Starting and Operating a Graphic Design // Digital Media Business From Home

Heads up! This is going to be a rather long post, but I wanted to make sure all of the information was in one place for you. I am dividing it into four sections:

  • How Do You Know You’re Ready?
  • Licensing and Registering Your Services
  • The Back End
  • Getting Clients

I am basing this off of my own experience, so examples given will be for the state of Michigan and my personal “products”. If you live in a different state please remember that states have different laws and requirements. Be sure you do your homework!

How Do You Know You’re Ready?

So, you want to start offering your graphic and media services in exchange for cold, hard cash. Or at least a check. That is great! I want to support you however I can! But are you really ready? Here are five questions I strongly recommend you ask yourself before continuing the process.

Do you have clients? I know, I know, you don’t even have a business yet. But do you have people around you who are already offering to pay you for your work? I have tried starting businesses a handful of times throughout my life. (Don’t discount the lemonade stand you and your BFF set up when you were seven as a lesson learned! Look back and see if you can use your slightly more experienced outlook to identify one or two things you can take from that.) I remember as a child I made some tiny notebooks, drew fancy covers on them, and tried to sell them at the end of our driveway. The problem was that there was not a market for the notebooks. Nobody had asked for them, and nobody wanted them. Later on my sister and I tried to start a non-profit. Again, we thought we had a good idea, but I only ended up finding one other potential member. You need to make sure you have a marketable product or service before you try to market it.

Moving on to high school… Every year year our youth group would have an international fundraiser. We were each given $5 to start a business, from which we would turn in the profit to send overseas. Earlier that year I had made a hat out of old shirts. It was super warm and had a lot of bright colors. In fact, I still have it. Best hat ever. I would brag about my hat to other people, and they started to offer me money to make one for them. So I gathered my small group and pitched the idea. We ended up turning our collective $25 into $120+. Not too bad for a few freshmen and one month to sell. We did the same thing the next year but only turned in about $40, which is most likely because we didn’t understand marketing and had already exhausted our immediate client base. More on that later.

With my most recent venture I did have three clients before I was officially representing a business. Two of them were smaller jobs, each being about $40, but the third grew into a much larger project. So, odd as it may sound at first, make sure you have clients before you start.

Are you willing to take custom orders? This is something I saw a friend go through while I was still in school, then began to experience for myself. She has a beautiful eye for design, but wasn’t able to sell enough of her own art to reach her financial goals. She began to offer custom designs. Even with a strong contract and a few safeguards, designing for other people can be a serious pain. I had to make sure I knew I was willing to take on that challenge before I started. Do you tend to get annoyed at people when what they tell you they want and what they end up wanting after you are done are significantly different? Make sure everything is as clear as possible when you write up your project proposal, and have safeguards in your contract. (I go into more detail about this farther down the page.) Customer service is painful, but often custom work is necessary until you gain enough traction with your own designs to meet your financial goals.

Are you willing to start broad? Maybe your end goal is to do videography and only videography. Maybe you want to be the premiere travel mug designer. Those are admirable goals. In the meantime, are you willing to take other projects? Would you consider event photography, t-shirts, or cat portraits? Maybe your answer is no, and that’s ok, but hear me out before you have a final answer.

A year or two ago my dream job was to make movies. I love telling stories, editing videos, and color grading. This seemed like the ideal occupation for me. But it’s not all I did. If you ever mention that you do videos, people are going to ask if you do photos. There is just more demand for that. And do you know what I found out? I really like doing product photography. Headshots? Not so much. The moral is I tried. On a different note, a few months ago I was approached by someone looking for help painting a sign. The person they were looking for wasn’t around, and I decided to pitch my own services. I’ve done a fair amount of lettering in the past. She loved it! And I started to contemplate doing more original artwork/graphic designs for clients. That was how I landed my next client, too; sticking out my neck to see what I could do. God blessed, and again, success! So unless you already know that is the only thing you ever want to do, I encourage you to try accepting a broader range of requests before narrowing down into what you plan to be the local expert in.

