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“Upwork made getting started so easy that if it wasn’t for Upwork, I probably wouldn’t have given freelancing a try. And my wife and I wouldn’t have been able to move out of Serbia.”
Mateja M.
Designer

Recalling his transition to freelance from the corporate world, editorial designer Mateja Miladinović groans, “I chose the worst time to quit my job. The magazine industry was dying, my wife wasn’t working at the time, I had rent to pay, and we had no money saved.”

The thing is, Mateja isn’t a quitter.

For 15 years, he had endured the kind of high-pressure work life that is known to cause burnout.

Workdays started at 10 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. That left time for him to do little more than go home, go to bed, and then go back to work again the next morning.

Worse than working late nights was the constant pressure to beat the clock. Mateja recounts, “We’d rush all day to make an 8 p.m. deadline. Then at half past seven, everything would change, and we had to find a way to make those changes and still make the deadline.”

As tough as it was, designing magazines was Mateja’s life. He joined the industry at 18 years old, handling layouts for a local publication in Serbia. Over the years, he worked his way up the ranks to being the art director for the largest publishing company in the country.

By then, Mateja was tired of the long days and tight deadlines, but that’s not what pushed him over the edge. “I still loved designing magazines, but I never fit into the Serbian corporate culture. I always felt like a polar bear in Africa,” he says.

So he quit. At the worst time.

Giving freelancing a shot

Before quitting his job, Mateja had known about freelancing but never thought it was a practical career option. “I thought freelancing was something you did in your free time for spare change.”

However, returning to corporate life felt so dreadful that he decided to give freelancing a try. “I didn’t have any expectations and didn’t know if it was going to work, but I had to give it a shot.”

Mateja tried a few freelancing platforms but didn’t like how they seemed to require a lot of free work upfront and to give work to the lowest bidder instead of the most qualified talent.

Then he found Upwork.

Full-fledged within 6 months

As a new member without a work history, Mateja felt that getting his first project on Upwork took time. “Looking back, it would have been much wiser to start freelancing while I had a job. Or, I could have saved up money to prepare for the change,” he admits.

Once he got his first project, work began rolling in. “I paid off all of my debt within six months. That’s when I decided, This is it; I’m a freelancer,” says Mateja.

Five years later, he still can’t imagine returning to corporate life. “As a freelancer, I get to travel as much as I want. I work on projects that are more interesting and creatively challenging. And I get to work with people I choose so that I know we’re a good fit.”

Mateja M magazine designs

Securing his future

Had Mateja remained in the corporate world, his future would have been uncertain. “I love designing magazines, I really love it. But the industry has been dying slowly for the last 10 years, so it’s harder to find that type of work,” he explains.

Freelancing enables Mateja to take control of his future by expanding outside of magazines. “I know I'm a good designer and that I can adapt my skills to other types of projects,” he says.

“Clients may hire me for a brochure and like my work so much that they ask if I could help them with something else like a logo. Sometimes, they ask me to do work that I have some experience in, but not enough to feel comfortable adding to my service offerings yet. But they have confidence in my skills and like how we work together. So they offer me the work anyway,” says Mateja.

He also brushes up his skills through online courses and by staying on top of graphic design trends. “I do what it takes to get the work done so well that I’m proud to put my name behind it.”

Mateja portfolio

Tips for new freelancers

An impressive 92% of Mateja’s clients hire him again for new projects. He earns that loyalty through hard work, and he offers these tips to new freelancers.

Check your ego

Especially at first, you may need to accept projects that seem too simple for your capabilities. Take them anyway and do a great job. Do it to establish a positive work history on Upwork so clients want to work with you. And then work your way up to the type of projects and rates that are more in line with your skills and experience.

Develop your skills, then freelance

A lot of people say, “Hey, I want to be a freelancer, what should I do?” They have it backward. Concentrate on building the value you offer clients first. Instead of saying you want to be a freelancer, say you want to be a designer or whatever and build up those skills. Then you can think about becoming a freelancer.

Help the client succeed

Be transparent, honest, responsive, and reliable. For example, Mateja points to the written copy he sees in his work. He doesn’t consider that to be his specialty, but if he’s working on a brochure and sees a grammatical error in the copy, he’ll point that out to the client. Or if a client wants red in a design but he thinks yellow is better, he’ll send proposals with red and yellow explaining why, in his professional opinion, one is better than the other.

Expand only when ready

Don’t overextend yourself by accepting projects you think you can do but don’t have any experience in. It’s fine if you want to expand, but remember that you have a responsibility to the client. If you offer a service to someone and don’t know what you’re doing, then what’s the point?

Justify your rates

Pricing your services can be difficult. You have to value your work, but you also have to charge a rate that makes sense. Concentrate on building up your skills, improve what you offer clients, and look at what other people with your skills and experience are charging, so you can back up your price.

No Upwork, no freedom

“I still work a lot now, but as a freelancer, I have the freedom to travel and live wherever I want and work whenever I want,” says Mateja. “Upwork made getting started so easy that if it wasn’t for Upwork, I probably wouldn’t have given freelancing a try. And my wife and I wouldn’t have been able to move out of Serbia.”

One of the ways Upwork makes freelancing easier is by offering clients and talent payment protection. “On Upwork, I feel safer taking on new clients, so I can focus on getting the work done.”

Mateja enjoys his independence, but he does miss one thing from the corporate world: The inspiration that comes from collaborating with other creatives on team projects. “In my experience, working with other designers can boost your creativity and push you to reach higher levels than you would on your own. If I could design my next project, it would be working with a team of talented creatives and even flying in occasionally to meet in person.”

If you have such a project, Mateja would appreciate a call. If you have something a lot simpler, he’d still like to hear from you. See Mateja’s Upwork profile for more about his work and to connect with him.

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