Beini Huang

Beini Huang

A lot of questions about creative freelancing and personal work have come up in the talks I’ve given over the past few months. Here are my attempts at some answers.

How do I figure out what to charge per project?

Figure out what other people are charging for similar projects and start there. Plenty of articles online will tell you how much to charge for editorial illustrations, for example, and job boards in your field often include day or project rates in their posts.

When doing projects, always keep tabs on how long each phase of the work takes. This will help you give more accurate quotes in future—you figure out how many hours something takes, multiply it by an hourly or day rate, add a thirty percent buffer and you’ve got yourself a project rate. To begin with, working out what to charge needn’t be more complicated than that.

As your skills sharpen and vision matures, you’ll find it takes you less time to do the same amount of work. This is great for both you and your client. You get to work less and still make the same amount of money, your client gets a better quality product, faster. This doesn’t mean you need to reduce your project cost (your client is now paying for your experience rather than just your time), but it does mean you now have more options.

You can increase your project rate and start delegating work to other freelancers, you can maintain your project rate and increase the number of projects you’re working on at a time, or just use your extra free time on something else.

A couple of further considerations here.

There are many pricing methods out there—retainers and value-based pricing come to mind—and it can be tempting to always lust after the “best” one (i.e. the one that will yield you the most money fastest). It’s good to be aware of the pricing methods out there, but in practice, it’s best to stick with something simple that you can manage without undue stress. Instead of bouncing from one method to the next, pick the most conventional one (described above) and stick with it. 

Alternative pricing models help us keep perspective on the projects we’re doing—if Nike came to us directly for a logo, for example, it would be helpful to know something about value-based pricing. But if we are the illustrator or animator at the end of a long chain of producers, directors and clients, we are not in a position to use value-based pricing and so should adjust our expectations accordingly. 

The second thing to consider are the relationships we build with our clients. We don’t have to lose sleep wondering if we’ve under- or over-charged a client. Sometimes we’ll lose a little, sometimes we’ll win a little, but a long-term relationship with a client where you both work on many projects is the greater goal. A relationship where you are consistently trying to extract the highest fees from a client possible will not last, nor will a relationship where you constantly undercharge a client. Resentment builds and breaks the relationship in both cases.

Knowing all this, we can take a step back and roll with the projects as they come.

How do I deal with revisions when billing by the project?

I build rounds of revisions into my client contract, and if we go over those rounds, the client can pay for extra rounds of revisions at a fixed cost. This helps keep the client on track as it places pressure on their end to be organized, keeping the project from dragging on indefinitely.

This cuts both ways—we too are limited to a set number of revisions.

I’ve found this very useful as it forces me to pay attention in trying to find out what the client’s actual problem is rather than just agreeing to whatever they want to revise on the surface.

I want to make the shift from hourly to project based pricing. How do I do it?

First, record how long every phase of your process takes. Once you have an idea how long each phase of your project takes, quote your client based on project when the next opportunity arises. If you have multiple clients, you might want to try project based pricing first with a less regular client to test the waters.

There is no best time or best way to shift from hourly to project based pricing—it is an on/off switch you flip. The shift can be uncomfortable, but the worst that can happen is you put in more hours into a project than you initially thought. So what? Add more to the budget on your next project. If a client isn’t happy with this change, you can evaluate based on the interactions with the client and they projects they bring you, whether you’d still like to charge them on an hourly basis.

How do I find clients that are receptive to the type of work I do?

There is no “right” way to finding clients. You improve your chances of landing clients as your work improves, and as your ability to communicate your service improves. The rest is just playing the numbers game, which I lay out step-by-step in my mentorship program and course.

Don’t be intimidated by studio or agency websites. 

Most of them look very slick and the quality of the work is top notch. Know that these websites are geared toward wooing companies that are looking to spend tens, hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars with an agency. The agency’s website better live up to the expectations of what a multi-million dollar agency’s website looks like if it is to stand a chance at partnering with those companies. 

Agency and studio websites might look flashy, but they are only showing the best work the studio has put out over its entire lifespan. Agencies also do a lot of work that’s less flashy or high-end, but still well paid, and if you are just starting out as a freelancer you can get in on those projects for those agencies as your foot in the door. As you establish a relationship with these clients, you’ll get opportunities to work on their more interesting projects.

So email them your work.

I have a lot of areas I want to freelance in. I’m excited by all of them although they don’t really mix. Do I need to pick one topic starting out?

Yes. 

When people are not familiar with your work or your services, it’s incredibly important to pigeon-hole yourself in their mind. Clients are usually busy, so they’re not going to spend a lot of time figuring out what projects your particular talents are suited to. They’d much rather have a project pop up that needs skill X and immediately remember you as someone who does X. 

If you do ABC and D, and the client has a project that needs skill B, the way our mind works is that we’ll first remember someone who exactly does skill B before we remember the person who has skills ABCD.

Remember, picking one topic, or pigeon-holing your activities as a freelancer doesn’t mean you are only that thing. There is no need to feel your identity as a freelancer encapsulates all that you are as an artist—it doesn’t, and cannot. 

You are just making it easier for a client to remember you when future work comes up—that’s it. As your relationship with your clients develop, you can start to show them other work you’ve done, in other mediums, and the real estate you take up in your client’s mind will start to expand and they will start calling on you for other projects. 

What happens if my personal work and professional work don’t cross over?

All the better.

A key function of doing personal work is so you don’t get stuck in professional ruts. 

When you do work for clients, you inevitably fall into patterns—they want you to work in certain styles, use certain colors and sell certain kinds of products. This is fine, because they are paying you money. 

But we don’t need to repeat those patterns in our personal work. 

If you design websites for clients for a living, you don’t need to also design websites in your off-hours. You can paint. Take up photography. Bird watch. The more divergent your personal work, the better, because these different activities have you inhabit new patterns, and those new patterns will stimulate new approaches to client work.

There’s a feeling in creative industries that what you do as your personal work should directly serve the work you do professionally. But this idea doesn’t have to be taken so literally. Everything done as personal work will influence professional work, and vice versa.

If you’re a character designer by trade, your personal work doesn’t necessarily have to involve drawing a series of characters. Maybe you take on ikebana or horse-riding and the patterns you notice doing those activities will give you an idea for a character design.

What you’re able to offer as a creative comes from what you see from your particular vantage point, and this vantage point is where you’re momentarily standing after a lifetime of meanderings along various paths. From this perspective, there’s no loss when your personal and professional work don’t overlap—you’re getting to see a different set of things than perhaps your peers, and with a bit of ingenuity, you might be able to incorporate this landscape into what you do professionally.

I have seen a lot of people find their client base through social media. Social media gives you the opportunity to put across your work and find potential clients. What are your thoughts?

Social media works for a lot of people. It is as legitimate a tool as anything else when it comes to promoting your work. But as with all tools, some people will take to it, and others will not. For some people, the excitement and the positive feedback and the speed of social media is energy that propels them forward to make more work. For others, it is a serious source of distraction.

 

I find it to be distracting, and I don’t like the passivity of putting up work, spending a ton of attention and constant effort to build a following before my work might be noticed by the right type of client. In my experience it has always been more fruitful to just email the type of clients that would find my services useful.


Got freelancing or personal work questions? Shoot me an email.

Beini is an artist based in New York. Her clients include Carnegie New York, International Center of Photography, and National Geographic, among others. Sign up for the newsletter below for upcoming talks.

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