Pragmatic freelancing

January 2019

I just got my four years freelancing chip in December. During those years, I worked on more than 200 projects, ranging from two to hundreds of hours. I realized a couple of things along the way.

Freelancing is tricky. It requires much more than knowing your craft, and becoming a one-person operation can be counterintuitive at times.

So, having often talked about it with friends and relatives, I decided to write some things down. Some tips I would share with my younger self. Mind you, I am 28 with no kids. I feel like my mind might change at some point in the future, but this is where I’m at. This is written from my personal experience of working remotely in direct contact with clients, not agencies.

1. Work with sharp knives.

Invest time in saving future time. This is the uttermost important thing. Keep in mind that you are in it for the long haul and this is a marathon. Remove friction as much as possible from everything you do. Automate, use templates, install plugins, create scripts, etc. Whatever works.

Learn all the shortcuts. Of every app you use. You won’t learn them all in a day, but work on it little by little.

Be organized and have a system. Files, folders, apps, etc. Create a template folder for your new projects. It should contain the folder structure and files you use on 80%+ of your projects.

Every minute you lose every day will cost you a lot on a long enough time span. Also, nobody likes doing repetitive tasks. Having a frictionless process allows you to focus on your work and accelerates the bootstrapping of new projects, thus making it more enjoyable.

2. Have your own website before everything else.

Yes, having a website is still a thing. Do it. Either build it yourself or use something like Squarespace. It doesn’t have to be a crazy good website. Just have your favorite projects listed, a paragraph telling your name and what you do, your contact informations, and that’s mostly it. You’re already miles ahead of most of your peers.

I know social networks work very well for many and might also be a good place to invest into. I never really got into it much personally, but I know some people who built their careers with it. That’s fine. But keep in mind that these are landlords that give you space in exchange of your content. They can go away, change their rules, make some very questionable decisions, etc. Get a website and then play around with social media.

Having your own website means having your own turf where you do what you want. It’s your personal piece of the Internet.

Also, Google is still a very real thing that a lot of people use. Write a bit about you and your work on your website and, after some time, Google might just do its magic and send clients your way. About 50% of my clients are people who found me on Google with variations of “freelance motion designer Québec”. No magic there. Get a website and write what you do on it.

Bonus point with websites, it will allow you to get a decent looking email. It’s an easy bump in professionalism from that gmail address of yours with numbers and underscores in it.

3. Write clear, concise, efficient, and kind emails.

Writing emails is a big part of the job. Communicating well is as important as the job itself.

  1. Write and communicate clearly. Make short sentences and get to the point.
  2. Read the email you’re responding to and address all its points and questions. Every. Single. One. It seems pretty simple, but a lot of people just respond to the first or last sentence in a mail and call it a day.
  3. Be yourself, but just enough. Punctuation and tone is a tricky thing. Some folks will sound very friendly and enthusiastic, and some will not. I tend to mostly mirror my interlocutor’s punctuation and usage of exclamation points and emojis.
  4. Overall, err on the positive side. Don’t be that overly cold person that makes people wonder if they’re angry. Start with a salutation. And don’t ever do that creepy thing of starting your email with only the person’s first name. “Sébastien, here are our comments […]”. That reads like a murder threat.
  5. Have a signature, but not a website footer. Your signature must include your name, a website and a phone number. You can add a job title and a small logo. But don’t go overboard. Don’t put Facebook and Twitter buttons in there. Don’t tell me not to print this email, I’m not a child. And please, please, don’t put whatever quote you think is smart. Whatever it says, it looks bad.
  6. Stick to vanilla formatting and keep the default font. Don’t use tabs. Emails are a mess and will be rendered differently everywhere. Just limit the damage.
  7. Your email should usually end with one of those three things: 6. A question: What is your deadline for the final delivery? 7. An affirmation of what you are going to do next and when it will be done: I’ll start working on the storyboard and get back to you with it on Thursday. 8. Directives about what you want your interlocutor to do: Here’s the estimate, let me know if this fits with what you had in mind. Once we have your approval, we can move forward with the script.
  8. Finally, please, check your spelling. One error can slip by here and there, but when I receive an email riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, I automatically get a bad feeling about the person. It looks careless. You are writing on a computer in 2019, there’s no reason for this mess. Turn on spell checking. If you don’t know how to spell a word, Google it. If you want to go the extra mile (some emails deserve it more than others), use something like Grammarly for English and Antidote for French.

Additional reading:

4. A lot of people suck at email. Call them.

Texts and emails are as great as the communication skills of the person you are talking with. Sometimes it works great, but in my experience, most discussions get clearer after a phone call.

