Every day, I get emails, messages, wall posts, tweets, etc. asking for help. Sometimes, dozens of them per day. Much of the time, it’s people who are too lazy to do a Google search to solve their own problems. But the question that I get asked most of all is how to get started in a career in the digital arts. This is one question that I can REALLY sympathize with and in this case, Google isn’t much help.
This question gets asked the most because no one really has a good, simple answer for it. I’ve seen people come out of high end art schools feeling like the king/queen of the world, only to have their dreams crushed because no one wants to give them a job. Even after spending tens of thousands of dollars on their education, they still don’t know how to get started. You might have the skills and knowledge or even a degree, but all of the jobs want EXPERIENCE.
So how do you get experience when you need some to get some? This is a conundrum that kicks everyone in their sensitive parts, and we’ve all been there. So I’ve been working a while on this blog to help you get through this tough time and to (FINALLY!) get started in your chosen profession. This will really consist of two BIG blogs. In Part 2, I’ll have 10 specific tips focusing on external things (such as where to look for work) and internal things (such as character traits you’ll need to find and keep work).
But before we jump to these 10 helpers, you need to decide what type of worker you are. Are you best suited as an employee or a contractor/freelancer? That’s a question only you can answer, but I’ve noticed a lot of people missing the success train because they don’t understand that they’ve got the wrong paradigm for how they see themselves in the workplace. So I’ve developed a really quick and dirty series of questions to ask yourself to help you decide where you might fit best.
1. ARE YOU A JERK? – This might sound funny, but it’s important to understand who you are. If you find yourself constantly ruffling feathers and pissing people off, then you shouldn’t be a freelancer. If you are one of those people that is always “telling people like it is” without tact or sensitivity, or if you’re one of those types that is just always surrounded by drama, then you should be an employee. Trust me on this.
As a freelancer, you depend on connections and networking and a good reputation. You’ll often have to deal with people being less than patient or kind, and you have to just kinda take it without getting an attitude. If you can’t do that, you’ll have a hard time being successful, or at least starting a career. Once you’re as talented/rich/popular as Steve Jobs, then you can be a jerk to whoever you want and it’s not as big of a deal.
And, as a general rule, the worse of a person you are, the bigger the company you should work for, because it will be harder to fire you. Bigger companies worry more about being sued, and are more careful about canning people. If you are a truly terrible person (think Kanye West), then you might want a job with a union or the US government. I used to work for the government, and I literally saw this dude leave for a month without warning or explanation, and when he came back, they couldn’t fire him because he had been with the government for too long. And he was a jerk and terrible at his job on top of that. So even if you’re a complete sack of crap, there’s a place for you somewhere, you just have to know where you fit.
2. ARE YOU REALLY, REALLY MOTIVATED? – Are you the type of person that sets personal goals for no other reason than to be a better person? Do you wake up early just to make the most of your day? Do you work on projects in your free time, on nights and weekends? Do you find yourself constantly practicing your skills, reading new books, and watching tutorials when you can?
If you’re super motivated, then you’ll probably want to be a freelancer. Freelancers have the potential to make far more money than employees, but they’ve gotta be far more motivated. Every day that you wake up that you don’t have work, you could easily just sleep in and watch TV and play video games all day. And then you will go broke. And then you will die. If it takes all of your willpower to just get up and go to work, or if you frequently talk about all these great projects that you’ll get to “one day” but you never make any progress on them, then you should probably be an employee.
3. ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC? – I’m a pretty happy person; annoyingly so. But when you go for days or weeks without any work coming in, it’s hard not to get discouraged. And when you get discouraged, you might start lowering your prices or making compromises if you’re a freelancer. It’s tough. You have to be able to find books, lectures, music or whatever that will keep your spirits up. Just like when you’re searching for a job, when you’re desperate, people can smell it. And it’s unattractive.
On the other hand, if you have a steady job, you really don’t have to work as hard on your attitude. You can be all emo about things and no one will fault you for it in most cases. If you work in a really small studio, you might bring everyone else down with you, and that might cause some problems. But the point is that if you worry or get discouraged easily, then freelancing might be really rough for you.
This also goes for having a shy, timid personality. It’s probably a little more challenging for shy people to land a job as an employee, but when they do, their personality really isn’t a factor. But on the other hand, if you’re shy, you’re might have a really hard time making cold calls or selling your products and services as a freelancer.
4. ARE YOU GOOD WITH MONEY? – When you have a steady job, you can count on your paycheck like clockwork. You might even know to the penny exactly how much you’re getting every time. It’s easy to create a budget, and you instantly know if you can afford something or not.
But being a freelancer plays tricks with your mind. Sometimes, you make as much in a day (or in an hour!) as you might make in a week or a month as an employee. In that situation, you might be tempted to go out on a crazy shopping spree. But you have to remember that sometimes you go for weeks without any income at all. So you have to be able to be disciplined enough with money to put that money in the bank rather than blow it on stupid crap. You’ll also probably want to average out what you’re making to realize if your income overall is going up or down. In short, you are forced to be much more involved in your finances.
A general rule of thumb for freelancers is that you should have six months worth of income in your savings account in case you need it. Do you have that level of discipline? In your current situation, can you pinch pennies and save that much? Being able to save this much extra income from paychecks is one of the tests that I ask of my friends that want to go freelance. If you can downsize your life, minimize your expenses and amass a large savings when you have a job, you’ll probably do great when you don’t have one.
