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Best Tips for Building a Freelance Career

August 23, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Freelance audio designer Harry Mack (Spiral Knights, Braid) takes a look at what goes into effectively building a lasting career as a contractor -- work/life balance, working with clients, and taking criticism -- and here offers a succinct guide that could apply to someone in any discipline.

Freelance is a tough thing. Ask most people and they'll tell you that they put more time in finding work than actually doing work. That's especially true when you're just getting into the business and growing your client list. It becomes less true the longer you've been doing it, and the more new and old clients approach you for potential work.

So how do you make and keep happy clients? It's not just the final soundtrack and soundscape that matters, but the whole process leading to the release of the game that affects the freelancer-client relationship. I've been in the freelance audio business for over a decade and have learned a lot from my successes and fumblings.

From project bid to post-release support, here's what I've learned to ensure your work is stellar and that your clients are happy enough to think of you for their next project... and to sing your praises to their colleagues.

Always Be Professional

I've heard from a lot of clients that audio designers are flakey. They don't respond promptly to emails, they submit shoddy work, they don't return calls, and sometimes just disappear with no further word. This always surprised me, and I've always assumed it was a fluke, but over the years it's become a recurring theme.

I don't think people appreciate that stereotypical artist who puts creativity above professionalism. It's really very simple, but oh, so important. Use correct grammar and spelling in emails, with no shorthand. Speak clearly, confidently and to the point. Be friendly and courteous. Respond promptly to emails. Be available. This is straightforward stuff, but being consistently professional will set you head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.

The Bidding Process

Usually the first email I get from a new client will be, "So, how much do you charge?" Anyone who's in my field hates that question, because we always have to respond with, "Depends!" Depends on the project, the size, amount of assets, how fast you need them, what platform it's for, etc., etc., etc., etc. But after you wrestle out as much detail as possible, in the end they'll want a bid to compare with other freelancers.

I've found the most successful tactic is to present a bid with a best-case and worst-case scenario. They'll likely have a number in their head before contacting you, so if you overbid you'll lose before even starting, and if you underbid, and underbid consistently, well, that's a hard life to lead.

Bids should be on a professional form document with your logo on it, along with assets clearly defined in terms of per sound effect and per minute of music. Put in a range so they know you're quoting a ballpark figure. This will give them some room to go down if they have a lower budget in mind than you're requesting.

In the end, everyone wants a game to ship with great sounds and music, but if they're looking for the cheapest possible, nowadays there's plenty of students who will do it for free just for the credit. Don't get discouraged if you don't hear back -- sometimes the process takes some time. Check back in one or two weeks and politely ask if they received your bid.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Mark Kilborn
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First, thanks for posting this. There's not a lot of info in the world on how to be a freelance audio guy, and I imagine a lot of people will appreciate it. I do have a question though, based on this statement:

"Bids should be on a professional form document with your logo on it, along with assets clearly defined in terms of per sound effect and per minute of music. Put in a range so they know you're quoting a ballpark figure. This will give them some room to go down if they have a lower budget in mind than you're requesting."

I've worked as a freelancer and, as an audio director, I've hired them. The topic of billing has always been a problem. Sometimes, especially if an audio person is involved earlier in the development of a project, it's impossible to know how many audio assets there are going to be in the game. In the example of a FPS, the designers may ship with ten guns or thirty. Who knows?

And even if the number was fixed, the amount of variations required to sell a good-sounding weapon can vary wildly. One gun may need three shot vars, another may need five. You may decide it sounds better if you split out the shot from the tail (or even indoor and outdoor tails dynamically layered over the core shot based on player position in the world). If you have three core shots, three outdoor tails, three indoor tails and three mechanical layer sounds to sell a single gun, do you bill for twelve sounds? Or just three, because there are just three core variations? How do you explain this to the customer, who's likely a producer that doesn't really understand what we do?

The point I'm making is that, in circumstances where I've either tried to bid or received a bid with a per sound effect rate, it's always been such a crap shoot to nail down what the cost might end up being. Based on creative decision-making on the part of the sound designer, the bill can increase exponentially even if the time spent doesn't increase by that much.

So how do you deal with these kinds of scenarios?

