How to Become a CAD Freelancer

Tools of the Trade for a Successful Home Based CAD Business
What You Need to Get Things Started

The beauty of wanting to become a CAD freelancer, and owing and operating your own CAD business, is the start-up / operating costs are relatively low.

This applies even more so if you operate your company from your home.

I am going to assume that most of you looking to make money as a freelance CAD drafter will be doing so from home.

Even if you are looking to start your business by renting commercial office space, I think most of this information will still apply to you.

The basic business concepts are still the same, except with an external office setup you will have higher overhead.

Tip: If you have not already done so, be sure to read the 1st article in this work from home series:

How to start a profitable home based CAD business, doing what you love on your terms.


Which CAD Software to Use for Your Business?

Probably the most important CAD drafting tool you need when you become a CAD freelancer is the CAD software.  I'm sure many of you reading this are experienced with a certain type of software program. Using the computer-aided drafting and design software that you have the most experience with is the best place to start.

The brands of CAD software available on the market seem to be growing by the day.  The majority of our clients use AutoCAD, or an Autodesk product, but there are many other drafting and design programs out there to use when you become a CAD freelancer.

If you are experienced using other CAD software such as Microstation or Solidworks, start offering your services with what you know best.  You can always learn a different CAD package as your business expands.  Many CAD software vendors offer trial downloads for you to try before you buy.  You can check out several trial and free CAD software products here.

I am a firm believer in doing what you love to make a living.  I love to draw with the AutoCAD program and create AutoCAD tips that help others.  If Microstation is what I enjoyed using, then I would center my business on offering Microstation CAD services.

However, contacting the types of clients that you want to work for, and asking them what software their firm uses, is a good way to narrow down which software would be the most profitable for you to acquire.

You may love using Smartdraw for example, but if you are set on offering professional CAD services to architects, they may want their deliverables in the format they use; which is usually a higher-end CAD product.

Do yourself a favor and call 4 or 5 firms that you would be interested in offering drafting services to.  Ask to speak with the head of the CAD department and politely ask her/him what software is most widely used in their firm.  You might be surprised what you find out and you may just develop a future potential client in the process.

On the other hand, if you plan on offering your house plan or deck design services to homeowners, Smartdraw or Sketchup may be all you need.

Tip: If you decide to get into designing houses, decks, etc., be sure to check with the appropriate licensing agencies in your State, Province and Municipality.  You may need to be certified before offering any type of design services to the public.

CAD Workstation

With the price of computers and memory these days, setting up a CAD workstation for your home office does not need to be a huge expense when you first become a CAD freelancer.

Just be sure you check the CAD software requirements before making any computer purchases.  Personally I have gotten the best results out of Dell desktops and Lenovo laptops, but to each their own.  There are plenty of websites out there that will compare this computer to that computer, and help you narrow down which one is best for you.

If you are going to be a one-person operation to start, it may be a good idea to get yourself a desktop and a laptop computer.  This way you will always have a backup computer to work on if something goes wrong with your main computer.  You will also be able to take your work with you if the need to travel arises.  After all, when you become a CAD freelancer, and work according to your schedule, there should be some perks!

An external hard drive can also come in handy to store important files and making regular file backups in case anything happens to your computer's hard drive.

Whatever computer workstation you decide to go with, bear in mind that CAD software upgrades usually demand more memory.  Choosing a computer that exceeds the minimum CAD software requirements may be a wise investment long term.

When choosing a monitor, the larger the better.  The less panning and zooming around you have to do, the more productive you will be.  Time is money; an extra $100 or $200 on a larger screen will save you money down the road.

I also found that using a dual monitor setup works best when working with scans or spreadsheets.

Choosing Your Workspace at Home

If you plan to become a CAD freelancer and work from home, setting up in a quiet area (preferably with a door) is essential.  While working at home is a dream for many, often times the distractions that come along with a home office are not realized upfront.  You may just find yourself running more home related errands than you would if you were working away from home, if you are not careful.

