Pro tips for freelancing successfully: Maintaining sanity, recalculating your rate and what to do in your downtime
As a freelancer, you have to hustle to get the work and then put in the yards to do the work. Jumping ship from the securities of a full time job where overheads, leave and regular work are taken care of by your company to going out on your own isn’t for everyone.
Dylan Mercer has been a freelance Motion Graphics Designer for the past 6 years who decided to take his career into his own hands when the last studio he worked for closed up shop all of a sudden. We spoke to Dylan for his pro tips on how to stay sane, what to do in your downtime and in between gigs. He also gave us a cracker of a formula on how to regularly recalculate your day rate as your experience grows!
What exactly is a Motion Graphics Designer? Is that the same as an animator?
Motion Graphics is a branch of animation. The easiest way to describe it is “graphic design, but moving” It’s mainly text, shapes, logos and icons, and is seen mostly in TV ads, opening sequences for movies and news programs. It gets more complicated but I don’t want to bore you! This video explains in short what my roles entails.
How’d you land in freelancing? Why and how did you decide to go out on your own?
Arse-first is the short answer. The boss at the production company I was working at came in and told us they were folding, and not to show up the next day! The whole team were suddenly left to figure out what to do with themselves.
I’d been considering freelancing for a year or so but was always afraid of the baptism of fire that that life change brings with it. Luckily, I was pushed off the ledge and had to sink or swim. That was back in August 2011 and I’m happy to say I’m still swimming.
What steps did you take to make your own business financially stable in the early days?
Not much, I hate to say. My only safety net back then would have been asking friends for loans, but I didn’t have to do that. Money was not guaranteed in the early days, it almost never is but I got lucky and some very amazing people passed on my name, gaining me a couple of regular jobs to pay the rent. Your network is so important in the beginning stages!
What are the highs and lows of freelancing you think others should know about?
Getting a cool new client is a real high. When someone calls or emails and says, “Hey I saw your website or Instagram, and we have a job you’d be perfect for.” That gives you a feeling that’s tough to beat. Like you’re vindicated in vouching for yourself going off on this harebrained adventure in the first place!
Another massive plus is the range of people and studios you get to work with. Being exposed to different places and the way different people work builds on your experience immensely. It helps you get a proper perspective of your industry as a whole, rather than being at one office your whole life and only knowing the ways of that one insulated workplace.
People might expect me to say that having spells of no work is a low point, but I disagree. As a freelancer you have to consider yourself as a mini-studio, and not everything a studio does is paid client work. I relish that time to develop my style, skills and profile.
The only big drawbacks are the complicated tax return, and not having a fixed workplace to get packages sent to.
You ran a workshop last year about communicating with clients. What are the top tips you think new freelancers should know about working with clients?
That was a really cool new experience for me. I found that people were intrinsically curious about how to put a price tag on themselves, for which I came up with an equation:
Value = Experience + Portfolio + Demand + Personality
Consider that equation and group all your attributes into those four categories, then you can bring them to mind easily when negotiating a rate with a new client and make sure you get pay negotiations out of the way on your first call so everyone’s on the same page.
We heard that you recalculate your hourly/daily rate every few years. How do you recalculate this and how could others do something like this to remain competitive?
I talk to others who do similar work to me, and gauge what they charge, then offset up and down against my skills and experience. Having the confidence to tell clients your rate is going up is the hard part.
Start with that you have been working for (x) years since you last set your rates and in that time you have gained experience and now naturally can offer more – a wider skill set, the ability to work faster and so on. I call this a ‘routine adjustment’. Do it just after tax time, and use your accountant as a scapegoat (even if you don’t have one), if you’re really scared to have what can be awkward money conversation.
What pro-tips can you give to our freelancers on what they can do in their ‘downtime’ and in between projects?
I’m always hearing about new tricks and tools, and wanting to try them out, learn what they can do and hope to use them in a client project. It’s really important to stay current, as it’s easy to get left behind if you don’t keep you ear to the ground, no matter which industry you’re in.
In saying that, I do all my training online, and often for free, because there is such a great community of people sharing things they’ve done and making their own tutorials.
Word of mouth promotion has worked best for me now that I’ve been freelancing for a while. There are studios I’d still like to be noticed by, but I think the best I can do is try and have a good online presence so that if I do make contact or the right person finds and Googles me, they’ll see plenty of good content to back me up.
Keep your website or professional social channels up to date, as time-consuming as that can be. It’s always a good look to potential clients and who knows who you might be stalking your page!
How do you keep sane whilst freelancing? How do you navigate yourself in between gigs, working on your own, etc.?
I work 9-5, Monday to Friday. That’s how. I book by the day and I don’t work nights or weekends. Working around the clock just burns me out. If I work crazy-long hours or too many consecutive days, I may be able to do more work, but it will probably be garbage. Knowing that I need time off to regenerate my creativity and productivity helps me really enjoy my weekends guilt-free.
If I don’t have work booked on a given day, I still get up and have coffee and breakfast with my wife, get dressed in the gear I’d wear out at an agency or studio then walk the dog and get back to my desk at 9am. That way I feel like I have commuted to work and the work day can begin.
Having a ritual to get yourself into work mode is the key to successfully working at home.
If I’m in between projects, I rely on this time to create my own content to use for self promotion on my website and Instagram, so that gives me an extra push to work hard and make it good. Today I have chosen to spend some time on this interview, which counts as self promotion, right?!
Photograph by Cesar Salmeron.