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Don't Burn Bridges - Staying Hireable with Amanda Russell

By Adam Korenman

Building a successful career is about who you know, who knows you...and who still wants to work with you

You've worked hard to build a freelance business as a motion designer. You grew a portfolio, networked your butt off to get clients, and crushed each job to earn a solid rep. It seems like you've got this train firmly on track...until suddenly it's not. What causes a career to derail? How are you burning bridges? And can you rebuild them?
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There are plenty of resources out there telling you what you should be doing to get and keep freelance clients. Today we’re going to take a different approach and talk about what NOT to do. We've heard through the grapevine that there’s been a noticeable shift in the way some freelancers are dealing with clients. While most are professional and courteous, others come in with a chip on their shoulder...and they're hurting more than just their careers.
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Today’s guest is Amanda Russell, co-founder and Creative Director at Cream Studio based in Richmond, VA. We're going to talk about Amanda’s experience in the industry, both as a freelancer and now as a studio owner hiring freelancers. We talk about the things that you should probably NOT do if you want to get and keep great clients, and we try to dig out as many tactical tips and strategies as possible for being successful in the motion design industry.
This might be one of the most important lessons you learn as a freelance motion designer. If you're persona non grata, it doesn't matter that you're an After Effects Einstein. Grab a beanbag chair and a slice of humble pie, and let's get down to brass tax with Amanda Russell.

Don't Burn Bridges - Staying Hireable with Amanda Russell

Show Notes

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Transcript

Joey:
Amanda, thank you so much for coming on to the School of Motion podcast. We're going to get into some interesting, potentially tricky subjects here. I think it's going to be really helpful to everybody listening, so thank you.
Amanda:
Yeah. I'm really excited to be here. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I'm hoping that this conversation helps freelancers and just artists everywhere. Helps them really get more clients and retain more clients with just learning some ins and outs of how it works with a studio.
Joey:
Awesome. We were talking a little bit before we started this recording. I know that you've had the experience of working your way up the food chain to now running a studio. One of the things that was very clear to me, and I want to call out to everyone listening, is just how much empathy you have for freelancers. You've been a freelancer, you know that side of it. What I'm hoping is that we can get the other side of that from you. I don't know that many people that have been freelance, and then running a studio who had to deal with freelancers. It really does point out some of the things that you assumed were happening while you were a freelancer, are not actually happening. Once you were running the studio, you're like, "Oh, wow. This is actually how it works." I kind of want to uncover as much of that as I can. Why don't we start hearing your story a little bit. How did you find yourself running Cream, your studio in Virginia?
Amanda:
Sure. About eight years ago, I was working as a freelancer. My friend Ruth was working as a freelancer. There was this other mysterious freelancer named Dave Swain. He was kind of the guy to get animation from. At the time, there just weren't a lot of freelance animators in the world, especially in Richmond. We knew of each other pretty well. Ruth and I had worked together at Media General. It was not a great job, not a great fit for us at the time. It was in broadcast. Yeah, we moved to different studios. Then once we went freelance, we decided to meet up the Dave and just have a beer or something. The chemistry between all three of us was so apparent. 
It just felt like, "Okay, there's something bigger going on here. We need to not only be friends, but we need to kind of come together and make something bigger than just us as individual freelancers." Two months later, we had a signed lease, a business license, and we finally decided on the name Cream. That was pretty much it. A lot of people will say, "Don't go into business with your friends." I hear that a lot. Yeah, there's some things that make it a little trickier. But if your friends are super talented, and they're good at what they do, and you already have great communication, definitely go into business with your friends.
Joey:
Cool.
Amanda:
Those are the kinds of people that you want to be your partners.
Joey:
I want to share a little bit about the expectation you had of what it would be like to launch a studio, versus the reality in those early days.
Amanda:
Yeah. That's a good question. I think I thought that we would pretty much be working as freelancers under one roof. I think that's kind of what we thought. Actually, for the first two years, it was kind of what we did. It was way different than it is now. Yeah, the expectation is I would have tons of money. I would be so rich. I do okay. I'm happy with what I make, it's great. I just think I thought, "Oh, a studio owner. That is the next level." It is in a way, but there's expenses and things like that. I think I also thought that, I expected to just kind of stay somewhat mediocre in Richmond. I think I just kind of felt like, "We're going to do good work, but it's not going to be to the level as what we have today." That's something that I'm enormously proud of, that we've been able to grow in different ways than we ever expected. It's just nice to experience and surprise yourself every once in a while.
Joey:
Yeah. I do have to say, you and I have known each other sort of through the internet, and we've met in person a few times. I still remember your husband Adam came to Blend with you. It was like a force of nature, it's so funny, yeah.
Amanda:
Everybody loves Adam. Yeah.
Joey:
Yeah. I don't know what he does, but he should be a salesman or something.
Amanda:
He is. He's a medical device salesman, so there you go.
Joey:
It's so funny.
Amanda:
Yeah.
Joey:
That's perfect. That's perfect. Anyway, you've been on my radar for a long time. I've watched you and I've watched Cream. I think you already had Cream when we first sort of connected through School of Motion. I've watched the progression of the work, and frankly your studio's branding. The newest iteration of it... We're going to link to this in the show notes. Everyone can go check out Cream's website... It's beautiful. It's really, really gorgeous work. 
Amanda:
Thanks.
Joey:
The branding's amazing. It's really cool to see, and it's cool to hear that you didn't necessarily... You weren't sure you had that in you, but then it turns out you did. What did it take to get to where you are now?
Amanda:
Ooh. I think a lot of it has to do with growing outside of what you limited yourself to become at first. To push yourself in unexpected ways. A lot of that is reading. The success of our studio is not just because of the work that we do. It's because of how we're structured. It's because of the work that we put into learning about how to run a business. I didn't go to business school. None of my partners did. We're creatives. When we started a business, we were clueless. Then we started reading. Trying our best to do things the right way financially, and learn how to market, and learn how to sell, and all of those things. Reading books has been huge for me. Also, just staying aware of what everyone else is doing. Not being afraid of your competition. Looking at what they're doing, and liking it, and supporting them. I think that if you're afraid of your competition, then you will suffer. Your work will suffer. That's what we try to do, and I think it's working out. Thank you for the compliment on our branding. It was a long road, and we're super proud of it.
