How to get started, where to find jobs, tips for success

It is no new news that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the world, forcing companies to go remote or completely cease their operations. However, this forced a lot of employees to work from home for the first time in their lives. For some, it’s been hard to adjust. I believe decentralization, and consequently remote work, is going to be a theme of the 2020s, so it’s a great time to make the move regardless of the pandemic. In this article, I’ll share some useful tips that will help you make your transition to working remotely as a designer in Nigeria or worldwide go smoother

Who are you again?

I’ve been working remotely for about 3 years for clients from the US and Europe. This helped me to significantly increase my income compared to what I was making while working as an in-house designer at a well-known company in Lagos, Nigeria. During those 3 years, I’ve gone through highs and lows, I’ve made mistakes, and tried to learn from them. In other words, to work remotely in Nigeria is not beans. I’m, by no means, at the peak of my design career, but I think I’ve learned some things that will help folks in similar positions be more successful in going remote.

What you should be aware of and do before getting started

Remote is not for everyone

Working remotely has a lot of perks, but it also comes with some things that some people consider to be setbacks. These are not unsolvable problems, but they can have a huge weigh on you if not addressed properly.

It is true that working remotely can get lonely. You’re no longer in a busy office with tens or hundreds of people. Remote workers also don’t have to commute to the office, which can end up keeping them in the house all day. That can quickly become depressing for people that don’t enjoy this kind of solitude. You can easily fix this by joining a co-working space or going out to work in coffee shops and other social places.

To work remotely in Nigeria, one also need to be a self-starter, motivated, and responsible. In effect, a remote worker is a one-man business. That comes with a lot of responsibility. You’ll own all the wins and all the losses. If you’re not a person with a fair amount of self-discipline, drive, and commitment, remote work might not be the right fit for you.

Create your work environment

Any remote worker needs a proper work environment to be productive. The mind associates spaces with different activities and sets your mental state accordingly. For example, the bedroom is associated with sleeping and relaxation. That’s why you won’t get much done if you plan on lounging on your bed with your laptop all day.

I recommend having a separate room for your office. If that’s not an option, think about setting up a work area in your living room. If that’s also not possible, set up your work desk in your bedroom, but consider separating it with some sort of paravane. For those who don’t have space, work hubs such as Workbay or Liquidspace are a good alternative but will cost time and some money.

Additionally, besides a good space, you’ll need to create a pleasant environment that can keep you focused. Get a good chair, a large desk, and some noise-canceling headphones (those will also be handy when working from cafes, airports, etc.)

Setup a business and a separate bank account

This is self-explanatory. You need to set up a legal framework that you can use to invoice clients and receive payments. Don’t use your personal bank account. It will make it a lot easier to track your income and expenses and assess your performance over time.

Find your niche

a big fish in the midst of other fishes

This is by far the most important thing you need to do to set yourself up for success — be a big fish in a small pond. Avoid spreading yourself too thin. Don’t worry that you won’t find work in your niche. Focus on what you love doing, strive to be the best you can be at it, and work will come. Clients need to be able to associate you with a particular service that’s more specific than a 

broad term like “design”. That’s too vague and the competition for that differentiator is huge. Instead, focus on being the best at one very specific thing first. Here’s how a clearly-defined niche could sound like:

  • editorial layout designer for fashion magazines
  • UI & UX designer that builds products to help recruiters hire the best tech talent
  • illustrator specialized in medical and botanical illustration
  • UX researcher focused on helping fintech companies build better personal banking products

This is not to say you can’t do other things. You can and you should, but you always need a starting point. Amazon began by selling new books and slowly grew into selling almost anything. On a much smaller scale, that’s what you need to do. To work remotely in Nigeria, one needs to focus on one thing, be the best at it and then expand to other verticals.

Your portfolio is essential

To work remotely in Nigeria, you need to aim to have 3–5 of your best work to begin with. You need a fully responsive and seo friendly website to start (you can contact us for a fully optimized website). The quality of your work matters more than the delivery method. If you can set up a personal website  that’s great. If not, contact us for one. As mentioned in the previous section, focus on what you love doing and what you do best. Don’t dilute the impact of your best works by also mixing in a bunch of average projects that no longer fully represent what you’re capable of.

The harsh reality is, in some cases, designers don’t have projects that they’re 100% happy with. In that case, take the time to do a couple of special (free) projects that fit your niche. I know… free work doesn’t sound good, but when done right, it’s good. It helps you enter other industries, learn new things, and keep the creative juices flowing.

Job stability means something different

For most people, stability means having a steady job, at a good company, that won’t lay you off unless you screw up big time. That’s not the case for remote workers. Because you’re competing in a much larger and more competitive market, clients can easily let you go and hire someone else. There are also no labor laws to protect you. In the classic sense, it’s far less stable. However, although you’ll have less stability of the same employer, you can have far greater stability of income. What do I mean by that? If you can manage to have a steady stream of work requests, you’ll find that it provides a lot more stability than having a paycheck come from a single source. As the old saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you’ve found your niche, you have a good portfolio, and you constantly promote yourself, you’ll probably always have requests coming in.

Set an income goal and time commitment

It’s essential to have a clear goal for your yearly income. I recommend yearly goals rather than monthly because freelance work is often cyclical — sometimes there’s tons of work, and sometimes there’s next to nothing. What matters is the bottom line at the end of the year. Tracking your goal over time will help you adjust as you go. You’ll often find you have to adjust your rates, fire low paying clients, promote yourself more, or work more hours.

Besides an income goal, you need to think about how much time you want to dedicate to paid projects. Remember you need to set aside time for vacation and holidays, sick days, learning new skills, managing your business, and marketing yourself. On a regular job, vacation and sick days are covered by your employer, and business management or marketing is not necessary. As a one-man business, you’ll need to work those into your rate.

