Want to make more money out of video? In this article from Sam Mestman, he details his ideas, solutions and hard-earned experience that will help you win more business from more clients and be happier doing it.
Sam here… believe it or not, I don’t think the biggest problem facing video professionals has anything to do with their technical skills. I think the biggest problem actually facing them is their lack of business training and client management skills.
I know it was mine starting out. I put all of my time into figuring out how to do the thing, and it used to drive me absolutely crazy that I couldn’t make more money from my skill set. I would be finishing 4k RED projects that would be screening on national television on my own by myself without a post house… and somehow I wasn’t making anywhere near the amount I thought I should have been making.
The main reason, of course, was that while I had all of the technical skills, I really had no clue how to build or run a business.
However, now that I’ve been through 4 of them after years of being a freelancer doing every kind of video thing imaginable, I’ve learned a couple things over the years, and I’m writing this article to hopefully save you years of pain and frustration as you go about starting or building your business as a freelancer or facility owner.
Before we begin, though, here are some book recommendations that have all, in some way, changed my business and/or life for the better. In each of these cases I wish I had read them years before I found them. I hope they help you as much as they helped me:
To Be or Not to Be Intimidated by Robert Ringer (make sure you get the newer edition not the old one)- Creative people tend to be really trusting and also bad at billing and negotiation. Even though this book happens to be about real estate… it’s completely applicable to everything a video pro goes through.
This is a sobering and hilarious book that teaches you how to navigate shark infested waters and still survive. Most people don’t want to believe the world is this way… but it is, and it’s better to just know and know how to prepare for it.
Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss - Another negotiation book, this time written by an actual FBI hostage negotiator. I wish I had read this in college. I’d be retired by now. Probably the single most useful book a creative professional can read.
Honestly, I feel like there are kidnappers who have more ethics than some of the producers and clients I’ve dealt with over the years… this will teach you how to deal with them, not get taken advantage of, and still manage to be a good person.
The E Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber - This one is about learning to delegate. Once you start running your own business, you suddenly realize that you can’t do everything and that you need other people to help you.
Giving up control is a very hard thing for people… but being a control freak does not scale, so you’ve got to learn how to make the members on your team feel like they can pick up your ball and run with it. Here’s a way to learn how to approach that and have it actually get you closer to the things you want in your life.
All of Seth Godin’s books, but especially Linchpin: Are you Indispensable, Tribes, and This is Marketing. These books, along with the one below changed how I looked at my career and how I marketed myself. It’s why I started writing for fcp.co way back when and how I was able to market the Jellyfish initially.
Most great editors I know work away tirelessly at their craft and never realize there’s a way to set things up so that you can build your own audience who wants to be a part of what you’re doing or make clients come to you.
Think Outside The Box Office by Jon Reiss - This changed the way I looked at my career and independent filmmaking. It’s a big reason I started We Make Movies. A bit dated now, but you can see the Youtubers and Instagram influencers making the most of this in spades.
This book basically predicted how they’re building their careers, albeit in a more digital way, and is all about how to build your audience and make the most of it.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries - Bottom line… this teaches you to build your product (or business/career) incrementally and to not put all of your eggs in one basket, but to quickly allow your customers to tell you what is/is not working and then iterate quickly to adapt the product once something starts clicking.
It’s about learning how to find your way inexpensively.
Good to Great by Jim Collins - The title kind of explains where this is going. A great read.
The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell - For general life reasons, you should probably read everything Malcolm Gladwell has written… but for those building businesses, the concepts of Mavens and Connectors are key to understand.
The Joy of Leadership by Angus Ridgway - How to leverage positive psychology to build a great team. I really wish I had read this one earlier in my career.
Happier by Tal Ben Shahar - I REALLY wish I had read this one earlier in my life. Not a business book so much as something that teaches you to, well, be happier. It’s great.
Ok, now with the book recommendations out of the way, here are some very specific ways to look at building your video business that can help you weather the storm, become sustainable, and have better relationships both with your team and your clients. Here we go:
Rule #1 - Your rate is only what other people are willing to pay you, so don’t turn down jobs if no one else is lining up to pay you.
Especially at the beginning, you need to constantly be working and building your reputation.
A lot of people set a rate in stone for themselves that they won’t work for less than, and I think this is a bad idea, especially initially.
The truth is that in the beginning you should be saying yes to everything that comes your way to build your network, your client base, resume, and skill set.
The fastest way to a higher rate is when there are more people that need you than you actually have time for. The fastest way to do this is to do a lot of favors for people initially, get some satisfied customers and return business, and gradually increase your rate job after job and client after client.
The absolutely worst thing you can do is wait by the phone with your skills stagnating as you turn down jobs because you feel like you’re worth more than what they’ll pay you. You’re only actually worth more if there’s someone else who’s willing to pay you that. Entitlement is crippling to your career.
Rule #2 - Never say no to a client for a job
Instead, if you can’t take a job or don’t want to work with the client, help them find someone else who can do the job for them. As you get bigger and better at what you do, you’re going to outgrow certain clients for a variety of reasons.
