The two biggest differences between university and freelancing and how to succeed in the transition

Thank you for applying; we went with someone more experienced.

I heard that plenty coming straight out of college, and I bet you have, too.

With today’s job market, recent and upcoming college grads are increasingly looking toward freelancing to follow their design dreams.

But surviving as a freelancer requires a different set of skills than getting that high mark in design class, and most students find that their education didn’t prep them for the freelancing world ahead.

Luckily, here at Millo, we’ve been there before. We’ve taken those first baby steps and we’ve been through the school of hard knocks.

And we want you to have a smoother ride than we did.

So while we don’t want to be grandpa in the rocking chair hollering about those darn kids these days, we do have a few words of wisdom.

(Fellow veterans, post in the comments the many things I had to leave out.)

#1: Proactivity required!

As a new freelancer, you’ve got to become the mighty hunter, using all of your wit and wherewithal to carve out your (financially-viable) spot in the world.

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Job hunting

Gone are the days when you groaned about being given more work to do. Now you’re thrilled to get a project, but they rarely just land in your lap. (Wouldn’t that be nice, though?)

In the “real world,” you have to compete for work, and you’ll find that no matter how long you’ve been freelancing, how and when you’ll land that next job is never far from mind.

(Check out our massive Millo archive on finding new clients.)

Resource hunting

Not only are you seeking out clients, but when you do land that new client, they almost always come unprepared.

It’s not because they’re lazy or terrible clients, it’s because they know little or nothing about design/websites/marketing — that’s why they hired you!

So instead of receiving a link to a folder full of web-ready photos, expect to go hunting through stock photography. Instead of being given a project spec sheet, expect to hear, “I’d like you to make me a website.” The rest of the details are up to you to uncover.

Solution hunting

While you might’ve been able to go to your professor with an issue or obstacle on your school projects, as a freelancer, it’s all up to you now. From understanding the problem and deciding on a solution to determining from which angle you’ll attack, all of those decisions now rest squarely on your shoulders.

Example: Your client wants you to create three versions of a poster; one each in English, Russian, and Arabic. How you address technical problems like dealing with right to left text and different character sets are entirely up to you. But you certainly don’t want to go to your client saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t figure this out.”

#2: The world moves faster

Deadlines in the real world are tighter and less negotiable.

The average non-designer thinks we “wave our magic wand” (ugh) and magically produce spectacular design work. They have no idea how long it takes to create a website, put together a point-of-sale display, or print 5000 brochures that will have 16 pages, or maybe 20…they’ll know on Monday.

They only know they need it in hand by next Wednesday because the trade show is starting Friday. Oh, and they need 6 upper management personnel to sign off on it, one of whom is in Japan this week.

We might hate the magician or wizard reference, but as a freelancer, sometimes we feel like one.

How to succeed in the transition:

Freelancing is scary. (Any veteran who tells you they haven’t been nervous recently about some aspect of the job is likely bluffing.)

But step one is to start conquering your freelancing fears.

One of the best ways is to start with smaller, simple projects.

  • Design a logo for a local startup.
  • Update and maintain a website for a non-profit, even if it’s at a reduced rate.
  • Create posters for a local theatre, your public library, the next charity event, or a music venue.

Your goal right now is to build a portfolio of professional work, learn as much as you can about the freelancing process, and boost your self-confidence so that you can say (or think) the following to those bigger potential projects:

  • Yeah, I CAN do that! (…because I’ve done it before.)
  • Yes, I HAVE worked with that software.
  • I DO know how to properly design and prepare a document for printing on a 4-meter vinyl banner.

Step two: be prepared and anticipate.

You look young. You sound young. It’s totally stereotypical, but most people are going to secretly question your capabilities.

That means your clients will be easier to impress.

Strut your professionalism and earn repeat work or referrals by doing exactly what it is your client thinks you’re likely to fail (in their eyes) at.

  • Predetermine what you need to know about a project to succeed and start asking questions (so you don’t have to bother them 10 times over the next week).
  • Anticipate what questions and concerns your clients might have over the course of the project — and practice answers — so you sound polished and knowledgeable when the situation arises.
  • Nip procrastination in the bud with goal-setting and to-do lists. The credibility you lose over a half-finished or late project is worth far more long-term than the down payment you gained when you agreed to it.

Step three: stop reinventing the wheel.

Because the world is in such a hurry, we as freelancers employ templates, saved email drafts, and canned responses for all manner of client communications.

From contracts to payment disputes to requests for referrals, when you find wording that works, stick with it!

(Check out this post and this ebook for help with contract composition.)

And don’t forget that unused design elements from project A might make excellent illustrations for project B.

