Imagine yourself at the verge of starting your own creative business. Four major companies want to hire you for a project and can’t wait for you to get going! So you quit your day job, thinking “If there was ever a perfect time to go freelance, this is it.”
Then, within one month, all your contacts in the companies quit, leaving you with zero clients, zero projects and zero income prospects.
A nightmare scenario? Four years ago, this is exactly what happened to Chris McFall, the creative director and owner of United Filmdom and the author of the upcoming CG Cookie series on Animation Fundamentals. Read on to find out how he bounced back and the advice he gives to artists planning to go freelance now.
"Don’t Expect Miracles and Do the Legwork": Getting Started as a Creative Entrepreneur
Chris, your start as a freelancer was less than ideal. Yet today, four years later, here you are running a successful business doing the work you love! Tell me a bit more about your background.I’ve essentially been active in the creative field since I was 16, in nearly every capacity you can image. I was a photographer, a designer, illustrator, web designer and even a musician. I’ve also had a few full-time jobs in the creative industries before starting my current company, United Filmdom, 4 years ago. When I discovered Blender, I was looking for a way to bring these facets together and just have one job - being a filmmaker. Blender helped me transition, leading me towards animation and visual effects. What I do now is freelance animation and filmmaking, doing every part of the job myself through United Filmdom and occasionally hiring freelancers when I need a little help.
What does your typical project involve?A client comes to me with a need for a film. I create a few concepts, write and develop a script, storyboard it, film it , edit it, and then create visual effects and animations. I write and record music and voiceovers for it if needed. You can probably already tell that my other speciality is biting off more than I can chew. My curse is trying to take on everything myself and loving various disciplines so much that I could never only choose one.
When you were starting your business 4 years ago, your big projects suddenly evaporated, leaving you with no client work right after you quit your full-time job. How did you bounce back?It was a tough situation which happened due to flux in the industry and my contacts leaving their companies, all within 1 month. You just cannot predict or prepare for this sort of mess. But looking back, this was still the right time for me to go out and make this happen. Let’s face it - starting your own business is like having kids: there is never the perfect time. You can never be 100% prepared and at some point you just have to take the leap. So the first lesson I learned: never burn a bridge. I left my last full-time job as an art director on friendly terms, which meant they were happy to hire me for a freelance project or two, after I flew the coup. What I did after losing my clients is what a lot of graduates or new freelancers find themselves doing, which is going on sites like Elance or Freelancer.com and other digital pitching sites and looking for work there. And yeah...I found myself finding very difficult clients which lead to a lot of tough situations.
What makes a bad client and what were your experiences with them specifically?Well, to start with they paid badly. They paid late. They were very, very demanding and changed their demands constantly and made my job very difficult. On top of that, being based in the UK, the exchange rate murdered any profit I would have made!
Despite that, would you still recommend using these sites to an entry-level freelancer?I do think they have some value and I would recommend them if you want to have real-world experience and harden yourself. If that is the case, by all means, go to those sites. You might find better clients than I did, but even if your experience is the same as mine, you will cut your teeth and learn how to deal with tough situations, which for me was an incredibly valuable lesson. If you can deal with it and eek out a living, perhaps while working on your showreel, this is a hell of a way to do it and to get actual client experience. Just don’t expect miracles and don’t think you could support yourself indefinitely in this way.
What else can new freelancers do to find work?The first thing you absolutely must do is prepare a showreel. It should show the work you want to be doing, which is not necessarily what you have done in the past. So to begin with, you need to know what it is you want to work on in the future and that is not always easy to figure out! Even while I was at school, I never focused on grades because I always knew I wanted to be a freelancer, be self-employed. So what I focused on was my portfolio and my showreel. You need to have the best sort of work that you can produce in your showreel and demonstrate the quality and style of your work to potential clients.
How important is it to be focused on one narrow area?The more versatile you are, the more diverse your work becomes and the less people can pigeon hole you. This makes you harder to market and you will be less likely you are to get work. Focusing the showreel in your portfolio is absolutely vital. Show them that you are capable and creative, which might mean finding a niche and developing your own style. As I said, this is not easy and I have struggled with this for years and failed often! But I am addressing this and working on refining my style now, four years into my career.