This was difficult for me in the beginning and took some adjustment to get used to.  Sitting down with your family and discussing the importance of your need to get your work done, is vital to succeeding from a home based office.

Having a separate office area, from other busy and noisy spaces in your home, will help you stay focused and will provide a business environment to meet with any local clients if need be.

Try to choose a space in your home that will accommodate your desk, with a work table adjacent for reviewing drawings, a file cabinet, and any other furniture or computer peripherals needed.  If you have room, you may also want to consider adding a couple of chairs and a table for reviewing projects with clients.

Communication - Internet, Phone and Fax

A high-speed internet connection is a necessity for transferring drawing files, scans, and other documents, to and from clients.  I first started operating with a dial-up connection, but it didn’t take long to realize that the faster the internet connection, the better.

As you become a CAD freelancer and grow your client base, you may want to setup an FTP site to have files uploaded and downloaded smoothly.  Many of the firms that we deal with utilize image scans, rather than paper drawings, for their mark-ups, sketches, as-built drawings, etc.  Sending these files to us via FTP makes life easier for us and them.

Although most correspondence can be done through e-mail, a fax machine is also highly recommended for your home office.  You may also want to consider using an online fax service such as eFax where you can send and receive faxes by email or mobile.

Another option for face to face communications with your remote client is Skype.  And Skype to Skype calls are free!  If you want to forgo the expense of a dedicated business telephone line, you could also set up a Skype phone number.  And of course their is always the option of adding a separate phone number to your existing phone line or simply using your cell phone with a built in long distance plan.

Should You Offer a Printing and Plotting Service?

To plot or not to plot, that is the question.

The price of large format plotters has indeed dropped over the years. Whether or not to offer printing and plotting services to your clients is a personal decision.

When I first wanted to become a CAD freelancer I looked at the cost of a plotter, maintaining a plotter, time required to plot, and realized it was not the right option for me. 

Fast forward to today and I still don’t provide plotting services.  There has been no need and I would prefer to leave plotting, printing and scanning to outsourcing agencies that specialize with those services.  The number of requests we received for plotting was so minimal that there was no point.

For plots that are required to be done for local clients, we simply use a local plotting service and e-mail or FTP the drawing files straight to them with instructions for the required output.

When you become a CAD freelancer and decide whether you want to offer strictly internet based CAD services to architectural, engineering or contracting firms, chances are your clients will have their own plotter or plotting service.  If you plan to offer mostly local CAD services, contacting potential clients to survey their plotting needs will give you the quickest answer.

If plotting is the right option for you, there are always plenty of refurbished plotters available through online auctions such as eBay.

Customization for Productivity When You Become a CAD Freelancer

A few of our clients have very specific repetitive tasks that need to be done in CAD.  If a customer becomes a long term client, we will arrange to have these tasks brought to an absolute minimum by customizing our software to suit their needs.

Outsourcing repetitive tasks, when you become a CAD freelancer, is one option that can also be used, but hiring an Autolisp programmer to customize AutoCAD to perform reoccurring tasks has also proven to be a winner for us.

I suggest keeping track of the time to perform reoccurring tasks over the period of a couple of weeks and multiple that by the hourly rate you are charging.  It may soon become evident that hiring a CAD programmer to customize your CAD needs will save you big bucks in the long run.  Sometimes it is worth it to spend money upfront in order to save time on needless repetitive tasks.

For new CAD businesses with little cash flow, this isn’t always an option.  Understandably, customizing is something to look at as your business grows.  When you are ready to consider hiring a CAD programmer, check out sites such as Elance.com and Freelancer.com.   CAD discussion groups are also a great place to find programmers.

Old School CAD Tools

The days of using T-squares, set squares and drafting pens may be numbered, but keeping a few drafting tools on hand is a good idea.

Even though you want to become a CAD freelancer, there will be times when you need to scale a hard copy drawing the old way. Having a set of architectural, engineering and metric scales is a necessity for any designer or drafter.

We have since done away with our drafting tables and T-squares, but the few old school tools we do have in the office has saved they day many times.

Next up: Getting Paid What You Are Worth

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