posted on Apr 19, 2020
The Creative Business by Jan Urschel
I started my freelance business roughly six years ago in Singapore. Before that, I worked as a graphic designer and then as a concept artist at Lucasfilm/LucasArts and Ubisoft. Since starting my own business, I’ve grown artistically and I’m more financially stable, something which would not be necessarily the case had I stayed employed by companies. It was by no means an easy transition and there were plenty of challenges along the way and numerous are still ahead of me.
In this article, I wanted to share some of the stories, pitfalls, and key points that I have learned, and that will hopefully benefit you as well. You can find my strategies, tutorials and educational material here.
The big question that is part of every contract, every negotiation is that of money. So as a designer/artist in a commercial industry, how do you determine what you are worth? How do you take control of it? It’s key to understand your market value and how to increase it. Money often has a negative connotation among artists, and that needs to change. In my opinion, money is simply misunderstood. It’s a widespread cliché that artists and money don’t go well together. While there are a lot of stereotypes and preconceptions inside and outside the industry, there are two reasons that come up again and again in conversations with other artists. On the one hand, it feels like a lot of people don’t want to bother, are not interested in the business side of being an artist. On the other hand, you often hear things like “he’s doing it for the money” or “he’s selling out” when encountering people who are seemingly doing well.
However, it is crucial to understand that we are working in a commercial industry. As the name suggests, it is pretty much all about making money. For you, for the client, for everyone. Every piece of design and art that you produce and that you want to get paid for, therefore, has a commercial objective. I often hear artists asking, “What should my rate be?” and I often found this example among the answers: “Calculate how much you have to spend and go from there!” e.g. Living expenses (rent, food, utilities, telco) + downtime + savings + taxes + retirement fund + emergency + insurance + IT (hard/software) + business travel + holiday + other business expenses + study/learning + family (education, leisure, health, daily necessities, clothes, etc.) = your rate.
Now, this calculation may differ wildly between people in different locations and different circumstances. In any case – it’s incorrect. Your rate, your market value, your worth is determined by the market. Supply and demand. It is simply what the client is willing to pay for your services based on your experience and skill level. Your task is to find out what someone will pay for your skills. Arbitrary rates can damage the market if they differ significantly from what other people with a similar skill set have been able to negotiate. The calculation above is still necessary but more in a sense that you should research if a career in this field is actually able to support your lifestyle.
Rates are not fixed because the market is changing all the time. Supply and demand change from day to day. Therefore, you need to be flexible, be aware of economic trends, and try to understand your client’s situation.
In order to get paid your “market value,” you need to be able to adapt and take charge of the negotiation with the client. When you enter the rate negotiation, know who you are talking to. The client’s HR person has one task: to get you to work for them and be cost-efficient (meaning as little as possible). Your task is the opposite one – maximizing your profit. Don’t think: “I need this job/money. What if they don’t get back to me because I ask for too much? What if they go with someone else?” Do think: “You need me more than I need you – so what are you willing to pay for me giving you my time?”
The question is now how we can increase our market value. One element of this is branding. But what is branding? Basically, everything you do that can be seen by someone connected to your profession. What you say, what you write, what you do.
Think about what and who you want to be known as. Ask yourself: “Does my work reflect my brand? Do my comments on Facebook hurt my image? What is my social media strategy, in general? What are my objectives and short-/mid-/long-term goals and are they aligned with my brand?”
Furthermore, you need to take control of your schedule. If you are facing short or long periods without client work, it is important not to panic but to evaluate why this is happening. This is the best time to think about branding.
Are you doing enough marketing, do you have enough exposure? Clients can’t hire you if they don’t know your work. If you don’t have client work to show, produce personal work. Have you been keeping up with networking? Be visible at events, talk to people online and in real life. Is your work good enough? Be objective about your portfolio. Does it hold up next to your peers? Is it aligned with your brand and the kind of clients you want to attract?
Are there larger factors at play that you can’t control? Seasonal and economic trends play a role even in our industry. Is there a chance, an opportunity to diversify? For example, it is normal to expect slower business around E3 for games and from Thanksgiving until after Christmas time so be prepared and schedule a lot of personal work or vacations during those times instead of panicking and wondering what is happening.
Running your own company requires you to not only be the artist but also the sales and marketing manager, admin, and HR. Proper management to unite all these different personas is essential.
With being a freelancer comes the freedom of dividing up your working hours in whichever way you’d like. It also comes with the responsibility to do it effectively and professionally. One of the key quotes I read was “work expands to fill the time it’s given.” An eight-hour task will take twelve hours if you give it that much time. Therefore, it is important to be aware of and track how long certain tasks take you. Once you know – you have the chance to figure out a way to work smarter (not harder), optimize, and cut out expendable parts.
