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.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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