Elaine Donmoyer can bring visions to life. Chase Poirier can whip up a website for a startup. Madison Yocum can design marketing material. Karim Hassanali can tell a business' story. They are all students working as freelancers.

While there are many types of freelancers, they all share the freedom and flexibility to work on their own schedule. Freelancers are independent contractors who are hired by individuals and companies to provide a service. They get to decide what and how much work to take on and set their own hours. Like any job, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

Starting Out and Finding Work

“It’s kind of hard when you start out, especially online, because if you’re not known already you have to work on building yourself up as a name,” said Donmoyer, a third year Film and Animation student who makes commissioned artwork.

Poirer and Yocum, both third year New Media Design majors, hope to eliminate one of the hardest parts of freelancing — breaking into the industry.

"Ripple" is a business that Poirer and Yocum cofounded and grew through the Simone Center. They plan to release a beta version of their product in four months. Ripple’s web-based platform will enable freelancers to connect with each other and grow a virtual team lead by more experienced freelancers.

Matt Olpinski, a 2012 RIT graduate of the then-New Media Design and Imaging program, is a full-time freelancing UI/UX developer who has worked for many large companies such as Facebook and Porsche. He occasionally lectures at RIT; Yocum and Poirer said that he was influential in the beginning of their freelancing careers.

Olpinski started building his website as a freshman, and began taking on occasional projects while in school. After three years working full-time at a design agency, he was getting enough clients through his website to freelance full-time.

“Build a portfolio, build a reputation, be a good communicator, work really hard and don’t be afraid to just dive in,” Olpinski advised new freelancers.

Donmoyer's clients also reach out to her through her online presence; she posts her artwork from school or personal projects on social media. People will follow her for content and then commission  her to design their characters or illustrate their ideas. 

Karim Hassanali, a third year Industrial Design major, takes a different approach to finding clients. When talking to people, he tries to evaluate what value he can add to their project and finds work that way. He mostly does web design and branding for businesses.

“Never be waiting for someone to present an opportunity to you, just create your own opportunities.”

“Never be waiting for someone to present an opportunity to you, just create your own opportunities,” Hassanali said.

Hassanali and Olpinski both said they started freelancing by happening across jobs, but it isn't always that easy. Catherine Mazza, a third year Industrial Design student, used to paint nails on a freelance basis but couldn't find clients when she came to college. Instead, she started working on "The Lounge," an online service that connects students who want services from other students. Mazza hopes to launch it by next semester.

“My purpose has been to bring people together through their needs and talents,” Mazza said.

The Risks

One of the biggest challenges for freelancers is income predictability. Since their income is dependent on a constant stream of clients, a bad month can strain a wallet. However, having income come from multiple sources is more secure than working for a company that can go through layoffs.

Olpinski has enough potential clients reach out to him that he can pick and choose who to work with. He usually works on one long-term project (4–6 months to a year) and one short-term project (4–6 weeks) at a time, to ensure a variety of income sources.

Freelancers lack the benefits that come from a steady employer, like health insurance, paid vacation time and sick days. When Olpinski is sick, he can't charge a company for that time.

Taxes are another part of freelancing that can be tricky. Normally, taxes are deducted from a paycheck, but Olpinski puts away 40 percent of his income so that he can pay, come tax time. Without discipline, a freelancer could be stuck with a huge tax bill come April.

Discipline is also important when it comes to time management. 

"You’re completely in control of your time, which is great if you’re good at managing it,” Olpinski said.

"You're completely in control of your time, which is great if you're good at managing it."

The Rewards

“[Freelancing] is on your own terms,” Yocum said. “You can pick and choose what you want out of it, set your own hours.”

This freedom is attractive, and it can allow freelancers to turn a typical 40-hour week into an average of 36, according to a survey of freelancers from Edelman Intelligence. It also allows individuals to have creative control and make a name for themselves.

"A lot of artists now want more freedom to do what they want. It's so easy to post your art online and make a name for yourself."

“A lot of artists now want more freedom to do what they want,” Donmoyer said. “It’s so easy to post your art online and make a name for yourself ... when you’re part of a company, you don’t really have your own name.”

Freelancers are not the only ones to benefit from the job. Compared to paying an agency to complete work, freelancers can be less expensive and timelier.

“Companies are saying they’d rather outsource some of their work to other people so they don’t always have a full team on their own," Poirier said.

Hassanali worked with a company that needed photographs of their lighting in museums. He offered to travel with a photographer friend for less money than a professional company would. Now he gets paid to travel to different cities while the company saves money.

Prices for a freelancer are usually based on experience. The more projects that a freelancer has in their portfolio, the more they can charge.

Donmoyer said she usually charges $100 for character designs and full illustrations and $30–$50 for smaller illustrations. Web designers — like Poirier, Yocum and Hassanali — can charge anywhere from $500–$4,000 per project, according to NJ Creatives Network. Freelancers earned one trillion dollars in the U.S. in 2016.

Freelancing, with its flexibility and freedom, can fit snugly into a college student's busy schedule.

"Just freelance part-time," Olpinski advised. "That’s a great way to see if freelancing will work for you.”

Freelancing Resources:

  • Get updates on Ripple at rippleplatform.io
  • The Lounge is looking for an experienced UI/UX designer — contact Catherine Mazza.
  • Matt Olpinski publishes advice on his website, mattolpinski.com