5 freelancing tips for creative professionals

Freelancing is an amazing, humbling and scary ride. When I first started as a freelancer over a decade ago, half of the time I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and the other half I had no idea if what I was doing was being done right. That’s one of the biggest challenges of being a freelancer, or at least that was the case for me. You get the project, the client is happy with your work and you’re getting paid for something that you love doing, but there’s always those nagging questions in the back of your mind. "Am I doing it right?" "Is this really how other professionals are doing it?" What I’ve learned is those questions will always be there, and it’s a good thing! It’s the question of whether or not you’re doing it right that can keep you motivated to look for a better technique. It can keep you trying to learn new skills, tips and tricks from other artists. So, here are some of my freelancing tips that might help you along the way.

Choosing the right project

44858_Inline_01 First of all, let’s get one thing straight: when you’re starting out, you’ll take on almost any kind of projects. That’s nothing to be ashamed of; when you’re just starting out you need either the experience, the money, the portfolio works, or the clients. No matter your reason for taking a project, think about whether or not you can add the project to your portfolio. When creating your first portfolio, only add the stuff you’re most proud of and the projects you’re most passionate about. To put it simply, take on projects that you’d do for free. Just don’t tell that to the clients! The projects in your portfolio will be representing you and getting you new clients, so you have to make sure they’re the types of projects that you want to do 40-50 hours per week. Once your portfolio starts to shape up and you’re getting more jobs, you’ll want to start choosing projects that suit your character and the way you work. Big projects Big projects pay great and usually come with the added benefit of a steady income. On the flip side, big projects tend to have a longer timeline, so you won’t see the results of your work for a while. If you like to see your work quickly or juggle a lot of projects at the same time, this kind of project might not give you the satisfaction that you’re looking for as you might run into the risk of burning out. Short projects On the other hand, multiple short projects can give almost instant satisfaction, both monetarily and artistically. You can have a lot of different types of work to add to your portfolio pretty fast and at the same time have a nice cash flow. These projects won’t provide a steady income, though, but you can combat this by taking on multiple projects in a short period. If you overlap them in such a way that you’re always staying busy you’ll have some kind of a steady income coming in. Crappy (but well-paid) projects You’ll probably take on this type of project because you don’t have any other options. Money doesn’t work as a good incentive for lots of people, and if you’re like me, you might be happy that you have work now, but that feeling will dwindle pretty fast. The only way you can make these projects fun is to think about what techniques you’re going to learn from these kinds of projects, or maybe you wanted to try a new technique for a while now but you haven’t had the chance to on other projects. These projects can be really good for growing as an artist. Free (or badly paid) projects You’ll get so many job requests with really bad pay (or even no pay at all!) These jobs are amazing! Let me explain. If the client or the project sounds interesting, I can really have fun with this type of project. If the client isn’t paying me, the least they can do is give me the artistic freedom and experience when working on their projects. Because of this, these projects can give huge artistic satisfaction and they even might end being one of the best works in your portfolio.

Creating teams should happen naturally. Don’t force it.

"One of the challenges in networking is everybody thinks it's making cold calls to strangers. Actually, it's the people who already have strong trust relationships with you, who know you're dedicated, smart, a team player, who can help you." – Reid Hoffman
As freelancers, we think that we’re all alone. We make the mistake when searching or taking on projects that we have to work on those projects alone. For example, you might turn down a project because rigging isn’t your strong suit. You don’t have to work for a company or to work in the same building in order to have a team. Hiring freelancers who can help you with your project is a great way to create your dream team. Yes, you might run into hiccups. And yes, you’ll probably end up working with people who aren’t serious or even lazy. Don’t let this discourage you; everyone has to start somewhere. To help avoid this, start finding people for your team by asking for some recommendations from people you went to school with or from your old job. You don’t have to stop there. Ask for referrals from anyone you respect and trust, or you can even email other freelancers that you haven’t met but you love their work. Just drop them an email. I’m sure they’d be happy to refer a friend or they even take on the job themselves to help you; I know I would. Most of my team was built through free gigs, either my own projects or projects I helped others on. The next time a friend or colleague invites you to help on a free personal project, remember that a not every job needs to bring in money to be beneficial to your freelancing business. These types of projects are perfect to build relationships with people you respect and admire, because it introduces you to people who would do what they love for free.