Are you currently financially stable? This is not going to make you a millionaire overnight. If you ever do make $1,000,000, in 24 hours, please, tell me how! Do you already have a job? Do you have a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, and a method of transportation? Are you planning on quitting your job and doing this full time? Before I started this I did quit my job (for various health reasons) but still knew I’d need some steady income to lean on when I had no clients, so I found part-time work near where I live. My husband also has a good job, and between the two of us we were already able to meet all our needs plus have some to save for a house, so we were in a great place for me to start a business. If you are able to work part time and start a business, I recommend it, because it takes a lot of work. And, especially in the beginning, you are probably going to average out making $2 an hour for all the work you do for your business outside of client work. Even if you have to work full time, set aside an hour or two in the evenings, and  Saturdays, and do this thing. It is hard and it is a long process but it is worth it. If you are not already in a solid place financially, begin to assess your situation and find out how you can make sure you will be OK even in the thinner times as far as client work goes.

Do you have a support group? One of the lonliest things is to have an idea you love and nobody else cares about. Do you have a spouse, significant other, family member, or good friend who is on this same trail? Having a business buddy to mutually assist on projects and share what you’re learning makes the process so much better. Do you have a group of friends or family that thinks you are great, that will support you even when they don’t fully understand what you are doing? Do you have that friend or grandma that likes every single post you share? While it is possible to start and operate a business without a support group, having people who love you surround you on this journey is a great blessing. So I guess you could call this one “Optional, but Recommended.”

So there you go. Five quick questions. Take out a fresh journal or open a new document and start recording your responses to these questions. List clients and potential clients, look at your finances, and call a few friends. Or text. Whatever you like. You got this.

Licensing and Registering Your Services

Now that you’re ready, we get to begin the fun stuff. Now we begin to look into legalities. (Please know I’m not a lawyer and this is all from personal experience and research and you need to make sure you are following all of the laws in your state.) In the state of Michigan you don’t need a license for graphic design. If you are interested in an area outside of Graphic Design, please click the following link: https://www.michigan.gov/statelicensesearch. Type in what occupation you are looking for, and a list of all necessary licenses will come up. Again, if you live out of state, check out your state’s government website to find out what your necessary licenses are.

After you have acquired all (if any) licenses, contact your city office. They probably have a form for you to fill out to verify that your business will be legal and not cause issues. In my case, I asked for a form for an in-home business under my own name in the area of Graphic Design. I had to complete a write-up answering questions such as whether this would require structural alterations, an increase of traffic, loud noise, and so on. I also had to get permission from my landlord, as if you are renting you do not technically own the property. If you are operating a business from your home that will involve clients coming to and from, make sure you check over the requirements. In my area business hours are limited, as well as how many clients can be on the property at any given time. You may also be subject to inspections. That is usually more for businesses involving child care, food, or other occupations that could seriously harm someone if you handled the process incorrectly. For example, nobody will get food poisoning from your graphic art, no matter how poorly it turns out, but if you are trying to open a restaurant and don’t remember if it’s 160 or 180 for the chicken… Sound confident, assure the people on the phone you know what you are doing, mention previous experience if applicable, and all these negotiations will go 100% better for you.

(True story: it’s in my lease agreement that I can’t operate a business from the apartment. I figured, correctly, that this was due to the limited availability of parking and the increased noise that would become problems with most businesses. I assured my landlord that this business was mostly on my computer, that there would likely never be clients on site, and that there would be no additional noise. She asked if this was, then, an online business. We decided it was close enough and she allowed me to begin operating legally from the apartment. So, know what you’re doing, approach people in a professional manner, and don’t be afraid to politely fight a little bit.)

I was also given a “New Business Notification” for the city. If your city has one of these, fill it out! You’re officially in their system that way. Once you have that form filled out, as well as the home business application, you should be ready to go.

