Ten Years of Lessons

Joe Clay | Sep 17, 2020

Yellow Dog Party is now ten years old. In all of that time of doing business, I’ve learned a lot. I learned some of these things early in my career, and some of them I’ve only recently put into practice. They all would’ve helped me immensely and so I’m sharing them with you so that you can have a leg up.

A lot of similar articles are filled with platitudes like “don’t sell yourself short!” Instead, I’m going to focus on actionable advice that you can put into practice now. This is a long article—about 13 minutes to read—but there should be something in here that will help you on your journey.

Form a company as soon as possible

Generally, you lose a lot more money to taxes as an independent contractor than as a company of one person. Get an accountant and talk to them about what’s best for you. Even if you’re a freelancer, your clients should be paying your company, not you. There’s a lot of advantages and protections that come from being a company.

Figure out if you’re really a freelancer

To me, there’s a very specific person who’s a freelancer. They are contractors working in other studios temporarily. They don’t provide a product, rather they fulfill a role on a team—even if they’re leading it like a freelance director.

But if you want to work direct-to-client or provide a complete product to other businesses, you should present yourself as a company. At the outset in 2010, Yellow Dog Party was just a name I went by. I was a freelancer. Though I mostly worked at home on solo projects, sometimes I’d work in a studio as part of a team.

In 2013, I formed an LLC. I didn’t work out of studios anymore. I stopped doing that entirely as a matter of purpose. Yellow Dog Party is a business. And we always present ourselves that way. Over time, this set up a relationship where I am on equal footing with my clients. We are both doing business together. They’re not paying me, they are hiring my company to provide a product. I found that change even helped in most of the existing relationships I had.

When you have an office you maintain, and a crew of people you work with, your clients will likely understand how that goes into your pricing because that’s how they should be doing it too. And since they understand profit, they shouldn’t be surprised when your business wants to make a profit too. As a freelancer, these things should also apply, but—at least in my experience—I found it more difficult to get clients to see me that way.

So, for the rest of this article where I say business or business owner, understand that the advice applies to freelancers too.

Communication is key

This headline is a platitude. Here’s the actionable bit. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. If you need time to do something, be upfront about it. If you’re not working tomorrow, say it. Remember, you are a business and you’re in control of your schedule. But keep in mind your clients need to plan too. They need to know when their video will be done, or they need to know when they can tell their client to expect something.

Often, I tell people I’ll be done with something at EOD. In the past, I’d get done early and send it. Some quick clients would turn around an email with a ton of changes when I was intending to end my day or switch to another project, and then I’d end up working longer, often past the actual end of the day. And no one on the other side is sitting there waiting for those changes I’d send in after hours.

Now, I send things off like this even if it’s 3 pm:

Hey! Here’s the rough of the spot. Take a look and I can make changes tomorrow afternoon.

Thanks and have a great evening!

Boom. Easy. Now they can plan, and I have blocked out time in my schedule. They know I’m done for the day, and that I have something to do in the morning. They also know they have time to solicit feedback and aren’t going to rapid-fire the first crazy idea that comes into their heads.

It’s also helpful to protect your time. Time is your most precious commodity. Certain clients tend to think that they’re your entire focus, and that’s rarely the case. You’re a business. You have more than one customer. This gets that across.

Provide a timeline

One thing I’ve picked up from Andrew Embury is the importance of timelines—beyond simple scheduling. Instagantt is awesome. In the past, I’d tell clients how long something takes, and we agree to a rough timeline. And, inevitably, they break a deadline and then a project is a week delayed. Or maybe I’ve forgotten some aspect or missed something when I was pressed for a date. Now, I put together a Gantt chart that shows an overview of the steps of the process—including time for their reviews. It shows what goes into a project and holds everyone accountable to the schedule.

Sure, I can animate something for you by next Friday. But if you’re going to want to see boards, style frames, and take two days to review, that can’t happen. Putting that into a chart shows why. I don’t need to waste time explaining that stuff anymore.

Don’t sell yourself short

See, I make a few good pieces of actionable advice and it’s platitudes from here on out. Just kidding.

When you’re starting out, you’re going to sell yourself short. You don’t know how the market is unless you talk to other business owners. It’s hard to price yourself and you’ll always have lowball budgets coming through the doors.

But I know what you’re thinking because I’ve been there. What if I need that lowball budget to survive? Thankfully, this was something I learned early on. A client’s budget may be set, but the project itself isn’t. They might want a two-minute animation for $3,000. They want characters too. How do you deal with that?

