“I am a 26 year old single mother from Alabama and I have a degree in Graphic Design. I am considering starting a freelance business but things just aren’t working out the way that I want them to. I am currently working full-time in a field that has nothing to do with what I ultimately want to do and I am so ready to step out there on faith and move to a larger city. I must however take into account that I have a growing 5 year old and not very much money. I want to move somewhere that is rich in culture. Do you have any suggestions on cities that would be affordable, and that I wouldn’t have to drive hours to gain some inspiration? I am pretty much open to any state in the U.S.”
To start with, my advice is as simply this:
Location isn’t everything.
Affirmations and a plan are.
But let’s dig deeper. First of all, it’s great that you’re passionate about design but also realistic when taking into account the needs of your child. Working hard to make ends meet, even if it’s in a different field than you’d like to be is admirable and I promise you, we’ve all been there! But before you make any moves, it’s important to take stock of where you are with finances and goals and then make a plan.
A big move coupled with starting a new business can feel daunting so start small. Thankfully, you already have a job. Realistically, if you give up this job and move to another city, it may take months to find another. How much can you save every month on your current income? What does a solid six months of expenses look like? Try to build as much of a cushion as possible before you make a move in your location and career, for both you and your child’s sake.
From there, think about the present — it isn’t so bad. With the buffer of a full-time job, you can start freelancing on the side with very little risk. Without your entire income dependent on an upstart business, you’ll be able to create more freely and also put any earnings towards your fund.
Start Online & Local First
One thing you didn’t mention in your letter: do you have a website? Let’s be honest here — people care more about you, your online presence and your portfolio than where you live. I met a number of designers at the Design Life retreat last summer that don’t live in big, bustling cities yet they have hugely successful freelance businesses. It’s all about talent, personality and work ethic. You can be anywhere and make that connection.
To jump-start your freelance career, build a support network online right now. How? Join sites like Dribbble and Behance and share snippets of your work. Start a blog. Reach out to creatives you admire. We all like to have a list of offline connections as well and you can make some great friends by joining the local AIGA chapter in your city.
As for where to move: big cities like New York and LA have always had bustling design scenes but also have a higher cost of living and more competition. But for smaller, niche studios, you might find a great fit in Portland, Minneapolis or Austin. I live in Portland so I’m slightly biased because we have TONS of tiny studios all the way up to companies the size of Nike that are constantly looking for new talent. My advice before making any big move would be to visit a city first and line up plenty of informational interviews. Get a feel for what you’re up against so it’s not a surprise.
If you do decide to make the big move and don’t have a full-time gig lined up, I strongly suggest meeting with placement agencies including Aquent and 24 Seven (I’ve worked for both in the past and they’ve been excellent). They can place you at a variety of design studios and ad agencies and this is a great way to earn some money quickly and make a lot of contacts in the industry, not to mention elevate your resumé while getting your footing in a new city.
This may not be what you were expecting to hear but with an internet connection, it matters much less where you live today than it ever has before. Don’t ever let your physical location hold you back from starting a freelance business and living out your dreams. Once you have some momentum and a safety net of living expenses built up, your next move is completely up to you. Good luck!