This was a talk I gave to folks at Creative Mornings—thank you for all who attended and for all your questions. This is a good companion piece expanding on some of the ideas first covered in this piece on remote creative freelancing.
A summary of the talk is below. Enjoy!
A New Approach to Creative Freelancing
As a result of the crazy pandemic that’s hit all the countries in the world, we’ve been thrown into a new place that we’ve not been before. Some features of this new place:
No commutes. No half hour to hour long subway or car rides to and from work.
No offices. Colleagues can’t just swing by your desk and ask something of you. Art directors and producers can’t just swing by and check in on how you’re doing.
What we’re left with is just us, sitting at home, working, in our pjs. (Mine are blue with octopuses eating ice cream.)
In this new place, this new territory, we also have an amazing opportunity: that of making more money, working less and doing more personal projects. We can do all this by being remote creative freelancers.
But why is it that you’re watching a video titled “A Guide to being a Successful Remote Freelancer”? You’re likely working in the creative industry. You likely have creative aspirations outside work that pays your bills.
So making more money is nice.
Working less is probably a good thing, too.
And doing personal projects is kind of cool… I guess?
The reason we want to do the things above is because they are key ingredients allowing for us to be successful creative freelancers over the long term. And the long term is what we should be most concerned about.
The long term is, obviously, different to what we get tangled up with in the short term: we take on client work (any client work), work our butts off for a few days or weeks or months, get paid, feel good, pay the bills, go out for a nice dinner and then take on new client work and repeat. We busy ourselves with short term client projects and neglect the personal work that is necessary to developing ourselves as artists. And it’s the long road of personal work that enables us to discover where our vision lies as artists.
So let’s shift our perspective. Let’s take a step back from all the daily busyness and look at the bigger picture.
We’re going to address the two areas necessary to being a remote creative freelancer: the client side, and the personal projects side. Then we’ll talk about how we can combine the two so one is continuously feeding into the other.
How I use these Principles
First, a little about myself and how using these principles have affected my client and personal work.
I’ve been a full time creative freelancer since 2015. Prior to that I was an animator and illustrator at a small studio in Brooklyn. When I quit that job, I made it a point of being a remote work from the get-go.
As a remote freelancer, my day goes something like this.
I wake up early and spend a couple of hours doing personal projects. Right now that’s painting.
Only then will I spend another four hours or so on client work. Some days it’s less, some days it’s more.
After lunch and walking my dog, Moebi, I’ll come back and spend the rest of the day either continuing on the personal work I was doing in the morning, or other projects I have going on. Afternoons are when I’ll schedule meetings or one-on-ones with my students.
I have a lot of flexibility in my day and I have a lot of freedom with my clients. Being remote means I get to work with all kinds of clients in a variety of industries and offer them different stylistic approaches. I’m not tied to any one studio, so I’m not tied to any particular workflow or style.
This is especially useful in times of rapid change. When we put eggs in multiple baskets, we’re better able to flow with the waves as they move and crash: when the pandemic hit, for example, hospitality clients went offline but more work than ever poured in from clients in tech. Not tying ourselves to the fate of any one client means we have options when things get rough.
I’ve done broadcast animated short films for National Geographic, Al Jazeera English; title designs for the International Center of Photography, illustrations for Carnegie New York and various commercials, music videos. I work in multiple styles, which is hugely appealing to me and keeps me excited about client work.
As a remote creative freelancer, we can take advantage of this trait of being interested in multiple things by actually exploring all these different avenues (and getting paid for it).
Let’s now look at some things we don’t have to do as creative freelancers before we dive into what to do.
What we Don’t Have to Do
First, we don’t need to go in-house.
Even back in 2015, one of my goals as a creative freelancer was not to have to work in-house. I’ve always found office environments to be distracting and not conducive to the kind of deep focus for long periods that creative work requires.
