Having started out as a freelance motion designer, creating videos in the San Francisco Bay Area, Adrian realized all the things he didn’t like about the industry and set out to create a studio of his own that would change that; putting people, product and process at the heart of his team’s creations. From there he sought ‘passive income’, building digital products; which Adrian says every freelancer should think about doing.
Listen in to this fun, casual interview from the ‘Being Freelance‘ podcast with Steve Folland. Enjoy!
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Steve: Let’s crack on and cross over to the states and say hello to freelance motion designer Adrian Thompson. Hey Adrian.
Adrian: Hi. Pleasure to meet you. Good to be here.
Steve: Cheers for doing this, whereabouts are you based?
Adrian: I’m actually in central Oregon, I just moved from the San Francisco Bay area last year.
Steve: Ah, okay. I’m really looking forward to hearing about you’re journey because you’re one of the people who I’m going to speak to who isn’t a “freelancer” as such today because you’ve grown your business beyond that, into more of a studio.
Getting Started in Video
Steve: We’ve had a few people like that in the past, but let’s hear it from you first, how did you get started first of all, being freelance?
Adrian: Sure. Well, I was always interested in video from a young age and I decided to go to the San Francisco Bay area to study film at a junior college because it was affordable and ended up meeting a lot of great people there. And we started doing short films and through those people I was able to get an internship at a corporate agency that did a lot of work for the big companies around there in the bay area. And my first job there was being a compression guy, which is a very lame title, but I eventually got fired from there, believe it or not, because my motivation was just down the toilet and I just kept showing up late, so I deserved to be fired, but that was a real big wake up call for me.
Adrian: From that point I ended up just putting out a bunch of feelers trying to get a job and it’s still one of my context from college had a job at a studio, he introduced me to the owner and he saw a video I had on youtube, which is totally not safe for work. It’s actually a tutorial I did about blowing your head off and it went viral, this video has over like 200,000 views. But anyway, the guy saw that and he’s like, “Oh, this guy knows what he’s doing. Clearly he can do animation.” So he ended up hiring me and I started working there with no experience as a motion graphic artist, I ended up becoming the lead animator because the current lead animator got in a car accident and they just needed me to step up.
Adrian: I went through two years of working there and then I didn’t end up deciding to go freelance. The company started doing poorly financially and he made a lot of the people that are employees, freelancers, so he would hire us when he needed us. By that nature I was thrown into freelance and from there I just started reaching around to other clients and people actually found me. That was the start of me getting into it.
Steve: What year we talk about, so how old were you then?
Adrian: Yeah, this is 2007 to 2008, so I was 21 and then 22.
Steve: But you did get then two years of a motion designer under your belt before you found yourself freelance?
Adrian: Correct, yeah.
Steve: Had you been like building up a presence as yourself online or anything by then?
Adrian: Yeah, I always had really terrible portfolio websites online, but I didn’t put a lot of effort into it because I was already employed. The industry in the Bay Area was fairly small, it seems like everybody knew everybody and people are always switching jobs. So even just from producers that were leaving that studio, there was actually a pretty high turnover of producers. They would go and start working as marketers, or producers at other companies, and they would remember working with me and that was a big lesson in how the industry works and it really helped me understand how important it is to create positive relationships, especially because of how frequently people were moving around. You never knew where they might go and then you want to be on their good side when they get somewhere.
Steve: Yeah, I get your point. What happened from there then?
Adrian: I started freelancing and I really didn’t like it, there are pros and cons, I liked the variety, but it was honestly very stressful working with different people all the time and studios would want you to come to their offices in San Francisco, which is a nightmare for an introvert like me trying to drive and park in San Francisco and working with different people. And I never really established confidence in my skills either so going to a different studio and seeing all those artists that were clearly hot shots in their own way, it was just an intimidating thing and I just never enjoyed it. Especially because there was never leadership that made me feel comfortable, there was never this feeling of, “Hey, join our team and let’s accomplish this thing together.”
Adrian: As a freelancer I always felt like I was just this outsider that they were throwing some side job to and they gave me some vague instructions and said, “Hey, go do this.” And I’m just in a dark corner working away trying to get this job done and hoping I’m pulling my weight in. I just was never a positive experience for me so that’s what led to me thinking, “Well, if I can’t find what I want in freelance maybe I need to create what I want.” Which is what led to me starting a studio.
