- Adrienne Johnston left her job in financial services to be a freelance graphic designer in 2018, despite having no experience in the industry.
- She carved out a niche in presentation design and earned $200,000 in her second year of freelancing.
- Johnston suggested aspiring freelancers optimize their sites for search engines, increase their rates over time, and build trust with clients so they continue to come back.
- She said that most of her clients are okay with paying more for her services, so she's not afraid to increase her rates — the email below is what she sends to start that conversation.
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After spending three-and-a-half years in the financial services industry — most recently as vice president of operations at Buckhead Investment Partners — Adrienne Johnston went freelance in 2018. In doing so, she let go of her stable, six-figure job in search of a career that would better fulfill her.
Despite having no professional background in design, she felt herself drawn to becoming a freelance graphic designer.
"I had a passion for design," Johnston explained. "Working in smaller companies [in past roles], there was always a need for design work that I would take on simply because I liked it."
After a few months of trying out various freelance projects, Johnston realized that she needed to find a niche area to specialize in, rather than be a jack-of-all-trades. "I was doing everything from building Shopify sites and websites to creating curtain mockups," she said. "It simply took me too long to figure out each project and execute it well, so it was preventing me from reaching my income potential."
She studied which projects had the highest income and took the least amount of time. There was a clear answer: All of the projects that ticked those two boxes were presentation design projects.
Johnston's research also revealed that presentation design would be a profitable niche, since there are reportedly 35 million PowerPoint presentations given daily, according to an infographic by Poll Everywhere.
"Clients are willing to invest in presentation design for content they'll use over and over like investment pitch decks, conference decks, [and] sales decks," she said. "Also beneficial is that those decks are also tied to revenue, so there is a budget for them."
Today, she's a freelance presentation designer and PowerPoint expert. In her second year of freelancing, she earned just over $200,000. She shared with Business Insider how she built her business from scratch so quickly, and the email template she uses to set her rates with clients.
Starting with SEO
Johnston's first order of business after carving out her niche was optimizing her website for search engines — which meant taking every class and reading every article she could find on SEO.
"I learned how to find low-competition/high-volume keywords and then optimize my site to rank for them," she said.
She structured her website's content and code so that search engines could effectively present her business to clients looking for her services, and then figured out how clients were using her site to better move them along the sales funnel.
"There's rumored to be a 'sandbox' period where it's difficult to rank for new websites," Johnston said. "I found that to be true and right about the six-month mark, which was only two months after optimizing the site." At this watershed moment, she started to get two to three leads per day. "I average one of those leads being my ideal client in terms of budget and timeline — and that's more than enough to support my business," she said.
Setting an effective rate strategy
As Johnston continued to build up her profile and reputation on the freelancing platform Upwork and elsewhere, she was simultaneously able to continue increasing her rates and taking on larger projects.
"In my experience, the power of SEO is that when clients find you, they perceive you as an authority, which enables you to charge higher rates," she explained.
Johnston started her business with a full calendar of clients at a $40 hourly rate. She increased that rate to $100 in her first year of freelancing by adding new clients at the $100 a hour rate, then gradually asking clients at the lower rates to move up to the higher rate — and referring those who weren't willing to accept the rate hike to other designers.
"When charging hourly, I give an estimate of the range of hours a typical project takes," she shared. "I make sure [the client] understand[s] that my process includes a creative direction for the project. So I'll design two to three slides and send it back to them for feedback. This ensures efficiency of time spent, and if we discover through that iterative process we're just not the right fit to work together, I won't charge them."
Johnston also found that as she got more efficient and thus faster, she was doing more while earning the same amount. While that's great for the client, she wasn't seeing the upside of continuing to improve her delivery, so she started rethinking her approach.
As she pondered this, Fiverr Pro, which helps employers find top freelance talent, was looking to staff up its presentation design store and found Johnston via her website about eight months after she launched her freelance business. "Their model is gigs/packaged offerings for work, so I got to experiment with packaged offerings and found that by pricing $40 per slide, I made more money than pricing hourly because I could create more than 2.5 slides an hour," Johnston said.
The presentation designer continues to employ both rate structures depending on the client and the project. For example, some of her clients only require a quick clean-up of slides, so charging them $40 a slide doesn't make sense. But because she makes less at $100 an hour, she raises their hourly project rate over time to create a win-win for both parties.
Johnston stressed that she's very transparent about rate increases and has become far more confident tackling the conversation than she was initially. She uses the template below to communicate effectively with clients.
The email template you can copy to request a rate increase from a client
As demand for my services has continued to increase, I have been raising my rates. My current rate for new clients is [$50 a slide or $200 an hour]. Because you're a valued long-term client, I am only adjusting your rate to [$40 a slide or $130 an hour] effective on [30-60 days out from current date].
In case this doesn't work for your budget, please let me know and I am happy to make some introductions to other presentation designers who may be a better fit.
All the best,
Johnston pointed out that in this email there isn't any option for the client to continue at the lower rate. "That's because by the time I'm sending them the note, I have enough clients at the higher rates that I'm willing to lose them if it's no longer mutually beneficial," she said.
She was happy to discover that the majority of her clients were willing to meet her on her new rates.
"They are confident I'll meet deadlines and nail the design on the first go because we've already worked together," she said. "As scary as it was the first few times, it's always validating to get a response back from a client that's, 'So glad to hear your business is continuing to grow!' or 'You're worth it!'"
How Johnston plans to keep growing her business
Johnston achieved a six-figure salary even while moving across the country to the Seattle area for her husband's job last summer. She's projected that by continuing to employ the same strategy of increasing the rates of existing clients, she can expect to earn even more this year.
"I've started the year with conversations with clients about increasing rates," she said. "Based on their willingness to accept the new rate this year, I'm confident that I'll reach a $300,000 run rate in Q2 of this year." She predicted ending 2020 with a run rate of $400,000.
The designer admitted that this push will be more difficult than the previous income boosts have been because she expects some clients won't be able to get to $200 an hour or $50 a slide. But she isn't letting that stop her from trying to continue to maximize her income potential.
"Of course, there is a sentimental side of me that gets sad thinking about that," Johnston said. "But the pragmatic side of me replies with, 'There aren't any hard feelings. We were both able to benefit at some point while our budgets/rates intersected, and once it's not mutually beneficial, it's time for both parties to move on and continue to find partners that continue to benefit their strategic plans.'"