My journey to becoming a freelancer was not going according to plan. After a year of studying and building my skill sets, I was ready to dive into the world of freelancing. By the first month I will get three clients and by the end of the year I will be one of those vaunted six-figures-a-year freelancers / digital nomads who will post Instagram — worthy pictures of me working from a beach in Phuket. #nomorecubicles #livefree
Cut to 2018 and reality has slapped me in face. Hard. I had no clients to speak of, I made zero figures a year and the only way I can work on a beach in Phuket is if I changed my laptop wallpaper to one of their beaches.
Feeling rather demoralised, it was perhaps serendipity that I spotted a post on Facebook advertising a freelancing bootcamp created and run by CreativesAtWork, a media agency that will matchmake freelancers with project owners. The bootcamp promised to teach the fundamentals of freelancing, from how to get clients to how to handle the legal and financial matters of running a freelancing business, ending with a personal portfolio review.
Obviously I signed up for it immediately. I still wanted to become a freelancer and maybe that dream of working by the beach can still come true.
Well OK, maybe not really work by the beach. I’m not risking getting sand in my MacBook.
Day 1: 19th April 2018
I braved the morning sun to arrive at the Pixel building, a short walk from one-north MRT and just across the road from Lucasfilm’s Singapore office building , The Sandcrawler.
After a short breakfast buffet / registration period, we were ushered into our training room where the founder and Chief Businesswoman of CreativesAtWork Jayce Tham, kicked off the bootcamp with a short introduction of her company and the agenda for the whole bootcamp. After that was where the fun truly started.
“If your presence can’t add value to a client’s life, then your absence will make no difference.”
Our trainer for the day was Kevin Ou, a renowned celebrity director / photographer who has photographed the likes of Elijah Wood, Snoop Dog and even former US President Obama himself. His photographs have been featured in Rolling Stone, Vogue and Entertainment Weekly. In addition, he is the also the co-founder of celebrity home and lifestyle magazine Modern Home + Lifestyle (MH+L), the Lumenere Group and LIVMO.
I had not expected a trainer with such a distinguished portfolio (I admit I did not read the info on the bootcamp website) to be training us, but Kevin was very personable, down to earth and fun. We had a lot of fun throughout the day as Kevin all but threw the schedule out the window. While we did cover most of the topics listed on the schedule, Kevin spent most of the time drilling into our heads the right mindsets we needed to succeed in freelancing.
One of them is called value-based freelancing: what value can you give to your client other than your base skills? For example, say you are a web designer. Your base skills are to design a website for your client. However you can make yourself more valuable by also offering to help the client test which design would get them more customers, optimise the SEOs, etc. Most freelancers offer only their base skills, without finding out what other problems they can solve for their clients. Adding value will put you heads and shoulders above the ever growing freelancer crowds and of course, earn more money by being able to charge more.
“Your NETWORK creates your NETWORTH”
Kevin also emphasied the importance of networks. To demonstrate this he had us do this fun exercise where we wrote our names and details on post-it notes and stuck them onto a large piece of paper. For every classmate we connected with, we had to draw an arrow to link us. By the end of Day 2, the diagram resembled a bird’s nest with arrows all over the place. This mini exercise not only helped us connect with each other, we gave each other advice on problems that we are facing. I found myself helping people figure out what kind of website they needed and I’ve asked others on tips on how to solve the problems I’m facing on starting a freelancing business.
Day 1 left me feeling energised. I enjoyed the networking sessions a lot, and this coming from a person who prefers to sit in the dark, play video games and hiss at anyone who tries to make contact, is quite a feat.
All (bad) jokes aside though, I figured out why I had been so unsuccessful — I had marketed myself like every other freelancer, thinking my new amazing skillz will have clients banging down my door when all I did was place myself as a commodity, as someone unremarkable. Learning about value-based freelancing felt like unlocking a secret to why some freelancers do so well while the rest of us struggle and eventually start selling MLM products.
With Day 1 behind us, we looked eagerly to Day 2 — learning about the legal and financial stuff, along with a portfolio review.
Day 2–20th April 2018
Jayce had joked about today’s topics on legal and finance matters being “riveting” stuff. Normally I would have agreed with her; finance and legal matters put me to sleep faster than flu medicine but today I made an exception. Most online advice on these matters are US-centric and therefore not very applicable within Singapore so I looked forward to learning how to write contracts so I know how to cover my backside fully.
