Meet Katie Cooper, a freelance designer based in Memphis, Tennessee. Two years ago, Katie made the big decision to leave her full-time job and pursue freelancing full-time. While making that kind of drastic career change can be scary, Katie has absolutely no regrets. With a solid plan of action, helpful resources, and passion to push her forward, Katie shares how a freelance career can be attainable to any kind of creative.
Tell us about yourself and the kind of design work you do.
The name is Katie Cooper and design is the f***ing game. I’m currently living in Memphis, Tennessee and I’ve been working for myself for two years now. I do a lot of branding but also custom-lettering, illustration, and just whatever needs to be done. I have a beautiful girlfriend, a Great Dane named Mr. Willis, and two cats. I also own and run a gender-neutral apparel company called The Button Brigade . I’ve recently taken up pottery too! I’m not that great at it yet but I’m obsessed. Back to design—I work with a lot of start-ups or folks looking to fix their brand. I don’t have any big-name clients like Nike or Sprite to impress you with and that’s okay with me. Good work is good work.
What were you doing prior to freelancing?
Before jumping into freelancing, I was working the good ole’, trusty nine-to-five with health insurance and a steady paycheck. To be more specific, fresh out of college I worked as a Communications Director for a company where I was organizing promotion for a ton of events while also doing design work. I worked with another Graphic Designer on that job who taught me a ton of tips and tricks. I only took two semesters of Graphic Design in college so I learned a lot on the job. I then moved into a Creative Director position at a start-up screen printing company. While I was there I designed custom shirts for clients day in and day out. I grew a ton during this time and because the team was small I learned a lot about how a business runs.
During this time in my life, I didn’t have a ton of other creatives around to teach me things or bounce ideas off of so I was all over the internet learning and asking a ton of questions to people I would meet. I also went to the Creative Works Conference and wow, it was eye-opening for me. I met all of these creative people doing amazing things and I could actually talk to them! I talked to the speakers, the vendors, and the attendees. I took workshops and learned from my peers. It was a real turning point for me—finding out this design world existed!
What kind of plan did you have in place before quitting your job?
I don’t recommend anyone just up and quit their job. I was in a unique position where I had an open and honest conversation with my boss at the time. I’m a very ambitious person and I think he could tell I was growing more frustrated with clients and I wasn’t thriving. If I’m being totally honest, I also wanted more money. They couldn’t give it to me and I’m thankful they didn’t. Even if they offered me a raise, I still think I wouldn’t have been happy. I really enjoyed working with the team but the actual nitty-gritty work I was doing wasn’t fulfilling anymore. So together we worked out a game plan. We had a conversation in November 2016 about next steps for me, whether it was looking for another job or jumping into freelance.
After I decided I would go freelance, I started getting my shit together. I was already doing some work on the side so it wasn’t completely foreign. I stayed on full-time through January but my boss let me announce that I was basically full-time freelancing the first day of the year (so I could build up some clients before jumping ship). My boss was fully aware of my side-work and what was going on, but I know that’s not the case for some people. I do recommend everyone doing some freelance on the side and saving up your money before making the change.
Tell us about the transition into the freelance life. What kinds of adjustments did you have to make to your lifestyle?
It didn’t really feel like a huge transition. I was emailing everyone and their mother that I was now freelancing. I planned out how much I needed to make each month in order to survive. Shout out to Cushion App for making that easy. I was lucky enough to land some good gigs in my first year. I almost doubled my income and got to work with some really amazing people. My support system really made the transition an easy one for me. I bombarded my good pal, Josh Horton, with questions about everything. I still do! I think freelancing is a really good fit for me so it didn’t really feel like any big adjustments were made as far as lifestyle. I still pretty much work nine-to-five but I can do it at home in my sweat pants.
How do you find a steady client base?
Word of mouth—hands down. Finding work at first was difficult but once you find it, a snowball effect happens. Your clients are friends with other people doing amazing things and if you treat them right, do a good job, and ask them to refer you, they usually will. Plus they will come back for more. I do keep up with social media but Instagram is not the place to find clients. Cold emailing never really worked for me either.
Biggest lessons you’ve learned from freelancing?
This is a hard one because I’ve learned so much:
- Know your worth and ask for it: Having that confidence is a game-changer and comes with time.
- Don’t be afraid to lose clients: Especially if they aren’t a good fit or won’t pay you appropriately. There is always more work to come around.
- Use contracts: I always get that 50% deposit!
- Keep learning: If I have downtime or things are slow, I’ll usually take a class on Skillshare or try to learn something new.
- Take breaks: Burnout is real. It’s hard taking time off when you work for yourself but it’s just as important as working. I recently took up pottery just to do something away from the computer and it’s been amazing.
What advice do you have for anyone thinking about taking the leap into a full-time freelance career?
Do a gut check. Freelancing might look glorious from the outside but it’s not always fun and games. Ask yourself the tough questions. Do you like the idea of managing a business? Working by yourself? Managing clients and emails? Freelancing isn’t for everyone and that’s okay! I suggest freelancing on the side to see if you like it. If you know you’re cut out for it, then prepare for it and do it. Talk to people who are freelancing. Get Quickbooks Self-Employed ! It’s amazing and your CPA will love you. Get a CPA! Start saving your money for the slow times and hopefully you don’t have to use it. Write up a contract and figure out your pricing.
I continue to fine tune my process from project to project so don’t be hard on yourself when something doesn’t go smoothly. You’re learning from it and it will make you a better designer on future projects. So keep asking questions and learning. I also highly recommend getting Freelance, and Business, and Stuff book by Amy & Jennifer Hood—It’s a great resource.
Good luck and kickass!