We work under temporary contracts, yet we are not temps.
We work from the confines of homes, yet we are not telecommuters.
We are most commonly known as freelancers, a different breed of workers. Freelancers are untamable beasts in Corporate America and our species is increasing daily.
Despite our recent reputation, the concept of freelancing did not originate in the 20th century by workers hoping to trade three-piece suits for pajamas and bunny slippers. Our professional ancestors were actually medieval military mercenaries- specialists hired to fight for another country regardless of political, national and ideological considerations. In fact, the term “free lance” was coined in reference to independent knights who offered their skills to the highest bidder.
We are not so far removed from our freelancing forefathers, in some aspects. We may lack the extreme materialism and violent tendencies, except around tight deadlines. But modern-day, successful freelancers have inherited certain characteristics crucial to that success—endurance, flexibility, and ambition. And like our military counterparts, becoming a creative mercenary is not for the meek and untrained.
Giving Up the Day Job
Blame the slow economy and downsizing. Call it an adventurous whim. Maybe you just don’t like your profession dictating your wardrobe. Regardless of your reasons for breaking out of the 9-to-5 doldrums, going from full-time employee to self-employed can be a shock to your system- and your bank account- if you’re not prepared.
“It takes new freelancers about two years to stop ‘freaking out’,” says freelance expert Randy Baker. “After that initial period, you realize that work will come, but if you have a family to support, that can be a very stressful two years.”
“[Freelancing] is a career and lifestyle choice to be made on a personal level. You really need to have a certain personality type, a certain level of talent, and certain life circumstances for it to be the right fit and to be successful,” adds David Brotherton, designer.
Making the transition is a difficult process, often requiring more time and effort than you probably spent as a desk jockey. Brotherton says, “Changing my frame of mind was the biggest thing. I had to think of myself as a one-person creative shop, not just a gun for hire.” He continues, “I had a few clients I served in a small capacity previously, so the trick was to approach them and get more work until I could really focus on marketing myself and educating myself on freelance opportunities.”
For Thomas Sessions, graphic designer, “the hardest part was climbing out of the cocoon of corporate mentality… the career thing has always been about being creative, whether working for myself or for someone else. Freelancing allowed me to experiment without the boundaries you encounter in a corporation.”
Being your own boss sounds like a great concept and has a few benefits. You are able to set your own hours, earn more than regular employees, and you may pay less in income taxes.
“I control all aspects of my work—I set my own schedule, control my workload and the quality. I set the deadlines. I directly benefit when things are going well and also, of course, take responsibility when they are not,” says Susan Greene, copywriter.
The Wall Street Journal reports that freelancers are usually paid at least 20% to 40% more per hour than employees who perform the same duties. Or so it seems. Since clients don’t have to shell out the bucks for your Social Security, health benefits, or unemployment or workers compensation, those dollars can go directly to you.
Being a freelancer provides a few tax benefits. According to Nolo.com, a website providing helpful legal advice for all- including independent contractors, no state or federal taxes are withheld from your paychecks and by paying estimated taxes quarterly, you can hold on to your earnings a little longer. Freelancers are also entitled to many deductions that aren’t available to employees. You may deduct any reasonable business expenses including office space, supplies and software, travel and transportation, and long distance business calls.
Remember that extra 20% to 40% you earned above? Unfortunately, that is not all pocket money. What the client was able to pass on to you must still be put towards any benefits or retirement funds you plan to set up. Without the employee benefits of having Medicare and Social Security taxes paid by the employer, independent contractors are responsible for paying in self-employment taxes. Nolo.com says, “The self-employment tax rate is 12.4% of an independent contractor’s earnings for Social Security, and a 2.9% Medicare tax on all income.”
Playing the roles of boss and employee may sound like a sweet deal, but it is you who suffers the repercussions if you slack on the job. While there are some fortunate employees who can play Burning Monkey Solitaire and catch up on blog reading while earning a paycheck, the freelancer must be “on the clock” and actively seeking work or completing assignments.
Another monetary downfall is the lack of it. Freelancers around the globe can tell horror stories of clients who refuse to pay for their services. Even the best paying client can skip a payment date or two, leaving you with a dwindling bank account in the meantime.
