So here I am, just over one year after making the very difficult decision to leave my full-time job as Digital Producer at one of Vancouver’s top creative agencies. After two years of working with some of the best in the industry and forming life-lasting connections to a special few, it was time to jump into the unknown with both feet. I’d like to share some of the ups and downs of my first year as freelancer and speak candidly on my experience.
Why I left my full-time job
I loved working at an agency as Digital Producer. They hired me about eight months after I graduated from an Interactive Design Program at a local University. Because I went back to school after running two businesses for close to 20 years, I came to the table with a multi-faceted approach to problem solving, a business background and client-facing skills. After enduring a steep learning curve for over a year, it became clear that there was no place for me to go. There was no delineation between ‘Producer’ and ‘Senior Producer’, so there were no next steps for me. My path was muddy. I am not one to sit and stagnate – moving forward and learning are super important to me.
The Digital Producer role in this particular agency was not client-facing – that was taken care of by the account team. I knew this going into the role, and it soon became anti-intuitive to produce a project when rarely (and sometimes never) speaking to Client. It took about three months for me to make the big decision and towards the end I became miserable – there, I admit failure in not keeping a stiff upper lip and hiding my feelings. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t leave on bad terms, I just feel bad that in some ways I may have let the team down towards the end. I’ve since been back as a Freelancer to cover for vacation, and I count my blessings every time I walk through those doors – I was (and still am) a part of this beautiful, wonderful group of people (lucky me).
I finished my two weeks ‘official notice’, then the agency hired me to stay on for another two weeks – not a bad first gig as a Freelancer. I marked my new role by buying a pair of boots – symbolic of walking down a different path. During my last month, some unexpected goodness came my way. I had no less than six people offer to introduce me to some of their contacts in the industry – holy ‘WOW’ Batman! I never asked, they just helped. So there started six weeks of meeting people for coffee. It was a busy time and I was welcomed into many circles of many people – some I keep in contact with to this day, some I have worked with this year, and some introduced me to more professionals.
I was lucky to book a nine-week full time contract with another large agency, starting right after the Christmas holidays. The contract was for an interim Digital Producer, while they on-boarded their permanent person into the full time, permanent position. Since then I’ve had ongoing projects with three smaller agencies. One of them found me on LinkedIn, and the other two were word of mouth referrals via colleagues.
My top five pluses on being a Freelance Digital Project Manager are;
- Lifestyle. The flexibility is fantastic. I work my life into and around my project schedules. I average about 25 – 30 hours a week total hours billed, then I add about six hours of travel for (on average) three days bum-in-seat at a downtown office – the other two days I usually work from home. So I pop out for a run, or spend an hour in the garden, or make lunch for myself and my husband. Another bonus this year is we managed time away for two, two-week vacations (unpaid, or course).
- The pay. I charge an hourly rate, and because I’ve run my own business before, I do not struggle with paying taxes at the end of the year. I earmark a certain percentage of my earnings and put it aside. I’m still ahead by about 20% in pay and 15% – 20% in time. I use freshbooks to track my time and invoice, and I estimate that this saves me about five – seven hours of time each month – it’s well worth the ~$20 per month.
- Learning – and lots of it. Being around different technical and development teams has a huge learning curve. I’ve learned more in one year than I have in my combined two years at the agency and two years at school! We all know that digital projects always have numerous routes to the end result – there is not one way of doing things. Plus, with such a wide range of Clients as a Freelancer, I’ve been exposed to varying degrees of QA, testing, technical sandboxes and ‘best practices’.
- Expanding my network. The more places I work, and the more people I meet, I expand my network. By growing my exposure to different Clients and agencies, it means I get more connected and stay in the loop. I spoke to a friend who has worked at the same agency for 5+ years and she is thinking of leaving – but doesn’t have a vast network, so she doesn’t know where to begin. I know she’ll find her way like I did (even if it isn’t freelance), but it’s always better to have a larger pool of people to reach out to.
- Variety of projects. This summer I had ongoing projects between two smaller agencies – one agency specializes in strategy, UX and tech whereas the other agency has a specialty in storytelling by using highly creative narrative within the digital space. There was brain balance between a big telecom website build, and interactive media project for a reality TV show and a companion piece to a TV series that spoke with visual storytelling. As anyone who has ever worked in an agency knows, there is a level of monotony that can set in when working on only one or two Brands, or a similar types of projects.
The Bad and The Ugly
Overall, there hasn’t been too much bad and ugly in the last year. I see everything as an opportunity to move forward and learn from mistakes – heck, we’re human after all. Many freelancers may say that there is stress in managing oneself and looking for the next contract. Not to sound arrogant, but these are minor issues for me. Running a few businesses has primed me for setting up my bookkeeping, invoicing and administrative components to freelancing. Fortunately I have not yet had to look for work – Freelance Digital Producers are difficult to find (some say we are non-existent), so there is lots of work out there – this means I get regular emails and inquiries on my LinkedIn. I’m not at the point of turning contracts away, but it’s nice to know there are gaps that your skill set can fill.
My top five drawbacks on being a Freelance Digital Project Manager are;
- Invoices going unpaid. Yes, this happened this year and is still going on with one particular project. I took a website re-skin project for a small agency and the Client bailed on them halfway through the project. The result is that now I am being paid on a payment schedule. They owe me about $2300 from over four months ago, and to this date I’ve received $1500 – they had committed to $500 every two weeks, but they are way behind now. If I had known that they run their numbers so close to the edge I would never have taken the project. They are basically using me and the developer (to whom they owe about $7000) as a credit card. They suck.
- Un-billable time. Digital projects need care and attention, especially during the design and build portion of the timeline. Sometimes you just gotta be there, in person, bum-in-seat. So when projects from different agencies are all at the same magic spot in the schedule, there will be extra time spent getting between agencies. Now I am a transit gal – 1km walk to the seabus, then a 15 minute ride and boom!, I’m downtown. From that point I may need to hop on the train or walk. Some weeks this years I logged about 3+ hours per day in travel = un-billable time. Yikes. Good learning. In the future I may consider a minimum number of hours for any projects that require me to be at the agency.
- No IT department. Yep – it’s me when it comes to maintaining hardware, updating software, back ups etc = more time and resources. It helps to have a husband who is willing to help, but let’s face it – he’s a stone sculptor, not a tech guy so it’s good to keep in good with a few special developers. This summer my computer was uber slow, so a developer I know offered to install more RAM – nothing difficult, but much appreciated.
- Feeling Fragmented. I equate this to walking through a beautiful home on a tour, but never getting to enjoy the space for a long weekend. Sometimes it’s nice to settle in, look around and really get to know the surroundings. Going from project to project and working at more than one agency at a time never gets you in deep, time to explore, get to know your team and form relationships based on being in the trenches day in and day out on a continuous basis. There is less chance of going for after dinner drinks, shooting-the-shit or jamming on karaoke. I’m not saying it never happens for Freelancers, but sometimes I feel fragmented.
- No guarantees. There is no permanence to your job, no benefits (medical/dental) and you can remain detached from stability. You have to be a certain type of personality to do this – part risk-taker, part free spirit. For me, the lifestyle I have as a Freelancer is a priority, so no stability is the price I pay.
Next Steps [Awe, geeze, I had to insert at least one PM term]
So where to now? I say, ‘keep going’ – I greatly enjoy my role as a Vancouver Freelance Digital Project Manager and Freelance Interactive Producer. Going into the new year, I have about six projects between three agencies, and after that I have no idea what projects will come my way. But I’ll be ready with a smile on my face, a private ‘thank-you’ to the universe for more work and a killer pair of new boots to celebrate another new path.