Paul Graham popularized the idea of makers and managers where the former requires unbroken, long stretches of time to make creative work while the later thrives when the day is divided into half hour chunks. When we are doing the actual creative work itself, we are makers. Offices are biased toward catering to managers, not makers.
Second, we don’t need to use social media.
There is a lot of pressure for artists to be on social media because it seems like every artist is on social media. But like every medium, there is a cost. And we should consider the cost of using social media before we fall into a long-term relationship with it.
The biggest cost of using social media is losing our ability to focus. Social media is set up to attract our attention, many times a day, for as long as possible. That’s part of the platforms’ business model. We carelessly invite this distraction into our lives and it has huge consequences over the long term on the quality of our art as the quality of attention we bring to our creative work suffers.
Sharing platforms also dictate the kind of work we create. As per Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’, so too does Instagram as a medium shape the ‘message’ of our work. We’re invited to dash off quick, square-shaped doodles; we’re encouraged to work only in one style to build our social media ‘brand’, we gravitate toward certain subjects and formats that have previously found success on the platform and so on. We’re trained to make bite-sized pieces to satiate the platform—pieces we might not find actually satisfying to create.
Lastly, as remote creative freelancers…
We need not bill by the hour.
This applies if you’re a web designer, graphic designer, animator, illustrator, whatever. Let’s examine the reason why a little more closely.
Bill by Project, not by Hour
Billing by the hour isn’t in the best interest of freelancers or of clients. Here are three reasons why.
It caps our earnings as freelancers.
If I sell my workday for a hundred dollars an hour, I’ve maxed out what I can make in that day at eight hundred dollars. We can’t make any more than that because we’ve essentially sold our time to the client.
It encourages clients’ micro-managing.
When a client works with us on an hourly basis, they get nervous. They say,
“Hey, I need this illustration in four hours so here’s how you’re gonna use those hours. Hour one, I need you to send me a bunch of value sketches; hour two, you’ll need to find all the references you need; hour three, send me some compositions to look at and please use the last hour to render the piece and submit to me for review.”
It puts us both in an awkward position. The client is (understandably) nervous about being put in charge of these precious hours, so they feel it’s their duty to figure out how best to parcel out that time. We the artists feel constrained and somewhat resentful that a client—somebody who supposedly hired us because they felt we know our craft better than they do!—is telling us how to do our job.
Billing by the hour makes us inefficient.
We all know how work expands to fill the time it’s allotted. It’s no different with client work. When we’ve sold eight hours of our life to a client, we feel guilty if we finish the work in four hours. It doesn’t make any logical sense because the client would love to get their problem solved faster and we can use those spare four hours doing other things—petting cats, doing laundry or drinking a quarantini. Also, if I could make eight hundred dollars doing a job in eight hours, you better believe I’m not going to get it done in half the time just so I can make half the money. Obviously. I ain’t crazy.
All in all, billing by the hour fundamentally misaligns our goals with the client’s goals. What’s to be done?
Bill by the project instead.
It’s a small shift in perspective but it makes a radical difference to our client relationships, where instead of pitting ourselves against the client, we align our goals to play on the same team. Here are three reasons why billing by project helps us make more money but more importantly, makes for healthy relationships with our clients.
Make more money by taking on multiple projects at once
First, because I haven’t sold my time to my clients, I’m free to take on multiple projects at once. Instead of working on Project A for eight hours a day, I can work on Project A, B and C on any given day. Oftentimes when we sell our time to clients, many of those hours are ‘dead time’ where we are waiting on feedback. If we are in-house, or if we’ve only booked that time to that one client, we have to just sit there and wait and feel mildly frustrated there’s nothing else to do. If we’ve not sold our time, however, there is nothing preventing us from working on Project B while waiting for feedback on Project A. In doing so, by working on multiple projects simultaneously, there is no cap on how much money we can make in a day.
