I’ve learned a few things since I recently started freelancing. Here are some takeaways from my experience so far.
The moment I changed my status on LinkedIn from ‘full-time’ to ‘freelance’ my inbox became flooded with opportunities I didn't know existed. I enjoy getting random phone calls in the middle of the day from strangers pitching new gigs. Networking is a lot easier now that I’m mobile and not tied down to a single agency. I spend the majority of my working hours in my home studio, so when I venture out to work on-site I genuinely cherish the interactions I have with colleagues. I continue to meet a wider range of talented professionals as a result of freelancing than I ever did working full-time. I love seeing different studio spaces, meeting new people, and getting a broader scope of industry dynamics. It’s great to learn how different teams do things in their own special way. One networking goal I’ve set is to keep a record of notable people I’ve worked with, including skill sets, rates and contact info. I want to be able to re-connect with talent for future opportunities without having to hunt around my address book and various social networks.
Although I make my own schedule, it heavily depends on others. For most weeks, this just means that I take a normal weekend like everyone else, but sometimes clients will spend the middle of the week gathering details for a project to start by the end of the week. In agency life, there’s usually not a great “overtime” policy even though long nights and weekends are routine. As a freelancer, it’s nice getting fairly compensated when I do sacrifice the occasional weekend or late night. I’ve learned to take advantage of downtime between projects, approvals, and feedback cycles. If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean... my desk, dishes, laundry, teeth... the list goes on. House chores are easier to wrangle when I work from home, and rarely interfere with my productivity on client work. I’ve been able to balance personal priorities with client obligations better now that I spend more time at home. One of the main reasons I started freelancing is so I can focus more on personal projects. However, my time is mostly consumed with client work. It’s becoming harder to justify experimenting on random projects if there’s not a direct monetary payoff. One of my goals moving forward is to dedicate more of my “free-time” towards personal projects and not let work overshadow personal ambitions.
The money game is intriguing to me. There are infinite ways to slice a pie and everyone wants a bigger share. However, no matter how you dish it out, all income can be digested into an hourly rate. This is true for salary, commission, fixed-fee or pro-bono work alike. Most of my work is invoiced at an agreed upon hourly rate, which varies depending on task. I usually know exactly how much time is allotted and always try to deliver ahead of schedule and under budget. I try to go the extra mile to ensure a little breathing room for everyone. (To be early is to be on-time, and to be on-time is to be late.) However, it’s extremely rare that any of my clients return payments with as much urgency as I delivered their goods. Usually I wait anywhere from one week (best case) to 45 days from the invoice date. Luckily, my billing software tracks my payment schedule. Usually a polite email reminder is sufficient to recoup late payments. I’m well aware of industry-standard billing cycles, and how everyone depends on everyone to get paid. Somewhere in the past people decided it was acceptable to wait a month or more to get paid for services rendered. Personally, I think it should function more like the restaurant industry. It would be ideal for a client to visit my site, browse a menu of services priced accordingly, and get handed a bill after a satisfactory experience is delivered, and pays immediately thereafter.
I use Billings for invoicing and time tracking, which is great for most projects, but I still have to manually submit invoices and follow up via email. Harvest is a nice web-based service that integrates project tracking, invoicing and online payments, but costs a monthly fee. Solo is another web service that does invoicing and project tracking, which also costs a monthly fee and there is no online payment feature. Both Harvest & Solo are cool interfaces, but paying monthly fees can be counterproductive for a tool that's supposed to help me make money. For now, it makes sense to continue using software that I own for life that isn't dependent on the cloud.
There are a lot of way to improve my payment delivery schedule. A few ideas that I’ve yet to implement are requesting down-payments, automating direct deposits, enforcing late-fees, and offering discounts for early payment. Because it’s not realistic to expect giant agencies to make significant exceptions to their current payroll system, it’s pretty important to know how to play by their rules, which usually includes being patient. Meanwhile, I will continue my quest for a perfect system that makes payments easier for everyone involved.
Contracts differ from client to client. On one extreme, you may receive 20-pages of legal jargon that takes longer to translate than to just do the work. On the other extreme you may get a simple 2-liner stating the project summary and cost. Either way, I’ve found that the initial contract sets the tone for the entire engagement, and if you failed to sign a contract then be prepared to give away work for free. Some companies initiate a new contract for every new project, some retain an open contract, while others set an expiration date for a given period. I’m usually willing to adapt to whatever is most comfortable for my client, but I’m weary of clients with cumbersome renewal procedures and extra hoops to jump through. Make it easy for me to work with you and I’m more likely to stick around and make it worth your while. When I negotiate contract terms I usually aim for the following criteria:
- My rate is clearly stated.
- The scope of work is clearly defined, protecting against deviation from the original goal(s).