Joey:
Well, it paid off. Do you happen, off the top of your head, are there any books you would recommend that would help other people maybe thinking about starting studios?
Amanda:
Oh, you know it. I'll actually probably touch on one of the books. I reference it a lot just in day-to-day conversations. It's called How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Joey:
Oh, a great book.
Amanda:
It is a great book. I think a lot of people, when they see the title, they're like, "Ew. That's so manipulative." But what you learn is that, you just learn how to develop relationships. How to become more understanding of the other person that you're either in disagreement with. You learn how to communicate your wants to them so that they actually want to help you, instead of it being like a back and forth unpleasant disagreement.
Joey:
Yeah, that's perfect. That's actually kind of a nice segue into I think what we'll be spending most of our time talking about. One last thing, just on the general makeup of Cream. If you go to Cream's website, I think there's only five people on your About page. It's pretty small.
Amanda:
Yeah.
Joey:
The level of work, I assume that there has to be more than five people working on these projects. So I assume that you're probably using freelancers. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you think about staffing up and down, and using freelancers in the studio.
Amanda:
Yeah. Okay. I think it's important to note... Before I go into that, I'll give you a little bit of background. When we first started, all of us were animation design, we would even put our own sound effects on. We would produce everything. We didn't have a producer. Everything was coming through us. Eventually, because we were now a studio and not just a freelancer, we were bringing in more work just based on that alone. We had more capacity, but we started running out of capacity. There was more demand. We realized, "All right, we're at a pinch point. We need to make a decision." We felt bad about hiring people for certain roles of the project. It felt like a cheat. It felt like we were taking what they did and making it our own, and then taking credit for it. Eventually, we realized we really didn't have a choice. We either had to turn down work, or hire someone in-house or a freelancer. Believe it or not, Joey, do you even believe this? Not everyone wants to live in Richmond, Virginia? Can you even...
Joey:
Or south Florida. You know?
Amanda:
Right. Yeah. I mean that's better than Richmond. Well Richmond's awesome, and we love it here. Everything is great. A lot of people, they're not familiar with the city. They don't want to move here. We were like, "All right, well we'll..." We knew a lot of people in the industry, so we reached out to them and we started working with freelancers. It was fantastic. You work out some kinks. That has actually been a huge side of our success. It's not for every studio, because there are pros and cons to it. For us, we like it because our client base tends to be really seasonal. With ad agencies, marketing agencies, we have this huge push end of third, fourth quarter. During the summer sometimes, it can be famine, like crickets. We'll work on a lot of personal projects. When you have a huge staff, that can be a huge weight to be able to pay off everyone, and not think about layoffs or anything like that. 
You said it first. I'm very empathetic. I am afraid of firing or letting go of anybody. It breaks me heart to even consider that. We want to avoid it at all costs, and be able to hire people that we never have to fire. That worked out really well for us with contractors. The larger studios, we have friends that run larger studios. The benefit of having a larger studio is pitching is way easier, because you have the staff. For us, pitching is a lot of in-house work. We'll do a lot of the storyboards or moodboards, or motion tests or things like that. If there's specific things we need to hire out for, then we can. I should mention they're not just random people that we've never spoken to before. Most of the time, the people on our roster are people that we've worked with many, many times. We trust and love them, and treat them like a part of the team.
Joey:
Yeah, yeah. I remember when I was freelancing, and I had really two or three clients that were my bread and butter, that I had years long relationships with. That's the name of the game, right?
Amanda:
Yeah.
Joey:
It can be very hard to get your foot in the door at a new studio, because of the risk that the studio has to take on.
Amanda:
Yes.
Joey:
Not necessarily even paying you, and maybe then lose money if you don't do a good job. It's maybe now the job's not done, and someone else still has to do it. You just spent a week doing something they can't use. Really, to me... The book I wrote about freelancing, the whole point of it is make friends with your clients, if I was going to boil it down. I think that leads nicely into the topic of this episode. You reached out, and you said that there's some interesting things you've been noticing lately with certain freelancers that have been approaching Cream, or that you've been approaching. There's kind of a little bit of a mindset shift, I think. I've asked around, and I've gotten confirmation that it's not just Cream, it's not just you. This is sort of a thing now.
Amanda:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I've asked around too. We have a lot of friends that run studios. We're like, "Is this happening to everyone?" I think it has become a mindset shift with a certain... I don't know, maybe a certain demographic of younger, maybe newer artists. That's what I'm seeing anyway.
Joey:
Yes. What you said in your email was, "Over the last year or so, I've seen an increase in freelance artists becoming more and more inflexible when it comes to terms, contracts, et cetera." I'm sure that we can unpack that pretty deeply. Why don't you just start by telling us, what is it that you're noticing? What are some of the things that have happened that make you say, "It didn't used to be this way. There's something going on, and it smells bad."
Amanda:
Yeah. Speaking of smells bad, my bulldog just... She is so smelly. If you hear me...
Joey:
We're leaving this in the episode, man.
Amanda:
Yeah, if you hear me coughing, or going ugh, or saying, "Oh, God, Cookie," it's because of her. By the way, she's a puppy, so I'm in for it. Ah, bulldogs.
Joey:
Yeah. Puppy farts are the worst. Okay.
Amanda:
Yeah, yeah, sorry.
Joey:
There's been a puppy fart-like quality to some of the interactions that you've been having.
Amanda:
Exactly.
Joey:
Talk about that a little bit.
Amanda:
Okay, yeah. I think that, first of all there's been a huge influx of really talented artists that are coming out of the woodwork. Animation is everywhere now. We're able to use different artists on different projects. The newer ones have... Not all of them, I should say. Actually very few of them. They've just kind of become concerned about what's in the contract. To me, that's a good thing. Look at the contract, read the contract. That's all good news, because that's progress. I remember I never would read them. I would just sign them. But it surprises me that they are so agitated so quickly. When they see something, they react to it. Reacting is typically not a great thing to do when you're trying to build relationships. You want to ask questions. You want to obviously be kind. 
That is what we're seeing. We're seeing someone reading the contract, which is very standard by the way. We don't have any sort of crazy contract. I'm sure there are other studios and other agencies that have a way more limiting contract than we do. It's kind of confusing to us. Is it our contract? Then we ask our lawyer. "No, it's not your contract." Your contract is way looser than what our lawyer would actually prefer. Instead, we're getting a lot of just rudeness. When I say a lot, I'm talking like three people out of the year. To me, that's a lot in a way. 