Clients don’t have to micro-manage our time
When we bill by the project, we are upfront with what the clients can expect from us—what we will deliver, when, and for how much. When the client knows and approves this in advance, they can relax: they don’t have to worry about how we use our hours, so long as we deliver what they need at the times we both agreed to at the outset. This makes the client very happy, because the last thing they really want to do is micro-manage a freelancer working offsite, and we’re happy, because there’s no one breathing down our neck fretting about how we’re spending our hours. There’s less anxiety and stress on both sides. Win-win!
We become more efficient at solving problems
This is a natural side effect. If we go back to the example from billing by the hour—where we can finish a project in four instead of eight hours—now we’re motivated to actually finish it faster, because if I finish Project A in the morning, I can take on Project B in the afternoon and get paid twice as much for working the same number of hours.
All that I have promised the client is that I will solve their problem, not that I will give you X hours of my time. And clients really only care about the former, not the latter. I might pay a plumber a thousand dollars to come fix a burst drain pipe, and if he fixes my problem in an hour I’m thrilled because I can go about my day without more worries. I will not be thrilled, however, if the same plumber came and poked around for eight hours in my apartment, even if he does fix the problem in the end.
Billing by project incentivizes me to actually solve problems, not just spend a lot of time on problems. I’m more attentive to streamlining my workflow; I’m more aware of new plugins and technology that will help my process and help me fix client problems faster and better.
Billing by project makes us more money and because we are more efficient with our time, we can theoretically work less. But just because we can work less, doesn’t mean we actually do work less. To achieve the latter, we’ve got to install some controls on our time. Which brings us to…
How to actually work less.
Here, by working less I mean working less on client projects. The kind of projects that pays your bills. To work less, we need to control two things: the time we spend on client projects, and our own time. Let’s start with Client-Time.
Don’t over-communicate with clients.
Slack, Zoom, GChat, email—all of these are tools we are allowing to take over our lives. Any notification bingle and we jump to see what the message is; who needs us? Who needs us right now?! We’ve developed some bad habits as a result of an over-reliance on these tools.
Instead of taking into consideration others’ time, we shoot off half-baked, open questions as soon as they bubble up in our minds. We just drop it into Slack and make it the other person’s problem. We do this constantly over the course of a day: we want others to hurry up and respond and solve our problems and we feel jittery because anyone who Slacks us a question we also feel we need to come up with an answer now. This leaves us no time left to do the deep, focused work necessary to actually solve the problems clients hired us for in the first place.
When we’re remote creative freelancers, we can start to alter these bad habits by making small changes at the beginning of our relationship with clients. Instead of agreeing to all the communication tools the client might already have in place, set some boundaries. Tell them when it is you’re going to check in, and where it is you’ll upload all the files. Tell them you don’t use instant messaging tools, but that you will have a weekly call on Wednesday morning. This benefits both the client and yourself, because outside of the times you’re actively communicating with the client, you’re actually free to do your work, and the client can get on with their work. Again, win-win!
The second part of actually being able to work less is to control our own time. This is tough, as we’re trained from kindergarten to have our time structured for us by external authorities. When we bill by the project and work remotely, there is no one there to tell us how to use our time. But we need structure to our day, for time not structured becomes time lost to The Internet. Or shows. Or whatever your ‘thing’ is.
Here’s a couple of ways to help structure our time.
This is an idea I got years ago from Cal Newport. You pull out a sheet of paper every day and right down what you want to accomplish with every hour of the day. It doesn’t mean we’re enslaved to this schedule; it just means we have a meaningful say in how our day is going to unfold.
Of course, we miscalculate how long things take, emergencies come up, clients want revisions that need to get out the door this afternoon—time blocking allows us to shift our schedule on the go so that we can always take it into account unexpected changes and still have a say in the remaining hours of our day.
Pay Attention to Energy
Pay attention to both our own energy levels and the kind of energy demanded by the projects on our plate. We tend to treat ourselves as rational, productivity robots—we build out a schedule of what we want to fit into a day assuming we have have the same quality of energy and focus at 7am as at 6pm.
