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How to Build a Stable Freelance Business
Starting a freelance career is hard. Don't do it alone.
Running a business is a lot like raising a child: It takes a village. Anyone who has ever started a new career, launched a small business, or switched into freelancing understands the innumerable challenges ahead. As a wise old hermit in a cave once said, "It's dangerous to go alone."
I learned this lesson when I became a parent for the first time, and it applies to my business as well. The same mantras I heard throughout the first years of motherhood were repeated, whether for networking or catering to large clients. Motion Design is a competitive career, and newbies often worry when they're starting out if they have what it takes to succeed. My advice is to ask for help.
In this article, you’ll learn:
Getting leads and making connections is an important step to building your freelance business. The best place to start is your rolodex. For anyone under 60, that’s now typically your LinkedIn Connections.
LinkedIn is business-oriented, and motion design is a B2B business, so it’s a fantastic place to start. They currently have over 800 million active users—admittedly far less than Instagram or Facebook—and boast much stronger recruitment and hiring than all the social media platforms. There’s a wealth of free, easily accessible information on how to leverage LinkedIn to build a business. Definitely, jump down that rabbit hole.
Once you really get going, there are no shortages of paid consultants who can help you develop a longer-term LinkedIn strategy. But what’s really crucial to understand when making connections—especially with LinkedIn—is the FOAF (friend of a friend) theory. This means that it’s not about your own connections and friends, but the connections or friends of your friends.
There’s a great book called Friend of a Friend about this subject which goes into much more detail about this theory and the author offers great resources and exercises on his website. If you don’t want to just connect to potential clients, you could use Instagram to find more peers in the industry as well.
If you’re not digging LinkedIn or Instagram, you can find strong communities running Facebook groups. These communities, such as Dreamers and Doers and Fly Female Founders, are made up of like-minded creative people. Even if they're based in a certain region, like New York or LA, and you’re not currently living there, don’t be afraid to join. As with any social media group, it's always best to do a little research to make sure you trust the group you're joining.
A silver lining from our shared time in the pandemic is how easy it has become to connect virtually. Suddenly, it feels like we all live in the same place, and just about anyone and everyone is a Zoom link—er, I mean, phone call—away!
The rising popularity of Clubhouse—an app “where people around the world come together to talk, listen, and learn from each other in real-time”—means there is an audience for just about any topic. It may still be the early years for the platform, but it's nice to have another place to find a community.
Not too long ago, well-known illustrator Jessica Hische made a post on social media about what it’s like being a creative working parent. She got so many responses, she ended up starting a conversation on the app Discord. Over a thousand people have joined the conversation from all corners of the globe. While this might not be the place to find your next project, it could be a great place to have a conversation about managing your creative career, or finding answers to your business or time management questions.
Or perhaps, you’ll find that great creative director who’s a working parent just like you, and you’ll hit it off talking about parenting woes to start, and end by exchanging contact info and social media handles.
The key is all about finding your people, some of my best clients have been working moms, simply because we began by hitting it off with like-minded perspectives, and ended with a great working relationship.
Slack is a premiere place for motion designers to join and leverage communities. Find your people—and your clients! The key is to take this concept further than just your own address book and social media. On Slack, everyone is always “on,” with multiple channels to connect to people.
Panimation and MDA are powerful motion design groups with a strong number of participants and channels. But, there’s smaller groups as well. One that I discovered at the start of the pandemic is called InCreativeCo., which calls itself “a collaborative community, to bridge the gap between freelancers and agencies”. It’s amazing! Do some digging and find your niche group! I worked with an excellent repeat client across the country whom I met through InCreativeCo.
Building up your support group is crucial, whether you’re early in your career or even mid-to-late career. I first learned this lesson with parenting.
I needed so much help when my first child arrived. How do you juggle feeding schedules, nap times, changing, prepping meals, work, meeting with clients, trying not to go insane? It was hard enough deciding which of all those baby products to buy. And now, almost 10 years and three children later, I still lean on my fellow moms to navigate parenting life.
I have found that building up that same level of support in my freelance career has helped me navigate troubled waters. I felt the same fear and indecision when I researched a new computer as when I asked what baby monitor to buy. Yes, you can live and learn, but you can also ask and get help!
A productive feature of Slack groups that’s fun to leverage is the chance to opt-in for doing “donuts”. These are 1:1 meetings over phone or video chat, based on random pairings between members of the Slack group at times convenient to both your schedules. You never know who you’ll meet, and sometimes it’s even three people if there’s an odd number of people participating in that round. It’s sometimes weekly or monthly, but it’s a nice way to get to know people better and get a deeper dive into your fellow “Slackers”.
During a recent donut call, I learned about a vault of information. I didn’t purchase it, but it was nice to learn about the resource on the call.
