Making Money With Video Production: Freelancers
Part 1: For Aspiring Freelancers
I’ve gotten more than a few DMs to the tune of, “Hey pretty videos are nice, but how do you make money with this?”
These are the two types who are interested in learning about making video content that I can advise on:
You’re a freelancer or aspiring to be one.
Have some kind of business you’re looking to market and want to do content production in-house for creative control or cost reasons.
I can’t comment about working a day job as a video editor because I’ve never done it and enjoy my unemployed pirate person lifestyle.
But I have a lot of experience working as a team of one with small businesses that need help marketing themselves or larger companies producing brand content and live stream events, so those are some areas I can talk about.
Huge topics with a lot of ground to cover and some nuance you will have to provide yourself, but you’ll learn lots as you go.
The main thing you want to avoid is going on Reddit, seeing morons complain they can’t find video work that pays more than $15/h or cheapo business owners complaining that they can’t find anyone reliable despite offering a most honorable and generous reward in the sum of fifteen whole, red white and blue American dollars per hour, then think thats how it all works.
It is not.
This email will cover Freelance life and the following will be more focused on Business owners. If you work with freelancers a lot this might still be useful as well.
Quit working for The Man, man.
So. Fuck your boss, right? Ready to strike it out on your own? I was not when I got into this stuff, but I went to college for an arts degree that has about as much economic value as majoring in SpongeBob Studies.
Shockingly, I had a hard time finding a job post graduation.
So, one broke summer a friend and I used to hang out, drink the kind of vodka that comes in a shatter-proof bottle and brainstorm ways to make money that aren’t illegal, don’t require credentials, but aren’t obvious to our boomer college advisors who are just collecting a check every week.
Wasn’t pretty to start (lots of hilarious jobs stories) but at the end of the day we are both still in the game and our friends are jealous we don’t have a boss and can go for a swim or golf at 11AM on a Tuesday while they’re stuck in 6 hours of Zoom calls about nothing.
The greater point is you have to roll like there’s no turning around. It’s much easier said than done. Be stubborn. Getting past the common problems (we’ll discuss those pretty extensively) requires a certain do or die kind of attitude.
You will have difficult clients, you will have slow months, and you will not have anyone to blame or fix problems for you, especially in the beginning. You’ll be on your own a lot. These challenges tend to be very good at sending people back to their old day job.
As two broke, inexperienced arts graduates there was no day job to go back to and we didn’t have the kind of parents that would let us live at home until we figured it out.
NOTE: You don’t have to do it all completely solo. Over time, you will meet other people in the industry and happy clients will refer you. These contacts are very valuable. Chances are good that your first really legit client will come to you this way. You’ll be slogging it out and get a call from a contact who has a big job they are too busy to take or the yoga studio you did a $500 YouTube video for years ago dropped your name to their friend who works for a hedge fund and needs helps with a project.
Main problems you’ll face because everybody complains about it at some point:
How to find and attract clients
Figuring out your value in the marketplace
Managing your time. Especially if you’re FT work from home.
New skill acquisition. Big ticket client has some weirdo request? New tech dropped? Guess who gets to figure it out. By Tuesday.
Real deal burnout. Not like, “I’m le tired today”. Concerning, you-can’t-function-normally and make a cup of coffee burnout.
None of these problems are new or unique to you. These are all things you can solve for in a number of different ways. I’m going to go through them all one by one. If I missed anything, let me know in the comments and I can discuss.
But for now let’s say you declare yourself a part time freelancer, starting immediately.
First problems: you have no work and no niche. Everything else I listed comes after that.
Picking a Niche
Saying you do “Video Production” is like saying you code. It encompasses a lot of things and you’re not going to do them all. Editing, motion graphics, 3D work, technical direction, projection, lighting, live audio, studio audio, teleprompting, production assistant, there are many things that need to be done and often require specialized skills.
You’re most likely going to have to learn a bit about everything and try things as you go, but start thinking about a niche sooner than later because this is how you will be competitive and keep good margins.
That said, even if your eventual goal is to do motion graphics from your basement, working in some capacity on a set or livestream will benefit you because you’ll meet people in the business and see how a lot comes together.
Just don’t lose sight of the bigger goal to niche down. Always have that cooking in the back of your head.
