Michael Ortlieb Creative Consultant
Michael built a strong network while working full time and freelancing on the side. He's used that network to create a design business that serves clients in 6 states.
What's your background?
In my second year of college, I had the opportunity to become a graphic designer for a local magazine in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago. They had one other designer there who trained me over a summer, and it was an awesome way to jump in and learn, and to create something people could hold and react to.
After college I moved to Chicago and landed my first full-time job at a publishing company. I was there for about a year, and then decided to work with recruiters and placement firms to get the lay of the land and a variety of experience with corporations, publishing houses and ad agencies.
I got restless and moved to Seattle, and spent a few years in a couple of full-time roles, getting to know the city and clientele, working for Microsoft and Nintendo and an agency that did work for the Olympic Games and sports arenas. And then I moved again, this time to San Francisco and then a year later to Berkeley, contracting through recruiters and freelancing for clients in the Bay Area and Seattle, building experience and networking — now with four cities in tow.
And then back to Seattle, where I put freelancing on hold and took a position at IMDb (an Amazon.com subsidiary) for a little over eight years, where I teamed up with movie and television studios to create custom ad campaigns for the site. After my tenure there I headed to a startup, where I got to creative direct and upgrade a brand for a SaaS-based software company, all the while rebuilding my network and connections to eventually start freelancing again. I also taught HTML and CSS at a design school, which led to additional connections and more freelance work.
Family brought me back to Chicago last year, and I’ve HQ’d in the Merchandise Mart at 1871, inspired by the array and excitement of new ideas there. I provide design services for clients in six states, and as needed, call on a team of developers, designers, writers and photographers around the country to move projects successfully to the finish line.
What design services do you offer?
I focus on web design and development (including wireframing and prototyping), and visual design for mobile applications, but also offer print and advertising design services.
What motivated you to start your freelance career?
I found as I built a “side hustle” with a full-time job, there was a symbiosis going on — as I picked up skills with side gigs, that naturally extended and enhanced the skillset at my full-time job, and vice versa. My work has been strongest when I work for multiple clients, as I can switch to another project, and then come back later and look at the original project with a new perspective.
How do you find and attract clients?
I've built a network of partners and clients over time through both word-of-mouth and having lived in several cities, and serve clients in Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, Seattle, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. I partner with firms to become a go-to resource if their clients require design, and while most of the work I do is remote, I travel four times a year to check in with clients — the face-to-face time is important to maintain client relationships.
What advice would you offer other freelancers that are just starting out?
Always be on time for your clients, and regularly update them on project status. It fosters communication and a lasting relationship with the client.
Ask for help early on. Hire or outsource expertise so you can focus on the bigger picture. You can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all.
Always track your time, especially at the start. It will help you understand how to create an accurate bid for future projects.
Bid by the project. Hourly rates stress out both the client and freelancer, and it commoditizes your services. You’re being paid for your expertise.
Put 1/3 of your income away, as most of that is for the IRS. Hire an accountant (see outsource expertise above). :)
Volunteer, but don’t give your work away. I’ve built a sizable portion of my business from a couple of small non-profit projects, which connected me to people in the for-profit sector. Starting out designing for a non-profit or two whose mission you’re aligned with is a great way to build your portfolio.
Do you recommend any resources, courses, books, or online services to other freelancers?
Quickbooks Online — invoicing and credit card / ACH payments (no more paper checks)
Podio for project management — you can custom build your workflow to keep things optimized
A Book Apart for quick reads on design and development topics
Lynda.com for additional courses and skills (it also comes free with a LinkedIn Premium membership)