10 things I learned from being a freelance videographer
In 2010, I made a life-changing decision to quit my comfortable but unfulfilling job and to become a freelance videographer and filmmaker. It seemed like a crazy idea, particularly in light of the recent recession and sinking economy, but deep down inside I knew that I was making the right decision. Even if it meant saying goodbye to a decent regular paycheck and a hefty benefits package in favor of pursuing what I truly love to do. And, even if it meant facing financial insecurity and uncertainty about the future that lay ahead.
I’m now starting my third year as a full-time freelancer, and my only regret is that I didn’t make the switch sooner. Is financial uncertainty and ambiguity about the future still there? Absolutely. Does it bother me? Not as much as you would think.
If there is one major thing I have learned, it is this simple truth: if you actively take the steps to overcome your fear in order to pursue your dreams and aspirations, and if you’re persistent and keep true to yourself, you’ll find success and happiness in that area of your life. It may take a long time, and it won’t be easy. And, you probably will not become a millionnaire in the process. But you will eventually find ways to support yourself by doing what you love to do.
Here are 10 things I learned after being a freelancer for 2 years. If you are considering this path, I hope that some of this might be helpful.
1. Don’t quit your day job until you’re ready
I know, I know. I said that quitting my job was the right decision, and it is true. However, I didn’t do it on a whim or without planning. It was a process that took some time. I wanted to make sure that I had enough savings to last for at least 6 months, or preferably for a year or more, if needed. I knew that the transition to start working for myself would take a while, and that money won’t just start rolling in as soon as I left my job.
Building a client base and a solid body of work takes time. After two years, I am still working on it. So, if you are planning on quitting your day job to pursue a career as a freelancer in the creative industry, make sure you have enough of a financial cushion to give you a nice head-start as you begin looking for clients and making networking connections. It won’t happen overnight.
2. A creative job is still a job
As a freelancer, just because you are working for yourself and don’t have a boss watching over your shoulder and breathing down your neck, you still have to answer to someone. That someone is your client. In a sense, the client is your boss, and you should make every effort (within reason) to fulfill or even exceed their expectations. If the client isn’t happy, it will reflect badly on your business and on your reputation. The under-promise/over-deliver model is usually a great template to follow.
In Hollywood, there is a saying (mostly pertaining to directors and actors, but it could really apply to anyone) – that you’re only as good as your last film. It doesn’t matter if you produced a dozen award-winning masterpieces. Because, if the most recent project you worked on was a failure, your career will take a steep dive and people will be less inclined to hire you again. So, it’s important to always bring on your best game, no matter how small or large the project is.
It is also easy for a beginning creative freelancer to think that because you enjoy working on your craft (whether it’s video production, editing or graphic design), that every job will be fun. That is not the case. If you want to make a living in video production, especially in the first several years, you will not have much of a choice in accepting all kinds of jobs that come your way, some of which will be tedious or downright boring. After all, you have to feed yourself!
Even now, there is no project that is “beneath” me; in the past two years I have shot everything from weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties and nightlife events to business promos, corporate conferences, product demos, PSAs, Kickstarter campaigns, performing arts, entertainment, sporting events, commercials and TV shows.
One of the things I have learned is that the projects which are considered more creative and fun to work on (such as music videos, short films, narrative features and documentaries) are the ones that pay the least, if anything at all. Meanwhile, projects that can be deemed boring and uninspiring, such as standing in the back of a conference room and filming a 6-hour corporate presentation or a talking-head interview, are the ones that tend to pay rent and put bread on the table.
Luckily, I love shooting and editing so much, that I derive at least some enjoyment even from working on such seemingly boring projects. As long as I’m behind the camera, I’m content with shooting anything. I’ll take it any day over pretty much any other kind of work. Evidently, this is how I know that I’m on the right track and doing what I’m supposed to do with my life.
However, I also make an effort to periodically work on more creative projects such as short films, documentaries and music videos, even if they are unpaid (which they often are), just to maintain a sense of personal creative fulfillment and also to network with other like-minded people in the local independent film scene. After all, that is why most of us go into the video production industry to begin with, isn’t it? To make movies!
3. Developing relationships
This is a key component of any business. About a third of my work comes from repeat business from clients I’ve done work for in the past. Some of it also comes from referrals. If a client hires you for the first time and is happy with your work and your attitude, they will be more inclined to hire you again for another project in the future, as opposed to going with somebody else that they don’t know. It’s common sense, and that’s how professional relationships get built. I am very grateful for the relationships I have developed with several Denver-based companies, and I’m always looking for more.
In particular, I enjoy working with local small businesses and community organizations. They don’t necessarily have huge video production budgets, but you tend to have a more intimate, friendly experience working with them, and it’s usually a lot of fun.
