Recently, Michael Zindell’s vibrant and versatile artwork caught our eye. A “design ninja” with over 17 years of experience, Michael is a freelance illustrator and product designer whose talent and entrepreneurial spirit have landed him projects with the top players in the home decor, houseware, and giftware industries. We love how attuned his creativity is to market trends, so we wanted to learn more about what’s helped his business thrive over the years. Michael is a bonafide hustler who embodies the inspiring freelancer of today - juggling and wearing many hats while driven by ambition and skill. Here he shares his tips on succeeding as a freelancer.
I’ve worked in product design for housewares and décor for a long time, so I REALLY know my industry well. Not just in terms of trends and themes, but also sell-ability, item creation, manufacturing, and perceived value and cost.
If you have a project in that arena, I can knock it out of the park. By knowing all the guidelines, I can both work within them to achieve industry standards or also buck the system to deliver something entirely fresh.
Growing up, my father had instilled some good lessons early on, and they have just become part of my general outlook. It’s basically a function of growing up in a household that used an allowance system. If I did my chores, I could be paid, and the chores all had a different cost. So I could choose to do harder jobs for higher pay, or easier jobs for less. At the end of the week, I would get my payout and it was up to me to either put it in a jar or spend it. We were also taught about saving up for larger purchases (like a bike) vs. immediate satisfaction (like candy). P.s. - In the mid 80’s that was about 5 dollars a week.
Later I was taught to never carry pointless debt, and only buy things that were within your means. So I’ve never carried any balance on a credit card or had debts I could not pay. I’ve only had my student loans (which were paid off first and foremost) and my mortgage. When working both full time and side hustling, all that side hustle money went directly to investments or long terms savings. My inner motto tends to be “if you can live without it, then live without it”. So I don’t get a new phone every release or upgrade my computers on a whim, I live a modest life with things I know I truly earned.
Finding clients and getting a response. No matter how connected we all are, it’s easier than ever to just ignore someone. Point in case, I had a former colleague give me a reference to someone “definitely looking for a freelance product designer”, and to date, I have emailed this person 6 times. Not one single response.
Also, unlike graphic work (which can be biz cards, fliers, websites, passion projects) product design work is generally bound to larger industry, manufacturing, and retailers. It’s mostly working with in-house teams for creation and spec’ing of ideas for mass production. So those are not easy to just stumble on. It takes a lot of personal time to see any ROI (if at all).
Well, Boston and north of Boston are not hubs for what I do. On the plus side, Salem is a particularly artsy and creative town. As for supporting yourself on your design skills? I’m just not sure the $$$ is here. Most design businesses up here are small startups that are very insular (which also means lower rates and salaries). Salem is also a bit of a “small town” and people are not transparent about what $$$ they are making. What we do have is a vibrant creative culture. Lots of small businesses, pop-ups, craft shows, entrepreneurs, public art, and general creative zaniness.
I never intended to be a freelancer. And I’m still not sure I am a successful one. My goal was to enjoy the merits of a 9-5 when I could and to build a side hustle. I’d really like to build a client base that allowed the freedom to break from needing a safety net. In 5 years I hope to be able to slow down a little which will also help. By working my tail off since my 20’s I’m hoping to have built a strong foundation to allow a little more freedom to do the things I want. Currently, I am working on surface patterns and illustrations for licensing. It’s a slow burn with a lot of hurdles, but I would love to have my own product line out on shelves. If that doesn’t happen, I’d be happy creating designs for others too, because I am really good at it. 😊
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