The phone has an undeserved bad reputation amongst us millennials. Here are some pro-phone arguments:

  1. It keeps things human. Except for very quick and small projects, I think it’s always good to start the project by speaking with your human voice to the human person you will be working with.
  2. Everybody has a phone. Check out that email signature. Phone number right there, problem solved. No need to ask for their skype username, or to log to this video conference URL, etc.
  3. It works great. Aside from tunnels, phones never fail. In my experience, Skype and friends still often feel fragile and start lagging for no reason on long conversations. Your phone will handle an eight hours call like it’s no big deal.
  4. It conveys emotions better than text. This might have to do with me, but I spend a lot of energy wondering about the tone of my email interlocutors. I will start asking myself things like: “Hey, they had an exclamation point after the thanks on the last email and not this time, are they angry?” They’re probably not. But sometimes written words can be tricky to navigate and can be misconstrued.
  5. It speeds things up. Email is, by default, an asynchronous mode of communication. This is great when everybody takes the time to write clear, concise, efficient, and kind emails. In most cases, this won’t happen. Instead on ping-ponging five emails with questions and answers, call and make things simpler and faster for everybody.

If many people have to stay in the loop on a project and you think that calling will break the written chain of communications you have by email, just call and then write a follow-up email describing the phone conversation’s conclusions.

5. You are the expert here. Lead.

Let’s say I wanted to build a house and contacted an architect. I might have an idea of the ballpark budget and number of rooms I want, but that’s about it. I don’t want him to tell me right away “Okay, I got it”. Instead, I want to be asked a lot of questions that I have not thought about yet. What materials, style, inspirations, etc. I then want him to describe to me the process of how this will all work out. What are the next steps?

From the moment a client contacts you, you should have a list of questions you are ready to ask and an explanation of your process ready. Most clients will want you to help them define their project.

For a video project, I have this small list of questions I start from when I talk with a potential client:

  • Client name:
  • Product or business:
  • Concept or description:
  • Target audience:
  • Duration:
  • Inspirations or references:
  • A style guide or palette to follow:
  • Voice-over?
  • Deadlines:
  • Will I write the script or they will provide it?
  • Type of broadcast:

This is a pretty basic list, but it helps to get things started. Keep this in a text file and open it when on a call. When they talk, ask all questions you can think about. Not only does it help them clarify what they mean and want, it also makes you look like you are steering the conversation. Clients want to feel like they’re in good hands and that you’ve been there before.

Along the way, if a problem arises, suggest a solution. Even if it’s not a problem and just a choice between A and B. Explain the problem, the possible solutions, and ask the client for their opinion while telling them you’d personally choose B. This is what you’re here for. I want the architect to give me his opinion and tell me to avoid adding roman-type columns to my modernist house.

Additional reading:

6. You are the sales department.

A good part of the job is to sell. You don’t have to be a sleazy car salesman, but you will have to sell yourself, your work, and it’s value. You will have to talk about money early, often, and learn to do it without feeling bad. You will have to define, explain, and update your prices. You will also have to make a lot of estimates. This is not the fun part of the job, but it’s an important part of it. And if you optimize (see #1) enough of it, it’s not so bad. Here are a couple of practices that helped me:

  1. Use timesheets every day. Even if you don’t bill with it. Eventually, your estimates will improve. I’d suggest Harvest or Cushion.

  2. Talk about money early. You shouldn’t feel bad about it. You are doing a job for money. It doesn’t matter that you love your job, and that it’s your passion, and that you’d do it for free or not. In this part of the conversation you are not an artist, you are a professional.

  3. Most people will tell you they don’t know their budget. They mostly don’t know their precise budget. But most know what bracket they’re in.

    I usually choose between two options to deal with this.

    Option 1: Ask a ballpark estimate and state two numbers with a wide range between them. “Do you know if your budget would be closer to $5 000 or $25 00?”, they will usually then tell you what budget bracket they want you to work with.

    Option 2: Provide a low-budget option and one with a higher budget along with examples and references. This way will help them target more accurately what they want by seeing a quality and budget ladder.

  4. Only meet face to face if necessary. Some people prefer talking face to face and will ask you for a meeting. Some will want to meet you and grab a coffee or will ask you to come to their office. You don’t have to. Most of these meetings can be a 15 minutes call. I never go from email directly to face to face. Ask for a call first. Learn about their project, what they want from you, their budget, etc. Then, if you feel like this is a client and project that is worth the energy, go and meet them. You can then go to the meeting prepared because you know what they want.

  5. Ask for work. Don’t be afraid to send emails here and there to businesses you like. Tell them what you do and give them a link to your portfolio. You’d be surprised how often this works. You have nothing to lose and your name will be remembered by some. Just customize your email and make sure your text doesn’t look spammy. That will look desperate and nobody likes that. Take the time to write something meaningful that will make sense to the person that reads you.

