Freelancing can be a solitary enterprise, even for creatives who work in shared spaces. The strategies we use to survive, however, are common. In this series Web Design at Work, I interview my colleagues in marketing and advertising to learn how they live, work, and thrive in this constantly changing field.
Today we talk to Annie Truong, Freelance Senior Digital Producer and Program Manager. Annie’s breadth of experience at advertising agencies across the city of Boston gives her a veteran knowledge of life in the industry. She adopted her favorite office mate (Sonny, in photo) during the blizzard of 2015. He had a sister named Cher, who ended up with a lovely family in Newton.
Tell me about your journey into a freelancing career. What training did you start with, and how did you end up doing the work you do today? Were there any surprises along the way? How long did it take to get your first paying client?
After many years of working 12 to 14 hour days in highly intense and, in some cases, highly political environments, I was burned out, crispier than strips of bacon from a greasy spoon. I was ready to leave the agency world behind and often fantasized about getting a job at the check-out desk in my neighborhood library.
One day I had brunch with a couple of friends (who are also former coworkers). They were both freelancing at the time and encouraged me to try it out too, rather than giving up on agencies altogether. Over the next few weeks, I continued to meet up with colleagues who had left full-time jobs to freelance. Where there was anxiety and angst before, I now saw serenity and happiness. These are all smart, talented people who all felt at one point what I was feeling then, and took back control of their lives and emotions.
I took their advice and decided to take the plunge. And by plunge, I mean waded in on tip-toes. You see, I’m a Digital Producer/Project Manager by trade and a risk-adverse planner by trait. I need to know exactly what the next steps are so I can plan ahead and anticipate pitfalls. Freelancing does not fit this model and it was (is) scary as hell for me. But sometimes you just have to step out of your comfort zone, as the saying goes.
In my case I got extremely lucky. I was badgered into attending an informal reunion with a group of former coworkers of a much-beloved ad agency. I was a few sips of beer in when our copywriter breezed in, gave me a hug, and told me to come work at her current agency. I told her I was a little gun-shy about joining as a full-time employee, but would love to freelance. The next day (Saturday) I sent her my resume. On Monday, I got a call, and on Tuesday, I went in to meet with the team. The stars aligned and I started my gig the next Monday.
Do you have to put on pants to work?
Bahahaha, every job should have a pant-less option! Because of my role, my assignments have always required me to be on site, so sadly pajamas are not an option. The company where I’ve been contracting for the past 15 months does allow me to work from home occasionally, but it’s a big video conference culture, so yeah, pants.
I still go into the office every day, so in this way it’s not any different from a “regular” job. What is different is my mindset. For me, no matter what the day brings and how stressful it may get, knowing in the back of my mind that there is relief in sight at the end of the contract makes a huge difference for my psyche. Whereas before I would let things (mainly politics) eat at me and keep me up at night, as a freelancer, I’m more inclined to let things roll off. My maxim has become “you can handle just about anything for a few months.” It helps me approach my work and coworkers much more positively.
What’s your “rig” look like? If you’re a developer, tell me about your technical setup. If you’re a designer, tell me about what design tools you like. If you’re a barbarian and just use spreadsheets, tell me about your favorite Excel formula.
I don’t really have a standard set-up, though I always have to ask for MS Project to be installed in order to build schedules. I also use PowerPoint and Excel quite a bit. Otherwise, I use whatever the company wants me to follow for workflow and reporting.
How do you manage your time? Do you use any specific tools or services to help control your workflow?
Because I’m on site, I typically work the company’s standard operating hours, more as needed. I’m hyper cognizant of how I spend my time in the office and try to be as efficient as possible. Companies are paying me by the hour to work, not socialize, and so I only bill the hours that I work. Timesheets have always been the bane of my existence, but I force myself to be disciplined about tracking my time. I use Excel for this, thus making me a filthy barbarian.
Newbie freelancers often have two major questions when it comes to freelancing: How do you get attract clients to get started, and How do you afford to pay your bills without a regular paycheck?
Network to get started. Work your ass off to attract and retain. As I mentioned at the beginning, I owe everything to my friends and former coworkers for putting the freelance fire in my belly. The word “network” may sound daunting to some and douche-y to others. I’m not saying that you should go to any and every networking event. Go to a few within your ilk/industry. If they’re not helpful, then leave, but you never know from where your next opportunity may come. More importantly, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to reach out to your personal and professional network for advice. The people I talked to were beyond generous with sharing their experiences and sometimes they will make introductions to someone within their own networks.
Throughout my career I’ve been truly fortunate to have worked with many extraordinary people. I’m grateful that they trust me and my quality of work to hire or recommend me. All of my freelance assignments so far have come through from former coworkers, and with each new assignment, my relationships and network grow a little bit more. As a result, jobs have been steady, so thankfully I haven’t had to worry about being able to pay my bills so far. Still, the unknown is disquieting at times: not having something else lined up at the end of a contract can be unnerving for a worrier like me. Some people are able to embrace the in-between periods and take vacations. After 5+ years at this, I’m still not quite there, but definitely more “there” than before.
Can you share a story about your favorite (or least favorite) client experience? What can freelancers and/or clients do to make working together better for everyone?
Good question! There was one particularly challenging assignment during which they laid off my boss three months after I joined, and shortly thereafter he was replaced by someone based in another state. Within a couple months, he was also fired. A few weeks after that, the sole account person on the team quit. I (the contractor) was left to wear their hats in addition to my own for one of the agency’s largest clients. It was a long seven months. I went home and curled up into fetal position at least twice a week.
It sounds like a big bunch of hooey, but every engagement has been a positive experience for me (yes, even the aforementioned one), certainly some more than others. There isn’t a single company for whom I’ve freelanced and wouldn’t go back again. With every job there will always be good and not-so-good aspects. Maybe the work isn’t super creative, but the team is amazing. Or maybe the process and tools the company uses are antiquated, but the work is stellar. For me, it’s about the experience viewed as a whole. Just like with any full-time job, as long as the people are supportive, value my work, respect my opinions, and I can learn something new to grow even a little bit, it is worthwhile. No company is perfect. And neither am I, but I am adaptable.
Lastly, this series is meant to give neophytes insight into the experiences of freelancers who’ve been around the block once or twice. What are three things you wish you knew when you started as a freelancer?
I started with three but ended up with five:
- Not to be afraid to reach out to contacts. Even if they don’t have leads, they might know someone who does.
- When you’re a freelancer, you don’t have the luxury of a long ramp-up period. Be prepared to learn and adapt to new people/styles/cultures/processes/tools/environments at warp speed.
- How liberating it is not to have to do self-evaluations.
- How much less fleeting sleep is now.
- Everything will work out in the end. (I hope)