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The Freelance Future: Restructure Your Workflow to Succeed as a Freelancer

By Adam Korenman

In the age of remote work and the Gig Economy, a larger portion of the world is embarking on the freelance journey, but how do you structure your workflow toward success?

There are a number of advantages to working in a studio. You have set hours, the work comes to you, and don't let anyone tell you that Bagel Fridays are a joke—the Everything Bagel is Life. However, more and more of the world is going remote. Whether by choice or by necessity, people find themselves thrust into an entirely new world, struggling to figure out how to fit in.
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There's no such thing as an "accidental freelancer," but the reality is that going freelance can be nerve-wracking. How are you supposed to hustle to get work? What should you charge? Why are taxes?
We get it. We've been there. We attended an entire panel about it. Heck, we literally wrote the book on it! If freelancing is in your future, then it's time for you learn the two basic rules for success:
  • Have talent
  • Restructure your workflow

You Have More Talent Than You Realize

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You've probably already checked off step 1. If you haven't, be careful not to sell yourself short. You don't have to be the best in the world; you just have to be better at it than your clients. For example, if it takes you four days to complete a 3 minute 3D animation, but it takes your client four weeks, you're worth hiring. You may envision the kind of portfolio you want to have, and it's deep, comprehensive, and packed with loads of "Oh, wow. That's sick." But your clients just want to see that you can do what they need for each individual project. 

How to Restructure Your Workflow for Success

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The biggest difference between freelancers and people who work for a company is the nature of the workflow. If you work for someone else, work flows into your inbox, you do it, submit it, and proceed to tackle the next task in the stack. The only decisions you have to make involve scheduling your time and figuring out how many jobs to work on at once. 
As a freelancer, you have to generate, then manage, your own workflow. Here's how to succeed.

1. Pay your dues upfront 

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You may have to grab some low-paying jobs if you're just getting started. But it's worth it. Each job gives you the chance to accomplish four things (listed in order of importance):
  • Build your portfolio
  • Learn new skills or reinforce existing ones
  • Establish a client base
  • Make some money
This means there may be times when you calculate how much you're making an hour and the number has just one digit. So what? You're still building your portfolio, learning, and maybe earning a repeat client. It's worth it. 

2. Cast a wide net

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Apply to several companies or online outlets. Keep applying until you land one that's going to earn you enough money to live off. Then apply to some more. Getting a little more work than you need is not greed. It's insurance. If the economy takes a hit, the more clients you have, the better your chances of maintaining a source of income. 
Keep in mind that one of the primary reasons a client is looking for freelancers is because they may not have enough work to justify creating a salaried position. There's a good chance the work may slow down at some point. When that happens, you will need your other clients to help make ends meet.
But doesn't that mean you're overextending yourself? Nope. Not at all. The key is to identify one or two key clients that give you the bulk of the money you need. Then, do work for the other clients—but only enough to maintain your professional relationship with them. If you really don't have time to accept a job, that's OK. But try your very best to accept the next one. 

3. Deliver, Deliver, Deliver

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As you first get going, put down the calculator and stop trying to figure out how much you're making each hour. Focus on delivering the best quality work you can even if that means staying up late or sacrificing chill time. The important thing is to deliver. If you're unsure what the client wants, ask detailed questions. Then deliver. If you have to skip a date or a chance to hang with the crew, that's OK. Deliver. In this phase, you're establishing a foundation. As you build your business, the work won't be as hard, frequent, or intrusive on the rest of your life.

4. Cluster your work

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At a normal job, you waste tons of time. You talk with coworkers. You take random breaks. Your lunch "hour" tends to stretch a bit more each day. And this doesn't even count the endless meetings.
As a freelancer, you can't work like that. Instead, it's best to cluster your work; go hard, grinding until you meet a significant benchmark, then stop.
Schedule a few long, intense days throughout the week. Get good rest before each day begins and then keep your eye on the prize and nose to the grindstone all day long.
Reward yourself with scheduled chill time, not lazy time. If you have a task that needs to be done by 5:00 p.m. and you can do it in 2 hours, don't spread that two hours out over an entire day mostly littered with laziness. Buckle down and bang it out quickly. Then enjoy some chill time, or, better yet, reinvest some time into generating more business.
Turn some of your "downtime" into learning time. If you cluster your work into four hard days for the week, use part of the fifth day to further your professional development through learning. This will help you grow. You can do a range of things:
  • Take a class
  • Experiment with new techniques
  • Watch how-to videos
  • Set up sessions with a mentor
  • Read content relevant to your trade

5. Time every task

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Somehow, somewhere, someone said creative production can only happen when "the muse" moves you. That's garbage. You can train yourself to be hyper-productive whenever you need to by timing everything you do. Divide a project into phases and time each phase. The next time you do a similar project, time it and see how long it took you to do each phase. This way, you set up a healthy competition with yourself. Productivity skyrockets.

The Pros and Cons of Freelancing

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Life as an entrepreneur can be far more rewarding than one as a clock-puncher. At the same time, it has its challenges.

Pros

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  • Freedom. You're free from a nine-to-five schedule, free from obligations to a boss, free from having to wake up early, commute, and a thousand other tangential irritations that come with clock-punching.
  • Scalability. This one is often overlooked. You can grow or shrink your business when and how you want. It's actually a lot easier to grow it then shrink it. As your portfolio gets beefier, your pitches get better, and your skills get shinier, your pay goes up. You can also diversify your client base by tapping into higher-paying markets. 
  • Choose who you work for. If you don't like a client, you can politely peace out. No harm; no foul. And it feels kinda good, too. With a normal job, you're stuck trying to fix a toxic business relationship for months or years.

Cons

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  • If you're bad at time-management, time is not on your side. If you can't make a schedule and stick to it, you need to develop that skill before freelancing. Otherwise, you'll probably end up broke, stressed out, or both.
  • No one to help you pay for health insurance. Yes, a lot comes out of your check if you get health insurance through your employer, but it's generally more expensive when you have to get it yourself. To get coverage as good as what you would enjoy with a regular employer, you have to shop around.
  • You have to figure out how much money you want to make. This may not sound like a con, but it is. As a freelancer, you always feel like you could be making more money—because you can. But you're often too busy to set aside the time to figure out how. And once you start making more than you imagined you would, you realize you could have gotten there sooner if you had only done X, Y, and Z. This thought can be haunting—even after you've "made it." At a regular job, you move neatly up through the ranks by meeting benchmarks or kissing up to people or whatever. But making more money is straightforward and easy to navigate.
If you work hard upfront, properly manage your schedule, and continually court new clients, you can build a successful life as a freelancer. When you're ready to take that leap, we're here to support you.

New to Freelancing? We've Got You Covered

One of the most common projects new freelancers tackle is the explainer video, and they can become a boon—or bane—to your budding career. We've been there and felt that same pain, so we partnered with Jake Bartlett to put together Explainer Camp.
This project-based course throws you into the deep-end, giving you the training and tools to create a fully-realized piece from bid to final render. Practice working with a client, taking notes, and delivering a finished project.