Creative Freelancer Conference Recap

Last week I attended the second annual Creative Freelancer Conference in San Diego. The goal of the conference is to help creative freelancers (i.e. illustrators, designers, writers, photographers, etc.) to improve their business skills, get better clients, and increase their income.

We artsy types aren’t exactly known for our business saavy. One thing you definitely won’t learn in art school is how to market yourself. Or write a proposal. Or network, talk to clients about money, etc. This conference fills a huge need. Each time I’ve attended I’ve walked away inspired and ready to take my career to the next level.

It was also great just to spend a few days with other people who get what it is that I do for a living. Who have the same experiences, the same problems, and we can talk shop without the other person’s eyes glazing over. Freelancing can be lonely at times so I really relish any chance I get to hobnob with my fellow freelancers.

The conference was held in the Omni Hotel, which is located directly across the street from the San Diego Convention Center (where Comic-Con happens every year). I finally got to see what the Gas Light District looks like when the streets and shops aren’t being overrun with thousands of pop culture fans. It was actually quite cozy.


The conference kicked off with Ilise Benun ( sharing some networking tips to help us make the most of each conversation as we slapped business cards into each other’s hands. She also encouraged us to try forming “tribes”—groups of other freelancers with whom we can share ideas, advice, and encouragement throughout the year.

Next freelance writer Petrula Vrontikis gave an inspiring presentation called “What Will Your Freelance Business Be When It Grows Up?”. She talked about the pros and cons of freelancing, shared some common mistakes freelancers make, and commented on some recent trends in the industry that freelancers can take advantage of. For example, in a normal job employees are often discouraged from speaking their minds or rocking the boat. Freelancers, however, are often encouraged to do the opposite. The are sometimes hired precisely to bring and outside voice and a fresh perspective.

Petrula gave a terrific presentation. My favorite quote was an analogy from hockey: “The most successful freelancers study the trends in their industry and then skate where the puck is going.”

The session closed with a sneak peak at an upcoming documentary on freelancers called “Shine”. You can read more about the film here.


The evening wrapped up with a poolside dinner on the hotel roof. Everyone got a chance to put their networking skills into practice while enjoying some terrific food and drink.


The morning kicked off with a 6:00am “netwalking” event. A few hearty souls went for an hour-long walk, taking in the sights and talking shop. I wasn’t able to lug myself out of bed quite that early but I did make it to the breakfast roundtables. Various topics were discussed over coffee and yogurt including “How To Generate PR For Your Creative Business” and “Self-Confidence or a Thriving Business: Which Comes First?” There were also tables set up by discipline (writers, illustrators, etc.) where people of like minds and skills could gather.

Financial Consultant June Walker kicked off the morning with a session on tax advice for freelancers. She made a very boring topic seem interesting, detailing some of the ways freelancers can save money at tax time and pointing out some common mistakes freelancers make that can cost them big bucks.

Next up Peleg Top, my favorite speaker from last year’s conference, talked about how to write a proposal that will help you land a new client or a big job. Peleg ran an award-winning design firm for many years and he shared a lot of lessons he learned the hard way when it comes to closing the deal. His advice was basically, “Always meet the client face to face, learn how to sell your skills and abilities, and learn how to talk to clients about money [Peleg gave a few pointers on each]. Don’t waste time writing a proposal until you’ve already closed the deal with a handshake.” His presentation was meaty and his advice was inspiring.

Darryl Salerno then gave one of my favorite presentations. He talked about, well, how to give a presentation. He went beyond just the basic do’s and don’ts of public speaking and talked about using stories and humor to help hold your audience’s attention and really sell your ideas. He also described the four main types of people who will be in your audience—the thinker (someone who looks at everything logically), the feeler (someone who is all about relationships and human connection), the intuitor (visionaries), and the sensor (task-oriented perfectionists who get things done but leave bodies in their wake). Then he gave tips on how to include elements in your presentation that will persuade all four personality types. Fascinating stuff!


For lunch I was one of a lucky few who was managed to land a spot at a special table with my favorite presenter from the conference, Peleg Top (pictured, at the head of the table). There were ten of us who made the list and we bombarded him with all sorts of questions which he graciously answered. One great piece of advice he had for freelancers: “You are not selling a service, you are selling the benefits that your services offer. Kodak doesn’t sell film, they sell memories. Learn to think that way when talking to potential clients. If you can show them how you can solve their biggest problems they will love you forever and pay you every penny of what you are worth.”