7. Working for money is fine.

I think the “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” has a nugget of truth to it, but is kind of naive. Whatever job you have, some days will be better than others. Same goes for projects. Some will fulfill you creatively, allow you to push yourself, and develop new skills. Those are a lot of fun, but somewhat draining. And sometimes, less profitable.

It’s alright to take a project that’s right in your comfort zone. This industry has a tendency to put struggling/hustling/other buzzwords on a pedestal. Not everything you do has to always be groundbreaking and challenge you to your core. Charging money and doing the work with ease and confidence is absolutely fine. Some people don’t want you to reinvent yourself, but just want to pay you to do what you’re good at doing.

Try to keep a healthy balance of both kinds of projects. Make sure to have your creativity muscle flexed and challenged with some wild projects. But also, make money and keep the imposter syndrome in check with projects you are comfortable with. If the client is happy and you made money, it’s a win for everybody. Even if no blood, sweat or tears were involved.

8. Dress up before lunch and stay healthy.

Sweatpants are great with the morning coffee. I won’t deny it. But get dressed before you eat lunch. I’m not sure if this is an absolute rule, but I think it’s a good one. At some point being too comfortable is not good.

Also, you should probably exercise, take walks, eat well, drink water and meditate. Keep a healthy body and mind. Since you’re probably working alone, depression and anxiety can easily creep in if you let it. Staying active will help you stay sharp.

I won’t go too deep into this and make a life coach out of myself, but just look out for comfort creep.

9. Diversify your client portfolio.

Big agencies with recurring projects are cool, smaller direct to client interactions are cool too. Try to cover a large range. Just don’t put all your eggs in the same basket.

Also, don’t wait until work has dried up to search for work. Keep your eyes open for new work, and keep emailing and bidding on projects. Better have too much and adjust, than panic when you have nothing. Skate where the puck is going, not where it is currently. I’m from Quebec in Canada, there had to be a hockey quote in there somewhere.

10. Under promise over deliver is the only cheesy motto that you should remember.

Under promising and over delivering is key to making people happy. I think it’s a good life philosophy in general and it applies beyond work, but let’s keep it about work for now.

Basically, it means that:

  • You should never miss a deadline. Unless someone dies, you should be able to adapt. If you make a promise, keep it. This is important, you gave your word. If the client misses their deadlines and you need to adjust yours accordingly, inform them of the new adjusted calendar and work from there.
  • Every delivery you make should have your client pleasantly surprised. If you’re delivering the bare minimum, you didn’t charge enough. Keep room to add a layer that wasn’t expected.

11. Learn Excel and get organized. You know computers, it’s not that hard.

This is the thing that I personally put off for too long before fixing. It gave me a lot of anxiety. Costs, taxes, revenues, etc. It’s boring work, but boredom is better than anxiety.

I have no silver bullet spreadsheet document to offer here. Each country and situation is different. Look up your country’s tax brackets, put your revenues in a spreadsheet, find out the taxes you’ll have to pay, and add some padding to it.

12. Be careful with money. Play safe and have good cushions.

Money is not everything, but not thinking about bills is a goal worth shooting for. Getting that weight off your shoulders represents a great dose of freedom.

Hope for the best, but plan for the absolute worst. The worst can get pretty bad. Work towards having a plan for bad outcomes such as losing your hands, home burning, cancer, etc. Shit will hit the fan at some point or another.

  • Keep a 3+ months cushion
  • Don’t touch your taxes money until taxes are paid
  • Get insurances
  • Put 10% to 20% of your income aside for your old days.

This last line is a pretty hard one to follow and not a possibility for everyone. I am just getting there four years in. It’s alright. Remember point #1, you’re in it for the long haul. So, as your pay increases with the years, keep your lifestyle steady and don’t buy a boat. You should be able to catch up.

Additional reading:

13. Keep your schedule flexible.

Making your own schedule is great. But if we’re being realistic, you will have to adjust. The more clients you are dealing with, the more your calendar will be shuffled unexpectedly. Embrace the chaos and stay flexible. I am not a Grind Hustle 24/7™ kind of guy, but I think it’s fine to do a 14 hour day from time to time. Just take a day off after.

As for time and project management, find out what’s right for you and make sure this removes friction from your work instead of adding unnecessary paperwork to it. What’s good with freelancing is you can experiment and make changes to your workflow without needing approval. Just keep your knives sharp.

Personally I’ve tried a bunch of project management apps and techniques to perfectly organize my time and schedule and none of them really worked for me. I finally just use Things to jot down tasks and use a whiteboard to list my current projects and delivery dates. It works great for me.

14. Enjoy the ride.

Freelance is generally awesome and you are lucky to be able to do it. Put some music on and sing out loud. Take a two hour lunch for no reason and then work all night just because. Waste a day to play golf and get drunk with a friend. Your work and life will be more intertwined than with a full-time job, so make the best of it. Adapt work to your life and vice versa.

Cheers! ✌️