The Allegory of the Hike To LA – Why Freelance Estimates are Always So Far Off

January 30, 2012 - By 

no f–ing way…yes, I’ve never done this walk before, but I *know* it does not take 70 days to walk from San Francisco to Los Angeles – Michael Wolfe

This is a great analogy to how difficult it is to correctly estimate hours on a project. The answer is in regards to a software project, but I think that the same problems come up in Motion Design and FX work.
(Via Marco)

Posted In:  Ideas Motion Design
  • Perfect world would be “We have $X, what can you give us”

  • So many factors in the motion graphics world that can cause false estimates of time requirements. From my experience, this is what I’ve seen/learned. This probably applies to most industries that are two or more parties (studio / client (studio/agency/client)).

    studio problems. (just a few in no particular order)
    – not knowing how long things actually take to render.
    – not completely understanding client feedback.
    – bad producers.
    – hiring the wrong people (unqualified people for the job being done).
    – trying to deliver higher than client expectations. (this may be good if time/finances allow)
    – accepting changes to the job late in production and not charging overages if the job is going to take longer or require more hours in a day to complete. (this at times also helps bad clients communicate better)

    client related problems. (just a few in no particular order)
    – expecting more than what is being paid for. (just because it’s been done before in a movie or tv show, doesn’t mean it’s easy to do now.)
    – dramatically changing the job half way or later before delivery.
    – unresponsive/slow to give feedback.
    – ambiguous feedback.
    – agency waiting ’til the end of the job before they show work to their client for feedback.
    – failure of agency to be able to explain WIP to their client.

    Just a few things that I’ve learned over the years. I’m sure others have a lot more to add…

    • Mike, I thought this is happening just in my city but I was apparently wrong. So I’m just thinking if this is good news or bad one. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Sometimes we are having trouble with people who are paying the job. They need, what we called “Golden Touch”. I means they need to change something just because they spent the many on it and this change make them believe they was a part of the creative team.

  • This is exactly what I needed today. Thanks Nick

  • I didn’t edit and proof read my comment and accidentally hit post. Can you please not post it.

  • I’ve been trying really hard to make clients take storyboards, proofs, and approval forms more seriously, and this has definitely improved things when freelancing and also for my team when working on collaborative projects.

    When freelancing, here are some solutions to studio issues in Mike’s post that I thought of:
    – Always consider the rendering time to be twice as much when quoting.
    – Asking clients to record their voices and playing it back later helps
    – Bad producers are everywhere. Avoid working with them. Maybe now a days it is finally time for people who are good to stay in the business. (sorry for being mean)
    – Spend some extra time finding the right people to collaborate with. Ask them to do a test project.
    – Creative people should ALWAYS deliver a better product than the client expects from you. There is nothing wrong with planning this ahead of time when quoting and pitching ideas.
    – Doing storyboards earlier in the project helps. Charging hourly for changes is GREAT. Remember to let your clients know ahead of time.
    – The approval process and keeping the client in the loop always helps. Who would say no to getting paid by the hour? ๐Ÿ˜‰
    – If the producer/middleman or whoever is involved in the project is presenting the project to the client at the end of the job, make sure it does not happen again by educating them about your process. Try training them better, or take my recommendation: Be involved and present in the pitching process in early meetings with clients!

    I use Billings to quote clients, and I love the timer feature:

    With projects that requires a team and collaboration of everybody, I get help from
    Omniplan which I’m sure a lot of you use it. It is awesome with times wasted.

  • Things that have tripped me up in the past include –
    Ambigous briefs
    Assumption of in-depth knowledge of minutae of client’s business and products
    Adding elements to brief as part of final amends
    Either not supplying enough assets & info or just drip-feeding them at an agonisingly slow rate.

    Chalk all those down to experience, along with many of Nicholas’ & Mike’s examples – as time goes by, you become more experienced with the business side of things in general and you learn what works and what doesn’t.

  • Good thing time is relative and plans are made to be changed, right?

    Okay so you don’t always have this luxury especially if you have positioned your craft as service work. If it’s service you better get it done when your boss tells you to even if the deadline is arbitrary or has the potential for adjustment. I would speculate that most deadlines have some flexibility somewhere but if you are a servant you will never have a window into this.

    This might be a half cocked thought but I think that the fact that estimates are incorrect should not be surprising and further should not be an issue. (That might be too far but lets give it a go)

    So the estimate! come on it’s in the definition to be wrong. Words like roughly calculate, aim to, approximate, and likely are used to describe and estimate. These are not words of assurance nor should they be. A time estimate is built to help all involved get a loose understanding of how long each part of a collaboration might take and to potentially create a rough cost. If you are trying to get a creative project done based on an arbitrary estimate of time it might be a good idea to ask yourself why the deadline exists before trying to squeeze some creative into it.