Well, I can tell you this. You don’t sit there designing, rigging, and animating characters for a two-minute animation for $3,000. Instead, level with them and offer an alternative.

Hi,

I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that much character animation for $3,000. Two minutes is a long time. I can do a nice, tight :30 piece for $3,000. I think we can put something together that is really focused and can grab an audience’s attention and make them want more, instead of boring them. I can help you take a look at the script and condense it. Does that work for you?

Thanks!

Alternatively, you can try to see why they want characters. Maybe you can provide an alternative using something like Mixamo. Or maybe you’re looking for a reel piece so you’re willing to take the hit in exchange for more creative control.

Hi,

I’m going to be honest with you. Characters are expensive, and 2:00 is a long time. It would normally be $15,000 minimum. But I think your product is compelling. So we’d be willing to take this on if we can get some creative control. We can help you take care of the script, and we can take a look at references together and collaborate on what this will look like. But once we get started building and animating, we are going to have to stick with what’s built because we don’t have the budget to revise. That said, we really want to make a good piece for you because when we make something that’s great for you, we’re making something that we can be proud to show too. And obviously, if there are any glaring errors we’ll fix those. Let me know if this works for you and we can plan the next steps.

Thanks!

If the budget is lopsided, even it out in other ways.

Ask why

Often you’ll get changes from clients that seem to make no sense. “We want this to be purple,” they might ask. And that makes no sense because their entire color palette that they demanded that you stick to doesn’t contain anything even close to purple.

So ask why. I know you’re thinking, “of course I ask why!” For the longest time, I thought that. But there’s a slight tweak, see if you can spot it.

Hey, I know you said this should be purple, but we’ve stuck to the color palette and that would be a little odd here. Is there a reason it needs to be purple? What are you trying to accomplish by changing it?

I didn’t just ask why they wanted to use purple. I asked why is it helpful to change it to purple. What does that accomplish? I wish I had known this tactic a lot longer ago.

When you ask the question like this, instead of just challenging their idea, they’ll usually explain the actual reason they want to make the change. It’s usually something like, “well this concept is important to our process and we want to make sure it stands out.” In the end, it rarely needs to be purple. That’s just the color that some person who’s never even seen the palette blurted out in a meeting.

Now you can offer an alternative that fits the piece, makes it better, and easier to understand.

There is always a cost when you say yes

When you’re more established, people will still come to you with projects that don’t make sense for the budget or just simply don’t make sense at all. You might think you need to take it because no one’s called in a week and you’re afraid that maybe the phone will stop ringing.

Don’t take a project solely because you need it. There is always a cost to saying yes—the opportunity cost—and once you’ve committed, that’s it. At least in my case, every time I’ve said yes when I shouldn’t have, something better came along. And while I usually still had the bandwidth, I would’ve often been much happier being able to focus more on the more fun, higher-paying project than working overtime to slog through a project that I’m not interested in. In the end, everything suffers.

Build and maintain relationships

I'm lacking in this one. But I am trying to run Workbench, Element Supply, and Yellow Dog Party, while also having two young children, so I’ll give myself a slight break here.

Build your relationships. I have a few clients who aren’t even clients anymore. They’re just friends. And it’s pretty awesome when that happens because then you’re working with friends and having fun. Lines of communication are more open and easier. You won’t run into bullshit like phantom deadlines. They can warn you about problem areas ahead of time. They know how you work and you know how they work.

For this sort of relationship to grow, you have to genuinely care and have a real interest in the people you’re working with. I am NOT saying to fake this for your advantage. It will happen organically if you’re a decent human being. But there are advantages to this that you probably won’t think about at the beginning. When you become friends with people at a company and they leave, they won’t forget you. So growing your network means you have a bunch of good clients out there who will kick work back your way. It’s awesome.

Share

When you finish new and exciting work, share it with your contacts—even just the more casual contacts you have. And I don't mean on social media only, I mean in an actual email. Write a personal email to each person and update them on what's going on. This plays into the previous point, and it's also just a nice thing to do instead of spamming everyone you know with some canned email about your reel.

Often people have vague projects in their heads and they’ve forgotten you perfectly fit the bill. You know how you always forget about the restaurant around the corner that has excellent tacos because 90% of the time you drive the other way? Well, clients aren't always looking the right way either.

