The Freelancing Diaries: Sharing the deep tea with motion designer Fraser Munro

6 days ago by

This year we’ve teamed up with Hnry to bring you The Freelancing Diaries: a series helping freelancing creatives navigate self-employed life.

From handy resource articles, free-to-attend live webinars, to sharing some of the real and raw journeys from our creative, self-employed community – we’re tackling some of the biggest freelancing woes, what to do about them, and how you can build the successful, creative business of your dreams. 

This month’s topic is all about the pros & cons associated with operating as a sole-trader vs operating as a company. Register for the Free webinar happening on 30 May where we’ll be chatting with a Hnry expert and answering your burning questions.

Today we sat down with freelance motion designer Fraser Munro who shares his self-employed journey and what he’s learned along the way .

This article is proudly brought to you by Hnry

If you dove straight into freelancing from study or elsewhere, how did you find that transition and what did you wish you had known? 

I had been at the same studio for 13 years, rising through the ranks from animator to director to dept head. And I noticed that more and more of my days were just filling out Excel sheets and doing tech fixes on other people’s shots on long form series projects. “The longer you’re in animation, the less of it you do” as the saying goes. I had reached a pivotal decision – become more management or head out on my own. I chose the option that got me back doing more animation and headed out on my own as a creative freelancer. At the time, I hadn’t lined anything up nor had any freelance clients. Wild and crazy yes – but the sequence of events that led to this change required bold decisions and a lot of self belief. 

I relied heavily on my 20+ years of contacts and experience with agencies and studios, plus I had a very handy leg up with some introductions from my older brother who was Art Directing in the Wellington Agency scene at the time. Name recognition and reputation count for a lot in lil’ ole Aotearoa. 

The first year was understandably quite quiet. There was a lot more of me simply informing people that I was now freelance and to please keep me in mind. It’s been a slow build year on year from those early days. And I almost threw in the towel and got a dishwashing job at the start. But, a strong belief in my ability and really not having any other options for income sort of forced me to stick at it. This is where having a partner who was doing a 9-5 to pay the bills came in handy. It wouldn’t have been as achievable without that level of early support.

The transition was filled with doubt and fear. Freelancing feels very insecure. But I’ve found that’s all just a perception relative to your pay cycle. As an employee you feel secure because the pay is regular. You can plan bills weekly, monthly etc. But as a freelancer that’s all gone. You have no idea when your income will turn up. 

Switching to annual financial planning flips the switch on that. You can see the pattern of income and realise that annually, you’re fine. The weekly wage is really an illusion of stability.  It’s no more stable than freelancing as you can be made redundant at any time. I’m not knocking employees here. There are reasons why a salary is the best option for some. Just balancing out the assumptions for any aspiring or new freelancers.

Oh – and you’re not a freelancer. You’re actually running a business. You have to do everything now. Own it.

Has your self-employed journey been easier or harder than you thought it would be before you started out? ( If harder, why? If easier, why? )

My journey has been one of the most positive and rewarding adventures I’ve ever been on.  But it also has a dramatic twist.  

We had long desired to move out of the city, way out of the city. While I was employed full time, my employer suddenly passed away from a heart attack. At the same time I was diagnosed with T2 diabetes and was incredibly sick from stress and poor lifestyle. So sick that I had a nervous breakdown. These were major red flags for me to make a change – change of employment, location, diet, and lifestyle.

I went through an extreme amount of change to begin my freelancing career. But I’ve still managed to thrive and it’s been easier to get settled into the freelance life than I originally expected. Being pushed to do it all myself has made me more confident of my skills and experience. Less imposter syndrome. More time at home with the dog.

It took a few years of changing my mindset and fixing my health – but now I’m fitter, more resilient and more confident as a person and artist. I have loads more faith in my talent and knowledge. I know I can run a business that supports me and my family. And I’m vastly more engaged and enthusiastic about animation and motion design than I’ve ever been as an employee.

Since going self-employed, I’ve prioritised my physical and mental health. Having this balance of lifestyle with work has been one of the biggest learnings for sustainability in my work and business

Looking back, what was one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made as a freelancing creative that you don’t want other freelancers to make? 

One of the biggest mistakes I made was thinking like a creative worker instead of like a creative business. I had to really take some time to adjust my mindset on how I approached my work. 

Freelance motion designers, animators, graphic artists. We’re artists. But we are also business people. We’ve spent years in training and years working on projects to nurture our own creative passions and create memorable still and moving content for our clients. 

As an employee you can just focus on that. Which is great. But to be a freelancer is to have a bigger picture front of mind at all times. And that bigger picture is really seeing ‘work’ as being about your growth and sustainability as both an artist and a business

It’s not just turning up each day and giving it your best creatively for that day. It’s about balancing creative and business goals and strategy across a longer time frame. You need to put on two hats. The messy one covered in paint and the analytical one that deals with cold hard reality.

