Starting an online career can be an expensive experience, especially with the ever-increasing cost of software suites and design programs. Even the most basic PC can cost upwards of $600, and with programs like Photoshop and Flash thrown into the mix, the cost can easily double (or even triple) once software gets thrown in.
Thankfully, PC hardware prices are at record lows, with a great (albeit basic) PC now affordable for even the most frugal designer. Still, for aspiring designers and bootstrapping entrepreneurs, savings are useful everywhere. These tips will help you cut down your software costs, eliminate needless expenses, and boost productivity — allowing you to take on more work.
Cost cutting tips are always helpful for new designers and developers, so here are some great tips on how to cut your costs.
1. Use open source and freeware software to keep costs down.
There are hundreds of open source programs available, many of which are as good, or even better than their paid counterparts (see our writeup of them here). Sure, some of your software you’ll inevitably have to pay for, but with the wide variety available today it’s not too hard to find a free option for designers.
Still need the paid version but can’t afford it? A lot of paid software is available with a trial license. It may only cover 30 days, but if you can work out some paid design gigs in that time you shouldn’t have any trouble extending that into a full license once the period is over. If you don’t find it too important during the trial period, don’t bother with the full license.
2. You don’t need the best PC around.
Some design software is pretty demanding, but the vast majority of design programs will run pretty comfortably on a computer that’s a couple of years old. If you’re buying new, remember that you don’t need every bell and whistle to make a great design rig. Processing power, RAM and hard drive space is almost always more important than the latest graphics card and 7.1 sound card.
However, don’t ever think that you can get by with the bare minimum. There’s no doubt that you can design and code on a bargain-basement priced PC, but chances are good that you’ll quickly grow tired of the slow performance and instability. Invest a little more in your PC, take stability and speed into account, but don’t think that you need every new feature and piece of kit.
3. Use dual (big) monitors for extra productivity.
There’s the old maxim — time is money. Any designer worth their salt knows how valuable their time is, and few are willing to waste time without getting paid. It may seem like a better deal to buy that small 17″ monitor (anyone remember when they were considered big?), but you’ll quickly find that the lost productivity outweighs the slightly lower cost.
You’re time is worth a lot, and every hour saved is extra money earned. Value your work in a per-hour basis, not on the amount of money you make altogether. By using two monitors, you can keep your workload manageable and boost your productivity. Also, go for the biggest monitors that you can afford. 24″ is a good guideline, but many designers might want upwards of 30 inches of screen real estate to get their complex graphics work done.
4. Use assignments as an educational experience.
Design school is expensive, and often isn’t worth it. While a lot of people think that you need formal training to master design, it’s often smarter to take paid gigs and assignments to boost your profile, develop your skills and market yourself as a designer. If you feel constrained without the latest and greatest qualification, try using your design career to learn skills without having to pay expensive tuition costs.
5. Market indirectly and inexpensively.
PPC advertising is expensive, especially in the web design field. SEO is difficult, and the time required to see any results can limit your work output. Writing proposals is boring, and wastes your time. Browsing Elance is time consuming, potentially expensive, and utterly uninteresting.
How can you get clients without having to waste time and money on marketing? Focus on letting people know you’re available, but don’t ever directly market to them. Keep accounts on popular webmaster forums with a link to your design website in your signature. Post about your design experiences and past assignments. Half of the best jobs are unlisted, and the best way to find them is to keep people aware that you’re available. Spend some time letting people know you’re a designer and you’ll quickly be rewarding with good projects — all without the cost of advertising.
6. Don’t be afraid to outsource.
There are thousands of workers out there ready to work for under $10 per hour. While there’s a slight stigma attached to outsourcing, when used properly it can prove very effective. If you’ve got a lot of grunt work to finish — color correction, basic levels adjustment, or other mindless design tasks — there’s no shame in hiring help to take care of them.
It doesn’t sound like a cost cutting exercise, but it really is. If you’re fighting away clients because you’re too busy, hiring help to complete the work at half of your rates leaves you open to complete more well paid work. If you still make half your rate for every hour your assistants work, you’re free to take on even more work at your full pay rates.
Be careful with this idea, for it’s easy to let it compromise your quality. Always let your clients know that they’re working with your team rather than just yourself, and always double check your employees’ work before handing it in.
7. Stick to one or two freelance websites, and dominate them.
It costs a lot to keep up with all the freelance websites, especially if they work on a pay-per-proposal basis. Instead of keeping a profile at Guru, Elance, ODesk and every other website, focus on just one or two. You’ll minimize your time input, keep monthly costs down, and establish yourself with a more detailed profile on each marketplace.
On this same note, if you want to hire assistance, stick to just one channel and dominate it. It’s much cheaper (time-wise) to work your way around LinkedIn than it is to waste money on multiple websites or expensive hiring agencies.
8. Cut down on your communications channels.
You don’t really need a contact phone AND a dedicated work cellphone. If you want to keep your costs down, focus on the communications channels that are free (or almost free). Skype, IRC and email are free, and much more effective for communicating with clients than a bulky and expensive land line connection. Stick to one phone, use it for all your communications, and only pay for one phone bill
That said, getting a good phone is always a good idea. By being able to reply to email almost all the time, you can appear bigger than you are, all the while saving money.
9. Save money on a scanner and use your camera.
Even a $100 camera will give photos that are detailed enough for “scanning” documents. If you don’t want to spend more money (and waste more desk space) on a bulky scanner, just use your digital camera to scan documents and invoices. Drop your flash, keep the natural light decent and use a black background so that cropping is easy.
Need to fax a business document to someone? Use your camera to take the “scan”, crop it on your design computer, and send it to them using an eFax program. It’s easy to cut costs by extending the functions of other technology, so look out for other ways to boost your current setup’s versatility.
Got any other cost cutting tips? These principles can save you some serious cash, whether you’re a freelancer or the manager of a busy design firm. If you’ve found anything that works well for you, saves you a lot of money (or a lot of time) and is easily applicable to other designers, remember to leave a comment so that other people can learn from it.