Here’s an example of why:
If you want to make money as a drone operator, your competition is nerds who race, crash, and rebuild drones for fun. They work with software guys to develop new stabilization algorithms on weekends. You’re not going to beat people this intense unless you become one. The work that actually pays their bills is pretty boring and not nearly as intense, but they will out compete you for it.
So just try a little of everything until something sticks and you become some hyper specialized nerd? Maybe.
A better way is look for the obvious thing already in front of you or the industry where you have some knowledge or connections. Start there. Go with whatever is in front of you already as long as there is money in it.
For example, I’ve worked a lot with a guy who’s entire 6 figure business is filming dance recitals for small dance schools. He got into it because his daughter’s dance school needed someone.
He did the math. You don’t need particularly crazy cameras, there’s a good margin, and once you’re in with a local mom & pop dance studio, they’ll call you a few times a year for their recitals. He lives in a low cost of living state, so he probably could have kept him + a few assistant people and done reasonably well.
He started filming shows himself and eventually scaled it up to a real business (not just freelancing) by building a list of reliable camera operators he could send out instead so he could focus on the editing & delivery side. Ended up turning into a full blown business that he could maybe even sell to a larger production company.
If you have no idea where to start, think about the kind of environment you’d do best in and where you live (or want to).
Want to live in a major hub like LA/NYC? Are you an introvert that can sit and make cartoons for 12 hours a day?
Is there a niche where there’s a clear fit or opportunity for you, like weddings, corporate events, etc?
Are you just using this to finance some other business you really want or do you want to use freelancing to kickstart a full blown service business like my dance recital friend?
Maybe you can even use the job you have now as a way to pivot in. Another dude I work with a lot got into filming and editing corporate events from his old IT job at a F500 company. He started doing the work while at his old job because nobody else wanted to deal with it.
After meeting some of the other crew he had to hire for events, he started getting calls to fly out to other cities and do the same thing and eventually quit to go do that full time. Now in a hybrid situation where he works as a freelancer for other production companies as well as coordinates shoots independently through his own company.
What I would avoid at all costs: the sexy stuff. Don’t decide you’re going to shoot music videos, work in Hollywood or the legacy entertainment industry in general. If you’re an artistic person, pursue success for yourself so you can make whatever you want without having to answer to anyone other than yourself.
If someone shows you the money, of course take it, but this is not the Substack to read if you want to be the next Stanley Kubrick.
A lot more bullshit flies on this side of things because it’s fueled by a legion of people who are “chasing their passion” and there are a lot of layers of bureaucracy, procedure, and political/seniority nonsense I can’t stand.
A much better approach would be to figure out how to bring the Hollywood to some other place that doesn’t typically have access to it. People love the ego massage of how they look on camera with great lighting, a beautiful lens, and expert editing.
A business example is the guys doing “cinematic” wedding videos. They make the wedding look like a movie and charge a luxury price for it, usually in the neighborhood of $10K and up per client. It’s high stress, seasonal, lots of messy people issues.
Getting Clients and Connections
This is always the first question people ask like it’s a big mystery.
But this is one of those things where people like to play dumb with themselves because they can see the general direction the answer is in and they don’t like it:
You have a part time sales and marketing job now.
There’s an entire sales wing to the BowTied Jungle which I did not have, but you do! SalesGuy, Systems, and Cocoon are all great follows on Twitter. Take advantage of that. Its not the same as selling a SaaS product, but the principles transfer.
Mission #1 at this stage should be getting together a portfolio that’s representative of what you can deliver. Even having 1 or 2 really well done final products is a huge difference vs nothing. If it’s for an actual client, great, but honestly just having examples that show you can make good things is your biggest lever. You can certainly get work from projects you made for fun or learning purposes, I’d just avoid stuff that’s a straight up tutorial where you were spoonfed everything. But something you synthesized that’s original? Totally fair game.
Like any other business, you need to do some outreach and cultivate inbound leads.
If starting from zero, the easiest place to market yourself is people you already know. No reason not to share your portfolio and put it out there you’re doing this now.
