What should you consider before going out on your own as a freelancer? How should you present your work to get objective feedback? When should you push back with a client? How can you earn more respect from clients? Should you specialize? Creative business guru Cameron S. Foote shares his insights on all of these topics.
Cameron S. Foote is founder and editor of the Creative Business newsletter, the only publication devoted exclusively to the business side of providing creative services. His experience includes over 40 years in the industry, including stints at small and large agencies, as creative director for a Fortune 500 company, and running his own firm, whose clients included such national brands as Merrill Lynch, Harvard Business School, and AT&T.
He is the author of the all-time best-selling book on running a creative services business, The Business Side of Creativity, is author of the industry’s standard management text, The Creative Business Guide to Running A Graphic Design Business and is author of the marketing manual, The Creative Business Guide to Marketing: Selling and Branding Design, Advertising, Interactive and Editorial Services. He also has courses on Udemy.
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Cam. I’m delighted to have you here. I’ve been a huge fan of your books and newsletters. They’ve helped me over 20-some years now from when I was freelancing and working full-time, and even now having a business with a small team.
Cameron Foote: Well, good. Well, thank you very much for the compliment. It’s great to be here with you.
Colleen: Great, thanks. So, what are some of the biggest mistakes that you’ve seen over the years that freelance or self-employed designers make?
Cameron: I think the major one is not being prepared for business. There are several levels that that takes. But, first of all, is not … is just going into business because you have a certain passion for design or something like that and you basically want to do your own thing. And sometimes that’s accompanied by a layoff or you don’t like your boss or wherever you’re working or that sort of thing.
People tend to go into business without really giving it a lot of thought. Giving it a lot of thought means that you sit down and see whether you, first of all, whether your kind of talents are appropriate for what you want to do, and secondly, whether you have the resources to pull it off and “resources to pull it off” means more than just your talent and a computer.
It also means that you have enough capital to get you through until business picks up, that you have the right kind of skills for the area that you work in, and that you have a certain feeling for what the clients that you will be addressing will want to hear. All of that, I find usually is not thoroughly thought through.
Colleen: What about self-discipline? How does that play a factor?
Cameron: I think it’s a very large factor. Some people are very good at it, and some people aren’t. I’ve thought over the years that there might be some correlation between whether someone is dedicated and whether that affects their creativity. In other words, would they be a little bit not as innovative or something, but over a period of time, I’ve discovered that that’s really not the case. There are people who are very good at it and there are people not very good at it, and it’s very hard to predict in advance whether someone will take to it or not. That’s really a sort of self-analysis thing. You have to sit down and say, “Well, is this something I really want to do?” If you really want to do it, you can probably make it work.
If it’s something that you’re a little bit lackadaisical about, I would advise you to think twice or give it some more thought or work it through or whatever before you make the big step, because quite frankly, it is a big step. Even though in today’s market there are supposedly—and I hear—plenty of jobs available. Still, to leave one method of one lifestyle and then to go into something new is … it takes a lot of mental horsepower and also, as I mentioned before, you have to have a certain amount of resources dedicated to it too. It’s nothing that I think you should do on the spur of the moment. It takes a certain amount of thought.
Colleen: You mentioned the word “lackadaisical,” and that reminds me of the word “freelancer.” Some people have this idea that freelancer and lackadaisical go hand in hand, and I know you share my dislike of the word “freelancer” and so it’s a dirty word because it has this connotation that you work whenever or you aren’t disciplined in keeping regular hours, you might be fly by night. Do you think that’s changed over the years?
Cameron: Oh, I think actually it’s gotten worse. The reasons that I say that is sort of, what I guess I could call a “romanticizing” of the gig economy that being able to go through life doing your own thing, picking up jobs here or there, like you are a musician looking for the latest gig. I think that’s all very romantic, and I think some younger people get carried away with that. My experience is it does not work like that. It’s nice if you never have any responsibilities in life, that is, your own person and you can take what life throws at you without affecting anyone else, but as most of us, that’s not the way it works.
As we mature, maybe we pick up a partner, we have responsibilities for houses, maybe children or whatever, and trying to exist with those realities in a gig economy I think just does not work. I think that labeling yourself as a “freelancer” and picking up jobs here and there, it just does not work, so I think you should avoid the word “freelancing” if you can, set up a business, a single-person business, and it doesn’t have to be big, by the way.
I think that’s one of the wonderful things about the design or creative business generally is you don’t have to have a big company. In fact, it’s one of the few businesses where you can grow or not grow as you want to, depending on your own personal preference. That’s very very unusual in an industry. Most industries have to grow or they collapse.
