How Freelancing is a Lot Like Playing Grand Theft Auto

Ah, the Grand Theft Auto series. By now, it seems everyone and their neighbor’s grandmother has at least heard of it. Notoriously violent and “youth corrupting,” the entries in this series of video games have been villainized by the mainstream media while being touted as a form of evolved modern art by the gaming industry. Controversy aside, I’ve found a lot of parallels between freelancing in my town and the stories of the GTA games.

It can be so clarifying to compare the metaphors of video games to real life because the video game world has to be somewhat streamlined. Even the most sprawling digitally-created city adheres to very cut and dry rules which keep things a lot simpler than everyday life. With something as multifaceted as the career of a freelancer, these analogies can give insight on certain good and bad habits because they’re more broken down. Plus, it’s fun to make freelancers seem badass every once in a while. Because we are.

And yes, I guess a lot of this is similar to any mafia-inspired story line, but just go with me on this.

Starting Small

GTA main characters always have some kind of personal motivation, or at least a dream of a wealthy lifestyle. A true rags to riches story. I think we all want that for ourselves. Maybe that personal motivation is doing award-winning work, designing band posters, or photographing the stars for a living. Whatever it is, let’s say that’s the motivation of the main character as well.

These main characters always have someone in their life that they’re initially helping. In GTA IV, the main character, Niko Bellic, finds himself helping out his cousin Roman, a taxi driver with dreams of grandeur who may have also exaggerated to Niko about his life in America. Roman’s missions serve as a tutorial, a way for the player (and Niko) to get their bearings in Liberty City. He’s fiercely loyal and will be with you for the course of the game, but will not monopolize your time.

I see Roman as the first client I ever obtained. It’s not normally someone you really have to work at to get work from, because most people will start freelancing while also having a daytime job. It may be that friend of your father’s who’s looking for a website, or a family member who needs a little help with something. The point is that you’ll most likely learn more from your first client than from any other. You’ll learn to work with them, how to provide great service, and possibly why you should always have them sign a contract. Like Roman, that first client of yours serves somewhat as a tutorial. And similarly, hopefully you can make them a long-term client, a freelancer’s best friend.

From working with Roman, Niko begins meeting a lot more people who could use his “services.” All right, some of these services include high speed chases and the ability to throw a molotov cocktail efficiently, but we can convert these to some of what we offer for our own use. Maybe you’re a graphic designer and your networking has led you to someone who needs a brochure design. Same deal. For Niko, that first contact led to three more, each of which have their own contacts.

Killer Clients

Things get complicated for Niko, just as they will for you when dealing with a lot of clients. Variety is the name of the game for a gun-for…I mean, artist-for-hire like us creative freelancers. Niko is asked to hijack a car and assassinate someone, just as we’re asked for Pantone values when printing a business card. Niko might be a deadly drug runner one day, just as we will discuss upcoming promotional ideas with our clients. All right, so the parallels I’m drawing here are a little broad, but the point is that you’re completing projects and continuing excellent client relations just like Niko…in his own way.

Missions in the game show up on your mini map as little icons, and I started to visualize my client base the same way. Also, for our purposes, the completed missions in the game don’t have to be viewed as a finished-and-paid-for deliverable in real life. They could be seen as a hot piece of self-promotion, gaining a possible lead, etc. There’s a lot to gain from these things, and this idea helps to ensure that each “mission” of your own leads to another few and so on.

Clients also come in all shapes and sizes, just like in GTA’s Liberty City. Some clients will have your phone blowing up every few minutes, always needing something. Others will seem to fall off the face of the earth once you need approval on a piece for printing. Niko deals with all these people as well, but continues to move forward by acknowledging and rewarding customer loyalty. He’ll be more likely to accompany them on their next drive-by.

You may, like Niko, find yourself playing a lot of sides. As long as it’s not stated otherwise in the fine print, you could be contracted to several studios at the same time. I once witnessed a bidding war between two studios, both of which I did work for. It put a smile on my face as I remembered my friend Niko working for both the Italian and Irish mobs.

Makin’ It Big, Kid

In the game, new areas of land open up to Niko so that he can expand outward. I see this to be similar to having great coverage in several different mediums. Online, you could be updating a frequented blog, selling stock for extra income, and networking to find new clients. You could also be sending direct mailers or brochures to prospects. Before you know it, your name might start popping up everywhere.

But absolutely do one thing, a key strategy that works for all of GTA’s leading men: TALK TO PEOPLE. Seriously. Just talk to people. I have a friend who does video production work with a team in my area who doesn’t market online at all. He’ll force himself to go out to a bar about once a week just to talk to people for an hour or so. The amount of contacts he has gained from this technique sees him working consistently — no molotovs required.

And speaking of teams, at one point in the game, Niko has to pull off a bank heist. Thanks to his many contacts and business friends, he has a posse to call upon to help out for the mission. Again, I’m not advocating robbing a bank, but I am strongly encouraging networking with other creative professionals. You never know when a big project will come along that you want to bid on, but need a small team to pull it off. Contacts aren’t just for receiving checks from, and Niko knows that too. It pays to have help sometimes.

In Conclusion

By the end of a GTA game, the main character will have built at least somewhat of dynasty. I like to follow in Niko’s footsteps annually. Each year, I can begin fresh, and see where I can expand to and what kind of interesting projects I can work on, all while I continue my relationships with existing clients. An annual rags to riches story. I could even take on a whole new area if I wanted, and would follow the same general outline and remember the rule that each client potentially leads to another three.

So keep some of these ideas in mind. Removing all the killing, a lot of the harsh language, and just a bit of the nudity, GTA and freelancing are two peas in a pod.

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