Best Tips for Building a Freelance Career

By Harry Mack

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.


Document Everything

There's a lot of documentation that goes into a freelance audio project. It's important to get as much of this as possible and to safeguard backups. Let's break it down.

Project bid: Likely this will be the first thing a client asks for. How much do you think you can do the project for? Keep this as a backup, and reference/attach it to contract signing. Other important information on this sheet should be your name, date, title of project, and your contact information.

NDA: This is a form to allow you to see aspects of the project with a promise not to steal that information. Depending on things, this may occur before the bid, if the client wants to show you details about the game before deciding how many sound assets it would take to create the game.

Don't try and push for one, but if they start handing out buckets of design documents before anything's been signed, remind them that you'd be happy to sign an NDA and contract before properly tackling the work.

Contract/Agreement of Work: Lots of other articles are out there to describe how to negotiate a fair contract. Read them. Sign a contract, and remember to get them to sign it and return to you. Keep it safe somewhere! Do not work on a project until a contract is signed.

I cannot stress this enough, except to say it again: do not work on a project until a contract is signed. Make sure it says how much you are getting paid, when, for how much work, due at what point. If clients ever have a question about when something is due, or why haven't you done music theme XYZ and you have no idea what they are talking about but they're angry because they haven't received it yet, a contract is a life saver.

Audio Design Document: Whether they want it or not, it's always good to present an audio design document before working on anything serious. This is a document that both parties should have access to and ability to edit, to hammer out a plan for the audio. In it you should discuss inspirations, such as what types of games and media have similar audio to your project, and the goals, which are what you are trying to get the audio to do in the game. (For example, the music on the forest level will have gentle wind instruments to convey a breezy, carefree atmosphere, coupled with a light ambient soundscape of birdsong and wind.) Try to get this approved before you start building assets, to reduce the amount of revisions and miscommunications between yourself and the client.

Asset Delivery Excel/Document: When you present your work to a client, it should come with either an excel sheet or some sort of document that explains what you are submitting, where it should go in the game (such as what level the music will be playing on, or where the sound should be implemented), and leaves room for additional information. Clients will want to be able to track what's been implemented and where, and if it's been approved or needs a revision.

Invoice: Once everything's approved and the game's ready to ship, we're ready to invoice. This should look a lot like the project bid document, except the assets are clearly defined instead of ballparked. It has all your contact information, as well as the client's, so that both parties can print out and keep for tax purposes. I like to put "Invoice 1" on it, to allow for additional invoices should the client need post-release support. At the very bottom, put something to the effect of, please remit payment with 30 days, thank you for your business. Along with this invoice attachment, in your email describe the best methods of payment, whether it's PayPal, a check to your address, wire transfer, etc.

Home Life, Home Work

In the end, the quality of your work speaks volumes. Working freelance audio can be a bit tricky when it comes to balancing a home life, and without a balanced home life it's difficult to create consistently good work. Finding this balance will be full of different challenges, for everybody leads different lives. Some will have children, roommates, strong social lives, second jobs, you name it.

Stay motivated and focused: Working at home comes with a huge amount of distractions. There's the internet, TV, fridge, phone calls, potential family interruptions, chores -- the list goes on. No one is looking over your shoulder making sure you're working, no boss in the other room who can step in at any moment to catch you with Facebook open.

If you're unable to keep yourself motivated on your own work, you're not going to get anything done. If this is a problem, set daily tasks in the morning and make sure they get done before distractions.

Healthy work hours: As a freelancer it's near impossible to turn down work, but worse, it's difficult to set healthy work hours. I used to fret that every moment I wasn't working on my career was wasted time. An in-house audio designer has clearly defined working hours, and when they come home, that's that -- it's time to relax.

The worst part for me were those times without consistent work -- with no tangible income to prove I was working hard, I worked even harder. It got to an unhealthy point where I couldn't enjoy any relaxing time with my family, worrying that instead of playing games I should be career building. That's no life!

The answer for me was to set working hours like a normal person, and respect that when an end of the day came, every moment past that was overtime and beginning to become harmful to my life and family. Of course overtime is definitely part of our business, and most people's, for that matter, but when it's a daily thing, rethink your hours.

Separate work from home: I need a specific office area which is different from a game area or social computer area. As an audio designer, this means a quiet place to do uninterrupted sound work. If necessary, get a sign that says "Recording in Process" or whatever will let people know you'd like to not be disturbed. I like to make sure home bills and items aren't allowed to touch the office desk, because a clear separation from work and home is important to me. My work files don't get mixed up with important home documents. I have no games installed on my work computer – what a disaster that would be! Work time is work time, home time is home time.


Managing Multiple Projects

Working freelance has its ups and downs. Sometimes I'll be up to my ears fighting off multiple projects at once, and it can be tricky making sure I get everything organized. Planning is important here, because the goal is to make sure every client gets the correct audio before milestones, without forgetting anything. It's usually the case that during discussions or emails with clients, ideas and suggestions get bandied about.

It's your job to jot those down and to ensure that each asset that's requested gets created and submitted. I have a calendar posted on the wall right by my monitor, with due dates and names listed to make sure that I have enough time to create assets for each client's deadlines. I always make sure to schedule in buffer time, because audio is a creative process and there's sometimes moments where things aren't quite working out.

Other tools I use are Google Docs and spreadsheets tied into a Gmail account that I can access anywhere. They'll have all my projects listed on them, with all the assets requested alongside due dates, as well as important milestones and outstanding invoices. Before I start my work I'll take a glance to make sure there's nothing new or nothing needing to be removed, so that I know what exactly I'm working on for the day and that it'll get done in plenty of time.

Be clear with new clients if you'll need a couple weeks before you can get to them. I think they can respect that you're a professional trying to balance inconsistent work, but always mention that if it's a problem you can move them up.

Be prepared for overtime and weekend work should this be the case! I have never missed a deadline or come short on an asset list, and I hope never to. Also, remember to schedule in time for revisions and last-minute additional asset requests. Blessed and few are the projects that get audio right on the first go.

Criticism is a Good Thing

I've been told that one of my best traits as an audio designer is that I take criticism in a friendly and professional manner. It took a while to get there, as I've always been defensive of things I put time and thought in. Who isn't? "The customer is always right" is a phrase everyone knows for a reason: it's true. They are funding and making the game, and likely have a vision for the end product including how it's going to sound.

If you're not meeting their audio goals, it's a problem of miscommunication, and in the end that's your problem. I've had clients who are very musical and can express clearly what their design goals are, and others who are near tone deaf and unsure of what they actually want. Learning to hear what they have to say and putting that directly into the next round of revisions is key.

Over the years I've gained the confidence to know when to push back for the good of a game, and when to relent on a design choice that has no other impact than to make the client happy. Sometimes they just want to feel in charge and "have a good handle on things". While it's your audio work that's going in the game, and you want to make sure it's the best it can be, at the heart of it, you want to make sure your client feels confident that they did indeed ship a game with great audio. We can do that by receiving every criticism with attentive professionalism, and ask questions to refine what they are saying. Let them know you're listening.

Free as a Bird

Freelance audio design is as rewarding as it is challenging. Setting your own hours, the thrill of a new project, the fulfillment of a job well done -- it's an exciting life full of uncertainty, but with amazing opportunities just around the corner. It's definitely very difficult to break into and to start growing that client list, but with a professional attitude and high-quality creativity, clients will begin to come back with more projects and emails saying they'd love to work with you again. A successful freelancer has the gift of choosing their own projects from a long list of eager customers, but only after years of learning how to effectively earn the trust and loyalty of repeat customers.

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