What steps are you taking to focus on the area you want?For example, just last year, I did work for several recruitment firms. I must have made the same film over five or six times! Let’s face it, we all have to pay the bills so sometimes you just have to take the work that is out there, even if it’s not necessarily your passion. So these videos were fine, they paid, but it’s not what I want to do. To break away from that, I’ve started doing more focused videos in my spare time to try and shape my showreel in this direction. This is my effort to turn the ship and start getting clients who want more of what I am interested in.
Can you talk a bit more about how a new freelancer can advertise and go about self-promotion?I would strongly urge people to advertise their work intensely. By this I don’t necessarily mean pay for advertising, in fact early on I would avoid it. Often, clients will view the need to pay for a recommendation as no recommendation at all. Even if you have no client contacts to begin with and nobody knows about your business, we all have an existing social network. I’m not talking about Facebook, but a physical network of family and friends. Start with them and tell them you need their help! Show them your work, get them excited by it, and make sure your people know what it is that you actually do - my mum still tells people I’m a web designer! Give them a few business cards to hand out, and tell them to send any prospective clients your way. Follow job boards on Blender Artists, Behance and other sites, haunt the job boards and get work that way. At the same time, start sharing your videos online and learn how to massage the video and website SEO. Post and cross-post, while always being polite and prepare for rejection. Look at prospective businesses you think might benefit from your services, and go knock their door if you have to. Speak to people. If there is a networking event, go to it. Be there, shake hands, turn up to the opening of an envelope, put yourself out there and get that ball rolling. It’s a lot of legwork, but there is no other way that I know of to get started. Be friendly and don’t be a pest. If you’ve got the talent, you will get the work, but know that it’s not going to come easy and it’s not going to come fast.
What other steps do I need to take once I start promoting myself?You will need a website. At the very least, have a Behance profile to point people towards, so your showreel and portfolio are online. That way, if somebody asks “Hey, where can I check out your work?” you need to have the link memorized and fire it off to them. A quick pointer about business cards: they are the only physical representation of your company that most people are ever likely to see. Make sure they look good, that they are representative of your company and that they show quality. It’s vital and I’ve found that people keep nice business cards!
Chris, you are a passionate advocate of having a peer group of creative people around you. Why?Yes, I am a firm believer that having and maintaining a strong peer group can only lead to beneficial things for you and your freelancing career. One of the main benefits of a formal higher education its the peer group that you form. Many of them might be going on a similar entrepreneurial path, but even if not, keep in touch with smart, talented people! Contacts from online communities like CG Cookie and BlenderArtists are also extremely valuable; nurture them and stay in touch. By that, I don’t just mean that you should expect them to materialize into job leads, because if you just try to milk people, they will get bored of you very quickly. What I mean is, use their experiences as a parallel of your own. People like to look towards the guys who succeeded in this industry in the past, maybe decades ago. There is value in that, but their story is no longer totally relevant for you, because the world has changed. It has changed even since I started, four years ago! Today, the industry is very different already. Look to people who are going through what you are doing and are on a road similar to your own. You can see what they are doing right and wrong, learn from them and grow through that observation and mutual learning. Having a peer group is an incredibly powerful thing, not only to use it but also to be of use to it. Be the guy who genuinely helps people out! I can’t count the amount of people who I’ve lent my gear to for a handshake and a smile. It’s silly, but good stuff comes back to you and these people do think of me when there is an opportunity that can benefit me.
What if I don’t currently have any peers but I want to build up my social network?I already mentioned online communities like CG Cookie which is an excellent resource for contacts. But there might also be creative communities in your city! I’m from Cardiff in the UK which never had a design community until a few years ago, and now thanks to organizations like Design stuff Cardiff it’s flourishing. There are design events and design talks being organized all the time. We all meet up every month or so, talk about creativity and share our experiences over a beer. If there is something like that in your town, go to the events. And if there isn’t - why don’t you start something like that of your own? Creative Mornings is a great platform already established in many cities around the world.They can even provide you with a template on how to go about setting up in your city.
What business skills does every freelancer need? Why can cash flow kill you if you don't fully understand it? And which books does Chris recommend to anyone embarking on a creative career path? Read Part Two of the interview. Also check out our "Eye Rig" course by Chris. All images created by Chris McFall.