Conor Brace
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I'd also like to hear Harry's opinion on this!

With my bids I usually include rates (per sound effect / per minute of music), an estimate based on the anticipated amount of assets, and also a "not to exceed" number (the previous estimate plus 20% or so).

This seems to take some stress off the client. They know they can make a certain amount of additions without causing a fuss or breaking the bank. In the event that there's a huge increase in scope, they'll get an immediate meeting -- "this project has outgrown our original contract, we either need to cut some things or increase the budget" -- rather than a surprise bill at the end.

That doesn't really help with your gunshot variations example, though...

Mark Kilborn
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It doesn't. And I suppose it really comes down to the style of game. I'm not sure if this would be applicable in a smaller game, but for AAA titles we see this kind of thing a lot.

Harry Mack
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Hello Mark,

Thank you for your thoughts and personal experience on this issue. I would think that my answer is going to apply more for smaller scale games than a AAA title, but it may be helpful nonetheless.

In exactly every project I've ever worked on, the end product has much more assets than was quoted. People forget things like UI, end-of-level sequences (rewards, point tallies, things like that), and the scope of the project always gets enhanced in other ways during development, such as more abilities, levels, etc.

However, I try and stick to the original quote as closely as possible. I figure they have a number in their books and I agreed to that number before working, so I should do my best to match that number in the end. In your example, I'd make three gun shot sounds but charge for only one.

If the scope changes dramatically enough to impact serious working hours, I will draw up a completely new quote which includes the new work, so that there are no surprises in the end. This way they can see during the process that when more work is asked for, it affects the end invoice.

In your example of a large-scale game, I would likely prefer to work on a per month basis or project-whole rather than a per asset. At that point, it's not about the sheer number of sound effects and minutes of music you can pump out, but rather the quality of work submitted for the shipping product.

I always prefer when a client has a fixed amount to pay for any number of assets. "Can you do 'approximate' amount of work for 'this' money?" It's always confusing to charge per minute of music - a long, slow song costs more than a very fast, complex one? The complex one took me three times as long to create! Per sfx is just as confusing. In your example, that sure sounds like one sound effect, but compared to a ui click? They'd be charged the same.

The hope is that in the end, you're getting a fair price for fair work, and that taken as a whole it makes sense. I usually cheat on the side of giving more than what I'm getting paid for, and I see that as a long-term investment. I'm sure you'd appreciate rehiring a freelancer who doesn't quibble over triple-charging a single gunshot sound when creating an overall soundscape.

Jesse Ratterree
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This is an excellent article. I'm a full time freelancer and I do probably 3 to 4 iOS apps a month. Some essential tools for me are echosign for contracts, having a giant work desk, keeping regular hours and paypal for invoices.

I wake up at 5am and have most of my work done by 10am before my family is really doing anything that might get distracting. It is VERY hard not to worry when you don't have work. But it's good to have a plan B and see how things work out.

I really enjoyed this article and it helps give me the affirmation that I'm doing things right. Almost all of my clients become repeat customers and I am paying my rent on music alone. I just hope I can eventually make more than just enough to survive! But either way I'm doing what I love!

Bryan Melanson
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Good call on echosign! Very neat

I'll preach waking up early and regular hours too

That and some physical activity does wonders for your mental hygiene.

Kevin Oke
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I work freelance as well (not in audio however, game design), and these are all great points that I try to stay cognizant of. Setting a schedule with defined times for getting up, breaks, starting/ending work, and sticking to that as much as possible is a big one. Otherwise it's far too easy to waste time in a sort of limbo between work and free time when potential distractions come up.

Keith Fuller
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While this article talks about the stereotypical flaky contractor, as a consultant I've found it to be equally problematic getting potential clients to return communication. Many's the time I've had someone come to me with "Can you help me, I need this, I need it now, the world is ending" and then I never hear back from them after my initial response.

One reason may be that I don't follow up quickly enough after my initial response because I don't want to be that pushy guy who hounds you repeatedly every five minutes. "Did I get the job? Huh? Did I? Tell me!" A practice I've implemented to combat this problem is to always include a statement in my emails and calls that indicates when our next communication will take place. Something like, "If I haven't heard from you in two weeks I'll check back." That way I don't worry about feeling pushy and I make sure the ball is always in their court.

