First Year of Freelancing
I officially started taking on paid video work last September. I was working on a part-time basis, mostly editing projects. In February, I made the jump, quit my full-time job and started freelancing full-time.
It's been great, mostly. I'm deeply grateful for everyone I've had the chance to work with – good and bad. I've grown more than I can put into words and learned a lot about myself, business, and my passion (making short films and telling stories).
But I want this post to be about more than just how great everything is, because it's not all sunshine and candy. Working from home and being your own boss comes with as much bad as it does good, and I want to reflect that. I'm not trying to scare anyone away from chasing their dreams, in fact, the opposite. Overall this has been one of the best decisions I've ever made, I'm much happier, and I'm getting paid to do what I love. In the end, I believe successful freelancing comes down to one thing: balance. It's just as important to respect and learn from the bad things as it is to put all your energy into the fun parts of the job.
Below are some of the lessons I've learned, and some things I even need to remind myself from time to time.
The Good and Bad of Working From Home
The hours you work are totally up to you... mostly. Until you get a client that's a morning person and calls at 8 am, and have another that's a night person and respond to your email at 1 am. The important hing here is to clearly set boundaries as to what works for you early on and stick by it. I don't care when someone contacts me, as long as they understand to expect a reply during my general working hours. Depending on your field, your hours may fluctuate. A photographer might shoot all day on a Saturday, or a night owl web designer might prefer to get work done when the house is quiet. Either way, it's critical to communicate when and how you can generally be reached.
Working from home can be lonely. For me, that's actually been a good thing. I love my alone time, as I'm an introvert by nature. Not answering to anyone else or having someone stare over my shoulder while I work allows me to work in the way that suits me best (read: in my pajamas). But when you stop showing up to the same building everyday to work on the front lines with your co-workers, you will almost inevitably drift apart, no matter how hard you try. Setting your own hours is great until you realize your close friend is working 11 am to 8 pm and has a lunch break at 4 pm.
Overall, this freedom has been an amazing break and change of pace for me. Some days you might put in 14 hours of work, and others you get to schedule a half day of work to spend more time with your family. It's all about balance.
Dealing With Clients
You have to have healthy lines of communication. Every project I've worked on that has had ssues has been because of poor communication or poor planning. Usually the two are related.
If you can't have an open dialogue with the client, be prepared to simply be seen as a worker bee that is expected to do what you're told. Even in this case, assuming you're sub-contracting, you need to be completely comfortable that the person managing the project on your side has your back. roject scopes change all the time, but don't let someone take advantage of your work or your time. Speak up.
Be patient, but be direct. I once made a comment that I occasionally like to have my "Steve Jobs moment" and be brutally direct when dealing with an issue. If you balance this with being the most helpful and timely contractor they've worked with, hey'll respect you for it. Trust me. It's not about being mean, but being honest and getting to the point.
A healthy working relationship, good feedback from both sides, and fun projects will lead to your work getting consistently better, and clients will love it.
Be clear with everything and have it in writing. This sounds so simple, but it's the single most important thing when doing business.
I hate to say hat I've lost a friend over poor communication, but I have. Long story short, I was told, "Do whatever you think is best," which I took to mean, "Do whatever I thought was best." What it really meant was, "Please read my mind and deliver everything I want, even though I'm being extremely vague." At the end of the project, when I turned in what I thought was good based on my available resources and budget (I was taking a discount for a friend, after all), I was told that it was all wrong, that my attitude for not being more available for the project made it seem like I didn't care, and that he wasn't going to pay me. I responded by saying that I didn't want him to pay me if he wasn't happy, and that I fully accepted my half of the blame for our poor communication. His reply? Summarized, "It's 100% your fault, you were overcharging us to begin with, and no, I won't be paying you." After reflecting on it, I think his partner was upset with both of us, so he wanted to shift all the blame to me rather than chalk it up as a learning experience and share the blame.
Why am I sharing this? So you don't make the same mistakes I have. Which leads to...
