Self-Promotion Made Easy: an Interview With Calvin Lee
Sometimes starting a freelance business means building it from the ground up. Which has worked superbly for Calvin Lee, the Principal and Creative Director of Mayhem Studios. Cal couldn’t afford to attend a four-year college or design school, so he taught himself about design and formed his business through a lot of hard work.
Cal says he’s always loved drawing as a kid. “A lot of my imagination came from reading comic books. I wanted to do something creative as a career one day or even draw comic books,” he says. While that never came to be, the 39-year-old Los Angeles resident did whatever he could to pursue a creative career. He attended a local trade school and enrolled in a community college design program—but the rest was up to him.
Before freelancing, Cal worked at a small Hispanic marketing firm as a Senior Designer in the Art Department. The experienced proved a valuable one, as he learned voraciously about the design business before the company went out of business. “I learned the ins and outs of running a design firm and a business. It was also helpful that I network; work with clients and print shops. So when I did finally take the leap, it was a smooth transition.”
Like most freelancers, Cal kind of stumbled into self-employment. While he was unemployed, a friend recommended that he check out a local design studio. She had been freelancing there but was leaving soon—and that’s where he swooped in. “I did a lot of work for them working from my home office. Eventually, I found my own clients from referrals with some promoting. I was kept pretty busy and never looked for a full-time job like I planned.”
I caught up with this award-winning designer
What has been your biggest challenge as a freelance designer?
Probably looking for clients is the biggest challenge, which takes the most time. To be dependent on your freelancing for your livelihood is a pretty scary thought. It’s not like the next day; you have clients knocking on your door. It takes time to build relationships and to get your name out there. If you have a game plan before you go full force you should be OK. You can succeed by having a good network and finances set up before you embark on your freelancing.
Tell us what your typical day is like.
I normally wake around noon, since I stay up pretty late working until around 1 a.m. I find working later into the night is more calm and quiet with fewer interruptions. I seem to be more creative during the late nights as well. Then I check emails for any client requests or new projects. Surf the net for the latest design trends and visit all the design forums I belong to.
After lunch, errands and client meetings, I work on projects until 7:00 p.m. After that, I hit the gym and have some dinner. I work until 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. I take some time to relax and watch some television. I head off to bed around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.
You’re pretty well known for putting yourself out there—with effective marketing results! Some freelancers don’t realize this is vital to stay on the top of your game, and some don’t see self-marketing as necessary. How do you feel about it? Why has your marketing worked so well for you?
If you’re a freelancer, self-promotion is a must. How else do you expect a potential client to know about you? Most new designers—even some pros—don’t view self-promotion as an option. Many frown upon self-promoting, as it’s bragging and name-dropping. In a way, it’s bragging but to me it’s more about letting people know who I am and what I can do to help them.
Self-promotion has worked well for me these days with the Internet. I do a lot of my networking and marketing online. The web reaches more people than any brochure or media kit, with less time and money. The two that really helped me are online networking/directory websites and forums.
Having a profile, account or portfolio on any networking websites like Bizik, LinkedIn, Creative Magazine or Creative Hotlist along with press releases, blogs and e-newsletters, to name a few, will help to get your name out there. Posting on forums will also help to build relations and trust that may bring you potential clients. I have received many referrals from online relationships I have built on networking websites and forums.
Create Magazine was one; they contacted me to design a five-page featured article for their Sept/Oct issue. I have a portfolio on their website, after they viewed my work on my website. They thought I would be a good fit for the magazine.
I post on design forums pretty often and have built many relationships. As a result, Jeff Fisher of LogoMotives asked me to submit some of my work for his book, Identity Crisis! 50 Redesigns That Transformed Stale Identities Into Successful Brands. I have two projects included in the book.
Very impressive! You’ve also won several awards. Tell us about your achievements, and how you decided to enter these contests.
I’ve been in 15 books and articles on design and business, profiled on several websites since I started submitting my work over three years ago. Matter of fact, I’m also in your book, Creatively Self-Employed: How Writers and Artists Deal with Career Ups and Downs!
I thought I recognized your name. So how have you forged some of these connections?
I always thought, with so many big agencies and designers entering work, I would never win anything or end up in a book. Even after 15 books, I’m still in awe how I even got into one book, let alone 15.
I started entering competitions from encouragements by Jeff Fisher of Jeff Fisher LogoMotives. We frequent the same design forums. He always encourages everyone to enter competitions as a great opportunity to market themselves. If your work is chosen, it will be seen world wide with global distribution. One day, I decided I would enter my first competition, “The Big Book of Business Cards.” To my amazement, three of my business card designs were chosen. It felt great getting into a design book on my first try. I’ve been entering competitions since. I do a bit of promoting when I’m accepted into a book. I promote so much that Jeff Fisher has crowned me as “The Media Ho.”
I wasn’t going to mention that, but since you did, I think FSW readers will get a kick out of it. So here’s the question du jour for designers—how do you define spec work, and what’s your stance on it?
Spec work is when one is asked to perform creative services in exchange for prospective projects or employment. All concepts, artwork and any materials relating to the spec work become property of the person asking for the spec work. You will lose all ownership and rights to the works. As a Committee Member of NO!SPEC, I find this practice to be an unethical and devalue the expertise and skills of creatives everywhere and the Industry. Companies, businesses and designers need to be educated.
Much spec work comes in the disguise of design competitions, the promise of fame and fortune. What these competitions are really doing is getting hundreds, thousands of free concepts and designs. Again you would lose the rights and ownership to your designs. It’s much better for companies to hire a real designer or a design studio for their projects, than running these unethical competitions.
Students and novice designers fall victim to spec work, because their lack of experience, desperation or just don’t know any better. I was recently in the FSW forum in a discussion about spec work. The attitudes of “I only care if it only affects me, screw the industry and what has the industry done for me,” is a very sad statement and shows the lack of understanding. In the end, they have cheated themselves and added to the spec problem.
I’m so glad you gave us your perspective on that, especially with your experience on the committee. So how has your location been a benefit your business? Has it ever been a hindrance?
Living in a big city like Los Angeles can be a benefit and a hindrance. The benefits outweigh the negatives. Los Angeles is such a big metropolitan city that new businesses pop up everyday. There are many opportunities to network and meet potential clients here, particularly, small, one- or two-person businesses. You probably have to narrow it down to which niche you want to market to.
By the same token, Los Angeles is also very saturated with designers and more competition everyday but with the city being so large there is enough work for everyone. With the introduction of the Internet, it doesn’t really matter as much about your location anymore. A lot of my business comes from online referrals, Google searches, contacts on networking/business websites and forums.
So with all your successes, what haven’t you done career wise that you’re still longing to achieve?
I would like to write a tips and tricks book about marketing and promotion, more specific to design or pulling all my newsletters and blog tips together to help other designers. When I was starting out, I learned by trial and error. You can learn a lot from your mistakes but can be very costly as a freelancer. It would have been great to have book like that. I know there are many marketing and promotion books out there but I want to write one with just quick tips and tricks. Very much like Scott Kelby of Photoshop User Magazine’s series of books, Photoshop Down & Dirty Tricks. No long explanations, just a book chock full of quick tips.
Kristen Fischer is the author of Creatively Self-Employed: How Writers and Artists Deal with Career Ups and Downs. Her latest book, Ramen Noodles, Rent and Resumes: An After-College Guide to Life, is in stores now. To learn more about her, visit www.kristenfischer.com.