P.S. Hi, Kevin!
P.P.S. Hi, Mark!

Kevin Oke
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Hey Keith!

+1 to your comment, very true re: disappearing prospective clients.

Jeremy Alessi
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Another great article, this week we're on a roll! Thanks for sharing!

Sam Jones
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This is a fantastic article, thank you for sharing your experience with the rest of us. Out of interest, on average how many sounds per day do you aim for when working out your fees / schedules? Or, do you create your asset list first, and then time-cost each sound individually? Thanks.

Frank DAngelo
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Wow, great article! I feel like I'm reading this at the perfect time too since I am currently 6 months into a one year contract assignment (working from home), and this article really resonated with my experience so far. My past experience has been in-house (contract), so I was really in the dark starting out working from home and freelancing. It's amazing all of the things you may not think of if you chose to freelance like having to do your own billing or invoices, contracts and bid offers, trying to stay connected when you are hundreds of miles away, and many other unique facets of freelancing. Really though, this post goes over all of them, and is a great read for people looking to start freelancing, or improve their workflow.

I got to say though, there was one section of this blog that really resonated with me though and that was the work from home part. This by far is probably the most important part of this post, and the one thing that can sink you faster than anything else if you are a work from home freelancer. When I started my contract, I was very optimistic about it. I still prefer an in-house environment because I love being surrounded by like-minded folk and bouncing ideas off one another, but it seemed like working from home would be great. Set my own hours, work in whatever clothes I want, take breaks when I want, ability to run errands when necessary, it seemed like it could be fun.

A couple months went by though, and then just how you described, working from home becomes a serious challenge. The distractions are plentiful and strong in their ways. Even the smallest of things like a home delivery, or going to the bathroom and spotting some dirty dishes you want to take care can pull you out of your groove and make it tough to get back in there. I had to uninstall the games from my work computer because they proved too easy to turn a small 15 minute break into an hour break. You also begin to get the "always at work" mentality like you described, and I found it hard to separate my work life from my home life. It just became one big jumbled ball of workhomelife. To make it worse, the company I work for is in a timezone two hours behind mine, so felt compelled to stay glued on Skype till 7, 8, or 9 PM past my working hours to ensure I wasn't missing important messages from my co-workers/supervisor.

I struggled for a bit, but fortunately it didn't take me too long to get myself back on track, by taking many of the same steps you detailed in your post. I really can't stress that despite working from home, you must absolutely separate the two, and set hours firmer in stone than even a flexible work environment at the studio. The early morning is really the best time I think, and I try to get all my work done before 2-3PM so once my girlfriend gets home from work at 4, I can relax. There's far less distractions during this time as well, since as the evening draws close, I find myself more ready to kick back and relax, making the distractions pull much stronger. Now, I have removed distractions from my office room, and when I go in their each morning I give myself the mentality I'm in the office. It's just what you got to do. Think for a second your at home and your bound to start letting your mind wander.

One last bit I would like to add about the work from home challenge is that it's imperative to keep up with healthy eating, exercise, and hygiene. It's VERY easy working from home to simply get out of bed and roll over to your office and begin working and that is that. Then its night, and you do it all over the next day. Take a shower in the morning like you were heading to the office. Get up and go exercise for about an hour each day. It peps you up and drives your focus to the max. Plus it's good for you. Don't overeat. Being at home surrounded by food it's easy to keep grabbing snacks/drinks to munch on.

All and all, really great post, and great information regarding the work from home bit. For me this has been the hardest challenge of all, and I'm really glad you covered it in such detail for new freelancers joining the scene. Once again, great post!

Margot Padilla
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or sound girl!

Grimm Jones
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What I like about this is that I've been doing freelance work in other areas outside of audio design or audio production. These points are valid for many creative professional jobs. With so many skills under my belt it can be difficult choosing which jobs to take and how to take them. I will definitely keep this article, and everyone's replies, in mind as I continue to work freelance. Thanks!

Nathan Lively
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I really liked this article and ended up doing an interview with Harry Mack for Sound Design Live -