Keys to Keeping a Steady Flow of Work

Consistent work means consistent cash flow. But any freelancer or small business owner will tell you it’s an ongoing challenge to keep the pipeline full.


A few weeks ago when I asked people to email with questions, a common theme arose around the topic of keeping a constant flow of client projects (and a constant stream of income).

For a freelancer (or small business for that matter) it takes time to build up enough clients to have a constant flow of work. There are no short cuts because trust is built one project at a time and most clients don’t have work to send you every week.

Every small creative business and every freelancer has a finite resource called time. Whether flying solo or using  a creative team,  there are specific limitations and specific cash flow needs based on the number of employees and how many production hours each employee has to give.

You have to figure out your bandwidth, and budget your time accordingly. Then you need to shake the bushes to get enough work to fill those hours. Even with best laid plans though, it’s still messy.

You’ll have a quiet week waiting on clients to approve something, then you’ll have all of them approve the next step at the same time. There will be 3 hour days and there will be 13 hour days. You’ll have a season with very little work, then it will all come at once. You try to manage it, but sometimes it’s inevitable. 

A constant and perhaps semi-predictable flow of work comes with serving clients well over time. You’ll have many one-off projects and clients that come to you around the same time each year, but one goal should be to get some type of long term contract or multi-month project.

It’s a messy science but one you must address. Store up savings during the big months. Use it up during the lean months. I recommend having a savings system (usually a percentage of each project, or a monthly dollar amount) that automatically goes to savings. Build up a buffer (3-6 months is ideal) to cover costs when the dip hits.
(Notice I said “when”, not “if”.)

Generally speaking, there are 2 key factors in generating workflow consistency.

1. Marketing
The creative landscape is a crowded space. There are thousands of artists to choose from and it’s your job to get on the radar of enough clients to sustain your career. The good news is, once you find a niche market or two and determine to stake a claim there, you can begin to market to those clients with laser focus.

Here’s more good news. Most marketing is free. Marketing simply means promotion. Any way you can find to promote you and your services is marketing. You can start a linked in page, online portfolio, YouTube or Vimeo channel, Facebook fan page, or any other form of social media you choose.

Those are great tools, but the real marketing comes when you target a specific market and start researching who the players are. Then you focus on trying to connect with potential clients thru social media, industry events, and the like.

2. Customer Service
It’s one thing to land a client. It’s another thing to keep them. It’s your job to build trust with clients as you serve them well. You want to make sure they are pleased with the process and the product.

If the experience of working with you is unprofessional, discourteous, or communication challenged, chances are you just secured a one-off project.

It takes a lot more resources to initially connect with a client than it does to keep them, so treat them well and your chances of them returning the next time they need your creative services increases exponentially.

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What other tips can you think of that may help keep your work flow steady? You can leave a comment below.


7 Steps to Breaking In as a Freelancer

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 11.45.30 AMI work primarily in the animation industry which employs many freelancers including writers, visual development artists, storyboard artists, sound designers, voice actors, animators, and more.

Some projects require on-site freelancers, some remote. Some projects are long term like working on a 13 episode animation series. Some projects are short term or one-off projects. It also depends on your location. LA, NY, and Atlanta (to name a few) have studios that crew up for production, then go on hiatus for a few months until the next season goes into production. Location is a catch-22. There are more opportunities for freelancers in these cities, but there’s also more competition. Some freelancers use agents, some don’t.

Because of technology and the internet, I think right now is the best time ever to be a freelancer. Last summer we crewed up to 17 people for 4 months, but only 4 of us were onsite. The rest were all over the country, and we even had freelancers from Brazil and France. We often use voice artists who have online demo reels and high quality recording capabilities at their homes. 

Our interactive and game development partners are on the west coast, and most of their programmers are in Europe (which is nice when you want to send off animation at the end of the day, then wake up the next morning and see it already programmed).

Here are 7 tips for breaking into your industry as a freelancer.

