10 Tips For Freelancers

Hi my name is Sean Dowey and I’m a freelance broadcast designer from Los Angeles, California. My clients include FX networks, Lifetime, CBS, ABC, NBC, as well post houses in Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the surrounding area, and I’ve taught broadcast design for five years at California State University Channel Islands. If you’re considering becoming a freelance broadcast designer, here are 10 key things I’ve learned that may give you a head start:

1. Create a website

The first thing any freelancer needs is an easy-to-update website. As your business and skills grow your design portfolio will be constantly changing. So having a website you can update without spending additional hours in front of your computer is highly beneficial. If you have no idea where to start check out the Behance Network. The service allows users to publish a complete portfolio in a matter of hours. It’s easy-to-use, customisable and free. The service makes money by hosting a jobs board in which employers pay for job listings. Regardless of what you use make sure you get that website up.

2. Create a demo reel

Every freelance broadcast designer needs a demo reel and my advice is to make it under two minutes. If you’re straight out of design school I can’t stress this enough. Unless you are freaking amazing, two minutes may be way too long. My personal reel is about a minute thirty and still needs a little fat trimming!

Put your best work at the beginning of the reel. A prospective client will know after 20-30 seconds whether you are the right person for the job and I have firsthand experience with this. Oh and as a personal request please find something other than techno, trance, house, or whatever other ambient beat sounds good for supporting audio. It’s been done to death!

3. Hit up the job boards

When I was teaching broadcast design my students would ask me all the time how I find work. Firstly I suggest keeping a close eye on job boards. Most design sites have them and I check them daily as they make up a good 70 percent of the gigs I get. Try Motionographer, Mograph, 2Pop, Creative Cow, and Krop. If you know more please leave a comment, I’m always on the lookout for more.

Secondly I suggest networking. Some of the most artistically rewarding and fun gigs I have had have been a result of networking. I love meeting people who share a love of broadcast design and I’m constantly keeping in touch with them. I keep in touch not just for job information but to share tips, jokes, ask for artistic advise, and shoot the breeze. Get those AOL and iChat screen names. Just make a note of who that person with the handle luvbuttons23 is because you may forget! Also, when you network, reciprocate those job leads by passing on a job or two yourself. That goes a long way with people, trust me, it will come in handy some day when one of your connections refers you for a job. More than once this has happened to me just as I was wondering how I was going to pay some of my bills. You can never have too much good karma.

4. Be tenacious but not annoying

Many of my friends who have regular 9-5 jobs think I have it made as a freelancer. In many cases I do and love the freedom and flexibility freelancing gives me but it’s also an incredibly stressful lifestyle. As a freelancer you’re always on the clock. If I’m not employed I’m looking for the next gig. It takes tenacious dedication to your craft and you need to be constantly looking for ways to improve yourself and get that next job. As a freelancer you should be actively introducing yourself to potential employers but be careful. Don’t be the person who emails that design firm once a week looking for a gig. If they have something and they think you are a good fit chances are they will contact you. The only reason to send a follow up email within a short period of time is if a good chunk of content in your portfolio has changed.

5. Knowing your competition is knowing your worth

One of the number one questions students have asked me is how much to charge as a freelancer. When I was first starting out years ago I was no different. I began, like many I’m sure before me have, by blindly applying some figure of what I thought I should charge for my services. I got some jobs doing this but I was still shooting in the dark. After deferring my student loans for the second time in 6 months I chose a more daring approach. I decided for the next job that I would double my rate. I was certain I would be laughed at and not get the gig but I did it anyway. To my great surprise the client didn’t even skip a beat, I was offered the job without hesitation. It crossed my mind at that moment that I had been severely undervaluing my own worth.  I did this technique on and off for a while. Eventually, when nearing what I thought was a reasonable rate I increased my rate by fourths. Ultimately, after a while of doing this, I saw resistance in the form of the laughter I was sure would have happened the first time I did this.

