How My Diabolical Plan To Make Money From Personal Projects Paid Off, Literally

How My Diabolical Plan To Make Money From Personal Projects Paid Off, Literally

Turning the work you do on a personal project into something that makes you money isn't a new idea (just ask stock shooters.) However, the forethought required to concept a personally fulfilling shoot or production that will also have the chance to generate some income can be tricky to figure out. This past weekend I had three shoots, and they were all because of one personal project I created a month ago. And I actually planned for this to happen.

I'll share my story for how I converted a personal project into paid work and future clients, and then I'll add some thoughts as to how you might be able to do the same.

My Relocation

As mentioned in an earlier post, I relocated to a place where I had no contacts and no jobs. I've been trying to network and find businesses that I want to work with, but that has taken me the better part of a year. With this abundance of free time, I've been able to produce videos that were personally rewarding, helped me keep my skills sharp, and all the while gave me more media to add to my portfolio. When doing personal projects I find it pivotal to multipurpose the work being done– so while shooting clips of mountain bikers for example, I'll make a point to use gear that I might be testing...

Reviews for Fstoppers

As a writer for Fstoppers, I'm lucky enough to get gear to review. With enough free time and an interesting enough product, I'll even do video reviews. Recently I had a Panasonic GH4 to review. Instead of shooting myself talking to the camera about what I did and didn't like, I decided that I should produce a video with the camera instead, and analyze it in the written post. This would be no small task, so I had several goals in mind that would make this project worth my time.

1. The video needs to push the limits of the camera (to form an opinion for the review)
2. The video should get me to outdoor areas I haven't yet explored (the personally rewarding part)
3. The video should give me a handful of clips for my portfolio
4. Use the final video to get work locally

I do get paid (a fraction of a percent of what it would have actually cost to make this video) a smal amount for these reviews, but I definitely didn't get to keep the camera. Making a video review was completely my decision, and no one forced me to do it but myself. Therefore, I consider it to be a personal project.

My Diabolical Plan Takes Shape

The kind of work I want to do lies in outdoor adventure. There are no shortage of places to do that where I live, however there are a shortage of companies that need video/stills of those activities. When I first moved here, I identified who those businesses were, and looked at the visual media they had on their websites. It wasn't very good. Reaching out directly to offer my services didn't do anything, as I recieved little to no communication back from these prospects. I decided that with this GH4 review video, I wanted make a piece that showcased the areas and activities that are in line with what these businesses want to promote. Once finished, I planned to send them all a link to the video. Once the line was baited and I had I nibble, I planned to reel them in.

Within a week of circulating the video, I had a meeting with the local tourism department of one county, and was placed on the vendor list for another county for when they send out RFPs. I also was contacted to submit quotes for a few other businesses I was hoping to get work for, and I even got calls from businesses I hadn't heard of, wanting to know my rates.

Licensing My Personal Project

Upon meeting with the local tourism department, I discovered that they were launching a brand new website within the next month, and wanted to display the GH4 video. Since the video belonged to me and no one else, and I had done my due diligence to get releases from all of the people who appeared in it, I owned it outright and was able to license the video to them for a nice little sum. Think of it like when you license the use of a photo to a client; it carried very specific terms about the usage. I had never considered licensing videos before, as usually I'm providing complete production services and the client generally owns the final edited video... but this was definitely not the case here.

This opened my eyes to the possibility of producing work that achieved personal goals, but if done right, could also be sold in the future.

Here's another example:

Again, I needed to review some gear for Fstoppers (Strahlen LED lights) but I needed a project to use them on. I had previously identified a farm-to-table restaurant that I wanted to know more about, so they were my primary target. A few phone calls and I got myself access and releases to shoot in the restaurant for a day. Not only was able to test the lights for my review, and profile a business that I actually had a personal interest in, but the final video could potentially be of interest to the restaurant and the city. Several months later I was indeed able to license this video to the tourism department.

Moving Forward

That GH4 video not only made me some money from the licensing, but the people who purchased it now have me booked for about 10 shoots over the next 2 months. I am lucky because while this is a small town and there isn't much work, there also isn't much competition. There is no one within a few hundred miles that has the skill and gear that I bring to the table, so I'm able to provide a service that no one else can. That's business 101 right there, and now that people locally are starting to find out about me, I should be able to snag more gigs.

The key to getting these clients was that I actually had to show them what I could do for them– simply telling them that I lived here and promoting my portfolio wasn't enough. It wasn't until I took it upon myself to create a video that I hoped would wow them into hiring me. It's funny how that even in small communities that don't have much extra money to go around, when they really want something, they are able to find the funds to afford it.

My advice if you want to do the same

This might not work for everyone– each market and locality will be different so YMMV. But here's what I would do:

1. Make sure you have the time to do a personal project, and do it right. If you're going to succeed at making it a portfolio-worthy piece and snag some new clients, you will want to put just as much, if not more, time and effort into it as you would a high-paid project.

2. Write down your goals, and then develop a couple concepts that would achieve them. I listed my goals for the GH4 video above. I came up with 2-3 concepts and noodled on them for a few days until I settled on one that I felt would be the most successful, and easiest to produce. For you, this means brainstorming ideas for the content you want to shoot, what makes it unique, what secondary goals will the project accomplish, and researching potential clients who might want to license the work, or be inspired to hire you as a direct result.

3. Execute. Make sure you get releases! When having friends be on camera, do little things that will help you later, like asking them to not wear gear with large logos. Get music that has a license that will allow you to sell your finished work if needed, without having to buy a new license.