We want to have good relationships with artists. There should never be an us against them mentality. When we pull in artists, it's because we love your work. We are hopeful to have a relationship with you, to where we can lean on you and trust you, and there can be a beneficial relationship between the two of us. Yeah, it's very surprising that there's immediate reaction. Almost like firing off an email, "What does this mean? What is this?" It's like, "Whoa, hey. Pump the brakes a little bit. Should we hop on a call?" Yeah. That's the gist of it.
Joey:
Yeah. All right, so let's kind of walk through this a little bit. You reach out to a new freelancer. You say, "Hey, we love your work. We'd like to book you for this project we have coming up." "Cool, I'm available." I'm assuming you have a work for hire agreement that you ask them to sign, right? We use these at School of Motion. They're very standard, and it typically sort of assigns that whatever they create becomes the ownership of the studio, right?
Amanda:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). 
Joey:
Because you're paying for it, which makes sense. I remember seeing these things as a freelancer. I'm not anti-contract by any stretch. At School of Motion, we use them all the time. As a freelancer, my inclination was always, "Look, I'm just going to trust you. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt. If you screw me over, I'll never work for you again. That will be that, and I will have learned a lesson." That allowed me to not have to be rude, and not have to push back. When you send over a work for hire agreement, what are some of the objections that you've been getting back? How has that been coming back to you?
Amanda:
It's kind of random. It's not the things that you would expect. We're pretty clear about, "Here's the deadline. Here's the schedule. Here are the deliverables." Sometimes, it's stuff that we're not even sure what it means. It's just in the contract. We'll reach out to our lawyer. He'll explain exactly what that section means. Then it's almost like the freelancer, when they're all riled up... Again, I'm only speaking about a specific one or a specific few. They are already ready to fight, and the project hasn't even started yet. That's just not a great way to begin any sort of relationship at all. It just doesn't leave us in a creative, collaborative mood. 
I have reviewed all of the emails, making sure, "Did I say something wrong? Did the producer say something wrong?" No. I've really tried to give the freelancers in these instances the benefit of the doubt. I truly believe that everybody's good, or at least they believe they're good. What ends up happening is... I truly believe they got burned at a different studio or with a different client. Now they're bringing baggage to this relationship. Do not do that. You will never keep a client if you're doing that. It's just bad, bad business.
Joey:
Totally agree. Do you have any theories as to what's sort of triggered this? As an example, a few months ago when we were still in the middle of the NFT bubble, and there were a lot of artists that were just making something pretty and then putting it on Foundation, and then they'd get $10,000 for it. There was a lot of talk, especially on social media, of, "I'm never doing client work again. I just broke a hold, and told this client to go pound sand." There was this... Again, it wasn't overwhelming. It wasn't everybody. It was just a few people, but some of them were pretty high profile. 
Thinking, "Now I can tell you how I really feel. I am worth so much more than you've been paying me, this little day rate thing." Then in the end, I really think that hurt a lot of people. The NFT thing, and the sort of gold rush of that, during that definitely drove some of this very visibly. Is there anything else? Do you think that maybe there's just more information out there, so it's easier to hear these stories of artists getting screwed? Then you can over-represent the actual risk of that happening to you?
Amanda:
Definitely. I have some theories. I think that just having places to kind of chat about this type of stuff, whether it's on Slack or the School of Motion... I would say Facebook page, but that's no longer, or soon will be no longer.
Joey:
Correct.
Amanda:
All those places, they're out there, and they live forever. When someone sees that and they read it, they might get like, "Oh, yeah. That's going to happen to me, or I'm going to expect that. If that studio did that to them, they're definitely going to do that to me." Whereas, you're probably getting a small story of what really happened. Who knows? I don't know. The other side of that is that there's tons of information. There's really savvy entrepreneurs that are tapping into this creative industry to help artists run their business. You're doing it too. It's really needed. However, there are some that I agree with more. I'm not talking about you. I agree with you for everything.
Joey:
Of course, yes. Thank you, Amanda.
Amanda:
Of course. We have no disagreements.
Joey:
No, none, zero.
Amanda:
No, no, no. There are some approaches that I feel like are maybe too aggressive, or they don't consider the full spectrum of running your business or running your freelance business. Some of them are strictly contracts, contracts and protect yourself information. The ones that I've seen that do that are kind of one-sided. It's all about protecting yourself. It's not about keeping your relationships with the clients that you have challenges with. I'm not talking about the clients that, they're just jerks and you don't like them anyway. The work sucks, they suck, whatever. Okay, no big deal. The ones that, if there's just a communication issue, or if there's a deliverables or a contract issue, negotiate. Negotiate with them. 
We have contracts with huge clients. I'm not tooting our horn, because they're a small portion of what everybody else gets. These are global companies with contracts that just go on for days, legal teams and all of that. Guess what? Their contracts are negotiable too. If you go to a studio, and you don't like what's in their contract, instead of reacting just say, "Hey, guys. I saw this, this and this. I'm wondering if that's flexible. Instead, I'm hoping we can come to an agreement on these different terms." Then lay out what your suggestion is. That is going to be so much more well received than just, "I don't agree with this. You guys are stupid." No one's ever said that to us before, but I'm sure it's coming. Maybe after this podcast.
Joey:
Right, right. I think that you kind of tapped into something there. I think it's fair for any freelancer to look at a contract, and there's something in there that makes them uncomfortable. It could be totally standard, and it's in every single contract out there. Maybe for whatever reason it makes them uncomfortable. There's a way to raise that where... Here's another, this book has nothing to do with business, but it's actually a pretty good one for people who have to talk to clients like this. It's called Nonviolent Communication. There's a way of saying, "I don't like that line in the contract," where it can come across as a friendly gesture. I think the term you just used was, "I'm wondering if that's flexible." There's so many layers between you and the client, "I'm wondering if that is flexible." Not, "I'm wondering if you're flexible."
Amanda:
"Is this flexible?"
Joey:
It's not, "I don't like your contract. There's no way I'm signing this." A lot of it is communication style I think too. Do you think that is at the core of this, or is there actual animosity somewhere?
