Freelance!?!? How to start. How to grow.

by Ross Wade, School of COM Career Guy

My friend Josh is a killer filmmaker, editor and photographer. We met years ago when we worked at the same company. Over the past few years he has done a wonderful job at building a successful freelance career for himself shooting and editing a diverse group of projects – from local rock shows to episodes of “John & Kate Plus Eight”. We grabbed lunch last week, and I picked his brain about how to succeed as a freelancer. Check out his insights below…

For what type of roles care you hired?

Editor, stills photographer, Director of Photography (motion), Color grader, Producer, Director. I have a broad skill set!

Who are the clients/what are the projects you have worked on you are most proud of?

I’m most proud of the pro-bono projects I’ve had the chance to work on. Taping a blues revue, the occasional friends’ wedding, even lending a hand on a friend’s first foray into video. They’re all worthwhile adventures; just make sure when you’re doing these types of projects that you make them your own, creatively speaking. You wouldn’t want to put 10-12 hours shooting, then another 20 or 30 editing a video, and feel unsatisfied with the result, on top of not getting paid for the effort!

What made you want to go freelance? 

I wanted more of a hand in the development, creation and development of projects…I wasn’t editing or really putting as much into projects as I felt like I could. I’d been working at a facility for a few years, learned a lot, made some friends, but felt like it was ultimately up to me to move up in my career, not wait for someone else to decide I was ready to headline a project.

What were you major worries as you started your freelance career?

Money! I’d just gotten married and we’d moved into a new house. A big challenge, but I had a lot of energy, and a lot of confidence. Finding paying work was big, but I also did several personal projects, and used those to learn new skills.

How did you start? What were your first steps?

I started out working for companies; that’s a pretty big advantage to have when you’re trying to get work. You know what clients expect in terms of communication (lots of it) and prompt deliverables. I also knew how to handle bigger video shoots from working with a company. I could hire day players like myself and have a boom operator, gaffer, grip and makeup, and I knew why those personnel are important, and, more importantly, how to justify the cost to my clients.

 How did you find clients? How do you continue to find new clients?

Word of mouth. I’ve very rarely gotten work that has been listed on sites like mandy.com or other job sites, although i’ve tried. The bulk of my clients so far have been word of mouth, through existing clients that have recommended me to their friends or coworkers. I really try to maintain a good relationships with my clients and former employers. I still get hired sporadically by my former company on a freelance basis.

Recently, I’ve been getting more invested in social media as well, But so far that’s been more about maintaing existing relationships. I think it will pay off in the long run though.

 How did you decide upon your rates? What was your process?

That’s an ongoing process. When I first started out, I asked some friends and some employers with whom I felt comfortable, and came up with a competitive rate for editing. And then as I got more and more work, I slowly let my rate go up, depending on the client (agency, production company, direct-to-client), type of job, and length of job. I don’t think you can have a hard and fast rate for every project. Some projects will need to be daily, not hourly. Or weekly. Or even have a fixed project fee. In the end, it requires constant attention and tweaking to figure out your rates, and even then they’re not fixed. It’s more like a range I’m comfortable with.

 What surprises (good or bad) happened? Stuff you had not planned on.

I got a lot more confident in my shooting, and rediscovered my love of shooting stills. I thought I’d just be content with being an editor, but it turns out I was interested in learning a bit about just about every job related to video and film.

What resources do you use to stay on top of constantly changing technology? 

I go to a lot of websites, and get a bunch of email digests. Cinematography.net is a great resource for any position, up and down the line. Philip Bloom’s site is a great way to see the possibilities for shooting with just about any camera out there, especially the DSLRs. Motionographer is a great source of inspiration for vfx and stop-motion work. Studio Daily, Post Magazine, the list goes on and on. And every program you learn to use has some type of user group you can tap into. There are lists for Color and After Effects, Photoshop, etc.

Is networking important? If so, why and how do you do it?

Very important. I used to not place so much importance on it, but the more I do it, the more vital it seems. Any event you can attend that has professionals you admire or respect is great to go to. But it’s also worthwhile to find a mentor, or several. Come around their office, offer to help them on smaller projects, or even on personal projects for no pay, and they’ll reward you with valuable knowledge and advice. Sometimes they’ll even let you use gear on your own personal projects!

 What do you know now as an experienced freelance you wish you had known just starting  out?

I definitely wish I’d been a little better with negotiating deals for jobs earlier on. At first, I was just so excited to be working that I “threw in” extra stuff, like making extra DVDs or creating graphics. Now I’m a little better about realizing the value of my time, and charge for it.

It’s never a bad idea to work in an office environment for a few years to learn the ropes. If you aren’t going that route, though, just try to associate with other freelancers in the market and learn from them. If you approach things the right way, you’ll get accepted quickly and won’t be seen as a threat to their livelihood. And don’t undercut everyone else just to get work. You’ll always be that guy that works cheap, and it’ll be hard to move up the food chain and make more money.

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