    Don’t get me wrong it would absolutely help if you could be more accurate but I think that the issue starts long before you find that your estimate is off.

    This is a difficult thing to get your head around and an even larger task to put into practice but there is a difference between working with someone and working for someone. It starts with how you frame your skill, how you respond to requests, how you structure your work flow and communications, how you respond to feedback ect…

    Basically what I am getting at here is estimates will always be off so instead of getting better at estimating time (Assuming you are okay at it now) maybe focus on they types of relationships you are building with the people you work with. Work on setting the right expectations and building trust in the work you do not your uncanny ability to estimate the time it will take with procedural accuracy, that’s a loosing battle. If you can position yourself correctly clients could become partners and collaborators. This might release some of the pressure being put on the accuracy of your estimate.

    Your an artist not a scientist, right?

  • Oh just do that cool thing you did for me last time….. But that took me three weeks last time. Oh cant you just do that whiz bang thing for three days of pay? Um no but Ill take your three days of pay, give you piece of crap and then tell you it will take two and a half more weeks to give you what you want. No, I donโ€™t like to conduct business that way but it does happen.

    Please, as freelancers stand up for yourself against bully Producers that tell you they have “20 years+ experience” and “oh Iv been talking to some interns down at **** College” so they can get something on their terms.
    If it wasnโ€™t worth anything to them- they would/could do it themselves…..

  • I usually under quote, because I’m a fool and don’t estimate how long things take to create, I should know better by now. On the other hand it’s better to get the work that not.

    • I wouldnt call yourself a fool. Maybe try giving a range of prices to get to a certain point or reffrence a similar project you have done. Then have an hourly rate for changes or things that need to happen because of the client’s fault. If the client says oh I can work with the lower end of your estimate, than you know up front where things need to end up and you can plan accordingly. My two cents…

  • Set precedent early by talking in terms of hours first. Maybe offer an anecdote about the time you saw a guy cheat a client to keep his “hours to dollars ratio” up.
    Give reasonable hourly rate. (hey, it’s your life in those hours!)
    Estimate hours needed to complete task from shortest to longest amount. Leave lots of room there.
    Deliver within estimated time.
    Any revisions or updates at this point are now clearly understood by client to be on hourly rate.
    You sleep well, satisfied that you are paid appropriately.

  • OK here’s my penny’s worth:

    If you deal directly with clients, rather than working via an agency middle-man, you tend to be able to communicate much more effectively what can be achieved for the budget.

    I’m currently working on a project where I’ve been told that I’ve got 5 days (ยฃ1750 – budget) to produce three one minute pieces (this includes concepts, storyboarding, 3D work and finally AE work – there’s no live action footage in this, purely M.G.) Writing that just made me realise how much I’ve allowed my skills to be undervalued here. Things were quiet just before Christmas so I took the project on, now as I’ve got other work booked in past April I’m really regretting this now.

    The agency has urgency to please the client (setting their own deadlines) but the client is not forthcoming with amends, assets and general feedback. Then when feedback comes, there are numerous changes and the agency ( a new motion graphics company) says – “we’ve got you an extra half day”…

    I’ve got 24 years graphics industry experience (10 in motion graphics as a freelancer) – I should know better really – but you always get caught out when you deal with a new client – hoping more work will come from them in the future – problem is you’ve already undervalued your skills, as far as they’re concerned, and any more work from them would probably be constrained by unrealistic budgets too.

  • Really useful to read the posts above!
    @nick.. how do you approach this?

  • This was the topic of yesterday’s episode of “Back to Work” with Merlin Mann.

  • Thank you for bringing this up Nick.
    This is the worst part in a life of a freelancer.
    Not so troublesome for the established names in the industry, but sweating nightmares for the smaller, unknown ones.
    A very big problem to tackle, even if i red almost every article on the web about the values of work and how people sees them.

  • I’m about to head into a meeting today to discuss revisions and expansion.
    I will be stating that I won’t be able to give an accurate estimate until I have been able to sit down with their briefs and materials. The better their briefs and materials, the more accurate estimate I can deliver.

  • I wish we had some sort of a guild or a bureau or something. Does anyone know about it? Is there one?

  • Nick

    Need to see more tutorials from you, youve been very very quiet lately, notmuch happening really on GSG, so hope to see some really good tutorials coming soon.

    Things like the Cherry 7UP stuff, real work workflows………….

    Heres an idea, see if you can do it………

    • I agree, Nick. I miss not only the in-depth stuff, but I miss getting them from you. Chris and Mike are great, but I’m starting to miss the old-school GSG circa 2010.

      • So Nick, perhaps thats what everyone wants on here, i second that Dave ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Guys… you have to be realistic here. Nick probably has other commitments too. He was nice enough too hook everyone up with tutorials from other sources and keep a steady flow going.