Amanda:
You know, I can't be sure. I think that even if there is animosity... Let's just pretend in a random situation that there is a freelancer that absolutely hates the studio. Hates them, but they're locked into some agreement. If that freelancer reveals to the studio that they really hate them, and they don't enjoy this, they'll never work with them again, a couple of things can potentially happen. Someone from that studio breaks off and they work somewhere else. Then they work somewhere else, and over and over and over. Well guess what? Now you have this reputation that is not just at that studio. It is everywhere now, and it will grow. It's unfortunate, and it can be avoided. 
If you are having a bad time, a bad experience in a project, you can still take the higher ground, and still be nice about it. It's not easy. We've all done it. It's worth it, because it will protect your name from being blacklisted in the future. You just never know who's going to throw your name out there. If you have a crazy producer at a studio that makes her rounds, and she gets fired and hired at all these different studios. Well if you had a bad experience with her, she's going to tell everybody, she or he. They're going to tell everybody, "Don't use this person." Just be careful. Protect your name and protect your business.
Joey:
I've seen it, yeah. There's a couple of artists that, this was years ago now, just randomly... I would be talking to studio owners all over the country, and they would bring these two people up. They had been sort of poisoning the well everyplace they worked. The industry's growing. It's still very small, though. Everybody does kind of know everybody.
Amanda:
Yeah.
Joey:
Let's get into some of the nitty gritty here. One of the things that's very eye opening for freelances a lot of times when they start are net 30, 60 and 90 payment terms. It's very easy as a freelancer to be like, "I'm not a bank. It's not my responsibility to wait. You should pay me the day I'm done." Once you run a studio, once you run any kind of business, you understand the concept of cashflow, and account receivables, and account payables. Maybe you could talk a little bit about, what is it like from your perspective as a studio owner to have to navigate not just with your clients who have net 30/60/90 terms, but then the freelancers you're hiring.
Amanda:
Yeah. Well, I guess if anybody doesn't know what net 30 is, it's basically like a credit system to where, when you sign a net 30 contract, you are agreeing to get paid by the studio within 30 days of you submitting your invoice. That's how that works, and then 60 days and 90 days. Typically I'll say net 30 is, I think most studios try to be around there if they can, depending on the account, the client. Large corporations, large clients and agencies, they'll push it as long as they can. It's a real bummer. For small studios like us, it can be very challenging. You'll have these larger projects, and we're waiting to get paid. We cannot pay our freelancers, or I should say we used to not be able to pay our freelancers until we got paid, until we learned really how cashflow worked and how to avoid all of that. It's still an issue. It's an issue with any business if you're not careful. You have to have that buffer, that 30 day buffer to make sure that you're not paying all of your expenses right away, and then now you're cash poor and you can't make your rent or something.
Joey:
Right.
Amanda:
That's basically how it goes. Again, you can negotiate these terms. If you're a freelancer, and you have your own expenses. Maybe you're working with an illustrator and you have to pay that illustrator or something like that for this project, just say, "Hey, guys. Are you flexible on this term here? I would love to have 50% upfront, and then 50% upon delivery. Are you guys open to that?" Then just see how that happens. Most cases are going to go, "Oh, yeah. We can do that." If they can't, then you can determine whether or not you want to work with them. It should all be laid out before you start the project.
Joey:
Yeah. I want to stress too, I'm assuming most people listening to this have not run a studio. The idea of cashflow, you may have been awarded a $200,000 job from Google, that doesn't mean you now have $200,000 in the studio's bank account. You may not have that for half a year in some cases, depending on the terms. In the meantime, you've got five, six, eight, 10 freelancers, all charging between 500 and $1,000 a day. It gets really tricky to manage. I think it's really helpful for freelancers to have empathy for that.
Amanda:
Yeah.
Joey:
Your clients are also stressed out by that. No one likes this. It's just kind of a system that there's not really a way to get out of it at this point.
Amanda:
Yeah. I would say, don't blame the studio, and don't even blame the agency. It is kind of this system that we are all locked into. Unless everybody starts using bitcoin or gold anytime soon to pay for these things, I don't think we're going to get out of it. It's just this borrowing policy, this credit system. It can get everybody into trouble, and it's the worst for whoever is on the very tail-end of it. That's going to be the studio and anybody working with the studio. That's just the way it is. It's unfortunate, but in most cases, like I said, we I know for sure will try to pay. We'll try to be negotiable and make it happen so that you're not uncomfortable right before you start a project. Nobody wants that.
Joey:
Yeah. I think just knowing upfront that this is likely, I may not get paid for 30 days. I always knew that. I could see how it would feel really awful if you didn't know that. Do you think that maybe some people are just glossing over that part of the contract when they sign it?
Amanda:
Yes, 100%. Then it's not just that. It's like, "Oh, I owe you project files?" That will be another topic, we will get into that for sure. I will hold my tongue. Read, read, read the contract. If you have any questions, ask. Things are always negotiable. Yeah, that's why I said earlier, I really like it when they do read the contract. I like it when there's questions. I don't like it when there's accusations. Yeah. I think you just need to know what you're getting into. Chances are, every time you work with that studio it's going to be similar. It's going to be a similar situation within each project.
Joey:
Yeah. You made me think of something too, that I just want to call out. A lot of times, if you're a freelancer and you get a contract, and it has some line in there that seems very sinister. One that we've been asked about is indemnification. Should the freelancer grab an image and use it in the design, that is copyrighted, for example. They are liable for that, not the studio. Things like that are pretty standard, but it can sound so sinister when you read it. You need to realize that a lot of times, and it's probably most the time, there's a lawyer somewhere insisting that be in there. We've had to deal with lawyers a lot lately, lawyers have a tendency to make everything sound so harsh. That's their job. Their job is to put a firewall between you and getting sued, as much as they can.
Amanda:
Yeah.
Joey:
It can feel kind of gross when you're a freelancer and you read that in there, but it's typically not coming from the studio. It's coming from the studio's lawyer. The studio owner or the owner of the business is like, "Okay. Well you're the lawyer. I guess if you say it has to be in there, we'll leave it in there." Right?
Amanda:
Sure, right. Yeah. I don't want to get sued. I don't want to get sued. Yeah, I completely agree. We have a really great lawyer. We have a really great CPA. Sometimes they seem like they are the big drag of our studio. That's their job is to protect us, to make sure that we're going to be successful. A lot of that means the legal stuff that was not so fun to read up about. I totally agree. If you read the contract and you think, "Oh my gosh. This is putting everything on me as the freelancer. Am I going to get sued?" Probably not.
