About this time last year, I wrote a blog post entitled Thanks For All The Fish outlining my reasoning for leaving the agency world. A year later, I wanted to look back at what has happened since making the leap to freelance and the West Coast.
It's hard to say when exactly I began officially working for myself. Regardless of full-time employment, I've always had side projects and freelance efforts going on. I get emails from time to time written by designers looking to strike out on their own, and the most common question is always revolves around timing. In truth, there is no magic bullet or sign telling you when it's time to go. Some get here by not having any other options while others just jump in. In my case, it was a slow dissolving of a full-time and simultaneous growth in freelance that did the trick.
In May of 2010, I left a Sr. Designer position to take a contracted freelance offer at 160over90 in Philadelphia. Having worked for them previously, I had a good idea what to expect, and the deal offered a dependable income while still providing a chance to increase my own client-base on the side. The short time period allowed us both a chance to evaluate the relationship at certain intervals and decide what was best for both of us. Eventually there was a time where my own demands began to match pace with theirs and we agreed it was time for the little bird to fly the coop. A month later I was in LA.
The other question I always get is about money. Nobody wants to leave the warm fuzzy glow of an expected paycheck. There are also no guarantees as to what you will make which is both a blessing and a curse. To solve some of the more specific questions, I decided to make some admittedly ham-handed info graphics.
While I'm a little uncomfortable disclosing exactly what I made when, I figured it can't hurt to just show relationships. This graph shows my income over time at various positions. This is overlaid with what I refer to as the "Job Enjoyment Index", a completely arbitrary ranking of how much I enjoyed myself at any given position. As you can see, I was very happy and almost in poverty as a cook in college. Fun times. The immediate jump into an agency post-college proved to be much more lucrative and soul sucking. This continues with various degrees of economic stability and happiness until the current state, which I think you will agree is a much better compromise.
This graph actually serves to bring up a something you'll see continue through all the graphs. There's a very measurable value in money, however the most important thing about working for yourself exists in the immeasurable.
While that first graph may look great as far as money, it's important to realize that money is only good if you have it when you need it. Again, we return to timing. Take a look at this graph plotting my invoices over time. This is what it is to be a freelancer. If you can't weather the storms, it's going to be a bumpy ride. As a point of reference, I plotted my monthly income from my last full-time job. As a result, you learn a lot about money management and saving for taxes. On that note, I have only one piece of advice. Hire an accountant you trust, listen to their advice, and pay them promptly.
The "Stress Index" serves as an totally half-baked remembrance of how tough the months were. In many cases this serves to correlate the "Mo Money, Mo Problems" theorem proposed by Christopher Wallace, however does not account for other variables. Life still happens while you're a freelancer, and that combined with the income issues may present especially challenging obstacles. The initial rise is attributed to us moving in June and July. The spike in September represents a particularly large and difficult project combined with me breaking my ankle while on a run. December marks travel and generally stressful periods. The April spike is attributed to the annual bank account liquidation known as taxes (refer to above statement).
Also note this is invoices, not hours spent. Months with no invoices were still spent working, they just likely had longer timelines or weird timing.
Last year, I completed 36 projects for 23 clients, but all projects are not created equal. This graph plots income by project and shows an alarming range of complexity. This is a key factor in the income instability and stress index from the previous graph. This graph utilizes a "Effort Index" which is a combination of hours spent and how painful those hours were compared to the value of the project. It's not the most scientific way to plot this information, but it is the most honest. Points that are equal to the value of the project mean a relatively honest exchange of hours and money. Points that exceed the value indicate that the project was a huge pain in the ass while dots below the value indicate that I probably came out ahead.
Overall, there is a lot of volatility. You will have periods of difficulty and you'll also have periods of feeling on top of the world. So when a designer asks me when's the right time, their question is usually met with a shrug. It depends what's right for you with your finances and responsibilities. It depends how much confidence you have to be able to continually find work. These are questions only you can answer yourself. All I can do is be transparent about my experience and hope you find something that works for you.
As I mentioned earlier though, the most important benefits of working for oneself lie in the immeasurable. There's no metric for piece of mind. The freedom and the responsibilities are the best part of this job. You can literally do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it provided that you meet your responsibilities. You can also say no to a job if it's not right or end a relationship with a client who doesn't respect your work. You can devote as much time and effort to a project as it needs. You can move more freely, do different things, and work with different people. You can form relationships with clients based on interest and trust. Life can be what you make it.
So yeah, go for it. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Worst case scenario you can just go get another agency job if it all comes crumbling down. Which brings us to our last graph.