Beini Huang

Beini Huang

More questions about creative freelancing, personal projects and social media use. There’s also a first part to this series.

Do you think it’s important to share my motion graphics and illustration work in a monthly newsletter to my clients?

Monthly is probably overkill, but yes, it is definitely important to touch base with clients every two or three months. I would say it’s more important to share your work when you’ve created work that is more “evolved” than work you’ve sent them in the past, and not just new stuff in general.

If your rate of creating “evolved” work—that is, work that’s more technically refined or introduces new ideas you’ve been working on—is every three to four months, then that’s how often you should be touching base with clients.

Note that sending new work to clients doesn’t preclude you from reaching out when you do not currently have a lot of projects. Send out both types of emails: tell clients when you have availabilities, and tell clients when you’ve made new work. They don’t necessarily have to be in the same email.

Do you set aside days for different tasks? For example, on Wednesdays you only do admin tasks for your business.

I like doing fewer things for longer periods at a time, so when I’m able to set entire days for one or two types of tasks, I do. I find it tiring to switch back and forth between activities, so as much as possible I block out whole mornings or afternoons for one type of work.

Context switching comes at a cost, and it’s something to keep in mind when planning your day or week.

How do keep yourself accountable on personal projects the way you would with client work? I know that ideally we should be able to, but somehow it’s hard to treat them the same. Any hacks or tips that work well for you?

I tend to look at personal projects in a couple of different ways. 

First, if the personal project you’re tackling resembles a process you’d engage with for a client, then set up your personal project same as you would a client project. Set deadlines for each phase of the project, set aside time to critique your work and revise it, and finally set a time to finish it and move on to something else.

The second way I think about personal projects is a little more nebulous.

With client work, you’re given tight deadlines, set styles to work within and you’re limited to tools you’re already very familiar with. With personal projects, you don’t have the benefit of being paid, but you do have the privilege of not having the client work restraints. Take advantage of this.

When you do client work, you must narrow yourself to one or two roles: you’re picked to do editorial illustration, let’s say, or motion design, etc. This can be constrictive, and over time, you tire of playing the same role over and over again. Personal work is the place where you can play and explore different roles. You can paint. You can take up photography. You can mountain-climb. You do not have to play the same role or do the same kind of work as what clients want you to do.

Playing these different roles in turn teaches you not to take the role(s) you play so seriously. And not taking those roles so seriously frees you to come up with creative ways of communicating and making work.

From this second perspective, your definition of being accountable with personal work could be different to what it is with your client work. Let’s say you want to write a novel. You might need twelve years to write that novel—how can you expect to hold yourself accountable in the same way as you would your client work, which takes twelve days to complete?

That’s the constant tension you’re under when it comes to doing personal work. 

On the one hand, you want to continue to pursue them and finish what you start. On the other hand, you might be playing a different role with your personal work; a role that you’re actively exploring and figuring out the shape of, so you can’t demand the same deadlines and speed as your client work.

The two desires conflict. Sometimes you’ll spend too much time researching, noodling and exploring than doing any actual work on our personal project. Other times you’ll get so obsessed with getting stuff done and getting organized that you focus more on getting a project out the door than on the quality of the project itself.

I try to pay attention to what the project needs at a given time and organize my approach to accomodate that. Sometimes storyboards or ideas will just spout forth and there’s no need to schedule time for the next four weeks ideating what visuals to pursue. Other times I’ll get stuck on a production phase for days or weeks before realizing I’ve been refusing to move forward because I’ve slipped into the fantasy that the perfect idea or approach is just around the corner. I’ll realize I’ve stopped paying attention to the project in front of me and disappeared into abstract ideas what what the project could be. When this happens, it’s time to redraw my schedule, pick a path and move forward.

As long as you continue to hold this tension and allow the conflicts to play themselves out, you are holding yourself accountable. This organic give and take is much more in line with how personal work usually plays out in practice.

When you began freelancing how long did it take before you could really pick and choose projects?

Always pick and choose projects—even when you are just starting out as a freelancer. Let’s say you’re talking to your first potential client and she tries to lowball you. You have a choice, and you can (and should) say no. When I first started to freelance and wanted to only work remotely, some clients wanted me to come in-house and I declined. 

