You’re reading an excerpt from Art For Money, by Michael Ardelean. This small but powerful book helps every creative freelancer know their value and scale their business. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
Be as you wish to seem.Socrates
I once coached a very talented Italian furniture designer. We’ll call her Chianti. Her portfolio is full of work for Zaha Hadid and other beautiful designs for prestigious clients.
If you or I would have glanced at Chianti’s portfolio or met her in person, we would have seen a successful, stylish, talented professional who would undoubtedly command high rates for her work. Large, high-revenue clients look at her work and see it in the same way.
The trouble was, Chianti had a different image of herself. When a client approached her, she assumed they were just looking for the cheapest option, so she became that option. When I encouraged her to aim higher, she said she was afraid to lose the job by being too expensive.
Here’s the thing though: she is expensive.
Her designs and products are expensive, her taste is expensive, her whole vibe is expensive. Her private clients have money, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to afford her dining tables for their homes. Her corporate clients were the same way—looking for quality, ready to pay.
But there was a disconnect.
The client: Accustomed to success, money to spend, approaching the designer, looking to upgrade their office space with a luxurious new interior design. Abundance mentality.
The designer herself: Needing the work, thinking of paying her rent, assuming the client was in the same boat—and she let her self-doubt leak into the conversation. Scarcity mentality.
When I noticed this dynamic, I realized we needed to reset the playing field. We rebuilt Chianti’s proposal, upped her price, and changed the overall tone. The client responded by nonchalantly paying the full asking price, without so much as a discussion.
Chianti was ecstatic. All I did was point out what was obvious to me but obscured for her: what her art was worth.
I had a similar experience with a very high caliber digital design studio. Their portfolio consisted of amazing marketing work for huge name brands, with impressive results.
But when they sat down with me to get my advice on how to grow, their language consisted of things like, “We’re still paying our dues as a studio,” and, “We’re having a hard time getting our normal rate so we’ve been discounting a lot of work recently.”
Bro I just saw your portfolio. It’s 75 pages long and full of impeccable work for household names! You drove here in a Land Rover and you’re wearing a $3,000 leather jacket. Your accessories don’t necessarily equal success, but they signal it. Your prospective clients know that. Do you know that?
Lots of freelancers tend to be self-deprecating because they associate confidence with being a jerk. This is false. You are not Ari Gold, you are a talented creative who delivers great work to clients who love you.
It’s very important to integrate your past successes into your professional identity. If you did a photo shoot for Budweiser, you are now a photographer who has worked with Budweiser. Will every client have a Budweiser-sized budget? No, but they want to work with the photographer who did the Budweiser campaign they’ve seen on all the billboards, and they’ll expect it to cost money.
Please make sure that you give yourself credit for how capable and accomplished you are. In doing so, please also understand that confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are a powerful duo.
When you combine a high level of self-respect with a smile and some manners and a personal touch, the result is the ability to calmly say things that might otherwise feel uncomfortable. You can now stand up for yourself and create boundaries. Some more examples:
(smile) “Just a heads up; it looks like our delivery date is being pushed out three days, because I received the assets three days late. No problem, I’m already on it—and I’ll see if we can make it two days.” (smile)
(smile) “I’d love to work with you but I’ve got a certain capacity and a very full plate, so I’m a bit limited in my ability to discount my work at the moment. But let’s talk about scope; maybe we can make this happen.” (smile)
(smile) “My standard turnaround time is five business days but it looks like you need them tomorrow. I’ve included the rush fee in the proposal.” (smile)
Understand the professional plane on which you seek to exist. Visualize what a successful freelance business looks like, and who a successful freelancer is. Then be that person. Take the actions that a successful freelancer would take, and see what happens.
The correct order is Zig Ziglar’s: “Be, Do, Have.”
It’s not enough to be nice in life. You’ve got to have nerve.Georgia O’Keeffe
Freelance success is as much about how you deal with people as it is any artistic talent you possess.
You’ve built an exceptional business and you want people to know about it. You want to command larger amounts of money, you want to diffuse conflict, you want to calm people, you want them to trust you. Not all clients (or potential clients) are going to be easy to talk to. But you can win them over anyway, with thoughtfulness, as well as your voice and your body language.
Entire books have been written about voice and body language, and I’m no expert. But I know a hack: have fun.
Self-awareness creates awkwardness. The more fun you’re having, the less self aware you are, and the more favorably you come across.
I used to be afraid of dealing with new people. I only dealt with people who made it easy for me to deal with them. People who dressed like I did, liked the cars I liked, or made the first conversational move.
Later, I learned that relating to un-relatable people is a fun skill to master. I started to challenge myself to make friends with the most unlikely person in the room. When I was a dirtbag BMX rider I made friends with a doctor, and then a Senior VP at a fashion brand. When I was a hip fashion dude I made friends with real estate developers and food and wine experts. Later, entrepreneurs and CEOs. I focused on people outside of my comfort zone and demographic.
I started to notice a pattern of great consulting work coming my way approximately six months after I made a new friend.
Networking is important, but that’s not why you should do it. Do it because it’s fun.
One reason many creative people despise networking is because they place a strong delineation between friends and clients. They view friends as the people they want to spend time with, while clients are a necessary evil, existing far away from your sphere; strange aliens with money that you want to extract without getting too close.
I know a graphic designer who hangs out exclusively with people who make art, wear all black and look exactly like him. It’s a wonderful group of creative people with big hearts, a strong sense of loyalty to each other, and very low incomes. By existing in such an isolated space, they have no idea how to relate to their clients (except for when their clients are hip dive bars in need of new signage). That communication gap leads to some pretty frustrating—or in the best case, unsatisfying—projects. Add up the hours of each day that people like this spend working for clients that they can’t relate to, complaining about them while at the same time needing more of them—that’s a big chunk of life that is unenjoyable.