Starting a Motion Graphics Studio
Steve: So when you say you started a studio, was that a studio of one?
Adrian: Correct, yeah. When you start a business, you’ll always make it sound bigger than it is, that’s one of the rules, so it’s always we and us when it’s just me.
Steve: But it’s interesting though because it didn’t have to be, it could have been Adrian Thompson.
Adrian: Sure. So yeah, it was just me in the beginning and I did do everything myself, but the reason I put it under a studio name is because that was not the long term strategy to be myself. I knew that I needed other people to create the type of work that I wanted to make and I knew to get there I had to have clients so that I could afford to pay those other people. So from the early stages I knew this was just temporary, I was going to have to do all the work myself and just slowly build up, so I just marketed a package of an animated video for $3,000 that will do everything, which is ridiculous, I mean it’s almost impossible to make money doing that, but that’s what I had to do to get started. So I just email blasted a bunch of companies in the Bay Area and finally got a client and then we were off to the races at that point.
Steve: In what way were you off to the races?
Adrian: Because we got that one job and that client, so once I had that in with that market or they actually hired us to do four videos and then they came back the next year. And it’s really interesting that momentum you get when you have clients, it’s like success will attract more success and I can’t tell you exactly how this works, but there is an energy about it. People always say, “When it rains it pours.” When you don’t have any clients, it seems like nobody wants to work with you. It’s a weird thing, but once I got those clients with those projects, the next year, it just seemed like clients started contacting me, whether it was even from older relationships. But after that point it was actually, there was a six month period where I didn’t have any work, I was just trying to figure out what I was going to do to get it, after that job started flowing in and from that point I never had to reach out.
Adrian: It just seemed like an email would come in and as a job finished, a new one would just appeared in my inbox. So it was really interesting in that regard and so it goes back to what I learned about positive relationships as well, because even if you’re working with a really small time client, like the one I had at first, I made their experience so positive and I was really impressible to them. And the same thing happened where those marketing guys move to different companies and they still will occasionally contact me to this day saying, “Hey, I’m at this new job or now I’m a counselor for this company or on the board of this company and I need a video, could you do this for us?”
Steve: How did you then start to grow the company beyond yourself?
Adrian: So I had to keep raising my prices, obviously like $3,000 for a video is not going to work. Every half a year I would kind of bump that up a few more thousand and then the first step I did was bring on a graphic designer because that was my biggest weakness by far as graphic design and I had no desire to learn graphic design. So I brought on a graphic designer and we tag team these videos together, I was still doing all the rest for myself. But then as I kept bumping up the stages, I would bring on more and more help. So I eventually got a script writer and I got a sound guy and then I eventually was able to outsource the animation, so we have these four consistent guys working now and it required me to keep upping the budget so I could afford to pay them fairly.
Adrian: Now I’m at a place where I’m able to manage the projects and at that point able to manage more projects so we have more work coming in, and that was always the goal because I realized that I was more passionate about managing this creative process rather than actually sitting down for eight hours and doing the work myself. It just seemed like there was plenty of talented people already doing that, that I should cultivate that rather than try to compete with that because it just seemed like the natural fit and be like one of my views of our industries that we just lack leadership. And that’s why I had all those feelings early on as a freelancer, that’s one of my theories is that, “There was just no leader that could cultivate my potential.” And that was my problem. So that’s what I think I’m meant to be with the studios, I’m meant to be a leader that’s cultivating this creative energy into something that’s bigger than me.
Steve: The team that you were putting together, were they working for you on a freelance basis or are they employed?
Adrian: No. It’s all contractor based. They still work with their own clients, I actually don’t keep them busy full time because the stages of projects are always evolving and I never wanted to grow the studio beyond that point because really, honestly the studio is a lifestyle business for me, being able to work from home and spend time with my family. So I intentionally didn’t grow it to the point where we had to get a building and all of this because even our contractors are spread out between California and Oregon and Canada and Washington’s. And honestly it’s just really enjoyable because they all work from home as well, so they all have their own schedules and I’m honestly a big proponent of that wanting freelancers to build their own success. I think once you start bringing in employees and trying to manage them into this, you’re your own pocket, then you start limiting their potential.