After losing that gig I knew I was nearing the threshold of my monetary value as an artist. I felt pretty confident I was pricing myself correctly for prospective employers but wanted to be sure. Was it just a fluke? After several unsuccessful attempts inquiring to my peers what I should charge as a broadcast designer (the answers were always vague and ambiguous) I decided to place an advertisement looking for a designer and listed my skills as a requirement. I was amazed at the response I got. Within an hour I had over 40 responses. People from all over the U.S. shared a lot of valuable information with me. The responses taught me much more than how much I should charge. They provided examples of excellent (and many poor) introductory letters, paired up rates with demo reels, and showed me who was charging too much and who too little. A lot of you are charging way too little! Am I a dirty low-down scoundrel for doing this? Maybe, but I needed to know where I stood. Broadcast design is a business and it pays to know where you stand.

6. Be willing to turn down work

Yep, be willing to turn down work. In my experience I have found that taking a job that’s well beneath the threshold of what you know to be fair rate wise is never a good thing, it can put you in a bitter mood right from the start. I’ve made the mistake on a few occasions taking jobs that didn’t agree with me and always for the same reason “” I needed money. Most of these were flat rate gigs that promised to be short and sweet but none of them were. Each and every one of them was a nightmare with the clients wanting the sun and the moon but not willing to pay for it. And the jobs always stretched out way past the proposed deadline. On several occasions I actually lost opportunities to work on decent paying and far more enjoyable jobs because I was committed to a succubus of a project. Now if it’s slow I tighten the belt and focus on my reel, website, network of peers, etc. It’s far more rewarding both mentally and financially.

7. Help others

A lot of times getting your next job is all about getting noticed and what better way to get noticed than to help others. Offering your expertise in design forums, design group meetings or schools is a great way to build your network and reputation as a knowledgeable professional. You never know who’s reading those posts. They could be the VP of a major network. Oh, and if you are reading this and you are the VP of a major network, contact me!

8. Get your books in order

For as long as I can remember all I ever wanted was to be an artist and designer . I couldn’t stand the thought of taking an economics class or sitting in a boring trigonometry class. Unfortunately, being a freelance designer requires me to have an appreciation for math and economics. Art is a business and if you don’t treat it as one you’ll soon be looking for a job working for the man again. I suggest keeping a record of your business activities. Record your purchases throughout the year, save those receipts and for Pete’s sake get Quickbooks! Quickbooks is one of the single best investments I have made as a freelancer. It keeps me organized financially. Which is critical come tax time.

9. Set aside some money for the tax man

As a freelancer you’re going to get a lot of untaxed checks coming your way. Don’t make the mistake of spending it all on that new flat screen TV and entertainment center. You’ll wish you hadn’t when tax season approaches and you don’t have the money in the bank to pay up. Penalties suck. Oh, and if you do buy that TV and entertainment center, save the receipt it’s tax deductible and you’re in the business of making motion graphics!

10. Have a sense of humour

Most of the time freelancers are hired when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan and people can be stressed out in those situations. Having a sense of humour and a can-do attitude is contagious. It’ll go far towards getting the next gig and makes your current climate far better to work in.

Please leave a comment with your own experiences and suggestions. See you out there.

  1. John Dickinson

    Great points Sean. Another suggestion for freelancers is to keep good file organisation. If the gig you’re at has a system, use their system, and always leave things tidy, it does get noticed either way.

    • Russell Cory

      I couldn’t agree about organization more.

      We’ve worked with quite a few freelancers who had either horrible or non existent project organization. Opening up a file and finding layers or objects not named, file names of “Untitled38”, images named “3325974201557000.jpg”, etc, is a great way to guarantee that not only will we never hire that freelancer again but we will make it a point to let everyone in our network know that the freelancer is not someone to work with.

  2. John Dickinson

    Great suggestions Sean. Another suggestion for freelancers is to keep good file organisation. If the gig you’re at has a system, use their system, and always leave things tidy, it does get noticed either way.

