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An Open Letter To New Freelancers

Illustrations by Eric Edwards

10 steps to take your game to the next level

by Bobby Hougham | July 12, 2022

Starting out in a nascent industry during an economic downturn wasn’t the best way to launch my career. But no one has ever accused me of having good timing. For a while, it was just me in town bouncing from shop to shop, freelancing as a compositor, designer, VFX artist, animator, and editor, whatever I could land to make ends meet. There were only a few motion design shops in the country. Most of my clients were post houses in my early career, primarily needing compositing and occasional design help for a day or two. And then I was off to the next shop.

I loved the variety it gave, the freedom I had, and how my income varied based on how busy I wanted to be. There wasn’t a suit sitting above me, counting bills and taking on jobs that would grind me into pulp. Instead, I was the one deciding whether I would take on that job that burns at both ends. And even then, I had an out. Once the job was over, I could bounce to a new joint or take some time off to recuperate.

Today, being a successful freelancer requires much more than just being good at what you do.

At least, that was what I thought it would be. In truth, as soon as I bounced, I had to put on my business hat and start marketing, start billing, start collecting. I had to go to industry functions to mingle with the people who could hire me, raise awareness, and book the next gig, book the next gig, book the next gig. I also had to make sure I stayed on top of my billing; otherwise, rent, student loans, child support, visa bills, and the like wouldn’t get paid. Naively, I imagined a life of doing fantastic work with endless variety only limited by my drive and skills. In reality, there was the design process and the business process. Some, I guess, are fortunate and never really have to look into the business process. But just like my sense of timing, I was also never over-burdened with that kind of luck.

Freelancer illustration 2

Starting out in a nascent industry during an economic downturn wasn’t the best way to launch my career. But no one has ever accused me of having good timing. For a while, it was just me in town bouncing from shop to shop, freelancing as a compositor, designer, VFX artist, animator, and editor, whatever I could land to make ends meet. There were only a few motion design shops in the country. Most of my clients were post houses in my early career, primarily needing compositing and occasional design help for a day or two. And then I was off to the next shop.

I loved the variety it gave, the freedom I had, and how my income varied based on how busy I wanted to be. There wasn’t a suit sitting above me, counting bills and taking on jobs that would grind me into pulp. Instead, I was the one deciding whether I would take on that job that burns at both ends. And even then, I had an out. Once the job was over, I could bounce to a new joint or take some time off to recuperate.

My advice is to approach this as a business, not an art. Get serious; think of yourself as a “suit” when it comes to your business. You have margins, schedules, budgets, and a bottom line. Take this seriously, and your clients will take you seriously. If you are super squishy, you will either be exploited, lose clients’ trust, or lose clients altogether. As the ECD for The New Blank, I have worked with several freelancers that have fallen into that abyss. They were exceptionally talented individuals we loved working with that were entirely unreliable. I don’t see our trade isn’t a summer job at the beach; why should I work with someone who acts like it is? When I see you treat it as a career rather than simply what you do between sets, I’ll tend to put you on another level. I’ll take you seriously and will likely rely more heavily on you. If you decide to jump into this line of thinking, here are some pointers.

