From Full-Time to Freelance: The Nine Commandments of Contracting (speech!)

Hi all! Back in December I gave a speech at the IGDA MicroTalks on the subject of transitioning from full-time employment to freelance art. It’s an expanded version of an earlier article of mine. Here’s the video:

Here are the slides of the speech:

From Full-Time to Freelance: The Ten Commandments of Contracting slides

Here’s the text of the speech:

Hi everybody! I’m Jon Jones and I run smArtist, a contract art production agency. I’m a freelance art outsourcing manager, and I deal with art studios and freelance artists on a daily basis. I’m going to go into some detail on what you need to know if you’re transitioning from fulltime employment into a career as a freelance artist. There are a few things you need to know that I’ve learned over the years.

I’m going to be speaking primarily to people that are taking the leap into freelance art fulltime, and not people that moonlight or only want to contract until they find another job. Some of my advice will still apply to people in those situations, sure. But I prefer not working with moonlighters or people that only want to contract temporarily, because the second they enter crunch or get a job, I become the lowest priority, I miss deadlines, and it affects my clients’ projects.

Without further ado, here’s my background: I’ve been dealing with contract art for nearly fifteen years, and have been a full-time professional for over ten. I’ve been a freelance artist and worked at an art studio, worked inhouse at developers as an artist and as a manager, and now I manage art teams as a freelancer. I’ve been on all sides of the contract art game, and that’s where I’m coming from.

A quick but important note I’d like to make: Always keep your resume and portfolio up to date. Pay attention to what’s happening at your studio. If you’re getting close to shipping, get ALL of that up to date, because that’s prime time for layoffs. Do you think the game is going to succeed or suck? Is your team unreasonably large? Is your contract up for renewal? Prepare NOW. Starting a contract or a job will take at least a month and a half on average, and that’s optimistic. Be ready. If you get laid off, you have a resume and portfolio ready and they should already be in the hands of AT LEAST ten companies by the end of the day. Period.


Set up your own dedicated workspace. Do nothing but work there. Fundamentally, just don’t work where you play. You’ll feel like you’re always at work and will begin to really resent it and feel trapped. Trust me, it sucks.
Also, don’t play where you work. Just don’t mix it. You’ll never get any work done when there’s chores around the house to do, a TV show to watch, more Skyrim, pets to play with, or the promise of Hot Local Teens In Your Area That Want To Chat. (not true.) Do that somewhere else, on your own time. Set aside your own sacred workspace and keep that discipline. It’ll keep you sane.
What I did was turn my only bedroom into my office and put my bed in my living room. I’ll admit that it’s extreme, but that’s my personality and this works well for me.


Thou shalt know the day and the hour.

Amateur: “I’ll have it done in two hours!” Delivers it in eight hours.

Professional: “I’ll have it done in eight hours.” Delivers it in six hours.

Manager Insight: If an artist blows his time estimates consistently, it erodes my trust in his ability to deliver at all. I always notice and remember. I don’t want to have to figure out “Amateur Artist Math” and do the conversions in my head: 2h = 8h, 4h = 12h, one day = two days. I am neither nanny nor mathematician. I have deadlines to hit!

I’ve been in a position where I’ve been stuck with an artist that won’t correct his behavior and that I can’t replace, so I actually have to lie about when it’s due just because I know he’ll be late if I give him the real due date. And obviously I can’t tell him I do that, because he’ll be onto me and will find another way to weasel out of it, once again leaving me in the dark on delivery dates. If you make me treat you like a child, no allowance for you. Sometimes that has been the only way to get the artist to deliver it on time, and this puts me in an odd and almost parental position. What does it say about him, his competence and his skills as an artist if he consistently fails to understand how long a task takes? Is that someone you’d work with again?

I understand that sometimes you run into problems. That’s fine. But if you’re going to be late,tell me. Trust me, I know how awkward it can be to approach someone pre-emptively and tell them something unpleasant. But I’d rather know so I can plan for it being late than simply not hear from the artist and get a late delivery. I have a boss, too. I report to my boss, and telling my boss it’ll be done on a certain day and getting it later makes me look like I can’t manage my artists or stick to a schedule. No one wants to feel that way, and that affects you directly, too!

I appreciate honesty and giving advance notice that you will be late. I do not like being surprised by a late delivery with no warning. In fact, that always irritates me. If you make me look like an idiot to my boss because I trusted you, do you think I would ever trust you or want to work with you again? Of course not. I’d cut you loose without a second thought because it is in my direct, immediate interest to replace you. No matter how cool a person you are, this is still business. Be a Professional.


