Unemployment sucks. (or How I Freelanced in a Crappy Economy)

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been working full-time for a Web firm that serves the auto industry for the past year and a half, roundabouts. The funny thing is I sent my resumé into Cobalt thru LinkedIn on a whim… you see, I’d been laid off from my last job at a successful training video producer when the economy tanked, because training is the last thing companies need when they freeze hiring new people and start laying off the people they have. It was eventual, and although my bosses hated to do it, it had to be done. No hard feelings, they’re great. They still take me out to lunch now and then, and I’ve done some freelance work for them. In fact, some of the best advice I got came from one of my bosses, Jim. He said that in this unpredictable economy, businesses may not commit to hiring full time, but they’ll still have work to be done, and may be much more amenable to hiring contractors. Thus my long-awaited freelance career began, albeit at probably the worst time to get a business off the ground… it was a struggle, but I had a few clients via contacts I’d made at Media Partners that started me going. I partnered with an excellent Web development firm, Lytleworks, and started doing design on a lot of their projects. That lasted for a little while, but I really wanted to get out of the Web market and get back to my first love, print…

All this time, I’d drive my wife bonkers with chit chat when she came home, because I was cooped up in my new studio (aka a corner of the dining room and later spare bedroom) all day with nobody to talk to except my dogs, and they couldn’t talk shop with me very well.

Thus my long-awaited freelance career began, albeit at probably the worst time to get a business off the ground… 

I’m convinced Twitter saved my marriage. Thank the Lord for virtual water cooler talk and link exchanges. I also found a couple great industry podcasts to start listening to, Freelance Radio (hosted by Von Glitschka, John Braugher, Dickie Adams and Kristin Fischer, http://freelanceradio.com/) and Answers for Freelancers (hosted by Bob Ostrom and Chris Wilson at http://creativeindependence.net/). I built quite the network of freelancers to call on, ask advice, farm work out to when I was overloaded, and just generally follow their exploits and make hundreds of virtual friends in my industry.

I also learned to use Twitter, Facebook, Jobster, WorkSource, Craigslist and especially LinkedIn to my advantage. (I pestered J&D Foods to hire me to illustrate a bacon character for a new popcorn they were coming out with via Twitter and email blasts until they finally give me a shot… the rest is history!)

I’m convinced Twitter saved my marriage. Thank the Lord for virtual water cooler talk and link exchanges.


During that mad dash for work, I started doing product packaging (J&D Foods and a fledgling toy company, CWB), “virtual staging” with a marketing firm from up north (basically, I was taking empty room photos and filling them with furniture, lighting, etc for virtual real estate sites – think Photoshop, pH d. level…), t-shirt illustration for I Can Has Cheezburger, and the golden goose… the thing I’d had on my “Bucket List” for a long, long time… illustrating a children’s book.

Again, Twitter helped me find an author looking to create a book for her non-profit organization, and a year and a half later, I was holding physical, not-so-hot-off-the-press-and-UPS-truck copies of “Penelope Pilot and her First Day as Captain”! Now, I realize all this sounds glamorous, but as anyone who has went from full-time employment with benefits and a cushy office to suddenly freelancing can tell you, there’s a whole lot of difference between a $2000 a month paycheck and a $200 check here and a $120 check there while acting as your own Accounts Receivable department…

Here’s where the Unemployment part of the story comes in. See, I was still missing the stability of a steady job, especially since I had a wife, two near-teenagers, a car payment and a mortgage to take care of. So not only was I trying to keep us afloat freelancing, I was looking for work and claiming unemployment too… and before you cry out loud and call the IRS, since I’m an honest guy (the Lord wouldn’t have anything less) I would claim the amount I’d make on a project when I landed the job, and therefore miss out on an unemployment check for 1-3 weeks at a time. That was even more stressful.

And if you’ve been unemployed in the state of Washington before (not sure how other states do it) you have to make at least 3 job contacts each week. And being the all-or-nothing guy I am, I would do my best each week to fill at least one page (6-8 entries I think) if not two with job contacts.