Everyone is going to vary, but essentially we start out with a lot of energy and focus early in the day which steadily depletes into the evening. We can think about our projects (client or otherwise) in the same way.
Let’s say we’ve been hired to do an editorial illustration. Early on in the project, there’s a huge cognitive demand because there are so many unknowns in the project. What’s the subject going to be? The style? The composition? Working through these unknowns and making decisions cost a lot of mental energy. Decisions tire us out.
Fast forward to the middle of this project. The client’s approved our composition and value sketches, and all that’s left is to take time to render the picture. That’s a lot less cognitively demanding, because all the tough decisions have been made and all that’s left is to put on some music and draw the thing.
If we have a clear idea of the level of energy we have in the day and we have a clear idea of what phase of a project we’re in and what kind of energy that phase demands of us, we can match project energy demands to our own energy levels. In the mornings when we’re most alert, for example, is when we can tackle projects that still require a lot of shaping, a lot of decision-making. Conversely, we can organize low-energy tasks in low-energy parts of our day—afternoons are good for any meetings or polishing artwork, and so on.
Now we know how we can make more money (by charging by project) and work less (by controlling our time), how do we land clients that want to work with us remotely?
How to Get Remote Clients
If you’re reading this during the pandemic, now is the time to reach out to potential clients. Everyone is remote out of necessity. Studios have been forced to switch up their workflow to work with distributed systems, so this is the perfect time to step in, wave your hand and say hey I know how to fit into this workflow! Once they work with you remotely and you do a good job, you’ll work with that client again and again. Now momentum is on your side.
Approach clients directly
That means sending emails to them directly. Not getting on sharing platforms (like Instagram or Dribbble or Behance) and putting up your best work and hoping a client will see it—that’s passive. We want to be active in seeking out clients.
Our primary tools of communication when we are looking for clients are: email and our website. And we have to stand out with each. The way we definitely won’t stand out is if we copy what our peers are already doing. Usually when we get into whatever creative field we’re in, we think hmm, I don’t know how to pitch clients and I don’t know what my site is supposed to look like. So we naturally look at other successful artists and copy whatever they do. This is a start, but it’s not going to help us very much if we want a client to notice our work.
Humans have an uncontrollable propensity to copy. It’s natural and for the most part, it’s a fantastic trait. But it’s not so helpful when our being different, being noticed, is the key to getting work. Over time, this mutual copying produces a sea of very similar looking websites; very same-sounding emails and same-y work. The client peeps out and sees a sea of same-ish options for hire. We become, in their eyes, interchangeable commodities. Not good.
So what should we do instead?
Start from the client’s perspective
Instead of thinking the way we need to pitch ourselves or the way we need to build our websites should be modelled on our more successful peers, we could think instead, what do my clients actually need from me? What is it like for a client to receive my email and look at my work and choose to hire me? In what kind of a context is the client experiencing my pitch?
It goes something like this.
You want to do editorial illustration and you email an art director. Your email hits their inbox, one among ten thousand other unopened emails. Your email needs to attract their interest, and they need to open it.
Once they open it, your proposition has to be attractive enough for them to take the next step and click through to your website. Once on your site, they are rarely going to spend more than thirty seconds scanning your work. Your website is one tab among twenty they’ve got going on, some of which are other freelancers they’re considering for the same project. Further, this client is hungry and stressed and maybe they’ve got kids holed up in the house that are dancing the cha-cha in the background and they’ve got an all-hands Zoom in five.
At each step of this exercise the question becomes, how do I best communicate to my client given these realities?
In one sense it’s pretty depressing, because we realize we really are one of hundreds of other creatives vying for this art director’s attention. Why should they read my pitch? Click on my site? Hire me?
On the other hand, it’s in this somewhat-depressing-reality that opportunity lay. Instead of pretending that our websites are havens for art directors to gently peruse, admire and explore, we work with our client’s realities and give them what they need from us: show them quickly and clearly that we are reliable artists whose services can solve their problems.
