Creating your Own Opportunities: A Crash Course in Creative Freelancing

Ryerson Entertainment Conference
14 min readNov 9, 2020

An interview by Zoe Papakonstantino with Christine Ung, Terry Manzi, Soraya Sachedina, Raizel Harjosubroto, and Luke Villemaire.

As students, creatives, and aspiring professionals during the tailspin of 2020, many of us are struggling to find job opportunities, feeling a myriad of discouraging feelings, and craving new ways to grow professionally and sharpen our skills in the real world. Which begs the question: why wait for an opportunity when as creatives, we can create our own?

We enlisted 5 freelance professionals in the creative industries, to learn about how to find success and monetize your creative outlet. An interesting theme through all of their responses: the journey is ongoing, ever-changing, and most of the time, you’re challenging yourself to grow, and learning new skills to enhance your work. While this often means work is anything but slow, it also means you’re constantly evolving as a creative, and professional, and that you’re able to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, on your own terms. Interested yet? Read on to learn what starting a creative practice, networking, securing clients, and tackling those first few projects was like for 5 creatives inside and outside the Ryerson community.

Zoe Papakonstantino: Let’s start with intros! What is your name, program of study, and what freelance work do you do?

Luke Villemaire: My name is Luke Villemaire and I’m a Film Studies graduate. I currently produce video content for corporations, small businesses, artists, non-partisan groups and political candidates. My day to day involves client relations, production coordination, directing, editing, etc. I frequently work with other freelancers to fill in the gaps and elevate the work based on the particular needs and budget of my clients. I’m also working to break into the film/television space.

Raizel Harjosubroto: My name is Raizel, I got my undergrad in journalism at Ryerson, and I do freelance social media management on the side of my full-time job.

Soraya Sachedina: My name is Soraya and I am a fourth year student at Ryerson. I am the Film Studies program specializing in Integrated Digital Media. I am a freelance graphic designer and I work mainly with singers and artists on their album art as well as their content release packages. Aside from this I also run my own clothing company. I started a streetwear clothing company over a year ago and have been creating designs for clothing and selling them on my online store.

Christine Ung: My name is Christine. I’m studying Marketing with a minor in Psychology and I am a freelance website designer. Although, sometimes I take on freelance photography and graphic design gigs too.

Terry Manzi: My name is Terry Manzi. I’m currently a second year in Creative Industries. My freelance work varies between the music and media industry, but usually between the photography and videography sector. For example, I can usually find myself taking portraits of at least one person/month or out filming something, either a music video or a bigger-scale project.

ZP: What drew you to freelance work? How did you get started?

LV: Freedom to choose the projects I want to be involved in, and the stories or messages I want to help my clients communicate. I started in high school, almost accidentally. I did all of the assembly videos, and a teacher took notice of my skill set and recommended me for a few jobs. One of my first clients that I did pro-bono work for was a local food bank. I’m interested in projects that can tangibly affect people’s lives. This goal has brought me to clients in the political realm. I’ve done work for non-partisan groups encouraging democratic engagement such as The Canadian Muslim Vote, and Apathy is Boring. I also produced campaign videos for Kate Graham’s Ontario Liberal Leadership bid, and Annamie Paul’s successful run to lead the Green Party of Canada. I’m very interested in continuing this sort of work to help elect progressive candidates, across party lines.

RH: In my second year of university, I had a great opportunity to join the RU Student Life student team as a part-time job on campus. At the time, I didn’t know that social media would be my career path, I just knew that I liked it and that working on campus made my life much easier. Creating content and planning digital campaigns through that job made me realize I wanted to continue doing these things, on the side or full-time. Getting started as a freelancer was a bit of a blur for me, but I guess it started when I started volunteering for a feminist magazine, doing their social media management on top of my part-time job and school work. That sparked my interest in managing other social accounts for organizations that work toward something more than selling a product, contributing to a “greater good.”

SS: I feel like freelancing seemed to find me. I started building my visual portfolio on social media back in 2015. I spent a lot of time creating a visually pleasing instagram feed and aesthetic and eventually people who needed help creating content would find me and reach out to me. Creating clothing was something I wanted to do for a very long time but I would always hold off on it. I wanted to wait until I was “successful” before creating merch. I later had the realization that maybe this is something that would bring that success and open up so many doors.

CU: I started freelancing in Grade 11. I was tired of how mundane my hostess job was. And I was nervous about getting a job after graduating University. I looked up job descriptions of Graphic Designers and what the requirements were and a lot highlighted needing a number of years of experience. So I figured starting at 16 years old, by the time I graduated University I’d already have five years of experience under my belt. I completed my high-school co-op in-house on a small graphic design team and asked every dumb, basic question I could think of. And coming out of that, they gave me my first two clients.