For me personally it helps to break down my day into smaller tasks in accordance with break times. I can say, “I have to complete this part by lunchtime, this has to be done before my afternoon coffee.” etc. We also need to make sure to reserve enough time for admin work like calls, emails, scheduling, research, and marketing.
We have long working hours. Creative work. It stresses our brains. Switching off is essential. A lot of us started drawing as a hobby and we ended up making that hobby into our profession. For me, it was a problem as I wasn’t able to switch off from work and it led to eventual burnout. The mental and physical stress takes its toll and leaves the brain without fresh ideas. Engaging in hobbies outside of art helps me to focus better on my job and gives me more interesting ideas. In addition, in this age of distraction and especially while engaging in freelance work we always tend to be “on.” Deliberately taking time off and “doing nothing” can help recharge and organize your thoughts.
Once you’ve rested enough, we should take a look at some of the admin work involved. Understanding the legal requirements to run your own business doesn’t require a law degree. If you want to run a legitimate business and focus on your art, make sure you spend some time understanding the legal framework in the country you do business in. What are the differences between working as a sole proprietor and setting up a company? What implications does this have for the taxes I pay? What’s my ability to subcontract the work or expand in the near future? It’s beneficial to hire accountants/lawyers once you’ve reached a critical point in the development of your company.
There will be times when you don’t understand everything that is written in the contracts that companies send you, especially when it is not written in your native language. It is important to never sign anything that you don’t fully understand, as it can include clauses that put you at a distinct disadvantage. Be it very restrictive NDAs, termination terms, non-exclusivity (or rather the lack of it), and very importantly, the release of your work.
If you haven’t noticed it already – it is time to become business savvy. We all started out knowing nothing about art. But with time and effort, we became better. The same will be true about management and business. You can learn and improve your business skills by studying. Reading books is essential, and in addition, it is important to find peers that you know and respect to find out more about how they handle the business side of their company. Find the key players and learn from them. I recommend being at least 50% artist, 50% business person when it comes to running your own company.
With the instability of freelance comes the need to plan ahead. Dedicate a larger-than-normal amount of money to your savings regularly due to the unstable nature of freelance. Being self-employed also often means we have to organize our own health care plan, we have no sick days or paid vacation – and maybe not even only for us but also for our spouse and kids. A bit of financial planning can go a long way in providing stability.
In the same way, your art portfolio should be diverse, your financial portfolio should be as well. From property to the stock market, to various sources of passive income, there are a variety of options that can help lessen the impact of downtime from client work.
The question of the sustainability of our job should be put into question. With age and the urge to start a family, how is it possible to keep up with long work hours? At 40, will I be able to compete with 20-year olds? Do I even want to? What alternatives do I have? Have I reached my dreams? What about my spouse's dreams? Am I prepared to help my aging parents? Am I prepared for my own retirement? Can I get my kids through college?
With all the different tasks and jobs we have to fill, it is important to maintain a professional work ethic when it comes to interacting with clients. Effective communication with the client is the key to managing expectations.
The first encounter is usually through email. Content and keywords can say a lot if this relationship will work out. Beware of talking about “exposure”, “crowdfunding”, “startup”, “no funds” and “we’re all friends working together.” Beware of “friends” needing favors. If you don’t value your own time by working for cheap or free, neither will the client value your contribution. The key items you need to clarify before any further conversation are: timeframe, amount of work, budget. If the client stalls or refuses to answer any of those, trying to get you involved with calls, asking your opinion – red flags should go up. Serious clients will come straight to the point and tell you all these points up front without you even having to ask them.
The same way that the client’s emails reflect who they are, your emails reflect who you are. It is important to make sure your communication reflects your brand values. Always having proper email etiquette, even if the client doesn’t, being polite, professional, and timely go a long way in establishing trust with a potential client. This stretches from the first email down to the last point of contact which is usually the invoice. If English is not your native tongue…learn it.
When things are not going as expected, try to think from the client’s perspective. If after taking all precautions and smooth communication things fall apart in the end, you should not give in to rash decision-making, not send angry emails, not threaten to blacklist, no public shaming, etc.
You simply do not know the full picture, we don’t have all information from the client's side. It will be beneficial to your continued success to leave the relationship in an amicable way. One of my clients was very unhappy with the work I provided. I thought he was wrong, but I now see it more like a case of mismatched expectations. To make sure the client was happy at the end of the day, I provided them additional free work even though I knew they would not hire me again.
Working across time zones with art directors, companies, clients, and artists in different countries and continents has become commonplace. Clients will very much appreciate it if you can “talk” in their time zone and accommodate their working hours and weekends. That also means adopting their public holidays rather than your own. It can sometimes be beneficial to even shift your working hours to the client’s time zone if your lifestyle permits it.
This is but a small part of points to consider when starting off on your own but I hope the items mentioned and questions asked will give you some food for thought.