Collaborate, design, prototype, test, and ship better products, faster—with InVision
“I think great freelancers are very passionate people, and they have to be driven both by the work that they want to do and the life that they want to live.”
Dann—What does freelancing mean to you? I mean, what do you think when you hear that word, “freelance”?
Mackey—[▶] So, to me, when somebody introduces themself as a freelancer, it can mean a variety of things, and it really depends on my impression of that person. I used to have one side of me that always thought of freelance as kind of an excuse, almost like, “I'm a freelance designer, which means I live in my mom's basement still. I can't quite get it together." But on the other hand, now I've grown to see that a lot of people really choose to be freelancers and are very intentional in being freelancers because they want people to know their situation, they want people to know their availability, their flexibility, their agility as a designer, and it can be a very respectful and very valuable thing. So it goes both ways for me.
Dann—So why did you chose to go freelance in the first place? Why not full-time somewhere?
Mackey—[▶] So I was a freelancer for a very long time. That was how I started. And a lot of people start as freelancers because they can't get a job and they are going to do it while they're searching for another job. I started as a freelancer because I was actively doing other things. I was traveling for skateboarding. I wanted to do the things that I loved outside of just design, and so that was really valuable to me.
The other things for-for, yes, why freelance and not full-time was that I felt that I really needed to develop my creativity personally, not under the reign of an art director. I needed to understand what I was actually good at and what I was actually passionate about without a professor telling me that or without somebody senior telling me that, and I needed to learn the weight of my decisions as a designer. I needed to learn the value of my opinion as a designer, and I needed to understand how to make meaningful solutions that I could back up, and I felt like that would be very challenging if I had a supervisor that was always checking those and was always actually being the one having to stand up for the work that I was creating.
You're forced to grow more as a freelance designer because there's, it's not a team sport at that point. There's nobody else to point the finger at, there's nobody else to take the blame. Maybe it doesn't grow you as much creatively, but it definitely grows who you are as a person, it grows your intentionality, and it grows your morale. It grows your integrity, um, and I think that's something that you don't have as much at an agency or a big studio.
Dann—What does it take to become a freelancer? What important qualities do you need to have you think?
Mackey—[▶] I think every good freelancer, or successful freelancer, needs to have good time management skills. I think anybody would say that. Um, very good metacognitive skills, really being able to evaluate how you're thinking about the, the problems that you're solving, the projects that you have, because you are alone, and so you need to understand how you're thinking and how you're perceiving things.
I think communications skills are a must and the ability to flex how you communicate, because a good freelancer has to work with a variety of clients, and they're all going to communicate in different ways. So you can't expect them to only communicate the way that you like to communicate. Uh, you got to be ready and willing and capable of communicating however they prefer to. And I think really great freelancers have amazing presentation skills, because nothing is cut-and-dry. They have to know how they can allow the client to understand the time, the effort, the intention of their work without ever, or without rarely being in the same room as that client or under that client's supervision. Uh, garnering that trust takes a lot, and really delivering takes a-a great presentation.
Um, I'm sure there's other things. I think, I think great freelancers are very passionate people, and they have to be driven both by the work that they want to do and the life that they want to live. And both of those things have to kind of equally weigh, because if it's only one or the other, I think the other part suffers. If you're being a freelancer because you really wish you were a pro surfer, you're probably going to be a pretty bad freelancer. Or if you're freelancing because you're a pro surfer, but you're not doing well enough to make the money to be a pro surfer, you're probably a pretty bad pro surfer. Uh, you need to have talent. I think talent is-is number one, but communication is very high up there on the-the list of things that you need to be very good at to be a good freelancer, and just a willingness to-to work hard, dedication.
“One of the most frustrating things is to go to work all day and not get anything done. And that's the life of a creative often”
Dann—How would you say you manage your time as a freelancer?
Mackey—[▶] Well, when I started freelancing, I would roll out of bed, walk to the other side of the room, sit at the computer, work until it was time to walk back across the room and roll back into bed. And I was doing that in a basement, so I couldn't tell if it was night or day anyway, so I-I'm not sure. But realistically, when you're freelancing, you're always working. I mean, I'm always working now. You're always thinking of these things, but I was really on call all the time as a freelancer and was always trying to get as much work done as possible, because I was the only one bringing in the money, I was the only one accountable for all these things. And so to make sure that you're always going to be okay, you're like, "Okay, I could squeeze in a little bit more. I could squeeze in a little bit more."
Dann—Serious question, can anyone become a freelancer? Can anyone just jump in?
Mackey—[▶] Can anyone be a freelancer? Definitely not. They can try. A lot of people can be good failing freelance artists or designers or whatever, but it takes a special person to do it for a long time and to do it well. Some people just need structure. Some people thrive under instruction and under structure and under limitations, because they don't know how to set them themselves. And realizing what you do well and what works well for is what enables really good freelancers to be great and what cuts other people out pretty quickly.
Dann—Do you think you can make a lot of money freelancing?