I nominate you to not be that way.
This is the mindset adjustment that needs to happen: view making friends and getting clients as virtually the same thing.
As a successful small business, your first customers are usually your friends, and that’s not awkward unless you make it so. When you care enough to deliver excellence to your friends, your friends tell other people and pretty soon your client list extends far beyond that circle. This is a much better approach than waiting for a client who has never heard of you to notice your work.
For quieter people like me, matters of taste are a great way to create new relationships. Compliment someone’s shoes, call out something specific about their photography on Instagram, ask about their obscure vintage handbag. A question that only a person of a particular taste would know how to ask.
A personal example: I’m obsessed with cars. I used to spend my free time researching them, shopping for them, driving them, talking about them—never imagining that the large group of acquaintances that I was inadvertently amassing would grow to become a big portion of my social group. It just happened.
Some of us organized an annual vintage car rally together. Soon 40 people were in attendance. They became friends too. Then some of those friends became business partners, some became clients, some became trusted contacts who referred me to clients without me asking them to.
Think about this in your specific context. Maybe you’re a UX designer. If you were to build a group of 40–80 new acquaintances with the same hobby as you, there’s a good chance that a large percentage of them (or their friends) will need a UX designer in their life. And when that need arises, they’re not going to do a LinkedIn search—they’re going to call the person they know and like (that’s you).
Once you have developed the muscle for amassing friends with shared hobbies, you can then easily and confidently approach (or be approached by) other professionals who have the ability to hire you, whether they share your hobby or not.
In summary, friends are people who enjoy you, believe in you, and trust you. Substitute the word “clients” for “friends” and that sentence is still just as true. So don’t be afraid to mix it up. Here’s a quick set of guidelines to get you started:
Pay money for a seminar or networking events
Reach out to people of similar tastes and values
Make a mental list of the top three things you do that your friends love about you
Do those things for more people
I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.William Blake
The purpose of this book has been to nudge you into a transition from talented creative to successful freelancer. Your confidence and finesse now match the level of your creative skills. You are cash flow positive and you’re not afraid of the future.
This is a nice place to be. Where you go next is completely up to you. The “be your own boss” spectrum is a big one: it ranges from one person cranking out goods and services to, well, Jeff Bezos I guess. Choosing where you’d like to sit on that spectrum (and changing your mind as often as you’d like) is a right that you’ve granted yourself.
Back in 2018, Jeff Staple interviewed the designer and musician Hiroshi Fujiwara about his life and career. In that interview Hiroshi revealed some fascinating stuff. One example: Hiroshi is actually unaware of his net worth. He wants to create, collaborate, and collect the design objects he’s passionate about, and that’s it. If he’s, say, attending an auction and ready to place a $175K bid on a rare timepiece, he calls his business manager and asks if he can afford it. He gets a yes or no answer and proceeds accordingly.
Hiroshi has earned the ability to not concern himself with money. He can expand his company, fragment design, into a giant agency. Or not. In the introduction to the Fujiwara interview, Staple writes, “How many people does it take to run a successful company? Well, according to fragment design founder Hiroshi Fujiwara, the answer is just three. But a dizzying network of friends and connections to myriad industries help, too.”
Three takeaways here:
The purpose of upping your freelance game is to assert more control over your own life. With money in the bank you can sleep deeply at night and spend your time how you want, with whom you want.
If Hiroshi can operate a studio as productive and influential as fragment design with only two employees, what might be possible for you?
However large or small you decide to make your team, I recommend that you espouse the “we” mentality.
Even if your employee count is zero, your “team” is generally comprised of four groups:
Group 1: The bookkeeper, CPA, and lawyer that we know you will inevitably need.
Group 2: Designers. Websites, presentations, and brand identities all need professional attention and unless that professional is you, then you need these people at your fingertips.
Group 3: Assistants. You might need a virtual assistant in India. You might need an IRL assistant, three hours per week. You might need a team of runners crisscrossing town making pickups and deliveries. I used to use TaskRabbit until I came across a couple of dependable people that I’m happy to just text when I need them.
These first three groups of people can be contracted on an as-needed basis to keep your payroll and fixed costs at an absolute minimum. The fourth group is free.
Some of them might be mentors; some might just be peers whose opinions you trust because lives they’ve built are reflections of good decision making. The single best move you can make as a professional freelancer is to improve the quality of your inner circle—don’t be afraid to punch above your weight class. If you follow the steps outlined in Network Like Hell, these types of people will start appearing in your life.
If you want to be effective without being exhausted and miserable, you need good people around you. Like Hiroshi demonstrates, it’s possible to have heavy hitters at your disposal without being responsible for an excess of employees. Many wise people have said “outsource everything but your genius.” Your genius is your art.
Success is not to be pursued; it is to be attracted by the person you become.Jim Rohn
I suspect that I haven’t told you anything new in these chapters. If you’re anything like the former me, you were intuitively aware that a certain amount of professionalism, process knowledge, and awareness of human nature are vital to making money as a freelancer.
For me, the surprise was not that these things were necessary; it was that they can be learned. They’re not inherent skills that one must be born with. I certainly wasn’t.
Now that you know this, what are you capable of?
Art has its own rules. And one of them is that you must pay more attention to it than anything else in the world, if you don’t, and you are an artist, it punishes you.Nina Simone
The Psychology of Money, by Morgan Housel
Illuminate, by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez