Whether you’re a veteran freelancer or just starting out, it is important to continuously asses and audit your process. A decade and a half of experience getting washed around as a freelance photographer has taught me many difficult lessons about art, life, and growing a business doing what I love. Being successful is measured in more detail than just being Insta-famous, being a YouTube sensation, or selling single pieces for large sums of money. Even the most notable artists have had to grapple with the more organizational and administrative elements of their work and coming to terms with the reality of their goals. In most cases, it is these details that make the difference between failure and success. Hopefully these five tips can help you as you grow your personal business with larger than life ambitions.
There are so many moving parts to your business, especially when you start putting complex shoots together. I was recently doing a pretty big shoot for a California winery and I started thinking to myself how I could have never executed such a shoot with some of the awful habits I had when I first started. Hopefully, these brief lessons can help you save time as you build your business as a freelance artist.
If you are working as a freelancer, then you know the struggle. To be a successful freelancer requires a firm grasp on the artistic content as well as a comprehensive understanding of the administrative elements of running a business. It is key to know yourself well enough to identify your strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly. If utilized correctly, these tips can get your started on the right track towards that success you envision for yourself.
1. Efficient Time Tracking
This was the biggest thing for me. I had relatively slow growth in the first few years as a freelance photographer, but when I started to grow, I grew faster than I anticipated. As you build your business, you must be prepared for growth. It must be built into your overall plan. I was not prepared, I was still bright eyed and dreaming about what I thought success meant. I felt inconvenienced by the administrative demands that growth imposed on me. I was left struggling to put out fires left and right with no real process of how to do so. I found myself micromanaging a lot of things and my overall work suffered. I was getting to the point where I felt like I was losing money. I was constantly trying to figure out ways to account for the time it takes to organize workflow, while trying to shoot, edit, and market for more work. It was starting to become evident that if I continued this inefficient behavior, there would be a cap on the amount of money I could make. I couldn’t possibly raise my rates with the half-ass work I was putting out.
a. Detailed Time Quoting
To a stupid detailed level. It wasn’t easy at first. I made a lot of mis predictions and ended up losing money. I was still able quote clients on a per job basis, however I was including an amount of time that both the client and I signed off on. This seems like a no brainer, and it's likely that many of you already incorporate this. The overly detailed practice instilled healthy habits that began to be natural. I use Harvest. It is pretty simple, there is a tab on your tool bar that allows you to start and stop the clock according to the job you’re working on. You can easily track expenses on each job. If you’re not already using something like this for your business, well, you’re kind of blowing it.
b. Schedule Everything
I started using iCalendar and Google Calendars to an detailed degree. I would live and die by my calendar. This was a huge step for me. I’m typically the person that cringes at having any kind of schedule (after all, this was the reason that I started my own business). If I wanted to be on a schedule I’d get a real job. However, this was a real job, with real responsibilities and real demands. So, I began to get organized and noticed that I would all of a sudden have more time to do more jobs. As I began to quote jobs more accurately, I could forecast much more efficiently. Thus, I could price quote more accurately on demand and availability.
2. How You Deliver Your Finished Work Matters
It is sort of embarrassing how I delivered photos back in 2005. I guess CDs were still a thing, or rather I thought they were still a thing. I would write the clients name on the CD in sharpie and hand it to them. I don’t even think I gave them a case or a sleeve. Considering the look of disappointment on their face, it is a wonder I received any referrals at all. I learned two very important lessons that would make the biggest impact on how I presented work.
a. Packaging Matters
Years of experience freelancing with successful companies taught me about the importance of packaging. To this day, when I buy an Apple product of any kind, I get those warm tingles of excitement. A huge part of that excitement is because of the attention that Apple puts into how they present their product. As such, you should make these considerations in how your deliver your work. It doesn’t have to be wrapped in gold leaf and unicorn mane, but it can be something simple that reflects you and your style. Hopefully this falls on deaf ears, but sadly someone out there is handing there client a CD scribbled with sharpie as we speak.
b. Allow Room for Feedback
This applies more for the corporate client. Hopefully you’ve factored in feedback, secondary, and tertiary edit time into your time quote. As such, you should present your work in a way that makes it easy for your client and you to communicate efficiently. For my photography I have been using Pixieset for years. It is clean, beautiful, and makes my work look way better than it usually is. Clients like this because they can see everything all at once and select their favorites easily. It is helpful to upload your images with nomenclature that is clean and clear. Try keeping it clean and reference a simple code; once again, simple stuff, but you’d be surprised.