  3. Sean Dowey

    Absolutely. One of my biggest pet peeves is disorganization. A lot of times I’ll be asked to pick up where another freelancer left off and if the file is a complete mess it can be a headache for me and the client. I’m sure I’ve been called back on jobs solely because I used the clients existing file structure or provided files to a client that were clear and concise.

  4. Jaap

    Great tips! I’m starting as a freelancer. Some tips I’ve heard before, but some of them you can’t hear them enough.
    Right now I’m trying to calculate a good starting charge. To know that I propably charge too low at first is actually comforting, because losing a project because I’m charging too much is one of the scary things.

    For a good portfolio site there are a few options. Right now my site is a combination of iWeb and Tumblr blogs. It works, but is not that great. Soon my site will be a WordPress site with a simple portfolio theme. Wich is totally free and if you know a little html an css coding, is easy to keep up to date.
    But if you’re willing to pay for it. Behance has a service called ProSite. Krop has a portfolio service and there is cargocollective.com. All easy to use Portfolio options and cost around $10/month.

    • Sean Dowey

      Those are all good options for getting a site up. Thanks for sharing them. Yes loosing a job because you are charging too much can be a scary idea. But just because you put out a price you are unsure of doesn’t necessarily mean you will loose the job. They may counter with a lower price or ask if you can come up with a figure that fits closer to their budget. It’s easy to come down in price after the initial conversation but hard to go up. I was of the attitude that if I lost out on a job because my figure was too high another job would come in right behind it. And that happened. Eventually when I was turned down because of my rate another job came in a couple days later.

    • Sean Dowey

      Those are all good suggestions for getting a website up. Thanks for sharing. Yes loosing out on a job because you are charging too much can be a scary thought. It was for me. But just because a client may not like your rate doesn’t necessarily mean you will loose the job. They may counter with another rate or ask for you to come up with something that fits closer to their budget. It’s easy to come down in price after the initial conversation but hard to go up. I was of the mindset when starting out that if I loose a job another one would come in after it. And that happened. Eventually I did loose one but another one came in only a few days later. And, I still loose jobs because of my rate. Not very often but it does happen. And that’s OK. I’m very comfortable with it and am confident that more work is always waiting for me. It’s a mindset that a freelancer needs to get used to. Some people are going to be window shoppers and others are going to purchase the goods. Just try to have more of the latter.

  5. Robocrat

    This was exactly what I was looking for. Not ready to strike as a freelancer quite yet but maybe by years end. Great tips, Thanks

  6. Ben

    I just finished a freelance gig that lasted a year and a half. And what’s funny, when I working at this freelance gig, I would offer similar advice to colleagues and friends who were looking for work. Now, I find myself having to take my own advice as I try to find that next gig. It’s comforting and affirming to read your post and know that, instinctively I’m on the right path!

    John, as to your point of file organization…EXTREMELY important! When I started this freelance gig a year and a half ago, I was replacing a friend of mine who worked there for 2 years, and he had put together a system of organization that wasn’t closely followed between the time he left, and the time I showed up, and it was a NIGHTMARE finding files, assets and exports. And when I would open and After Effects project file…it was a MESS! What was worse is that when I offered to clean up everything, the owners didn’t seem to see the value in wanting to pay me do it…they basically wanted an intern to do. When they upgraded their system to a more robust network solution, I was able to work with the staff editors and IT people to create a organizational solution that’s made things better…not perfect…but better…and it’s driven me bananas when other freelancers have come in and tried to institute their own organizational system as opposed to following the one that’s been created.

    As to the point of rates…you can’t devalue yourself just to get a job. I learned that the hard way. You have to demand a rate that you feel you’re worth, but you also have to be prepared to back that rate up with quality work. Also, when I’m asked about a rate or salary requirements, I always start at a higher number, so I have room to move when the negotiations start. An employer who rejects you because your rate is too high and won’t negotiate with you is someone who’s trying to get bargain basement prices. I was offered a gig while working on my last gig, and when they asked me for my salary requirements, I wasn’t able to leave the gig I was currently on, so instead of saying no, I quoted a substantially higher rate, but I wasn’t prepared for them to ask me when I could start, so I had to tell them I needed to give my current employer 2 weeks notice. They needed someone immediately, so they told me to stay in touch.