Next up is websites/social media like Craigslist (lots of jokers here but occassionally meet someone REALLY legit on CL) , LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Anything where you can search for keywords like “need video”. No reason not to spend some time here each morning digging for leads. There are paid resources like ProductionHub.com too, but I didn’t find these so useful until I was further along and had more portfolio built up.
Cold call/email. You can look up both production companies that may need your services as well as prospective clients you can pitch to.
Job boards. Places like Indeed, LinkedIn, etc. There will be a mix of listings for actual W2 jobs, but you can increasingly find listing for some YouTuber looking to hire a freelance editor or something similar.
BowTiedOpossum has a lot of great content around this. I’d start by getting a portfolio website up with work examples, contact info, and start doing Local SEO every week. I’d focus locally at first because it will be easier to rank and assuming you don’t live completely in the middle of nowhere, there’s going to some sort of work for you to do where you live.
You’ll need a site anyway for when your leads from Outreach ask to see your work. Don’t overcomplicate it. Just get a clean Wordpress template and call it a day.
Like any other business, there’s no reason you can’t be sending out HARO responses and writing blog articles to get some inbound leads. This will take more time than the Outbound sources, but as you get traction you’ll build some security for yourself.
If you’re too busy to take work, referring people to a competent colleague will help you build reputation and people will send you work next time they’re in the same position.
Figuring out your value in the marketplace
What do you charge? A good baseline for what the bottom is can be obtained by browsing marketplaces like Fiverr or Upwork. Plenty of people offering the world for $20/h.
I’ve never done work through any of these kind of marketplaces and generally don’t advise you charge by the hour unless you want to get lowballed. Clients also prefer flat rates in my experience.
The best approach for everybody is to estimate the time and effort you think a project will take and then make an offer based on that. I would recommend you track you time internally so you start to develop a sense of what your time is worth and always be looking for ways to push that number up.
When I was starting at zero as a young buck and had no idea what I was doing, I’d go work on sets as a production assistant for $200.
At one point I thought making $600-800 a day to film events was big money and at the time it was a big jump up.
Now, not so much. Considering the actual day, commute, and stress of the event, I only take that stuff if work is slow or it’s something I’m excited about. Thankfully more of the latter than the former these days.
The margin working from home is higher and it’s more chill. Vastly prefer to work in my own studio, hit the gym, then cook my own food at home.
To be fully transparent, my freelance WFH income is not 100% video hustle. I do some part time web dev work, ghost write music if you throw money at me, and have video projects. The animation stuff I’m doing in The Jungle isn’t included in my IRL services yet. If things slow down, building some normie portfolio is on my to do list then we will see where that goes.
I’d like to consolidate a bit to be honest. This is a bit of a schizo situation that isn’t sustainable forever but at the end of the day I’m just asking myself what kinds of things can I do and what has a demand that people will pay for?
When it comes to your value in the marketplace you need to always be self-evaluating if you’re charging correctly and if you want to make more money, but looking for opportunities to help people solve problems. That’s really it.
Also, don’t work for broke people! Don’t do content for your friend who raps and is totally going to blow up soon or some wantrepreneur egomaniac who thinks he is Gary V.
If you are forced to do some free work to get started and build portfolio, be very very sure that the work will be useable to help you net paid projects as soon as possible.
Managing your time
If you’re coming from a 9-5 where you’re used to taking orders, this will take an adjustment, especially if you work from home.
If you have a family, having a dedicated workspace outside your house is probably going to be a necessity at some point. Really hard to focus when the wife, kids, pets etc are causing a ruckus.
You can’t get lazy. Again, track your time. You don’t get paid for just hanging out in the office anymore, you need to produce. Working a genuinely productive 8-10 hours, not including breaks and eating, is not at all the same as going to a day job where most people realistically put in 3-4 hours of productive work.
Do not listen to lifestyle gooroos who tell you when you’re supposed to be productive and how you’re supposed to do this by waking up at 6 minutes before 9 o’clock to sun your balls for 420 seconds before you mediate and journal about how productive you will be today.
Work when your clients need shit and when you function best. That it. If you want to become completely noctural and live like a vampire, you are free to do so.
New skill acquisition
Even once you’re rolling as a freelancer, have clients, getting referral work, and it’s all moving, you need to always be learning something. The world moves fast and you need to have an edge over people.
