The Freelance Formula
Occasionally I present talks for students looking to break into the creative industries. I’ve discovered that most of these groups divide into two camps. Some students want to know how to get into the big reputable agencies, others want to know how to go freelance. The first question is much easier to answer, it’s typically about hustle and getting infront of the right people enough times to take advantage of the opportunities that occur. From there the path is pretty well documented. The second route is far less easy to formulate, but I know everyone likes a formula so I’ve attempted to outline one below that I myself am following.
Few Words Of Warning:
Most people that aspire to go freelance are attracted to the obvious perks: not having a boss, choosing your own hours and working from anywhere. However, if being a succesful freelancer was easy then everyone would do it. People complain when they don’t get enough work and yet they think it’s okay to get up at 10am, post a few tweets and think they’re promoting themselves. Think about the number of people working 7am till 11pm every day just to get by, and ask yourself why you deserve to be different? Being a good freelancer takes years of concerted effort to craft the lifestyle you desire. I’d recommend to not attempt it unless you possess a high level of self motivation. If you don’t, you’ll probably find that patience and strategic thinking in the workplace will yeild better results for you.
Step 1: Styles & Threads
For most creative people, the work you produce is dictated by the clients you work for in your day job and hence your portfolio is a mash up of styles and types of work. That is okay for employment, but not so good for freelance.
You need to spend some time discovering what makes you tick, and for the time being focus on one area. If you’re multi skilled (for example I am a director, designer, web designer, logo designer and typographer) then you’re actually in a better position, but for now you need to pick one area to focus on (the area you most enjoy). I’ll explain what to do with your other skills at the end.
The reason style matters so much is that people need to be able to define what you do. Potential clients also want to know what they’re buying into. If you possess several different styles then the potential buyer has no idea what the outcome may look like. Successful freelancers are used to churning out the same style across multiple projects, which at times can be frustrating, but it’s required to achieve the lifestyle you desire. If having freedom is an absolute must with your work, then you have to develop ‘a thread’ rather than a style. In my case, I am looking to specialise in ‘conceptual films’. Films with a strong creative idea, rather than say, cinematic visuals, or films about cars. My ‘thread’ is ideas, and as long as the work I produce is consistent in that manner, then I am marketable and people will come to know me for this.
Step 2: The Work
Some people reading this are probably already thinking “The work I do for my current day job doesn’t allow me to build my style or a thread”. In this case you have two stratagies you can deploy.
- Force your day job to support your future aspirations. Make your boss excited about a certain kind of work that also makes you excited. It’s a win for everyone. A good employee is a motivated one and if it helps build up their company while you’re strengthening your portfolio then everyone wins.
- Put in the hours outside of work. If your job is 7am till 11am, then you need to quit, now! And get a job that is 9–5. That should give you atleast an hour before work and two hours after work to dedicate to working on your own material.
What work do you need?
I recomend 15–20 projects in the style you aspire to do. I know… that’s a shit load of work! The reason I recommend this many projects is several fold:
- Consistency — It shows you’re consistent with your style.
- Prolificy — It shows that you’re a prolific individual, that your work is important to you and that you’ve delivered multiple times.
- Variation — Contradictory, but if you have enough projects in the same style, there should be enough variation between projects to show how your thread or style can be applied in various scenarios.
- Behind the scenes — I recommend everyone include some form of making imagery, or work in progress. It amplifies the craft element of what you do and makes people appreciate the process. If you only show polished work then people assume you churn work out for fun. Therefore, documenting the process helps to command a higher price.
For myself currently, of the 20 projects I’m striving to create. I’ve probably got around 4 or 5 that fit my aspirations, the rest are filler projects that I intend to swap out over time. As I said at the start, expect to earn this lifestyle.
Step 3: Bio & Manifesto
Bio’s are always a bit cringe, because you want to address yourself in the third person to make yourself seem more important. But Bio’s do help to convey validation. I would recomend including a short paragraph with a few key achievements. Focus on the 20% of things that account for 80% of your worth, don’t include every detail, no-one has time to read your life story.
My advise would be to cut your Bio in half, and use the second half to write a short manifesto. This helps you to clarify what makes you tick, which is valuable in itself, but also tells other people what you believe in. By writing a concise manifesto you’re more likely to attract other like minded people and the work that comes your way will begin to fit your aspirations, rather than your past experiences.
Step 4: Writing
An easy way to create validation is to write several articles on your subject. I suggest somewhere from 10–15 as a base, covering the key questions about your field. For extra brownie points try and get the articles published in noteworthy industry publications. Not only does this increase your discoverability online, it helps you in the long run when explaining to people what you do. If you can link questions that people ask regularly to a well constructed article then it saves you countless hours explaining, whilst also provididng additional validation.
Step 5: Passive Revenue Streams
Assuming that you’ve put in the work to create a portfolio of great projects in a particular field, then your website is now a very specific destination for a very specific audience. At this stage you can start to plan out 10 to 15 digital products that you can sell and giveaway via your site.
The aim here is two fold. 1 is supplementary cash and 2 is collecting emails.
The free give-aways should be useful but low level tools. For example, My 6 Principles For Viral Success PDF. Well worth the download, but not valuable enough that you’re going to type in your card details for it.
The paid giveaways should be incredible documents that you almost don’t want to giveaway because they’re so helpful. You should sell them at a cost 1/10th of their actual value to make it an easy decision for people.