Let’s look at an example. Say you want to earn $100.000/yr. You decide you want to have 5 weeks of vacation per year and set aside 1–2 weeks for sick days and unexpected events. That leaves you with 45 weeks. Each week, you want to work ~35 hours in total, out of which ~5 hours would be used for marketing, business, or learning. In this case, your hourly rate should be ~$75. More than you expected, right? I challenge you to also add in all the operational costs you have — software license, hardware, accounting fees, health insurance, electricity bill, etc. You’ll find it pushes your rate significantly higher. Disclaimer: although I’ve calculated an hourly rate here, I don’t recommend you use this pricing model. Hourly pricing hinders your profitability and diminishes you to a rental tool. I advise you to use fixed pricing or, even better, value pricing. More on that in a future article.

Define your work schedule and stick to it

Working remotely can greatly improve your work-life balance, but it can also mess it up. Working remotely makes it so easy to procrastinate because there’s no one next to you to kick you into gear when you’re slacking. On the other hand, working from home could make it hard to stop working because there’s little separation between work and personal space. To keep a good balance, you need to set a work schedule and stick to it.

Pro-tip to help you stick your schedule: don’t work dressed in your pajamas. Similar to the space you work in, the clothes you wear influence your state of mind. Get dressed in your regular workday clothes, comb your hair and get yourself ready. Besides putting you in the right frame of mind, you’ll be ready for video calls anytime.

Where to find work

Your network

I’m mentioning this first because it’s where you have the most control. There’s no intermediary, no competition, and little-to-no trust issues in your client relationship. It’s the best place to get started. Once you’ve decided to start working remotely, and you’ve defined your niche, reach out to your network on social media and in-person, and ask them for referrals. This is where it’s important to be specific. If you’re simply reaching out asking your network to introduce you to potential customers for any kind of design work, the results are likely to be mediocre at best (boring or irrelevant projects, low budget, unprofessional clients, etc.). However, if you ask your network for something very specific — say Yoga studio owners, that makes it much easier for them to make relevant recommendations. This will help you land good projects for good clients, which builds up your portfolio over time (which is essential, as mentioned before).

Talent networks

Talent networks are platforms that help bring service providers and clients together. They usually vet both the customers and the freelancers they accept in their network. Once you’re accepted, you are considered for projects that match your expertise. However, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get work. It depends on your profile and the type of customers the talent network gets.

Here’s a list of talent networks I recommend:

  • Toptal. This is the one I used the most and I had a good experience with it. It’s a US company, with clients of all sizes and from all over the world. In my experience, I’ve worked mostly with start-ups and small companies.
  • MVP Factory. They’re similar to Toptal but on a smaller scale. Their projects are mostly from Germany and sometimes require you to travel to the customers’ offices for workshops.
  • Crossover is a US company that looks for tech talent in developing countries and places it at its partners (Aurea, DevFactory, Jive, etc.). It’s a good place to start but I don’t recommend it long term. For more information, I wrote a long article about Toptal vs. Crossover from a designer’s perspective.
  • Moonlight WorksBraintrust and Gun.io are other options that look promising but I haven’t tested them. Moonlight requires you to have a Stripe account, which isn’t available in some countries. Gun.io is mostly for developers. Braintrust is a new kid on the block that shows a lot of potential. Because it’s new, it might be good for early members because it’s easier to find jobs. Big networks like Toptal sometimes prove to be a race to the bottom.
  • UpworkFreelancerFiverr, etc. Those are options you can consider but I don’t recommend them. The quality of the projects and their budgets are average at best.

Remote job boards

If you’re not a fan of working per project, and you prefer to work full-time at a company that hires remote, you can try looking for a role on those job boards:

Things to keep in mind while freelancing

Last but not least, here are some words of advice to keep that will help you be successful in your career as a remote consultant.

Over-communicate with your team or your clients

When working remotely, it’s easy to forget about all the minor communications that happen around the office that help people stay in the loop and set expectations. Working from home, there’s no chatting with your colleagues around the watercooler, no lunches together, no shared commutes, and so on. To compensate for not having all those opportunities to communicate, make sure you form a habit of keeping people in the loop. If you do a daily stand-up with your team, that’s great. If not, I recommend using an asynchronous standup solution on Slack — Standup Alice. If you’re working for clients, set a reminder to send them a quick update every few days. You don’t want them to wonder if you’re working on their project and if it’s going according to plan. Take the initiative and address those worries before they appear.

Don’t work on crap<

There’s a saying: “You’re only as good as your last work”. That’s somewhat true in design. If you want to move forward in your career, you can’t afford to waste time on crappy projects. What’s a crappy project? Anything that you’re not proud enough to include in your portfolio. That being said, I know life is not all rosy. Sometimes circumstances force you to work on bad projects to make ends meet. I know, I’ve been there. Just don’t make a habit out of it. If you’d have to pick between working on a bad project and doing a spec project — to practice your skills, build up your portfolio, or enter a new niche — definitely go for the latter. If, however, you decide to take on a project that’s not going to be good for your portfolio, make sure you’re well paid for it. I’d say 50%-100% more than your usual rate should be a good starting point.

Find ways to delight your customer

A key element to a long, successful freelance career lays in your ability to delight your customers. That goes beyond doing good work. Your customers expect that of you. That’s why they hire you in the first place. You need to find ways to over-deliver. No need to overdo it. Think of small things you can do, similar to how hotels leave a mint on your pillow after refreshing your room or gift you a bottle of wine when you book a room for your honeymoon.