(A side note, I was just cleaning out my dropbox and found folders and samples that I sent to more companies I could count – here’s a quick sampling… Aquent staffing, Big Fish Games, Blast Radius, Corestaff Staffing, The Creative Group (they gave me an iPad years later for a successful referral!), Creative Circle (never was contacted by a single human after my initial meeting… that was horrible), Filter staffing (they were AWESOME as well – got me at least one gig I remember), Free and Clear, Lantern Press, Old Navy, Penny Arcade, the Orting School District (I applied for a substitute custodian job when I was getting desperate), Smart Department (another great staffing firm, very personal), Wunderman, The Woodland Park Zoo, Scholastic, Rusty George Creative, Mobliss, Amazon.com, Elephants and Ants, The Hacker Group, HL2 (my first agency, hopefully they’d bring me back on), iClick, Paizo, Phinney Bischoff Design House (I bet they got mad at how often I emailed THEM!), POP, Razorfish Seattle, Real Arcade (I came SO CLOSE to landing an illustration job there), REI, The Seattle Repertory Theatre, Trident Foods, Washington Mutual (thank you Lord I didn’t get a job THERE in light of coming events!!!), Wild Tangent, Sporcle, Griot’s Garage, ZAAZ, etc. etc. etc… this list went on for TWO AND A HALF YEARS! It was so discouraging, but you know what amazed me?

As SOON AS I changed my title from Senior Designer or Graphic Designer to SENIOR UX DESIGNER the phone started ringing OFF THE HOOK! It was insane. I landed a short to long-term assignment with this great creative firm on Capitol Hill called Creature, then a contract gig as the creative lead designer for another company in the automotive space (which I had to cut short for non-competition) via a former creative director from back in my HLM/HL2 days), and then interviews for both Amazon.com and Identity Mine all in the same week.

As SOON AS I changed my title from Senior Designer or Graphic Designer to SENIOR UX DESIGNER the phone started ringing OFF THE HOOK!

And as I was going through LinkedIn’s weekly offerings of recommended jobs, I saw Cobalt. I considered them a bit, read the job description a few times, and passed it by. It sounded too technical for me, too “left brained”… but then the following week, on a whim, I hit submit. That night I got a call from their recruiter to have a phone interview with their Creative Director the next morning. This was as I was ON THE WAY IN to my first day at Creature. It was a crazy morning, but I took the interview, almost missed my bus, and thought I tanked that interview because I was so flustered…

But that afternoon, I got a call back from Cobalt. They asked if I could come in and interview in person. At the end of that interview at the end of the day, they presented me an offer. THAT FAST! I jumped on it. Now that was over a year ago, I’m back to the steady paycheck, and I learned a HUGE lesson in faith (making ends meet, avoiding foreclosure), in networking, in hard work (many a late night) but MOST OF ALL, in PERSEVERANCE.

I knew what I wanted and set my eyes on the goal.

I knew what I wanted and set my eyes on the goal. I knew I had a family to provide for, and despite loving the non-structure of freelancing, I couldn’t be selfish. I had to go back to work “for the man.” But it’s okay. In fact, it’s been awesome! I can still keep all my existing freelance clients, I do work for them on the train ride in and out of the office or at night, and I’ve gotten to do some amazing stuff with the wonderful team at Cobalt!

Thanks Lord for, as my wife says, taking everything we wanted, and then some, wrapping it up in silver and putting a huge bow on it, and saying “here, take it”. And I’m so glad I did, because like I said earlier… UNEMPLOYMENT SUCKS.

(PS: I don’t say that to make you feel bad if you’ve lost your job, but to motivate you to try what I did. In the end, I made it with the Lord’s help, and so can you!)


Thoughts? Hit me up on Twitter at @robchristianson and let me know what you think.


2 Replies to “Unemployment sucks. (or How I Freelanced in a Crappy Economy)”

  1. Hey, Rob, thank you for sharing this post. It was the motivation I needed to step up my game when looking for work.

    I have a young child who will be entering pre-school soon and the cost of a private education here in Nevada is pricey, but necessary. We are ranked 48th in education in the U.S.

    I have a couple of years left to build up my freelance business before Kindergarten rolls around, but I feel the urgency to start creating momentum now so that we have the income necessary to send her to a good school.

    Anyway, I wanted to wish you all the best in your latest job. I hope the Lord continues to bless you and your family. :0)

  2. Anytime Jim! Yes, I left out the long-term contract I took with VoteIQ, a new social networking startup in the political space. That was a wild ride, I love the energy of startups… They have since leveraged their Social Media platform and offer it for companies to launch their own targeted social media community – if anyone out there is interested, check out http://www.iq-technologies.com. It’s like the best of Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube all rolled into one!

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