Thou Shalt Heed the Words of the Technical Guidelines Tablet.

Amateur: “Here’s the delivery!” File’s a technical MESS I’ll spend hours fixing. Textures assigned wrong, files named wrong, directories assigned wrong, total chaos. Bonus points for weird or profane filenames. (note: Not actual bonus points.)

Professional: “Here’s the delivery!” Files are properly named, textures are properly assigned, technical guidelines were met and I don’t have to fix anything because he paid attention to my instructions.

Manager’s Insight: I don’t know if the Amateur just didn’t read the doc, or if he simply didn’t understand it. If I explained it badly, I’ll cop to it. But please, try your best and ask questions.
My three options in order from most desirable to least desirable are as follows:

a) Repeat myself. Tell him to reread the doc and hope he suddenly gets it. However, this could be another blown deliverable if he doesn’t. High risk, very little time spent.
b) Explain myself. Write up a detailed changelist and tell him exactly how to fix it. Medium risk, lots of time spent.
c) Do it myself. Low risk, excessive time spent.

Ideally, this will never happen. Practically speaking, it totally will.

Don’t make me do your job. I respect attention to detail and people that think of ways to do their job well, understand my bottom line, and try to save me time. It’s good customer service, good business and the Professional way to act. It’s the mint on the pillow.

Honestly, no one’s perfect. Sometimes I’ll have to rename a file here, tweak some verts there. That happens. If it’s just one or two issues small enough that it would be faster for me to fix them myself rather than telling you, I may just do that. It’s likely that a client may not even mention it. But if there are a lot of issues like this and it happens consistently, that’s more work for me, and it’s going to really irritate me over time. This is Amateur hour nonsense. It makes us both look bad, and will make me rethink working with you again. Your mom doesn’t work here. Clean up your own mess.

Be thorough, check your own work, pay attention to the directions I give you, and be a Professional. A manager may not mention this as being one of the reasons he continues to send you contract work, but trust me, it is a major factor.


Thou shalt heed thy client’s word to the letter.

Amateur: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Misses half of what I asked for and acts like nothing’s wrong. Did he not read it, not understand it or just ignore it?

Professional: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Nails every single point spot-on and (as a bonus!) verifies point-by-point what was fixed.

Manager’s Insight: This comes down to two points: 1) The Professional is showing me he pays attention to what I say, and 2) he’s focused on details and doing a good job.

Plan for this. I need time to review the assets and generate feedback. If my workday ends at 7pm and I get it long after I’ve gone home, that doesn’t do me a lot of good, does it? Especially if I have an imminent deadline.

This all comes down to this timeless adage: Under-promise and over-deliver. The earlier in the day I get a delivery you’ve promised, the happier I am. But if you dramatically overestimate when I’ll get the asset and I get it uselessly late, what good is that to me? I can either stay late at work — guess how much I like that? — or put it off until tomorrow morning.

Remember: You are not the end of the pipeline. You’re an important part of the process, yes. However, other people are lined up after you take your finished product to the next stage of production and finalize it. This takes time, and issues like this pile up and affect a lot of other people down the chain. Do not be the cholesterol in the artery of my project.
It’s easy for an Amateur to slack off, misread something, not double-check, or just let things slide and hope he’s not called on it because he doesn’t want to do the extra work. Maybe he doesn’t get called on it and it’s handled in-house. But just because a client may not bring it up doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed and remembered. It absolutely should be brought up, but they may not have the time or desire to confront you.

Personally, I have no problem with confrontation, and I will be a jerk if I have to because I have a job to do. I don’t like doing that, and you don’t like being on the receiving end. Save us both the time and drama. Strive to be the Professional that makes a client think “Wow, he nailed it!” instead of the Amateur that makes the client think “Well, he completed items A, C and E but forgot B and D. Again. And now I have to either write it up or fix it myself when I have a mountain of other work to do. Splendid!”

One important point, however, that you may not realize: Sometimes — emphasis on sometimes — the sign of a job well done is the quiet, peaceful absence of problems. Everything flows smoothly, is exactly as expected, people are happy and there is no cause for complaint. Doing the job right simply may not bring open acknowledgement or kudos, but doing the job wrong is going to set off alarms that everyone notices. It took me many years to realize that, sometimes, lack of acknowledgement is something to take pride in. It’s not ideal and I try extremely hard to acknowledge and appreciate everything I can, but I have a lot to do and may not always be able to afford the time. Remembering this can keep you sane.