5. DO YOU NEED STABILITY? – This is something really big to consider, although there isn’t a pat formula here. For example, if you have a spouse (or a longterm significant other), it might be very challenging to obtain and maintain their support as a freelancer as your work ebbs and flows. You might have children, mortgages, pets, or whatever it is that requires you to have steady income.
When I first became a freelancer, I had a wife, two young children, and a home with a mortgage. This responsibility actually helped motivate me to succeed. But it’s something to definitely take into account.
If you have lots of responsibility, you might lean towards a steady job, at least at first. However, if you’re a single person living on the couch in your parents’ basement, go freelance dude. What have you got to lose?
6. DO YOU HAVE SUPPORT? – Another minor thing to consider, but I’ve seen really talented people that are working way under their potential as employees because their spouses/significant others are afraid of them freelancing, and won’t support them. Personally, my wife and kids come first. So if being a freelancer would make my wife uneasy, I would get a job.
And this might be too personal for this blog, but I was in this situation actually. My wife was a bit unsure about me doing Photoshop stuff for a living back in 2001 (yes, I have been married and doing digital arts THAT long). I needed to show that I was committed to this and would do what it took to earn a living. After I had a job doing Photoshop and After Effects for a while, and seeing how driven I was, SHE was the one that suggested I fire my boss and go freelance, and it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Even now I get discouraged sometimes, but her faith in me is greater than mine, and it’s a huge help.
This might also seem too personal, but if you’re ever at the point where you’re looking to settle down in a romantic relationship, I might suggest putting “career supporter” towards the top of the list of things you look for in a partner. Most marriages end in divorce, and the biggest reason marriages dissolve is because of arguments over finances. No one ever wants to think about this when they’re in love and looking to settle down, but I’m telling you – this is EXTREMELY important.
Another big issue to consider is how you and your partner will handle you being home as a freelancer. I’ve seen so many relationships just crumble because the freelancing partner wouldn’t spend the day doing household chores. Or on the opposite side of the coin, the freelancing partner would never stop working. It’s important that if you go down the freelance road, that you anticipate the challenges it will create for you. Maybe you have a new puppy that will jump on your face and poop on you while you’re trying to work. Maybe you have neighbors that are loud jerks during the day. I don’t know your life. The point is that you need to think through what it will be like before taking the plunge.
So, I’m not the world’s greatest career advisor by any stretch. This is all just my opinion from my experience. But hopefully something here has helped you choose a path.
This post probably makes it sound like I’m saying that anyone that has a job is a lazy, pessimistic jerk that sucks with money. That’s not the case at all. But it is easier to be an employee in the big scheme of things. When you get a job, they often give you benefits so you feel safe and secure and don’t want to go anywhere else. That “safe” feeling is one of the greatest perks of having a job. Some of the most talented and hard working people in the world choose to be employees just to be stable and not worry about it.
But on the other hand, I’ve heard that being an employee is just like being a freelancer, except that you only have one client. Once you’ve gotten established, it is kinda freeing having many clients, so that if one drops out, you’re still OK.
Another one of the most frequently asked questions I get is about how to transition from employee to freelancer. That’s a tough thing to do, but it’s definitely possible if you want it badly enough and work at it. One of the things that you can do is freelance on the side. It takes a lot of discipline to work full time, and then come home and keep working. But this might be what you have to do if you want to be a freelancer. This brings in extra money and starts getting you clients without the risk of being a freelancer.
There are also mixes of these two schools. You can get a part time job while freelancing. You can get a term contract with several agencies (assuming this is non-competitive). Or if you are just trying to get started, there’s nothing wrong with working at your regular (non-artsy) day job and freelancing at night, even if your dream is to be an employee. This can give you great experience and preparation for your job.
Personally, I recommend that if you’re serious about your career that you spend time in both worlds. Being an employee will teach you how to be a part of a team, and develop efficient workflows, and also how to understand how to work with clients. You’ll probably also get to work with way bigger toys. Being a freelancer will teach you discipline, and force you to sharpen your mind and skills.
Note that if you have a job that is NOT in your desired discipline (for example, if you’re a pizza delivery person and you really want to be a motion graphics artist), freelancing for low paying gigs might be a great way to get your foot in the door. Freelancing as a novice can help you develop a more professional portfolio, deal with clients, feel confident with problem solving and real world issues, show you your weaknesses so you can work on them, and it might lead to connections for more work. And, if you totally suck at it and ruin everything, it’s not the end of the world because you’re working for entry level clients.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, where I’ll focus more on the HOW to get income and keep it coming in. We’ll look at the age old question about whether schooling in the arts is important or not. And I’ll share my experience as one doing the hiring, as well as being the one wanting to be hired. Most digital artists are completely clueless as to what people are looking for in their demo reels and portfolios.
So, all of that coming next time. Remember that this is all just my opinion from my experience, so use at your own risk. Also, feel free to debate in the comments! Thank you so much for reading!
Creator of Movies & Computers. Filmmaker. Author of How to Cheat in After Effects, The After Effects Illusionist, and of several video training series on Lynda.com, Video2Brain, Total Training, and VTC.