1. Secure basic financial stability and live modestly.
Creativity and financial pressure do not mix. You may have to work a part time or full time job doing something other than your dream job while you build clients and learn your trade. Working somewhere in a creative field close to what you want to do is preferable but not always possible as you start out.

2. Clarify your calling and key marketable skills.
Make sure you are working in your sweet spot. Your sweet spot is where your passion, calling, skills, and marketability intersect. Consider targeting a niche market. I have a good friend who works primarily as an illustrator for the toy industry. He does other work, but he intentionally targets that industry and it has served him very well.

3. Set long term career goals.
You can’t develop and work a plan, or even take steps in an intentional direction unless you have an idea of where you are trying to go. Years ago when I worked in print design we would always start with the print date, then work backwards to set milestones to build a schedule. Think of your career like that. Where do you dream of being someday? What needs to happen for you to get there?

It may not happen just how you plan, but at least it gives you a plan of action. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked, “Planning is useless… but the process itself is indispensable.” What he was saying is that, plans usually don’t work out how we envisioned, but the plans were essential to giving you forward movement, and a sense of direction and purpose. Planning helps you clarify your calling.

One caution here. When it comes to taking action toward your career goals, don’t get to overwhelmed with all that has to happen, just focus on the main goal and identify the next single step.

4. Maintain a strong, clear portfolio showing the type of work you want to do.
When I’m reviewing a freelance or potential employee’s application, the first thing I do is look at the portfolio. I want to get a sense of the artist from their art before I look at what they describe on their resume or application. Disney/Pixar’s John Lasseter has often said, “Quality is the best business plan, period.” 

5. Establish a continuing education plan for what you want to master.
Sketch, learn, read, practice, and be disciplined. Volunteer to teach a short workshop at a local elementary school, or at church (when you teach others, you always learn more yourself). Keep growing as an artist.

6. Hustle, promote, and network
You need to market yourself. Go to events, and network with other artists. There is no substitute for face time and building relationships. Where relationships are formed, opportunities are made.

This can be hard for many creatives because we tend to be introverts (to one degree or another). Embrace it and face it. You’ll be glad you were stretched and it gets easier over time as you gain experience.

Be sure to leverage high profile projects and build on successes. One success leads to another. Set up twitter and linked in accounts. Join local and national industry groups in your creative area.

7. Persevere and enjoy the journey!
Freelancing is hard work. But it’s worth the effort. Take the long view and don’t let the end game be your only focus. Living a full life includes enjoying the journey as you pursue your goals. Honestly, I’m writing this to myself right now. Creatives need constant reminders that the goal isn’t the real purpose, the journey itself is!

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I have other freelancer related questions from artists which I’ll answer in the coming weeks. In the mean time, what other things have you found useful to get your foot in the door as a freelancer? You can leave a comment below.

3 Keys To Growing As An Artist

Earlier this week I emailed our Timbuktoons CloudTeam Members, previous interns, and other artists who have worked at Timbuktoons at one time or another. They are creatives of all different stripes including: musicians, animators, graphic designers, creative team leaders, motion graphics producers, illustrators, visual development artists, voice actors, video producers, and sound designers.

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As I’m developing strategies to help creatives thrive, I want to make sure I’m addressing real felt needs so I asked them this question:

“What is your biggest pain point or struggle as a creative, creative leader, or creative influencer?”

Today I’m answering a question that was posed by a few artists. Here’s the basic question they had.

“How do you continually grow as an artist and prevent stagnation?”

Great question. I’m sure there is much more that could be added to this discussion but for me, 3 key areas of development come to mind. Discipline, exposure, and expansion.

Like a pianist who practices measures every day, or a character designer, animator, or visual development artist who sketches every day, one of the keys to growing as an artist is discipline and repetition.

My kids all play soccer and every practice begins with 20 minutes of juggling. These kids touch the ball with their feet, knees, and heads so regularly that it becomes intuitive on the soccer feild when it counts.

