Why I dislike “freelance”

Don’t let the title fool you. I certainly love being self-employed, but I cringe when I hear the self-employeed reference themselves as “freelance.” Maybe it’s the way others perceive freelance, but overtime I’ve come to find that people think of freelancing as something “we do on the side after we get home from our real jobs.” While this might be true to some, it most certainly is not for those of us that do it full time. And by full time I mean 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. Anyone that runs their own design business knows that this is a real full time gig. I’ve received short conference calls while out to eat with friends on a Friday night as well as made contacts at grocery stores; it’s non-stop.

Make no mistake about it; running an independent business, no matter what field you are in, is extremely time consuming, exhausting and requires a lot of motivation and dedication. It’s not for everyone. Running your own business means that there are more unpaid and non-billable items that you perform on a daily basis. Emailing, answering phone calls, marketing, networking… these are all, for the most part, non-paid facets of what we do. If you are an in-house designer, responding to emails, answering phone calls, and marketing, among other things, are payable because you are on the clock. You get paid for the time you are under the roof of your office. The self-employeed unfortunately do not. This means that we need to compensate for the time we do not get paid. Freelance means that we do more unpaid “clock” work; not that we do more paid work for less money.

This might sound familiar to some most of you: I received an email from a potential client inquiring a new website. After a few emails back and forth, the talk of money came into the equation, only to have the client question why my rates where so high as “they too were freelancers or small businesses.” They also asked if I’d consider slashing my rate by two-thirds. How about this one: I received emails looking for a $1,000 website because large firms I’ve contacted charge in the six-figures.

There are reasons large companies charge $100,000 for a website and it’s not only based on credibility and size of the website. They have more employees to pay and a much larger overhead to cover. The price for this is taken into consideration. It’s not just design firms that do this. It’s all businesses. How much do you think your local grocery store buys a box of Cheerios for? Having worked for a TGI Friday’s a while back I remember seeing how much they get a rack of ribs for in comparison to how much they sell to the consumer. The margin is so unbelievable that you don’t even want to know. The Apple iPad costs $270 to make. Does this stop you from buying one for $499? Most likely not. Why? Because there is the need factor and there is the trust factor. Need not in the way that if we don’t have one we will die, but need as in we want that one instead of another tablet computer. Why do we want that one? Because we trust it and the company behind it. The same can be said for design services. Sure you can go out and get a $500 website done up, but I guarantee you will eventually come back to getting what you want from someone you trust, and between me and you, if someone is designing and building a website for $500 I’d be extremely vigilant making that decision.

I receive a lot of emails from designers just starting off asking “how do you charge?” This is a tough one and I can tell you with time it only gets better for understanding what you should be charging. Now I’m not saying to go out and rip off your clients, but when you are pricing your services take into account all of these extra “non-billable” things. A good ten hours of my week (at least) is dedicated to answering emails. Do I get paid for this? No. However, I do need to make up for all of these extra hours someway. Either that or I’d find myself spending more than I make per say. Also, consider taxes. Around 40% of my income goes to good ol’ Uncle Sam. A thousand dollar project pretty much goes right down to $600 bucks. Freelance is a business and it should be handled no different than any other. Sure, we can charge less than the large firm because we have lower overhead costs. That’s one benefit of working with an independent designer, but lets not take advantage of the fact that we are working alone. Quality design and development comes with time. Each project requires a unique solution and without taking the time to think, plan, structure, design, develop and so on, will only return bad (or less than par) results.

I understand that it is often difficult to budget a company, especially if its just getting its feet wet, however building a larger budget and coming back to a project later is a much smarter investment than getting something slapped together for the sake of needing it. Investing a few extra hundred or thousand dollars (or whatever the cost difference might be) to have it done to the best of its potential will kick back a greater outcome all together and all sides will be much happier in the end.

Discussion and Comments

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  1. Mike says:

    Great post…I was running my own ‘freelance’ business as well for about 6 years, and I have experienced all of that a lot. after migrating to new zealand, and being dependant to the company I work for visa-wise, I am working as a in-house designer. has its advantages but definetely looking forward to getting my residency sorted and then becoming a freelancer again.

    great site by the way…just found it yesterday :)

  2. Robyn Durst says:

    Thanks for being so truthful in your post! A lot of “freelancers” won’t get into the nitty-gritty details of their jobs. The facts are that it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and a thick skin!

  3. Debleena says:

    Just great to read this…people have certain weird inhibitions…..work is work…and freelancing is a light term to denote a serious business activity…I have been working as well and I know it feels bad when people actually undermine your status….Hope ideas change…long way to go yet…..

  4. Atom Groom says:

    Great article, I agree with pretty much everything you had to say. Nice to get the truth out there, Thanks!


  5. I started working from home 1 year ago and it has been a struggle. All of the aspects you discussed above have come into play. I do love it and would like to continue doing it so I can be more independent and take care of my kids. Some days I feel like throwing in the towel. What kept you going when you just started out?

