Ben Marriott

Ben teaches animation, motion design, and industry life to over 300,000 enthusiastic YouTube subscribers
July 5, 2020

Hi I'm Ben Marriott, I am a motion designer, I'm based in Sydney, and I make weekly YouTube tutorials, all about the motion design industry, mainly After Effects kind of stuff, bit of design, bit of illustration, and that's what I've been doing for the past couple of years.

What’s your background, did you study something similar to your current work?

I studied design at university at the UNSW here in Sydney, it's called Art and Design now, it was called COFA back then, and that was a very open degree that I majored in graphic design and object design. And I kind of use that a lot of my practice today, it's very design focused. Shortly after university, I suppose, towards the end of the degree, I really realized that I wanted to be in illustration, to be an illustrator.

So I started working as an illustrator, freelance for a couple of years after university. I wasn't doing too well, I was doing all right, I was getting by, making a living, but the temptation for a full time job, when I got offered one at a video company, was too good to pass up at the time.

So then I was illustrating and designing for, for animations essentially. And this was before I knew animation. I knew a tiny bit of After Effects that I'd used in uni, so slowly over, I think it was, three years at that company and another company, I slowly built up my animation skills to where that was my new favorite thing.

I like to think of it as I've had four stages to my career so far; the first four years were learning design at uni, the next two years were learning illustration as a freelancer, the next few years were learning animation and motion design, and then the most recent two years has been me on YouTube learning about how to present myself and build an audience on social media and try to turn that into a business as well.

Did you do any preparation for self-employment while at your last job?

So my preparation before jumping into freelance again, was I suppose, pretty meticulous as far as it goes. I didn't just leap out into the wild and hope for the best, because I am very risk averse and fear change, so I made sure I had a long runway and a long plan.

The moment that instigated me wanting to get freelance was listening to Joey Korenman, who's the founder of School of Motion, on a podcast, where he talked about his book called The Freelance Manifesto. And in that he detailed the process of finding and getting new clients, and that was always the biggest problem for me. I was, you know, fine, I felt like I was doing good work behind my computer, but I really struggled to tell people about it. I wasn't very confident and extroverted, I really struggled with trying to sell myself, and this book outlined a plan for that.

So that was really helpful. I thought that's the missing piece of the puzzle. If I can get a hold of that, I can be, you know, I can be successful as a freelancer and those temptations of, you know, working less hours and earning more money, while very tempting for me then [will go].

I knew that where I was living in the moment, it was only a one bedroom flat with my then girlfriend, now wife, I needed a lot more room. Our lease ended in another six months, so I had six months before I knew we could move out to find a bigger place. And that was six months of preparation I had to put together a new reel, build a buffer of savings and learn all I can to prepare myself for going out to freelance.

And once I, you know, left that job, I essentially was hired by them again for another three months after that, essentially doing the same job anyway. So I got an extra, I suppose, three months worth of a soft cushion into my freelance career.

So it was a very, very gradual process.

What about the business side of things; how did you learn the day-to-day of freelance?

Definitely that book, The Freelance Manifesto, was a huge help, especially for, you know, mainly for like client outreach in order to attract new clients. And I wouldn't even say that I got an awful lot of my clients through that process, but having the confidence of that method really helped me sort of be able to, you know, leave behind my tethers of this full time job and be able to go out into the world.

A lot of the clients I found happened to come organically or through word of mouth. Mainly, I think about when I was at starting through my former employer and like the companies that I'd worked at before, like lots of people had moved on from that company and remembered me, so recommended me from there.

I suppose just a lot of online resources, mainly I think just random people on YouTube. I don’t have such a really distinct memory of this person taught me this, but I think I've just collected everything through bits and pieces. The Futur, Chris Do’s channel on YouTube, they’ve got an enormous amount of work and helpful resources there that really, you know, help fit together a few of those little pieces, but I think, yeah, just randomly through YouTube.

I've read a lot of audio books about business, the main ones you hear about eg The 4-Hour Workweek and Cal Newport's books; I really enjoyed Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You as well. Those ones were my favorites, I think.

So you'd been freelancing for a while at this point. When did YouTube come into the story?

So the jump off point to YouTube was pretty much exactly one year after I started freelancing. And that was because my first year of freelancing had gone really well, I'd set up a three year plan for my freelance career. My first year was to earn a living in freelance, like cover my current costs, my base costs. My second year plan was to earn the equivalent of my previous wage and then the third year plan was to earn an extra 20% on top of that, which would be like AUD $100,000. That was a nice round number. So in the first year I made my three year goal.