Being an independent contractor may give you a sense of freedom, but it can also leave you with a feeling of isolation. When working on projects that don’t require collaboration with fellow creative types, it can be slow, lonely work.
There is an underlying insecurity in every freelancer, regardless of experience or years in the marketplace, that the work will dry up. That insecurity makes it hard to turn down work, especially in the current economic condition. “I’ve been high and I’ve been low, monetarily speaking, during the five years I’ve been freelancing, and though the lows have never lasted quite that long, neither have the highs,” says freelance writer Rusty Fischer. “Thus I find it hard to say no to a project, even when I’m very busy, because I know another low point could be right around the corner.”
“Take any work at any rate for a year or two and get some experience. After that, if you have even moderate talent, you will be able to get work,” advises Jeff Beamer, creative supervisor at Darden Restaurants, Inc.
With Freelance Comes Responsibility
Like any good mercenary, it is imperative to arm yourself with the necessary skills and information needed before heading out to battle it out in the freelance marketplace. When deciding to take full control of your career, you must be aware that choosing to “be your own boss” means you’re also taking on clerical, accounting, and customer service duties. There are several steps new freelancers need to take before making that first cold call or setting the first deadline with a client.
Devise a business plan. Freelance is a sink or swim endeavor. The typical business plan should define your business, identify your goals, and serve as your resume. The Small Business Administration (SBA) says that a plan is important because “It helps you allocate resources properly, handle unforeseen complications, and make good business decisions.” If you do not set up a business plan before diving in, a good set of arm floaties won’t save you. Visit the SBA website to gather more information and learn how to write a suitable business plan.
David Brotherton suggests, “Break down your particular process to as many parts as possible and figure out the most efficient way of operating. From there you can develop a pricing structure, a creative process and tracking system.”
Develop your freelance team. In the creative freelancer’s world, it is difficult enough to work with clients and survive the creative process without worrying about the business and money aspects. This is why it is wise to form a team. In periods of isolations, perhaps tax time or contract negotiations, it’s nice to have someone on your side. Do some shopping around and find a lawyer and an accountant to assist you in the dirty work.
Randy Baker believes that a good accountant can help you grow your freelance business, “This isn’t just someone who you dump your taxes off to once a year. This is someone who will work with you on a monthly basis and help you get to where you want to go.”
While an accountant aids you in financial matters, a lawyer can advise you on contract negotiations, track down deadbeat clients, and protect you in legal battles.
Even though you may be paying your team for advice and assistance, staying involved in business matters is strongly advised over passing the buck. An article published by UK’s Guardian in August 2001 suggests that maintaining your own books and records “keeps your accounting and bookkeeping costs down and means you are much more in control of your business… People in this position usually run better and more profitable businesses.”
Get organized. “You have to be organized and disciplined. Project management and communication are just as much of the gig as doing the actual creative,” says Brotherton.
When knee-deep in multiple projects with competing deadlines, the last thing you want to do is to scramble around looking for a missing paycheck or a client’s phone number. Setting up a tracking system, while it may seem like bad luck if you’re just starting out, will save you time and energy in the long run. And it does not need to be high tech. “I’m very low tech when it comes to organization,” says Fischer. “I have a spiral bound notebook and every morning I write my to-do list, then I got through it and cross things off as the day progresses. I use a simple invoice template for each client, and it’s worked great so far.”
Organization doesn’t stop at the business end of things. If your projects require any computer involvement, from Word documents to digital media, it is wise to develop a folder system within your hard drive. Set up a folder for each client, a sub folder for each project for that client, and if you are a freelancer of diverse talents, folders for each medium you work in or categories (print media, typography, photography, copywriting, etc). This will prove handy not only when working on multiple projects, but when it’s time to update or build a portfolio, it will be much easier to weed through and pick the best samples.
Open a business-only bank account. The best way to maintain a good employee-employer relationship with yourself is to set up a checking account apart from your personal account. Write a check from the business account to pay your own salary just like any employer would to handle private expenses. From a business account, you can also pay for necessary business expenses, like printer paper and software upgrades. Not only will it help to keep your personal spending separate from your professional spending, it’s a handy tracking tool in case you inadvertently toss out your Office Depot receipt. Your accountant will thank you.