When this happens, don’t sever the relationship because you never know where that client is going to end up down the road and when you’ll be working with them again. They’re like old friends if you do it right. The best thing you can do for them when you’re too busy to work at the rate they have is to keep a rolodex of up and coming people that you can recommend who need to level up by working with your client.
When you do this, a couple things will happen. One, your existing client will be relieved and appreciative that you solved their problem for them, and will possibly even grow to appreciate you more because they’ll miss how great you were for them (and they’ll continue to say nice things about you to everyone they talk to which passively builds your network).
Two, not only will you be hugely appreciated by the person you’re referring that client over to, but you’ll be amazed to find that person sending clients your way also when they’re booked or get handed a bigger job they’re not yet ready for. This can be a huge thing when you’re in a dry spell and a referral from a friend pops out of nowhere to save your month.
Rule #3 - Increasing your efficiency and sharpening your skill set allows you to make low paying jobs profitable
This was the single biggest reason I switched over to FCPX originally. It was faster. I realized that the faster that I was, the more jobs I was able to take because I could turn the job out in less time.
If I could turn a job around twice as fast, and I was working on a flat rate for the gig, then my hourly rate had just doubled.
As my skills and workflow improved over time, jobs that didn’t make sense for me rate-wise began to make sense and I found that I could stagger the work across days and have multiple jobs going at once and still have happy customers.
Rule #4 - Gradually learn to sub contract and bring others along with you
You’ll gradually start to find as you get in demand that you’re starting to get overwhelmed with busy periods where you have multiple jobs you want to take… but they overlap and you have to kill yourself to keep everyone happy. That’s when you bring on someone who is up and coming to come in and work with you.
Do it sparingly at first, give them a fixed rate for the job and let them know that if it goes well, you’ll keep bringing them back when you can. Know that they’re going to slow you down at first and won’t be a mind reader or do things your way. You’re going to have to answer a lot of questions and probably fix a lot of things in the beginning for them, and they won’t be used to working at your pace (the more inexperienced they are, the slower they’ll be initially).
But if you find someone who is excited to learn and willing to work hard for you, you’ve struck gold, and you should gradually find ways to bring them in more often and throw them more work. Before you know it, you’ll realize you’ve started to build your team. Then, when the two fo you start to get too busy together during certain periods… it’ll be time to add a third person. BTW, keep an eye out for likely collaborators as you get more and more busy so that you know who to call when the need arises.
Rule #5 - Don’t be a specialist
If you learn how to properly turn out a whole video, and that means prep, edit, sound, color, titles, VFX, it means you get to keep all of the line items that the producer has assigned for those things.Learning new skills is easier than it ever has been, and there is nothing more valuable to an independent producer than a post person who can get anything done they need to have done.
Be the person who can confidently say “I can do that” when you get thrown a curve ball.
For the record, I did NOT know everything when I was in my heyday as a freelancer, but I knew what my skill set was and felt really solid telling clients what I could and could not do for them, and it basically sounded like this… “DIT, prep, edit, online, color, and master are no problem. I’m average with sound and titles, and I can do the occasional VFX trick.” That was usually good enough… but if I was coming up now doing this stuff, I would know more as, honestly, the tech is easier, gear is more available, and the software has come farther.
In this day and age, clients don’t want to have to pass their project to 5 different people, nor do they have the budgets to… and even if you don’t know how to do something, find another person you trust that you like working with who knows how to fill in the gaps for you and subcontract to that person when you get a request in.
That’s what I used to do on the VFX and sound sides. The more of the workflow/job that you can keep in house, the better off you’re going to be, and the fewer reasons you ever give a client to look elsewhere.
Rule #6 - Use your personal work to build your skill set and have it be fun
A lot of people used to ask me what I got out of doing all the We Make Movies work I used to do for free, whether it was my movie or a friend’s that I was working on. Well, here’s the thing… when you get to go make something for yourself or when you’re doing something for free, you get to do it your way.
This allows you to try things you’ve been meaning to try and not really worry about the consequences. Also, you tend to be more precious over your own resources than you do over other people’s, so if you learn how to stretch a dollar for yourself on your own project, your hourly rate and ROI will go up for your client’s projects and you’ll find that your hourly rate continues to go up.
Rule #7 - Know who the person is on each job you need to make happy and make that person happy
As an editor, filmmaker, producer or freelancer, you can often get stuck needing to make a whole bunch of people happy for a given project, and then often making none of them happy, and then you get thrown under the bus when things don’t go well for whatever reason.
The best thing you can do to simplify this is figure out who the most important person to you on a job is that you need to make sure wants to work with you on projects in the future… and make sure that person is happy with you no matter what.
Have their back all the way, and ask for their advice on what you should do when you get conflicting notes, and always work to execute their vision first.
If you’re loyal to the right people, they’ll bring you on jobs forever and you’ll always have those relationships, and you’ll never be out of work.
Basically, it’s really hard to find good people that you can trust, and when you do, you want them on every job you have… so, be someone others can trust that’s dependable and lives by their word, and you’ll constantly be in demand once people. find out about you.
