I was looking at the calendar the other day and realised it’s officially been 3 years since I left my full time job and became a freelance designer/indie maker. A lot has happened in that time.
The Back Story
To be honest when I quit 3 years ago I had no idea what I was going to do. I had a few grand saved in the bank, and I spent a good portion of that on a brand new iMac, which I still use today. Instead of upgrading stuff I used that extra cash to invest and to serve as a financial buffer. That way you can have more leverage and financial runway to wait for the right clients/jobs to come around during dry spells, should they occur.
When I quit I thought it’d work out somehow and worst case scenario was that I could always get another job as a Creative Director. I also had plans of moving overseas, but that path completely diverted. I’d put in my resignation in May and officially quit on July 2014.
That first day I slept in and it was awesome. Almost liberating. I was extremely lucky and within that first week it’s like the universe conspired that I landed all sorts of freelance gigs. I had a lot of job inquiries from dribbble, but I never humoured any of them when I was at my fulltime gig as a CD. When I quit more leads starting to come in and I started following them up, when I landed a few jobs that’s when momentum ran from there.
So it’s amazing that this tiny tiny operation is still running. And in a blink of an eye 3 years have gone by. I’m loving where my design business is heading, but within the last 3 years there’s been days where it’s gone from “this is the best thing ever, life is perfect” to “fuck what am I going to do? I have no idea what I’m doing arrrgh.”
Running your own business is a rollercoaster, it’ll be the most relaxing to the most hectic thing you’ll do. I recently read Shoe Dog and Phil Knight refers to Nike as his other child. And in a sense I can totally relate. Perhaps it’s my obsessive nature, but when I start something I tend to go deep and put in 100%. I want to keep making stuff, learning and doing interesting things. I want to be creative, design and build things that make money and impact people's lives. From the many designers I’ve worked with and mentored, it’s a dream for a lot of us.
If you are thinking of freelancing as a designer, or starting your own startup or just curious about my freelance and founder journey read on. I hope to share how things operated for the last 3 years, what I thought about and roughly how things worked out etc. when I started it was posts like these that gave me the confidence to get started.
This is a recap of my revenue and business model. The years refer to financial years so from 30 June 2014 to 1 July 2015. Etc.
Year 1 - Consulting & flexible schedule
The first year 100% of my revenue came from consulting and freelancing. I tallied up the work hours and it was about 6 months of work total. The rest of my time I was learning new things like marketing, entrepreneurship and design. Reading, watching and learning like a madman. Either that or playing tennis or relaxing. I always believed that having to sit in an office for 40 hours was a lie.
It was old world thinking, as we cushioned our schedules with meetings and other superfluous things (checking facebook, browsing youtube). That if I focused I could do everything in half the time, and it turned out to be true. The way I ran things was that I quoted projects based on value. I’d started billing at $100 per hour, then $1000 a day regardless to how many hours I worked to value pricing. The biggest repeat client was around $40k for that year. I’d do a few solid weeks here and there. (It’s simplified but it was mainly from following up on leads that came from Dribbble) I’d spend the rest of my ‘down’ time making things and learning.
The key was to do more high value jobs, and use that as your runway. Years of doing good work and building a network and reputation paid off. I’d do high value jobs for a handful of clients and then work on passion projects and smaller clients that had interesting projects in between. For me this system worked well. I had a few packed months, a few months off and a few where I’d spend 3 days a week working and the rest of the week learning. I did well over $100k that first year. And considering how little I worked it was a huge eye opener.
The biggest takeaway is how much time I gained. In Australia we get 4 weeks of paid leave every year. And roughly 2 weeks off at the end of the year. With freelancing I managed to get 6 months total time off to invest in learning and experimenting. In that time my wife and I travelled to 12 countries for those 2 months. It wouldn’t have been possible if I was still full time. My schedule was within my control. I’d gained freedom.
Year 2 - Switching business models and doing something crazy
This was when this blog came into fruition along with a beta launch of my first product the Process Masterclass. I started giving back to the design community and began sharing my thoughts on this blog and my email newsletter. I had some time so I thought why not. After that I read that Nathan Barry, Sean McCabe and Paul Jarvis were doing quite well with product launches and audience building.
So I thought hey maybe I could do that too. Provide value, help others and be honest. Sounds pretty rad. And then maybe I could build stuff that people wanted and charge for it. I continued to consult and freelance while I started building an audience, and worked on the Process Masterclass on the side. My son was born within this year so much of my scheduling had to be changed.
My laissez-faire (french for do whatever the fuck you want) attitude on how I did things that first year had to change. Up until that point I’d get jobs and work done at random times throughout the day. And it worked really well. However when you are looking after a little baby boy as well it is hard to concentrate. I had to start to build work habits and routines.
It was a stressful time but I managed to get things in order. Revenue split for this year was 80% consulting/freelancing for clients and 20% from internal projects (Process Masterclass) Another year of well over $100k. The difference was 20% came from launching the beta of the Process Masterclass. When you freelance for other clients you are exchanging time for money. A set time period is worth X amount, even if you are charging on value. It’s a 1 to 1 trade. 1 project for $40k then you’re done. Maybe a retainer for updates here and there. But it’s time for money.
When you work on your own projects and products it has unlimited upside.(And also unlimited downside, but if you build an audience and offer something that can help people and provide value you’ll likely get traction) You may work on a project build it up, then market it but it’s a 1 to many model. Revenue is distanced from time, so it comes down to how many people can benefit and am willing to purchase your product. The ROI continually goes up.
When I launched a beta opening and the first preorders came in I was really gobsmacked and was so excited, even though at that time revenue was way less than my consulting/freelance design work. But I could see the potential. This was me.
Most importantly it felt amazing to have a vision, create something and bring it into the world. It was fun to learn new things and apply them in real time. Learning to launch a product, build simple systems and get better at “selling”. I’d managed to sell $20k worth of preorders within a week. When I told my wife her jaw hit the floor. It’s worth noting that this was also the year my wife quit fulltime work. So when I come up with these crazy ideas like “Hey so I’m not taking on freelance work for a while and work on this little idea of mine”, it’s a scary thought as our bank account slowly depletes but being the awesome woman that she is she gives me her full vote of confidence.
But it’s crazy moments like this that are part of the reason why I quit full time work. I wanted to keep learning and to keep being challenged. To be shit scared and to throw myself in the deep end like those early days. It was scary taking 2 months off to work on the Process Masterclass. In hindsight it was completely worth it. Perhaps it’s survivorship bias but sometimes you have to back yourself and hedge a bet. When I did my first few launches for Process the adrenaline was insane. And to get the wonderful feedback from students it’s definitely one of the best experiences and one of the proudest moments of my working career.
I love this because it’s 100% true, I’m a one man operation just trying to make things, have fun and give back to the design community. Everyone who purchases a class, is someone I can help and it’s a vote of confidence that I will always be grateful for. When I launched and looked at my stripe account, the community I’d created, all the wonderful feedback. Every time I got a notification it felt like Christmas.
Year 3 - Doubling Down
I decided to see how far I could take Process and doubled down on it. I flipped my business model completely from mainly freelance design/consulting work to gaining revenue from my own stuff. We just welcomed a new baby boy to our family and I turn to my wife and say yeah I’m going to double down on the product thing. Pretty batshit crazy. But eventually I became my own biggest client.
Revenue split for this year was 20% freelance work and 80% internal projects (Process Masterclass + Source). A complete flip from the previous year. I know sharing numbers is taboo in our industry, but I believe I personally have gained tremendous value from people who have been generous enough to share theirs. By looking at what others have achieved and seeing the possibilities. I hope my tiny tiny success can pave the way for you as well. Here’s a screenshot from my stripe account, I also receive payments via Paypal and Gumroad which is also another chunk of the sales on top of this.
The biggest thing that occurred this year was a mindset shift. I started to think bigger and much more purposefully about what I want to achieve in the next few years, rather than just tomorrow or next week. Most designers dreams are to work on cool things, get paid well and be excited about what they’re producing. I want to continue to do this while I build something meaningful and sustainable in the next few years.
What’s great about this new model is that time becomes distanced from money. I’m not trading 1 for 1 anymore. And once you make the early investments in time, meaning you work your ass off for a while, you will start to gain tremendous time and freedom back. Happiness and freedom are my two biggest pillars for success. So when you leverage time that becomes part of the equation. So I’m happy launching my own stuff, continuing to provide value for designers out there and to sincerely share my experiences. I want everyone to find their own success and calling.
It’s worth noting that some of the happiest moments have been at the companies I worked at. There was a real sense of friendship and family. So I’m not saying working at a company is bad, particularly when you share the same values and vision. I was very excited to go to work for most of my career and loved my work mates who were like my family and friends. But as you grow and your path starts to change from the company culture. It's time to be true to yourself and move on. Particularly if you have a vision – then you should work towards building that. Time is limited so don’t waste it.
I’m still consulting/freelancing as a means to float my personal projects like the Process Masterclass, Source and Verse. Next year I’m hoping to scale everything and build better systems. Keep growing, keep learning and keep having fun. I’m looking forward to helping more designers, refining and making my products even better and hitting that first $1 million mark in profit.
I hope this serves as inspiration for you take the next steps.
Editors Note: This is Nguyen in 2022 and I can proudly say that Process Masterclass has grown since the writing of this article. And that I've hit the goals I set out to achieve 5 years ago. Crazy what consistency, creating a great product and helping your customers can do. Chase your dreams and wonderful things can happen.