 “Is this what I want to be doing right now?” and “Is this a good plan for me long term” always needs to be asked of yourself. Because when you are saying “YES!” to both of those, you’re doing great work for your clients.

Making pretty pictures is awesome. It’s why we do it. But you have to devote a little bit of time each day to marketing, networking, admin, finances, RnD, upskilling, etc. You quickly understand just how much work all the producers, accountants and office managers do in a studio setting. So you need to have a system that ensures you are growing, networking and marketing yourself to bring in the next, better project – while you are on your current one.

And yeah – that’s the point. As a freelancer your ‘To-Do’ list will always be exponentially longer than your ‘Done’ list. 

Accept that. It won’t change, ever.

What’s been one of your biggest wins in your creative freelancing/self-employed journey?

Getting past the fear and uncertainty to a point where I have an established track record of quality delivery as a freelance business. 

Because you have to deal directly with clients you… have to deal directly with clients.
Scary, yes – but that’s where you hear the feedback and build a relationship. That’s where you build a business.

And it’s always nice when a client contacts you and comments on your work or gives a compliment as to their reason for reaching out for your help. 

It’s a paradox. You become a very strong and confident individual, because you get a much greater sense of the symbiotic creative ecosystem that you’re part of. The collective enables the individual. We all need each other.

After 7 years there’s still doubt, still uncertainty. It doesn’t really go away. But I’m now in a spot where I know I can succeed in spite of my own inner nagging voice.

Putting my diabetes into remission and (nearly) completing my traditional Japanese Tattoo body suit are also very high on the list.

Daily tools you cannot live without in your business?

Hnry – (of course) Taxes make my brain freeze up.

Adobe After Effects – for all my motion and compositing.
The good ol Photoshop/Illustrator combo

Toon Boom Harmony – for all the character work (its designed for character work. Much better than After Effects)

Notion – for all my databases, client management and notes.

Slack – for all the chit chat among peers

MDGA (Motion Designers Guild of Aotearoa) – I’m not just a board member of the guild. It’s also my local network of peers and industry people. Sharing tips, solving conundrums and helping each other with projects every day.

Pencil and paper – yeah that’s right. Old school. My daily planner is just a small, spiral bound notebook . I can scribble things down and plan my weeks super quick. One page per day. Rip it off at the end. It’s almost cathartic being able to throw ‘today’ away and start fresh with ‘tomorrow’

Have you been using Hnry your entire freelancing career? If not, what was it like for you trying to prepare for the End of the Financial Year before you switched to Hnry? 

When I first started out I had an actual, physical accountant. Local guy. Nice guy.

It wasn’t too difficult – for the income tax side of things. But I still had to keep all my receipts on file for the end of year and had to deal with ACC etc myself. So everything sort of piled up on a shelf in my studio. Then at year end I had to make sure it was all in order. Then take the big stack of files to the accountant and wait for the outcome. Looking back, it was quite a bit of work, time and stress.

Fav. thing about Hnry that has been a game changer for your creative freelancing biz?

Having a physical accountant was fine right until the end of the second financial year when I had to make the jump to GST registered. My accountancy costs were going to effectively double at a time when I still wasn’t confident my annual turn over would stay high enough. 

Using HNRY my tax is paid similar to being PAYE.

As I earn, my tax obligations are met. And my fees self adjust with my earnings. No fuss. No worry. 

It all happens automatically for me during the year. Invoicing, reminders, tax payments, GST filing, KiwiSaver allocations and ACC just happens. Beyond lodging expenses and sending quotes I barely think about tax any more. All it takes is a few button clicks here & there and taxes are sorted.

Best and hardest parts about being a freelance creative? 

I’m a remote freelancer. I live in a tiny beach settlement. The animation industry out here is just me. So it’s isolation and self doubt every time. But that’s why networking and meetups matter so much. Talking regularly to clients and peers, in virtual and real life, is vital to not becoming overly isolated and out of the loop creatively and in business.

The best bit is of course being able to live and work in a small beach side community. I get to hang out in my home which I love and spend every single day with my dog.

I do what I’ve always loved doing and I get to do it in a location that fits my mindset, with my best little buddy.  And, there is no commute.

Lastly, where can we see more of your work?

Loads of my work ends up on TV screens and online advertising both here and around the world. But the best stuff is always over on my portfolio, with the little experiments, conversations and behind the scenes happening over on my LinkedIn feed

Register here for the Free webinar coming up on 30 May covering ‘The Pros & Cons of being a sole trader vs a company’.

If you want to attend but can’t make the live time, make sure to register BEFORE the event to receive access to the on-demand recording.

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