(Thanks to Ivette Cortes for the photo. In case you’re wondering, I’m the guy on the far right.)

After lunch Michelle Goodman gave some advice on dealing with nightmare clients. She listed several types of clients that freelancers dread and talked about ways to deal with each. But her best advice was this: If you are regularly dealing with nightmare clients the problem isn’t really with them, its with you. If you learn to set firm boundaries and rock the boat when you need to, most of your problem clients will either straighten up or disappear.

Next up, Colleen Wainwright shared some strategies and tips on making social media work for you. If there was any issue that raised controversy during the conference this was it. Some of the presenters and attendees had nothing but glowing things to say about the ways Twitter and Facebook have helped them grow their business. Others maintained that social media is one of the most inefficient and time-consuming ways to land clients, convinced that you are better off spending your time and marketing dollars elsewhere. I thought Colleen stuck a nice balance with the issue. She maintained that social networking can and does work IF you use it correctly. Unfortunately too many are going about it the wrong way and not seeing any fruit as a result.

Personally I think sites like Twitter and Facebook are powerful tools, but not really for drumming up business. They can be a great way to connect with other artists and fight off the loneliness and isolation that comes with freelancing. But they can also be huge time wasters, and I have yet to land a client as a result of any social networking. Social networking has some value but if your goal is to land new clients there are much better and more efficient ways to go about it.

By the end of the evening my brain was full and I was experiencing the same happy exhaustion a kid gets after spending the day at a theme park. I flopped into my hotel room and vegged in front of the TV for a few minutes just to decompress. Then I tackled a pile of emails and wrote an estimate for a rush project that materialized earlier in the day. No rest for the weary.


Friday morning I overslept and missed the “netwalking” and the breakfast roundtables. I arrived just in time for a Freelancing Panel. Three freelancers, each at different points in their careers, answered questions from a moderator and the audience. All sorts of topics were covered including cold calling, pricing, getting referrals, subcontracting, and finding a work/life balance.

Todd Henry of Accidental Creative (I hear he has a killer podcast) spoke next about the creative process but I decided to skip his presentation so that I could have a nice, leisurely chat with my wife and kids over the phone. I’m sure Todd’s talk was a good one but I needed to shift out of business mode for a bit. Besides, I’ll be ordering the .mp3’s from the conference later this fall and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it then.

As the main conference drew to a close we were each given a blank greeting card and an envelope. We were told to write our names and addresses on the envelope and then use the card to write a note to ourselves summarizing some of the action steps we plan to take after the conference. Six months from now the conference organizers will mail out the cards as a way to hold us accountable and to encourage us to keep at it. Here’s what I wrote on mine:

photo 3_2

At this point the main conference ended. Those of us who paid a little extra were allowed to stick around for two hands-on workshops:

First, Ilise Benun gave a terrific seminar on marketing and self-promotion. She walked us through the nuts and bolts of finding a target market and establishing yourself in a profitable niche. Then we each spent some time developing a solid, practical marketing plan. It gave me a lot to think about. I realized that even though I’m already doing a lot of things right I could be doing a lot more. My marketing efforts aren’t nearly as focused as they should be.


Next, Peleg Top and Lee Silber closed out the conference with a fun and informative seminar on pricing called “The Price Is Right”. Lee actually put on Drew Carrey glasses and brought some volunteers on stage just like the game show. (Sorry for the blurry photo, my iPhone doesn’t take the best pictures in low light). Various real-life freelance projects were displayed on the screen and contestants took turns guessing how much the client actually paid for each project.

For one of the projects (an annual report for a non-profit) Peleg walked around the room with a microphone asking audience members to shout out what they would charge to do the project. I heard people yell out numbers ranging from $2,000 to $18,000! It was a fun and eye-opening way to start a discussion about the good and bad methods freelancers sometimes use to price their services.

Overall the conference was terrific, even better than last year. My head is still spinning from everything I learned. I can’t wait for next year.

If you weren’t able to attend, have no fear. The sessions were recorded and in a few weeks the audio will be available for purchase. Keep an eye on my blog and I’ll post the link when it’s available.

If you can’t wait that long, on Monday I’ll be posting links to some free and not-so-free resources that came out of the conference.

Hope to see you there next year!