    It’s so great to get the affirmation! Thanks a bunch!

    • Sean Dowey

      I’m glad the post helped. I think as artists it’s driven into us that starving is a job requirement. I can’t tell you how many artists I’ve come across who devalue their own worth. They even feel bad for charging what I would consider a sub-standard rate. And I agree, you should always be able to back up your rate with quality work that reflects it.

  7. C Arnold

    I’ve been freelancing for about 6 months now and can’t stress enough the importance of the website. I am currently building it now. I thought “Oh my vimeo page will be fine” but even though I have gotten SOME work I finally realized that I was the schmuck sending potential clients to Vimeo giving them a bullet in the ‘don’t hire this guy’ gun. I’m using squarespace, it seems the most practical to build a wysiwyg website without any coding. It’s 20 bucks a month but well worth it.

    • John Dickinson

      I agree. Having your own site shows that you are willing to put in extra effort, and that goes a long way.

  8. Carl Cropley

    Thanks Sean for a great blog post and some great tips I have not heard of before too.
    Thanks to John for a great site to…. where would we be without After Effects.

    • John Dickinson

      Hey Carl you’re welcome!

  9. Oliver

    Very good summarize of the important issues. I think beginners up to pro’s can take these advice.

    And sorry, I am not a VP of a major network, but I would do it if I where;-)

    take care

  10. Trish Meyer

    Good tips. Most people focus on “getting clients” and “getting paid” side of freelance, so I liked that you included keeping your financial records in order and putting aside funds to pay the taxman. You need to know how much it costs to fund your personal and business expenses, so that you don’t run your business at a loss. That’s a real concern for people who underbid – you are actually losing money on every job.

    I would also encourage freelancers to save 10-15% of your income, not only for a rainy day but also for retirement. When you’re working freelance (or running your own small business – same thing actually), there are no unemployment benefits. If work dries up (not sure how many of you were working in the months after 9/11, but let’s just say the phone stopped ringing for about six months) – or you get a health or family emergency that means you have to stop work for a while – you need an emergency fund to draw down. How much? We always strove to have six months in liquid savings and then more that we could draw down from a taxable brokerage account. (When we were offered the chance to write a book, we could not have done it without significant savings as we had to close up shop for 9 months! Book advances typically pay for 1 month of expenses!)

    As for saving for retirement – you’re on your own there too: put that savings in a tax deferred account and you will also save on your taxes. (Not sure how Australia taxes operate, but in the US, if you are in the 25% marginal tax bracket, saving $1000 means you save $250 on taxes – so it only cost you $750 to save $1000; tax deferred of course.)

    • Sean Dowey

      Thanks for the excellent advise Trish. I’m sorry to say I do remember the six months after 9/11 and even more recently the writers strike. I was lucky to have some cash stashed away. On a side note I’d like to personally thank you and Chris for inspiring me to get into motion graphics. We actually met a long time ago in my lynda.com Ojai days (might have been After Effects West can’t quite remember). I was working in shipping/customer service and just toying with the idea of learning After Effects back then. You guys made it look too cool not to. Thanks for that.

  11. Wayne Heywood

    I’ve been a regular visitor to this site for a while now (Hi John), though, rarely a poster. I have to say.. The quality of this site has gone from strength to strength this past 12 months, and the content is fantastic.

    Well written articles with insightful views like this are the icing on the cake. +1

  12. Halex

    Nice tips and nice reel, Sean! 😀 I’m a newbie motion designer from Brazil, I’m starting work as freelance now and I really like to get a opinion or any tip about my demoreel http://vimeo.com/28874030 from a LA motiondesigner like you. It would be a honor for me if you could take a look at this! Congratulations and Keep the good work!