  6. Caroline says:

    Before setting up my design community Chief Originals I freelanced as a Senior Producer at numerous ad agencies across London. The thing that bothered me most is that whilst the choice to freelance is open to so many in the design world those who have decided to be permanent staff are often resentful and rude, treating freelancers as second class citizens. I agree that we work just as hard, we just want to have some flexibility as well.

  7. My biggest issue of being ‘freelance’ is that friends and family think I’m available anytime. “Can ya pop to the shop and get some milk?” That kind of thing. Quite annoying sometimes when ya got ya head deep inside some coding problem!!!

  8. Bren says:

    SO TRUE! Great article that says pretty much exactly how I have sometimes justify my prices to some clients (clients that quite often end up being incredibly demanding and expect to not have to pay anything extra!).

    I don’t ever call myself ‘freelance’ – I promote myself as a company, which stops some people questioning my prices. I’ve been self-employed for over 3 years now and I’ll never go back to being employed – I’m too used to being my own boss.

    About 18 months ago I discovered the joys of WordPress (a bit slow on the uptake – I know!) and that has enabled me to be able to offer cheaper websites to clients who just don’t have the funds… the way I sell it to them is by explaining they are getting thousands of pounds (UK) worth of website for (quite often) less than a thousand pounds. They’re happy and I’m happy, because I’ve got another client who sings my praises to everyone….. including the occasional person who might be after something more bespoke……….. and is willing to pay for it!

  9. Exactly! Thanks for posting this, I hope, many people will read this. What I hate especially is that people think I’m always free. They come at the last possible second and expect me to have time immediately, which I find very disrespectful.

    And you’re right: I spent much more money on my personal website than a publisher I know wanted to spend on his and the difference shows, it shows a mile away.

  10. Chris Pickey says:

    And don’t forget about the most important parts – drawing up proposals, invoicing, following up with clients to make sure they are paying when they are supposed to – the administrative stuff.

    Most clients don’t read the fine print on the contract or the invoice. Sometimes, you have to babysit them.

    It’s tough to come out of an employee situation into a self-employed situation and come out the first year with flying colors. As an employee, all you have to worry about is getting the creative or production work done. As a business owner, you now have to somehow manage the business part of the work coming in. That takes additional time and a discipline that I would argue most creatives don’t naturally have.

    Brian is right, most of us designers are not cut out for self-employment, and that’s OK. However, if you’re a creative that loves a challenge, loves to learn and doesn’t mind a sleepless night or four, break those chains and get out there.

    Self-employment is very tiring, taxing (literally), emotionally draining, and tough but it can be, if done right, very very rewarding.

  11. really great post, and you make a brilliant point about the $500 websites that some people sell. I always think you should pay for the correct website up front otherwise it will just cost you more in the long run. Cheers again

  12. Kamal says:

    Great post Brian! Perhaps a classic example of how changing perceptions sometimes change meanings of certain words over time. We certainly can’t survive without managing to sell the value that we deliver with the artwork/creations. And that is pretty damn challenging task at times, when you encounter skewed perceptions on the way.

    Using a more descriptive title for oneself is anyway better for professionals as the term “freelancer” is too generic.

  13. Well written! Being that I have both worked at firms and spent long period freelancing I can see the advantages for clients to pick one or the other; however a budget website is not a reason to pick a freelancer.

  14. Very good read. Very true on the “how do you charge?” comments. Very often clients have no real idea of the time involved in the process before any work can even begin. As time goes on, we tend to learn that some clients understand the value whereas others simply want to question it and chisel down the price. This in effect ties the hands of the designer, crippling a project.

  15. Jeff says:

    Fantastic read Brian!

    My favorite are the people that take up and an hour of your time on the phone explaining what they want in a site and then when you ask their budget they say ‘$300′.

    I have to explain to them that a site can take anywhere from 2-3 weeks (if all goes well) and at $300 I’d be making $100-$150 a week on their budget.

    I really don’t think they get it.

  16. I prefer to say that “I run my own design business.”

  17. End User says:

    Why I dislike “freelance”

    “But under the new rules, if a freelance designer buys a new iMac from the Apple Store, they’ll have to send Apple a 1099.” http://money.cnn.com/2010/05/05/smallbusiness/1099_health_care_tax_change/

  18. Andrew says:

    I am a “freelancer” and I agree with your points. But I must say I don’t work 7 days a week and 12 hour days. I make great money working 9-5 mon-fri.

  19. Matt Henderson says:

    I wrote an article on how we price and charge services work at Makalu, that you might enjoy:


  20. gerard says:

    @Mike-SiteOne Brilliant!!

