Freelancing Ain't So Free
How to use your creative skills to build passive income
There is some irony in the word "freelance", because if my Latin serves me correct, "free", means.... oh yeah, free. But most freelancers I know don't have as much freedom of choice, time, project type and people they work with. Is there a way to gain more freedom, make more money, be more satisfied with the work you do? I think there is and would like to offer some suggestions on how to accomplish this seemingly impossible task.
Let me first try and summarize the life of the freelancer. You are doing what you love, you dream of creating art in a way that is entertaining, visually unique, inspirational and personally fulfilling. But in reality much of the time you're chasing the next job, often taking work that is less than fulfilling, told how to be "creative", working long hours, and maybe getting underpaid, or under appreciated for what you do.
In another moment of irony, sometimes change or doing something different feels more risky, when in fact it's not. Sometimes it's the best and least risky thing you can do. One of my favorite quotes is, "If you are going in the wrong direction, backwards is progress."
You may ask why I'm taking the time to write this blog post. Well like you, I have a passion and my passion is to help people do what they enjoy, make more money doing it, and most importantly, if you have kids, spend more time with them. In the past I ran a company that took all my time, paid me no money, and wasn't always very fun. I was doing more of what I thought I should do rather than following my instincts, and frankly I was ignorant to what is possible and how to scale and prioritize my time.
Then Sean and I started Red Giant 10 years ago. Although we didn't have a specific plan, we started it with the unwavering commitment to it being a lifestyle business. Which means simply, our lives and the lives of our employees come first and the business comes second. We call this the "Double Bottom Line": money and people are considered in every decision. I was interviewed by our own Aharon Rabinowitz on this very subject, Watch video.
I've learned a lot, built a successful business that has exceeded my dreams, and have learned how to achieve success within this model and approach. Now, I'd like to share this with as many people as I can, and fortunate for me, I have a blog to post to and an industry full of "prospects" for change.
Before I take direct credit for all these brilliant ideas, there are three books that I consider to be my business bibles, and about 20 more that I'd put in second place, but if you want to change the way you think and change your efficiency, productivity and philosophy towards life and work, I'd read all three.
The 4-Hour Work Week - How to productize your expertise and scale your time.
Getting Things Done - The definitive bible on how to prioritize your time and stop wasting it.
E-Myth - Use process to empower other people to utilize your own expertise.
Ready to make a change?
Ok, let's begin and see if I can write something that resonates with you and motivates you to reconsider how you do things today. Of course, if I'm off base with everything I've said above, I'd suggest not reading this and write it off as rubbish. I plan on presenting several posts that will help "get you out from under" and are specifically written for the creative freelancer in the digital media industry.
There are a few business concepts that drive everything I do, I'd like to say I learned them during my prestigious MBA program but I don't have an MBA and barely went to college but instead started using the concepts early in my career, and over time realized they were the most important concepts in every thing I do. I later discovered that the techniques I learned on the "street" or while doing actual work had words associated with them; now I just use the words because it's more efficient than describing the concepts each time I reference them. I would recommend spending some time reading my ex-girlfriend's, exhusband's web site, wikipedia. (not kidding, it's a small world)
I cannot emphasize how much I use these concepts to make every decision, every day.
Scaling your time
The best way to scale your time, or take a single effort and reuse that effort over and over again is to "productize" your work. Or use your expertise, of which everyone has, to create a product that can be resold over and over again. The trap most freelancers fall into, is they never consider their expertise productizable. I'm here to tell you, it ain't true. Let me give you a couple examples that illustrate my point. I have several lawyer friends, and nobody is more controlled by their time than lawyers. Forget the fact that they make a lot of money. Most lawyers I know are not totally happy, even though their bank accounts are overflowing; most wish they didn't have to work 70 hours a week and often view their work as a monotonous grind.
Most lawyers would tell you it's impossible to scale our work, they say, "everything we do is highly technical and requires years of experience and everything must be done on a case by case basis". I heard this for many years early in my career before I realized it wasn't true. If only I could have all those $300/hour sessions back! I believe this is true for much of the higher level work but, for a larger percentage, this is just horse poopy. A web site I use often is legalzoom.com, it has taken the craft of corporate law and "templatized" it into a product. If I am entering into a new business relationship that requires a contract, I always go to legalzoom.com first, pay $15 for a base contract, then modify it slightly for my needs, which often involves a lawyer. But I'm only using a couple hours of the lawyer's time, so I now paid about $500 for a contract that always used to cost me $2,000-$5,000.