Our daily disciplines are not always easy, fun, or desireable, but they slowly and methodically make us better at our craft. It’s like investing. We put little deposits in regularly over time and down the road the investment pays off.

There’s no escaping the need for discipline in growing as an artist. You put in the hard work now, then later when it’s time to perform, or concept the book cover illustration, or design a brand mark, you have what it takes and you get to ENJOY the creative process.

There’s nothing like putting yourself in environments where you are exposed to new art. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stagnant or had a hard time getting going on a drawing project, then pulled some reference material or looked at another artists work to get inspired.

In every case, there’s one particular piece of art that inspires me and makes me want to draw. Researching other artists online is great. Going to conferences and events where you can meet other artists and see their work first hand is even better. For example, I love going to CTNx where you can talk to industry veterans and see such a broad range of art and artists. Find a conference in your creative industry and go! I guarantee it will be time and money well spent.

When I was in art school, I had 2 amazing classes that I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have at the time, but see now how important they were. One was an art history class where we would go to a different museum or art studio in Washington, D.C. every week. The other class was a media class and each week we worked in a completely different medium.

Seeing new styles and mediums of art, and working in new mediums really helped me grow as an artist. I didn’t get better immediately, but it opened my eyes to new possibilities and new approaches.

Years ago I wanted to build on my illustration skills to become a visual development artist. First I researched other vis dev artists to see what mediums they worked in and what processes they used, then I did the same.

I wasn’t getting paid for it yet, but I developed concepts with characters, went on location to do sketch studies of various things related to the concepts and characters, then worked in mediums I hadn’t used before. Pen and ink, markers, clay maquettes, charcoal, water color, pastels, etc.

Not only did I build up my portfolio and ability to talk about using those mediums, but I grew as an artist. If you are a musician, try playing an instrument you haven’t played before. If you are a graphic designer, put away the mac for a day and design with a hands on medium like collage, or cut paper.

Take on projects that stretch you. Bite off more than you can chew. It will force you to grow and learn new things. Challenges bring passion and determination. It’s an overused analogy, but butterflies coming out of their cocoons can only fly if they have to struggle their way out of the cocoon. The struggle pushes vital fluids into their wings which are necessary to fly.

A good friend of mine who is a video producer recently landed a large project with a national company. He had several on location shoots this winter…and every time he was caught in a winter storm.

He had to spend his night in his car during an ice storm in Atlanta, then a month later was caught in a blizzard in New Hampshire. Both were stressful and frightening situations, but his knowledge and experience as a producer have grown tremendously from those experiences.

So, plan your career and artistic development by putting yourself in situations where you will grow. Growth comes from an inward determination that puts you in situations where your outward environment also feeds the growth. Then it becomes a cycle of growth and inspiration, not to mention a nice way to gain clarity on your creative calling.

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What things have helped you grow as an artist? You can leave a comment below.

Are You Part of the S5 Audience? A Must Read for Any Creative!

s5graphicMy goal as a Creative Career Coach is to help creatives find their calling and plan their education and careers based on their core marketable strengths, while living a fulfilling life and making the world a better place. S5 Represents the 5 key seasons a person in the creative industry needs to intersect with a mentor or Creative Career Coach.

High school and college career counselors are a great resource, but they have to be more concerned with a students credits, applications, grades, and requirements than they do helping creative students find their calling and core marketable strengths. Some colleges have great job placement and internship partner programs, but many do not. Once in a specific career, there are very few resources around to help people transition into the creative field from other fields, or to help struggling creatives find their way again.

Here’s a description of each of the S5 categories. Pinpoint which one you belong to and leave a comment below to let me know what resources you need to thrive as an artist!

1. SENIORS (High School)
Choosing a creative career track begins with the college or post-highschool training a senior picks. My goal is to get great resources into the hands of high-school seniors, school career counselors, and high-school art teachers.