  21. KoboApps says:

    Great Article..
    Short of comments now…

  22. Well said Brian. I remember one of my first jobs when I was promoting a full two page website package for £99.00 (about 11 years ago). I had three meetings with the guy on site (about 6 hours in all) two design changes and then when it came to it he asked for a discount!

    After that, I stuck another £100 on the package price…

  23. Timothy says:

    Excellent article. I started up my own businesses almost two years ago. And it is not easy. It’s hard enough to find clients when you are so early in your career, and are still working on your portfolio. But then, when you do find prospective clients, they want mammoth sites with video, editable content, etc for dirt cheap. And they feel like they are doing you a service by hiring you.

  24. Bob Tulloch says:

    I have been running my own company (sometimes just me) for 20 years. The whole business of how much you charge can be broken down into a couple of simple equations. As I’m British, when it comes to money I’m doing it in GBP.

    First time.
    365 days a year
    260 weekdays (Do you really want to work every weekend?)
    245 available days (You get sick sometimes and you need some holiday)
    163 on clock days (Yup, you will spend 1/3 of your time marketing and doing things you will not be paid for)

    Now, how much do you want to earn each year. Remember its not only groceries & rent/mortgage, there’s office expenses, car costs, savings/pension etc. and don’t forget taxes

    Let’s settle on £50,000 per year. Choose your own figure if you don’t like this one.

    This works out at £306 per day or £25 per hour.

    This is reality. Work out your own equation and if you charge less you’ve either got another source of income (your parents?) or you are operating as a charity.

  25. paul says:

    great article Brian, it made me change “freelance web designer” to “independent web designer” on my home page.

    there is a lot of work to be done to educate the client about the value of what we do.

  26. Stephanie says:

    This is a great read for non-designers too. I think clients are the ones that need to learn what ‘self-employment’ entails in the deisgn industry. I don’t mind the term ‘freelancer’ right now, becuase I in fact do design on my ‘off-peak’ hours. But I do wish clients would see the value in what we do as independent designers. They figure since it’s a solo-business, the prices should be way cheap (but the labor should be endless). Great post Brian.

  27. I work as freelance in logo design but i doesn’t face any problem but some client create problem for you.
    Thanks nice post.

  28. Chelsea says:

    I’ve been “freelancing (sorry!)” for a bit now, and although it is incredibly time consuming and can be quite difficult at times, there are many useful tools outhere. I have found these “freelance” design contracts and templates posted at Sessions College for Professional Design useful: http://www.sessions.edu/Design-Career-Center/Design-Tools/Freelance-Design-Contracts-Templates.asp?fmid=0

  29. I get a lot of resistance from people who don’t understand why I charge a flat rate, rather than hourly. I never understood that – wouldn’t most people prefer a more solid estimate for the amount they’ll be paying, as opposed to the more amorphous hourly number?

  30. Toner says:

    Thank you for the interesting post, I think freelancing is alswas only a first step to get into the business. Later the freelancer often work as an regular writer, after they wrote a lot as freelancer. I think this is a possible way to get a regular work.

  31. Shane says:

    This was a really great and interesting read, you have addressed so many important points to running your own business!!

    Thanks for sharing.

  32. Nice post.

    I have worked freelance many times during my career. I have found that here will always be potential clients who look to exploit freelancers. But having a very solid contract, charging per project rather than hourly, as well as having minimum fees, can help to dissuade the riff-raff. Establishing limits with a client gives you credibility and promotes respect. Most ironically, within reason, the more you charge, the more clients tend to treat you well; and a side benefit, the quality of clients tends to get better.

    As a few others have mentioned, I prefer the term “independent” when doing direct client work, although “freelance” or “contract” can be useful when picking up agency project work.

    One other important point, along with all of the unpaid tasks of running business, being a successful freelancer means that you also have to have stellar design skills and stay current with trends and technology. This research and development takes time and commitment. As an independent designer, to have business value, you need to be as good or better than a boutique firm.

  33. Very true. I’ve been “freelancing” on and off since 1998, and continuously for the past 6 or so years, and must say it sometime suck how customers treat you or expect you to make great websites for $500 etc, but nothing compares to the freedom of being self emplyed. LOVE IT TO THE BITS! :)

  34. steve moore says:

    why are you paying 40% in taxes? I think you need a better accountant… I pay around ten to fifteen, even after being audited as an S-corp.

  35. adsl fpt says:

    I just thing a freelance would mean you work as free, not in any company.

  36. Adam says:

    @Mike, you’ll soon find out that going back as in-house designer won’t help that much, in my opinion it’s better to be employed in NZ to avoid paying only on your own, the taxes.
    Not to mention here that in-house you’ll probably work every day long, most fo the time.

  37. There is nothing to hate freelance. I like it as all my money is mine and I can work at my convenience.

  38. Kat Cummins says:

    Great post! I too have been ‘freelancing’ for awhile… cringing every time I say the word but not knowing what else to call myself. ‘Independent’ sounds so much better!

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello: