Being a graphic design freelancer for 10+ years, life was better than being an employee because my schedule was flexible. I could choose to sleep at 9 AM and work at 9 PM, so long I got the work done on time. If I were a full-time employee, I may not be so lucky.
That said, as a freelancer, though I could choose when to work, I couldn’t choose to not work. I still had to work no matter what, even if I was unwell, otherwise, my income would run dry. I ended up giving myself a full-time job led by many bosses: my clients.
That said, work to me was not work at all. I loved my work as a creative, helping clients figure out design solutions to their challenges and crafting something that comes from my own thought process.
With little sleep, I did them all night and day, yet I was enjoying myself and felt like I was contributing to my client’s successes. I felt that it was the best job ever.
Why is freelancing not worth it? I felt like I was the smartest person on Earth.
Those days, I had no issues with my income. I was single, had no kids, no mortgage to pay, no employees and charged clients up to $10,000 each project per month all for me to take home.
I could even take up to three months of travel holiday without working because my previous projects paid for that. All I had to do was to tell all my clients I would be away and they wouldn’t hand me anything to do for that period of time.
I was lucky my clients kept coming back to me without me having to sell anything to them. I would die if I were to do any sales-related activities. Thank goodness I didn’t have to do any of that.
My clients were my advocates, helping me sell my service, referring new clients to me. Also, they were busy and didn’t have time to look for anyone else who charged less, I was their only designer. I was grateful and served all of them to the best of my abilities.
I felt indispensable.
Until a series of events turned my life and business around.
That was when I stumbled upon entrepreneurship, understanding what true financial independence is about, and found a strong reason to transform my freelance business into a productized service business in graphic design.
Liver transplant — anything can happen
One day, a 10 cm malignant tumour was found in my dad’s liver. In order for him to carry on living longer than a few months, he had to remove it. But his liver had to go with it. This meant to say, he needed a new set of functioning liver to replace the outgoing one.
He had to undergo a liver transplant to have a good chance of survival. Naturally, I volunteered to be the donor and my liver was a good match.
It was a huge operation and anyone who went through this will have to take at least a few months of rest to recover properly. I was lucky not to have suffered from any infection, but for many months, I wasn’t in the right physical and mental frame to take on client work like before.
No client work, no income. My bank account shrunk overnight, but I had to live with it.
I bounced back quickly once my surgery wound started healing close to what it was before. Thank goodness I had great friends who sent clients my way and my income returned back to normal.
Two years after the operation, my dad had a relapse. Cancer cells were found in every part of his body, including his lungs and back. The fast-growing cells blocked a big part of his windpipe and breathing was difficult. In just days and weeks, he started to lose control of his limbs and bowels.
Together with our family helper, I had to slow down my freelance work to be his caregiver. Similar to the days I was recovering from the liver transplant operation, I started to see a similar problem with my business. I couldn’t be at two places at one time and there’s only so much I can do within the time I have.
I had to reject most client work because I was afraid I couldn’t commit and honour my word. With my bank account close to zero, I couldn’t afford to hire someone to take over any design work.
Most of my time was spent head down doing the creative work that I did not go out there to do any marketing or sales-related activities. Without a network, I had no one to rely on to pass my work to at least temporarily.
After my dad passed away in 2011, I decided to do something better with my business. Realised that with only 24 hours a day, there are only so many projects I could do as a solo freelancer. I started to ramp up my service fees.
I thought that if I were to charge one client for one project at say $10,000, I only needed to work on a similar project for five other clients to be comfortable for that year. In this case, I didn’t have to find more clients to sustain. So it seemed.
I did that for two years and things went as planned. Though I was contented with my work and clients, it lasted only for a while.
Baby, debt and clientless
In 2013, my firstborn popped and my high-paying clients started leaving at the same time. Some of them feedbacked that they love my work but they were going elsewhere and didn’t need such a service anymore.
Others required more of my attention but I couldn’t give proper care to both my baby and customers at the same time. There was no way I could do both at the same time and had to reject some projects.
As my business dwindled, I also witnessed my income plunging down to a negative figure. With a huge mortgage loan to cover, I was half a million dollars in debt overnight.
I found myself in the darkest moment in my life.
If I had a million customers come to me at the same time, it’s a good problem to have. Even with ten years of freelance experience, this situation brought my confidence so low that I didn’t think I had the ability to acquire just one new customer.
Thank goodness there was a blessing, well-disguised. As my bank and credit card interests rose, the quiet time I had to self-reflect and learn more about myself, my mistakes and what I wanted in my life also increased.
Not that I was looking for so-called “passive income”. I must be honest, I used to search for “ways to earn money without working at all”. Not that I didn’t want to work forever. I love my work.
But after going through difficult times like my dad’s suffering days, clients leaving without warning and struggling to be at two places at one time, I knew it was time for a change.
Build a business that can run on its own
Knowing I had to determine what I truly want for my life and business, I came up with a goal. That is, to create a business that supports my lifestyle.
What this means is, my business should be built to run on its own so that I can make good enough income, do creative work, be an awesome mama to my kids, travel around the world and do anything as and when I want. Call it “entrepreneurship” if you like. Ideally, I can remove myself from it as and when I like.
Should I be unable to work, or if family members need me to be there due to things like health reasons or if my baby is unwell, I want that freedom to choose where to put my attention while my income still grows at the same time.
My business has to be there to free me up to do things I enjoy doing rather than be something that holds me back or ties me down from the lifestyle I want to lead.
Being a freelancer as a starting point is great. Freelancing can help bring in enough income, but after doing it for more than ten years, it’s not the best way to allow me to get to where I want to go in life.
If you are going through a similar situation, there is a better way to do more of what you love without having to live from dollar to dollar and trading time for money.
Many things in a freelancing business do not have to be done by you. List them down and hire the right people to do them. This should be done first to free up your time.
Although your business will not turn from a freelance model to a self-running machine overnight. Doing this is the first step to getting you started.
For me, what took up most of my day’s time was the clients’ design work. Hence, my first step was to find designers who are willing to spend time to help me with that.
In my spare time, I bring in more income by promoting my business more than before. Other times, I do my own projects to satisfy that creative designer in me.
There’s no need for you to pass off the creative work if you don’t wish to do so. Look for bits of the whole process to hands-off instead.
You can do this!