For all intents and purposes this is an open letter to every single freelancing creative in the world.
Let’s say you want to be a graphic designer, so you go to school. After four long years and a ton of debt, you graduate. Now after being inside the safe womb of college you’re thrust into the real world all wide-eyed and excited, and you should be, the real world is great! Despite what some people would have you believe the real world is awesome, not a scary place that will crush your soul and devour your dreams.
All that being said, you need to very quickly learn how to navigate the real world, lose the naiveté, and think long-term.
After college you’ll probably get a job waiting tables or some such thing and while you’re trying to make some money, you know live, you’ll probably freelance on the side until you “make it”. In all reality you’ll probably freelance a lot longer than you think, but that’s beside the point. Although, you really need to think about how you’re going to freelance before you do it. There are many dangers for you and your career that can come from freelancing.
Now I’m not saying freelancing is wrong, in fact, I think that freelancing is a great thing; you get to work on multiple different types of projects for multiple different industries gaining tons of experience along the way. You also get to work with different types of people and personalities which is extremely important as you not only need to work out your IQ, you need to workout your EQ, but that’s another blog.
The pitfall I see is that freelancers, especially when they’re young, will reach out to absolutely anyone to see if they could use their services. Now this doesn’t seem like it would be a bad thing, but let me explain. From our example above you are a graphic designer and you’re just starting out. You have a portfolio, but it’s just mock-ups or things you’ve done for friends and family. So, you venture out into the world to gain experience, plus your portfolio, and hopefully make a little money.
FREELANCE DANGER AHEAD!
Here’s where I speak from experience; I was a freelance videographer for years. I’d go door-to-door seeing if any small business could use my skills, and some would. I gained experience and made a little money, very little money. After a while the day came when I had to go get a “real job”. I had run out of money and needed to go back to work. Side note, I had quit my job a few years earlier to focus solely on my video work so this was pretty crushing.
I got a job at GoPro in the media department creating videos from “UGC” or “User Generated Content”. Now remember, I had been creating videos for around ten years at this point. I was only at GoPro for just under two years, but in that two years my skill level, storytelling ability, editing speed, sound design, color correction, motion graphic capabilities, all increased dramatically. I was like Popeye after eating a can of spinach. I had gained more in less than two years than I had gained in the past ten.
Now you might say “well of course you did, GoPro makes some of the raddest content on the planet! I’m super stoked every time they release a new video!”. To which I would say “stop drinking energy drinks, get off the BMX bike, and let’s chat”. GoPro is well known for their content, yes, but there’s one thing that was responsible for my dramatic increase in skill level and it wasn’t the rad content bro, it was collaboration. Collaborating with the other editors and creators at GoPro, being open to their ideas and thoughts, and having a manager who knew what they were talking about when it came to my field of expertise is the reason for the dramatic uptick in skill.
When you’re a freelancer going door-to-door, or email-to-email, looking for work, and sometimes finding it, the companies you’re usually freelancing for do not have a team dedicated to your field of expertise. They are hiring a freelancer because they can’t afford an agency, huge red flag, and they just expect that you know what you’re doing, or worse they think they know what they’re doing and are going to guide you through what they “know” they “need”. This is the danger with freelancing with corporations, if you consistently work the wrong way and have to learn from hard knocks of experience over and over again the process of growing in your career is usually very slow. I say usually because there are some crazy smart people out there who this may work great for, but generally I think freelancing in this way is a terrible idea.
Joe Blo at X corporation who uses clip art to make a power point, but needs an info-graphic done and is going to give you design notes is 1,000,000% the wrong person to work with, especially as a new fresh out of school freelancer. It takes years of experience to be able to traverse the deep dark jungle that is understanding and being able to guide the corporate marketing world from what they think they need to what they actually need.
So, what do you do?
I’m glad you asked! You 100% should freelance, I believe this completely, however, I think you need to be smart about how you freelance. Going back to our graphic designer example; you graduate from college, you’re waiting tables with your small portfolio in-hand so where should you go? Well, if you can you should get a job in the mail-room, sweeping floors, washing windows, etc. at an agency that specializes in what you do. When you’re there be attentive, listen when people speak, see how the business operates, talk to the other designers, let them know what you want to be, offer to buy them coffee, etc. so you can pick their brain about design. There will be jerks out there who will tell you to piss-off, but you’ll 100% find someone willing to listen.
Now, if your portfolio is strong enough and you can get a job at an agency or have them hire you as a freelance partner, that’s awesome and you should 100% do that. Either way though, working in the mail-room or as a freelance partner you are at a location with other people who know what they are doing and can help you learn the right way. Trust me from experience when I say that having colleagues with experience different than your own to critique your work is extremely important.
This also means that you need to be extremely open to critique. In my experience young creatives are very locked off to hearing that what they’ve spent their time on sucks, but you need to be OK with that. You need to learn to be self-aware and look at your work from multiple different points-of-view in order to critique it properly and be OK with changing or scrapping something you may be extremely passionate about.
If I hadn’t been able to take my own ego out of the equation when being offered a job to GoPro I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the job, but more importantly I wouldn’t have learned everything I did in the couple of years I spent there. I certainly would not have been able to make content that’s been viewed well over 50,000,000 times from BMX tricks, to a guy setting whips on fire then cracking them in the forest, to some insanely cute dancing baby owls.
If you get anything out of this blog, I hope it’s the realization that there are other people like you who actively want to help you grow and become the best you possibly can be. Just please stop listening to Steve the Director of Global Marketing and Product blah blah blah who thinks that they 100% need flash-based banner ads and a white board hand drawn style “explainer” video. Also, just a thought, if a company that can’t afford to hire a proper agency to do their work and asks you to freelance for them then tries to tell you how things need to be done, that should be your first clue it’s probably not the place you should be freelancing, just a thought.
If you liked this content and want more consider subscribing to our e-mail list and following our social channels. This blog is a companion piece to a previous blog entitled, “Don’t Hire Anymore Videographers“.