Early on when I worked cheapo jobs, I ran into a lot of older people who were riding on the struggle bus because they were still trying to chug along doing the same things that worked in 1998. The “ain’t how it used to be” crowd is really dark.
Your best defense against that fits in nicely with building a business anyway is to always be setting aside some time to explore new things. Its stressful, but it’s always great when a client has a specific request and you need to figure out some new thing to pull it off. You don’t want to constantly be in this situation, but this kind of sprint periodically is healthy and will keep you competitive.
The Jungle has been really a blessing in this capacity. I’m doing zero animation work in my day to day life, but I’ve been able to develop this simply because some cartoons were OK with letting me take a swing at it and so far things are going well.
The cube from the opening of this animation is a good example. I have a paid article in the queue to break down how this is done because drawing 3D primitives in AE is much more tedious than it should be.
Main point here is you should always have a couple of things on your study list that you just don’t have the time to get to. When things slow down and work isn’t as intense, you go tinker and experiment to learn the new thing.
Personally I’ve got 3-4 things on this list at all times. There are some JS topics I want to go deeper on, a browser-based animation framewoork that looks interesting, the AI sprinkler that seems to relentlessly push out 10 new things a week to check out.
Working around real burnout requires you to know your limits and be very good at managing your time.
I forget which Jungle animal said this, but I like it.
Something to the effect of, “If you’re not working hard because you’re worried about burnout, go get burned out first then figure it out”
This is good advice. Only exception is if your work involves risk of injury or something.
But for white collar computer work you should experiment to establish your limits.
Go full psycho for a few months and see if you can push through whatever your maximum is. What is a truly heavy workload that’s unsustainable and only works in short bursts? For health reasons, don’t do this with the help of anything stronger than coffee.
Yes, of course drugs work but this is obviously unsustainable. The point of knowing your limits is to keep yourself healthy over the long haul. You’ll know when you’re just being lazy and need to crack the whip vs when you’re at your true limits and legitimately need a break.
The only way to figure out where you redline is to drive the car fast then fix it when it breaks.
When you’re truly at your limit one of two things generally happens:
You’re so tired you do dumb things like try to open your office with your bank card instead of your keys. You will crack an egg straight into the garbage disposal and drop the shell into the pan. Things like that. You’re a walking zombie.
You work like a maniac to hit a deadline on a big project. Ah, finally some time to relax. Nope. You wake up sick the next day with the flu and you’re wrecked for a week. I don’t know why, but the body has a way of knowing how to hold it together just long enough to get over a deadline before the rebound effect kicks in.
Going forward, it’s a lot easier to know when you’re working a healthy, but sustainable pace vs. a maniac sprint pace that might only be sustainable for a week or two before it goes over that edge.
In freelancing, you’re usually hustling to get enough work at first and saying yes to all kinds of random things just to build some momentum. Hiring help might not be in the cards yet and you’re hesitant to raise rates. What if you scare away all your clients?
When you’re truly burnt or approaching it, this forces you to make a change.
If your phone is ringing off the hook, raising rates helps improve your margins and cut out cheaper clients who are usually more of a handful to deal with anyway.
The meme about the $500 client responding with a zillion revision notes and the $5,000 client replying “transfer sent, thanks” really is true. Main difference is the $5K guy requires a higher level of trust before they hire you.
Comments? Already Self-Employed?
This started as what I thought would be a shorter post with some tips and quickly turned into a borderline schizo rant.
All good, this is a topic I have some strong feelings about because in real life people tend to ask for my advice on this stuff, then not listen and go do whatever they wanted anyway. Hopefully this helps someone see behind the curtain enough to get after it and drum up a new income stream for themselves.
Let me know any questions or sticking points you have and I can address those individually in the comments.
Would also be great to hear from some of the other self-employed folks on my email list because I’m sure they’re going to have some different takes on things I’ve mentioned here. Nobody is an expert in everything.
Business Owners, You’re Up Next
The second part of this is going to be focused on people with a business that need to make content for marketing or operational purposes and have no interest in doing this on a freelance basis for work. Short form social, YouTube Channel, Ads, brand content, SOP videos, etc.
If this is is you, please don’t be shy about letting me know in the comments any topics you want covered.
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