What I Learned in 5 Years of Freelancing in Animation

Over the past 5 years of freelancing in animation, I’ve learned a ton about business, animation and myself. In this post, I’d like to share a few of the biggest lessons learned from freelancing my animation services for the last 5 years. This milestone has caused me to stop and think about how far I’ve come.

As we reach the end of 2016, there is a lot of “reflection” going on with folks in business. As always, there are those who had huge successes and ready to celebrate. And those who are ready to kick 2016 to the curb and get on with it.

This year in particular I’m feeling rather reflective. 2016 marks my 5th year of running a creative business. I cannot believe all this time has flown by.  When running a business, time goes by in dog years…it feels WAY longer that reality.

Professionalism + Portfolio wins clients

Nearly every creative person I know is obsessed with their portfolio. It’s a no brainer that you need proof of execution and successful skills to win over new clients. Portfolio was (and still is!) a huge focus for me in the first few years of freelancing.  Especially since animation was a second career for me and I was starting from scratch. I spent hours pouring over my personal projects, learning new techniques, and looking for more creative client work.

I see this a lot on forums and groups where creative professionals become far too concerned about the next big skill they are going to learn. I used to believe that a bold new skill may just be the magic bullet to boost by freelance biz. But this is only half of the formula to winning and keeping clients.

I’ve learned a good portfolio will woo a client, but professionalism is the secret that gets them to sign the contract and keeps them coming back to you.

At the end of the day,  a client will choose you if they know and trust you – they want a professional. But what exactly does “professionalism” mean?

Professionalism begins with…

  • consistent communication
  • on time delivery and within budget
  • confident leadership – knowing HOW to lead your clients and stop asking them for next steps.
  •  organized process and project management
  • case studies that not only showcase your work but also explain how you achieved the end result.

I still have a lot to learn in this area but it is certainly worth all the efforts. I’ve heard over and over again from my clients that my level of professionalism is why they like to work with me.  By investing my time to improve my level of professionalism (along with my portfolio, of course) I know I have the tools to win more clients.

Take the Wheel and Drive the Bus!

Back when I was working in the corporate video game year, I remember attending year end company meetings. These were important presentations when the studio manager would announce the next year’s goals. I remember powerpoints with numbers and graphs about sales and units. Lots of fiscal year this and that.

As you can imagine, I glazed over for most of this. Don’t get me wrong, even back then I understood the importance of those numbers. After all if we didn’t hit them, it could mean our jobs.

But fear of losing my job was the only connection I had with these goals. I often felt like a cog in the wheel and I just had to do my part to keep us going.

Fast forward to starting my own business and suddenly no one is setting goals or telling me what to do. I have to make every single decision and figure out what to do next. This was a frightening realization, especially with zero experience in business.

I was freaking out about big questions. How many services should I offer? How much should I charge? Who are my ideal clients and where do I find them? What if I have a month or two with no work?

These early questions caused me to get stuck a LOT. I found myself aimless.  Wandering around the lost land of freelancing with little direction. I was waiting for the universe to step in and just offer me all the answers and make my business explode with success. The worst part was I flip flopped around and followed every piece of advice I was told. It was frustrating, overwhelming and confusing.

Over time, I had many failures and some successes in an attempt to answer these initial questions. It was a lot of scary work that made me feel uncomfortable. I realized I needed a clear personal vision and goals to guide me.  And more important – I needed to execute. Sitting around and waiting for the universe to unfold was getting me nowhere.

This was (and still is) a difficult lesson to learn. No one is going to care about my business like I do. No one is going to have a magical answer that will make this business thing get easy.

It’s time to put on my big girl pants and start driving my bus. Make decisions, take risks and see what happens.

Now in my 5th year of business, I am ready to set bigger goals. Goals based on growth and revenue – with real numbers.

I’m focusing on strategies for expanding into new markets and connecting with communities. I’m proud of myself for learning how to develop a business strategy! I’m floundering all over the place, but I feel like I am moving forward – and that feels awesome.

If you are new to starting your animation freelancing journey, this may sound overwhelming. You don’t have to jump in with these big goals right away. If you need to start slow and figure things out for yourself, that is totally fine. Not everyone is a born CEO – I most certainly am not! And I continue to make my fair share of mistakes.

But I believe it’s important to remember you are in charge – you are leading your ship. You must take the reins and make clear decisions for yourself. Don’t wait around for someone or something to come along and tell you what to do.

I am right where I am supposed to be.

Building an animation business is taking me a lot longer than most successful freelancers. I’m a slow learner. I have to fail at every mistake about 10 times before I realize this isn’t working.

This has caused me a great deal of anxiety over the years. Inner dialogue that would shout “You should be making better income by now.” and “You are so behind in hitting your goals!” and “why did you spend 10 years in a career that made you so unhappy?”

As I’m getting older, I feel this desperation closing in on me. A feeling that I need to reach some ridiculous level of success to be a legitimate business owner/animator/wife /Mom/…human.

I see my friends working their big corporate jobs. Climbing the ladder of success, making good income, going on holidays and receiving company stock and RSP matching. This often derails my focus and sends me into a whirlwind of panic. Maybe I should just throw in the towel, move to the city and get back to the corporate rat race?

But I have to remind myself that the 9 to 5 lifestyle is not something I want again. My goals and priorities are different than most of my friends. I’m trying to find the path that aligns with who I am, not who I think I’m supposed to be. 

My journey is going to send me on a million detours.  I’m going to experience many failures and successes that others aren’t going to understand or care about. So, maybe it’s time to embrace these detours and enjoy the ride. “I am right where I’m supposed to be” – is my response to the inner dialogue that can spiral out of control.

If you are also starting your freelance journey, be kind to yourself. Remember it’s all one big journey of self awareness.  Overnight successes are a myth in this industry – but steady, hard work will win over time.  Enjoy the scenery, and try not to stress too much about your outward progression.

Final words

This may not be the type of lessons learned you would expect from an animator trying to grow a business. Perhaps you were expecting a list including the magic portfolio bullet to book more clients, or how a gazillion followers doubled my income in 2 weeks. My apologies for the disappointment.

The truth is, running a creative business is about so much more than the freedom and money that everyone likes to talks about. If you are on this journey too, I’m sure you would agree every step is a learning experience. So take a moment to appreciate how far you have come too!

If you’ve read this far – thank you for sticking around!

And If you like this post, consider joining my newsletter. I share tips about running a creative business, the animation process and working with clients.