TM: You wouldn’t believe it, but I attribute it to the first video I made […]. Long story short, I was at a relatives house and the internet was out for a couple days. With nothing else to do, 12 year old Terry decides to dibble-dabble in iMovie. I think I spent about 3–4 hours getting this right. […] To answer the first question, the chase for a creative outlet seemed to be the biggest drawing factor to freelance work. While I’m not the one to typically be envious of someone else’s creative skill, one thing that always frustrated me about myself is the fact I can’t draw. For example, if there was a drawing ability scale and it was ranked 1–10, I’d sit at a comfortable 3. Luckily my appreciation in tech and media allowed me to find a sweet-spot in this sector, especially in my hometown London, Ontario.

ZP: Did you consider yourself “ready” when you started freelancing? How did you prepare to start your business?

LV: No shade to my program, but I did feel somewhat unprepared for the freelance world after school. I think it’s so important to incorporate a business element to our education in the creative fields, which is why initiatives like REC are so important and impactful for students to engage with. So many of us have a passion for storytelling, and the skill set to execute a vision — but falter when it comes to administrative or business-related tasks. Most of the learning I did in this respect was through my involvement with student groups, or seeking the answers myself through mentors and professionals in my desired field, as well as books, YouTube and podcasts.

RH: As a really new freelancer (I’d even consider myself a not-so-established one at that), one of the myths I’ve discovered is that you have to “launch” your business. I always thought that it was a linear plan; you announce your businesses, and people will start asking you for work. But in reality, getting clients and projects just… happen. I think as long as I’m consistent in sharing what my services are, telling people in my networks about them at the appropriate times, the clients and work will come as it needs to. […]

CU: I was as ready as I’d ever be. I didn’t have any clue what I was doing. I didn’t know who I could go to for advice or help. I kinda just said fuck it. I might as well make the mistake while I’m young. Better now than later. Eventually, I found myself in a mentorship program that was able to give me a clearer blueprint towards success. That was key. Having a support system that I could go to anytime I hit a wall.

TM: I won’t consider myself ready until I stop finding myself in “first-time” situations. Since buying my first camera in high-school, every year I find myself in interesting professional environments where I learn a new thing or two. Since then, it seems to be something new every couple months or so, but as everyone says, there’s a first time for everything! My business hasn’t officially “started” in my mind, but it’s getting there. I’m currently just getting a better understanding of this industry first, before attempting to put all my chips in.

ZP: What is the biggest takeaway from your first freelance project, or one thing you wish you knew before starting your practice?

LV: When/how to incorporate a business. Getting a GST number. What is an appropriate rate to charge a client? When to say no to a project. These are things I wish I had more knowledge of and experience with prior to graduating and entering the workforce. Every project and experience — especially the bad ones — taught me something valuable. I’ve dropped clients that were unpleasant to work with. I’ve also turned down paid gigs for pro bono ones that better aligned with my values. Freelancing can be overwhelming and at times chaotic, but it can also be very rewarding both personally and financially.

SS: One thing I’ve taken away from freelancing is to always know my worth. Sometimes people can make you think that your work isn’t worth money and you need to remember that it is.

CU: Do good work, be an easy person to work with, and the work will multiply. Sometimes it can really just be broken down to the basics. You’re freelancing because you’re talented and you have something to offer. Get over the anxiety of charging people money, especially an hourly rate much higher than part-time jobs have been paying you. You offer more value than that. You’re operating a business, get used to managing money. The biggest part of the job is understanding people. From the very first interaction, you’re having with a potential client, you are subtly planting seeds that will lead to closing a deal. People are entrusting you with their business. I work mostly with small businesses as well. So they are entrusting you with their babies. Show them you’re here as a partner who is invested in their goals. You’re going to make mistakes. People are going to get upset with you. Brace yourself. Take a deep breath. Develop a thicker skin. And focus on the resolution and making things right. But ultimately, losing one client will not be the end of your business.

TM: On every occasion I can, and I know it sounds super optimistic, but I try my best to learn something at a minimum. The Creative Industry is a massive sector that houses geniuses from every sort of creative medium. The opportunity to learn about music production, just by hanging around behind the scenes is something I find myself in almost every day! If that doesn’t make sense, let me know and I can try to elaborate.

ZP: What would you say the biggest challenge the pandemic has brought your freelance practice and how did you overcome it?

LV: It’s taken some adapting in terms of what I’m able to shoot, and the protocols needed to do it safely. Luckily my work has been steady throughout, and I’ve taken advantage of the slow periods to continue to develop creative projects in film/television which I intend to embrace more fully in the coming years. The biggest challenge through this pandemic has been focus as I’m sure many can relate to. I still go through periods of fluctuating productivity, but setting deadlines and using my work to temporarily escape/distract from the chaos of the news has been helpful.

RH: Competition! As a freelance social media manager, with basically all programming and services pivoting to go online, more and more people in my field are realizing that our services are valuable. There’s no doubt that my peers are delivering exceptional work, so how can I stand out from them? I’m not sure I’ve overcome it yet, to be honest. But to work on that big question, I think I’ve got to find what exactly it is that makes me want to do my work to stand apart from the others. Whether that be to specifically help nonprofit or grassroots organizations, work with brands that are spreading awareness around sustainability… I’ve yet to figure that out and that’s okay!