Joey:
Right.
Amanda:
It's more just kind of a formality in a way, so that everything is there in case the shit hits the fan.
Joey:
Yep, yeah. Lawyers are so risk averse that they will think of the one in a million thing that could happen, and insist that you have protection against that in the contract. When really, having that clause in your contract will cause you far more problems in the long-term than just not having it and taking that one in a million shot.
Amanda:
That's a good point.
Joey:
Yeah. Let's talk about rates too. That also kind of falls into the financial realm. First of all, I'm curious. I have heard from some people in New York and LA that rates are going up. That there's a lot of people charging 800, $2,000 a day now. Sort of at the end, these are really, really experienced artists. Those rates, I mean I feel like even four or five years ago were pretty rare. I'm curious what your experience has been. You guys are based in Virginia, but I'm guessing you have freelancers from all over the place.
Amanda:
Yeah. We work with everybody from everywhere. We've seen a rate increase. I guess it doesn't affect us too much, because the way we determine the budget for a specific role is based on the overall budget that the client gives us. A lot of times we will say, "Well, here's a project rate. It might be over what you're used to getting. It might be under what you're used to getting. If you're interested, that's what it is." We lay it out in the scope of work, so that it doesn't, it's not a project that goes on indefinitely. If the scope of work changes, then obviously we pay more, or things get adjusted. We try to work under a project fee, just because it's a little bit cleaner for us. Most of the time, everybody's pretty flexible about it, and they're happy to do it.
Joey:
Yeah. I always preferred project rates. Have you ever had pushback on that, though? I can remember running Toil back in the day. It was kind of weird, even back then freelance rates were all over the map. There was no correlation between how good somebody was and what their rate was. It was pretty random. There were a couple of people I had to tell them, "Your rate's too high." One of them took it just fine, and the other one did not. I feel like we're kind of talking about this larger force of, not every artist, the minority of artists. Some artists have this opinion of themselves that is maybe a little bit higher than it should be, or it's so high that it's causing friction with their relationship with their client. Rate is kind of the nerve I think that's closest to the skin. How has it been navigating that? Have you ever had to tell people, "Your rate's too high."
Amanda:
Yes. I don't think we would normally say, "Your rate is too high for your skill level." Again, how to phrase things. I think we would pretty much just tell them the truth. "Hey, well this is what we have for this budget. If you're interested, great. If not, we'll look at putting you into another project in the future with a higher budget." When it comes to someone who has lofty ideas about who they are, and what they are capable of doing, that's typically kind of a red flag. You're dealing with a personality now that is already above you. In their mind, they are above you. 
There are tons of people out there that have a high rate, and they deserve a high rate because they're amazing. I'm talking about the ones that are not so amazing that have that high rate. Yeah, you just kind of have to back away slowly, and go, "Okay. Well, thank you very much. It was nice to meet you. It's just not a good fit for the studio." They're not a good fit for us, but hey if they can find a studio willing to pay them that much, then hell yeah, go for it. Good for you. We're just not that studio. That's just not how we work.
Joey:
Yeah. It's good to realize that. I think even as a freelancer, it's good to understand that if you will only work for a super high rate, there are probably clients out there that will pay it, but there are some that won't. I've always found too, at least the dynamic when I was in Boston, was that you could go to certain clients and charge a pretty high rate, but the work was going to be really dry. Not the stuff you're putting on your reel. Then there were other places you'd go where you'd have to have a more standard rate, lower than you'd like to charge, but the work's awesome.
Amanda:
Yeah.
Joey:
There's always a trade-off there too. I mean, Cream's work is awesome, so I would imagine that it's going to be different than going to the giant corporation and doing internal videos with giant budgets. You know?
Amanda:
Totally. I don't know who said it first. "It's one for the meal and one for the reel." You have to... It's true, man.
Joey:
I love that.
Amanda:
Everybody does it.
Joey:
Yeah.
Amanda:
You sell yourself to the devil to make a living. Sometimes that work isn't fun, and you certainly can't share it, nor would you want to.
Joey:
Right.
Amanda:
It pays the bills, and that's a part of the sacrifice that you have when you're a business owner. You realize, "All right, well at least it's my choice to do this work here. I am choosing to not be poor. I'm choosing to have something in my bank account. It might be soul sucking, but at least it's there." At least they want to work with you. Just be good to all of your clients, because you never know. Again, that producer at that soul sucking terrible client, huge corporation where you hated all the projects you worked for them, people move on. They go to more interesting jobs. Keep those contacts, because you might get better work from somewhere else.
Joey:
Yeah. It's so true. Actually one of my good friends, she started... When I met her, she was literally like the office manager at a studio. Now, she runs one of the largest studios in Boston. She's hired people that were her bosses before. I mean it happens all the time.
Amanda:
All the time.
Joey:
Which is why relationships are so important in any business really. I want to dig a little bit more into that, but I want to talk about project files. I see this question pop up constantly among School of Motion alumni, and on Twitter and places like that. Typically the standard line is, "Never give them your project files unless they pay for them. Guard those closely." I can see the logic behind that, right? When you wrote your email to me saying, "Hey, I'm noticing this," you had a really interesting take on it. You could kind of see both sides. Why don't you talk about that a little bit?
Amanda:
Oh, I am so happy to talk about this. Just like you, I see it everywhere. Everybody is upset about project files. I will say this too. When I was a freelancer, the moment someone asked me for project files, I was like, "Whoa, whoa, wait. Who do you think you are?" Now, I know better. I know what's going on behind the curtain. Motion designers, understandably they are going to not want to do that at all. There are two assumptions, one being that the studio or whoever is going to steal all of the intellectual property, learn all your secrets. The other assumption is that they're going to take that project file, and then generate a bunch of versions or something else, internally or with someone cheaper, and not hire you. I cannot speak to other studios. It might happen every once in a while at some other studios. 
In most cases, this, dot dot dot, is really what's going on. First of all, I should say that anytime the project files thing comes up, it should always be in a contract before you start the project. If someone is asking you for project files, especially for free at the end of the project, you are welcome to go punch a wall. That is crazy, to me. They shouldn't be doing that. If you see, when you're signing on with a new client, that they require project files, here's what's actually happening. For a lot of studios, they have a preexisting contract with their clients to hold, archive, and be responsible for those project files. There's a couple of reasons why. First of all, the end client doesn't want to do it. Wouldn't have any way of even opening them. They don't care, but they want the insurance of having that project file. 