Be Your Own Huckster
As you can see, freelancers have as many different roles as there are interchangeable synonyms for freelance. “Be your own boss” quickly becomes “be your own secretary/bookkeeper/runner/supply manager” and you haven’t even snagged your first assignment. Time to add marketing to your to-do list and buy a hat rack.
If cold calls leave you shivering and you’ve worn out the Control+C/V keys copying your resume to employment engines like Flipdog and Monster, it might be time to try some more unconventional methods.
Thomas Sessions shares his method, “Early on [in my career], I used to go on lost of job interviews, even if I wasn’t interested in the job. After the interview was over, I would always ask the creative director to keep me in mind for freelance if I wasn’t the candidate selected for the position.” He continues, “If the position was offered to me, I would tell them I needed some outrageous figure in order to come on board. I never got the position, but I did get a ton of freelance work.”
“I have done all kinds of things [to attract business]—from sending chain emails to visiting ad agencies,” says photographer/designer Herbie Martin. “I post flyers and try to talk to all kinds of people. I even got my name on Create Magazine’s database to get jobs.”
“The intention is to create a searchable database of the creative service providers in a specific region,” says Create publisher Jerry Brown of the Creative Index. “This listing online is free and it’s free to search.”
Susan Greene, while maintaining relationships with her key clients, found a way to steer new clients her way. "For a long time, most of my new business came through referrals from my existing clients. In the last year, however, my website has also helped me to get work. I refer prospects to my site where they can read about my background and see some samples of my writing. The website gives me a certain amount of legitimacy and credibility as an experienced freelance copywriter."
The Internet can be a great marketing tool, and a professional web presence may bring in more leads, but the computer is not always a good networking device, especially if you are looking to take on local jobs.
“I probably learn more about what’s going on in the area through networking opportunities from professional trade organizations such as WIFT, MCA-I, OAF, Siggraph, Avid User Group, and DMA-F,” says Baker. “The secret to meeting new clients through these groups is to get involved, don’t just show up at their meetings thinking you are going to get work.”
“Anything that will get your name and work out there is a plus. Networking is imperative, period,” adds Martin.
Ready… Aim… Get Hired!
In the crowded marketplace, talent and a personalized declaration of independence is not enough to secure a project. “It’s nice to know you can do the work, but where is the work going to come from?” says Greene. “The most successful freelancers know how to aggressively seek business.”
Greene adds, “They must also be able to handle rejection and criticism because not every prospect is going to give you the job and not every client will gush over your work.”
In order to reach the point where pavement pounding is replaced with clients cold-calling, it is necessary to set yourself apart from the competition. You are your own brand. Every creative freelancer has his or her personal style to bring to the project. “Understand how to present and market yourself well. Understand your own style and go after clients that suit that style,” advises Brotherton.
The best way to present yourself to a potential client is through your portfolio. Work samples and a resume or CV is what the client will see first and will determine your fate with their company. Naturally, you should put your best clips forward. If you have no work samples, Thomas Sessions says, “Do spec work for your portfolio. Select a company you really like, study their current ad campaign, then put yourself to work and redesign them as if they were your new client.” He continues, “If you are proud of the work, put it in. This is nothing more impressive than seeing artwork for well-known national brands in someone’s portfolio.”
However, “If [a potential client] asks you about the work, don’t lie. Tell them you did the designs on spec because you thought you could do a better job after reviewing their current creative,” cautions Sessions.
Diversity and flexibility are also great ways to be distinguished from the rest of the pack. Become a copywriter with page layout capabilities, a multimedia designer, or develop typography or photography skills. A client may not hire you to take on graphic and writing jobs, but having both talents will heighten your marketability and could double the number of assignments. For graphic artists, computer skills are becoming increasingly desirable.
What is the client looking for? “Dependability, good disposition, and talent- in that order!” says Jeff Beamer, Creative Supervisor of Darden Restaurants, Inc.
The next requirement Beamer has may send the pajama pants back to the closet. “Present yourself professionally,” he says. “This requires no graphic skills, but can put you in front of 50 percent of the freelancers out there. That’s a fact! And it’s something you can do immediately.” Of course, professional manner is not limited to clothing, but it’s a good place to start.