You always have choice, it’s just that the scope of what you get to pick and choose expands as you gain more experience and clients. So don’t think that if you are starting out as a freelancer, you must take on any client, any type of work and at any cost. Knowing you have a choice helps keep resentment at bay.

The choices you make, even if they are based on a limited set of options (especially when you are starting out), will snowball and affect all the other choices that are placed before you in your freelance career.

When you don’t charge per hour and an unexpected hiccup happens that makes the project take much longer how do you deal with it? Do you renegotiate with your client or take it as your own loss?

It depends who is at fault.

If a client wants to switch direction when we are well under way with creating the assets, for example, then I will renegotiate the project. In this case, I’m not at fault—something changed on the client’s end and they will need to pay for it.

But the risk (or thrill?) of project rates is that it cuts both ways. If I thought I could use a particular workflow to get the desired results but it’s taking way longer than I initially planned, then I take the hit. In this case, the fault is mine, and the project will take more of my resources than initially planned.

Both scenarios will inevitably happen. In the former, you just need to be firm and reasonable and usually clients will respond in kind. In the latter, you just take note and adjust future project rates accordingly.

How do you come up with topics for personal projects? In times like these I feel like there’s pressure for everything you make to be a political statement to avoid seeming ignorant.

There’s no topic inappropriate for a personal project. In fact, having the “right” topic has almost nothing to do with why personal projects are important.

If it’s something you have an interest in, something you’re curious about, something you have capacity for, then the topic is good enough to pursue. Painting two empty chairs was topic enough for Van Gogh:

The important part of personal work is daring to pursue that topic seriously. Imagine painting empty chairs for the next ten years. Most people would run away and dabble in something already popular and acceptable instead (and no wonder).

If you don’t like the pressure of making work for a “pre-approved topic”, let’s say, you can dare to pursue something else.

Some of my clients are uncomfortable with project pricing even when I explain to them how much time things take. How do you sell the pricing to your clients without making them feel that they might be getting “ripped off”?

Some of your clients will be open to project pricing, other clients will need some convincing, and the rest will not agree to it (out of policy or preference). Concentrate your efforts on the first category, and try to find more of those types of clients.

The clients that need some convincing might just need to try it out. The next time they give you a project, just give them a reasonable estimate that’s not far off from what you would have charged them on an hourly rate. If you have a relationship with them and your estimate is about the same as your past engagements, they’ll likely agree. Then, do a great job. Or do as good a job as you’ve always done. This way the client will learn through direct experience, that despite not micro-managing your time, you still turn out great work. Over time, they will grow to trust that your prices are fair.

Very few clients are actually so concerned with getting “ripped off” that they will want to micro-manage your time and resources. If you are working with clients and charging them market rate, those clients would much rather they can leave you alone to do your thing than babysit you through a project. If you are dealing with clients that are worried that you are going to go off the rails and deliver a terrible product without their direction and attention to how you are doing your work, drop those clients. They are likely not paying you well, and you do not need to convince them that you will not rip them off.  That should be a given.

I get about half my new business from clients who find me on Instagram, and the other half from referrals. As a creative freelancer who doesn’t use social media, how do you get your work in front of new clients? It sounds like you may be doing that by reaching out directly to agencies, but what do you advise for folks who often don’t work with agencies (smaller businesses hiring photographers directly, for example).

If Instagram is working well for you, there is no reason to stop using it. If, on the other hand, you do not like the quality of clients you are getting, or you want to quit for some other reason, there are many options for you to experiment with. 

You might run ads on search engines. You might start a newsletter for clients who want to work with photographers like you. You might run workshops for small businesses. You might want to try and get a rep. You might shoot a personal photography series and pitch it to news outlets. All of these options give you control to communicate directly with potential clients.

If you are working for a new client, do you take a deposit?

I typically charge 50% at the beginning of a project and 50% upon final delivery. This is fairly standard practice.

I’m a freelance copywriter in a smaller market, and I’m wondering how you feel about reaching out to agencies and shops outside your market?

With everyone remote, you are going to be less and less restrained by geographic location and there are going to be more opportunities to work with companies outside your immediate geographic market.

I tend to advise folks to be more indiscriminate with who they reach out to than they’re comfortable with. If those clients aren’t interested, then they won’t reply, and that’s fine. But more often than not you’ll be surprised at who takes the time to reply and who you end up striking up a working relationship with.

Geographic location is going to be less and less of an issue than the quality of your work. As it should be.

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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