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Freelance Success: Josh Smith at Acid Tongue: Design and Photography


One of the things that Tamara and I would like to do with this blog is to introduce the readers to real people who are out there freelancing. Not only do we find it inspiring to see that other folks are being successful in their freelancing endeavors, but we also want to pick their brains to learn what we can do to follow in their footsteps! This series will focus on both those people who have been playing the freelancing game for years and those who are just getting their feet wet.

Since this is our first installment, we’re still trying to feel out the format. Please tell us what you like and what you’d like to see in future interviews.

Taking the Plunge to Become a Freelancer

SweetiesToday we’d like to introduce you to Josh Smith, a freelance photographer and artist who lives in Spokane, Washington. He is the owner of Acid Tongue Design and Photography. In the interest of disclosure, I’ll let you know that Josh and I have been friends for years. He, his wife Sara, and I have a long history of stage performances, college parties, and late-night study sessions in common, as we all attended Gonzaga University together. He also designed my logo for the Something Good blog. Josh is the father of a beautiful daughter named Rona, and his freelancing career began about a year ago when Sara got the opportunity to study in Scotland.

The Smith Clan packed up their belongings and their kitties and moved across the pond so Sara could pursue her education in Library Science. The student loans offered Josh the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad to Rona who had just turned two. In order to help earn some spending money during their year-long adventure, Josh decided he would build on his previous photography and illustration experience by freelancing for local newspapers in the Aberdeen area. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until they touched down that he discovered there aren’t any local newspapers and such in the area. Not one to be easily thwarted, Josh rethought his approach and got creative.

CommupusWhile the internet gave him the possibility of working long-distance for American companies, Josh also came up with the concept of creating one-of-a-kind octopus illustrations to sell on his website. The customer chooses a name for the new octopus friend, and Josh creates an original 5×7 piece of art based on the customer’s wishes. Check out some of his previous octopus drawings on his Flickr account.

Always one to be curious about other people’s marketing strategies, I asked Josh how he got the word out about his drawings. It turns out that the vast majority of his sales have been made through word-of-mouth advertising, although he does have a couple of friends who have put banner ads up for him on their MySpace pages. Now, there’s a marketing strategy that probably wouldn’t have ever occurred to me!

Growing Pains

Just as Tamara and I have admitted to doing a few things “backwards” in getting our business up and running, Josh has had a few of these experiences himself. For example, he got a great gig through a vendor working for Microsoft. It wasn’t until he was partway through the illustration project that he learned that they required a business license in order for him to get paid. As you can imagine, he made his way down to City Hall right away and set up a sole proprietorship. Josh laughs and says that rather than starting a business and then finding clients, he found clients and then sort of discovered he was running a business.

Josh realized he had to make some other uncomfortable adjustments once the freelancing became a “business.” He just had to raise his rates. At first he was comfortable charging less because he knew his experience was lacking and he was interested in bolstering his portfolio. Later, however, when he was “no longer living a life of idle luxury as the spouse of a student,” he found that he actually needed to get paid something a little closer to what he was worth! He was nervous about the change, but so far the clients haven’t batted an eyelash.

Freelancing for Publishers

Now that the Smith family is back Stateside, Josh has been able to focus more on the photography aspect of his freelance business. He’s currently being sent on assignments for a couple of magazines that are published out of the Spokane area. How does one go about getting the attention of local magazines? According to Josh, it’s all about the cold call. “You just call them up and ask to talk to the art director,” he tells me. It sounds simple enough, if not a bit intimidating. Once you’ve introduced yourself as a local freelance photographer, you set up a meeting to come in and meet them and share your work. If the art director likes what he or she sees, you’ll be added to their freelancer list; and they’ll call you when they have an assignment that is a good fit.

Oh, Dear!I assumed that Josh would have a huge portfolio to take into offices, but he assures me that his online portfolio has been enough for potential clients so far. The in-person meeting is more about the company and the freelancer getting a feel for one another. If they decide to work with him, then they’ll give him a call about the project and tell him who to contact. It’s then Josh’s responsibility to call the subject and set up a time to do the actual photo shoot.