They want the insurance because, if they have a small revision in a year or a couple years, and they don't have the project file, no one has the project file, then they have to... There's potential to start all over again. The studio would have to recreate the exact spot with a little different ending, or whatever those changes would be. It would cost the end client the full amount. That is why clients have that written in their contract, and that's why studios sign that contract. They're like, "Okay, well we can archive all of these project files, keep them safe. We'll do that for you." Usually, there's some sort of term, two, three, five years, whatever. Also ad agencies, they have preexisting contracts as well with their clients. 
Sometimes depending on the client and account, whatever, ever so often they will have in their contract that at any time the studio needs to surrender the project files, and give them either to the agency or to the end client. We found this out a few years ago. We had a long-term agency client. We love them. They're here, and we still love them. We used to work with them a lot. Well one day, they asked for project files, and they had never asked for them before. We were like, "Say what?" We kind of huffed and puffed for a minute. Then we looked at a contract that we had signed years ago. Sure enough, it was right there. Any time their client can have project files. What are you going to do? That's kind of what's going on. No one is stealing your secrets. They don't have time to steal your secrets, but they are legally obligated to package and archive those project files to protect the client. There you go.
Joey:
Beautiful. I don't know how much this still happens, but there used to be this interesting business model with really expensive post houses where they would make some beautiful spot. Really what they made money on was them making 100 different end tags for that spot. I've been in the position of having... I've been actually on both ends of this. Like I do something, and then they ask for the project files. My gut is, they're doing this because I'm more expensive than the person they can find to do the versioning. I've also been the cheaper person that an do the versioning. I remember at one point we got a spot from Stardust, the studio in New York. We had to do all the end tags, because it was too expensive to have Stardust do it. That does happen. I'm curious how you feel about that part of the equation. I think that's actually what most freelancers really fear. "Wait a minute. You're going to find someone cheaper to version this out, or to make revisions to it." I think it's kind of rare, but it does happen. You know?
Amanda:
Yeah, yeah. No, and I definitely understand that's a fear. I can only speak for us. It doesn't happen too often with us. If it does ever happen, it's usually because it's more of a time saver. It's like, this is a two hour thing. I'm not going to bother this person. That's kind of the take on it. I would say, if you are really fearful of that, then maybe you're just not a good fit for that client. Or you could say, "Hey. For this project, are you flexible with me keeping the project files?" Even that is flexible, depending on the contract. Ask. I think it's totally okay to ask. You could also say, "I'm really interested in signing on for any versioning in the future. I would love it if you will keep me in mind. We could even consider writing that up in a future addendum to this contract." There's that too. 
Come prepared, and think about negotiating tactics so that's not an issue anymore. One thing that really surprised me is that you said they made all their money off of end tags. Apparently we're not charging enough, because we don't make anything off of end tags. We make very little, very little. No, I mean I can see how that would be a fear. On the flip side, just thinking about creatively, do you really want to do tons of end tags when you could be doing a brand new awesome project for that same client that you ended on really good terms with? You're not going to show tons of end tags on your reel. You're going to show different projects. There's just different ways of looking at it, but it's whatever your comfort level is.
Joey:
Yeah. I think it's just good for everyone to realize that, when you're dealing with anything in the world of business... A freelancer talking with a studio, that is a business relationship. There's no way that the studio and the freelancer both get exactly what they want. There has to be trade-offs. It's just the reality. Most of the time, there's no malice there. It's not, "I'm trying to get one over on you, freelancer." It's, "This is the business reality. This is the budget we have. There are the terms our client insists upon." I think if everyone just keeps that in mind, and gives everybody the benefit of the doubt, a lot of the issues around miscommunications and contracts can be avoided, just by assuming the person you're talking to isn't trying to screw you over somehow. That should be like the last... You should check off 10 different alternatives to that, before that's the conclusion you draw.
Amanda:
Yeah. Also a lot of times, you've got a producer who is, they're not an owner. Maybe they are younger, or maybe they are super busy. Maybe their communication is lacking in terms of empathy or understanding or kindness. I can certainly understand how some freelancers might be like, "This person doesn't care about me." It's not personal at all. It is typically just the fastest way to success for the freelancer and the studio. Ask of something is negotiable. Never demand it, because that never works, ever. People tend to just block that off. 
Yeah, I mean if you just want to start a conversation, or maybe say, "Hey, can we have a call? I would love to talk to you about these points here, and just get your take on it." Boom, man. Not only is that an opportunity to show them that you can rise to the occasion when there's a challenge, when there's a little bump in the road. You're also furthering that relationship. Now they're going to trust that, when the going gets tough, this person keeps their cool. They are not going to freak out. Again with the riskiness, that's less of a risk. This person, I can trust them and I like them. Yeah, do all of those things.
Joey:
Yeah. A lot of times what I tell students about, not even just how to freelance, but how to get jobs is to be a professional. Professionals carry themselves a certain way. "Oh, this is not a hobbyist. This isn't someone who is going to panic when the client makes a change and they're not sure how to do it." I think that does kind of tie into this idea of being better at communicating as artists. I think you said that what would help a lot of this is just if everyone practiced communicating and learning to communicate better. I'm wondering if you can define better a little bit. What makes a freelancer a good communicator?
Amanda:
Okay. First, read the book. Read How to Make Friends and Influence People. It's almost like a handbook to relationships. It has helped me in my marriage, with my children, with my friends, with business. It is the one book that has really opened my eyes. Actually, both of my business partners, before they read it, they told me, "I've seen a change in you. I don't know what it is, but you're handling yourself in such a different way. It's like you've just ascended to a different type of professional." That was the biggest compliment I could get from my friends/co-founders. It really is transformative in that way. It just kind of helps you understand where someone else is coming from. 
On the heels of that, I would say to be a better communicator always first put yourself in this person's position. This person who is emailing you, or calling you or whatever. What is it, the old expression, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Yeah, which shouldn't it be bees, but okay. Just be kind. If your client is freaking out, or if the producer is not being super nice, it might be because they are stressed out about this project or a different project. Don't take it personal. Try to be the calm in the storm. The calmer you are, the more they will trust you. The more they will see that, "Ooh, when I interact with this person, it's peaceful. It's fun, it's friendly. I like them. I like them." Right? That's what you want. 
