ADVICE: Freelancers need to show humility, genuine expertise and authenticity

Ryan Cheng has had a career most millennials would kill for. He’s travelling the world as a photographer, freelanced across multiple industries, and worked with a range of exciting and purpose-driven brands including the United Nations, Huffington Post, and Better Life Vietnam.

But, it hasn’t always been as easy and glamorous as it sounds.

In this interview, Ryan shares how he built an enviable career and portfolio and his advice for other freelancers on how to do the same, and also shares with honesty what a freelance career actually looks like on a day-to-day basis throughout the inevitable ups and downs.

  • Your freelance career was very international and covered a broad range of work and brands. How did you start out and find these brands to work with? 

That’s a great question!

I started out in the freelance world with nothing to lose.

I was working at Coles and going to University at the time, so I would save up a ton of money and then go travelling when I had time off.

I’ve always had a really deep interest in global culture and visited places I never thought I’d go before – Namibia, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, just to name a few!

During these trips, I’d embed with locals and experience a ton of things that would’ve normally been so out of my comfort zone. From there, I’d write stories and take photographs, pitching them to brands as I went along.

Finding the brands to work with, in the beginning, was a challenge.

Knowing that big names like Nat Geo and Conde Nast Traveller were going to be tough to get into, I sought out smaller boutique publications like Roam Magazine or Hayo and steadily built a portfolio of published work.

After a while, the work began to speak for itself and other doors began to open.

  • What were the most rewarding and challenging aspects of being a freelancer? 

Being a freelancer definitely had its challenges; the most obvious one being that there was never a consistent stream of income.

But I was incredibly blessed with a supportive family, and with a part time job that helped sustain my creative endeavours.

The pitching process was always an arduous one too. I remember pitching multiple publications and brands at a time, hoping one would stick. It’s the classic cliche of “for every one hundred no’s there was one yes.”

But, I do miss freelancing.

It was definitely a period in time where I felt most creatively free, unfettered by organizational KPI’s and creative restrictions like brand guidelines.

Being a freelancer allowed me to take risks, connect with like minded creatives and learn in real time. I learnt about content strategy, the power of social listening and the importance of a good headline.

All of which put me in good stead over the years that have followed.

  • What were you biggest learnings as a freelancer, and what is your advice to other freelancers?

My three biggest learnings and advice to freelancers:

  1. Be humble enough to do free work

This is vitally important – especially for those starting out with no body of work or portfolio.

A paradigm exists in the world of freelancing; creatives can’t wait to charge clients, but clients want to see proof before they part with their money.

So when you’re fresh faced and hungry, do a few gigs for free to build up that “social proof.”

All my music photography gigs – didn’t charge a dime.
My work for HuffPost – nada.
Leading a creative team for the United Nations – $0

I understood the long play here, my free work was allowing me to leverage brand. And if you can leverage brand equity in the future, the opportunity to make an income will present itself.

When I finally got my first paid gig, oohhhh, that was sweet.

  1. Never, ever, talk about things you don’t know about

I might also argue that this second point is just as important as the first.

I’ve seen plenty of creatives jump on trending topics just because they are trending and have plenty of eyes on them.

They want to be part of the broader conversation and simply add to their audience.

And it’s backfired horribly.

If you don’t know that much about climate change or why the NCAA doesn’t want to pay student athletes – I’d steer clear.

Because when passionate people come along to engage in thoughtful discussion (usually in the comments or in your DM’s) and you have nothing further to add, nothing can damage your personal brand more than being caught out in a facade.

  1. Be you

Which brings me to my final point – authenticity is the name of the game.

The only thing that will help you carve out a unique space in the creative world is your own personal flair / insight / perspective.

No one can do you, like you.

So don’t worry about what others might think – they’ll let you know anyway (trust me, I know).

Don’t bother mimicking other creatives who are successful – because as you can quite clearly see, that’s been done before.

And definitely don’t waste your time second guessing yourself – produce, publish, learn, repeat.

You have a responsibility to share your unique sense of self with the world, so get cracking.

  • What drove you to shift from freelance to full-time work? 

I left the freelance world and went into full time work because I knew there was so much more I had to learn.

Moving into an organization afforded me the time and space to execute on the things I had learned as a freelancer.

In freelancing, every action impacts your bottom line. But in full time work, you have great supports around you that create a sense of community which cultivates innovation and creativity in its own unique way.

I’ve also been able to engage with mentors and leaders from different industries which has fed into my own growth and progress.

There’s an exposure to knowledge in full time work that occurs very differently from freelancing – and it’s something I’m really grateful for.

  • What do you foresee as the biggest content marketing and digital trends for 2020?

Here are my top 2:

  • Linkedin Carousels

I really, really believe as Linkedin continues to explode as a content sharing platform, carousels will become more prevalent.

For those that don’t know, Linkedin carousels are documents that you can upload that act like slide decks. Kinda like what you’d see presenters use at Keynotes. There is the obvious need for a compelling visual element here, along with the right copy that tells an engaging story.

I’m still working out how to best use them (I’m not a designer) but if you’re a multi talented creative, this could be the medium to start with in 2020!

  • Print

This might sound a little strange in 2020 but I believe that the power of print cannot be underestimated, especially in the world of content.

Print makes content tactile, reaching and engaging readers in a very different way.

As digital content consumption continues to dominate our scrolling eyes, the potential for print is to halt readers, remove the intensity of competing voices and provide a cohesive narrative from front cover to back.

Print layouts will allow creatives to tell stories in different ways too, even print materials can add to that experience!

Glossy pages, embossed titles to 100% recycled paper and that new print smell – the story becomes the entire product rather than mere words on a page.

And in a world that is growing ever mindful of the impacts of technology, print can bridge that cognitive dissonance and reinvigorate an old storytelling medium for the new world.

About the expert

Ryan is currently the Head of Content at Deakin University He is passionate about storytelling and leadership, and still does some creative consulting freelance on the side.

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