Life as a Freelancer // The Lessons, The Stresses & The Successes
I have been working as an independent freelancer since October 2010 but have recently opened a video production studio. For me, it has been a huge transition and like any new endeavour, it has come with a lot of challenges. This time as a freelancer was short but in this time, I learned a great deal of things that I wish I would have known from the start. I feel my experience would have been THAT much better… not to say that my time wasn’t good as it actually went pretty damn well.
In my short time as a full time freelancer, I learned a lot about living as a freelancer and what it takes to stay focused and hopefully successful. Now before we dive into this, let me paint the picture of how I transitioned from working with pension / benefits / 3 weeks vacation / great salary to working as a freelancer….
Flash back to start of 2010, I was shooting a film a day and also working full time doing video production for the government. It was a pretty juicy job that I thought I would never leave when I first got it. I thought it was a dream job – where I would be able to make films AND have security in my job. It was flexible and I was able to leave the work at work. I could then focus my evenings on the film a day project without having to worry about money. About 4 months into the job, I got the opportunity to freelance with a local production company – who I connected with through the film a day project. As time progresses, I was finding myself taking days off from the government to work with the production company. I then took my vacation and headed on the road to travel and shoot films along the way – making my way to an internship I had with a filmmaker from the UK who was DP on a documentary in Idaho. It was during this experience that I realized that it was possible to make a living doing what you love. When I got back from the trip, I approached my boss and asked about the option of working from home – and to my surprise, he was okay with it. It was a slow transition that made the process easier. However, even though the process was made easier – I still worked long hours. I eventually made the decision to quit my day job and start my journey as a full-time freelancer.
During this time as a freelancer, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of very talented people and had the opportunity to travel extensively. However, I also worked on projects I still didn’t want to work on – where I questioned why I left my day job in the first place.
Lesson 1: Embrace the projects you don’t want to work on.
Do not expect to leave your day job for a job where you will do what you love 24/7. There will be times where you will have to work on things you aren’t super into. Sometimes you will take these jobs to pay the bills – other times jobs that you think you want will turn into something you despise. Learn how to spot these projects if you want to avoid them or learn how to balance these with the good ones. There were many times I found myself in situations I wish I wasn’t in and there were times I let it affect the work I was doing. This makes the experience unpleasant for everyone involved. It is critical that you embrace this experience and know how to avoid it from happening again. For me, I found it extremely important to also avoid what stresses you out and for me, this was one of the biggest lessons.
Lesson 2: Collaborate as much as possible.
While freelancing, it is critical that you collaborate as much as possible. One of the challenges of being a freelancer is not getting the opportunity to work with others. I found it most helpful to mix up the types of projects I took on and try work with as many locals in the area as possible. Don’t be scared to reach out to other filmmakers / production companies to introduce yourself.
Lesson 3: Take a break.
Okay, I know this sounds counter-intuitive but breaks are more important than you would think. I found that I was never really able to ever take a break. I felt guilty when I tried and didn’t think I was giving it my all if I wasn’t working 24/7. It is key to set boundaries with your work and take time for yourself. You will be more productive in the time you are working and will have a better chance of not burnt out and / or spreading yourself out too thin.
Lesson 4: Take risks.
Take risks with not only the people you work with and the projects you work on but in your approach to these situations. Try new things and don’t be scared to go outside your comfort zone. As a freelancer, it is key that you put yourself out there creatively and socially.
Lesson 5: Stay true to yourself and your vision.
Having a plan from the start is very important. Develop a 5 or 10 year plan so you have an idea of where you want to be and what you are working towards. Time goes by extremely fast when you are freelancing and it is critical that you are able to take a step back and analyze the big picture. Without a clear picture, it isn’t hard to loose site of why you started freelancing in the first place.
Lesson 6: Define your ideal client.
One thing that I didn’t know was important when I started was defining your ideal client. Even though I developed a business plan and had names of brands that were my ideal clients, I never spent the time to break out the elements that makes a client a good client. Once I was able to clearly lay out what made a good client, I was able to more accurately hone in on the clients that mattered and try surround myself with these people. It also helped with lead generation when trying to build my clients and collaborators.
Lesson 7: Its not all fun and games.
Yes, I know you have heard it a million times but working as a freelancer is not all fun and games. I was told time and time again that a majority of your time was spent maintaining your business – I just didn’t realize HOW MUCH TIME. Expect to spend a good chunk of your time managing your business. It is key that you don’t overlook this and let things build up. It just makes everything harder in the long run.
Working as a freelancer is extremely stressful at times. Don’t expect a walk in the park. Here were my top stresses as a freelancer (and new stresses with my new endeavour).
Stress 1: Where the next job is coming from.
Freelancing when you would like to make money versus freelancing when you NEED to make money at it is a totally different thing. It is key that you have three quality clients at any given time – ones that have proven to return time and time again with work (the returning client). Having three streams of revenue is important if you are hoping for some form of stability.
For me, there were times where I was worried where the next job was going to come from. These are worries that were less present as a freelancer as I was able to carve out a niche for myself but with my new venture, it has been something that has kept me up at night and something that has turned me into somewhat of an anxious person. That being said, we have been EXTREMELY lucky in that we have never had an issue with work coming in since we started the business but the idea of a dry spell scares me. This is one of those freelance crises that, if you let it, can and will break you.
Although I was able to carve out a niche and stay busy as a freelancer, there were times when I would be extremely busy for months and during this time, I was unable to generate leads / continue to network. When the stream that was keeping me busy dried up, there was that fear where the next job was going to come from since I hadn’t spent the time – while I was working – to prep for future work. Luckily the work did come in but it is scary to rely on word of mouth – return customers in these situations.
To ensure that you are prepared, there are a few things you can do. First off, ask yourself, how much money do you need to survive each month? Are there any expenses you can remove? What is my backup plan?
It is key that when you are making money, that you save for times when things dry up. Always have a reserve – but when you don’t have a reserve, don’t be scared to reach out to production companies or other freelancers to ask if they need work or if there is anything you can help with. It is a battle sometimes so it is key that you don’t sit behind a desk waiting for the next job to come in because it won’t. It is up to you to solve the problem.
Stress 2: Staying focused.
For me, a huge stress was when I worked on projects that I knew I didn’t want to work on or were keeping me from what I was driving towards with my long term planning. There will be times, as mentioned above, that you will be working on things that you don’t want to. Make you you keep a balance and don’t let these projects take you away from your goals simply to make a buck.
Stress 3: Falling out of love.
Just like in a relationship, sometimes you fall out of love because of the little things — too much stress, you hate book keeping, or because you’re always on call. There were many times where I felt I was falling out of love for the work I was doing. I find that the best way to solve this is by working on passion projects – that I was able to bring back the initial passion I had when I started. It was when I shot passion projects that I realized that I did still love what I do – I just need to do it on my terms – not the clients terms sometimes.
Stress 5: The burnout.
When you’re working at this pace constantly with no breaks because you’re worried that slowing down could mean the difference between paying for rent this month with your income or your savings, burning out is common. Since I started as a freelancer, I have always kept myself right at that edge of burning out – to the point where I started to loose my passion.
Force yourself to take time for yourself – even if just for an hour. Close your email – turn off your phone and take time for yourself. I find that it generally takes me going somewhere with no cell reception or internet to be able to completely turn off.
Stress 6: Feeling overwhelmed.
I generally find myself taking on too much work and am then overwhelmed with the workload. In these situations, it is key to stay organized and keep an accurate calendar where you lay out your week. When I started doing this, I was able to schedule in ‘me time’. Another helper with staying organized is using a project management platform such as ASANA.
Whatever method you want to use is up to you but it is important to come up with a system. Come up with a maximum number of projects that you’ll work on at one time – and stick to your guns. When I start feeling overwhelmed, the best trick I know to make it go away is to pick one project at a time and make some small progress on it. Small bite-sized pieces at a time – versus jumping between projects.
Stress 7: Isolation.
There have been times where I went on a work binge and haven’t seen people in a few days. I was accomplishing lots and feeling good about my work but I also felt alone. It is key that you get out – even to work from a coffee shop for a few hours in order to keep your sanity. Make time for friends and family as well as it is key to not close yourself off from the real world.
Now the fun part! Working as a freelancer is NOT all bad. There are many successes I experienced as well – I would say way more than before I was a freelancer. It is an extremely rewarding experience if you let it be.
Success 1: Client satisfaction.
One of the best things of working as a freelancer is the happy client – knowing that the work you did solved a business need. I live for these experience and they are what keep me going.
Success 2: Quality work that your proud of.
Producing work you are proud of is extremely important. For me, I try improve with every project so I am able to say that my last project is my best. It gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing I am growing as an artist.
Success 3: The returning client.
When a client calls for more work, you know you did your job and that what you are doing is working. I try make every client a returning customer as that is the backbone to my business.
Success 4: Ability to collaborate with lots of people.
A huge perk of working as a freelancer is the ability to work with are variety of people from different industries, backgrounds and skill-sets. Freelancing has given me the opportunity to meet people I would not have met if I would have kept my job with the government.
Success 5: Flexibility in learning new things.
Along with the opportunity to work with new people, you are also able to see things done in new ways. Everyone approaches situations in a unique way and by expanding your network, you are able to see how others approach situations. Beyond, this, you are also able to gain skill-sets that you might not have had the opportunity to if you weren’t collaborating with new people.
Beyond this, working as a freelancer has forced me to wear many hats and expand what I am capable of accomplishing. If I didn’t put myself in this position, I would not have learned how to run a business, how to properly mic someone, proper techniques for interviewing someone to get the best answers and the list goes on. Putting yourself in new situations opens up many learning opportunities.
Success 6: Experiencing new things.
And lastly, freelancing gives you the opportunity to experience new things. If I didn’t start freelancing, I would not have had the opportunity to travel North America extensively. I would not have had the opportunity to work with extremely talented filmmakers – and I would not have been able to expand my horizons as much as I have until this point.
As I move into a new chapter of my career, I look back and think of my time as a freelancer positively. I guess when I think of it, I am still kind of freelancing – but in a different way. I love what I do and couldn’t see myself doing anything different.
Expect obstacles and expect to fail at times. It’s a journey – one where you will learn more than just the skill you were trying to market.