Adrian Kwong, our first speaker of the day, is the founder and managing director of Consigclear, a Singapore law firm that aims to be the consigliere — the counsellor and trusted advisor — to Singapore’s game, esports and entertainment community. Prior to that he was the Asian General Counsel for gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA).
Legal matters aren’t usually the sort of stuff that I find interesting (unless its about criminal proceedings) but Adrian kept things fun with his dry sense of wit. We learnt about IPs and how to register them, but most importantly we covered contracts and what we need to put into them to make sure we have an ironclad contract that can protect us, especially if one is unlucky enough to land a troublesome client. He also informed us of the Tripartite Standard on Procurement of Services from Media Freelancers (TS Media Freelancers), set up by IMDA with Tripartite Partners MOM, NTUC, SNEF, and supported by TAFEP. You can read more about that here.
After Adrian, Jayce took to the stage again, this time for a lesson on understanding corporate structure and managing your finances and cashflow. In these two days, all of the trainers did not shy away from talking about the harsh realities of being a freelancer. Money isn’t steady, even if you are a well-known and often booked freelancer. If you already have a full time job but are considering going full time freelance, Jayce advised to have, ideally, 12 months of expenses and 6 months of freelancing expenses, to tide you over periods where you may not be getting clients. According to her, it takes on average about six months before a freelancer finds out if they are able to make it as one. Jayce also went through the pros and cons of being a sole proprietor vs. setting up a company, as well as the filing of taxes and CPF.
Our final speaker for the day was Ryan Ong, a freelance writer who has contributed to magazines such as Men’s Health, Her World, and has also appeared on sites on Yahoo! Finance, MoneySmart, The Middle Ground, and more.
Also possessing dry wit, Ryan immediately delved into how to land and retain big companies as clients. It all boiled down to value-based freelancing again, what can you do for your client that positions you as valuable to them? How can you solve their problems? An example would be to bundle your services with other trusted freelancers and sell them as a package to the company — in this way you are solving their problem of looking for freelancers to fulfill specific roles and most importantly, saving them time. Being proactive and developing your people skills will get you a long way. He also touched on how to handle late payments and the importance of developing a workflow.
Ryan also expanded on financial matters as well. Like Jayce, he also recommended setting up an emergency fund to tide you over periods where you might not have any income coming in — and you will get those periods! Dealing with the stress of not having money to survive will put you into the death spiral: lower income leads to anxiety, leads to less creativity, leads to less quality, leads to even lower income. He also gave a rather important mindset shift on what to do if you really need the money:
“Seek growth before cutting costs”
There’s only so much you can save from cutting costs, but getting a client or two will give you more money. Cut costs only if you really cannot find clients.
Then came the final event of the day — portfolio review. Prior to the bootcamp, we received emails with instructions on preparing a portfolio. A combination of no-idea-what-kind-of-portfolio-should-I-do and the demands of my day job left me with no portfolio to show. Throughout the day, many of my fellow classmates expressed nervousness, with some having traumatic flashbacks to their school exam reviews. During lunch and tea break they took the time to finalise their portfolios during lunch and tea break while I sat there munching on my food with no plan whatsoever except to ‘wing-it’ during the review.
I did have some concept of what I wanted my portfolio to look like. I also had questions on how I should position my services, e.g. should I go niche or do I keep a broad outlook first?
I was lucky enough to get Ryan as my interviewer and he gave me some great advice. As I had many skill sets, he advised me to bundle it into one service and show it in a portfolio. I was focused on mainly web development but I have some graphic and visual design skills, so I could have put it into one whole package and created a website, showing step by step what I did. Before my session ended, he gave me one last piece of advice:
“Don’t follow your passions. They will kill you. Instead, become good at something, the passion will come then.”
This will probably be a controversial opinion but it is not something new. Most notably Cal Newport covered it in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. A discussion about this is way out of the scope of this article but I do highly recommend that book as it gave a new perspective on the idea of following your passions.
I came away from this bootcamp blown away by the quality of the training and the programs. Most freelancing training and courses (and I have taken a few) focus only on the tactics of starting a freelancing career, but neglect the necessary mindsets that you need to absorb and adapt in order to understand why you are doing what you do. I would highly recommend anyone looking to start a freelancing career to take this bootcamp and you probably won’t waste months like me, desperately looking for clients but not knowing why I’m not getting any.
A big thank you to CreativesAtWork for organizing this bootcamp! You can find out more about upcoming bootcamps at this link.