SS: At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of creative projects were put on hold so business was a lot slower. They only recently started to pick up again. I think with the pandemic it’s important to remember that your client’s business may also be slow.

CU: I decided to take a break right around the same time the lockdown happened. I was still finishing up old projects and maintenance contracts, but it was the slowest my life has ever been in years. The hardest part of that, was learning how to take life slow. After years of being constantly on the go, always alert, always productive — it was a 180 from the lifestyle I’d been used to living. I took up new hobbies, rediscovered old passions, and learned to enjoy my own company while doing nothing. I was able to redirect all that energy towards my physical and mental health. And it was great. Now moving forward, I’ve redefined what healthy work-life balance is to me which can traditionally be hard to do when working for yourself.

TM: The biggest challenge is finding time to meet with others. With schedules changing almost every day, whether you’re a student or working full-time, it’s hard to not avoid one person not-showing up. If anything, this taught me how important scheduling way in advance can be.

ZP: How do you take time to destress and prioritize your wellbeing throughout your work? What does a healthy work-life balance look like for you?

LV: A 9–5 job isn’t for me. It’s wonderful and stable and effective for a lot of people, but I know that it would not stimulate me. I’m someone who has struggled with my mental health. I sometimes need time away to regroup, and I can’t neatly schedule that into two weeks of vacation time a year. I also don’t stick to 40-hour work weeks. Some weeks I work many more hours, some weeks less. As a recovering workaholic, I’m still trying to find a balance that addresses my personal and professional needs. Right now, my days are usually reserved for freelance work and administrative tasks (calls, emails, meetings) while my nights are for the creative (brainstorming, writing, editing). I don’t have a very consistent schedule as I tend to become all consumed by the “project of the week” and plan my days around those. However, I have a great support system of family and friends that continually conspire to pull me away from my work and provide me with the time I need to rest and refuel. This allows me to return with a renewed sense of energy, enthusiasm and focus.

RH: Outside of my full-time 9–5 job, I try to set specific hours of the week to work on those side projects. For me, those hours usually land on Sundays, since I’m too tired after work on weekdays and I like to leave Saturdays for turning my brain for Animal Crossing or other non-work things. Now I don’t want to sound like I have my life together, because the truth is, when you are working with your own hours and are responsible for your own deadlines, following set rules made by yourself can get difficult. Sometimes those hours don’t get planned, and I end up scrambling on weekday evenings because that’s unfortunately the way life goes. […]

SS: I think it’s really important to give yourself a work schedule. It doesn’t matter what time of day you’re working but as soon as you’re off the clock, be off the clock.

TM: It’s hard, as I already spent a lot of time in front of a monitor. Now instead of spending 2–3 hours in front of my monitor, it feels like 10hrs a day. I try my best to get out of the house at least once a day, whether it’s going to my part-time job or on a casual bike ride.

ZP: Networking is always a huge help for professionals looking to start their own side hustle. How did you leverage your network as you started your business? How did you network to find clients?

LV: Asking people for coffee, or a phone call. This has led to many opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have had. In the Covid-era that may look more like a zoom call or socially distanced chat, but personal relationships are everything. I don’t advertise my services — my clients all come from referrals, or people who have seen my previous work via Instagram or at an event. I don’t even have a website (which every freelancer should have and I will eventually get around to). Word of mouth, and even reaching out to clients you’re interested in working with is what I’ve found to be most effective. I’ve been freelancing since high school and am still figuring it all out but somehow it’s paying the bills.

RH: Networking is really hard for me, as someone who finds “professional” interactions with others a bit brain draining. But I’m really lucky in that my first side gig was because an old colleague of mine was looking for somebody to help with their socials for their new business, and I was there to say yes! If you are like me and find it hard to network with other freelancers or professionals, trust that your amazing work and effort will be seen by the right person when you least expect it. Staying consistent in that work is the most important!

SS: Majority of my clients have come from word of mouth or from social media. I think the way that I use social media has helped a lot. People can tell what I do right away when looking at my profile. I think the way you present yourself on social media is important, especially if you are running a business. Marketing yourself is an important skill and I think social media is a really strong tool to do so.

CU: When I first started, I was nervous to share my freelance journey on my personal social media, in case it didn’t work out. I did know people who needed my services though. Close friends and family that trusted me enough to give me a chance, buying me dinner for my services. They’d then refer me to their network where I started charging real money. Not too long after, I became more open about my journey in freelancing with my broader social media friends. Sharing projects I was proud of, to make it known to the world as a way of saying “Hi, I’m here. I design websites, keep me in the back of your mind if anything ever comes up.”

The #Freelance101 Campaign aims to share actionable knowledge with creative professionals who might be interested in freelancing, and an honest account of what it’s like to be a freelancer. Over the next few weeks, REC will be featuring each of these creatives further, as they share a day in their freelance careers via instagram stories, every friday. Follow us on instagram and tune into our #Freelance101 takeovers every Friday starting November 13th. Be sure to turn post notifications on so you won’t miss any of the action.

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