Let me point out some things from this example, this type of legal work is the lower end of corporate law, trademarks, incorporation, legal forms, wills, etc. If someone sues me, I'm not consulting legalzoom.com, I'm using the high priced kick-ass lawyer. My point is, everyone's business and work has aspects that can be scaled or "productized", and made more efficient. If you ask corporate lawyers what percentage of their work deals with the kind of stuff Legalzoom does, they will say more than 50%. THAT is why Legalzoom was created.
Some businesses are more scalable than others, but ALL businesses have areas that can be scaled and productized. Let me give you two more examples that are little closer to home. First the dream example. You work your ass off for a year making a movie, you put in your heart and soul, the movie is released, does well in the box office, and even better in DVD/iTunes sales. For years you are collecting royalty checks for the work you did several years before, this is the ultimate scalable success a creative digital media professional can have. The side benefit, which doesn't really exist in my world of just pure business success, is you can date hot movie stars.
Ok, so that is a pie-in-the-sky example, let's use a better more realistic example (no offense to your dreams;-) There was a day when a commercial or print ad was created, all media was shot as originals, a full production of photo/video shooting, editing, effects etc etc (I've watched Madmen, I know how it worked). Well today there is an amazing supply of stock footage; stock footage is now often used, both in low budget and high budget projects. The stock footage is a "product" created by a few smart and creative individuals that are getting paid multiple times from the same effort.
People don't do what they want to or need to
"I don't have any time to create content for these sites", you say. Let me tell you a story. The reason most people don't do things is they don't do them, or said another way, they don't do the things they want to do. The biggest barrier to doing stuff is not doing it, or... ok, you get the point. Last year my wife and I, and two young kids decided to sell everything we own (ok the kids didn't really have a say), buy an RV and travel the US for a year. We visited 33 states in 10 months, had a fabulous time and met a ton of great people. What I found most interesting was 80% of all of the people we met said, "That is so great you're doing this, it's my dream too." I realized that many people aren't doing what they really want to, they have created what they consider insurmountable barriers to making it happen.
The reality is, for me and my family, the trip was awesome, the memories ingrained for a lifetime, the pain of change was negligible, , and life is now "normal" again after just a year. We just did it, one day we decided we weren't going to not do something we'd regret later in life. We overcame the "barriers" that would keep most people from doing it. We had to learn how to live in the RV lifestyle, we had to learn how to home school the kids, I had to continue running my business, we had to sell our house and our possessions, we had to say goodbye to friends and family, we had to live in 350 square feet with two small kids, with no TV.
I only use this example, because I think it illustrates the point that listing and only focusing on every barrier or challenge to making changes in your life overemphases how difficult change really is. I think most people make the challenges in life much more complicated than they really are. If you understand that fear and being uncomfortable with change are instincts built-in for our own surival rather than logitical and rational things, it should become easier to make decisions. But that's just how I think, for me logic trumps those pesky innate built in, and outdated, survial instincts.
Another reason things don't get done, other than not doing them, is the reality of zero sum. Which applies to time, energy and general mental capacity. Which basically means, everything we do takes away or displaces something else. Another favorite quote I use often is, "I don't have time to be organized". Finding time to create content that can be resold is a matter of priority, commitment, and organization. I'm actually extremely disorganized and undisciplined, but I have created a system in my life that always allows me to get the most important things done. The system I use is mostly from the book “Getting Things Done” and it allows me to prioritize my time, only work a moderate number of hours each week, run and grow a successful business, spend a ton of time with my wife and kids, play soccer 3 times a week, and fit in leisure time. My system includes making decisions based on the principles of scalability, diminishing returns, and truly contemplating the opportunity cost of every decision and dollar spent. The book GTD gave me the template to use these in my daily life.
I know making changes is sometimes daunting, but change should always be considered when you're unhappy, unsatisfied, or unfulfilled for a period of time. My general rule is: I don't react to feelings that last for days or weeks but when they persist for 3-6 months, I know it's time to consider a change. In this post, I've introduced some general concepts and attempted to give some examples that may resonate with you on how to "get out from under" the suppressive burden on being controlled by things outside of your control, mostly your time. Building a scalable revenue source, or finding other ways to "productize" your work will take time, experimentation and a commitment but I guarantee that if you pursue this path, it will, over time, teach you to do things in a different way and slow but surely change your life.