Don't Work For Free (Seriously)
This is the hardest point to follow for so many young freelancers. There are exceptions to every rule, and I will list some below. The bottom line is this, if you're freelancing to earn a living and someone comes asking for free or discounted work, say no. A portfolio doesn't pay rent. It's scary at first, but I promise you'll get better at it.
“I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” – Steve Jobs
Low- or no-paying jobs generally just aren't worth it. You won't be as invested with the project. At some point, the extra workload will become a drain both of your time and emotionally. Your client won't see the value in what you're providing and your influence over making the right decisions for the project will be muddied. You want them to respect you for the time you're giving them, but also the time you've spent becoming one of the best in your field. Saying no in the right cases will make your life better.
But money is money, right? Why would I turn down a paycheck? You are going to succeed if you find the right fit of clients that respect you as much as you respect them. If someone doesn't respect your time up front, it's not going to magically get better when you're 15 hours into a project. If you don't have a healthy relationship with your client, you're going to be taken advantage of, get sick of the work, nd the end result is whatever you're putting out there will suffer.
Consider all the costs. Saying you charge $30/hr sounds awesome when you first start thinking about freelancing. After all, even many great full-time jobs start at, what, $20/hr? Then you need to consider all the additional costs. Equipment (computers, cameras, software, etc.) is not cheap. I have well over $10,000 worth of equipment that gets used to some degree on every project. That's not to mention benefits, taxes (which are higher if you're self-employed), and other costs that are a necessity. Telling a client you can't provide XYZ because you can't afford the software is not going to win you new jobs. Tip: If appropriate, add an equipment fee into a budget or project rate.
Furthermore, the lower you start, the harder it is to raise your rates to fair market value. If you're charging someone $30/hr to make a website, and the relationship continues on for months, how can you ask that client to start paying you $60/hr if you later determine that to be a fair price? You can certainly ask for it, but they don't need to accept it, so be prepared for that.
I've picked up a lot of new skills and experience over the last year, allowing me to be both more efficient and provide more to my clients. I shouldn't be punished by working faster (if charging hourly) while providing them more for their money. Set up a schedule and give yourself an appropriate raise, just like at any other job. Announce it in advance to prepare the people paying your invoices. Be prepared to eventually become too expensive for some clients. That's the goal, right?
But I did say there are some cases where you might work for free. Or maybe you're not comfortable charging a fair price, or don't have the experience/portfolio to back it up. What should you do?
Come up with your own projects. Find a friend that needs help with setting up a website, wants to be in your video, or doesn't mind modeling for a photo shoot. After all, we all got into this because we love it, right? Presumably, these are the things we would be doing anyway. A number of my personal projects that I put up on my website and on Vimeo are what initially got me noticed and in the door. Now I'm building a portfolio of paid clients that is taking my work to the next level. It all comes with time.
I have about four people in this world that I will work on passion projects or for free with. A couple close friends, my wife, and my mom. If you're one of those people, you should know who you are (I hope). These projects quite literally lead to all of my paid freelancing work in the first few months.
The Fear of Making the Jump
This was the hardest part. You're never sure if it's the right time to make the jump. There's always fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Brian Brushwood perhaps put it best:
"Ever get that feeling you're a complete fraud & just waiting for the world to figure it out? Good news: everyone you respect feels it, too."
It's always going to be easier said than done, and only you can decide if it's right for you. It's scary, and you'll second guess it all the time. It never gets easier not knowing where your next paycheck is going to come from. But if you're doing what you love, you'll make it work. If you have talent, people will (eventually) notice. Keep putting the hours in, keep being positive, and you'll get there.
I wouldn't be here without the people that have supported me and given me a chance throughout all this. My wife Ali, my Mom, one of my best friends Zach Frankart, another good friend Erika Dellatorre, and the one who gave me my first shot, Eric Leslie. Wherever the next part of the journey goes, it wouldn't have started without the support and chances you've all given me.
I've been able to travel the country, making videos and short films of people, their stories, and events and it's been amazing. Maybe the best part of being a videographer is getting inside access to so many people and places that most never get to experience in person. Capturing its true essence and sharing that is my ultimate mission.
If you are just starting out, have questions, need help, want to hire me, need to find work, or just want to chat about this blog post, email me any time.