Adrian: Whereas I’d actually rather my contractors build their own mini empires in their own businesses and I’d like to see them succeed in their own way rather than in my eyes, hold them back as employees.
Aspects of managing a successful business
Steve: You mentioned the cost of things earlier and how about managing the cash flow of it because that changes when you become responsible for a bigger project?
Adrian: Yeah, it does. So one thing I realized I needed to do was charge 50 percent upfront because I needed to make sure that my guys got paid. If the client disappeared and for some reason didn’t pay the final amount, we had to have something because we would likely have started all the work. That’s how I cover ourselves in that regard, we’ll need a deposit and then we charge the rest at project completion. It hasn’t become a problem, if you get a couple of job stacked where you have a deposit and then you’re finishing up a job and you’re getting the final payment, it’s always worked out. But I’m always very conservative with, I won’t take my cut unless a job is done, so I usually don’t get paid for 45 days after a project is maybe finished. That’s what’s allowed us to at least have a reserve to make sure everybody else has paid.
Steve: And have you developed those business chops as one of our previous guests called it, Austin. You said yourself too, is it from watching what others have done where you were working before?
Adrian: That’s a great question. I think I’ve learned from other people’s shortcomings in real life and the chops that I have learned would be from books by Seth Godin, he’s my favorite author. So I’ve read books of his, like Linchpin and Poke the Box, Purple Cow, I watch a lot of business shows like Shark Tank and the Profit with Marcus Limonus who he’s always preaching, “People, product and process.” Which I think is a beautiful definition of what business should be. So it’s really just, in podcast I listen to a lot of podcasts so I’m like, “It’s my passive income.” And just these entrepreneurs that are sharing their mind and there’s been a few critical ones, like with the guy that wrote ‘The E-Myth”, I think his name’s Michael Gerber.
Adrian: There’s just been a few gem podcast that just hit me at the perfect time and it just made me realize what being a businessperson is. There’s so much information out there from smart business entrepreneurs, the real key is just putting it into practice. I had to be careful not to just learn and learn, I would have to listen to a podcast and then put it into practice, decide that I believe what they said and then do it. And that’s just proven to be really effective.
Steve: I’m intrigued about the people, product and process, we don’t get that show over here. That obviously meant something to you in particular. So what did you take from that?
“A shortcoming of the creative industry is that we can be entirely focused on the product. We’re obsessed with creativity, we’re obsessed with perfection and color combinations and in that we can forget about the process and the people it takes to get there.”
Adrian: So one of the shortcomings, I think, about our creative industry is that we are only focused on the product. We’re obsessed with creativity, we’re obsessed with perfection and color combinations and we forget about the process and we forget about the people that it takes to get there. And this is just my experience within the industry. I’d see it all the time on twitter from very popular artists and people that I follow, they’re just not treated in what I would consider a humane way. If you see people working 10 hour days, if you look at Hollywood and you see how people are treated, if you go to an agency and you see that they don’t pay their employees overtime and they expect them to work on this big job just for the prestige of it, it’s just there’s no respect for the people doing that.
Adrian: And what I mean by process is just organizing some basic strategy like, “Here’s the steps we’re going to take so that we don’t waste people’s time.” Whereas people are disrespected in a way that they’re meant to solve problems just by the manner of doing it over and over again until it’s right, instead of having it be planned and executed right the first time. Which is the foundation behind my passion for storyboards, which you can talk about later with the software. But storyboards are like a critical step that is often still skipped to this day, people will just skip the story boarding process because they just decide, “Well, I could just pay my guy to work a couple more days to solve the problems we would have solved in story boarding.” And to me it’s not right because by doing that you’re, you are hindering that person’s creative energy because you’re taking it away from them.
Adrian: When you’re repeating a job, you just lose your motivation to make that job special because you’re spinning your wheels and you’re not gaining momentum, instead you’re taking two steps back and ultimately that’s just not the healthy way to have a strong business.
Steve: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So this was what? Five years ago now that you found yourself being freelance or-
Adrian: I started the studio in 2012, so yeah, I think it’s been five years now.
Steve: Have you noticed a change in that? Is there a different stages of evolution so far as you’ve been running that?