I should say, businesses in most industries either have to grow or collapse, and that has to do with whether it’s a retail store or whether it’s a software development company, whatever, there’s a certain amount of momentum that has to be maintained or the business just dies.
One of the things about our business is that that’s not true. The momentum has to be maintained in the sense of a single person, but you don’t have to have two or three people or four people or grow larger or whatever. I know people, myself I think included at this point, and certainly earlier, where I made a very good living working by myself. I also made a very good living having a small company.
It’s doable either way. I think that’s one of the wonderful things and it’s one of the reasons why someone looking at this as working by themselves as a career has a lot of opportunities for them.
Colleen: How can designers be seen as partners and consultants to clients, rather than just being a service provider?
Cameron: Well, I think it depends on how you relate to a client. Once again, this gets back to the “freelance” thing. If the client looks at you as just someone who comes in and does what you’re telling them to do …
Colleen: An order taker.
Cameron: Yeah, exactly, an order taker, then you don’t have any of the respect that is necessary in order to get bigger clients and more money and so forth. There are a number of different ways to do it, a lot of it is personal obviously, how well you relate to a client, but it also relates to your feeling about business and with your interest in their business.
You have to remember that clients don’t call you because they want to give you business. They call you because they want you to do something that helps them. To the extent that you understand their business, you can help them. If you don’t understand their business and make no effort to understand their business, then you can’t help them.
That’s the mistake that a lot of younger designers, I think—until they get smart and figure this out—they think, “Well I’ll just come in and meet somebody and they’ll tell me what they want and I’ll go away and I’ll do it and bring it back and hopefully they’ll like it.” Partnering is more than that. Partnering means “I understand your business and I want to help your business.”
There are a number of ways to do that, but having that feeling that that’s why you’re there, and you’re not there to take orders is very, very important.
Colleen: Right, like the difference between a short order cook and a chef.
Cameron: Yeah, I think that’s a good way of putting it. Exactly.
Colleen: So I think it’s really important… I think you’re seen as less of a short order cook and more of a chef, the way in which you present your work too. What do you think is vital when a designer is presenting their work and getting constructive criticism from the client?
Cameron: Well I think, first of all, there should be a certain procedure for you. You should not be willy nilly. There are basically, I like to say normally two kinds of clients, if you will, types of work. The first is someone who essentially knows what they want. You’re going in and you want to show them what you’ve done for other people similar to that, and you want to ask them the specifics of what they need and so forth. That’s one way, which is really more of a portfolio presentation.
Another way, which is a bigger job, which is really what I would call more of a process presentation, which is the client is really interested, not so much in what you did before, but the way you are going to work with them, and that is to explain your process to them. First you do this, step number one, then step number two, step number three and so forth.
So it depends to some extent on the size of the client and the type of work that they’re looking to you for.
Colleen: Do you think specializing is a way that you can be seen by the client in a better light?
Cameron: This is one of those things with pros and cons.
Cameron: First of all, it depends on you and what you want to do, so you should not specialize if you don’t want to specialize in a certain industry. In other words, if you’re not really very, very interested in that business or industry, that’s number one. Then number two, you have to look at the market too. Right now, there is a lot of emphasis on specialization, because … this has come about with the growth of digital design and all and particularly social media. There are people who are more specialized now than they were in the past.
Given the fact of what you want to do, I think you ought to sit back and take a look at the pros and cons, and there are a number of them. I don’t want to necessarily go into all of them, but I can talk to you about a few of them. First of all, the arguments for, and people often tell you that if you specialize, you can increase your income, and that’s true.
Someone who is a specialist can make for a given project or whatever, more money, because why wouldn’t you want to hire … If you’ve got a particular need, very specific need, why wouldn’t you want to hire a specialist, and again, if the person is a specialist, if it were me, for example, I’d be willing to pay more for someone who is a specialist than someone who isn’t.
Just as an aside, I have a person who comes by and mows the grass. That person could be called a landscaper, or he could be called a grass cutter. Now I’d pay a lot more for a landscaper than I would for a grass cutter. That’s exactly what you find in nearly all businesses. When you have a specialization, you can charge more money.
Cameron: So that’s one advantage. Another advantage is it limits your competition. There are fewer specialists than there are generalists. Therefore, you have fewer people to compete with, if you will. It also reduces your expenses. It depends on here and what the specialty is, but certainly specialties take a certain amount of equipment and specialization and stuff that you don’t need if you didn’t do that. It broadens your market area in the sense that if you’re a specialist, and once again I have a number of friends and colleagues that have an office in one geographic location and work in another. You can do that as a specialist much easier than you can if you were a generalist.
