This is the transcript for the podcast episode Troubleshooting Your Freelance Illustration Career :: ArtCast #71. To listen to the podcast click here.
Chris: Chris Oatley’s Artcast episode 71 – Troubleshooting Your Freelance Illustration Career, an interview with Sean Hodge, editor for FreelanceSwitch.com and TutsPlus.com, Part 1.
Hello my friends, and welcome to another episode of Chris Oatley’s Artcast, the show that goes inside the hearts and minds of successful professional artists. I’m Chris Oatley! I was a visual development artist at Disney until I quit and started my own online art school – The Oatley Academy of Concept Art & Illustration. You can find more art instruction, resources, and career advice from some of the most inspiring voices in animation, games, comics, and new media at Chris Oatley.com. That’s ChrisOatley.com.
Conducting creative business on the internet is a relentless test of endurance. The fight for attention in this crowded noisy market is exhausting and often discouraging. Should you Tweet or Tumble? Send an email newsletter or old school post cards? Do you even care? Most artists I know would rather spend their scarce time and energy perfecting their craft, not just ticulating for gigs. In this interview, freelance expert Sean Hodge, editor for FreelanceSwitch.com and Tuts Plus Business shares some practical perspective to simply your self promotion and evolve your freelance illustration career.
So tell us about Sean Hodge the man?
Sean: Oh wow.
Chris: Who is he?
Sean: Well I’m 37, I’ve got two kids and one in the oven. So yeah, kind of hitting that mid life stride where you’re worried about mortgage, paying the bills, all that kind of stuff. I’m definitely a Gen X kind of guy. I listen to Nirvana, big time slacker for a long time, I mean I switched my major probably a hundred times in college. Started out thinking maybe I’d be a high school teacher, then I wanted to be a professor. I thought I’d just stay at school forever and then I switched to history, then literature, then I got into creative writing, and then I got into graphic design. And then I realized I had to kind of like go and actually live life, get out of school. So I took the history degree and a year’s worth of masters classes…
Chris: And that was at what school?
Sean: It was Central Connecticut State University. So I didn’t blow too much money like meandering for ten years off and on there. And I did a lot of traveling during that time, did a year in England, everything’s pass/fail so I just had a lot of fun there, a lot of life experience. Then I started to get a little more serious you know and really, really got into design, really went down that creative hole, didn’t really understand anything about business so I didn’t do anything commercially with it. I just kind of treated graphic design as kind of like this art thing that I was doing. Now my wife, she’s from Venezuela so I was into the international club there and that’s how I met her from traveling the semester abroad, got involved with that community. Once I got back, we got married, we lived a little bit in Connecticut, I actually moved to Venezuela for a couple of years. I didn’t speak Spanish and I kind of got…went down another hole, the internet was kind of reaching another phase where it was more realistic for people to work from home, this is 2007. And Skype was just getting popular, Twitter was just getting popular, and being on Twitter and that kind of thing, it was just…I don’t know, it just felt like a really small tight community and me being there and being kind of isolated, it was like a big deal to be reaching out to people and sharing design resources. And I started doing a lot of stuff through 99 Designs, that was before it was even called 99 Designs, it was just SitePoint Marketplace, not exactly the path I would recommend. If you could develop your skills and you’re business savvy while in school or whatever path you take, you don’t necessarily have to go to school, but if you can skip that phase you can reach a higher level client. The path I usually recommend is more blogging focus but that’s my background, so I’m a bit biased on that. But it’s a great way for designers to just build their reputation. But for me, I had no idea what I was doing and I basically just got rid of everything that I owned, we had a child, my wife’s from there so we lived with her family for a year and we got our own place. And I just sort of tried to make things happen man, even though I was doing it through Site Point, I still got those handful of clients who liked my work and was able to commission stuff outside of contest framework where you end up losing a lot of time for hoping to win something.
Chris: It’s important to mention 99 Designs is a place where designers go and there’s a client with a job and then anybody who wants to try and come up with basically a pitch for that job, a visual pitch, submits the art and then the client picks the one they like the best and then they go with that one. Am I basically right?
