Creativity

Freelancers: How To Build A Creative Career That Lasts

Being based in Los Angeles allows me an up close look at freelancers of all kinds. From Hollywood, the advertising industry, web companies, production companies and more, I’m able to work with and study a wide range of creative professionals on a daily basis. Some last and others don’t, and few people can put their finger on why some achieve achieve success and others fail. But if you’re a freelancer in any creative field, here’s what I’ve discovered that – regardless of talent – makes a powerful difference in building a long career:

1. Find Your Ultimate Niche – In my experience, the vast majority of career freelancers aren’t doing what they actually came to Hollywood to do. Over a career, actors become casting directors, a director becomes the media person for a local church or nonprofit, camera operators become grips, musicians become agents, designers become executives – the list is endless. It doesn’t mean your dream can’t be accomplished, but if necessary, be ready to change horses in the middle of the stream. It’s not about “settling” as much as adjusting to the marketplace. The industry changes, styles change, technology changes, so don’t become so locked into a single job that you refuse to adapt to new opportunities.

2. Constantly Question Your Purpose – Another way to put it is to “keep asking why.” Why am I doing this in the first place? I drive our team at Cooke Media Group crazy because I’m constantly asking why we exist and what that means for us and our clients. Never get complacent, because creative challenges never end. What’s the why for you? Are you doing this for money? To help others? To find significance? There are plenty of potential answers, and no one can decide but you and God. But after writing my book “One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do,” I can tell you that finding your purpose will be the most motivating and satisfying thing a creative person can do for a long term career.

3. Keep Learning – Gain expertise in your field. Become an authority in an area. One of the best ways to stand out and get noticed is to be the best in a particular job, task, or niche. Why should I hire you over someone else? How much more do you know about your field than you did last year? If you’re not growing you’re shrinking, and nobody wants to hire someone based on what their talent used to be.

4. Constantly evaluate what value you bring to your employer – Your “employer” might be a studio, advertising agency, TV station or network, web company, digital studio, nonprofit, or all of the above. Just because you’re a “freelancer” doesn’t mean you don’t have a boss – in fact, you now have multiple bosses. What’s the value you’re bringing to each project and client? How are you helping them achieve their goals?

These questions aren’t designed for a “once in 5 year evaluation” session – they’re designed to be asked weekly – even daily. That’s how you’ll continue to exist – and prosper – in a freelance world.

Don’t be a one hit wonder. Start now planning for a creative career that lasts.

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10 Comments

  1. Good stuff! I own a production company here in a Dallas, and we work solely with freelancers. Your number 1 (find your niche) is so true. I meet so many “jack of all trades” and won’t hire them because they’re not excellent at the one thing I need to hire them for. If your email signature says, “Writer, director, editor, producer, grip, caterer, and actor”, you might want to rethink your niche. Get really, really good at your craft, and then I’ll gladly pay top dollar for your service.

  2. Part of being successful is knowing your worth- If you undersell yourself you will find yourself stuck in a place where you don’t want to be- As a professional sound mixer when I first came to Los Angeles 12 years ago, I pretty much did any job just to pay the bills. That meant I did jobs way below standard rate just to get any foot in any door. However I quickly learned that always doing low budget work would only lead to more low budget work. You work for a low rate and every call you get is another low paycheck to paycheck type rate. The reality is you have to market yourself to the people you want to work for, charge the appropriate rate and bring your A game to every project. When I raised my line in the sand and turned away my first job because the rates on offer were so low, it scared the living crap out of me- I didn’t know where my next shoot was coming from, but I knew my skill level, and the amount of gear that I bring to the table was worth far more than what they were considering paying. They tried to get me to lower my rate, and I negotiated a bit, but when it became obvious that they they were just looking for the cheapest option and wouldn’t even meet my newly painted line, I politely ended the conversation hung up the phone took a deep breath and wondered if I’d ever work again.

    Then a short time later, I got a call asking me for my rate. I nervously I quoted a standard rate in line with what I heard that the union production sound mixers were quoting. I was expecting to either be lowballed or hung up on, but to my surprise, the producer just accepted that was the rate and booked me right there, because he was looking for a person who he could trust to deliver good sound. I found myself in a new world. I was beginning to work on the types of shows I wanted to be on. I was able to build my days towards getting into the union and work union level projects. I find that the ultra low, nobody is ever going to see, projects hardly ever call me now, and when they do I have the confidence to just say no because I know my worth and what I want to be working on.

    Now if I do offer a low rate it’s usually for a non profit that I believe in, or it’s for people that I know because I usually do full rate projects for them, and I’m just helping them out on some passion project to maintain a relationship with them. Sometimes I will agree to do low budget project, but I’ll be sure to ask all the right questions to be sure that there is a vision and plan for something great and that it’s a project that I can believe in. If I’m working a low budget film well below rate now, then it’s because I want to do it and I have found a reason to do it that makes sense to me.

    The truth is quality projects will pay professional rates to ensure that they hire quality professionals. If you want to play in that playground then you should charge accordingly, but you also need to make damn sure that you bring the level of skill to match, because if you try and fake it until you make it, you might get away with it, but one mistake and your reputation will get shot.

  3. Busy-ness gets in the way of reassessing regularly. It’s often in those times when work slows down that we suddenly realize we should have been reevaluating and making minute adjustments the whole time. I like your solution Phil—ask those questions weekly. I’m going to make myself a checklist…

  4. Good stuff! I own a production company here in a Dallas, and we work solely with freelancers. Your number 1 (find your niche) is so true. I meet so many “jack of all trades” and won’t hire them because they’re not excellent at the one thing I need to hire them for. If your email signature says, “Writer, director, editor, producer, grip, caterer, and actor”, you might want to rethink your niche. Get really, really good at your craft, and then I’ll gladly pay top dollar for your service.

  5. Busy-ness gets in the way of reassessing regularly. It’s often in those times when work slows down that we suddenly realize we should have been reevaluating and making minute adjustments the whole time. I like your solution Phil—ask those questions weekly. I’m going to make myself a checklist…

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