Welcome to the last part of our three-part series on finding work you love. During the first week, we covered getting published. Last week, we touched on finding work as a creative, in-house. This week, we’ll discuss freelancing, which is a blanket term for working on your own, either at home, in-house, with a single outfit or with many. In fact, freelancing takes on so many forms, it’d be impossible to cover them all in one blog post, so this is going to be a pretty broad discussion. The good news is, you may find the tips and pointers here could also be applicable in any job situation!
So! Right off the bat, I think it’s important that we start with a few definitions of terms I’ll be using, in case any of this is new to you.
· A freelancer is a person who works on their own, usually engaged in one or several projects which benefit themselves. Freelancers do not employ others. My work as an individual artist currently falls under the category of freelance since I do the work myself as a means to make money for myself.
· An entrepreneur is someone who starts a company, usually with the intention of building it into a business. They may start out as freelancers. Entrepreneurs may also hire freelancers to help get the necessary tasks accomplished for their company, and may even have full-time staff they employ. My work with Gloryhound could be considered an entrepreneurship situation. I hire freelancers from time-to-time for one-shot projects here and there, but also take on much of the work myself.
· A business is a company or other money-making operation which can run and be profitable without the need of its owner. Businesses hire freelancers and employees alike. Gloryhound does not operate as a business, because I am still integral to its success and I frankly have no desire to turn it into such a thing until it becomes able to sustain more than myself on a payroll situation.
· Capital is money. Venture capital is money invested into a business or entrepreneur to get things started with the understanding that a certain percentage of the company will be owned by the investor until it is profitable enough to buy the investor out. If the business goes under and the venture capital is lost, unless an agreement is in place that essentially marks the money as a loan, the investment doesn’t need to be paid back. A loan is given to a business as any loan is – with the understanding that it will be paid back, usually with interest, even if the business fails.
Some of that may sound complicated, and you may be wondering exactly why someone would choose to be a freelancer at all. To most freelancers, the answer is as simple as the implied freedom, itself. To others, it’s the only means by which they can get work at all in a given field, such as consulting. Still to others, it’s the best way to earn a passive or secondary income stream, or a means to get one’s foot in the door for a career change.
Whatever your reasons for becoming a freelancer, you will always go into such work with the understanding that you’re trading stability for freedom. Stability is a relative term, of course. In our time, it’s not unusual for companies to surprise hard workers with layoffs, even during an economic upswing. Freedom, too, is relative. You may find that while you’re free to go to Starbucks at any hour of the day or night, browse the internet on a whim or simply take a week off, you’ll still need the discipline to do the work that’s necessary to eat and pay the utility bills. The long and short of it is that freelancing isn’t for everyone, but that’s okay. More often than not, a combination of steady income from a regular full-time or part-time job can help cushion a full or partial transition into freelance work.
As a creative, your first step in becoming a successful freelancer should be to gather materials together for a portfolio. You’re probably tired of hearing me say it after two other entries advising the same thing, but it really is that important. Persons looking to go 100% freelance and especially those just starting out have the most necessity to keep several portfolios, as they may be keen to do several types of work in order to make the mortgage for the month. Often, as a freelancer goes on with his or her career, they will narrow their efforts down to just a handful of things they’d like to be commissioned to do, narrowing that list down to just one or two as their reputation and list of clientele builds.
Finding work should be a near-constant priority for you, but luckily in the age of the internet, it isn't difficult to access resources which can help you. Sites like Elance and Craigslist offer "gigs" and other one-shot jobs which you can place a bid for. Placing a bid is just as it sounds - you bid to do the work in the alloted time, show them your portfolio, name a price, and wait to hear back. Most freelancers actively seeking work will start their mornings by placing several bids to projects they're interested in, each day, until they are selected. Indeed, it may take several tries and there never are any guarantees, but the more bids you put in, the more likely you'll have a callback.
Selling yourself properly, as always, requires you know and understand your own strengths. You should be cold-calling or sending submissions to places that do work similar to the work you enjoy doing, to be most effective with your gig-search. If you want to be a comic book artist, send comic book samples, not pin-up art, to companies you'd like to work with.
Local businesses often need writers, illustrators or graphic designers for one-off projects such as brochures, newspaper ads, blurbs or other promotional material. You may even find odd-jobs such as painting storefront windows. Keep your portfolio handy - have it online and easy-to-access via smartphone in case you come across a place you may like to do business with throughout your the day.
Turning things around promptly and being professional about handling the work you have coming in is as essential as landing the gig. If a client doesn't give you a clear deadline, then assume it is due, yesterday. Don't slack off just because your job isn't of the punch-in from 9 to 5 variety. Set aside certain hours of your day to get the work done. If you have an outrageous deadline but a golden opportunity with a project, don't be surprised if you have to cancel plans you've previously made to get it done.
Get money up front, always. I usually ask for at least half, depending on the work. Most businesses and entrepreneurs will lay out a cost breakdown, and some who do the same type of work over and over again will clearly display their rates on their websites -- that's a great way to present your expectation of compensation to the client and allow for negotiation.
Always, always, always have a contract in order for your work. There's nothing worse than a client who doesn't pay, excpet for a client who doesn't pay when there's no contract in place, obligating him to pay. Search online for sample contracts that lay out expectations of payment for services rendered, and tweak those to the job you are doing.
Hopefully, most of your clients will be good ones! You should keep a book of references from these, with letters of recommendation from each one if you can get it (and most are happy to write one). Have your happy customers send a short letter talking about the excellent service they received from you and the job you did. Use this to promote or take it with you when talking to business prospects and scoping a new gig.
You will of course, have to deal with taxes at the start of every year, just like everyone else. You'll fill out a 1099-Misc form, which will require itemizing each and every dollar you made and the things you spent money on for your freelance or business endeavor. Entrepreneurs and businesses will, throughout the year, issue W9 forms to the freelancers they employ, to show the IRS that money was given to a person to perform a task, and they in turn will fill out the appropriate tax forms when April rolls around. Taxes can be pretty hard on freelancers, and especially new ones. I advise people that the safest way to assure you've got enough in the bank to pay "the man" is to hold back one-quarter of what is earned for each gig, for tax purposes. Depending on your state and your tax situation, you may wish to hold back more. I have heard some people advise that half is optimal, though from my experience it seems a bit excessive.
When your freelancing endeavors become profitable enough to warrant employing others, consider seeking out freelancers to join your team. Delegating tasks you yourself don't enjoy doing, or those you know that someone else can do better, is a great way to run a small business.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief look into the various jobs available to creatives in the working world and how to break into them. I will be doing more entries like these in the future, and hopefully in greater detail. For now, love what you do, and get out there and work in what you love!