5 Lessons I've Learned as a Freelancer

It’s a constant dance to balance the value of your time and investments.
— Andrew Hida, 2014

A year ago I dropped into a profession that I knew little about: video production. Don’t get me wrong, I came well prepared with skills to shoot, edit, and tell a story. I had a great internship and spent nearly a year at a production studio honing those skills. But, what I failed to prepare for was navigating a freelance career in one of the most competitive industries and markets.

The past 12 months have been a tumultuous journey defined by complete failures and tremendous successes. From these experiences, I’ve learned five simple lessons during my young career as a modern freelancer.

Lesson Number 1

Be your best advocate. Your reputation always precedes you, so never get too comfortable where you stop running checks and balances on yourself. Remain self-aware and keep your nose down. Being your best advocate also means demanding what your talent and your time are worth. This is always a complicated path to navigate. I try to always weigh the costs and benefits. In my mind, a personally unsatisfying high-paying commercial job is a great short-term investment. Likewise, lower-paying editorial projects are a great long-term opportunity that results in meaningful work. It’s a constant dance to balance the value of your time and investments.

Lesson Number 2

Advertise yourself. I’m not saying you should start taking out Facebook ads or billboard advertisements with an 800-number. Rather, broadcast to your network—friends, colleagues, editors, professors, family—that you are going freelance, and that you are available and ready to work. Most jobs are secured by referrals at various levels of your network. So shout as loud as you can without an annoying or abrasive screech.

Lesson Number 3

Organization and record keeping are a must. Spreadsheets are my hobby. Manila folders and filing cabinets are my best friends. And workflows are my lifestyle. I’m already an overly anal retentive person, but becoming a freelancer has taught me to be even more organized. Use slugs for every project, job, or client mirrored across your internal workflow and archive. Save all your receipts, flip them over, and write a note on the back to remind you of the expense on tax day. The point of detailed organization and documented workflow is so that anyone, whether it’s an assistant editor, your accountant, or you, can jump in at any point and know exactly what actions preceded and what tasks come next.

Lesson Number 4

Brand yourself. I’ve asked myself repeatedly, “What do you want to do? How do you want your potential clients to perceive you?” Scrutinize how you define your business and distinguish yourself from the competition. Identify your strengths and where your weaknesses lie. Brand yourself based on your strengths and passions. Your weaknesses are an opportunity to leverage the skills of other creatives to complement your skill set. This directly leads to Lesson Number 5.

Lesson Number 5

Be open to collaboration. Coming from a photography background like myself, you become trained to think and work as an independent and solitary creative. We bask in our own glory, and fail in our own misery. However, as clients and publications demand more deliverables in the form of video, images, graphics packages, and interactives, so too must we demand more from ourselves. It’s possible to hammer out brilliant video storytelling and supporting photography, all delivered in a branded interactive package, but it will take a long time, and inevitably something will suffer. And what usually suffers is the quality.

Brian Storm, Executive Producer of MediaStorm, once told me to identify one thing you want to be really good at, and then become an expert at it. I have identified where my strengths are, and where my weaknesses lie. In fact, I have co-founded Spēk Pictures--a video and multimedia production company--on this principle. My partners offer complementary talent and expertise. Together we can create and build a higher quality product that we might otherwise fail at individually.

This new (shared) journey will be scary, but if we follow these lessons, I know we will succeed—individually and collaboratively.

Thank you for reading.


*This blog entry was cross-posted on the Spēk Pictures blog.