If, for example, you have a run-of-the-mill design, as a client, you want to deal with someone who’s next door or a phone call … easy phone call or whatever away. You don’t want to deal with someone who’s a long ways away. On the other hand, if you’re a specialist, this particular expertise, clients will call you if you’re 100 miles, 200 miles away. They’ll pay for the expense of you getting there for your specialization, so it does broaden your market area. Then, of course, there’s higher level of opportunities to … specialists do things which generalists don’t generally.
Okay, now in terms of why you should think against it, it increases your … why you wouldn’t want to do this, because it increases your short-term vulnerability. I can give you several examples of this and I won’t necessarily going into all of them, but when you have a certain specialty, you’re tied. It’s like you’ve tied yourself to the moon. If the moon changes, you’re out of luck.
I’ve had, in my own background, I’ve had a personal experience with that. I’ll give you a very short example. Many years ago, I was doing a lot of consulting with financial companies which were involved in tax-beneficial investments. Then I had a friend that we worked together as partners, and he wanted me to go into a business full time and I said, “No, I guess I’d rather not do that,” and it wasn’t like I was thinking ahead with any forethought or anything. It was just that I basically didn’t want to tie myself to one particular type of work. I liked the variety of different types of work, so I backed out of that.
He went on and did it with himself and this other guy. Three years later, Congress killed the tax debit advantages to that kind of business, and the business went away totally. Now that’s an extreme example …
Cameron: But I’ve seen many things like that. I can remember … again, this was a long time ago, and kind of dates me, I suppose, when I had a person that I knew quite well that put a lot of investment into typesetting-type technologies. Of course, that all went away—
Cameron: …with Apple and digital Macintosh and so forth. So anyway, that’s just two examples. But my point is, you have to be very careful that you pick a specialty that is gonna be around for a long time, and that’s very, very hard to identify. So it does increase your vulnerability in the long term and also in the short term, and also increases into long term.
I think maybe finally is to say, once again, it depends on what you are good at. You can want to work in a certain specialty, but you have to look at what your particular skills are and maybe they’re well adapted to that or maybe not well adapted to it.
Colleen: Do you think too that if you do specialize that it’s an easier sell, like you’re more likely to get the job?
Cameron: I think it depends on who you’re competing against. I would say generally, yes, but I think the reality of that is if you have a client that calls you and they say they have a certain type of work and they’re looking for somebody with a lot of experience in that kind of work, and you go in to pitch it, chances are, you’re going to be pitching it against another client who has a similar type of specialty. I don’t think that makes your selling any easier. Now if the client was looking at you as a specialist and everyone else as a generalist, yeah, it would.
Cameron: But I don’t think that’s usually the way it works.
Colleen: If you specialize in a specific type of work, let’s say you specialize in publication design and you have a client that hires you for that type of work, but then later they maybe want a logo design. Should you say “Well, I’m only specializing in publication design.” Even if you could do it, should you? You think that’s something where you should refer them to someone else?
Cameron: No, I would do it. Business is business, unless in some way, it kept you from another client where you could make more money or whatever, but no, I don’t think that should be limiting. In fact, it can work for your advantage, because when you’re a specialist, usually you work closer to a client and get to know you better. Therefore, they’re more trusting of you and probably say “Hey, you could do this pretty well, Colleen, so maybe you could do that too.” So yeah, I wouldn’t turn that down.
Once again, in terms of the specialist, I know a number of firms that are very specialized and work in a particular area and are very successful. It’s really what you want to do and where you are and whether you have the skills to do it.
Colleen: Now, I’ve found too that when you have a process in place, each time that you work with a client on a project, I feel like that really establishes your respect more with the client. I know you have a two-step process that you mentioned inThe Creative Business Guide to Running A Graphic Design Business, and you say:
Clients will be concerned about whether you will be able to give them what they really want. You will be concerned about whether the clients will let you give them what they need.
Then you’ve got … your two-step process involves assignment basics and a creative review. Could you go into that a bit?
Cameron: Yeah, assume you walk into a client[’s office]. They look at you and they don’t know what to expect, maybe they have some idea, but they really don’t know. There’s a certain amount of skepticism that comes with that. You have to remember that you’re dealing with a business person. Nearly everything else they buy, they know in advance pretty much what’s it’s going to be. In other words, if they’re going to go out and buy a new printer for their office, they look at the specifications and judge one against another and so forth, then make a purchase.
When they’re purchasing a creative project, they don’t know. Basically, they have certain parameters, but they don’t know how it’s going to come out. So they look at you and they want to say, “Well is this person gonna do what I want or not what I want?” In addition to that, you’re probably gonna want a down payment or something, so they’ve invested a certain amount of money, and yet they still don’t know whether they’re going to like what they’re going to get.
