A busy student’s guide to starting a freelance design business

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Freelance and design go well together.

The biggest question you need to ask is how much college complicates the matter.

Fortunately, the problem has already been solved.

We know about the challenges that come with being a college student and starting a side business because many people have already done it.

Sidenote: When you're done here, learn from 150+ freelancers who've been in your shoes with our all-new 30-day bootcamp: Zero to Freelancing. You'll love it.

It is not a matter of if it can be done. It is just a matter of how.

As it turns out, college doesn’t really complicate the matter as much as you might imagine.

It is mostly a matter of priorities, time management, and a lot of really hard work.

This is what is required to be successful at anything.

You need these things to be successful at college, your business, your relationships, and your hobbies.

You'll also enjoy this episode of our new podcast...

People who master dual disciplines have certain things in common.

Here are a few of those things.

Master the first thing

The key is to master college, the first thing, before layering something else onto it.

Entering college is an expensive and life-changing proposition.

Make school your exclusive priority at the beginning.

Avoid sororities, fraternities, parties, athletics, and even part-time jobs until you are comfortable with the workload.

Once you know you can handle things, you can slowly begin to add to your responsibilities.

Humans can handle two tasks simultaneously. It is just a matter of mastering the first thing before adding the second.

Manage your time

The most successful people in the world are those who have mastered their time.

For people with dual disciplines, time really is money.

Time management is the key to freelance success. Some time management tips include:

• Avoiding projects with short deadlines
• Giving yourself plenty of time to complete projects
• Remembering that freelance work is not the only thing you have on the table when you are in college
• Term papers and such are also on a strict deadline

Organize your world

Take a moment and assess the state of your room.

Is everything neat?

Or will it take you a few minutes to find a particular book, pen, or handout from class?

If so, you are a typical college student.

Unfortunately, disorganization can cause a great deal of inconvenience in school.

In business, being unorganized can be a lot more detrimental.

You don’t want to mix up the work you are doing for your clients. If you bill by the hour, you will have to keep careful track of time.

Then, there is invoicing to consider.

While there are a number of software packages that can help you with invoicing, keeping track of invoices can be a real challenge if you are unorganized.

Mastering your main college duties, managing time, and staying organized are table-stakes if you hope to start a business while making the grade.

Build your resume

Graphic design is not some part-time job flipping burgers. It is a real business.

And as such, it needs to be taken seriously.

Whether or not you are in college, the requirements for success are the same.

No one is going to give you work out of pity.

Your resume needs to show a prospective client what you can do.

Here are a few things your resume needs to have:

• A portfolio of your work such as websites you’ve built, logos you’ve designed, and brochures you have created
• Accurate contact information
• Relevant courses of study, certifications, and recommendations

Don’t go to a prospective client empty-handed, even if that prospect is a family member or close friend.

Finding clients

Your first client should be yourself.

If you are really just getting started, you need to find unpaid work you can do to build your portfolio.

At the very least, you should have your own website.

You should also have your own logo, business cards, and handouts.

From there, do some speculative design work.

Find some local businesses that have websites. Design better sites for them so that you can show the businesses what you can do for them.

Almost every local business in your neighborhood has a website or logo that could use a face lift. Make sure these business owners know that you are the one to provide the face lift.

Finally, go to trade conferences whenever possible.

The best way to find clients is to network like a professional.

Remember, everyone at trade conferences are there to do the same thing you are. Figure out what makes you different.

If you can’t answer the question of why a prospective client should choose you over all the others, neither can they.

The price has to be right

No one can tell you what the right price is for a particular job. But your clients will know right away when the price is wrong.

Make it too high, and they will never find out how brilliant you are. Price your services too low, and you will be marginalized.

This is where market research comes in.

Find out what your competition is charging, then charge that.

Find ways to differentiate. But don’t differentiate by price.

Your very first clients might have to be discounted because you really do need them as much as they need you. But trade that discount for positive word of mouth about your work.

Get referrals from the client in exchange for the discount. When you are building a clientele, referrals from a satisfied customer are worth more than cash.

Wrapping it up

You can be both a freelance graphic designer and a college student. Just be sure that you don’t bite off more than you can chew.

School comes first. Build your resume just like you would for any other job. And price your services accordingly.

Did you start a side business in college? Tell us your advice in the comments!

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About Antonio Calabrese

Antonio Calabrese is the Founder & CEO of Boonle, a marketplace connecting students & recent grads with businesses & nonprofits seeking help with graphic design projects. Follow him @acalabrese83.

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