Front image by Terese Nielsen
Article By Paul Hebron
According to Wikipedia, the term “freelance” was first used by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior” or “free-lance” (meaning that the lance isn’t sworn to any lord, not that it’s available free of charge). The term was recognized as a verb in 1903 by authorities in etymology, such as the Oxford English Dictionary. Only in modern times has “free-lance” morphed from a noun into an adjective, a verb, adverb, and into the noun “freelancer,” which is a writer or artist who sells services to different employers without a long-term contract with any of them.
Have you considered freelancing but weren’t sure if it’s for you? In this article, we’ll draw upon the comparison between a mercenary and a freelancer—the pixel warrior. We suggest six steps to consider in preparation for a warrior’s journey. I’ve also asked six successful creative professionals to share words of wisdom for anyone considering the path of a pixel warrior. Finally, I’ve prepared a personal checklist to help determine if you have the right stuff.
The inner call to freelance can be likened to the famed advertisement attributed to Ernest Shackleton (though it may be apocryphal): “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.” Today, the call toward adventure still speaks to the hearts of men and women who choose to step out from under the warmth of a regular paycheck for a warrior’s journey. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart. These pixel warriors are digital mercenaries who must wear many different hats, some liked more than others. Even still, if the thought of working in your pajamas from home sounds better than sitting in a cubicle, then please lend me your ears for a few minutes—you just might be a fearless pixel warrior. But first, you must prepare for the adventure.
The Mercenary: Join the military and get training.
Pixel Warrior: Go to college and get training. Let’s assume you have talent that needs refining and developing, then getting the needed training and experience will help you on your quest. This requires learning the most current industry software and hardware. Mastery of these tools is required before you can truly call yourself an expert. This is weapons training.
The Mercenary: Try to get on a special operations team, such as the Navy SEALs, the Army Special Forces, and the Army Rangers.
Pixel Warrior: Start building your portfolio while in college. Try to learn from the best in your career area, those who are recognized for great work. If you can’t be taught directly, learn from observation. Study trade publications and take note of which campaigns or projects stand out in the marketplace. Remember, every class assignment is more than a grade—you’re laying the foundation to your future career.
The Mercenary: Put in at least three years in the military and leave with an honorable discharge.
Pixel Warrior: Work in the real world for someone else first. Let others foot the bill while you gain experience before breaking out on your own. There’s no substitute for real-world experience. Get this experience, even if getting it means becoming an unpaid intern for a while. Along the way, pick up a few pro bono projects. Make your services available to local businesses, nonprofits, printers, Web developers, photographers, etc. The more work you do, the more experience you’ll gain. If the work is good, it will help you get noticed when you break out on your own.
Creative Director, Soto Creative
Los Altos, California
It took us 10 years to become an overnight success. Freelance is a full-time job. The most successful freelancing creative people I met work every single day. (Find the project. Do the project.) There are no days off if you want to be successful. It’s no different than running your own firm or studio. You have to put in the time. There’s no magic formula.
The Mercenary: Make contacts and stay in touch with them. Former special operations teams do occasionally work with private security firms.
Pixel Warrior: Make contacts while in college. The people you meet in college will be working in the future, so keep in touch with them. Continue to network after college and network again and again forever. Stay in touch with college contacts, former employers, and co-workers.
Creative Director, The Lead Pencil Design Studio
Los Angeles, California
Freelancing is not always about having a great portfolio—a large percentage of projects come from personal contacts or recommendations. I cannot stress enough the importance of networking and building good relationships with your current warriors before entering the freelance market. You never know when you’ll be calling on them again from a previous deployment or a new one!
The word “network” is the most misleading term in business. Because we have so many ways to communicate now, I find it hard to know exactly when I’m networking or when I’ve done it successfully. Over the past two years I’ve been in job search training and a lot of networking groups, and I’ve distilled network down to a few simple rules:
1. To network, you must have a goal; not an aim, but a specific one-sentence goal. And then you need a target: a company, person, or department.
2. You must have a clear message. Just talking someone up and getting the contact info won’t help if the other party doesn’t get what you’re trying to do.
3. Your network needs watering. Remember, if you don’t feed your network with reciprocal actions, it might wither away. Instead of following up a request you’ve made by asking, “Have they answered yet,” you’d do better to email a great article that they might be interested in (if the person they contacted for you has answered, they’ll probably tell you at this point, and you never have to ask). Also keep your network updated with your goals and work.
The Mercenary: Stay in shape, both physically and mentally. Being in great shape makes your work a lot easier.
Pixel Warrior: Stay in shape. Keep up with the latest software and industry trends. Stay in shape to remain competitive. This will become a lifelong pursuit.
Temple City, California
Everything sucks if you’re sick. It’s extremely difficult to sustain a high level of creativity and craftsmanship in your work when you’re not feeling physically vibrant. Keep in shape, eat right, and be sure to flex your business and personal development muscles. You’re an entrepreneur. To achieve the highest probability of success, develop a lifetime habit of learning and implementing new skills and strategies. While painting, 95% of the time I’m listening to educational materials on personal development and how to build a business. I study sales, marketing, networking, publishing, social media, and negotiating, and I make friends with people that are experts in these areas.
The Mercenary: Take advantage of all available tools. Go online and research to find the best company for you and your skill set.
