Freelancing is tough. Most of us learn on the job and get a lot of bumps and scrapes along the way. There are success stories, though, and if you can master the basics of Small Business 101 the benefits of being your own boss and managing your own schedule are rewarding.
When I look around at my freelancing role models, Jennifer Fairman, founder of Fairman Studios, immediately comes to mind. As a medical illustrator and communicator, she is extremely highly regarded and has the portfolio to prove it. She also serves as faculty in the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine (AAM) at The Johns Hopkins University, where a handful of lucky students get to learn from her each year. I lobbed some questions her way about the nature of freelancing and she was kind enough to get back to me with some great advice - well worth sharing. Enjoy!
You started freelancing quite early in your career. Did you have any role models or business help or was it trial and error?
It was a bit of both. The role models I looked to were my colleagues in the Association of Medical Illustrators as well as my former professors at AAM. I was lucky to have had a summer internship during my graduate studies with Jane Hurd at Hurd Studios in New York City. There I acquired skills in business as well as illustration, animation and storyboarding. In terms of learning business and gaining advice, I really have to credit my husband who at the time was a good friend of mine that didn't want to see me leave Boston. He believed in me, encouraged me to start my own small practice and gave me lots of advice and guidance. I made mistakes along the way and learned as I went. I'm proud to say that much of what I learned was from both graduate school as well as the School of Hard Knocks.
What do you consider the biggest challenge of running a freelance business? How do you surmount it?
Probably the most challenging thing about running my own practice is time management and project organization. Projects need to be organized in such a way that is easy for one to find things at the snap of the finger. For years I've used tools such as QuickBooks for accounting and FileMaker Pro for asset management. I have a specific job numbering system which allows me to tag files, sketches, reference materials, estimates and invoices together such that they are associated with one client/one project. It's also very challenging to keep track of what is in progress, what needs an estimate, and what needs to be completed and archived. Over the years I've been able to iron out a pretty smooth protocol that works for me. I also tend to be a lists person. Therefore, having a whiteboard or even an electronic file that displays what progress has made on particular projects is always helpful. That way I don't miss anything.
I remember you touting the importance of "cold calling" potential clients in the business seminar I took from you in Denver in 2003. Would you still recommend this to newbies starting out today or have other forms of communication trumped the telephone?
As convenient as it is to email someone about your work, it’s not as professional in my opinion. Sure, it’s easier, faster, and cheaper. You can reach a larger audience with email blasts. You can attach samples of your work. However, it’s difficult for a potential client to get a feel for your personality and expertise without hearing your real voice. With all the social media, technology and electronic communication that we have these days, it's still nice to know that you can call a human being and have a conversation with them over the phone. So, yes, I would still recommend cold calling especially if you're first starting out. I would save email correspondence as a follow up to a phone call. Next, once you've established yourself, I like to use what's called “warm calling” which is reaching out to your current clients and seeing if there are new projects.
You teach now at The Johns Hopkins University's Department of Art as Applied to Medicine. What do you tell your students regarding their careers and their job prospects upon graduation? Are you hopeful? Cautious? Pessimistic?
I am very optimistic. As I sit here answering your questions using dictation on an iPad, I'm struck by the onset of new technology like apps that a lot of students are now utilizing and building. This technology has opened new doors and opportunities in the field of medical illustration. In fact, there has been a great debate going on in our filed: is the term “medical illustrator” a limited job title for what we really do? Things like digital visualization, social media, 3-D animation and modeling as well as web technology like HTML5 and Flash have expanded our field. Medical imaging has become more sophisticated and surgical techniques have become less invasive. The roles we play in the visual communication of those developments has become even more critical. It excites me to think of where medicine, patient care and biomedical visual communications will go in the next decade.
What is the single most important piece of advice you give to your students regarding the business of making art? What do you think most students get wrong?
It's difficult to come up with a single piece of advice because I could think of so many that are important. The first thing I would say to someone starting out is network, network, network. You never know who your clients are going to be. They may come as referrals from your classmates or colleagues. Another piece of advice I give to students is to price work appropriately for the market and usage that they are illustrating. Practicing good negotiation skills early on will go far in the long run. Learn about copyright and why it is important to retain it as much as possible. Students need to realize that they don't have as much time in the real world to get a project done as they do in school. So of utmost importance is to make sure that you hit your deadlines in addition to producing quality art. Finally, never forget to thank a client for the work that you do.
