The one trait freelancers should have before starting, according to AJ Dimarucot

Not many last in the world of freelancing, with its unsteady pay and difficult clientele. However, AJ Dimarucot is the sole example that not only can you survive with freelancing, it can be your sole bread and butter.

AJ Dimarucot is a freelance graphic designer, juggling clientele from America, to Japan, to right here in Manila; he is recognized by brands such as Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo, and even prolific online T-shirt design circles like Threadless. Here he discusses the highs and lows of being your own boss, balancing work and life as a full-time freelancer and his advice to workforce newbies in the field with plans to pursue career autonomy.

Before freelancing, you worked as an art director for Ogilvy & Mather. When did you decide freelancing was the best way to command your career and income?
I started freelancing in 2007 because I was getting married that year. I wanted to augment my income because getting married is so damn expensive! I discovered I was earning more money, doing less work, than [when] I was at Ogilvy. That’s why I went freelance full-time, a month after I got married.

What tips can you offer a fresh grad regarding full-time freelancing?
It’s ironic because I don’t suggest going into freelancing right off the bat. I would say work a couple of years in an office/team setup. That way you learn how to work with people and clients.

You’ve stated in a previous interview that ‘freelancing is feast or famine.’ how did you best deal with being in the ‘famine’ situation?
There will be good times and there will be bad times. There will be months that you’ll have more projects than you can handle. And there will be times when you can’t seem to find projects.

What does “feast” and “famine” look like? What’s the best and worst you’ve experienced as a freelancer?
As mentioned, when I experienced “feast”, I earned more freelancing than working 10 to 12 hours a day at Ogilvy. But the worst “famine” was when my wife gave birth to our daughter Gia. It was a difficult first year for our Gia; I didn’t work for almost a year. So 99.9% of my time was dedicated to her and my family. That ate up our savings. It was worse than living from paycheck to paycheck because you didn’t know if there was a paycheck coming at all.

As a successful freelancer, how often are you in search of new clients/projects to contribute to?
I’m always on the lookout for new clients/projects. It’s a non-stop process.

How often do you think a freelancer should be involved in projects in order to remain stable?
The key is to find a stable of go-to clients. When a trusted relationship has been established with a client, I suggest going for a retainer setup. That means you’ll be paid “X amount” of money for “Y amount” of work done monthly. That way, the expectations are clear and you have a little bit of comfort knowing there’s a paycheck that comes through regularly. And then you go out and find more clients to convert into retainers.

How versatile in their work and abilities should a freelancer be in order to become successful?
You need to be more than one thing at a time. Remember, you are your own accountant, project manager, marketer, assistant, etc. You won’t have clients if you can’t properly market yourself, no matter how good you are. If you can’t manage multiple projects or deal with clients, then it’s not going to be easy. Freelancing is about learning to juggle all those things.

How tight can a freelancer’s schedule get?
That’s totally up to you. That’s the beauty of freelancing, you can work as much or as little as you want. But if you have mouths to feed, it’s going to be tight.

How does a freelancer properly balance work and leisure?
It’s a lot easier because you can now work anywhere there’s an internet connection. I normally take vacations and work at the same time.

How important is leisure time in inspiring your work?
Very important. Every day is a mix of leisure and work. There’s so much inspiration from other things. Whether it’s a beautiful movie or just spending time with the kids in the playground.

As someone who commands 90% of their schedule,  how would you manage your time to prevent your work from spiraling into chaos?
I live by this little principle: “WORK AROUND LIFE.” Basically, life happens. I have to accept it and do ‘work’ around those things. There will be times that I need to fetch the kids from school or I have relatives in town, etc. I make sure I am available for those things, and then work my schedule around those events.

[At the end of the day,] I think about who I do this all for. And it’s my family.

How different is balancing time, work, and expenses as a freelancer, from that of being a regular office employee?
First of all, you are your own boss. It really is about doing what you want anytime you want. I’m not sure your bosses would be so understanding that you’re late for work because you watched Netflix ’til 5 am. When it comes to expenses, this is where those basic accounting skills come handy. You really do need to know where your money is coming from, and where it is going. For my family, we spend so much on food and eating out, and sometimes we need to pull back. It also goes back to that ‘feast’ or ‘famine’ concept. So, when there are a lot of projects coming through, make sure to save a little of what you earn for when there are a few.

What’s the biggest mistake any freelancer can make with regards to managing their own time and resources?
Spending everything you earned during the ‘feast’ phase. Time-wise, don’t waste your time with clients that don’t value your work.

What makes freelancing worth it?
The freedom that comes with it.