4. Dealing with deadbeat clients
So far, I’ve been lucky enough where I haven’t had to deal with many difficult clients, but I came close several times and I’ve heard enough horror stories to prepare myself for the possibility. You know, the type of clients who don’t have a clear idea of what they need; the clients who will suck you dry, requesting change after change on a project, never really satisfied with the outcome, or even worse – refusing to pay.
When you are just starting out as a freelancer, it is tempting to try to accomodate the client’s requests, no matter how ridiculous they are. But at a certain point, you have to make a decision to finally start saying “no,” particularly when the amount of work you’re doing is not proportionately compensated. I now have a section in my video production contracts that allows the clients one set of editing revisions included in the proposed budget for any given project. Any additional revisions, changes to the script or production schedule after it’s been approved, cost extra.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out this informative video about dealing with clients, which should be helpful to anyone in a creative industry.
5. Getting organized
As I mentioned before, freelance video production is a creative business, but it’s still a business. It’s important to have detailed contracts, release forms, receipts and other documents associated with any given project well organized. Now that I’m a freelancer, doing taxes every year is a more involved process, so I make sure to keep detailed records and spreadsheets of everything, from equipment purchases, project budgets, client payment receipts and travel expenses right down to gas mileage on my car.
Organizing data is also very important. I use a tapeless, completely digital workflow for all of my work, so footage archival and backup is of high priority.
6. Equipment doesn’t matter
Don’t get me wrong, I geek out and drool over the new camera gear as much as anyone. But when it comes down to it, what equipment you use makes very little to no difference to the client, as long as you have a competent skill set when it comes to framing, lighting, sound and editing. Most prosumer camera models on the market right now, whether it’s DSLRs, small-sensor or ENG-style camcorders can do a great job in producing beautiful, high-quality video ready for web and even TV broadcast. Hell, I shot stuff on my old Canon Vixia HFS-100 as a B-cam and the footage looked almost as good as anything I shot with cameras 5-10 times its price. Not saying that I would use it as a main camera on a professional paid shoot, but still… The person behind the camera matters much more than the camera.
About 90% of the videos I’m usually hired to shoot end up on YouTube, Vimeo or other websites. Maybe about 5% go to DVDs and another 5% occasionally show up on TV. For the kinds of videos I specialize in – web commercials, company profiles, customer testimonials, instructional videos, short form documentaries and so on, the audience couldn’t care less whether they’re shot on a $20,000 RED Epic or a $900 DSLR. It might make a difference for high-end corporate clients, but that is not my market.
7. Keeping a lifestyle that is proportional to your business
I personally don’t know any freelancers who are getting a steady stream of work all year long. Sometimes you can book a ton of projects in one month, but when they’re done you might find yourself in a dry spell for weeks or even months that follow. You never know when or where your next paycheck will be coming from, and it can be unnerving. Sometimes it’s downright scary. Unless you continually land high-paying jobs from big clients, it’s wise to keep a lifestyle that is as simple as possible, with low overhead. My biggest expenses are food and rent. Second-largest expenses are things like health insurance, cellphone, internet bills and miscellaneous car expenses. I keep my equipment purchases and upgrades to a minimum – only when absolutely needed and when I’m certain that their cost can be recouped within 3 months.
8. A little passion goes a long way
Technical skills and experience are important, but they are useless if you don’t have a true passion and love for what you do. I didn’t decide to go into filmmaking because I thought it would make me rich or famous. 99% of people in this industry are neither. I went into filmmaking and video production, because it’s what I love to do and I can’t think of anything else that makes me feel as fulfilled professionally and creatively as making videos and films, or helping other people make theirs. If you’re in it for the money, you might as well just quit now and do something else, because there usually isn’t any 🙂 But as I mentioned before, if you truly love what you’re doing and if you don’t give up, you will find a way to make a living with it.
9. Collaboration, not competition
There is a lot of talk about how competitive this industry is, and to some extent it’s true. There are many people who are trying to make a living doing the same thing as you do, and finding clients is the hardest, least fun and most time-consuming part of this job. If you can find a niche that nobody else has yet occupied, you’re in a good spot.
But video production is also a largely collaborative medium. It’s not easy being a one-man-band, and oftentimes you need support. I try to network with as many other local freelancers and filmmakers as I can, because you never know when one of them might need help on a project, and vice versa. There are occasions when a client contacts me about a project, which I’m unable to do, usually due to a schedule conflict. In those cases, I’m more than happy to pass on the client to one of my peers, knowing that they would do the same for me. There are also occasions when I need a second shooter, an audio person or even just an assistant on a project, and I’m happy to know people who can be available to help out. Denver has no shortage of creative people and talented crew when it comes to video production. Which leads me to this last point:
10. Colorado is a great place to live and create
I don’t really have much to say about this, other than Colorado is my home and I’m proud to be living in a place of such natural beauty, friendly people and a growing creative culture. Denver, in particular, is ever-changing and growing right before my eyes. It seems like there is more and more creative work coming from here, whether it’s film, music, or other arts. Hopefully, it will only continue to evolve, and I’m happy to be a part of it.