How to Succeed at Creative Freelancing by Using a Stress-Tested Framework

Creative freelancing is not for most people. Its freedom and flexibility come with a heavy price: constant insecurity.

Where and when is the next project? How much money am I going to make this year? How do I land new clients? Do I take a vacation or take on this project?

How do I balance client work with my personal projects?

No amount of research and preparation can eliminate the risks of going freelance and – like everything else well-learned—its harder lessons must be paid for out of pocket. So is creative freelancing really for you?

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Know thyself

If you know you need the security of a steady paycheck then freelance is probably not for you. If you panic at the structure freelancing provides (or rather, doesn’t provide) – then freelance is probably not for you.

If you don’t have at least one in-demand hard skill with which to solve client problems, creative freelancing (at least for now) is definitely not for you.

But if you know enough about yourself to suspect you’re a creative type who struggles with the rigidity of the 9-5 and whose myriad interests make you an average employee but a promising entrepreneur – freelancing provides a unique opportunity for you to make a living while satisfying your arty little soul.

Read on.

Transition from full time job to full time freelance

I’m a self taught artist and four years ago I worked as a full time illustrator and animator at a small studio. I was frustrated by my inability to remain engaged with the work, which was interesting but repetitive.

I felt guilty. I thought I was just being lazy and should pick vocation and just stick with it.

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Lazy or not, the soul rebels and I had to get out and try something else.

Armed with a website and a fistful of candy (advice clobbered together from articles, podcasts and productivity books) I dove head-first into the frigid ocean of full time creative freelancing.

The work was difficult to land, payments always slow and I had the daunting task of managing all the hours of my day.

In my panic I even applied for, and was offered a full time job. Luckily I declined.

I watched my successes and mistakes (particularly the mistakes) over the years. I wrestled with what creative freelancing really meant to me.

Was it just a way of making money, or was there a bigger opportunity I was missing? I began to explore and make sense of what that bigger opportunity could be.

It dawned on me.

Creative freelancing – that is, freelancing within a creative industry – is a unique opportunity to a) engage in creative work to make a living and b) prioritize the hours in a day for the pursuit of meaningful, personal projects with the aim of developing a personal creative vision.

The personal creative vision is the individual’s expression of their experiences, interests and ideas. Every artist, writer or inventor that we admire and remember has a strong personal creative vision. No exceptions.

Working backwards from this aim and using my personal experience of what did and didn’t work, I mapped out a framework to steer me in the right direction.

The Framework

To leverage creative freelancing in the pursuit of your personal creative vision, many parts have to work together. Your hard creative skill must be in demand so you can exchange it for money.

Your portfolio must be professional grade and you need to know how to reach potential clients so you can have money and have it consistently. If any one of these parts aren’t in place, you’ll struggle to make a living as a freelancer.

If you don’t cultivate a personal creative vision, you’ll struggle to remain a successful creative freelancer in the long run.

None of this means your work has to be stellar, by the way. If you have the dedication to assemble your creative freelance business no matter how rusty the parts, you can begin and you will improve.

How much you improve and how far you go is the thrill of your adventure.

Still with me so far?

Good.

You’ll want to pay attention to this framework. Well-meaning Internet advice should not be implemented without knowing how it’s connected to your framework.

Tips and tricks aren’t enough to sustain you when the going gets tough. And there will be tough times ahead – but you can thrive with a strong framework and sense of direction:

This framework puts all the pieces of freelance advice you’ve gathered into perspective. The overwhelming question is always “how do I get clients?”.

Without a framework, you’ll fall for seemingly simple but incomplete advice like “build a social media presence” – curating, liking and posting content for hours, spending your time running around the tip of the iceberg when the real substance is in crafting your value proposition (marketing) and improving your work (portfolio).

In the framework you’ll notice that the second, deeper part of the iceberg is focused on building your personal creative vision. What we creative-types most desire is getting paid to create work that’s meaningful to us.

The drive to create this kind of work is stronger than the drive to make a boatload of money (although that would be nice). Without a solid framework to build from, your personal projects are inevitably crowded out by client work with its pressing deadlines and clear constraints.

There’s nothing worse than coming up for air after years of being steeped in client work and realizing you’ve not created anything to call your own.

Personal projects, which pave the road to personal vision, are the first things to go when client work comes knocking. The framework reminds you of the importance of your personal creative vision and its integral role in influencing every aspect of your creative freelancing.

Your duty, then, is to make sure this development process is not eaten by the harried, two-day-turnaround world of client work.

You treat time set aside for personal projects as your second job. Your first job is to take care of that first half of the iceberg to pay your bills but your second job is to develop original contributions to your craft. (And you thought you could avoid jobs when you choose creative freelancing!)

The development of your personal creative vision will happen – with effort and experimentation – but it will not happen on your time. Your perspective and your “style”, if you like, emerges out of the molasses and is deaf to your cries to hurry up.

Your ways of seeing are translated into your ways of solving client problems. Now you can quit following trends (i.e. solving problems the same way everyone else solves problems) and start setting them.

Then clients will come to you for ideas instead of just having you execute their vision.

How do I use this framework?

You’ve learned why creative freelance should be approached with a clear framework. Now you’ll need the practical steps to build each component of the framework and put them in action.

Here are the components:

The components work interdependently so they’ll need to be built from the ground up in the logical order shown above.

This is why the focus on “how to get clients” can be misleading – it implies you can emphasize getting clients without first clarifying the value you provide as a freelancer.

There’s no point spending money to network at a conference, for example, if you don’t have a strong portfolio and a value proposition.

In addition, many freelance skills are really business skills you can only acquire through the process of providing a valuable service.

Standing up for yourself and negotiating rates, for example, is only effective when you have a strong portfolio and know you have other client options.

Having these components in place prepares you to learn these necessary skills. Depending on where you are right now, building out these components will take a few weeks to a few months.

Now that you have this framework, you should invest time in building out the components you lack and improving parts that are already in place.

Ask yourself some honest questions – is your portfolio at a professional enough level? Do you need a more focused marketing strategy? Do you need to expand your skill set?

If you’re at a loss as to where you should start, I’ve broken down these components into a five week course that I personally teach.

I give rich, customized and detailed feedback with action steps on each weekly assignment and the course includes step-by-step creative freelancing strategies I’ve developed from working with some of the top institutions and brands in the world (careful now, I’m going to name drop): Carnegie New York, PepsiCo, National Geographic and more.

Recap

Unlike the typical freelance hustler who is focused on the next gig and paycheck, you’re in the game for the long term, having built a solid foundation.

When you take care of the client-side of the iceberg, you take care of generating an income. When you take care of the personal creative vision side of the iceberg, you develop your ideas and sharpen your tools to express those ideas.

In combination you have yourself a creative freelance business and a positive feedback loop will occur where your client work funds the development of your personal work which in turn affects the kind of clients you attract.

Now you’re taking full advantage of the creative freelancing opportunity; now you’re making creatively satisfying work and getting paid to do it.

Freelance moves fast and technology moves faster. Gone are the days where having one specialized, hard skill is enough to make a good living.

We need to work from a solid, more flexible framework to justify the challenges of creative freelancing and to leverage the fullness of the opportunity before us.

To your freelance journey!

If you have a few moments I’d love to hear from you — as a creative-type, what is your greatest freelancing fear or struggle?


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