Pixel Warrior: Market your brand and be visible. Have a website that showcases your work. Build and maintain a strong network of personal and professional contacts. Use the many online tools available, and learn how to use LinkedIn’s company and job search tools to find inside contacts.
Of course you’re going to want to scour the “careers” sections of in-house creative department and agency websites. No doubt you’ll also see what’s up for grabs on craigslist, Monster.com, Creative Hotlist, and all the rest. But before you put all your eggs in the online job-posting basket, consider this: Do you suppose George Clooney gets dates on Match.com? Why should he? He’s so absurdly desirable he doesn’t have to. I’d submit the same is true for jobs. The George Clooneys of assignments—the fabulous projects with great creative potential that pay well and don’t have ridiculous deadlines—don’t need to go begging online. They get filled in a heartbeat by people who have connections inside the client company: friends of employees, job-seekers who have taken the time to cultivate a relationship, and top freelancers who have a visible reputation in their field of expertise are all highly likely to get the call even before these George Clooneys get posted (if they’re posted at all).
So, what’s a freelancer to do? Check out the company websites and job sites but don’t rely on them. Spend your downtime building relationships with the companies you’d like to work for, and don’t let those relationships go stale. Check in with your contacts from time to time to let them see your latest work or hear about a new set of skills you’ve picked up.
And, on that last note, if you don’t have a new set of skills to talk about, get them. There are plenty of great places that can help you add to your bag of tricks. (Naturally, I’d offer up my own school, the School of Visual Concepts, www.svcseattle.com.) The best advice is probably that offered by Garrison Keillor at the conclusion of his public radio show, The Writer’s Almanac: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”
Illustrator, Motion Designer & Animator, Castleforte Group
Los Angeles, California
It’s a little different for me because I started in this business at the absolute right time, and I’ve been working in the top sector of this business for the last 10 years. But even with that, I still put a good deal of effort into marketing myself online, building my brand, which is essentially me. Or in your case, you. I put myself out there on portfolio sites, Facebook, Vimeo, forums, and of course, my own professional/portfolio site. It has been a huge help to me, having been mentioned or featured on sites such as Motionographer, Behance, Vimeo, etc. The more places where people can see your work, the more people will know about you. You have to be on the radar before you can expect to get the calls. So don’t be shy, get your work out there for the world to see. Build a nice, functional site that best shows off your skills, and then do all you can to let people know it’s there. And don’t feel like you need to show everything you have done. Especially the weak stuff. A little goes a long way when the work is strong.
Questions to consider
Are you a self-starter who can work independently and wear multiple hats, including handling clerical, billing, and accounting procedures? Do you have a good business sense?
A self-starter: Deadlines rule. Missing deadlines and offering excuses could be the death of your freelance career. If you struggle to meet deadlines or can’t get your butt in gear, then go back to a 9–5 gig. The people who hire your services are putting their reputations on the line. If you make them look good, then you’ll look good.
I hated the clerical part of freelancing, but I loved getting paid. I used that as my motivation to keep on top of all of my paper work. I know of one freelancer who didn’t bill for completed work until about a year after the work was done. He said, he was too busy. Wow! Go figure. Too busy to get paid.
Are you a promoter with a marketing vision and strategy who enjoys promoting and reaching out to others about your services?
A promoter: I struggled with this one. I only wanted to do the work and get paid. I looked at promoting as being a salesman, something I didn’t enjoy. I confided in a friend about my struggles, and he shared a technique that he practiced and found successful. Frank owned a printing service and on occasion he’d make deliveries to clients instead of sending an employee. He’d bring along coffee and donuts when he dropped off finished projects in the morning and used the face time to see how things were going. Sometimes, he’d ask if there was a project he could take with him. He said, “This is the kind of thing an employee wouldn’t do. I’m maintaining a relationship with my clients, not just dropping off a job. I want them to know I care about the success of their business and that I’m there to help.” Frank’s advice changed my viewpoint. It was about keeping in touch with people, not selling.
By the way, don’t be afraid to ask clients for leads. Never burn a bridge behind you, even if you think you’ll never cross it again.
Are you prepared to take risks, including the lack of job security without a steady paycheck or company-provided benefits?
A risk taker: Freelancing is risk taking, but it doesn’t mean being foolish. Let’s face it, you might not get regular paychecks, but your bills still need to be paid regularly. Plan ahead and try to mitigate as much of that risk as possible. Cut your expenses, pay off credit card debt, and build up a contingency or emergency fund. Manage your finances in such a way as to endure and thrive between doing the work and getting paid.
We’ve made comparisons between a mercenary and a freelancer, the pixel warrior. You’ve read six steps to consider in preparation for a warrior’s journey. You’ve also heard from successful pixel warriors. Please, check out their websites and note their work. We’ve given you a personal checklist as a review to help you determine if you have the right stuff. We hope this information will better equip you if you choose to heed the pixel warrior’s call. May your path bring success, honor, and recognition.
1. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., “Freelancer,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freelancer.
2. “The Mercenary” steps derived from W. Scoggin, “How to Become a Mercenary,” eHow, Inc., http://www.ehow.com/how_4477295_become-a-mercenary.html.
Paul Hebron is an award-winning art director and designer living in the Seattle area. He recently returned to school and is majoring in animation. Paul’s studies include Maya, Flash, and After Effects. He states, “Taking time to learn new tools and sharpen my technical skills was a great decision.”