Currently, Josh earns different amounts of money from different employers. Whereas one company may offer $100 for a shoot, another may offer twice as much as well as paying for his mileage to and from the site. These are things that need to be worked out in advance, and the freelancer is often at the mercy of the employer. It is also common for payments to be somewhat delayed, as many publishers do not pay until after the actual publication date.

Josh would like to get to the point where he is able to simply demand a flat daily fee and then turn over the finished product to the employer when he is finished. In this case, he would only keep the portfolio rights to the work and would allow the employer to own the rest. As things currently stand, Josh retains all right to his work, although the employer is able to publish specific photos in perpetuity. This means that he can still use his photos in art shows and his portfolio, for example.

What It Takes to Get Set Up

Since all of my freelance experience is in writing, I was curious as to just what it takes to get set up as a photographer and designer. Josh shared some of the basics of the expenses involved in starting your own freelance business. In his case, there was obviously a need to purchase a camera that was of high enough quality to give publishers what they expect. Along with cameras come the obligatory lenses, cases and such. In order to process the photos that have been taken, he also needs a decent computer with a variety of software. Because of the illustration work, he also finds his scanner to be incredibly helpful.

Regular daily expenses for the business include a lot of postage and other mailing materials to send illustrations, prints, and CDs to clients. He also spends a lot of his own money on gas and vehicle maintenance to get to and from photo shots. A few other helpful tips: A drafting table can be a lifesaver for illustrating, and a rain hat like those you might see on elderly ladies leaving the beauty salon can be really useful to cover your camera when shooting in wet weather.

Other Ways to Make Money with Freelance Photography

While the octopus art exemplifies one creative way in which Josh has learned to use his talents to increase revenue, he has discovered a couple of others that might be useful to the aspiring freelance photographers out there. Because he may take hundreds of photos in a shoot, but only turns over something like thirty for the project, he has many extra pictures to which he owns the rights. In some cases, the subjects of these photos are very eager to buy copies. Josh has been known to put together a CD of the “left over” photos from a shoot and allow the subject to purchase them. Viola! A little extra cash goes into Josh’s pocket for very little extra work.

Of course, the enterprising freelancer also books his own “gigs” as a method of earning money. While it’s nice to be able to go out on a photo shoot for a magazine, there is also a lot of joy to be gained from taking personal photographs. At this point, a lot of this type of work comes to Josh via word-of-mouth, too. This type of photo shoot is great for people who want a more personal experience than just visiting the photo studio at the local JC Penny’s. In fact, we’ll be hiring Josh to do our baby’s first professional photos once she arrives this winter.

A final potential money-maker includes selling already-completed work through local shops. In Josh’s case, there is a touristy store that is interested in selling some of his photographs of the Spokane area. This can be a great method for freelancers, although it does pose some problems, as Josh pointed out. The shop owner may want the photographer to supply the photos, and possibly even to have them matted and framed. This is all an up-front cost to the photographer who is not guaranteed that they work will even sell.

Freelancing vs. the “Real” Job

At this point, Josh does not earn his entire living from freelancing. In fact, he recently picked up a part-time retail job to help his family transition back into life in the U.S. While freelancing is something he really wants to continue, he hasn’t made a hard-and-fast decision about whether or not he wants to do it exclusively. For him, it could possibly remain a sideline business. On the other hand, he really likes the time it affords him to spend with his daughter during the day. “If you’re really lucky,” he says, “you can find a job working for other people that’s great.”

Freelancing has made him a bit finicky, though, and he just turned down an offer for a full-time job because it didn’t fit the standards he now expects. “If I work for other people, I want to be a lot pickier,” he told me.

Using the Freelance Services

If you’re in the market for some freelance design or photography work, you can contact Josh Smith at Acid Tongue: Design and Photography or via email at josh [at] acid-tongue.org. Obviously, I’m biased, but I’ve had great professional experiences working with Josh.

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    On October 17th, 2007 at 10:29 pm, Laura said:

    Thanks for “introducing” us to Josh. He sounds very talented and I liked reading about his experiences.

    On October 18th, 2007 at 1:53 am, Kaj Rietberg said:

    I like it to read how other people are freelancing. Go on with stories like these.
    Perhaps even a question and answer interview.

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