          I remember in the older days, yes, Nick was the only one who posted, but sometimes there wasn’t activity on the blog for a few weeks. Now they’re pumping out content on a regular basis.

          Also, Nick said himself that he doesn’t get into certain aspects of C4D such as heavy modeling and stuff like that, which the other sources cover more in detail.

          You guys should look at the big picture!

          • Sorry about not having a tutorial out lately, guys. I am definitely working on new stuff, and can’t wait to show you. But, for now, it’s good to have Chris and Simon here to help keep the learning happening. Hopefully you guys find them as helpful as I do. Look for a new big Gorilla tut soon, though.

    • that link just looks like some composited shots of a fountain..

  • Having hired vendors/freelancers, often asking for more money is not a problem. What is a problem is underbidding, then having the project stall or the working relationship go sour because things start costing more than was set aside for the project.

    Bid with plenty of breathing room, and do good work. Everyone will be happier. Clients/companies would be well advised to not hire “too low” bids because they are essentially time bombs waiting to go off.

  • In my experience its best to aim high and surprise you client with a lower budget rather than aiming low and surprising them with a higher one.
    Also I find it easier to ask a client what he has set aside for the project (ball park figure) and tell them what you could do for that. I only have about four years experience so perhaps this is the rookies approach but it works for me.

  • Some great stuff in this tutorial. Thanks for expanding the C4D section of my brain, Simon!

  • The client needs to have things ready to go, storyboard, images, video, music, sound, fonts, etc, but they never have a clue on where to start, You try to explain to the client the direction a project should go, but most of the time is goes in one ear and right the other.

  • Hi Nick,

    I can’t post my real name here because I don’t want my boss see it and I will get into some trouble. I hope you understand. I love your website and I think right now your website is one of the reason I still want to be keep aggressive and work hard in this industry.

    Something happened to me recently and I think I really want to ask this question and I really appreciate your kindly answer if you can. I am actually struggling with “taking a full time job” or “to be freelance” decision right now. I took a full time job around 10 months ago, until now I am still working on this job. I am not going to say how I feel about this job or how I feel about my boss because I don’t want to get into trouble.

    Actually he only reason I took this job is because the money is good……. and I thought that is the most important thing to me since I have wife and kids, at least for now. And the company I working for is a very very big national corporation (50,000 ~ 100,000 employ), almos all of my friends think I got good future and they are all jealous me. Afte working 10 months later I started to realize I won’t have any future here. Yes, I can keep working and get well paid without any problem, but I don’t see any future here. This is a high-tech corporation, they need me because they suck about almost everything in video production. And all I did here is just keep teaching them without learn anything new. Most of the project are just so stupid to me but I can’t do anything or give any advice. In the big corporation, politics always go before creativities.

    I miss my freelance life, I didn’t make too much money when I was freelance. I have to worry about getting paid everyday but I enjoy those very exciting and competitive life. However, working in my current position is totally opposite. I got paid well, I don’t have to worry about anything, but my worry is I will not have any competition anymore if I keep working here after few years. There is a senior editor in my company, he has been here for almost 8 years, I don’t want to say anything bad about him but I think he won’t get any job, not even a chance if he got laid off one day because he is rust, lost all of his competition already. I don’t want to be like him so I always try to find a time to do self-training no matter how busy I am. I watch pretty much all of your tutorials and I force myself to learn new stuff. However, somehow I think it is still not enough.

    Nick, you have to help me and give me some advice. Anyone who see this post also very welcome for giving me the advice. thank you so much.

    • You, of course, have to decide what is best for you. You know the risks of leaving a steady paid job, and you know how it was like to be a freelancer. My best advice is do do what makes you happy, even with less money. Your family may have another opinion, but if you ask me, you should be happy and have fun.

      • I agree with Nick. In the end, you want to do what makes you happy. Take it from me…I spent 10 years in an industry that paid me really well, but I really had zero interest in. Last fall I was laid off from my very high paying 3D modeling/Lighting job and after the initial shock and painful realization of no income, I dusted myself off and realized how soul sucking the corporate life was. Now I’ve turned back to my animation roots and I’m in the midst of starting my own freelance life. I have never felt more full of life and creativity! I had lost myself for a measly paycheque for over 10 years! What a waste of time. I’m not telling you that you should quit your job, but just be careful that you don’t lose yourself in a big paycheque. Keep learning and creating, it will keep your soul alive ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Thank you Nick and Sandra. I will find the best time to get myself out of this awkward situation. I don’t think I can do 10 years for this shxtty job even they pay me over 6 digits. I will probably kill myself on day because I am not happy at all.

  • This compendium is of greatimportance for me today! Just what I am looking for! Thanks!

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