For video work I recently started using Wipster. This has revolutionized my video work. It allows for annotations, making editing so much easier for both me and my client. Regardless of what you use, it is an important detail to consider. Your client’s time is valuable; if they have to fumble through a messy Dropbox link to get to the images or videos, you may not hear from them again after the job is done.
3. Know Your Weaknesses
One giant characteristic that all entrepreneurs share is introspection. Even the most fumbling of business owners know what they suck at and hire out. If you’re terrible at administrative work, you should consider hiring out for it. If you edit like a drunk elephant, then you might want to hire out for that. If you’re a social dolt, then maybe you should hire an assistant with a silver tongue to help you out. No businesses are run on the back of a single individual. It is incredibly unlikely that you’ll ever achieve success with out the help of someone along the way.
4. Leave Time for the Art
With all this scheduling, time management, administration, and client meetings, you’ll begin to wonder when was the last time you actually took a picture for yourself. I let my drive take me to some pretty dark places. I started to feel like a camera technician more than a creative. For me, someone who defines themselves as a creative, this was crushing. From the outside, my work remained the same but I didn’t grow. I was operating a successful business, but I was depressed and unhappy. It was like "Groundhog Day," shooting the same shit over and over again was driving me crazy. I felt worthless and unhappy with my career choice. My work lacked passion and I lacked ambition.
My approach to these doldrums was to start making personal artistic goals. Outside of the structure of a job, I made time for photography as an art. I consumed as much history and art as I could. I don’t mean flip through Instagram or Pinterest, I got out and learned more about process and technique. You’re never too learned. Citing Anders Ericsson’s classic theory made popular by Malcom Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. Squeezing 10,000 hours of artistic photography into a busy schedule of quoting clients, editing images, scouting locations, dealing with dramatic brides, etc. isn’t an easy task. However, you must start somewhere. It is just as important to keep an thumb on the pulse of your passion as it is to pay your bills.
5. Stop Giving a F*ck
Not literally, there are definitely some things your should give a f*ck about when you’re trying to run a business. More like, give a f*ck about less things. You’d be surprised at the amount of things that worry you, that have no real bearing on your business. Pick your battles is the anecdote that comes to mind in this scenario. You will be able to clear your mind of so much slop when you stop stressing about your former assistant’s Instagram account, whether a client is post-cropping your work, or if that net 30 invoice is ever going to get paid. That’s not saying that any of those things aren’t important, I’m just citing that they are less important than you are making them out to be. Harness some zen, relax, and stop giving a f*ck.
There is an excellent book by Mark Manson aptly titled "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck." It launches into a number of anti-self-helping suggestions that will help the way you interact with clients and colleagues. It goes into detail about the modern generations’ entitlement and self-granulizing. There are a number of good lessons in this book that will help you put the blinders on, do the work that inspires you, and give much less of a f*ck. Read this book immediately or download it on Audible; it's like five hours long.
So I leave you with that, five solid tips and a homework assignment. But wait, a bonus, and perhaps the biggest tip of all: enjoy what you do and respect the craft. If you aren’t happy, you’re in the wrong career. You have to suffer well to be an artist of any kind, you have to love what you do despite all the lulls and the hardships. To quote the aforementioned literary suggestion: if you’re only suffering through this to make it to some preordained assumption of what success is, then you’re missing the point all together. Your failures are about learning, your suffering is about enjoyment — think about that.
If you have additional tips on bettering your freelance business, include them in the comments. These are just some practices incorporate, I’d love to hear how you approach your business.