    • Sean Dowey

      Checking out your reel the first thing that comes to mind is I would put your obvious commercial work up front. Things like the Happy Days piece should take center stage right off the bat. Your first clip looks like it could be misinterpreted as a student piece. I’d also work on a logo/intro card that shows off your design capabilities and doesn’t compete for attention with your illustrative animation style. Right now it’s hard to see where your logo ends and your reel begins. You also use several of the same pieces throughout your reel. Many of my students have done this a means of stretching their reel out to a minute thirty or two minutes. This is usually because the song chosen is that length and/or they are very attached to their projects. They are afraid if they don’t put another portion of the clip in people may miss some awesome bit of animation that could get them a job. Trust me this is not the case. My suggestion would be to trim your reel down to just your best work. Maybe 30-45 seconds. Don’t worry so much about finding an accompanying audio track. I’ve watched several really good reels that just use the embedded audio from each clip. You can always put the complete pieces up on your website for prospective employers to watch in their entirety. Hope this helps.

  13. Pedro Ferreira

    Check this out: www.prosite.com for only $11 a month, it’s well worth the price. You can use one of their templates (wich are very good) or easily customize one, and they are doing a good job at adding new features.

    Or you can just register a free account on www.behance.net, wich for me is more than enough. I got 1 job offer and some freelance work just by having my projects there. There’s even a feature to link your behance portfolio to websites like linkedin etc… and their new mobile application also came in handy a few times. All of this for free…. and a real time saver.

    Besides behance.net also check this one out: http://cargocollective.com/

    • Pedro Ferreira

      I know Sean already mentioned this, but i just wanted to let people know it worked really well for me having my portfolio on behance.net.

      And thanks for the tips Sean.

  14. Tranh nghe thuat

    Thanks for your tips
    very detail and cool

  15. London Jones

    Hey Sean, I’m a freshman in college, but I feel that I don’t exactly need a college degree because I’ve been designing for about 3 years now. I haven’t received a freelance gig (that will actually pay me) yet. I’ve been screwed over many times as a designer where I have helped people with logo design and other digital media and they have haven’t considered paying me for what I’ve done. I’m almost done with my first year in college but I don’t know if I should continue with debt and other financial situations. I feel that I can achieve the dream of freelancing and still working at a steady decent job. So far I have followed your advice of having my own portfolio, and checking out the job boards, and quite frankly I have seen many job offerings but I personally feel (as a designer) that I’m not qualified to contact them about wanting to design for them. Aside from the job and having a Behance profile, I had a website at first, I was using WordPress for about 4 months. And then I stop paying for its service because I was going through a few tough times. My point is that I’ve gone out my way for a little bit of time to show other companies and organizations that I have what it takes to design for them. However, it seems that I am unfortunate enough to where no one notices me. And it brings me down as a designer and artist. Any suggestions to what I should do for my college education and towards my experience of getting my first freelance gig?

  16. Courtland Milloy

    I’m late in the game of broadcasting,but with technology being what it is,I wonder how I can get help breaking in?
    I know about podcast,you tube,and other outlets.But do you some organizations in dc,maryland,or Virginia that help people
    get started in tv and radio?l Maybe some online organization?

  17. Robert Grieves

    As someone who’s been the freelance replacement for John Dickinson, I can vouch for his organisation! He’s a super human creative!
    Having been freelancing for a long while, I read Seans article not knowing what I’d get out of it, and actually it was brilliant. Apart from being well written, it’s a perfect description of freelance best practice. The point about ‘good humour’ is key, as so many employers get freelancers back in cos they liked them as people, not only as designers or animators. I’d almost go as far to say that for a freelancer, being organised and likeable is more important than raw talent. But if you have all 3, then how can it fail right!?

    • John Dickinson

      Great points Robert, it frustrates me when opening up a freelancer project that is a mess.

  18. Mmaun

    Hello Sean Dowey I read your post. Posted on the other, Be willing to turn down work, Get your books in order, Set aside some money for the tax man, For a good portfolio site there are a few options that we will need to have knowledge on Freelancing If you think of this to work nicely I can. I like your good tips post.

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