How to Thrive as a Freelancer or an Employee

A production team on set filming a big project. Some are freelancers and others are employees. All are thriving regardless.
Photo credit: thirdandwonder / Nappy.co

by Tamarra Thomas

There are so many pros and cons to consider when it comes to deciding whether you want to be a freelancer or a full-time employee. Things like job security, flexibility, pay, benefits and who you’ll be collaborating with (if anyone) all need to be considered when deciding which route to take. 

Having worked as both a freelancer and a full-time employee filmmaker, I’m now experienced enough to know to base my decision on what projects I enjoy working on, finances, and what personal goals I want to achieve throughout the year. Here are my tips for how to thrive, whether you’re freelancing or employed full-time:
 

Create a plan and set goals


As a freelancer, I sometimes have no idea where my next paycheck is coming from or when. I find writing out a work schedule is helpful, as having a plan and goals helps me build confidence so I don't feel overwhelmed. 

I like to book myself heavily in the spring and summertime. This plan is set in place so that I can designate my work year in two quarters, and in the other quarters, I get to take time off. 

When there’s a gap in your schedule, use the time to network and educate yourself—it betters your business in the long run. This is a valuable time to review your resume or portfolio to make sure they’re up to date. Look on Staff Me Up and other staffing platforms, and apply for jobs or make phone calls to past crew members to see what’s coming down the pipeline. 

Knowing my plan and setting goals prevents me from burnout and stops me feeling like I need to apply for every job that passes by. I also know that I love to create, and taking time to relax or work on a passion project with friends helps me feel less lonely as a freelancer.


Be comfortable talking about money


Knowing your financial needs helps you negotiate better when presented with a job. As a freelancer, you need to know what the production will cover and what you’ll need to pay for, so making sure you’re charging enough for travel, gear, car maintenance or health insurance is important. 

Taxes also need to be taken out of each paycheck. Having a plan for that, and another plan for savings will help you to grow your business and stay in the green at the end of the year. 

A good tip is to create a financial plan each month. I find that having a plan in place gives me the confidence to ask for more money if the given rate is too low, and the freedom to turn down a project if it doesn’t match my goals and financial needs.


Don’t be afraid to negotiate your contract


When I decided to go full-time, I knew I was going to work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. When I was applying for a studio job, I made sure to research the studio to see if I would like the work that they do (the one I selected focused on creative narrative and agency work). By putting in the time to learn this, I was able to use similar jobs I had previously worked on my resume to my advantage and get hired. 

During the interview stage, I think it’s important to ask for a few things, including: 
  • pay rate
  • benefits
  • working environment

When working as a freelancer, you have more control over those needs. When working as an employee, however, some businesses don’t have to agree with your terms and conditions. 

Take time to review a contract of employment and make sure you feel comfortable with every detail. This is your chance to negotiate on the things that are important to you. For example, I was able to negotiate time off, maternity leave and salary with my employer. If I didn’t ask for these things, I may have lost out on the important details that would have made my time at work harder for me. 


Getting started as a studio employee


When I started working as a studio employee, I went in with just a backpack full of paper, pens, my lunch and a good-luck charm. The first few days were spent learning my responsibilities and meeting the rest of the staff. Unlike freelancing, I had co-workers who I had to check in on regularly and share an office space with. 

Learning how to manage my workflow and who to report to took about a month. I also had to keep in mind that I needed to show up on time and clock in and out for work regularly. As a producer, I had lots of meetings with the team and made sure my tasks were completed on a deadline. 

One security you have when you’re working in a studio is knowing you’ll be paid on a schedule each month. Because the responsibility to keep the business running is not fully mine to keep (unlike when you’re freelancing), I find I can focus on the creative, and building client relationships. This protection as an employee is great. 


Maintain your boundaries


While job security is great, working 9 to 5 is not always as peachy as the Dolly Parton song. A full day of meetings, coupled with running a set in the evening that runs long can sometimes be tough—especially when it means you have to miss important events with family and friends. 

You may have to adjust your schedule to wake up early to beat the morning traffic, just to be at the studio on time. Figuring out how to make doctor’s appointments around your schedule as a full-timer can be tricky, as opposed to when you’re freelancing and can just take a full day off. I’ve even been known to take Zoom calls in my car just to keep my schedule afloat!

It’s important to know what your limits are, and how to hold the line if things get too much.
Maintaining boundaries can be hard, but it’s good practice to know when you need to push back if you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed. No one does their best work when they’re stressed.


What is best for you?


There is no perfect workplace. Every company and independent contract has pros and cons. If you know you will have a hard time managing yourself, having the structure of a 9 to 5 may be best. If you are a free spirit and love jumping from project to project and having time off to do what you want, freelancing may be best. Start by figuring out what your career goals are and what financial needs you have. 

The best thing to remember is to give yourself grace and time to figure it out. Rough days will happen, and trusting the process is key. Whatever you choose, stay creative!
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Tamarra Thomas has both worked on the production side as a full time employee and as a freelancer. She does incredible work.
Photo courtesy of Tamarra Thomas.
Tamarra is an Impact Producer from Sparta Michigan. Her love of film began when she was in high school leading in both theater and student news. Since then Tamarra has worked on award winning features and documentaries. Her love for narrative work and community goes hand in hand. Her goal is to create impactful films that influence and expands the creative mindset.
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