Thou Shalt Honor Thy Customer and Thy Reputation.

Amateur: “I’m just this guy that makes art. What’s customer service? If I make good art, that’s all that matters because that’s all they really want.”

Professional: “I’m a service provider and I take customer service seriously. I am an artist, but my success in that depends on creating art to my client’s exact specifications.”

Manager’s Insight: You are in the customer service business. Be responsive and make the client happy and maintain it.
A lot of artists coming from a studio environment don’t really have to worry about doing much else besides showing up and doing what’s asked of them. It’s usually hard for people to get fired for unsatisfactory performance, so a lot of annoying little habits and behaviors can get glossed over. (note: Everyone notices even if they don’t bring it up.)

It’s a lot like dating. You work out, dress well and try to get in “dating shape” so you can look as attractive as possible for potential mates. [Insert charming romantic comedy “how they met” story here, possibly starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Lopez.] Then when you’re in a relationship, you let a few things slide because you’re safe. Contractors do this. Contractors should not do this.

This is the difference between being a contractor versus being employed full-time at a studio. As a contractor, you are ALWAYS dating. You are ALWAYS selling. You ALWAYS have to keep that standard of careful attention to detail, composure, and will to go the extra mile to make your client happy so you’ll keep working with them long-term. And even clients like flowers from time to time. (note: Please do not actually send clients flowers.)


Thou Shalt Not Mock the Client with Feeble Protestations.

Amateur: “My dog ate my stylus!”

Professional: “I dropped the ball on this, and I will do my best to correct it.”

Manager’s Insight: I don’t want excuses, I want results. If you screwed up, be honest and let me know so I can plan for that. I’ve heard EVERY excuse. I know the difference between a reason and an excuse.

I’ve seen weird technical issues that are magically resolved when I try to step in to help.

Oh, you never got that email you had actually already replied to?

Wow, your wifegirlfriend DEMANDED that you nap through this deadline (true story!)

The list goes on. For my part, when I make a mistake, I own up to it. It sucks, it’s awkward, and I feel bad. But making lame excuses makes me look irresponsible, sloppy, and insults my client’s intelligence.

There is definitely a difference between an excuse and a valid reason. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. But if enough of those stack up, that’s a red flag. It’s easy to think to yourself “These are all perfectly valid reasons! If they’re reasonable, they’ll totally understand and forgive me.” Sure, but the more mistakes there are the less I’ll ultimately trust you, valid or not. If I hear one more “It was an Act of God!” story…

Don’t be a mistake factory. But if you make one, just fix it. I don’t always really need to know the details of why, just that a mistake was made and that you’re on top of it now. Honestly, I just want results and honesty so I can understand the situation, troubleshoot as needed, adjust the schedule and allocate resources to keep production moving.


Thou Shalt Start a Website and Find a Good Domain.

  1. email is professional. If you use webmail, Gmail only. Hotmail, Yahoo, MSN, etc look amateur.
  2. Get a dot com. Second best is dot net.
  3. Avoid weird TLDs (top level domains) if you can. Also avoid subdomains.
  4. Bad example: “”
  5. If you don’t use your real name, be simple. If you say the name aloud, can people find it on the first try?
  6. Bad example: “!!11/”
  7. Avoid internet slang.
  8. Bad example: “”
  9. Avoid bad spelling.
  10. Bad example: “”
  11. If you must hyphenate, use only one.
  12. Bad example: “”
  13. Avoid complicated words.
  14. Bad example: “”
  15. Avoid unintentional words.
  16. Bad example: (yes, this is real, it’s a law firm)
  17. If it takes longer than three seconds to speak aloud or explain, it’s too long.
  18. Bad example: “It’s, but ‘incompetence’ is spelled ‘i-n-c-o-m-p-a to be funny blah blah blah”
  19. Don’t pick something offensive. If it has to do with drugs, sex, poop, communicable diseases or Nickelback, reconsider your life.
  20. Bad example: “”
  21. Short and simple is best.
  22. Good examples: “,” “,” and “”


Thou Shalt Know and Love Thy Web Tools.

(but not the Biblical “know.”)

Manage leads and deals.
Manage time tracking, billing, invoicing, profit and loss.
Shareable online documentation, spreadsheets, etc.

THE EIGHTH COMM—oh, I’m done.

Thanks everybody!

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