Otherwise, you'll be burning bridges and making a bad name for yourself. You don't want that. I do want to point out one thing in that book. I wrote it down, so if it sounds like I'm reading it's because I am reading. Okay, something that opened my eyes about this book specifically is that, when you are reactive, and when you don't like what someone's saying and you freak out on them, you immediately do something that is not beneficial to you getting what you want. I want something. That person wants something. Instead of reacting and firing off an email, take a breath, chill out a second. Then just realize that when you come off frustrated with someone, whether it's in email form or whatever, that puts this invisible defense wall. 
That person is no longer listening to you, at all. They can't, because they're busy thinking about how they're defending themselves. They are not listening to anything that you have to say. Your points don't even matter. You've sabotaged yourself in this conversation, this argument. Whatever you say from here on doesn't matter. Instead, take that breath, you come back in five of 10 minutes. Read the whole email with a kind voice in your mind. Then respond. When you respond, read through it and make sure it doesn't sound like you're being sassy or a jerk or whatever. It all matters. Again, the calmer you are, the more your client will mirror you. They'll take that cue from you. "Oh, well they're calm," subconsciously. "Maybe I should calm down a little bit. Why am I freaking out so much? They've got this. I'm going to chill out now." You see what I mean?
Joey:
Yeah. It's funny, I was raised in Texas, so I grew up... And I sense this in you too. There's a spirit of southern hospitality that kind of gets ingrained into us if you're raised in certain parts of this country. I can only speak for myself, but you seem to have a similar mindset. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don't assume everyone's out to get you. First, be friendly. Culturally though, it's not like that everywhere. My mother is actually from Manhattan. She's a New Yorker. She doesn't automatically trust people the way I do. I'm wondering if any of this, if you've seen getting people to behave this way also a little bit depends on what culture they're coming from. Do they come from a culture where things are, "I'm a New Yorker. Get out of my way." I'm stereotyping New Yorkers.
Amanda:
Right, right.
Joey:
Come on, that's accurate. In different countries too, there's just different ideas about how a business relationship is supposed to work. You're not automatically friendly-
Amanda:
Absolutely.
Joey:
... with everybody the way sometimes you are in Texas, and maybe Virginia. I'm wondering if you've noticed any dynamics like that.
Amanda:
Yeah. I try to keep an open mind. If you're from a different country, I give you even more room to be rude or whatever. I automatically assume, "Oh, it's a culture difference. That's it. It's totally fine. I am sure they would never just want to be rude to me, because I'm nice." Yeah. Otherwise, they must be crazy. I have come across a couple of freelance artists who are out of the country, who are in Eastern Europe, and they have different ways of communicating. It's very direct, less friendly, but in most cases it all ends well. They're happy, they're content with the relationship and we continue to work with them. I unfortunately did have a bad experience with someone from that region recently. It was a real bummer. It was a real bummer. 
I was already being overly nice, which I think maybe annoyed her. Then I just kept getting this pushback. Even though everything that I said matched the scope of work, there was just this constant... Again, it was kind of like she brought baggage to the project. At the end of the day, it's not a good fit. If it's going to keep me up at night, because I'm going to wonder, "Well what did I say to upset this person," but I didn't say anything, that's not a good fit for that relationship. I love my job, and I want to keep it that way. Just work with people that you really like, and don't take any shit. You don't have to.
Joey:
Yeah. Thank you for talking about that stuff. I think that for a long time, I just sort of assumed that the way I see the world, "Oh, everyone's my friend until proven otherwise." That's kind of how I look at it.
Amanda:
Right.
Joey:
That came from somewhere. I'm sure part of it is innate to me, but also that is literally what you're taught growing up in Texas. It's the whole thing, "Howdy, partner." I do this test. When I go to a new city and I go on a run, I wave to every single person I pass. I count how many people wave back. It's wildly different, depending on where you are in the world. 
Amanda:
Oh, yeah.
Joey:
Like I said, there's some cultures where politeness isn't really that important of a virtue.
Amanda:
Well, it comes off as being crazy.
Joey:
Yeah.
Amanda:
"Why is this person smiling for no reason at a stranger?"
Joey:
Yeah. That's me.
Amanda:
Me being the stranger. "What is wrong with you?" Yeah, I would be like, "Hello. Hi, everybody." The freelancers that are out of the country, who speak broken English but have amazing work, they've worked with other English speaking studios. If we have any issues communicating, I usually say, "Hey, let's hop on a call." Everybody's different in how they can communicate in a different language. I am rubbish in Spanish face-to-face. Can't do it at all. I get nervous. I can read it and I can write it. Other people are different. Some prefer a Skype call, because you can use your hands, and you can communicate in different ways. 
You just really kind of have to get creative, and ask. If you're a freelancer, and you're working with a studio that speaks a different language, you can tell them in the beginning. "Hey, I'm going to do so much better if you type everything out," or, "I'm going to do so much better if we can have our feedback calls through Zoom." They want the success of the project just as much as you do, so that's probably what you'll end up doing. Just let them know.
Joey:
Yeah. I love that too. I wanted to ask about something you kind of touched on a little there. One thing that was kind of surprising to me at the time, and in hindsight it's so obvious. People hire people they like way before they hire people whose work they like. I think that it's not that obvious when you're getting into this field that there is an element of meritocracy to it. The best artists typically do rise to the top, but the best artists aren't necessarily getting booked as often. Fortunately, almost every amazing artists I've ever met is also an amazingly nice wonderful human being, but not all of them. 
It's just probably human nature, some people get egos about it. Maybe some people had one bad client, and how every client they assume they're bad. How do you balance that when you're thinking about who you want to work with on a project? Would you give someone a little leeway to be an asshole if their work is twice as good, as this other artist that's super nice and you love working with them, but you know what, the renders are going to be just a little bit better?
Amanda:
That's a great question. I thought I knew the answer until it occurred to me, we have made I'll say sacrifices on the pleasantness of the project due to knowing for sure that this is going to be way better. If it's way better, then it kind of ties your hands. What I'm more seeing is that there's so much competition out there, there's so many wonderfully talented artists that now you don't have to sacrifice that side of it. 99% of them are going to be good people. Then you get the one person that could ruin your day, or ruin your week. You don't really have to even think about it anymore. 