Adrian: I think we’ve hit the plateau and that’s what’s inspired me and honestly I have been, I wrestled with that and realized that’s I’m good with it, because like I said earlier, I didn’t want to grow this business. So we’ve had a plateau in terms of project in yearly revenue and I’m good with it honestly because it’s allowing me to pursue other opportunities. I’m very interested in passive income and creating products. I have some digital products on our website that we sell and I started this new software and to me that’s really interesting at this point is, creating things that you can reach more people with rather than only working on one project at a time for one client at a time. That’s fun in its own way, but after doing it for several years I realized I wanted to explore some other types of business ventures related to our industry.
Exploring Digital Products & Passive Income
Steve: So tell us about the products then. So this was a neat way to bring income to you and keep yourself busy because clearly you’re not busy enough.
Adrian: Right. This happened from a podcast, somebody talking about creating digital products and I just asked myself, “Why don’t I have a digital product?” I think every freelancer should have a digital product, it’s so easy in today’s environment where there’s a website called Gumroad. You can upload anything and sell it, it’s so easy, they take a three percent cut, but it’s online and anybody can go and buy it. And I think in our space it’s just a no brainer to take a stab at that and get something online and I think you just have to get over the fear of failure in that regard. And to me that’s what it was. So the first thing I did was just make some preset animations.
Adrian: I’ve watched a lot of tutorials in the past about how to animate text and after effects, which is a program we use, as a motion designer I used and I understood that tool a little more than the common animator. It was kind of an obscure thing, so what I did was make a bunch of presets of these text movements, which I created a pack of 25 and I created like a fake product box and some marketing materials and it took me about five days. And I was like, “Well I’ll just put this online and try to sell it for.” I was so nervous about it failing, I posted it on Reddit and I said, “Hey, you can have this for a dollar because I like you Reddit guys.” Because I was so nervous about people being like, “Why would you charge five or ten dollars for this? I might’ve paid a dollar.” But there’s this weird psychological thing you have to get over when you start doing this. But once I started seeing people buy it and then I upped it to $5 and then I upped it to $10, people still bought it and I just realized this is a no brainer.
Adrian: I made my week’s worth of money within a year and I just realized I should do some more of these. And then I took it to the next level where I hired a developer to create a script. There was just this common problem in aftereffects where I wanted to create an animated arrow and there was no easy way to do that. You had to use a complicated expression to link these layers together and it was really, it was just overly complicated to have a simple arrow animated on the screen. So I just reached out to some developers on this website where it’s like the APP store of scripts for aftereffects and one of them got back to me and I just hired him to make it. It was a gamble, I paid him like $5,000 to do this is the one thing about business I realized, I have to take a risk like that because if I don’t then I’m never going to move to the next level.
Adrian: I think a lot of people struggle with just taking that leap. But anyway, for me it ended up being successful, I made the money back in less than two months and since then it’s been two years and that product sells like $8,000 a year. So I made another one that wasn’t as successful but what I’ve learned from that is that, and from these podcasts that I hear from all these successful people, is that you just kind of have to take a stab at it. Otherwise if you don’t, then nothing’s gonna Change and I just realized the benefit of having some passive income is worth that risk to me.
Steve: But man, when you’ve got a young family, how old are your kids today?
Adrian: I have a three year old and a four month old.
Steve: Okay. So at the time that was like a one or two year old then, when you were first signing a $5,000 check like, that must feel like, “Am I mad?”
Adrian: Yeah, I know and I’m going through that all over again with this software project and I think you do have to be a special kind of mad to do it but some more contacts.
Steve: Sorry. Had you been saving money for this kind of thing or were you getting loans or credit cards?
Adrian: No, I do not recommend that at all. So I’ve never been into that kind of debt before. But yeah, I would put away money, as a business and you have your profit margin, you can choose to pay yourself that money or you can leave it in the business and that’s what I decided to do. At the time my wife was working before we moved to Oregon, so we did have that, we had that fall back. I could afford to fail essentially, like I could afford to lose this money, I didn’t think it would happen, I had a feeling some people would buy this because if I have this problem. And I looked around the internet all over the place and there are people asking about it, “What’s the best way to do this arrow?” And I was like, well, I think this is worth a shot.”
Steve: Then how did you go about marketing that?