It's also an opportunity to move your work in a new direction or show a client another tool in your arsenal. You have no idea how many times I’ve shown a client who only ever requests 2D animation a 3D piece and they go, “wait you do 3D!? Oh! I have this project and I needed someone to do some 3D animation for it but I thought you guys only did 2D.”

This also helps if you are—like us—still rocking a reel from 2014 on your website (new reel coming soon-sh!). And look how personable you can be when you write directly to someone you know and have established a relationship with.

Hey George!

How have you been, brother? It's been a while. How was the move? Did business pick up for you? Everyone healthy? We thought 2020 was going to screw us, but we had about a week off before things picked up more than last year.

It's been nuts, but we just got to branch out a little bit on a cool project. Check this out, but keep it on the DL for now! We'll eventually get it up on our site when we get a moment, but figured you might like to see it.

Hopefully soon we can find something to work together on. Miss you dude. Have a good weekend!

This works because I would genuinely want this person to see the work we've been producing. It's not solely to solicit work but to share with a peer. If you don't know the person as well and you just want to get in front of them, try this:

Hey Jim!

It's been a bit. How are you? After we did that last 2D project, we got a completely different 3D gig, and I want to share it with you in case you have a need for something different. Check it out! Don't share it around just yet though, we haven't had a chance to put it up on our site just yet.

Thanks man. Have a good afternoon!

You can still update people who you know less about and be honest with what you're doing. You're selling yourself, but you're also making that person feel special. You're peeling back the curtain for them because you think it's worth building a relationship. Plus it also shows them that you want to work together again.

Sharing like this is way better than hoping people are constantly checking your website for updates.

Be real

While it’s always great to be cordial in your communications—start emails with a proper greeting and ask people how they’re doing—make sure that you are clear in stating your goals and what you’re after. In the previous point, the first email is to a peer that I'm wanting to share my work with because I'm proud of it. If I sent that email to the second guy, it wouldn't work. It's too friendly for an acquaintance. But I can totally send him the second email, where I am clear in why I'm sending the work. I want them to know our capabilities.

For the rest of your communications, don’t be an asshole but don’t take shit from people. Be nice on the personal stuff, and be all business on the business stuff. Make sure to stand your ground. No one respects a pushover. That said, obviously don’t be difficult to deal with on purpose. It’s a fine line. Learn where it is.

No project is quick

Often, people will come to you with a quick project. “It’ll only take you a few days!” No project is quick.

You meet to discuss the project, you look dev, you set up a preview for the client, maybe you board it out, you wait for feedback, you make changes, you wait for approval. All of that can take at least a week. Note that I didn’t even talk about the three days you spent animating. Keep all of that in mind when you plan your projects. This is yet another reason to provide a timeline.

No deadline is real

Unless you have to get something out to be trafficked for a buy, or you’re making something for a conference or other event, your deadline is a suggestion. Clients always want things as soon as possible. Be upfront about what is realistic. Again, timelines help here.

Be careful about busting ass to hit a deadline that you haven’t inquired about. Some clients will ask you to hit some crazy deadline because they want things early so they can noodle it, or so they can look better to their clients. I can tell you this, you will be murderous if you work late nights to deliver to a deadline and you find out that no one looked at your work until the next week.

Instead, try this:

Hi,

How firm is this deadline? This is going to require me and my team to work late nights to hit it. It’s certainly doable, but I want to make sure we’re going to get feedback immediately so we can get it done. In the past, I’ve had people insist on a deadline, so my team compromised on family time only to find out that our client didn’t even look at the work for another week. I want to make sure there’s absolutely no leeway here before I make that ask of them.

This approach also has the added benefit to show that you care about the people you work with. No matter what you do, this situation will probably still happen to you at some point. Fire those clients. If they don’t respect your time, they will never respect you.

Meetings cost money

Never forget to charge for meetings when you’re making budgets. Meetings are a huge time sink, and a lot of them are unnecessary. Avoid them if at all possible, and if you do require a meeting, have someone keep everything on task. Write a list of topics to cover, provide that beforehand if you can, and get it done and get out. It’s also a good idea to send out an email summarizing the notes so that when you forget about what was said a week later you can refer back to something concrete. If you’re using Zoom, record the call and provide that to all parties as a back up to the notes.

And don’t forget that you’re probably less efficient before and after meetings, so plan accordingly with that time as well.

Good luck

Those are the biggest things I’ve learned in the last ten years. I hope that they can help you as much as they’ve helped me.

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