Freelance 3d Artist: The 5 rules of success
This piece, Freelance 3d Artist: The 5 rules of success, is motivated by my work, freelancing, hiring other freelancers, and through working on a client project where I as a freelancer was asked to manage an agency. A role, that started out as a simple 3d image creation project, and over the course of a year, expanding through my hard work, consistent delivery and communication. To a role where I was asked to manage an agency working on a related project.
This piece wouldn't just apply to 3d artists, but applies to any kind of freelancer. Or anyone who works in a position, where you work with others, providing a service of any kind. The framework is based upon, the structure used to determine excellence, in client relations, developed, at a very high profile credit card company, where I began my corporate career, as a relationship manager. I branched off from there to become a 3d artist, but have employed these principles to build long lasting customer relationships that endure.
In terms of structure, I will present the "rules". This will be followed by a short anecdotal piece on what motivated me to create this blog post
These rules are not mutually exclusive. They work together and there is a level of overlap. The goal is to build - TRUST
People will more often than not choose to work with a freelancer whom they have built up a level of trust with, rather than a freelancer, who has an amazing portfolio, but of whom they have no experience or knowledge of
- Thinking strategically
- Managing and exceeding expectations
- Relationship building
- Communicating and influencing at all levels
This one though most ppl get what is means. Is harder to put into practice. When you take on a client. be transparent and clear about what you can deliver. Don't blag it. Don't ever over promise. Err on the side of caution. Be truthful is the basic idea. Even a tad pessimistic. Give them the room to walk away if they wish to. The hard sales close, is for the 80s. The idea is to build trust. Money or how much you charge is a big one. If the scope of the project means you will have to charge more. Then speak up at the start. And if someone comes to you who isn't technically literate. Be fair. Educate them, and don't take advantage. The internet has made the world a much smaller place. All someone needs to do is type a few terms in google to demystify, your £15K quote and what they should be getting for that. Or to find out what you're offering for £15K is being sold on Fiverr for $400.
Be the person that guides them in the right direction. And if that "right direction" - Is away from you to someone cheaper because their budget can't accommodate you. - Then make it so.
In the graphic design world, youtube influencers are encouraging freelancers to be "Strategic partners". Not order takers. If all you learned was font weights and colours. And never had the chance to study strategy and marketing. You're not going to be able to converse with your client at that level. Even more importantly is the ability to listen. And the ability to take a problem, and deconstruct it systematically. That's what true strategy/business strategy is about. I studied strategy and university, did a masters in strategy. Then learned design. The key point here is to educate oneself. If that was an area where one is lacking. It's the ability to see the big picture, and where the project you're working fits in there. But you can't talk strategy with a client until you've built some trust. And that's where the next part comes in:
Managing and Exceeding expectations
Client relationships are built on consistent delivery. In my corporate days, my manager would say, under-promise and over deliver. That means don't go promising the world! be optimistic, but also be humble. If you treat your work, as a contribution to the greater good. As an act of service. As something noble, that improves the clients life. You're on the right track. As you deliver consistently providing quality, and punctuality in your work. Your clients trust grows in you. The caveat here being that if you're on a production line setup shooting out a standardised piece of rubbish for a small amount of money. As the freelancer sites encourage you to. You'll never achieve the above. Or be seen as a strategic partner. That environment does not allow for the space or time to produce results that enable the above.
This comes back to asking for what is a fair price. You can charge less to undercut someone else. If that client comes back, it's much harder to raise a rate and keep someone who came in at bargain bucket prices, for the same thing. You'll eventually grow resentful, and produce sh#t. Don't do that. If they can't pay you a rate that allows you to put food on the table. Then walk away. The reverse also applies. Don't overcharge and under deliver, like the examples I've cited. You never know if the next client you take on is the one that earns you a salary for a year plus.
Relationship management, involves a few areas. Communication is the big one. But its basis is the points covered above. In terms of communication. Be timely. Be clear. Follow up anything verbal with a written summary.
When conflict arises, be emotionally intelligent. A big part of communication is the ability to read non verbal cues, and understanding the other person. This once again is partly intuitive, and partly a matter of knowing someone over time.
Also learn to trust your gut. Not every client you take on will become a long term client. Sometimes knowing when not to take someone on due to a gut feeling can save you days or even months of stress. That may go both ways.
Communicating and Influencing:
This part is the oil that keeps the entire machine in motion. Speak and write clearly say what you mean, and mean what you say. There's a term called "congruence", that comes to mind. Congruence refers to actions, and speech being aligned. Here speech can also be the written word. Good communication will allow you to influence, to guide your clients in the right direction where there are mutual wins to be had. There's a huge volume of literature that goes through what this entails. So read up, learn to write and speak succintly.
These 5 rules will allow you to make the experience of freelancing rewarding for yourself and a pleasure for those whom you provide a service to.
Freelancer and freelancing stories
My experience hiring "Top rated" Freelancers from a freelancing platform
So about a year ago, after working on jobs through a number of freelancing sites, that pay peanuts, and then charge you 25% - 30% commission on jobs. I came across the idea, that I should promote myself. So I optimised my site, ran and gave online marketing a stab. It meant spending hours trying to learn all this then, spending more hours, trying to implement and run things.. While.. Juggling my freelance 3d work.