So, it went really well, I've managed to be booked consistently, so I was kind of… not struggling, but thinking well, what do I do from here? How do I scale myself? I can only increase my day rate so much. I can maybe up my day rate by 20-30%, and I'd be at the very top end of the market, and I can only work so many hours doing that.

So I thought to scale my business the best way to do that would be to grow an audience. I discovered I wanted three things out of my creative career; I wanted maximum creative freedom, minimum responsibility, and maximum dollars.

So I wanted the creative freedom to be able to do wanted, make what I wanted, be part of the projects that I wanted. I wanted minimum response responsibility, which means I didn't want to start a studio. I do not like managing people, the thought of having another people on my payroll frightens me, again, risk-averse.

And maximum dollars. You know, I wanted money, I guess. You know, I think we all want that. And I suppose a little bit of the fame and glory, having an audience and being known. And so I thought the way to do that would be to grow an audience. I wasn't exactly sure what I would want in five, ten years, but I knew if I had a base of people who knew who I was and followed my work, whatever it was I want to do in the future would be a lot easier.

So that was my plan. I thought, well, I'm going to try YouTube for two years, I think my goal was to do 100 videos, one per week, and if it didn't take off by that point, I knew, well, I'll try something else. And because I’d done well freelancing, I knew that I could take a significant amount of time off in that second year and my freelance work, well that would take the other six months.

And that's essentially how it worked. Six months of the year I spent freelancing, and that would support the other six months that I spent working on the YouTube channel and building that, and these all happen, you know, one week, one month at a time, I wasn't, you know, just, January to June working freelance, there was, you know, a week here, a week there, a month here, a month there. And yeah, that's how that sort of progression into a a YouTube business started.

What's the best thing about being self-employed, in your experience?

The best thing about being self employed is definitely the freedom. Like if a job comes up that I really want to do, I can, I don't have a full time job holding you back that’s going to take 40 hours of my week. I can pick and choose which jobs I want. And you know, if I want to have a holiday, I can take a holiday.

Or if I want to work 60 hours a week, 200 hours a week, I can, you know, I can do that. I rarely want to do those things, but I have the option and I can decide what I want and pick the projects.

I'm fortunate enough that I don't have to pick, well, not bad projects, but at my previous jobs, I did a lot of, like our clients were casinos and betting companies that I've not even ethically, I'm not, I don't know, have a huge problem with them. It's just really boring work that I'm not interested in, like more than anything that's annoying. And I'm glad that I can be a bit more choosy now with, with what work I do and how I spend my time.

On the flip side, what's the worst or hardest part of being self-employed?

The worst part is definitely the self-discipline it takes in order to consistently work. When, you know, you don't have to, when you could just do nothing and things would kind of be okay for that day. There's no deadlines. It's trickier to, you know, get up and do it. Rather than having, you know, a boss expecting you to arrive at nine o'clock and then you can clock off at five.

Also tuning out of ‘work mode’, I struggled with as well. A good quote I heard from, I think it was Mark Brickey from Adventures in Design, I don't know whether he came up with it, but I heard it from him. It was “Being self employed is great. You get to choose when you work. I get to choose exactly which 80 hours a week I want to work!”

And I really think that sums it up because you don't really ever finish. There's always something that I could be doing, especially on YouTube. I could be making more videos. I could be writing more scripts for other videos. It's hard to know, Hey, I've done my task for today and here's where I'm going to stop, and here’s where I’m going to start.

What's been a highlight or favourite moment from your self-employed career so far?

I think the highlight so far was last year, I spoke at Node Fest, which is a motion design conference down in Melbourne in Australia. It's like the biggest and maybe the only motion design conference in Australia and New Zealand, anyway. And it was really fun. I presented there, so it was a big, stressful lead up to me and giving this 30 minute presentation.

But after that presentation was done, I felt the biggest relief. And then I got to watch awesome talks for the rest of the day and then hang out with everyone at the after party. And that was the first time at the after party where I met people that I hadn't known before that had watched my videos and that were telling me how much they enjoyed them.

And that was really so nice to hear because really, I don't, you know, like my day to day life, I'm not talking to people that watch my videos, except of course, you know, in the comments and messages, but like actually seeing a physical person saying, Oh, I watched a video. I know it was really nice. And, I suppose, like, that's been the best moment so far, because I think like in 2020, yeah, it's been a very anti-social year, I think for everyone, so that was really a highlight.

