How to Overcome the Dreaded, Quiet Period Working as a Freelancer


Recently, I’ve been forced to confront the biggest obstacle to date since starting my freelance career — the infamous, and dreaded, quiet period. I guess I could consider myself lucky that it took over fifteen months for me to run short of work, but it is still very unsettling. Up until now, I didn’t need to worry very much about money, as my cashflow had been very consistent. However, as the work continues to fizzle out, I am left somewhat helplessly watching as my runway slowly disappears under my feet.

What went wrong?

It’s hard to pinpoint why my workflow has dried out over the last three months. Maybe it’s because we’re closing in on the end of a tax year and budgets have run out, or perhaps the decision makers are escaping the cold and are busy holidaying in exotic countries. One thing I know for sure is that pitch work has been very detrimental. I have willingly put my fate in the hands of other people which, in this case, has unfortunately not led to what I had hoped for.

The problem with depending on the pitch is that it’s a bid against several animators or agencies and many factors decide whether you get the work i.e timescales, price, vision etc.

Building a pitch itself is time-consuming. Additionally, you feel obliged to honour the timescale that you proposed to the client for their consideration, meaning that it would be risky to commit to other work until final decisions have been made.

With this in mind, I decided to let other, guaranteed work go in the hopes of winning. In hindsight, I would have had plenty of time to complete these jobs as some of the pitches fell through and took longer to process than originally anticipated.

The reason I continued to pursue the pitch work was out of a passion for the ‘director’ role. In my previous job I was lucky to have such a role, meaning that I was given a lot of responsibility and played a major part in all of our video production. This is something I grew to love. I enjoy writing scripts with clients and find that the videos that I have worked on from the very beginning end up being some of my best projects. Since being freelance these opportunities have been few and far between; I have mainly been hired solely for the animation and/or illustration and not being involved in the conceptual stages as the scripts, and sometimes storyboards, have already been signed off.

My long term plan is to get more projects into my portfolio where I have been the director with the hope to attract similar opportunities in future. The pitch seemed like a good opportunity to do so but unfortunately for me, so far it hasn’t paid off this year.

I suppose that is the risk you take when sending off pitches. If you feel differently or have any advice or tips, I would love to hear from you.

So… What have I been doing?

Luckily I already understood the importance of building a buffer or runway or whatever you wish to call it. The point being I was in a fortunate position to survive several months without needing to make any money. With the lack of clients, I’ve been using the time as an opportunity to learn some new skills. I’ve been teaching myself how to use Cinema 4D. Whilst still very new to the program, I feel a lot more confident in my abilities now. For example, I’ve managed to understand the process of how to use certain cuts (such as the borrowed edge) and I’ve developed a simple way to colour and light my models in a style which I would love to continue using going forward.

I have also been taking the time to develop new styles in Illustrator, learning effective ways to add texture to my work. Again, these are small projects that haven’t amounted to much more than a simple animated GIF, but the skills that I have learnt will be useful for upcoming and future projects.

I have also used the time to polish up my admin system, making my estimates and invoices more concise and easier to write/use with the aim to save time in the future. I’ve updated my website with projects that were finished last year which I didn’t have time to sort out and upload during that busy period.

Despite not having much client work, I have used the time productively by pushing myself to not only become a better illustrator and animator, but a better businessman. It’s been refreshing to concentrate on myself and my brand for a while.

You may be wondering why I would openly talk about my recent failure. Well for me, it’s not all about the highs. I love to read about people overcoming failure and all that they gained from their struggles. Sharing this with you offers me the opportunity to reflect and to decide on how I’m going to move forward and deal with this setback.

It also opens a discussion. I would love to hear about your individual struggles and the tactics you have deployed to lift yourself out of the ditch, or how you’ve used the downtime to your advantage. For me, it has been rather scary and I’ve had moments of doubt in both myself and my skills. I’ve even searched for motion design jobs, despite the conflict with my future aspirations, because the voice in my head was telling me “your time is up”.

Only once I decided to stop thinking and start doing did these fears retreat and my confidence came back. I believe firmly that you will be rewarded for what you put into the world and that hard work and determination pays off. Filling the ‘dead time’ with these personal projects to learn new skills has been essential for my sanity, and by sharing these projects I am hoping that more opportunities will arise.

The main take-away from this whole experience is that in tough times you should try your best not to doubt your skills and abilities and to invest the time wisely into your own personal development.

If you’ve managed to read this far then I thank you for your time and I welcome your thoughts on both pitches and quiet periods and how you deal with them.

Matt Wilson