By: Blaire Knight-Graves, DePaul University web content producer

This article was originally published on Professional Geek Podcast. The author has given us permission to showcase her work.


So you’re an aspiring professional creative and don’t know where to begin your career—you need to create a portfolio of work to be considered for full-time employment, you need to learn more about the industry you’re working to get into so that you can talk the talk and walk the walk, and you need the bare minimum years of experience for your resume to even be looked at by someone at your dream company. This experience is all too common, especially for recent grads looking to break into their field. So, how do you go from dreaming of your ideal job to actually doing the thing you love? One word: freelance.

Starting a freelance career isn’t intuitive. This path comes with a lot of nuances and little surprises you may not know how to navigate. I decided to put together a cheat sheet on how to get started, what to expect, and how to get paid, which you can find below.

1. Find out where the freelance gigs are posted in your field, or sign up to do work for a creative temp agency 

Every single creative field has its own board for posting freelance opportunities. In the film industry we have www.staffmeup.com. If you can’t identify a website for your industry, Craigslist actually has a really deep well of legitimate creative opportunities. If you want someone to help you find freelance opportunities, there are dozens of temp agencies that specialize in finding work. I’m a big fan of www.creativecircle.com, but there are others such as www.24seventalent.com and www.artisantalent.com. These places may pay you a slightly lower hourly rate, but they’ll help you find consistent work.

If you want someone to help you find freelance opportunities, there are dozens of temp agencies that specialize in finding work.

2. Contracts, project fees, invoices, line items and other costs

You should always invoice your client within a few days (no longer than a week) after the project is complete. Payment is not due within a certain range of work being completed, it’s due after being invoiced. If you don’t invoice, you won’t get paid. Period. Always set a due date on your invoice, and write in a separate area something about that due date. If you haven’t set the payment terms up front, you may be looking at an extended period of non-payment. I always set my invoices as “NET 30,” which means they are required to pay me within 30 days of being invoiced. Some companies pay NET 90 (90 days after being invoiced) if you don’t tell them upfront that you’re NET 30, so be clear at the get-go that you expect payment sooner rather than later. This can be resolved by having a contract or getting the deliverables in writing.

If someone hires you for freelance work, you should always have a “paper trail” for the terms, conditions, and expectations, which can usually be resolved by having a signed contract or an email exchange saved. Don’t make verbal agreements, and don’t make text message agreements.

You can also set a project fee, which means that you will be paid a flat fee for all work completed outside of additionally incurred costs. It’s very important to set boundaries if you’re accepting a flat fee because additional revisions to work can be requested, which will bring down your total hourly rate.

Finally, don’t forget to charge your client for additional costs you incur over the course of a project, and to call out these “line items” in your invoice (example: Line 1: Design Fee $300, Line 2: Font Fee $55, Line 3: Printed sign $78.97, TOTAL: $433.97). If you need to buy a specific font, license the rights to the use of a song in a video, or have the sign printed that you designed, you should always be charging your client for these additional line items as opposed to incurring the cost yourself. Additionally, don’t forget to charge for the time it took you to facilitate these items. If it took you 15 minutes to identify the font you’ll be using for a project, you should be calculating that cost from your hourly rate. Remember to notify your client up front and/or in your contract that if they do not provide specific materials that you will charge them for those costs.

3. Set your hourly or daily rate, or agree to a project fee

So here’s the biggest challenge: you need to set a rate. The best way to do this is to find out the average salary for the position you’re looking to get into (at the appropriate experience level), to calculate an hourly rate, and then set your rate at a competitive scale. To calculate an hourly rate, follow this simple equation: Divide the annual salary by 2,080 (if the job is a standard 40 hour work week). If the job you want makes $75,000 a year, the hourly wage is $75,000/2080, or $36.06. If you want to make your rate competitive, reduce your rate by a couple of dollars, to somewhere between $25 – $30 per hour. At this rate, you are saying to your potential gig that you have the right experience, but want to offer them the best deal possible. As your freelance career grows and expands across different clients and many years, so should your hourly rate. If you start your freelance career making $15 an hour, you’ll want to raise that price incrementally. By the second year, you could be raising your prices to $18 – $20 an hour, and so on and so forth.

Remember that some gigs come with a set rate. It’s your choice as to whether or not you accept that rate. You can always try to negotiate in any setting, but I am a strong believer in holding firm to your rates.

4. Expectations

This goes back to contracts, but you should always have the following questions answered by the time you agree to take on a project:

  • What are ALL of the expected deliverables?
  • What is the timeline for all expected deliverables? (Certain deliverables may have different due dates in one project)
  • How is this work going to be used/showcased? (There are some instances where you may charge more money if, for example, the work will be getting national attention, and there are some cases where you may not be given the answer to this question)
  • If they’re paying me a flat fee, how many revisions is the client allowed to request? (I try to limit it to three revisions)
  • What is the budget for this project/how much am I being paid?
  • Do I have to purchase materials for this project or will they be provided? If I am purchasing materials, what is the budget limit?
  • Do I have to travel for this work? (You’ll want to charge for travel over 10 miles each way from home)
  • If I have to be at a specific location at a specific time, is there insurance to cover me in case of an accident?
  • May I use this work in my portfolio?

5. Taxes and additional paperwork

At the beginning of each calendar year, prepare a W-9 form that will be ready with your information, and always send it along with your invoice. This is how the government will know how much to tax you. I always set aside 30% of all freelance income for taxes in their own separate savings account, since freelance work very rarely has taxes taken out prior to payment. Additionally, make sure you identify a good accountant who understands freelance income at the beginning of every tax season or sooner, so that you aren’t hosed by someone who doesn’t understand it in the future.

6. Have a steady income source outside of freelance when you start, even if it’s service work

I know that no one ever wants to hear this, but it’s very difficult to do freelance alone, especially when you’re new to the industry and still building your contacts. When I was freelancing as an associate producer at the beginning of my career, I took waitressing jobs as well as receptionist jobs. You might want to drive for Lyft or Grubhub or Postmates, or you might do what I did and take jobs where you can readily exchange shifts. Freelancing is called “side hustle” for a reason: you need to do it on the side until you can make it into a full-fledged career.

Freelancing is called “side hustle” for a reason: you need to do it on the side until you can make it into a full-fledged career.

Pursuing freelance opportunities to start your career can be a rewarding experience that leaves you with a portfolio of work, an understanding of how your industry works, and the experience needed to jump into mid-level jobs. I hope that my tricks and tips help you along your new and exciting path. Jump in, it doesn’t have to be hard!