Treating your work like a small business
For many creative practitioners working without an agent as well as designers or illustrators producing and distributing their own content, the job title of ‘small business owner’ is much more accurate than ‘creative freelancer’; in addition to being the technician, you’re also in charge of marketing, management, administration, accounting as well as a myriad of other responsibilities that have nothing to do with your rendering skills, or how well you remember the principles of two-point perspective (answer: not well).
Running a business isn’t for everyone, but applying some business strategy to the way you conduct yourself and how you offer your skills and services can be a helpful way to plan your career no matter what industry you work in.
Long-term value: treating projects like investments
There’s a marked difference between the long-term benefits of commissioned vs. self-initiated work; as a creative practitioner, you’re usually being paid for a combination of your time and intellectual property, and striking a balance between these two commodities is crucial to building a sustainable career.
Generally speaking, commissioned work involves less risk, with payments made up-front or regularly throughout the course of a project and upon the delivery of work. Although there are many exceptions and split payment systems – in general, a large part of what you’re being paid for is your time, and you can expect a fixed amount upon completing a project.
Working on independent projects are often a bit more of an investment; you own the rights to your work, as well as the greater (or only) share in any profit. Although there’s more risk involved with projects of this nature and often little to no income in the initial stages, there’s also potential for higher earnings further down the track, as well as the opportunity to work on projects that best suit your skills and interests.
Curating commissioned work
As a one-person business dealing in product design, wholesale, retail, and commissioned work, the only aspect of my work that isn’t scalable is my own time and skills. Anything that requires your unique skill-set (ie. anything that can't be delegated to a hypothetical employee) should be rewarding enough to justify taking up the finite amount of time that you have available to you. Wherever possible, try to curate the projects that you take on, so that they add to and fit in with your overall body of work, and the work that you want to do in the future.
When you’re selective about the projects that you take on, you’re not only looking after your own interests, but that of potential clients (they deserve to have someone working on their project that will give them value for their money, and if it’s not work that interests you and plays to your strengths, you’re probably not the best candidate for the job). The more time you spend on projects that you're proud of, the stronger the foundation you're creating for future work, self-initiated or otherwise.