I think I was eight months into my YouTube career, and that was when I realized like, Oh, this is really working. And I think it might've been just then, or in the following weeks where I had my last freelance job. And I think now it's been almost, it was sinc last November when I had my last freelance job. And since then I've been living just off YouTube and YouTube related business on a content based business, rather than a service based business. So yeah, that was when I thought I've made it. This is working. I can sustain myself like this.

What does a typical work day look like for you? What's your average daily schedule?

My typical day, as you can imagine, differs a fair bit. Normally I'll wake up around 8:00am and by 8:30, 9:00am I'm at my desk at my studio, which is, you know, a second bedroom with a computer and that. What my ideal day would be, is working an hour to 90 minutes before I open my email.

That is something I highly recommend to everyone. I know I should be doing it every day, but sometimes, you know, I don't, and it's really good because most of the time for me, what I'm doing, I don't have urgent emails that are pressing. No email really needs to be answered within that 90 minutes.

People can wait 90 minutes most of the time. If you're a freelancer and you know, you have feedback that you need to address or talk with, you know, the art director or your client, maybe check it, but I love to just have time where it's my most important task of the day, to get that done.

And then I know if I get something I need to do on my email, because I kind of, I'm scared of opening my email. People are going to be asked me to do things and I'm like, Oh, I don't want to do that. But I have the mentality like, well, I better just do it now. And then by the time I've done that for five things, it's half way through the day.

And then I'm like, Oh, I feel like, yeah, nothing productive got done. So if I do some work beforehand, at least I know I've made progress towards, you know, what my most important project at the time is. And then I suppose it’s probably 10:00, 10:30am, and then I work until noon on whatever project I have.

Depending on the day it could be writing scripts for a YouTube video, it could be recording a YouTube video, it could be designing the assets or animating assets for the video as well or some other tangential venture that I'm doing, making a course or, you know, doing a little bit of small freelance jobs or, you know, preparing for something.

And then, I suppose, I continue to do that until the end of the day. And then normally about 4:30pm or 5:00pm I check my email for the second time, that day and respond to all my things that I didn't respond to earlier. So normally in my first, my first email-opening adventure, I answer all the ones that can be answered within a couple of seconds, or that is relatively urgent, and if they can wait until the end of the day I just, you know, mark them as unopened and then try to deal with them at the end of the day. And if they're really hard, I leave them for the end of the week. Mostly. Occasionally one will sneak through just from the week before, but then I'm not happy at my past self.

I try to try to keep on top of that, but that's my process. And I think I really want to reduce my time answering or replying to emails as much as possible. Cause that's not, you know, valuable work for, for what I'm doing. So that sort of structure helps helps me with that. And at the end of the day, I always write a list of all my things to do the following day.

I keep a really simple to do list. I like to be really minimal with this stuff and not overthink it with big plans and systems. It's in a paper notebook, and I write AM on one side and PM on the other side. Email is written at the front in the morning and at the back in the evening, and then I can fill it up with two or three tasks on either side.

If it's too detailed, like nothing's important. Like if everything's high priority, nothing's high priority. So I try to think of what are the most important things I need to do. I'm not always great at that, and of course, things change, but I like to do that at the end of every day. And then at the end of every week I write a list of the things to do next week as well, and every month as well.

But you know, it gets a little vague and blurry when you get to those lengths.

What advice would you give your past self to help them get to where you are today?

I would definitely say to be more confident, I'm not sure I would listen to myself, but I definitely think as risk-averse I am, I definitely think I could benefit from being more confident in releasing some projects, or being brave in you know, what I make. I tend to hold back thinking like, Oh, the client's not gonna like this, I'll just give them a safe solution. Or something along those lines. Or maybe this won’t work, I'll just do something a bit easier and moderate.

I think there's really not, I'm not gonna say there's nothing to lose by, you know, going all out with what you do, but I think the benefits outweigh the cons. Say you have three client interactions, and you pitch, you know, your craziest ideas to them, they're going to reject it, you know, like maybe two out of three times. And those times, you've always got your safe option to fall back on. You can always tone something back a lot easier than you can, you know, make it go crazier.

And then for the other option, you get to do something really exciting. And I think what I've learned through my career is once you do something that you know is a bit more out there, or that you want to do that, you know, you haven't had the chance to do before, the more that sort of compounds and people see that, and they want you to do more of that work.

So you get to do more of that work and you keep pushing it every time, and I thought, I suppose if I combined my interests. If I had started doing that earlier, my work could have been, you know, by now a little, you know, 10% more every year, you know, more outrageous or more interesting, well where could it be by now?

