Featured Freelancer: Joel MacDonald, Graphic Designer

Featured Freelancer: Joel MacDonald, Graphic Designer

I met a freelancer (in my previous employed life training small businesses on behalf of a leading bank) who told me then that he started his own business so he could have more time to himself. Despite the derision from the other delegates in the room, I now know exactly what he meant.

This week’s Featured Freelancer talks about how – like many others – family comes before work. Also, despite working more hours than ever before, since going freelance, it’s on his terms and that’s what makes the difference.

It’s another fascinating and honest story from a member of the Freelance Heroes Facebook Group, which I know you’ll enjoy reading…


What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?

My name is Joel MacDonald, I’m based in Inverurie, near Aberdeen, Scotland. I’m a freelance designer, specialising in branding and print.

How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?

I began freelancing in January 2016. I’d lost my job after being made redundant for the second time in 2 years. I’d had enough of not being in control and losing my job to something that had nothing to do with me. In my case, it was due to downturns in the energy market that led to staff cuts. A standard story up in this area. I tried to find employment and had a few interviews but I was at a weird point in my career. Too experienced to be a mid-weight and not experienced enough to be senior designer. The time came where I had to do something to pay the bills and so I decided to go freelance. I phoned/emailed everyone I knew that might require one and just let them know I’d started and was ready to go then and there. Luckily, in the first few days I got one job that got me through the first month, then it grew from there!

It was something that I’d be considering doing anyway, but I had planned it to be a gradual transition. My wife needed support at home to get through tough mental health issues after the birth of our son. He was born 2 years before I started freelance, I got handed my first redundancy notice on the day I got back from paternity leave! We’ve now got a second one the way and I’m considering whether this is still the right thing to do. Family will always come before work for me, and I struggle to see how I could have the work life balance I have now, with somebody else calling the shots. But the security of a wage is appealing! This next year will probably be the decider, if I can make this work and support a wife, a toddler with (a transformers habit) and a baby, then I’ll be happy.


What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?

My friends and family have been great. Most thought I was a bit mad to try it considering I have a family to support but they were great at spreading the word and being there to listen to me when I was needing a pep talk!

Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?

Not really, I got an accountant straight away as I didn’t want to risk messing up my books. Other than that just speaking to other freelancers that I knew and finding online resources that could answer the questions I had. I do plan to contact my local enterprise support organisations like Scottish Enterprise and Chambers of Commerce soon though to see if my year 3 can be the best yet. I’ve figured out what I can on my own so input from external sources will be great.


How would you describe your clients or customers?

I’ve been lucky so far and not had anyone horrid. I’ve had two problems with payment but that was due to miscommunication on both sides at the start of the process. But you learn from that and change your process so it doesn’t happen again.

I have quite a range of clients with varying sizes of budgets. My biggest and longest relationships tend to come from agencies that need an extra hand or that outsource the creative work. These are great as it keeps me in the loop with studio life but I’m also not tied to the internal politics that they face. The rest of my clients are direct customers. Mainly start-ups or smaller businesses. I enjoy these as they are on a similar path to me, learning as they go and are usually a bit more willing to take a risk. They tend to have smaller budgets and are more sporadic but I enjoy that as it keeps me looking for more.

The best so thing about my clients is that almost of them understand why I chose freelance, to work around a better family life, so as long as we are both keep each other in the loop, it works.


Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?

I think two reasons. 1. My background, I spent 2 1/2 years as the only in-house designer in a global Oil & Gas firm along with a few years in different design studios, which has given me a good idea of how it works internally and externally when you hire a designer. And 2, my price. I have a set day rate, trying to keep it simple for both me and clients. This is cheaper than agencies, but I have the experience of working in an agency so they get good value and the same end product. But with me they aren’t paying for global offices, or the funding the MD’s golf holiday!


Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?

I work way more hours than I thought I would, but it’s on my terms. I can take a day if I want or need to go have some family time, and make up for it over a couple of evenings.


What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?

Dropbox. Everything is stored on there. I can access it out and about on my phone so if a client needs a file while I’m on the zip slide with my son at the park, they can still get them!


What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?

Contact everyone you’ve ever worked with, and wanted to work with. The good ones will give you advice or work if you’re the one for the job. The bad ones or ones not worth the hassle will show themselves up pretty quickly and you can move on!

Try and build up a network of people that can do the things you can’t, so that you can help clients no matter what they ask.


What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?

Nothing astounding so far I don’t think, my actual work is the same as what I’ve always done, but now I’ve got the added business side, which I’ve a lot to learn about. I’m actually enjoying the networking and “client-side” work that I have to do. I quite enjoy the chase it seems!


What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?

The work/life balance. I walk my son to nursery, work for a few hours, pick him up, and then have lunch together as a family. And with baby number 2 on the way that sounds even better. I work evenings, late nights, but I’m a night owl anyway so that’s not a problem. I’d give it up if the right thing came along, but right now, this is what is best.


What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?

The admin, I’d make a terrible accountant. Also when it gets busy, the isolation can be tough. The dining room can become quite a small box when you’ve been in it for long periods of time! I’m looking into if I can get a workspace away from home amongst other freelancers as I think it would be great mentally and for business.


What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?

I’m not sure yet. I used to think it was to run a studio, but I think I’d rather build up a collective type freelance agency. As big or small as it needs to be with only the right people for the job involved when they need to be. Everybody wins in that scenario.


What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?

I wish I’d started it a long time ago on the side so that I had a little client base to start with. It would have made the leap a little less daunting.

You can get in touch with Joel in the following locations:


Twitter: @joel_macdonald

Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/joelmacdonald1/

Instagram: joel_macdonald

…and, as ever, the Freelance Heroes Facebook Group