Reading my usual "Medium" fodder that lands in my inbox. I came upon an article that talked about "delegation" - Hire others. And expand. Freeing up your time to do the really value added stuff. So I began my search. Looking up freelancers on platforms that I've used. Where I'm familiar with the rules. I came upon a group of "Top rated" guys. So I dropped them a message, and they came back with an offer that basically promised to catapult me to the top position of google, at a very reasonable price. Also the person answering the DMs was very prompt. And addressed every question or query I had. So I decided to hire them. I paid my deposit and asked them to begin.. That's where everything fell through the cracks..
They got me to fill up a form, asked me for a few details.. And then just disappeared.. So I decided to follow up a week later. The person that had been answering all my DMs prior to me paying up was no longer responding instead it was someone with broken English, who didn't seem to know what they were doing. They told me my criteria needed changing, and that they would get me to position 1 for low competition keywords. Compromise and flexibility is key, so I asked to see the keywords. They were all keywords with a volume of less than 10 people per month. They also seemed unrelated to what I was aiming for. So I raised this concern, because, why would I pay someone.. To get no traffic, when I already have no traffic?
- Key point here.. They changed the requirements I had set out, to requirements, that suited them. If they were unable to meet my goals. Then this should have been made clear prior to taking my money. So I cut my losses and cancelled the project. And within 2 minutes, I got a whatasapp message from the person that had been conversing with me prior to the project beginning. He must have sent me 200 messages through the day.. I hadn't signed up for this. Incompetence.. And then harassment to that degree. This guy was literally begging for me to take them on again. At this time I took a moment to take a look at their facebook page. It had a few good reviews.. And then one very long rant from someone they had left hanging.. Mid project. Their CEO made excuses about having to go in for surgery, and how he'd been ill.. When this is a multi person operation, that has "completed".. 1400+ projects on the freelancer platform. Alarm bells went off and I blocked the person on whatsapp. They still message me on the platform to date..
That's a great example of what - NOT TO DO. I do understand why they do what they do. As freelancers based in a developing country, firstly what we in the West consider "affordable" is a substantial amount to them. And the platforms encourage ppl to rack up numbers.. Here's the catch. When you up volume at a very low price.. You need economies of scale. That's where there is no room for personalisation, and sometimes no attention to detail once the initial deposit is in. The platform makes their 25% commission so will not penalise these people. And the story goes on.
Needless to say, I took the time to learn the subject matter myself. And achieved some success. Sometimes if you want something done properly - Do it yourself. And this brings up another truth.
- A reliable, professional and competent freelance artist/professional - Is actually harder to find than you may think.
Working with an "agency"
Anyway fast forward about a year. And I've since worked with a client where I started out on a freelance project to create 5 3d images. Through a mix of consistent delivery, meeting and exceeding expectations, I'm still working with this client. As part of the expanding project we've worked on, where my status has gone from "freelancer" to partner. He wished to hire a design agency to handle the website aspect. Based on a recommendation he hired an "agency". Their fee exceeded US$15,000. For a static 6 page website. The big selling point, with a fee structure of that scale for a site that size to me.. Would be a mind blowing care for requirements and very high standards of work. This isn't a Fiverr job of $400.
Their proposal included a glossy 600 word intro, that promised that strategy was the cornerstone of their delivery. And that we would get UX, state of the art UI design, and a fast responsive site built on the most efficient code.
You know where this story is heading don't you? As someone said, in a movie when you see a dark alley, and a lone character.. You know what comes next as the stage has already been set.
Staying true to the above, we got a logo. That the client was happy with. Which was not bad. They charged in the region of $3000 for it. And things happily moved along into the website side of things. As I'm handling the 3d, I've already got a substantial amount on my plate, so wasn't involved. About two weeks in, the client gets me on a call. And asks what the process should be here. "Should they be showing me fonts and page designs?.. I haven't even seen a sitemap?". People work in different ways I suppose. But at $15,000 I said you should get some stuff on strategy. Atleast a basic set of personas. Possibly some user interviews?. His reply was no. And at this point I stepped in. We got on a call with them. Their UI designer was on the call. But no sign of the strategy person. They presented us with 4 paragraphs outlining the pages. Literally less than 500 words. I was abit taken aback, so asked what had happened with UX?.. Where was the strategic research or insight? or even things like a competitor analysis? The staff member on the call said she didn't know anything about this. And would get back to us. So we spent the next 1.5 hours going through the fonts and colours etc etc. We never heard back on the strategy bit.
Now my client had paid them 1/3 of the $15K upfront. they'd asked for 50%, but he'd refused that. So in order to cut our/his losses he suggested I work on the strategy part, and we'd guide them, like you would a Fiverr freelancer on a $400 site.
Prior to freelancing, I used to work as a strategy manager, at a major telecom, then in marketing and automation in a large credit card company. I've done some web design, and have some knowledge of UX, agile etc. So is set out creating a short UX doc, before our next meeting with them in 2 days.
On this call. We had their strategy person present. On the surface pleasant enough. So I asked once again. What had the progress on the strategy side been?. She hinted at that piece being completed after we worked out the design. Both my client and I interjected at this stage?.. How can you decide on an architectural plan after the house is built. We were exasperated. So we briefed them on what I'd done UX wise. And at each stage. There was push back and questioning. They'd framed things in a way, where we as the clients were answering to them. Inspite of their gross incompetence.
This was the experience of working with a "proper" agency. My guess is it was a group of freelancers who'd watched a few too many youtube episodes on how to successfully manage clients relationships, with an entitled attitude, sitting at home in their PJs, deciding to start up an "agency".