- Ownership of deliverables transfers to the client when my payment is received.
- Receipt of payment is not contingent on the client getting paid from their constituents.
- Receipt of payment is not contingent on the client’s internal time-tracking systems. In other words, I don’t enter time into the client’s software. I track my own time and invoice the client accordingly.
Aside from the many skills necessary to do great work, agility is one skill that’s necessary to thrive. It’s important to be able to crank-out great work fast. There’s a lot of switching gears at short-notice to pick up an incoming project. I don’t have the luxury of a resourcing manager (aka. traffic-cop) to plan my schedule, and project me from random curveballs. A hollywood-style agent would be nice, but I’m wary of adding an additional middle-man into my process. Rush jobs come with the territory of contract work since a lot of agencies/clients will only reach out to me when they need extra hands on deck. It’s analogous to kayaking a river. Sometimes you float along easily and sometimes you paddle double-time, but you must always be ready for a surprise just around the bend.
I’m fortunate enough to have a solid foundation of agency contacts that supply me with fairly steady work. I rarely have to hunt down new gigs. I tend to perpetuate existing client relationships because it’s the path of least resistance. I keep a list of shops and agencies I want to work with, but I rarely have time to pursue new relationships because I’m too busy keeping my current ones happy. Sometimes I feel like putting a hold on all current clients and starting fresh with a new client-base. This would mean saying “NO” more often. This is sometimes hard because I have an aversion to flaking on commitments and pissing off people. I need to find an elegant way to bring closure to awkward client relationships. It's difficult to avoid feeling the sting of a "break up" when walking away from any client.
I’ve noticed a consistent pattern that roughly two/thirds of project-leads materialize on-time, or even at all. I talk to recruiters daily about possible projects and opportunities all over the country. The one question everyone always asks first is “What is your availability?” I’ve learned to always be available to explore new gigs because even if my schedule appears booked for the foreseeable future, I know that something will inevitably disappear or get delayed. I’ve taken on a number of contracts where the hiring manager professed they have tons of work lined up and will keep me busy for the foreseeable future. This never turns out to be true. For steady projects there’s always downtime due to review cycles, approvals, and general bureaucracy slowness. For new and/or potential clients there’s always the fact that they are also talking to other candidates for the same position, by which availability is merely a barrier to entry.
Most new job leads have already seen my portfolio before they contact me, but commonly make their final decision based on cost. People are usually kind enough to let me know if they’ve gone with a different candidate, but only after stringing me along for a couple weeks while they shop around. In one recent case, I went as far as negotiating a trial-period rate, signed their 10-page contract, and showed up to start work on-time. I met the art director in the lobby, and before we could even exchange greetings we were approached by a resourcing manager notifying us both that the budget just got “un-approved” and sent me home. No hard feelings. It wasn’t meant to be. This incident just goes to prove that a contract can die at any point, so it's wise to have a backup-plan for your backup-plan to back up your backup-plan.
Potential clients often ask about my process. It’s a fair question, but my answer is never the same. I try not to over or under explain anything. When it comes to process, people have vastly different artistic and technical literacy. Proper syntax and phrasing is necessary to trigger certain responses from your audience. It’s always good to start with some common ground and build from there. I attempt to summarize, not teach. Clients want to know if your talents can help their business, and rarely appreciate getting schooled on facts that are irrelevant to their immediate goals.
It helps to pick just one part of the process to discuss so you can establish a concrete example of your logic. If you’re still on the same page then you can dig deeper. Initially, they just want to get a sense of your “way of thinking”, and are not as interested in the actual mechanics of doing work. Do you have a scientific method, or do you improvise? Do you like small-talk or are you strictly-business? Truth is that most creative projects strike a balance of chaos and structure. If you’re trying to be innovative then you don’t always have an iron-clad process for everything. Even when solving similar challenges I force myself to not clone a previous process that may have worked well before. It's a good practice to routinely question your process to prevent bad habits and develop better ones. Process should evolve with every new project, but the "approach" should be inspired based on experience, insight, and values. Approach has to do more with your focus and mindset, whereas "process" is merely a collection of steps involved.
Summary of Goals
Keep a talent log of people I work with to help decide who I engage for future opportunties.
Dedicate more of my free-time towards personal projects.
Adopt a more streamlined system that allows me to get paid faster.
Revise my standard contract terms to better protect myself against problem-clients. Consult a good lawyer to provide additional advice for contracts and negotiations.
Remain agile by taking on a balanced workload.
Pursue professional and respectful ways to bring closure to unwanted client relationships. Seek new clients whose values align closer to my own. Find better ways to praise my favorite clients.
Visually convey my process for different projects in order to become more transparent when attracting new gigs.