2. SOPHOMORES (College)
College Sophomores have a critical window of opportunity to declare a major, switch majors, or even switch schools. Many sophomores realize they are in the wrong track, but are afraid to pivot because they have 2 years invested. Nothing could be worse than going 2 more years down the wrong creative track when they sense a change is really needed. I want to get advice, information, and resources into the hands, heads, and hearts of college sophomores to empower them to make sure they are being educated according to their core strengths, passions, and calling.

I know first hand that college training, though crucial to gaining employment, is only half of the education they need. Beginning a creative career and working “hands on” in the industry is the other half of the educational equation. I want to help prepare creatives for real world work, track down internships, help them develop relational skills and work habits to set them apart from the crowd, and find ways to get a foot in the door of their dream job! This is also a critical time to decide if graduate school is a good option.

After 13 years in a graphic design and illustration career, I found myself discontent and, through a process, wound up quitting my job to start an animation company. I’ve seen many people take the courageous step to transition into a creative field that better fits their passions and core strengths, or even transition from an unrelated career to one in the creative arts.

For example, one of our TimbuktoonCloud Team Members flew helicopters for the military for 12 years, then decided to pursue her dream of working in the animation industry! Another great friend and long time Timbuktoons Team Member actually went to Seminary and planned on working in a church, until he felt called BACK into the creative arts where he has thrived for over 12 years doing tons of meaningful work for churches, great companies, and great non-profits. Starting over can be scary and overwhelming and I want to help creatives who are making, or thinking of making, that transition.

Creatives are usually multi-talented. Creatives usually jump from one creative passion to another. Creatives often doubt their capability and have a hard time seeing their best creative strengths. Almost every creative I know gets to a point of frustration and confusion sometime in their career. They get stuck and need some help. I want to help this group of creatives get clear on their calling and core marketable strengths, and I want to help them develop a concrete game plan to help them thrive again.

I’ll have some great resources for my S5 audience in the near future, so if you know anyone who fits one of these categories, PLEASE encourage them to check out the blog and sign up for my e-news. If you are like me, you wish you had a creative mentor or coach intersect your life at one of these critical seasons of life.

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Let me know what you think. You can leave a comment below. If you leave a comment, do me a favor and list your creative arts field, and whether you are a student or a professional.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Artist Critiques

Animation studios have “dailies” where they review each other’s scenes and provide feedback and constructive criticism. Also known as the “sweat box” in the animation industry (dating back to the days of Walt Disney when he would review completed scenes in a small review room where animators would nervously await his response) it’s a term that can strike fear in the heart of the artist.


One of my college drawing professors shared a story about his professor who wouldn’t give much useful input on drawings, but would literally come to a a students easel and put a large “X” on drawings that weren’t what he was looking for. Our professor didn’t do that but he did have us do something similar to the “sweat box” that made us all better artists.

We would end each 6 hour drawing day with a critique. Every student would put their day’s work up on the wall for all eyes to see. Every student was required to give feedback on each piece of art. Talk about transparency.

The critiques did 2 things. It made you strive to do your best work, and it forced you to articulate your thoughts about art in a formalized way that made sense and was constructive. It wasn’t a time for bashing someone’s art, but for giving honest feedback about what worked and what didn’t.

Here are 7 tips to setting up your own artists critique.

1. Find 2-8 other artists in the same creative field you are in.

2. Select a time and place to review your art. (Consider doing this via Skype if you are in different locations.)

3. Establish simple ground rules for the critique with the goal of making each other better.

4. Set a time limit on each piece based on the number of works and time allotted for the critique.

5. Foster an environment of safety and trust. Respect others opinions and don’t take it personal.

6. Use Evernote or some other easy to use long term tool to list attendance and notes about the critique.

7. Schedule the next critique before anyone leaves.

One last thing. If you can’t find other artists in your area, consider touching base with a faculty member from a college or university art program in your area to see if you can use their facilities, join one of their class critiques, or start one of your own.

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Have you ever been part of an artist critique? If so, what was the biggest benefit? You can post a response below.