Adrian: I got it on the app store, it’s called aescripts.com. It’s like the iTunes for this type of thing and that’s where most of the profit comes from, and all this time too I’ve been writing on my blog to attract people. I was getting 2000 to 3000 hits on our website through the blog where I had some tutorials as well. And so then I created a little shop area on the blog and that’s where 30 percent of the sales are happening, but really the other 70 percent are on this other website.
Steve: So but then you’ve got a taste for this passive income?
Adrian: Right, yeah.
Taking it to the next level with a Storyboard App
Steve: Is the next stage, what you’ve mentioned a couple of times, is the software or were there other products?
Adrian: No, this is the next step. So the digital products have been going on for the last three or four years and it’s been about, it provides like a thousand dollars a month fairly consistently. And you can look at it this way, the money from that is allowing me to build the software, I’m reinvesting that money into this storyboard software idea because this has been a huge pain point in time as a studio. Is trying to do the storyboard process online and talk about it because we’re all working remotely. So we ended up using Google Docs because that was the most collaborative tool that made sense. But it’s really been super tedious to create, it’s just not meant for story boarding. If you insert a storyboard and all of a sudden all your numbers are off and you have to update it manually, it’s just little things like that, huge time wasters.
Adrian: So I actually saw a competitor launch in the middle of last year and to me that validated my idea. Whereas it easily could have turned me off like, “Oh, somebody is doing it, that means we’ll not do it.” But actually seeing that competitor launch inspired me to move forward with it because I was like, “Well, if this-” And it’s a higher end agency and I think near here, I think they’re based in London. They launched and I was like, “Well, if they have this need and they’re investing money into it, I must not be the only one I think.” And usually in business there’s not only one winner, so I thought, “Well I can at least make a splash in this new genre that’s going to pop up.” And it’s funny since then, I’ve seen two other storyboard software’s launched that are approaching it in different ways, so I think clearly there’s a need for this type of thing.
Steve: So we will put a link in the channels but tell us what it’s called.
Adrian: It’s called Plot and the website is theplot.io.
Steve: Congratulations. It looks awesome.
Adrian: Thank you.
Steve: By the way, I’ll put links in the show notes to this, to Kyle Webster’s episode as well which is a similar thing of when he thought, it’s particularly when he had the family about, “How can I be more than just an illustrator, how can I expand that? And then started dabbling with products.” But even then, I don’t know, there’s got to be that entrepreneurial thing on you, but it’s not for everybody.
Adrian: Well, I would challenge a freelancer’s mindset because I think if you’re a freelancer, you’re already a business whether you like it or not. And I think everyone that’s a freelancer needs to tell themselves that, “You’re not just a creative individual that’s being hired to do some creative work once in a while, you are your own business. That’s how the government sees you and that’s how you should see yourself. And I think there’s some simple things that I would recommend a freelancer do to help encourage that mindset in them. Because the solution is not to avoid business by any means, I think if you want to live a freelance lifestyle, you have to understand basic business principles and you have to embrace that whether or not that’s intuitive to you at first because it’s only going to help you.
Adrian: So we already talked about selling digital products, I think that is a no brainer. I think every freelancer should try that because you have nothing to lose. You have the skills, you can create a product for no money down, just using your own talent, upload it and try to sell it and you may or may not succeed, but if you do enough, I have a feeling you’ll succeed. The other thing would be, to offer a flat rate version of your most popular service, like if you build websites, for instance, a landing page, offer a specific type of landing page for one price for one schedule, And then let the client see that, that they can buy a landing page for this flat rate. I guarantee you’ll sell more of that and it’ll be easier for you. Just having that consistency, to me, that’s honestly the secret in my opinion, behind the success of our studio.
Adrian: I was just having a consistent product for consistent price because when a client goes in looking for creative work, when they start getting quotes from all these freelancers, I think you probably are aware of the answers they get like, “Okay, so what’s it going to cost to make this video?” And the freelancer will say, “Oh, well it depends how complex you want, do you want 3D in it, do you want characters in it? What do you want to do?” And they’ll maybe give you three different quotes that are just ranging from 5,000 to $50,000 and the client has to somehow decide, “I don’t know, I just want to make a good marketing video.” They’re not experts in creative work but they need to be guided, that’s part of our job as creative people is to translate the creativity to these people. The people that I work with a real corporate to translate like the benefits of, “In your opinion, what’s going to do them best.”