It’s a daunting perspective to take, but what this also means is that no one knows the right way to pitch clients. No one knows how you should best lay out your website. No one knows how best to communicate your services to a client. So you’re freed! You’re freed from the need to just copy what others are doing because no one knows what they’re doing, any more than you do.
You’re freed to come up with an approach that really speaks to your kind of client, and by thinking from their perspective, you’ll come up with something new. You’ll make something that the client hasn’t seen before.
And that will get their attention.
That will get you work.
Client work pays the bills, but it doesn’t help us keep up with an ever-changing creative industry. Let’s now look at how it is we can keep up with change.
Ah, personal work. The dusty orphan that gets relegated to nights and weekends. In the day we spend all our energy doing client work, and if we have some time left over, we might dabble into some pieces for ourselves and call it a night.
Personal work takes effort, time and mental energy—same as client work—except we don’t even get paid for it! So why the hell do it?
Well, client projects tend to be pretty repetitive. We’re given projects to do in a style the client wants, we prove ourselves competent and the client basically hires us again and again to do the same type of work. Over time, we fall into the same patterns and get stuck there. The current pattern may work for us, but give it two, three, five or ten years, and it will change.
Personal projects are important because they help us break out of these patterns. They push us to learn new tools, try new approaches and to generally experiment—this keeps us adaptable. We become the kind of artist that embrace and flow with the changes in our industry, instead of the kind of artist who grows stale and is crushed by change. An adaptable freelancer is one who can thrive in the long run.
Treat personal projects like you treat client projects.
We tend not to, because client projects has immediate rewards—the client’s approval of our work, getting paid, etc.—and that gives them priority. Personal projects have none of these rewards—there is no one to say what a good job we’ve done, and we don’t get paid for it. So it’s easy to shove it onto the sidelines as a ‘nice to have’, in the dim hours after we’ve done all our client work.
If personal projects are crucial in helping us stay adaptable as freelancers, we need to make room for it in our lives and pursue it consistently. The way we do this is literally treat it like a client project: give our personal work deadlines, rounds of revision, a schedule. We can give ourselves notes and make use of project management tools of the kind we use with our clients—Notion, Dropbox, Vimeo Review Tools and Basecamp all come to mind.
The goal with personal work is to give it as much time, if not more time, than our client work, and continuously start and finish these exploratory projects.
Transitioning Personal Work into Client Work
As we do our personal projects, we’ll do a number of experiments, try a number of new tools and methods, and some of them we will really like. When we try an approach we like, we could document that approach and make it into a process. We time ourselves engaging with this process, see how long each phase of this new process takes, so we have a handle on timing when we begin to offer these processes to our clients.
I’m constantly doing this. Most of my time is spent on personal work: painting, writing my blog, mentoring students and collaborating with friends. I’ll find an interesting method in my drawing experiments and then send off that personal work to clients and remind them if they ever need something like this in future to give me a call.
This way, you’re constantly getting in touch with clients with new approaches, new work. New stuff that’s come out of your own experiments. And when that client gets the right project that needs your approach, they’ll remember and come to you.
Since we’re constantly infusing our client work with processes that excite and interest us from our personal work, our client work never becomes stale. We get to do more and more the kind of work that we find interesting; we get to try more and more approaches that we find appealing.
By infusing our client work with our personal work, we might eventually come to a point where there is no distinction between what’s personal and what’s work. That’s when we get paid for our ideas and our approach. That’s when we get paid to do what we love.
The 12-Week Mentorship
A personal project of mine begun a couple years ago is a twelve week mentorship program I run every month. Part of what’s missing from a lot of online education (great for technical learning) are personal, one-on-one programs where the content is tailored to an individual. When it comes to learning to freelance in creative industries, one size does not fit all.
A fresh graduate needing to build a portfolio is not in need of the same guidance as someone who works full time for a studio, who again does not need the same guidance as someone who has been freelancing for decades and now their work has dried up. In each case, the needs of the individual dictates what kind of guidance they require.
To apply, see here.