Freelancer Focus is a regular feature, where freelance designers are invited to answer a series of questions about themselves and freelancing. This week Dean Rieck (pictured left) is the freelance designer in question. If you would like to take part please read my previous post. Any designer or illustrator can also take part in Design Case Studies.
1. Your name?
2. Where are you are based (Country/Area)?
I’m in Ohio, a midwestern state in the US.
3. What type of work do you do? (design for print, web, multimedia etc)
I’m actually one of those rare copywriter / designers. My specialty is direct response advertising, including direct mail, print ads, e-mail, Web sites, brochures, sales letters, and other sales materials. If you live in the US, you’ve probably seen my work at one time or another since I’ve done work for over 200 clients, including some big ones like Sprint, American Express, and Apple.
4. How many years had you been working in the design industry before you went freelance?
I went freelance back in the 1990s but I was only writing copy then. I became dissatisfied with the work some designers were doing on my stuff and decided to teach myself design. I had no intention of becoming a “designer,” I just wanted to be able to work with designers more intelligently. But I started secretly doing design for some of my clients and I found that not only did I make more money doing it myself, my direct mail and ads were working better. So I kept it up and now I openly offer both copy and design services.
5. Why did you decide to go freelance?
I wasn’t making any money in the jobs I had. I worked in radio, television, had a brief and frightening stint as an English teacher in Las Vegas (3 weeks and 3 days before I quit), and a number of other jobs. I fell into freelancing by accident. After quitting the teaching job, I called up a contact who ran a print shop. He said he didn’t hire freelancers and that was that. Until the next morning, that is, when he called back and said, “You know, maybe I could use your help after all.” So he gave me a little work and somewhere along the line I realized I was in business. I wasn’t earning much, but it was still more than I earned working full time. He was paying me a whopping $10 an hour, which was huge for me then.
6. How did you market yourself (find design work/new clients) in the beginning – (online portfolio/brochure/direct mail/email/phone etc)?
I did mailings, wrote articles for local business papers, stood in the kitchen and made cold calls, and really none of it worked too well. But I picked up enough work to keep going. My big advantage, if you want to call it that, was that I made such lousy money previously, freelancing didn’t seem all that risky. People I know with good paying jobs have a hard time with the transition because it usually involves a big dip in income for a while. Desperation is a good motivator.
7. How do you market yourself (find design work) now?
The most successful business generators I have are my Web site and the articles I write. I could (and probably should) be more aggressive, but I’m earning six figures a year and the phone keeps ringing, so I suppose I can afford to be a bit lazy. I recently updated my Web site ( http://www.directcreative.com/) and have significantly improved my search engine performance. I’ve also started the Direct Creative Blog ( http://www.directcreative.com/blog/) to give me a publishing platform to reach clients and prospects and anyone interested in writing and designing direct response advertising. My free newsletter, Rieck’s Response Letter ( http://www.directcreative.com/newsletter.html) is getting pretty popular too. Okay, so maybe I’m not THAT lazy.
8. How did you decide what to charge? What was the process?
In the direct marketing industry, freelancers are the big dogs. So it’s not like with other types of design where there’s a union suggesting fees or a local market establishing the going rate. I started out charging around $50 an hour because it sounded good, then raised it to $75 when someone told me I was cheap. After some more research, I discovered I was really cheap compared to others, so I kept raising my fees until I got to where I am now. Technically, I don’t charge hourly. I work on flat project fees. But for most copy projects, it’s the equivalent of between $350 and $500 an hour. I’ll charge about half that for design work. That may sound like a lot, but in my specialty those prices are moderate. There are specialties that pay even more. There are designers specializing in annual reports, for example, who make a fortune doing slick work for big companies.
9. Do you work from home/have an office/work inhouse at design agencies?
I only have one local client right now. Most clients are all over the US and some are in Canada, England, or Australia. So all the work is by phone and e-mail. Thus, I have no need to throw money away on office space. I have a comfortable home office and like it that way. No commutes. I can wear jeans and T-shirts. It’s convenient and a big time-saver. My only problem is having my cat walk into my office and start meowing when I’m in the middle of a phone meeting. That blows my cover and people know I’m working from home. Some people think you’re not really in business with a home office, so I don’t volunteer that information.
10. How do you organise your workload, do you work long hours?
I don’t have a set schedule. I do whatever needs done when it needs done. However, it’s not unusual for me to be working late into the night. I’m not a morning person. My most productive time is afternoon and evening anyway.
11. How much holiday do you give yourself?
I haven’t been on vacation for years. Last time I remember being away was a trip to San Francisco, which is probably my favorite city. A great place to walk and eat. Most of the walking is to find another place to eat, and with all that eating you need to walk it off, so the city works well for me. Frankly, I don’t like being away for long periods. I tend to relax around the Christmas holidays when work is slow anyway. And in the summer I’ll knock off early to cycle around the city. But my idea of relaxing probably looks like work to other people.
12. How do you keep up to date with what is happening in the industry?
I read journals and blogs. Fortunately, most of what I do is based on human psychology, which doesn’t change much. Printing technology, computers, software, and online technology is changing, but once the hype passes on new things, people discover that the old selling principles still apply. Selling is selling regardless of the mechanism or medium.
13. What blogs, magazines, podcasts etc do you subscribe to?
Magazines include DM News, where I was a columnist for 9 years, Direct, and Target Marketing. Blogs include The Copywriting Maven, ProBlogger, lots of DM News feeds, 43 folders, Seth’s Blog, and dozens of others. Thank goodness for Bloglines news reader.
14. How do you generate ideas/what techniques do you use to stimulate creativity?
Research. Asking questions. In fact, I use a questionnaire which you can see here. This helps me gather information from my clients. I got the idea from Don Hauptman, another copywriter, and adapted it for my own use. I put it online so I can direct my clients to it and tell them to have answers ready. I always have at least one phone meeting before starting work on anything.
15. What about the business side of things, accounting, invoicing, bookkeeping, how do you manage it?
I like to keep things simple. I use spread sheets to track jobs, income, and expenses. I know there are computer programs that could do all that, but my system works and it’s one less program I have to buy, learn, and keep upgrading. Simple is good. I’ve been using Microsoft products like Word and Excel, but I’m thinking of switching to Open Office which is free and a lot leaner and faster than those slow, hulking MS programs.
16. What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone starting out freelancing?
If you have a job, stay there. Don’t announce you’re going freelance. Just do your job and start saving money and paying off your debt. Get those credit cards paid off. Don’t buy anything expensive. Save six months of living expenses or more. Live as frugally as you can. No debt and money in the bank is a HUGE confidence booster and will help you make better business decisions.
17. Would you ever go back to fulltime work?
Are you kidding???
18. Any thing else you would like to add?
Don’t act like a freelancer. The typical freelancer acts like someone between jobs and starving for work and that puts you in a bad position with clients. Act like a professional. Lawyers and doctors are independent professionals, but look at the respect they get. You should try to think of yourself that way. You’re the pro. Act that way and talk that way. And charge that way too. The way you see yourself has a big effect on how others see you.
19. Where can we see some of your work (URL)?
Right now I only have a few small pictures of my work on my Web site. I know what a lot of designers will think when they see my stuff: UGLY! Okay, but that’s what works in direct marketing. Pretty usually doesn’t sell. It’s like a holiday gift with fancy ribbons–no one wants to open it and tear the paper. But a gift in ugly paper–rip it open! Ironically, my lack of training has helped me tremendously in my line of work. There’s no pretence. It’s all business. My clients measure success with a calculator, so it has to work or I don’t get hired again. In my job, I’m either a genius or an idiot. There’s no middle ground.