You mentioned social media as a new frontier in medical communications. How do you think social media has changed the way we do business? Do you tweet, blog, or use other social media regularly?
I do. I'm not sure I really blog so much about my medical Illustration as I do other interests that I have. However, I do keep “featured projects” and “news” sections on my new website which I re-launched last year. The framework of my new website is structured as a blog. In terms of social media, I do use Facebook, promoting Fairman Studios with its own page. I use LinkedIn to network with clients and colleagues. I also tweet, but not very often. The interesting thing about Twitter is that I found “followers” who I've never met or worked with before who are interested in what I'm doing. I have outside hobbies such as metalsmithing and sewing that I use social media for such as Pinterest. Though it is different from medical illustration, I do find it useful to see other things outside of my day-to-day work for inspiration. This could be anything like a composition, color palette, or font choice that I always can refer back to.
Students and newbies often think they have to do work for free when they're starting out in order to get work. They can be tempted by promises of great exposure, future paying gigs, etc. What are your thoughts on this type of work? How do you handle these types of requests in your own business?
I can totally understand this mindset as I have been there myself. When you're first starting out, all you want to do is get your foot in the door. It's hard to see the long-term effects of the choices that you make earlier on. Doing work for free, or doing "work-for-hire", makes a statement and sets a precedent for future work. By doing "on spec" work, you're saying that your work has little or no value and yet others who are asking you to do the work obviously need and value your talents. Should you agree to one project and do a great job, clients will come back for more of the same. However, they will also expect the same low price or in this case work for free. This kind of behavior isn't good for your business and it isn't good for the field. It's a lose-lose situation. Further, I have found verbal promises such as great exposure and future paying gigs to be tempting but not reliable. Those promises can't be kept. The prospect of future work doesn’t pay the bills you have now. It’s best to price your work appropriately, do a great job, and get more of the same. Even better, turn your clients into referrals!
Many freelancers talk about the feast or famine nature of the work. Any tips for regulating the work flow and jobs in the pipeline?
Yes it's entirely true that running your own freelance practice can have a feast or famine nature. That's why it's important to always have a variety of jobs in the cue. Diversify your talents and projects. Having a long-term book project, for example, will allow you to have continuous work and cash flow while working on other smaller projects that have tighter deadlines and higher budgets. Additionally, even if there is a slower period during the year, there's always work to be done. For example, why not update your portfolio? Make some warm calls. Use the time to enhance your skills through continuing education and learn a new technique or computer application. “A man may work from sun to sun, but an artist's work is never done.”
Speaking of continuing education, how do you keep your skills up-to-date as a freelancer? Do you budget time and money for learning new skills or do you take jobs that deliberately push you to learn new skills? I find there's a tension between spending time on jobs that are slam-dunks - they pay well and you know you can do them - and taking time to acquire new skills that will get you the jobs you want to be doing moving forward.
This is a great question and something that I struggle with all the time. Keeping your skills up-to-date is essential. I learned something interesting from a colleague: at his company, they take four hours out of the work week, usually on Fridays, to work on anything they want. This can be anything from working on a pet project to taking a tutorial and learning new a skill. I'm trying to do this myself: setting aside time on a regular basis to learn new things. There are so many new things to learn; currently I am trying to pick up more 3-D, HTML5 and other web skills. It may seem intimidating, but I think if you have ample time on a particular job, it is a great idea to push yourself to learn a new skill. Come to think of it, I can't really think of a project where haven't learned something new.
Looking back on all of this, I never could have predicted this would be the career path I am on: freelancing early on, then coming back to teach only a few short years later. I always imagined that I would work for someone else for at least 10 years before branching out on my own. Further, I thought teaching would come at the end of my career. I am glad it didn’t take as long, and I am thankful that I took a rougher path than I would have liked. I learned so much more than 10 years of a stable job could have ever offered, both by stumbling though the building of my own business and through working with graduate students who are now facing the same challenges I faced at the start. One of my favorite expressions is, “to teach is to learn twice.” I think those that I work with and the experiences I have had have helped me reach an even better potential as a certified medical illustrator.