Rule #8 - Don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t take things personally
Just know that when your client gets angry or is upset about something… well, unfortunately filmmaking and content creation is a really stress producing industry, and the reason they’re angry and upset probably has nothing to do with you, even if they might be taking it out on your in that moment.
If you can have grace under pressure (but also make sure you set boundaries with people), and people realize you are the one person on a job who is easy to work with or actually makes their life easier, they’ll go out of their way to pass your name around or work with you again.
Also, don’t be shy on charging your difficult clients more money. They usually know they’re difficult and are willing to pay an upcharge to get things done their way.
Rule #9 - Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and say no to toxic clients or people
When you find yourself in client situations that repeatedly make you sad or upset and find yourself around people you don’t enjoy working with/for, either let them know directly what the situation is so they can correct it, or move yourself into a better situation if you have the option.
Sometimes, there are customers who COST you money by working with them because they are rude, nasty, unreasonable, overly cheap, emotionally unstable, or find ways to not pay you.
This is not ok and the customer is not always right in some situations. You are not a victim and you don’t have to be. Do it strategically and never jeopardize putting food on your table, but you never have to stay in a toxic situation or around toxic people for the long term.
Remember, you deserve to be around great people who want to push you upwards and see you do well if that’s what you’re willing to do for others you work with. Don’t settle for anything less and eventually, you won’t have to. Also, you’ll usually see those people again down the road, so when you talk to others about them, do your best to take the high road or avoid speaking about them at all.
Rule #10 - Always do the right thing for people and your customers
You want to play the long game, and the best long term strategy is to treat everyone you work with fairly and with respect. Occasionally, someone might take advantage of your good nature, but you’ll find that’s just a learning experience and you’ll gradually be able to recognize people like that in the future and act accordingly.
But the longer you play the game and the more you do the right thing for people, the more amazing people will find their way into your day to day life who will want to stick around. Eventually, you won’t have time for the problem people anymore and they’ll fade away.
Also, you never know when that random person you did something nice for for no reason ends up doing something amazing and calls you up to be a part of some kind of crazy adventure they’re somehow part of.
Rule #11 - Don’t get hit with the same punch twice
Enthusiastically make mistakes. Just don’t make them a pattern. Pretty soon, you’ll find that you’ve made all the mistakes there are to make, and that’s when you start to make more money/get the job or career that you really want.
Rule #12 - Set expectations around how you want to do notes and revisions
This one is super important and can save you a ton of money (full credit goes to Alex Lindsay from Pixelcorp who taught me this). Here’s the best way I ever found to set up a fixed revision strategy with a client, especially when you’re negotiating a flat fee for a project.
Do this before taking the job and have this conversation with the client beforehand to set expectations. Also, it’s better if it’s written out ahead of time neatly and professionally as it will set you up as a professional whose work and time needs to be taken seriously (read my book recommendation from above To Be or Not To Be Intimidated to fully understand this concept).
BTW, this works better for corporate work than it does for narrative (which tends to be more of a labor of love and requires more flexibility). This will make filmmakers/artist types nervous… but it will make corporate/agency types respect you. Here’s a standard way to sort this out for a client:
You can agree for the agreed upon fixed rate with the following revision process (put into language you are comfortable with):
Client gets 3 revisions with no additional charges. Ideally the first cut will be around a mutually agreed upon concept with a general outline for the piece. It’s also best practice to bring in the client/someone from the agency early into the process before submitting the first cut.
- First revision they can make as many changes as they want to the edit and change anything around they please. If the first cut goes really poorly, offer to get to a rough cut the client is basically happy with then get onto revision 2.
- Once revision 2 is hit, client can make as many changes as they want to parts of the video that fall within the scope of the first set of revisions without incurring additional charges, but they’ll be billed for things not previously mentioned in revision 1 (these can be hourly or in fixed increments). Basically, knowing they’ll be charged for not knowing what they want keeps the client from changing their mind too often and will make them more intentional with their feedback.
- Revision 3 will be the same as revision 2, except it will now apply to only the changes within the scope revision 2. They can keep going back and forth with those until the video is right, but if they need to changes things outside of that or rework the whole video, they’re going to get billed for that.
- Now… the key to this is not to nickel and dime the client. In fact, what I recommend is that you avoid charging extras for the client if what they want is reasonable and not too much work. The reason these provisions are there is to give you the option TO charge the client if you need to and to make sure they respect your time. The goal is to keep your hourly rate high, and this system is a great way to hold people accountable and maintain a high level of professionalism.
Anyway, hope this helped and saves you all the time, aggravation, and hardship I ran into all those years it took me to learn this stuff. Make new mistakes instead and then tell me what you learned and post here!
Sam Mestman is the lead contributor for FCP.co, the CEO of We Make Movies, and the founder of LumaForge. He’s had all the jobs and done all the things… but and more than anything… he's a guy who likes making movies, telling stories, and making the film industry faster, better, and cheaper. You can follow him on IG/Twitter at @sammestman. You can see his film community at @wemakemovies or www.wemakemovies.org