WEST MICHIGAN — Photographer Brian Kelly always dreamed of working with high-profile clients and getting his work published internationally.
To date, he’s been more than successful in getting published. His portfolio features clips from dozens of publications ranging from CFO Magazine, GQ, Fast Company and Wall Street Journal Weekend to Seventeen, TIME and Popular Mechanics.
That’s on top of his stable of commercial clients, which includes Amway, ArtPrize, Haworth, Steelcase and Zondervan.
And he’s done it all without the comfort of working for someone else.
Rather than holding a staff position at some creative agency or publication, the Grand Rapids-based photographer works entirely on a freelance basis.
“When I was starting out, I probably would have loved a staff photography position,” Kelly said. “I mean, who wouldn’t want a steady paycheck and benefits? But I’m so glad I never went down that road.”
Instead, Kelly pushes himself to “always be hustling,” as he puts it.
“I started to get paying photography jobs while I was still studying in the photography program at GRCC,” he said. “I’ve never looked back and have been self-employed for 15 years.”
While data compiled by Economic Modeling Specialists International for The Right Place Inc. shows the freelance model has been cyclical over the last decade for workers in West Michigan, Kelly was on the leading edge of a recent trend of self-employed workers, particularly in the context of Grand Rapids’ burgeoning creative arts community.
“It’s so important to get face to face with people that can potentially hire me down the road and to spend time sharing my work with them directly,” Kelly said. “Freelancers need to have a solid network, and attempting to stay top of mind to potential clients when a project comes up is a big part of it. (It’s) all about hustling and not waiting for the phone to ring.”
The idea of having multiple clients is one of the motivating forces that keeps Kelly working as a freelancer.
“I don’t want a single employer to restrict my potential as a creative artist or to be asked to shoot the same types of projects all the time,” he said.
While freelancing and the arts have long been linked together, more professionals across many industries are going down the self-employed route.
Michael Yoder, the founder of LinkedUpGR and a social media/business consultant, turned to contract work — particularly for Walker-based retail giant Meijer — after being downsized from a previous job.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Yoder said.
Yoder’s business now encompasses business marketing and development in the digital age. While he gives frequent presentations on platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn, he takes more of a simplistic approach, even viewing the “social media guru” label with some level of dissatisfaction.
“There seems to be a new social media ‘expert’ everyday,” Yoder said.
Like Kelly, Yoder cites the general freedom of doing business on his own terms as the best part of self-employment.
He said he likes having “the ability to pick and choose assignments that align with my work and family interests.”
According to the modeling data for West Michigan, one field that has seen significant growth in freelancing is graphic design. The ranks of freelance graphic designers grew from 170 in 2002 to 233 in 2012, while the number of freelance graphic designers stayed flat on the national level.
“I believe (the regional change) might have to do with the downturn of the economy,” said Michael Nykamp, a long-time Grand Rapids-based freelance graphic designer. “A lot of layoffs in the design community mean a lot of designers and illustrators who believe that freelancing will be a good alternative to a full-time job or just filling in while looking for a full time job.”
Nykamp also cites the development of many independent workspaces throughout the area, such as The Factory and The Hub in Grand Rapids and Work Cottage in East Grand Rapids.
“With the increasing mobile workplace, it has made it easier for designers to have a space to go to and work outside the home, for work, meetings with clients, collaboration,” Nykamp said.
A similar belief is shared by fellow independent graphic designer and Kendall College student, Mary Sjaarda.
“I’m thinking that the large growth of the freelance graphic design field in the area, as opposed to its growth on a national level, has a lot to do with younger people staying in the city during and after college and maintaining an art community,” she said.
While competition is certainly tight — freelancers still have to fight against one another as well with larger firms to get work — the freelancers MiBiz spoke with for this report said they had developed their own method to identifying a continuous stream of incoming work.
“As a sole-proprietor, I don’t spend a lot of time chasing down bid work and (requests for proposals),” said David Maxam, a self-employed Grand Rapids architect. “I focus on smaller projects that typically tend to find me, and often because I’m the right fit for the project. I work for people who sought me out because they like what I have to offer, not because I came in low bid.”
Nykamp explained that he constantly uses social networking — primarily LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter — to showcase and explain his work.
The freelance career path does come with its share of challenges, perhaps none more important than getting health benefits. While Yoder said the expense prevented him from getting benefits, Kelly said he purchases an expensive private insurance for his family.
“Health insurance for freelancers is a very flawed and broken system, which is exacerbated because two of our children have pre-existing and serious medical conditions,” Kelly said. “Many private insurers will not cover our family because of these conditions simply because I’m buying health insurance as an individual. But, if I was hired as staff for a larger company that offered a health plan to all of its employees, these same insurers would cover our family with no questions asked via my employer.
“It’s completely screwed up, to put it nicely.”
While the freelance career path — driven perhaps in part by the economic downturn — has it share of challenges, many including Nykamp are bullish about self-employment. It’s not all doom and gloom, he said.
“I believe West Michigan has a lot of potential for great growth,” Nykamp said. “(The region) has many great companies (and) plenty of work to go around.”