the work/project. This cancels out feelings of resentment and boredom as the hours clock up each day
  2. You’ll gain referrals and recommendations that matter more because they’re in your niche. This is part of building up your reputation as a specialist, rather than a general freelancer

How to set up a great project fee structure

My expert advice for freelancers is to steer clear of hourly fee structures. The reasons are varied, but the rule is the less experienced you are, the cheaper you are and the longer projects will take you to complete. As you become more savvy, your rate increases but you’re also more efficient – and you’re going to lose out on that hourly rate or hit about the same amount as when you were starting out. The New Garde suggests project-based rates where you’re being paid for your expertise, rather than minutes on the clock. You’re valued as a consultant and more involved, rather than someone ticking things off a list as quickly as possible. Think about creating a couture dress: the buyer wants to know the total cost, not be faced with the prospect of having to leave off the sleeves because the atelier ran out of allocated time.

Red flags from clients and how to move away from them

Hourly pricing is a big red flag. If a client wants to pay you for an hourly gig it means that they see you as a time-based worker. They’re not hiring you for your opinion or expertise, and it’s unlikely there’s a lot of value in the project in terms of career growth. Another is asking for you to do those little extra bits and pieces for free. It’s a clear sign they don’t respect your time, and maybe testing their boundaries with you to see how much they can squeeze out of their budget with you.

Negotiation on an initial quote is almost expected but if the potential client is adamant they can find someone cheaper, kiss this one goodbye and don’t look back. They’re not looking for quality work. Rather, they just need someone who can get the job done which doesn’t help you with your experience-building or potential to add value.

Simple ideas to keep your network updated on your brand

Keep it simple. Imagine you and your potential client are in an elevator and you have their attention for 20 seconds. Your go-to pitch should include:

  • Your name
  • What you do
  • What you specialise in
  • The sectors/existing projects you’re working on

It’s the perfect nutshell to summarise what you do and position yourself quickly and clearly. An email newsletter is a great way of keeping contacts in the loop on how you’re changing things. This can be a list of people from anywhere: think previous workplaces or high school friends. We all have our own little worlds of connections and it’s a good idea to leverage those and keep them updated on how you’re moving forward. You never know where it might lead.

A really valuable exercise is reaching out to 10 to 15 people close to you and asking them, “According to you, what is my unique ability? What is a thing that I’m best at?” I did this exercise a few months ago and almost everyone answered the same thing. It’s a great way to clarify strengths and discover people’s perceptions about you. The feedback is from people who know you, and there’s no greater or more honest review to be had.

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