Finally, be resourceful.

I’d argue this skill is perhaps the most useful, both personally and professionally.

You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be the most creative. You don’t even have to be the fastest.

When you’re in a pickle, stay calm and think quickly. It’s no use fretting about the problem. Focus on the solution instead.

  • What might work instead?
  • Who can help us overcome this obstacle?
  • Where can we get the materials we need at this hour?

How you react in a sticky situation just might save the day and earn you a repeat client for life.

Is this the end-all list?

I wish. Freelancing is so much more than the few bits of advice I can supply in one blog post. But that’s why we have Millo: an entire website devoted to becoming better freelancers.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, post in the comments and let us know what we need to cover next!

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About April Greer

April is the Director of Projects at Reliable PSD, a design-to-code company for designers, by designers. She’s the glue keeping everything together, organized, and right on time, and giving everyone a fantastic experience while she does it.



  1. Another great post.

    What I’d add are two things:

    Network, network, network
    Join your local Chamber of Commerce and attend their networking events. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to meet other business people – from major employers to small one person businesses.

    With a small portfolio, you might struggle to convince the bigger players. However, there are plenty of smaller businesses who you can offer to do work for at a discounted rate. Just make sure you do one thing – make sure they agree to email all of their clients and suppliers about their new website/marketing materials/branding and highlight that it was you that did it and provide your contact details.

    Approach established agencies
    You might be shocked, but it’s very difficult to find freelance creative people outside of the big cities. If you specialise in one area, it can be surprisingly easy to carve out a niche as the go-to-guy or gal for that service.

    The other good thing about this is that if you’re not all that confident about pitching for business cold, this avoids you having to deal with the client until they’re on board. It’s also a great way of building up a portfolio across a wide range of businesses.

    P.S I’d also read Millo’s book on pricing – it’s quite difficult to work it out. But the best way to work it out is How much a freelancer will charge you + You overheads as a business + Your desired profit margin = your price.

    Or psst. Here’s a real big secret. Go to your potential rivals and ask how much they charge ratecard. You’ll be surprised how open they will be to telling you that. After all, it’s in their interest to maintain a pricing level for a particular service. They don’t really want you coming in and under charging them and either devaluing the service or making them look like they’re trying to rip people off.

    • Ben,

      Awesome points to add! You can’t understate networking and overdelivering because word-of-mouth is almost always our biggest source of new clientele.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great piece of advice! Will save the link and give it to all my friends, that finish college. Most of the things described here are true for any first job! Though with freelancing you have to be even more self-organized and feel sure about your knowledge and capabilities.

  3. I loved this April! As a freelancer just making the leap recently myself, it was like I was writing this from my own hand. I have totally been there with how everyday is kind of a “hunt” to find new work and clients. I sometimes feel like a wolf or something looking for dinner hah!

    It takes some getting used to, not being 100% sure of your income, but it also makes you that much more motivated. Every minute spent surfing Facebook is a moment you COULD be making money, unlike in school or the normal office world.

    It also requires a lot of problem solving, as in you need to find who can print this for this time at this cost, and things come up and you need to find the best solution to a problem. Do it, and you win a client. I never tell a client “no” even if I haven’t done something before (so long as I know its within possibility of course). I’ll figure it out!! Then next time, I can say I HAVE done it.

    You just have to remember that it’s going to take time, and you will fail, lots! Try your best to sound and appear professional and confident, remember your client doesn’t know what to expect to pay, so you don’t have to sell yourself short and expect them to balk at your prices.

    Just make sure you can confidently tell them WHY they should pay for your services. Any hint of doubt or undercutting yourself and trying to raise it later, almost always results in the client losing trust and walking away. You can always negotiate down but rarely UP so quote high!! Just a couple things I have learned so far 😀

    • Tamara,

      My favorite part is that you work hard for your clients — instead of turning them away, you find a solution for them whether it’s you learning to do it, you referring them to someone who does know how to do it, or subcontracting that part out so they don’t have to deal with it.

      I also love that you explain why you’re worth what you’re worth. That might make a great post in itself…I think more people need to hear it!

      Thanks for joining the discussion!

      • Thanks April! It certainly pays (literally!) to explain to people why they should go with your services! This is as much a “sales” gig as it is design, I’m finding.

        You need to be the kind of person who can go out and pitch yourself and have friendly conversation with people, look the part, dress up, and get out there! You can’t make the most of your potential by sitting behind your computer in your sweatpants, (as much as some days, that seems easier!)

        It’s hard for a lot of designers and artsy more introverted types, but you have to just go DO it, the more you do it, the more confidence you build and you just won’t believe how far you can get when you really force yourself to get uncomfortable!


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