Really the new standard should be, I have to be a nice person. I have to have great customer service. If I don't, no one's going to hire me again, period. You can find new clients, but you won't keep them. They're not going to want to work with you again. You really have to think about that, in this long-term relationship with each and every client. Really value them, understand them. Try to act like a part of the team, because then you'll become a part of the team. You will be their extension. If you want to get hired somewhere, they'll think of you first because they like you. If they don't like, why would they ever want to hire you again? You know?
Joey:
Yeah.
Amanda:
It doesn't make any sense.
Joey:
Yeah, and it can be the smallest thing. It can be one incident of you writing an email that the tone was angry. That does it, and now you're just never going to work with that client again. Frankly, you may never work with that producer again should they go somewhere else.
Amanda:
Sure.
Joey:
In the Freelance Manifesto, I did some surveys. I was pleasantly surprised to find that what people said they cared about with freelancers were things like reliability, can they trust them. Likeability, can they work with them. Talent was down on the list. There's a certain bar-
Amanda:
It's because everybody's so good. 
Joey:
Yeah.
Amanda:
Everyone is so good anymore. It's hard to be... The real rarity, well I shouldn't say rarity. The thing that matters the most when everybody's talented is, who do I like best, and who do I want to spend my day with? Who takes critiques and feedback better than anybody else? "Man, this client is going to be a pain in the butt. They are going to stress me out this entire project. I really want to work with someone who can just take it on, knock it out of the park. No matter what the changes are, within scope of course, they're just going to do it, and they're not going to make my day even more stressful." That's what everybody's looking for. It's like the unicorn.
Joey:
Yeah. How do you recommend... One of the hardest things to do as a freelancer is to tell your client, "Oops," or, "The render is taking a little longer than I thought it would. I won't actually have the thing I said at the time I said." How do you give a client bad news if you're one of these unicorn freelancers?
Amanda:
Do it as soon as possible. Do it in a friendly way. Don't just fire of an email that says, "The render is taking longer." Try to give an indication of when you think you can expect it. Don't overpromise. Everybody wants it to be done at 4:00, but it's probably not going to be done at 4:00. Leave yourself a half-hour, hour buffer to work out any kinks that might happen. Then really just stay in constant communication with your client, so that when you have bad news it's kind of balanced with all of the good news that you've shared together. When you have this bad news, you can also present it in a way that it doesn't just seem like it's your fault. You could say, "Hey, it looks like this render is a longer lift or a heavier lift than we expected. I'm open to suggestion if you guys would like me to render the first half." 
Come up with some ideas and some suggestions. They grasp onto that. For them, the studio is probably like, "Oh, crap. I've got to tell my client." They don't want to deliver bad news where there's nothing there. If you suggest, "Hey, I've got this and this, or we can use the WIP render, the work in progress render with some caveats." Make suggestions. They'll probably bite onto it. Always, always give them the most heads up, even if it's that morning and it's due that night. You're looking at it, and you're like, "Man, I've got a lot to do."
Don't do it. Don't you push it. Make sure you let them know, "Hey, guys. I just want to give you a heads up. I know it's the morning. I'll be working hard on this all day, but this might take me into like 7:00, 8:00 tonight. I just wanted to let you know as early as possible." They will so appreciate that. That is one of those things that will get you the job next time. They'll hire you again just for saying that, just for giving them the heads up.
Joey:
Yeah. It's so counter-intuitive. That's really good advice. I love the advice too. If a problem pops up, take a minute and try to come up with a solution or a suggestion before you just tell the client, "Oh, there's a problem." It's so much more powerful to say, "Oh, there's a problem, but here's three options. Which one would you prefer?"
Amanda:
Yeah, or even saying like, "Hey, this scene is messed up. I didn't turn a layer on. I'm so sorry." Be apologetic. Own whatever issue it is. If it's your fault, just say it's my fault. If there's something in the scene, or in the full animation there's a scene, just say, "Hey, I can still render this out, but we'll have to have caveats here." Totally cool. They will be so appreciative to just have something to show their client. Something is better than nothing. Don't ghost your client.
Joey:
Yes. No ghosting. Don't break holds. I've heard that's now a thing too. People are breaking holds. That used to be the ultimate no-no. Have you heard that, or has anyone done that to you?
Amanda:
Yeah. I think our studio, our structure has kind of benefited us in weird ways. We haven't experienced too much of that. What I have noticed is double dipping. It's everywhere, it's all the time. Everyone has multiple projects going on at once, even if you book them for the full day, even if you have them for a certain amount of time. I get it. Hey, more money. Again, your creative director is going to know. If that studio has any experience in animation, and you're four days in and you've got nothing to show, what else have you been doing? Be very careful. If it's a weekend project, sure, do it up. Just be aware. Even if they don't say they know what's going on, they know what's going on.
Joey:
Yeah. That's good advice too. Why don't we end with this? There was something you said in the email that, again, I think is probably counter-intuitive, especially the new freelancers. You said, "Studios are willing to pay more for reliable, friendly and collaborative artists, because they have a better experience with them." Again, this goes back to the idea that I think a lot of people assume this is a meritocracy. The better you are, the more you can charge. There's truth to that. As a studio owner, what do you value more monetarily? Maybe you could talk about that.
Amanda:
Yeah. I feel like it's important to note that you can't just be friendly. You have to also be talented and all of that.
Joey:
Right.
Amanda:
If you're just like the friendliest worst animator, you're not going to get any jobs.
Joey:
There is a bar, yes.
Amanda:
Right, right. You should feel like a part of the team. It's exactly what you mentioned about the risk. Every time there's an extension of the team, or even someone in-house, there's a new hire, that's risk. There's this new person, with their own personalities, own biases and experiences that have put them here today. Limitations too. Not everybody knows every [inaudible 01:11:31] and aftereffect. Everybody's sort of limited. By being transparent, by being open, honest, confident and saying, "Hey, I notice in this storyboard that you have what looks like an effect here. I'm not really an effects person, but I am happy to help reach out. I know a few I can put you in touch with for that section." 
Again, always adding value by being nice, being helpful. That is way better than some bad ass animator who doesn't give a crap about you, your team, or anything else. They're just in it for a check. We want someone, and most studios want someone that they can work with again and again and again. That requires effort. Being nice and maybe learning someone's name, and all of that. Just think of it as maybe not a friendship, but trying to head there. It's okay to be friends with these people. Most of them are good people.