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Starting a Freelance Career Doesn’t Mean You Have to Work for Free

Take the jobs that help you evolve along with your portfolio.


Sometimes it’s our peers next to us in the trenches that we can learn the most from, and not just the legendary figures with trophies already gathering dust. Going freelance involves a lot of unglamorous beginnings: doing work for cheap to build up your portfolio, working part-time jobs to pay your bills, and trying to build connections out of scratch are just a small part of any freelancer’s early journey.

Monika Kanokova believes that some of the best practices we can learn are from other creatives who are still climbing their way to the top of the mountain. In her new book This Year Will Be Different, Kanokova interviewed numerous freelancers from around the world who have figured out how to make freelancing into a career—and what it takes to get there.

In this interview, an excerpt from the book, she speaks with Oren Lasry, an Interior Designer from Tel Aviv. Lasry started her freelance career by printing business cards, and telling everyone she met she was an interior designer—and kept doing so until someone hired her for a project. Below, Kanokova and Lasry discuss the nitty-gritty details on going from zero to a fully functioning freelance business—without having to skip paying your bills along the way.

[Ed. Note: This post is an edited excerpt from “This Year Will Be Different,” a new book from Monika Kanokova. Buy it here.

What did you study and why?

I studied interior design at the Holon Institute of Technology. I wanted to become an event planner and producer and felt confronted by all the questions I had about space and spatial design. I planned to study business management afterwards, but during my studies I fell in love with creating interiors. I had found my passion.

What happened between your university diploma and your current career?

Straight out of university, I took on a handful of projects together with a friend. While this cemented my determination to succeed in this business, I didn’t want to feel like I was compromising any part of my vision, so I decided to set up my own independent studio to specialize in commercial spaces.

What made you decide to become self-employed immediately after graduation?

I’ve always been a very independent person. I couldn’t imagine sitting in a grey office every day from nine until nine, designing and drawing blueprints in someone else’s name.

I couldn’t imagine sitting in a grey office every day from nine until nine.

I went to a couple of job interviews, but because I never was that interested to become established in any of these companies, it didn’t work out, which was probably for the better. Instead, I decided to look for my own projects. I have been self-employed for about two and a half years now.

What were the first steps to start your own business?

I printed myself business cards and brought them with me everywhere I went. I said I was an interior designer and asked people if they knew of any interesting projects I could get involved with. I was constantly out meeting and talking to people. This was before I even knew the value of networking and how to do it right. Today, I’m much more organized and I understand the value of networking effectively.

Back then, I also had two jobs to make some sort of a living. I worked in a gallery, which I thought would help me connect with the right audience, and I also worked in a bar, which was very a valuable time as it shed a lot of light on what to consider when I would later design nightlife spots. It took me about ten months until a friend of mine called me and said she had a project and asked if I was interested. I got to design a Mexican restaurant, which turned into a chain, and I then designed all of the subsequent restaurants. That’s how everything started.

What were your first steps to create a successful business?

I’ve never worked in an architectural office, so everything I do is self-taught. I have developed a system that is my own and works for me and, mostly importantly, is best suited to meet my clients’ needs. After about six months, I got myself some marketing help. I hired a marketing consultant who could tell me how to best and most effectively position my business.

I needed to learn how to use Facebook, Pinterest, and all the other platforms, and also how to treat my former clients so they would keep me in mind and then refer me to their friends and acquaintances. I’ve learned to understand that you need to spend about half of your time building your business instead of spending all of your time working on projects.

You need to spend about half of your time building your business instead of spending all of your time working on projects.

It’s often challenging because you’re busy working on projects and don’t have time to do anything else, but if you want to expand your business, you must become more attractive as a company. You must work on your business and not just in your business, no matter what!

How do you work “on” your business?

I believe that creating the right kind of spaces can help add value to people’s lives. Recently, I designed a new kindergarten concept, but not because I was getting paid for it. I noticed this area was underdeveloped, so I spent months researching several educational approaches. I prepared a detailed presentation and started pitching it to the municipality here in Tel Aviv. It was a lot of work with no remuneration in return, but they really liked it and now we’ve been receiving a budget. There are over 450 kindergarten classes administered by the Tel Aviv municipality and if the pilot proves to be successful, we could launch it on a national level. That might then be mutually beneficial for the children and teachers of the city.

I’m also teaching at The College Of Management to give back to the community. In general, I do my job not just because it pays the rent, but I believe I can improve people’s lives. I often start working on projects because they’re in a direction where I want to evolve.

I often start working on projects because they’re in a direction where I want to evolve.

How do you calculate your remuneration?

Usually, in architecture, it’s common to take a certain percentage of the overall costs of the project. I believe that just because someone doesn’t have much of a budget doesn’t mean I will work less on their project than I would on one with enough money. I always try to estimate how much time I need for a project and explain to the client what I’ll do during these days. I know what an hour of my time is worth, but I give discounts based on the size of the project.

I still don’t earn what I feel would correlate to my efforts, but I can only get there if I continue working as I do at the moment. In the beginning, when you don’t have much experience to prove you can actually achieve something, people might not trust you, so it’s better to do projects for less and gain the work experience in return. If possible, don’t work for free.

How big is your team?

It depends on the amount of projects I’m working on. Sometimes I work with two other freelancers, sometimes with one, and sometimes it’s just me plus my expert handymen for things like wood, marble, air conditioning, iron, etc. I really believe in teamwork and I always try to involve as many people as possible. I like to work with a graphic and a product designer. It gives me a new perspective on the process and I learn a lot while working with people that possess different skills. Usually, before I start working on a project, I estimate how many professionals I need to involve to get the best possible outcome.

How do you represent yourself online and what platforms do you consider important?

I’ve been using my Facebook as a business page since I started. I am now building my own website because although no one will hire you based solely on your profile, eventually they’ll probably end up googling you.

Although no one will hire you based solely on your profile, eventually they’ll probably end up googling you.

It’s crucial that when they do, they find a strong, credible site: one that represents your business in the best possible light. I also use Instagram and Pinterest to show design ideas and share my process with my clients. I am a visual person, so I think it’s easier for others to understand how I work and how much time it takes to develop a great space when they can follow my process on social media.

Could you give some practical tips to someone who wants to become an interior designer?

You must keep learning because this is a world that is constantly evolving. Everyone can become an interior designer nowadays, so the more you know, the better equipped you are to create versatile and intelligent state-of-the-art spaces. Everybody does things differently, and that’s great because it creates different styles. Always make sure you double check everything you do. Any mistake you make is not only dangerous, but it can also be really expensive for you and your client. Most of all, you always have to believe in yourself for others to be able to believe in you.

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[You can buy “This Year Will Be Different” here and learn more about Oren’s business here.]

Monika Kanokova

Monika Kanokova is a freelance community strategist and the author of This Year Will Be Different: The Insightful Guide to Becoming a Freelancer. Her heart belongs to good design and delicious filter coffee. If yours does too, follow her discoveries on @kathmo or visit

http://mkanokova.com to learn more about her approach to community and product strategy.

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