For example: one product I have on my list to create is a storyboarding document that includes hundreds of pictures of people in various positions, and a well designed indesign storyboard template. This is something that I would pay for because creating storyboards takes hours and you spend hours finding images to trace at the right angle. I would comfortably pay £100 for this, let alone £10. Assuming that you find it useful, you can assume that hundreds of other people will as well, not only making cash, but collecting details in the process.
The last thing you can do, is sell your work. This only works for some creative areas. Illustration, graphics and typography are especially good but you can find other creative ways to sell your work, such as limited edition signed storyboards etc. If you can create a strong enough brand, then people will pay for memorabilia. Remember to search out for the automated services so that selling your work doesn’t take up any time outside of set up.
I did this with a typeface (Image Below) and so far I’ve made nearly $1400 and collected 75 emails in under a year. If you create 10–15 products of that kind of value then who needs to work at all? It’s not easy to create products of value, but the long term returns are worth the time investment.
Step 6: Audience
The most important step for long term success is cultivating a loyal audience. Again, assuming that you’ve put in the work to create a portfolio of awesome projects, now you’re in a great position to tap into a niche audience. The aim of the game is not to get hundreds of thousands of random followers, but a small number of super fans.
I have a controversial opinion when it comes to social media because I think for the most part, the large networks are a waste of time. They only work if you put in a dispropotionate amount of time which 99% of people aren’t prepared to do, myself included. If you are in the 1%, then amazing. I’d encourage you to make your living from social alone. If you’re not. Then I recommend a few different strategies.
Firstly, get your work on the most appropriate platform for your field. That might be Behance, Vimeo or Youtube among others. Get it on there, and simply set yourself a target of interacting on that platform 5 to 10 times every morning. That’s 15 minutes of effort a day. Use it as a way to take in inspiration, whilst promoting yourself. That’s manageable for the 99%.
The next strategy is giving and selling products as mentioned above. Every time someone downloads an asset via say Gumroad, you recieve their email. I’d highly encourage you to then add that email to your mailing list (I use Tiny Letter). Even though they haven’t opted into your list per say, you can assume they know you enough to have visited your site, which is already a miracle, so they may well be interested in your updates.
I’d recommend sending out updates quartery as a freelancer. It’s not frequent enough that it will annoy people. And three months is a long enough time to amass some really interesting content and projects you wish to share. If you’re lacking content (which you shouldn’t be if you’re taking it seriously) then share the work of other people you work with, as creating that spider web of people is invaluable. Speak highly of others, and 9 times out of 10 they will return the favour. Which brings me to my next point.
The most untapped resource for freelancers is their own social group. I currently work as a Creative Director as my day job, so I’m fortunate to see a fair number of creative briefs. When I get them, the first thing I do is run through the list of people I know. I do this because I want my friends to succeed, and secondly because I know they will deliver. Next I put a shout out to the people I trust to see if they know anyone who is good that they can vouch for, and if that returns nothing, only then do I go in search of creative talent outside my known sphere. I believe this is the process for most commissioners. Therefore, I value the cultivation of my friendship group way more than any networking event. I’d rather spend £30-£50 on a dinner with a close friend and their two friends I’ve not met before, than spend the same on a networking event where I have to try and convey value with no previous validation at all. Nearly everyone I meet through friends, I then become close friends with. That’s more value to me than having a distant relationship with someone I met at a networking event. Because I have made an effort to make good friends, I know they know good people. Therefore, networking, in the typical sense of showing up to an event, is redundant when compared to the real life connections I make through friends.
I appreciate this seems like a very closed minded approach. However, the last part of this strategy it to contact the people that show interest in my work, as well as, those who I particularly admire, and then introduce them to my network of friends. I want my friends to meet and work with other good people, because then we all succeed.
To outline what you need to become a successful freelancer.
- A style or thread
- 15–20 great projects
- A bio and manifesto
- 10–15 writing validations
- 10 -15 email magnets and sellable products
- An audience and a solid friendship network
Hardly groundbreaking stuff. But it’s nice to outline the foundations. After all, these are only foundations. This for me, is the essential base that you can use to leverage your brand in any which way you want. For those looking for employment opportunities instead of freelance, the only thing I’d say that is different is I’d be less worried about work variation. Although conveying your personality through your work is always good, even if you do want to be a slave to the system :)
Step 7: Extrapolate
At the begining of this article I said that I would offer a solution to the many multi talented individuals out there who have multiple skill sets. Well the answer is simple. Repeat this process for every skill you possess. Most website building platforms cost around £70-£100 a year. Your return on investment is paid back after just one job. It’s worth breaking up your many strands of work into focused areas where you can look like a ‘specialist’ in that area. By having multiple email addresses, you can create specific email lists, and appear seperately on relevant platforms.
For example, I’m trying to push directing as my main source of income. But I’ve also designed over twenty logos, so I’m also working on a branding site and ticking all the same boxes. With the 6 boxes ticked above, the website could be left alone and still generate a few leads a year.
You can be pushing your passion and any lulls in work can be filled with other bits of work to tick you over. If you get to the desired point where you’re getting more work than you can handle, then you’ve got a great network of friends, who you know can deliver, to share the work with. Ask them to bump their rate by 10–20% and that will be your finders fee. Simple.
That is my approach to freelancing. I hope you find this useful. If reading this again is too long, you can download this link to a Free PDF checklist, that you can use to check if you’re meeting the foundations outlined above.