So that's what I think I’d tell my younger self to do. Especially at uni. Thinking about my final assignment, I mean, it was like so boring! I could have done anything, anything. I had six months to work on something I was really passionate, and do what I like, but you know, it didn't end up being that exciting.

And especially in university, there's so little to lose. Like that's what the whole point is. So I definitely say you need to go all out as much as you can. And then, afterwards, you know, push it a little bit, a little bit further.

What's next for you, what are you working on at the moment?

So at the moment I'm working on trying to, I suppose, turn my, you know, my creative career into more of a sustainable business that's more product-based. So I'm putting together some courses and I'm planning on doing that more consistently so that, you know, if I release a course or two courses every year, in five years time, I've got 10 products that I can continue to be selling and only have minimal support and checkup that I need to do.

So that's that plan. Also, a lot of what I'm planning to do is a big series. I released Project Manticore this year, which was a big collaborative project. So at the moment I'm planning for next year's one. This one came out in June and they take about six to eight months.

The first one took six to eight months to develop, so now I know, well, what's in store, how long it takes to get them the result I want, so I'm gonna have to start planning that soon, I've had my initial ideas for this year, and that's one project that I'm hoping, you know, builds every year.

So if I do one every year, they are hopefully going to get better, or at least more interesting. And I figured if I just keep doing it for a long time, you know, they're bound to get better and more exciting. And that's just one thing that… isn't really, not that it isn't my YouTube career and plan there, but this is something that I just missed.

Cause doing YouTube videos, I'm doing a lot of writing and scripting tutorials, it isn't as exciting as doing some cool client work. I don't have to do the boring client work, but it's rare that I get to do some really exciting work. So this is something that I'm doing to make sure that I'm doing exciting work as well.

Because the plan was when I started the YouTube channel was I'm going to be just working on cool personal projects all the time and a year and a half later, it's a lot of writing and a lot of editing and a lot of things that aren't animating. So I want to try to bring in more animation and things that I actually really enjoy and make sure I don't lose that in the pursuit of, you know, just getting more videos out or growing the business that way.

I want to keep that on the back burner, rolling in the background. I think that's something that's important to me and important thing that I've, you know, I think the key to why I think I've done well on YouTube is, really, consistency. I think through my career as well, I was focused on doing a lot of personal projects and with YouTube, I think like my secret is I just committed to doing 50 of them. I'd do 50 of them, 1 per week for two years, and really that's as simple as you need to be. You need to get super complicated about what exact wording and the thumbnails and titles, because you're going to learn that, you're going to grow, that sort of information will find its way to you. I mean, you should look it up as well, don't just pretend like it's going to come out of the air, but you're going to figure that out anyway, just as a byproduct of making videos consistently.

And that's the most important thing. If you just get up and make it, you know, and I that's easier said than done. If you have a full time job, that's, that's tricky to do, to spend all this time working on these projects, but the simple fact of if you do this thing and you commit to just doing it, and you don't judge yourself on the quality of how good it is or how well it's received, you just commit to making something, I think over time, you're, just by virtue of practicing it a lot, you're going to get better at it.

So with these collaborative projects, I'm thinking, you know, I'm putting all my effort into each one every year, but I'm thinking about the longterm, in 10 years, what the tenth one is gonna, not what the tenth is going to look like, but I think by year ten I’m gonna you know, know what I'm doing and then it's going to be a lot more effective, I think.

So that's what I'm working on at the moment, a project due in 10 years!

Do you have any specific resources that helped you that you could recommend?

Definitely The Freelance Manifesto by Joey Korenman that I mentioned, that book is awesome, it's a really short read, I think it's like $14 on Amazon, even cheaper on the Kindle version. Buy that, you know, it will easily pay for that. If you get one job from it, that's, you know, and your day rate is, you know, a hundred bucks. I mean, your day rate should not be a hundred backs! If it’s five hundred bucks, that’s, what, eight minutes worth of work and you’ve paid it back.

The Futur as well, that's really helpful for a lot of broad topics, but not really any more specific ones than that, I suppose. I just type what I want to know into YouTube and hopefully something comes up that's a highly recommended.

I think after you do that for a long enough time, you can spot quickly what's going to be valuable, and what isn't, sometimes just based on the presentation, or, you know, the…not necessarily the attitude, but the, you know, the persona that it’s giving and how it's how it's portrayed. You kinda get like a sense of the things like, Oh, this one's worth my time, this one's not, or this one's clearly aimed at more beginners, this was clearly aimed more advanced, or this ones perfect for me right now while I'm making this transition. And, yeah, that book by Joey in particular hit me at the exact right time.

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Ben Marriott

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