How to build your business through networking
Network in the workplace
“Your Network in your net worth” —Tim Sanders
A surprising outcome from this unfortunate pandemic is better networking. Prior to 2020, I did a lot of networking, but I didn’t enjoy it very much. Commuting to the locations, standing up for hours, paying for overpriced drinks or tickets to venues, trying to talk over loud background music—this is how it was always done in the past. Networking is so much easier now.
I've attended a huge number of online events in the past year and made some great connections. Here's just a sample of what I found: BNI (Business Networking International), TNG (The Networking Group), Connexx, Lunchclub, Provisors, YPBN (Young Professional Business Network) and a local Chambers of Commerce.
Each of these groups have different strengths, but motion designers are rarely in there, so it’s a good way to network with people outside our industry who might be looking to hire a motion designer. Never dismiss talking to someone because they’re not related to our industry or don’t understand how we work. One of the biggest projects I’ve ever gotten in my career, for a major big-box retailer, was from talking to someone who sells skincare products for Arbonne; and I don’t use any of those products, either.
Be mindful that it’s helpful to know and rub elbows with people within our industry as well as people outside our industry. By networking with others who do what you do, you could become a great referral partner for when they are too busy to take on a project. By networking with people who don’t do what you do, you might be the only motion designer they know and will be their first call when someone asks them for a recommendation
Network at school
“Don’t Let School Interfere With Your Education” - Mark Twain
Another place to really think about making connections with people is through your school. If you’ve graduated—even if it was years ago—reach out to alumni! If you’re taking classes online, reach out to your fellow classmates over email and text.
And not just your classmates; instructors and teaching assistants can be your best resource for helping you find work. When I finished learning Adobe Flash (now Adobe Animate) at UCLAextension in 2010, my Flash instructor got me an internship at one of the best digital agencies in Los Angeles. I barely knew what I was doing and suddenly I was working on advertising campaigns for the biggest films in Hollywood.
Years later, when I started my career over again as a motion designer, I took evening classes at NYU to learn Aftereffects. My instructor told me about School of Motion and several years later (as well as several paid courses later!), I’m a Teaching Assistant for School of Motion. Teachers can be incredible mentors.
How mentors are key to your business
You should also consider some of the amazing mentoring groups online specifically for motion designers. Three great options are MotionHatch, FullHarbor, and MoGraph Mentors. If you’re a Creative Warrior, consider James Victore’s group as well. Not every group is for everyone. It’s important to remember to “find your people”; see where you connect with like-minded artists.
Where can you find mentors?
If you’re looking to get one-on-one mentor support, there’s a great business mentoring program from volunteers called SCORE. Before the pandemic, I was never able to find anyone locally who would understand my business. But when everything went online, I was able to do a national search and found an incredible mentor who runs a branding agency thousands of miles from where I live. She went to Rhode Island School of Design, so I knew she would have a great understanding of my skills and freelance business.
How to find the best in-person meetups for motion designers
Virtual meetups can be a great way to network, but there are some real advantages to being face-to-face with your peers. There are conferences, art/film festivals, and meetups happening all around the world. Two big conferences are happening in the United States in September 2021: DashBash and CampMograph. Creative Mornings will soon offer in-person gatherings, as they have presentations in just about every major city around the world!
If you want to try to focus your business on a certain industry or vertical, consider attending a conference in that specific industry. You might be the only person attending whose career is in motion design, but that puts you in a position of authority. Also, consider conferences that have more open topics but focused on certain demographics, perhaps conferences for women entrepreneurs, or LGBTQ, or just something personal to you. Having common ground can be a great starting point for connecting with a potential client.
Come join Motion Mondays
Let’s say you aren’t connected with a school, you don’t want to join a Slack group, or pay for a networking group, or travel to a conference; what’s left? How about a weekly group to just talk motion design with fellow motion-eers? That’s Motion Mondays! They meet every week for 1-2 hours about all sorts of topics related to motion design. So, join the conversation!
Find your village and build your business
Community is everything, and now more than ever people are looking to make connections after an unprecedented time of isolation. As a parent, I learned to take the advice of perfect strangers when our only common denominator was a young baby. It helped me to build my village—my support group. That same mentality has helped me to build my career.
My business has thrived by creating a web of resources that provide me support on technical issues, finding new clients, finding business solutions, and learning new skills.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this crazy year, it’s “always say hi.” You can't look at someone and know what they do, who they know, or how they can change your life. Chances are, if you’re in the same room—virtual or real—you’ll have something in common and something to talk about. No one likes to be the one to break the ice, but people often remember that one person who does; and that could be you! Happy networking, happy freelancing.
Sherene Strausberg, founder and creative director of 87th Street Creative, is passionate about helping businesses achieve their branding and marketing goals through powerful, effective design solutions. Understanding the value of communication and collaboration, she ensures clients are informed about the creative process and are thrilled with the final deliverable.