4. Make it damn good, then promote it with a plan. Post it online, but lock out the embed feature (something you can do with Vimeo Plus) – people can and will post your work without giving you notice. The point is simply this– if someone sells ads or is promoting a product or service on a website that your video is embedded on, you should be getting money for that. Period. Have a list of emails for the clients you're going to reach out to, and do so with a simple and professional note. Follow up in person or with a phone call.

5. Get meetings, get work, get ready to give estimates. I was asked by at least 4 businesses what my rates were, and how much it cost to make that GH4 video. I sat down and figured all my rates for each shoot, editing time, and other costs.

If you struggle making invoices, contracts, or other video business documents, help yourself to some free templates I posted here a long time ago.

Like I said, the idea of selling personal work of work isn't new, but the method described above was completely premeditated– and led to both a big contract, and the licensing of previously made projects– so I hope some folks might find it helpful when deciding on their next personal piece.

Have any of you successfully licensed video? Was that one of your goals when producing the work inititally, or did it happen by chance? Has that changed the way you approach personal projects since then?


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Mujtaba Sayed's picture

You sneaky little bugger you !!..haha,but seriously, nice post.

Matthew Taggart's picture

Yeah, this is a great post. Thanks for sharing amigo.

Greg Koch's picture

Great to hear that worked, Mike!

As a still photographer, I've done and am doing very similar sorts of things. Most recently, it was a fitness shoot at a gym with some trainers. I showed the final images to management, they passed them around a bit, and soon requested licensing for every single one. Personal projects are definitely an important part of a successful business model.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Awesome Greg. Sounds like a fun project, and lots of potential to generate income.

Mike nice work and thank you for this post. I am currently doing a project with the same intention of getting more work in a specific market. I am curious about the releases for selling the work. How did you approach the restaurant about giving you the rights for re-sale ? Can you add a release template to your templates page or post one on this article ? Again, thank you for this inspirational article.

Joel Meaders's picture

I've found the releases that iStockPhoto provides are excellent.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

When approaching the restaurant I did offer them the use of the video (my vimeo video, so I get the views, etc) on social media channels and such, since they were allowing me to shoot there, but I did have a release signed that stated that I was in the clear to use the interview footy and do whatever I wanted with it.

Nice job Mike!!

Chris Blair's picture

Wonderful post Mike, thanks for that awesome inside info. I've been kicking around this type of marketing strategy for a while now and it's great to see it worked for you!

Mike Wilkinson's picture

You never know... something I didn't mention in the article was that I tried to get some work shooting for a local BMX club, and got no response. I then showed up to an event anyway and took some decent images of their races. I processed images and then sent them over (with watermarks of course) to the club, and even posted a gallery on facebook (thinking I could get some parents to buy some prints) and it generated absolutely nothing :-)

Reid Kimball's picture

Mike, I'm very interested in making this approach work for me. Here where I live, it's sort of small town and video is not very popular for businesses. There is some competition, but not a lot compared to photographers. I feel like I have skills in video production/editing to offer to businesses and that there is a lot of business opportunity, but nothing I try has worked, cold calling, cold emailing brochure info, visiting biz locations, Google ads, YouTube ads.

I would like more information on the licensing terms and how that whole process and conversation works. Do you have articles or can you point me towards some? Thanks.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Reid, I'll send you a message.

I'd l love that info too, great job, thanks Mike

Jason Ranalli's picture

Excellent article...but one question: did you know beforehand there would be little competition in the town you moved to?

Mike Wilkinson's picture

I looked online before I moved to get an idea, and I didn't see much listed. But, with small towns, using the internet to post and communicate things is not always the way things are done, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

Mike how much time did you spend on shooting the Farm Bistro ?

Mike Wilkinson's picture

That video took a few hours of planning, and about 8 hours to setup/shoot/strike/eat with an assistant.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Would you guys be interested in an article that shares how I calculated my fee for licensing a video? It would be great to get a discussion going about that in the comments and see what others are doing as well...

Miles Bergstrom's picture

Awesome article Mike! I'm in the same boat myself, but in a much larger pond. Mainly trying to get stuff for my portfolio and to really sell myself down the road. From my understanding Fstoppers has allowed you access to review gear, which is something I've been trying to get into now. I'm just not exactly sure how to go about it.

Wasn't sure if you have any articles/advice on how to go about that.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Before Fstoppers I was able to get access to only a few small items, and it took a lot of pleading with companies to get it. In the end it was more trouble than it was worth. My advice is to simply review newish gear you've rented or purchased, and start building a blog/review site. Once you've got a backlog and some traffic to back it up, then you can start to go after companies more confidently to score review gear.

Sadie Wagner's picture

Did I miss something? Isn't this the same as creating a portfolio and getting in front of the people you want to work for?"

Chris Adval's picture

Whenever I am paying models to be in lingerie or bikinis they were intended to be licensed for poster/print product sales or sell them myself.

Mike any chance to get a sample of your release form ? Also I did not see this article on the F- stoppers site today.. Curious ? I had saved the link.

"Would you guys be interested in an article that shares how I calculated my fee for licensing a video? It would be great to get a discussion going about that in the comments and see what others are doing as well..."

Yes this is a good and relevant topic as we are all trying to get projects and grow our business.

Bryon Black's picture

Not trying to be "that guy", but jfyi you spelled reservoir wrong in the first video.

Just a friendly heads up! It's easy to miss those sometimes.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

How dare you point out flaw in another person's work?!?! Kidding of course– I'm terrible at missing spelling errors like that. Thankfully, this was caught just before it was sent to my client, I must have forgot to update the piece on Vimeo. Good catch and I appreciate the heads up.