Hire a project manager for big projects

44858_Inline_02 OK, so you managed to get that amazing project you’ve been dreaming of since the moment you started freelancing. As we talked about in the last section, just because you got the project doesn’t mean you should always try to tackle it on your own. Start breaking the project down to find the parts you either can’t handle, you don’t like or simply don’t want to work on. You’ve assembled your team, brief them on the project and you start the project knowing that you have a great team working with you. You’re confident it’ll turn out great! During the first day on the new project, you just start working on your part when you get an email from one of your team members asking you about a tiny aspect of the project. You stop everything you’re doing and you email the client to get clarification around the question. Before long, you hear back from the client and pass the answer along to your team member. That question got resolved pretty fast, you think, and you get back to work. Then it happens again. Another email with another question. Before you know it, the entire day has passed and even though you’ve helped your team members get their parts of the project moved along, you haven’t done anything on your part of the project. You might think, “Well, that’s normal at the start of any project. Tomorrow will be better.” Don’t count on it. All too often, it’ll get worse. You’ll get more emails with questions and inquiries, drafts to show to the client, and let’s not forget that member on your team who is slacking off and you have to make sure they are doing their job. If that’s all you’re doing, you’re not a designer/3D modeler/animator/texture artist, etc. on the project. You’re the project manager. I’m guessing this isn’t why you chose an artistic career. If you’re like me, you’ll find it’s really hard to do your job right if you’re juggling multiple tasks. At this point, I’d recommend just hiring a project manager. They’ll make sure everybody on the team is working on their specific tasks that they have to finish in the time everyone agreed on. They can also help create a plan of action on what to do and when to have it done. Perhaps the most important thing about hiring a project manager is they’ll let you do your job and focus on what you do best. Trust me when I say this from experience. As much as you think you can handle project management on top of actually working on the project or think, “how hard can it be?” I can speak from experience, it will be hard. It’ll frustrate you and you’ll end up doing a sloppy job because your attention can get split too much. As a result, you can lose the project because you haven’t met the deadline, or even worse you’ll end up hating the project or losing your team that you worked hard on gathering around you.

Build a friendship with your clients

44858_Inline_03 A lot of people say you should write professional emails to your clients. I’ve heard it many times before, along with how you should behave in a very business-like fashion with your clients. I’ve even had some fellow freelancers tell me not to be too friendly with clients and to keep the relation as professional as possible. Well, guess what? You don’t need to write super professional emails with business lingo to succeed as a freelancer or to get new clients. I’ve been working as a freelancer for about 11 years now and I almost start my emails with: "Hey mate, I hope you are having a productive day." What I’ve found is that clients feel more comfortable when you write to them as normal people or even buddies. Don’t be afraid to let your guard down and talk to your client in a normal tone. Don’t think of your clients as cash cows, because almost all of the people that will hire you either are currently or were freelancers at one point in their career. Your clients often are the ones who have quit their jobs to start their own businesses, so most of them are actually hiring a partner to help them out with their task to grow their business or launch a new product. The next time you start a new project with a client, you might earn a new friend. In my case it was even better. One of my oldest clients became one my best buddies, then a business partner before being my godfather at my wedding.

It’s my turn. How can I help?

"Just wanted to take the time out to say thank you! Really appreciate the time you have taken to produce this great tutorial. I am currently working on an assignment in uni and this helped a lot! Again, thanks!"
I can’t describe how much happiness I felt when I got that message on my blog. It feels good to give back. It helps give meaning as an artist. It makes you feel that your work, article, tutorial or asset is helping another fellow freelancer or a student to finish his assignment in uni. Don’t forget that we were all n00bs at one point. Don’t forget those tutorials that helped you finish the project faster, or that asset that made your project shine.
"If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it." – Yogi Bhajan
Even after years of experience, we all still read articles, watch courses and tutorials to improve our craft because we want to grow. We want to become better, and teaching is an amazing way to grow as a human being and artist. When you share your techniques you’re not only helping other people, it also helps you become a better artist, cause you might learn something new about your technique, that you haven’t noticed before when working.