There is that skepticism on their part, then from your perspective, you’re looking at the client and you’re saying, “Well how easily can I get along with this person? Can I give them what they want? Do they want this or do they want that and so forth?”
So there are two … I don’t want to say “conflicting,” but there are two things which enter into the process that you have to be aware of. I think there is a way around it—not so easy—but, first of all, try to find out what it is that they want. Then in the process of doing that, I think you can reassure them that you can give them what they need. That sort of covering the assignment basics, but depending on the level of work, it involves several interviews and so forth, but probably, you should also involve a creative brief, which is essentially sitting down with them and asking precisely what they want.
Not to talk about it in terms of design terms or artistic terms or whatever, but talk of it mostly in terms of objective. What is their objective and to the extent that they can quantify it even, the better, because what you want to do is to say, “Look, I’m really interested in your business objective here. I’m not interested necessarily in art, I hope art will enhance the business objective, but the real thing we’re getting at here is to meet the objective.”
So you first of all want to define the objective, objectives I should say, and that normally takes a creative brief. That’s the number one and it answers both sides of this. You get what you think you need, they get the reassurance that you’re gonna do it for them, so that’s the first thing.
The second thing is to actually give them the work. The way you do that, your presentation of concept or idea is to provide something which shows that you met all of those objectives.
That is part of the presentation, your personal presentation, but I think in many cases it should also be something which is written down for something of a checklist. Normally, what I would say—and this, by the way, comes from agency experience, which always happens, at least in my experience in large agencies—is before you go and present anything to the client, you go through all of the notes that you’ve got from meetings with the client. You check things off, and essentially say, “Okay, I did this. I did that. So forth and so on,” and it meets all those objectives.
Then, when you go in and talk to the client, show them the concept, show them the idea, you go through this, and it’s part of your presentation, when you say something like, “In that last conversation, you told me that you wanted this. Well, this particular feature of what I’m gonna give you meets that objective.”
So you go through the presentation in that way, and once again, if you have something that shows that you did it back at the office like a checklist, I think that’s helpful too. By the way on that, that makes criticism from the client very difficult. I’ve been in this condition too.
Let’s say you’re a client and you look at this and you say, “You know, I really don’t like that, but I can’t really articulate why I don’t like it.” When you say that to the creative person, you say “Well, I don’t like this.” Then the creative person says, “Well, can you tell me what objective doesn’t it reach?” Then the client says, “Well, I don’t know, I just don’t like it.”
Then that gives you a very reasonable response to say, “Well, you know, there are a lot of different tastes involved in anything, but the objective here was to meet you objective. I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing this for your customers. If it meets their … what they need, your personal like or dislike really is immaterial.”
Cameron: It gives you a response as well. In many cases, you won’t get to that point, but if it does, at least you have a reasonable response.
Colleen: Right, and an objective one, so it’s not like it’s about your personal preferences or theirs.
Cameron: That’s right.
Colleen: I’ve had clients say, “Oh, well, I just don’t like that.” I’m like, “What don’t you like about it?”
“Well, I prefer the color blue.”
Cameron: Right. Exactly.
Colleen: It’s like, “Well, that’s not gonna work for your audience, so too bad.”
Cameron: Yeah, no, and, again, you know, you can’t win all of those and sometimes a client says, “Look. I don’t care about that whatever. I like blue,” or “In my experience, blue works best, so do blue.”
So you do that, but at least you’ve said to the client, “I’m not just someone that does something arbitrarily. I do something for a purpose and with a reason. This was my reason. You may or may not accept it, but this is why.”
Colleen: Right, and I think that also ties in a bit with client expectations too, with the work. There are other client expectations that don’t have to do with work, it has to do more with your process or your availability. I know a lot of people when they’re first starting out, they take any work that comes with them from any client, and I was very guilty of this too, where you put up with clients that treat you poorly for the money.
Cameron: Yeah, sure.
Colleen: …and you might do it for a very long time and get some that may not treat you poorly in an outwardly disrespectful way or an abusive way, but they think they own you, they think that you’re working 24/7 or on weekends and they want to pick your brain, they want to make so many changes … What kind of advice do you have for younger designers that would be going out on their own and dealing with that, or how to prevent that kind of stuff?