Adrian: That’s what I did with Modio. I was just having, “Hey, here’s our quality, here’s our price and we can get it done in 30 days.” And that’s been the secret to our success. I think think people should try that and I think there’ll be surprised. And I also think client relationships are the big thing.
The importance of client relationships
Steve: Do you know I was about to ask you, because you said earlier, about being an introvert and yet I’m thinking you must have nailed client relationship somewhere along the line.
Adrian: It was not intuitive at all. It’s unbelievable to me being an introvert and then I have forced myself into the offices of Google into it, I’m going to these places and I’m talking to marketers about animated video and a few times is so uncomfortable, but when you say this stuff enough and when you have your niche, you get so comfortable talking about it that that it doesn’t become nervous anymore. Because all you’re trying to do is just tell them, “Look, I offer this service and it’s a no brainer. You can go try to work with these other people but it’s going to be complicated. Whereas you see our portfolio and here’s how it works.” So it just becomes a routine, which is another benefit of offering a niche, consistent service to people, is that you become really good at selling it and talking to people about it in normally uncomfortable situations, especially for an introvert like me.
Adrian: But it’s true, client relationship, just overwhelming them with positivity. I see so much in our industry about people reacting negatively to clients, there’s a website called The clients of hell where they post their horror stories of what the clients are asking for. To me that blows my mind because it shows the immaturity of the ability to manage that client because the fact that you’re just shocked by what they’re asking for in and out of itself is like, it’s just a sign of immaturity in my mind where it’s our job to tell them what’s possible. It’s our job to show them what we can do for what price, and I think every interaction with our clients has to ring a positive. We should never never put them down subtly, me should always be morphing the conversation in a way to move the project forward because that’s what both parties want. We want some effective product video, website at the end. We both want it to be good and I think we just need to understand that.
Fun Game: 2 Truths & 1 Lie
Steve: Nice. Now I always do this thing, where I ask for three facts about yourself. Make two true, one a lie, let me figure out the lie. What have you got for me?
Adrian: I got to tell you, this is really hard for me. I’ve spent days thinking about this lie I’m not good at thinking of a lie, but here it goes, okay. So the most popular video I’ve ever made is about me pretending to be a police officer. Number two, I saw stage of the Tour de France and there was a random civilian riding his bike the wrong way on the course and number three, I got into the world series of poker and I placed 653rd out of 7,000 entrants.
Steve: Wow. Now you see the first one, I’m wondering whether you gave away something about that early on because you mentioned a not very nice video about blowing your head off and I haven’t seen it, but maybe you were a policeman in it because I imagine you might need one.
Adrian: I’ll tell you those are unrelated.
Steve: Those are unrelated.
Steve: The Tour de France one, that is so weird. If that isn’t true, to sit there and go, “Okay, I’ve got a policeman one and I’ve got a poker one, I know I’ll have a Tour de France with a civilian cycling the wrong way, which makes me think that must be true. And yet I kind of want to believe that you did the poker thing because I can imagine you being a cool customer with the cons and you’re not averse to risk. I want to know. I don’t think, no, okay, I don’t think the police were on the street.
Adrian: Oh, that one’s true.
Steve: Don’t tell me the Tour de France is a lie.
Adrian: Nope, that’s the Tour de France is true as well.
Steve: Oh, thank goodness. I’m okay with losing so long as that one was true.
Adrian: I have a video of it somewhere.
Steve: The poker was the line, that was a good lie.
Adrian: I had a whole backstory too, I’m surprised you didn’t ask me the questions, I prepared some details as well, just in case.
Steve: I’m disappointed I didn’t know. If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Adrian: That clients are not your enemy, but miscommunication is.
Steve: Nice. Adrian, thank you so much for your time.
Adrian: My pleasure.
Steve: Check out the show notes at beingfreelance.com because they will have links through to everything that Adrian is up to, including the plots, storyboards or software that he mentioned. Adrian, thank you so much. I normally say all the best being freelance, but all the best with your people, your products, your process, and your family.
Adrian: Thank you so much. It’s been my pleasure.
- Being Freelance Podcast
- Modio (motion graphics studio)
- Plot (storyboard app)
- Adrian’s After Effects Digital Products
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