Sean: Yeah, and it can basically get ridiculous. I mean if you win, the money is a reasonable range for the actual product but you’re competing against thirty to a hundred other people. If you’re at a point that you’re able to compete in the marketplace, then I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way. But anyway for me, my talent wasn’t quite there. I actually stagnated, I had a few years off between school and work where I sold Yellow Page advertising, I did customer service, all kinds of just crap jobs man. Just the stuff you would not like wish on people, you know. It wasn’t like digging ditches but…
Chris: Emotional ditches.
Sean: Just it was well outside, it’s what happens to someone that doesn’t put the correct effort in school, you know. It’s someone that like meanders and doesn’t have a clear path and just keeps changing their mind about things. I mean a sure path to be a generalist rather than what I’m sure you recommend, which is getting really savvy in one area. It’s good to have general skills but having something that you shine in is awesome. I didn’t really have that coming out of school, I just sort of got interested in one thing, I’d learn it, I’d dive into it a bit but I wouldn’t take it to that pro level before I’d move on to the next thing. So yeah, but anyway in Venezuela my options were limited, I didn’t really speak Spanish, I mean there was a point years before I’d been there and I ran a language institute but even that I was making burger-flipping money to be (inaudible) so there just wasn’t opportunity there but on the web there was so I did that and then got really into blogging because I have an equal writing background and an equal interest in that to design. So I started writing for PSD Tuts and teaching people to do basics of Photoshop and then I came on and helped edit and the site went from like 10,000 page views a month to getting like a million page views a month and now it gets like 2 million page views a month and it’s just a huge community, and the people there are so actively involved. I eventually started to watch vector tuts because I really like doing logos, that kind of thing. So I wanted to build a site that was kind of equal to what we were doing with PSD tuts but kind of it’s cousin or brother or sister site, something like that. Not quite as big of a community, but for the people that are involved, it’s about half the size with traffic and the amount of people that come and that kind of stuff. I mean we launched that in like 2008 or 2009 and it was just as successful, and as a network it just kept growing. The company that owns all this is in Nevada so they have things like theme market places, theme forest is the big one. I was only briefly involved with that kind of stuff but that’s huge funding for the company and it’s a startup that’s at least doubling in size every year like as far as income coming in and people that we’re hiring. There’s a bunch of people that aren’t officially employees that would be tapped for all kinds of different jobs and then the Nature to Marketplace is also such that supporting people to sell their stuff and we take a percentage. Okay so that person’s not an employee but that person is making you know…there’s some people that were grossing a million in sales and Theme Forest has the rates for authors on there. And then there’s people that they’ve made that their full time occupation, just building things like WordPress themes, a theme for any system. So after that, two years ago was when I became the editor for Freelance Switch.
Chris: So Freelance Switch already existed then?
Sean: Yeah, Freelance Switch has been around since that same time when I…I want to say 2007, it’s around the same time that I started. So for me, that was one of those main sites that I would go to back then and that taught me. It helped me go from like minuscule freelancer to mediocre freelancer. Then I got employed by (inaudible), I probably could have gotten a little better than that, you know? But it helped me figure out how to actually approach people in a professional manner, and how to structure your business. It sounds cliché to be…like the arty types don’t have a clue about business because there are some that do, I know some people that are extremely savvy and have always been very systematic. Art is also a system, it’s building your systems to get things done, it’s building your systems so that you know how to sketch out the human body or something. You could have to have some system behind that, so I think as you mature, it’s natural that if you start to pay attention to business, you’ll start to approach that systematically as well. So yeah, that’s basically what Freelance Switch is, I mean whether you’re a designer, writer, or whatever, business is something you’re not necessarily taught in school. It’s something you more than likely just have to pick up once you’re out there in the field. You’ve got to learn how to file taxes, you’ve got to learn how to structure your productivity, how you actually take a new client and sell them on something that is value based rather than competing on the cheapest one out there or something like that. How can you improve your strategy, that kind of thing, it’s a lot of what we call (inaudible) Freelance Switch.