The Back End

Or, Contracts and Folders and Forms, Oh My!

First of all, if you can use Google Drive I recommend it. You can access your folders from any device, it’s free, and if you are familiar with Office you will already understand the programming. I am going to walk you through my organizational process, as well as offer examples where I can so you can better see what I am talking about. This will give you a good idea on how to set up a folder system before you jump in. AND DO IT BEFORE. You will appreciate it later when you really need it.

Ok, first, make a folder for all of your original forms. This is where you are going to store all of your most bare-bones documents and sheets. When you need a specific form for a client, you copy that form into their folder and customize it from there. This keeps all of your documents similar, and you don’t need to wonder how you wrote it up last time.

The first few documents I am going to run you through are all part of what I call my “Contract Packet”. It is a series of documents you must present to your client BEFORE you begin working for them.

The first thing you are going to want to type up is your basic contract. In your contract outline the legal agreement, not necessarily the project. This will apply to all of your clients. It should include information about payment, review of work, reworking costs, fees, responsibilities of the client, rights to the collected and finished media, and whatever else may be pertinent to your situation. Look at a few sample contracts online, or take a look at mine below, and build something that works for you. Remember, you can always change this later if necessary. If you notice clients are continually confused by a certain portion, rewrite it. If someone finds a loophole, rework it. Remember: you are working for them, but it’s your neck. Make sure both parties are equally protected.

Notice how I left some phrases in brackets? That alerts me when I copy to a client folder that I need to make sure I update that portion for that specific project. I strongly recommend a seperate and refreshed contract per project, even if it is the same client.

My contract also has a second page where I explain why I want to retain partial rights for personal marketing, but never to sell to another client. You may choose to have this as part of your main contract. I decided to make it optional. So far there hasn’t been any problem.

Next up, the quote page. I charge by unit (hour) so that’s why I have a column for that. If you decide to figure projects individually and not by hour, you don’t need that column. Again, tailor this to your needs, and check a few more out. Putting your logo on the page makes it look pretty official too.

After the quote I have a confidentiality/non-disclosure agreement page. This is for any sensitive information that may be exchanged. If you will be accessing medical information, bank information, private employee information, and so on, you must write clearly where and what and when you’ll be using all this. Also note the third party. For example, if you are using the client’s debit card to purchase supplies from Amazon, make sure that’s clear.

Next up is your actual project proposal. This is where you state exactly, or as exactly as possible, what you are doing and what the role of the client may be. Include any notes from your meetings, measurements, file types, ANYTHING that has ANYTHING to do with the project. If the client later says the media was delivered in the wrong format, for example, you can show where it was expressed clearly in the proposal and where the contract states that the proposal was read and understood. You can then charge for any time it takes you to re-export your work. If you did not already clear with the client what the delivery format needed to be, well, you’re out that time. But you learned something.

That is what I give my clients before starting work on any project. It may feel really silly when you are doing your first few projects, but trust me, you will want these later on. Better to make a $5 mistake and retype the contract then than a $500 mistake for a larger client down the road. There goes your client, any referrals, and you really need to look over your forms. NOTE: keep copies of all signed paperwork (use Google Drive to “scan” a file in by taking a photo with your phone, and keep the hard copy for a few years). Encourage your clients to do the same.

This next group of documents are moderately situational, in that they are not part of the major pile of paperwork you are going to fist hand your client. They are still very important for your business, though, so keep reading.

First up is your client information form. This one is super basic. In each client folder make sure you have a document listing the contact/project lead, how to contact them, date started, and dates of payments and deliveries. This can be used for the same client for many projects, but remember that each project needs a contract.

Release forms are also very important. If you ever take a photo or video or sound byte of anyone or anyone’s property who is not already directly associated with the project, that is a third party. Make sure you briefly list what the media you are collecting is going to be used for, and whether or not you have permission from the client to use the media for personal marketing and promotion (think IG or FB posts). You also need a section for parents to sign if the person in question is a minor. Do not skip these! Here is a segment of mine:

You are also going to want to be paid, so you need an invoice. Invoices are actually super easy. I’m just going to post here a capture of mine and you can copy to meet your needs. Copy the information from your quote, adjust as necessary, and send it off!

I recommend that you export documents into PDFs before emailing them to clients as that is a fairly universal format.

Just two more forms to go over with you guys. Hang in there!

The next one you will want is a place to record billable hours. I recommend a sheet with date, start and end time, summary of activity, total time that day, and total time to date. You will also want to track miles driven and calculate cost of fuel per mile of the current high average gasoline price so you can request compensation from your client. For example, currently the high average is about $3.00 and I get 15 miles to the gallon city. So, I take $3.00 and divide it by 15 to get $0.20 per mile. I charge $0.25 per mile to also compensate for vehicle wear, oil changes, and so on. Note: if you charge by project and not be hour it still may be beneficial to record hours to help you quote projects more accurately in the future.

And, finally, income recording. First the form, then the explanation.

(I also used to hold a management position where my job was making and keeping up with forms like this, so that really helped prepare me for this leap into the freelancing/business world.)

Ok, first, list the job. List all of your payments received and paid. I really recommend using the SUM function and freezing the top row to keep things an easy read at a glance. Also save all of your receipts in a seperate folder and link to them here so you can quickly find them later if necessary. I recommend holding about 25% for taxes when you report. If you or your spouse filing jointly already has a job that will be sending you a W-2 at the end of the year you should be able to report this as additional income, according to my research. If you begin making a substantial amount I recommend talking to a professional as there may be brackets. Also, look up tax rates for your state, and remember to factor in city and state and federal taxes all in to how much you set aside. And if you don’t need it all, awesome! Your own tax refund!

Since you probably weren’t able to track it through all that, I am going to share with you here my file structure. I highly, highly, highly recommend getting as organized as you can right off the bat.

I hope that helps.

Getting Clients

This is the part you really wanted, isn’t it?

I have just a few words of advice.

First, ask people you already know. If you notice your youth group could use some new announcement slides, ask. If you know your doctor is updating the office website, ask. If your mom wrote a book and needs a cover, ask. If you have friends in management or supervising positions that may need event propaganda or even a couple motivational posters, offer your amazing talents. That’s the first place.

The second round is where marketing and whatnot comes in. Spread your work. Get an Instagram account or make a YouTube channel. These will first be ways to grow an audience of potential clients, then later be opportunities for sponsorship. Do not expect to become famous overnight! That does not work! If you are looking to make cash fast I’m sorry you read this far to find that out. There is a reason I organized this blog as I did, and it was partly to show you that the workflow is longer than client > project > payment. If you want to build a business, you have to build it.

Back to marketing. The reason I recommended those platforms is because they are FREE. Use free wherever possible! Start building a portfolio. Use hashtags that will connect you to other artists, but also people looking for skilled professionals. Rise through the algorithm. Other free marketing could be making your own Christmas cards and gifts that can be shown off to family friends. It sounds cheesy, but if enough friends ask where that painting or mug or phone background came from, you could have a client. Plus, you get practice.

Don’t get frustrated if you don’t have a bunch of clients. Look for where needs are, and offer to fill them. If you sulk and complain about how nobody is willing to pay for good art, you are not going to appear appealing. If you continue to create and share, you will have a greater set of skills for when that next client shows up.

Word of mouth is going to be your best ally, which makes you as important as your art. If your media is amazing but you are a complete jerk through the whole process and deliver late, you are not going to get many recommendations. Be kind and friendly, throw in bonus work if applicable, deliver in the correct format and on time, and smile. A lot.

I’m really close to 4000 words at this point, so I am going to call it a post. If you want some help getting started, contact me and let me know! I’m sure we can work something out. No matter what, enjoy this new adventure. You got this!

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