  1. Publish your availability. The technology is available at a meager cost to put your booking calendar on your website. Publishing your calendar will assist producers looking for talent while helping you, so you aren’t constantly fielding phone calls. It’s cheap, easy, and probably the biggest bang for your buck suggestion I have here.
  2. Get your website up and running and current. It blows me away how many freelancers aren’t showing up-to-date work today. There are a lot of freelancers who only have a Behance or YouTube page. BONUS POINTS: Make sure you have multiple contact methods. It also surprises me how many people will only have a contact form on their sites. Publish your personal email address and while you’re at it put your phone number down too. Your goal is personal contact; make it easy.
  3. Make yourself seen in public. Go out to award shows and industry-related events. Go to conferences, speaking events, etc. While building an online presence is essential, existing and potential clients seeing you exist in the real world goes a long way. BONUS POINTS: Shake hands, say hello, swap contact info, or hand out business cards depending on whatever level of tech your client is comfortable with, but be prepared and ready with both.
  4. Understanding what “Hold” and “Book” means. When a producer puts you on “hold,” make sure it is for a specific job and not “just in case.” Or if it is “just in case,” have a kill fee. Holds should be treated with as much importance as a booking. It’s an agreement that you will be available to them for that period. So it should have some give and take to that agreement. Some people require to be attached to a specific job or they charge half the rate upfront for ”just in case” holds. Their invoice gets applied to the job on-award or is refunded should the project die on the vine. The fee also acts as a kill fee should a job in progress end ahead of schedule or the client doesn’t give you enough notice to rebook elsewhere. A fee structure like this helps prevent perpetual rolling holds some clients are guilty of and will reduce the amount of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th holds for you to keep track of. Likewise, it would help if you were 100% committed to showing up. If you flake on the producer the day before or the day of, you can bet that you just torched a bridge, no matter your excuse or how talented you are. 
  5. Honor your holds. When you accept a “hold,” honor it. You can’t just keep taking holds and treating them all as “first-come-first-serve” on booking. You have to call all your holds in proper order to challenge the booking. If you don’t, you will quickly alienate your clients. They will look at you as unreliable. If you don’t like working for a client, don’t take the hold. At the same time, however, you can ask what you will be working on and be straight with the potential client, tell them you aren’t interested in working on the job if that’s the case. But do it then and there. Don’t ghost them in a hold limbo. You will lose all your credibility quickly and get dropped to the bottom of the pile. On the other hand, don’t work with clients who ghost you.
  6. Set expectations. When you accept a job, you should get a contract in hand. If the client doesn’t have one drawn up, then have one of your own. It should spell out everyone’s expectations. How much are you going to work? Is it hourly? Day Rate? Project rate? If so, how many hours a day or days a week can one expect out of you for that? Is there an overtime rate? How often are you going to be billing? What is your schedule on payment, and what is theirs? How many deliverables are you expected to produce? What’s the timeline? Is there a hold on the calendar to protect for project extensions? What happens to your booked days if it ends early? What’s your kill fee schedule? Can the client bounce you from project to project if time is available, or would you prefer to cut your days short if you are waiting on feedback, for example? Contracts can be oral, written or implied and one thing I have found is that it doesn’t matter much how legally binding they are, people will break them with little concern about consequence. BUT, when a client breaks his/her word, you have more power than you know. Spread the word amongst your peers. Tell your other clients about bad behavior. You can also decide to move forward and never work with them again. We work too hard in this industry to suffer exploitation or disrespectful assholes.
  7. Invoice when you say you’re going to invoice. You may think it silly considering it’s your money at this point, so what does it matter if you’re a little late in asking for it? You aren’t the only one that has to look at your invoice. Typically, a whole chain of people has to reconcile the invoice, approve the expenditure, enter the data, and cut the checks. So if you aren’t getting your invoice in on time, you are making a lot of people’s jobs more difficult. Definitely not a way to keep a client.
  8. Get your tax papers in order. Bookkeepers aren’t your mother. They aren’t a collection agency. They shouldn’t be chasing you down to get this. And unfortunately, Uncle Sam requires them every year. Just fill them out, send them in with your first invoice and get it out of the way. If you move, get married, or other life events occur, and FFS, make sure you update everyone with your new paperwork and addresses.
  9. Clock your time with an app and give accurate accounting. Producers love to show burn rates and actualize projects as they go. Send in invoices with actual times, and you will make producers love you more.
  10. Be a good partner. Stand firm, hold to your needs, but evaluate your opportunities. If a good client is stretching on a project and is asking for some flexibility on your end, by no means work for free, but be aware that if you don’t flex occasionally, you aren’t a good partner. On the other hand, if you are consistently undervaluing yourself, you will get exploited. The balance will be tricky, and you will likely fail a couple of times. Keep learning and fine-tuning your approach, and you will hit that happy medium that commands respect from the client while asserting your eagerness to be a good partner that wants to help them succeed.

This list could run a lot longer, but this should give you a running start. And to tell you the truth, if you adopt this list in earnest, you will be miles ahead of your competition, at least on the business side. Today, the bar is pretty low, and with more and more designers entering the market every quarter, adopting these practices will give you a lasting, competitive edge.

Bobby Hougham is the Executive Creative Director, Founding Partner, and directs for The New Blank. He is currently nostalgically revisiting his youthful days spent as a carefree freelancer and really should get back to work.

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