Making the Freelance Hustle Work: Designer Michael Wong on Lessons Learned
Michael Wong is as enterprising as entrepreneurs come. The Australian product and UX designer has helped propel technology startups, like Lantern and Snappr, to success. To think, it all started over a game of Chinese chess with his grandfather.
We asked Michael how he stands out in a crowded marketplace, and asked him to share some of his secrets to long term success as a freelancer.
Why did you decide to go freelance and stay freelance?
When I’m working [as an employee] in the industry, I tend find myself plateauing after a year or two. I find that the challenges begin to slow down and that I’m not able to make the most of my skill set.
Don’t get me wrong, the journeys are exciting and thrilling. I love collaboration and I genuinely love working in teams, but the lack of a challenge is the reason I always end up freelancing.
When I freelance, I’m communicating with clients, I’m thinking creatively, I’m wire-framing, I’m designing and not only that, I’m also running a business – so I’m crunching the numbers.
Every day is different and comes with new challenges. It also gives you the freedom to build out those side projects you’ve always wanted too.
I love problem solving, critical thinking and being challenged. I love it enough to still be playing Chinese chess with my grandfather for over 14 years. Yes, he still destroys me but I do give him a run for his money at times. Hah!
Was it hard to strike out on your own?
Starting out on my own wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be; however, I’ve been lucky enough to never really have to find new clients. I’ve always believed in giving back to the community, so over the last seven years I’ve shared a lot of my work, insights and learnings via my newsletter, Twitter, and Dribbble. With that, my work has reached a very large audience and that helps me find potential clients along the way.
I first decided to go full-time freelancing when I was 20. I was leading the design initiatives at a Sydney-based startup, but was receiving 2-3 project inquiries a week through my portfolio.
After a couple of months, the flow of work was very consistent so I decided to take the jump. That might not have sounded risky, but I had a six-figure mortgage so it was a big decision for me! If inquiries slowed down, I was doomed! But I believed in my work and was ready to do anything to make it work.
What challenges do you face being a freelancer?
There are two challenges I face as a Freelancer. This first is saying no. I’ve been so lucky to have more work come through than I can chew! It’s also very humbling to know most of them come from word of mouth, from previous clients.
It’s very hard for me to say no because I genuinely love new challenges and I want to see my potential clients get the most out of their product. In the past I would sacrifice my weekends to take on extra work but that was not a long-term solution. Nowadays I’m very transparent and honest with all potential clients and tell them that I’d love to work with them but I’ve just got too much on my plate. If they can wait, I’d be more than happy to collaborate with them in a couple of weeks time.
And what about that elusive ‘work-life balance?’
I genuinely love what I do so it’s hard to draw the line for when I should be ‘resting’. I work on a number of projects a month but aside from that, I’m also writing fortnightly to over 5,000 readers about my learnings to designers and entrepreneurs. So having the discipline to do all this within a week can be challenging.
What I found effective is to keeping to a routine and saying no. During the week, I dedicate my time to client projects. Every morning I spend 15-20 minutes writing out everything I need to do. I prioritize the top 3-5 points and then I cross out the rest. We can only do so much within a day. Instead of procrastinating and thinking in circles, just focus on the top 3-5 most important tasks. Worry tomorrow.
I then dedicate every Sunday morning (while sipping hot green tea) to writing my newsletter. It’s not a chore. I genuinely love sharing what I learn so it’s actually a very enjoyable reflection period for me.
There are a lot of people out there doing freelance UX work. What makes someone stand out from the crowd?
As a Freelance UX Designer you must be more than just a pixel pusher. Previously I’ve written a piece about why Design is not the most important skill for designers. In short, potential clients want someone who can help them think, design, and build a product that is easy to use, but can also generate them a good return on investment. So understanding marketing and the business side of things will definitely help you sell yourself.
Also, you need to have great customer service. I’ve tried to hire a couple of UX designers in the past. I noticed they do great work, but it was a let down that their customer service was terrible. I would not receive responses for days and I was left in the dark. Personally, I value the service more than the design work itself. There’s a lot of talent out there.
What’s the key to a long, happy career?
It’s crucial to have a good level of self-awareness. You are in control of all aspects of your operations. You control your hours, you control your rates, you control who you work with and what you work on. So depending on how much you want to make and how happy you want to be, it’s all within your control!
For me, I’m always aware of my workload. Do I have enough to keep me feeling challenged, but not burn out? That’s what I strive for.
What’s your number one tip for UX designers hoping to make it as a freelancer?
Have confidence and self-awareness. We all want to be freelancers but the cold hard truth is, are your skills ready yet? Be true to yourself or ask other designers for feedback, and realize where your skill set sits at the moment. Once you know where you are, take the appropriate measures. If you need to up your visual design game, practice designing more. Focus on strengthening your weaknesses because as a Freelancer you must be a great all-rounder.
The most common question and biggest concern I hear from freelance designers is ‘getting work.’ Be proactive, then reactive. Reach out to potential clients, drop your rate, build up your personal brand, and flesh out your portfolio.
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