Mackey—[▶] You can make a ton of money freelancing. You can make arguably more money than any other position as a freelancer, if you can manage it well.
Dann—How do you charge your clients? Do you go hourly, weekly, project base, or what?
Mackey—[▶] When I'm freelancing and I'm charging clients, I charge on a flat project basis. That's short and simple.
Project based billing works the best because then both sides are held accountable equally. If I'm charging hourly, I could arguably just take a very long time to come to a good solution to make more money off of that. Adversely, if I take a very long time to come to that solution, the client suffers and it's their fault, uh, because they wanted this paid hourly. So everybody's held accountable. Everybody benefits from it really. They get the-the best quality result from billing it as a flat fee, and I am going to deliver the best work. That does require really clearly establishing the scope in the beginning. The scope cannot change. If the scope changes, the cost needs to change, and that's something that hourly allows to happen. But generally with the type of work I do, it's very set in stone what the scope is.
The scope changes if they ask for more than what was agreed to in the beginning. I mean, it's a, it's a pretty straightforward thing. If somebody, I didn't do a lot of web design. I don't do a lot of web design, but if a client says, "I need two pages," and they ask for a third, they have added more work. In my case, if somebody comes to me for a, you know, their visual identity, they need a singular logo, and then they say, "Oh, but we have another product; we also need this logo to work with that," we've added more work.
Dann—But say someone is set on hourly I and came up with the great idea on a walk, or in the shower. How do you bill for your “thinking?”
Mackey—[▶] So if-if you are set on hourly and you're wondering, well, what happens when I come up with the solution when it's not in the hours that I was working? Can I bill for that? I think that's, you know, I think that's, the point of having a high hourly rate in the first place is because you should be getting enough money out of that day that if the solution comes to you in the "off hours," you still feel like you're properly paid for that. I mean, you-you don't stop working. It's true, you can't. And you also can't just bill for being alive. But (chuckles) you know, you got to figure out a way where you feel like, okay, I-I was properly taken care of for the solutions I'm delivering, whether or not I did them in those billable hours. Something I say to my wife all the time, and that I then express to other friends, is that one of the most frustrating things is to go to work all day and not get anything done. And that's the life of a creative often, but that is all part of that bigger piece.
Dann—Do you use contracts or any type of agreements?
Mackey—[▶] I do write my own contracts, but I have a lawyer create kind of a master contract that-that outlined all of the important pieces. Then I adjust them accordingly based on the project.
So when I was working as a freelancer, I thought it was important to send a contract, but realistically I would never have the money to fight any of these people to get my money, and it wouldn't be worth the difference that's there. Now, working with bigger and bigger clients, the contracts become more and more important.
Dann—Which term do you prefer? Freelancer, contractor, independent, studio of one? Any preference?
Mackey—[▶] In the earlier days of my career, and I really had to think about this a lot when I started speaking, people would say, "Well, what are you? Who are you? What do you do?" I chose independent designer, and I even have a few slides that always explained that at the beginning of my talks, because I talked about the stigmas associated with the different pieces, and I always had a desire to do bigger and bigger work for more and more, you know, important clients. And calling myself an independent designer removed some of those connotations that might be negative with the term "freelancer."
Dann—How do you handle the unknowns of freelancing? It had to be scary, not knowing if you’d have a job next month or next week even.
Mackey—[▶] The unknowns of freelancing to me were less scary than the unknowns of working for somebody else. At least the unknowns of freelancing were only reliant on the client. They weren't relying on also if my boss just didn't like me that week and decided I needed to-to be gone, or if there were other internal issues that I wasn't aware of, things like that. There-there was a lot more possibility in my mind of not getting paid or of losing work by letting somebody else be in control of the work that comes in and goes out. And so, yes, it's scary and there is not a guarantee that work's going to come in or work's going to go out as a freelancer, but to me, that was actually less risky than putting that in somebody else's hands.
Dann—But at least full-time you have job security, right?
Mackey—[▶] Well, job security is-is pretty irrelevant. I mean, the world always changes, and so I guess your-your best hope of job security is just picking the type of career that will always be needed. The most secure jobs are probably the most unwanted jobs too.
Dann—Tell me why someone should not become a freelancer?
Mackey—[▶] Don't become a freelancer because you want health insurance. No, I'm kidding. That didn't, I've never gotten health insurance from a job, so it didn't matter.
Um, don't become a freelancer because you want to make impactful, long-lasting work. I think it's very hard to do as a freelancer.
Uh, don't become a freelancer because you want to actually enjoy your time off, because you won't be able to.
Dann—OK, now tell me why someone should become a freelancer?
Mackey—[▶] Become a freelancer because you are constrained by your current situation. They're not allowing you to be as creative as you should be.
Uh, become a freelancer because you don't feel understood by your current role or your current clients and because you have more to offer than what you're able to do now. It's kind of the same point. I figured I'd say it two different ways.
Um, become a freelancer because the scheduling limitations of the regular world simply don't work for who you are.