Cameron: I’m not really sure of that because it’s so much of a personal aspect. I guess what I would say is, as I think you’ve articulated, that you have to put up with what you have to put up with until you don’t have to anymore. Then you go on to something else, but there are certain number of clients, big clients, small clients, long time, short time, who basically look at you and say, “You’re a vendor and I’m the boss here and I’m going to rule the show.” They’re the kind of people they are, and you can work with them as long as you have to. But at some point, I think the answer to that is that you’ve got to find clients that respect you.
On that, I guess I would say further that you have to push back.
Cameron: Now how much to push back, that’s always the issue, but you have to push back. If you let clients push you around, they lose respect very, very quickly. I think you have to, in many cases, go right up to the end, walking out the door saying, “Look, I’m sorry, but this is the way it should be done. I can’t take this,” or whatever. You’ll find in many cases, when you push back, it works.
Cameron: Again, I’ve had personal examples of this where I can remember once the CEO of a fairly substantial company saying to me, “Okay, Okay, I’ll stop it. I didn’t mean it that way,” when I took offense. There was a certain …
I don’t have an MBA, but I have a good friend that when I was discussing it with him, he said, “You know, there is a certain management theory about that.”
I said, “No. Really?”
He said, “Yeah, that is that you push very hard until someone pushes back, and that’s the way that you test the veracity or the quality or whatever of what they’re telling you.”
That’s your test. You keep pushing them until they push back and then you say, “That person is honest and believes strongly in their point of view and therefore they passed the test.”
Cameron: Yeah. And again, this is not anything in my educational background, but someone who had this told me that this is a fairly common business school–type discussion.
One thing maybe I should say, which goes back to the beginning about how to get in the business and stay in the business and be profitable in the business and so forth. The thing that I’ve found with nearly all people getting into the business is that they assume—maybe this is human nature—they assume because they’ve got the talent that they have and a desire that they have that’s not that business will walk in the door, but that they don’t have to work very hard to get it.
What I would suggest to anyone getting into business is hit the deck running and run very hard and if it turns out that you have more business than you can possibly work on, hire somebody to work with you, or raise your prices until the lower part of the barrel goes away … or something like that.
Cameron: At least assume from the very beginning that you’re gonna have to work very hard to get clients and that you have to have some kind of procedure for doing that, and the procedure is consistent marketing of your services. There is sort of a pipeline theory, if you will, which is it takes a long time for business to come to the end of the pipeline. You have to start early in order to get something later on.
So I think it’s very, very important that people going into the business market themselves all the time and not just when they think business is slowing down, therefore I gotta go out and try to drum up some more business. That’s not the way it works.
Cameron: Finally to that point is don’t rely on upon referrals. Referrals are great. They’re a great way to get business that doesn’t cost you anything and it’s easy to work with someone who refers you from someone else or is referred from someone else. It’s an undependable way to be in business. Every business—and once again, I want to emphasize that design is a business—every business has to have some way to ensure that there’s a steady amount of work and you don’t get that from referrals. Referrals are happenstance. They come and they go, they’re wonderful, but you can’t depend on them.
Colleen: And you don’t want referrals from bad clients to more bad clients.
Cameron: That’s true. Yeah, and further to that point, even referrals from good clients … Personally, getting a referral often says “Well, since Sam at XYZ company referred me.” These people aren’t … they didn’t have to do any marketing, so therefore I don’t have to pay as much for them as I would have to pay for somebody that came in unreferred.” So it works both ways.
Colleen: I’ve also had clients from the past, from many years ago, where they paid a much lower rate for something refer somebody years later, and then they’re expecting to pay that same rate. I’m like, “No, things have changed.”
Cameron: Yes, exactly. Exactly, yep.
Colleen: You have several books and you’ve got your newsletter and all of this can be found at creativebusiness.com and I just have to say, it’s been an absolute honor to have you on the podcast. Like I said, I’ve been a fan for 20 some years and your books and your advice and your newsletter have helped me so many times and still continue to do that, so I can’t thank you enough.
Cameron: Well, it’s been my pleasure and thank you very much for thinking about me.
Maybe one approach to not being seen as a short order cook or an “artist” is to start a conversation about what that businessperson last spent money on for their business. Say, it was a new printer.
Ask them, how did you decide on that printer vs another? Did that printer provide you the value you wanted? If so, ask why: was it because of how it looked, silver or black? Likely the answer will be, no, it’s because it doesn’t use too much ink, or it’s easy to connect to my wifi or so on.
Now that they are thinking along the lines of “meeting my business goals” then you can say, that’s how we’ll evaluate my design. Of course, with better wording than the above!
Great analogy, Chris! Thanks for contributing to the conversation.
A few questions I ask are: why the work needs to be done, why at that particular time, who the audience is, how the company/organization wants to be perceived by their audience, who are their competitors.