“Admittedly, most of my clients are simply email addresses or phone numbers passing in the dark,” says Fischer. “However, the occasional local client will usually require a face-to-face meeting or two before sending you home with their precious project.”
Fischer adds, “While you don’t have to wear a three-piece suit every time you meet with a client, it’s a good idea to start stiff and relax later.”
You Want it When?
“Welcome to the hard part of freelancing,” says Baker.
Eventually, the self-marketing is successful and the projects start rolling in. A sigh of relief becomes a sigh of hopelessness if deadlines fall too soon, or for multiple projects too close together. Time management is essential to meeting deadlines and keeping the client sated.
“I always have several projects going on at the same time. Like anyone with multiple demands, I am constantly prioritizing what needs to get done first,” says Greene. “My clients invariably have short deadlines. It’s the nature of the business.”
With the advent of email and the Internet, research can be completed at near warp speeds, but that means turnaround times on projects are expected to be shorter. Which might make for more spare time for some freelancers, but the most sought after contractors must learn to budget time. “By getting up earlier and going to bed later, by cutting out an hour of TV each night or that mid-week matinee, I can do so much more,” says Fischer. “It can be a sacrifice at times, but to be able to work full-time at what you love makes the bitter pill that much easier to swallow!”
But there are some cases where deadlines are too tight or a freelancer just can’t complete a project by the designated day. This can be the case when insecurity takes over and accepts more jobs the other emotions can bear. “You have to be aware of your limits and what is a realistic workload. You don’t want to put yourself in a position to make a mistake. Dropping the ball on a project is the worst PR you can have,” says Brotherton.
Sessions says, “I always tell the client up front how long it will take me to complete a job. If it does not work into their schedule, I suggest that they find another designer and recommend a good friend who needs the work.”
“If you’re up front with everyone you are working with and let them know ahead of time about your other projects, you shouldn’t have any problems. You may be working a lot of nights and weekends to get all the work done- but that’s a problem lots of folks would be glad to have,” adds Baker.
Stamina = Success
“The competition of the freelance world is a microcosm of the entire creative industry: those that excel, those that maintain, those that struggle and those that vanish,” says Brotherton.
Obviously, with the amount of work required just to get to the point of sending out resumes, freelancing is not for everyone. And yet, as corporations continue to restructure, we are seeing an increase in opportunities for independent contractors.
“In the current economic environment, getting full-time positions added is difficult, however the work is still there necessitating the use of freelancers,” says Jeff Beamer.
Baker says, “The job market in Central Florida is busier than I have seen it in several years. The amount of work showing up here recently, for me, is a better indicator of a healthier national economy than anything I can read in the Wall Street Journal.”
Current freelancers should take advantage of the current trend, but proceed with caution. The benefits of outsourcing work for companies fluctuate. “It’s a fine line between working as an employee or a freelancer. You either fall under capital or expense,” says Sessions. “Companies seem to be going to the ‘expense’ route by hiring freelancers because it is cheaper to pay a good hourly rate and no benefits.” As competitive rates go higher and higher, companies may find it cheaper to reinstate permanent positions and hire on those freelancers who simultaneously tire of paying for their own benefits.
One thing is certain, freelancing is “not for the faint of heart.” Fischer says, “It’s something to research in detail first, and definitely requires a substantial amount of saving before taking the plunge. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to spend ten to twelve hours chained to their computer for the first few years, you might want to wean yourself into it slowly.”
Luckily, Central Florida is full of resources for freelancers young and old. One important resource is this magazine. “Create Magazine let freelancers stay in touch with what’s going on in the community,” says Brown. “Not being part of a larger corporation, or in a studio with other talent, freelancers have a tendency to separate themselves from the creative community.”
He continues, “Being the region’s creative industry trade magazine, we know a ton of great talent in the area in all the different industries… if we have a third party client looking for a writer, designer, or photographer, we immediately have a list for them to choose from—already referenced by us.”
With the ammunition provided in this article and Create as an ally, the modern creative mercenary need not scour the countryside for work or sacrifice passion for violent materialism. We can focus our attentions on pajamas with clever designs, enjoying creative freedom, and, of course, being the best crop of freelancers in Central Florida.