A big choice that artists and developers have to make at some point in your life is whether you should get a job at an existing company or if you should be a freelancer/studio owner. This can be a challenging question and I’ve given lots of our HQ PRO members the following breakdowns to help them make the same decision.
Fulfillment and personality
The first thing that is important to realize is that both paths can be greatly fulfilling to you. Neither path has an inherent extra benefits, they’re just different. You can an artistically proud employee or an artistically proud freelancer. The same applies for money. You can make great money on both sides of the field. What it really comes down to is process and personality. Different personalities thrive in different environments and learning about who you are and what you like or don’t like is the most important first step. Are you the kind of person does likes to tunnel vision on one thing? Are you a person that likes routine? Do you like changing what you’re working on regularly? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself and think about. They’re how you’ll decide which of the below you’ll enjoy more.
Getting a job
Without getting to wordy about any of these let’s just lay out some of the trends I’ve seen when it comes to pros and cons of getting a job:
- Job security: one of the most solid pros of getting a job is that your job is normally there and is consistent. There’s no “good months vs bad months” situation and your cash flow is steady and reliable
- Benefits: another pro of getting a job is that bigger companies will likely have benefit plans setup. This could be healthcare or retirement plans or any other kind of non-monetary incentive that is consistent and can really add to your quality of life depending on where you live
- Hierarchy: a big benefit you can get from a job is that there will be a clear hierarchy. While this seems negative to some folks, this is great for a lot of artists and developers because it manes that there are other people above your position who are ultimately responsible for things like budgets, schedules, paperwork, pitches, review meetings, dealing with the clients, etc, and this can ultimately be a great load off your shoulders.
- Roles: similar to hierarchy, more established companies will have well-defined roles. This means when you apply for a job to do a specific thing (like TouchDesigner development), you will almost certainly not be surprised one day to learn someone needs a website made and you have to do it. Just like above, this means that you actually get to do the thing you like doing most of the time, which is making art or media.
- Routine: Many people thrive on routines. I think the vast majority people than not benefit from routines in their lives
- Higher floor, lower ceiling for money: while almost all jobs will give you better base pay than freelancing at first, even after years of experience as an employee, roles in our field are likely never going to crack $300,000 USD a year unless you become partner in a company
- Flexibility: while it can be nice to have a role that is well defined around what you like to do, that means it can often be tough to get a “change of pace.” You’ll usually be doing the thing you’re good at that brings value to the company. Unless you’re more of a prototyping role or creative technologist, chances are you’re just doing one or two things generally and don’t have much flexibility to change that whenever you want.
- Choice: you’re hired for your skills and opinions but you likely aren’t going to be involved in choose which projects to do or where the company should be going in the future
You’ve heard a bit about getting a job, so what about freelancing?
- “Freedom”: ultimately, being a freelancer means you get to pick and chose the projects you’re working on. This can be the draw for a lot of artists being able to be in charge of those ultimate creative decisions and overall strategy of your studio. You’re also free to work from wherever you like as long as you can get your work done and are able to attend meetings
- Set your own hours: Want to work out in the morning, then work from 11am – 7pm? You can set your own work hours as long as you’re able to communicate those work hours effectively with clients and schedule your meetings and such around that.
- Money: for some folks who want to make a lot of cake, there’s really no upper limit on freelancing and running your own studio. You get more and more gigs until you run out of time, then you hire cool folks to work with you and you fill up their schedules, and you can keep growing and growing your company and making more and more money
- Building something other than art: for a lot of folks (myself included), one of the draws of running a studio/freelancing is to set the vision you want to follow and then building something greater than yourself around it
- Less job security: unlike the job security you get with employment, the reality of being a freelancer or studio owner is that sometimes you don’t have any gigs…meaning no money flowing in. This can be emotionally taxing and stressful and you constantly need to stay on top of keeping work coming into the company
- Working all the time: while you’re able to set your own hours, as a freelancer without anyone else to deal with responsibility above you, you’re generally responsible for whatever you said you’d do. This can mean that “setting your own hours” transforms into “working all the time” very quickly and it can be difficult for folks to be strict about that problem.
- Lots of not-art work: when you have a role, most of your work will relate to that role. Once you’re a freelancer, your roles include: billing clients, chasing payments, doing incorporation and business paperwork, making sure all your company infrastructure and services are running, doing web development for your company website, signing contracts, negotiating with clients, taking most client review meetings, making sales calls, getting on free consultation phone calls with potential clients, answering vendor emails, and more on top of having to be an artist and developer! This can be a HUGE buzzkill for a lot of folks
What does it all mean?
You can see from the list of pros and cons that neither situation is perfect. Both have things that are great and things that are not so great. What it really comes down to is your personality and preference. Some of the questions we asked earlier can be directly connected to the pros and cons listed. For example if being able to make cool art all day long is what makes you most happy, then maybe getting a job at a bigger company will allow you to do that without worrying about 100 other things needed to run a company. On the flip side, if you’re the type of person that likes re-inventing yourself regularly, then being in a well-defined role at a company maybe isn’t for you.
The big thing to take away from this post is that the journey of being a freelancer, running your own studio, or getting a job with an established company all can be fulfilling as an artist and developer. They can all make you good money, they all their own sets of challenges, and most importantly, they are suited for different kinds of personalities and interests. That’s why it’s always important to approach this type of question with some self-reflection.