What’s It Like to Be a Freelancer in New York City?

Check out this 7-minute video from our friends at AND CO about the lives of 4 freelancers in NYC.

Ever wondered what it’s like to make your living, hustling for yourself in Big Apple?

Directed by award-winning creative and filmmaker Daniel Soares, AND CO’s short film SOLO NYC (above) explores the lives of 4 independent workers, painting a compelling picture of what it’s like to work for yourself in America’s largest metropolis.

Over the course of the film we follow the lives of Helen Levi, owner of her own pottery business, Zipeng Zhu, a hilarious, daring graphic designer, Adriana Urbina, an upstart chef running a pop-up dinner series, and Alex Trochut, an icon in the world of typography. We get a chance to experience what each of these individuals lives is like — the joys and struggles that make up their day-to-day. We also get to experience a taste of what it is like to work in New York City, while realizing that many of the experiences lived are near-universal for independent workers.

Working in NYC

One unavoidable part of living in New York City is the high cost of living, a clear point of connection between all of the freelancers profiled. Alex Trochut summarizes it best when he says, “I think in New York, you really need to be making cash all the time. If not, the city doesn’t allow you to stay.” Adriana Urbina echoes this issue describing the way she looks to save space (and cash) while running her restaurants, “I have to put plates under the bed to cut some expenses.” While making money is an acute issue for many freelancers no matter where in the world you work, it’s hard to deny that NYC’s real estate market and cost of living adds an extra layer of pressure.

Another aspect of living in the city is the constant confrontation between dreams and reality. In a memorable line, Zipeng Zhu shatters the illusion that New York is “just like the movies.” It’s nothing like that; for one thing, it smells all the time, he notes. And yet, because of the city’s unique magic, Zhu is grateful to the city and what it has given to him. This odd juxtaposition between glamor and grit, between aspiration and grim realism, marks the city and makes it a unique place to call home.

Image: Helen Levi, owner of Helen Levi Ceramics, and a freelance potter and photographer.

A final key element of New York City is its scale and diversity. Or to use the words of pottery artist and business owner Helen Levi, “There are so many opportunities in New York. So much more audience for different types of things.” There is a great deal of opportunity to be found in niches; in a big city those niches are easier to find and market to. While the internet has aided in this problem of access in previously unthinkable ways, there is still a home court advantage when it comes to the question of direct opportunity. Few cities can compete with New York on this dimension, giving birth to a vibrant, varied freelance scene, prone to risk-taking.

Universal Freelance Truths

Beyond these specific descriptions of the New York experience, SOLO NYC examines fundamentals aspects of freelance life beyond the role of the city, both negative and positive.

In many ways, Helen Levi, has the type of job that most people wouldn’t think of as something that can actually support her. With a great deal of nuance and poise, Levi recalls a time where a person visits her studio and mentions how creating ceramics is a creative release after getting off their full time job. “It used to be that way for me,” Levi laments, describing how her initial passion-turned-job is not always about loving what she does. Rather, it’s about running a business that she is responsible for. It is not an escape from pressure, but pressure itself, a feeling echoed across professions and locations.

Zipeng Zhu runs an independently owned and operated creative studio, DAZZLE, from his Brooklyn home.

More positively, Zipeng Zhu describes the pleasure he gets working out of his own Creative Studio (aka his living room, he explains cheekily). Zhu mentions that a 9-5 schedule is suppressive to his creative process, leading to him quitting his job. Many would likely feel the same, given the choice to craft their own ideal schedule. Talking about his new freelance life, he discusses the perks in terms of having freedom and control over not only his schedule, but in terms of picking the clients and work that he truly enjoys. Wherever in the world you choose to work, these are benefits enjoyed by many freelancers, and are certainly not location-dependent.

Finding Balance

Certainly, the life of a freelancer can seem to take on one of two extremes: the starving artist or 5+ figure months as a successful entrepreneur. The truth of the matter for most ‘slash workers’ is somewhere in between these two.

As a freelancer, some days you’re higher than high, signing an awesome new client or finally collecting on a big payment. Other days, you’re disillusioned because you’ve just lost an important source of income, or have overburdened yourself with work (and deadlines are looming). These extremes can hit a person harder than similar situations at a corporate job, because at the end of the day—it’s all on you.

No matter where in the world you are SOLO NYC makes for a compelling watch, precisely because of its discussion of these issues, and the way in which depth is added to them through personal anecdotes. In the course of just under 7 minutes, not only will you learn what it’s like to ‘make it’ in the frantic, addictive chaos of New York City, you’ll realize just how many similarities there are among other independent workers. Around the world, a new category of individuals are building their lives and taking control of their destiny, one bite of the apple at a time.

Maddy Osman

About the Author Maddy Osman

Maddy Osman is a writer and blogger. Read her latest articles on Twitter: @MaddyOsman.