July 8, 2010

Why I Lived out of a Suitcase for a Year (And Why You Should Too!)

It hasn't been easy writing a blog about filmmaking without having a project of my own to show since my 2007 fly-by-night production of The West Side. The main reason for this? I tried to get something made in the studio system. 200 pages of screenplay and twenty-something meetings later, I arrived at the conclusion that I should've stuck to the DIY route. However, there's another reason you haven't seen a new project from me in a while: I haven't had access to a camera, to actors, or to much of anything, because I've been living out of a suitcase for a year. Why did I decide to do this -- and why do I recommend others do the same?

I did it because I knew I had to tear myself away from the daily grind in order to figure out what kinds of projects I wanted to make, and more importantly, what makes me me. This is a far more important question than what we usually talk about on this blog: cameras, technology, new means of distribution. There are a lot of people out there who know how to use a camera, how to edit, how to record sound. But there aren't many who know how to effectively communicate their perspective on the world through film. I don't know if I'm there yet, but I can say that getting myself out of my day job and going through a "lean time" has given me a much firmer grasp of who I am -- and the confidence to pursue my next project, independent of whether anyone else "gets" it.

Some Native American and Eskimo cultures have a rite of passage they refer to as a "vision quest." To paraphrase Wikipedia, a vision quest is "a turning point in life taken to find oneself and an intended spiritual and life direction." I'm not going to suggest that quitting your day job and living minimally for a period of time is the same thing as going on a vision quest, but I do know the antonym of "vision quest" is "day job." Showing up to work every day and performing wage labor is the opposite of discovering what makes you unique. You have to change your priorities in order to assign importance to the tasks placed in front of you. Once these priorities change, you're spending most of your waking hours working for someone else, and by the time you get home at the end of the day the majority of your energy is spent. This environment makes it nearly impossible to "find yourself," because by definition you're part of someone else's system.

I recently received an email from a reader asking, "how have you been supporting yourself?" It's a good question, as I haven't had a day job since December of 2008. Yet in that time I've lived in Manhattan, Queens, North Carolina, Florida, and Costa Rica, and traveled to California and London. How is this possible? I've been living out of a suitcase for a year. It wasn't glamorous. But for the most part I loved living minimally, because it caused me to question what I actually needed -- and by extension, what I really cared about -- and also because I ended up consuming less resources sans discretionary income. Here are the real-world economics of this decision.

First, let me just say that one of my goals in working entirely independently is to be able to talk transparently about money, which you don't find people doing in the working world. Oftentimes the guy sitting in the next cubicle or office has the same title as you, yet neither of you know what the other guy makes. If you dutifully perform your job for a year and then find out the other guy makes 40% more for doing the same thing, you'd feel devalued. Transparency is a good thing, so to that end let's look at what I (used to) make.

Day Job Economics

As a Senior Designer at MTV (a job I lied my way into), my salary was apparently $74,849 (my tax return is above). If you divide this annual wage of $75k by 2,000 hours (40 hours/week X 50 weeks), I made roughly $38/hour. As with any modern day job, however, if you subtract hours spent surfing the web, socializing, being hungover and/or generally useless, and arriving late and/or leaving early, your True Hourly Rate actually goes up. Way up. I'd say for myself -- and for corporate America in general -- you could realistically double my rate to account for general inefficiency and/or apathy. Let's say I got 4 hours of real work done every day at MTV, making my True Hourly Rate $80 -- more than double my "official" rate.

Day jobs pay the bills; this is why most people work them. It's not like I was a lawyer making $200k or a hedge-funder making $4 billion, but in the scheme of things, $75k places one in the top 0.82% of the Global Rich List. However, as a friend once said to me, "work is so bad, they pay you to do it." With full-time day jobs, Zack and I only managed to get through four episodes of The West Side in a year. It was time to go. Thankfully, MTV felt the same about our entire division.

Freelance Economics

Without a day job, my annual income went from $75k to $18k. I made less than a quarter of what I made the previous year. ((I was collecting unemployment for a period in 2009, though I have long been off the government teat. I cut out a serious chunk of this post (which was on unemployment) -- I will add it as a separate post.)) Quite the pay cut. For some perspective, however, this is still in the top 12% of the world -- but as New York City is the one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, $18k is not going to get it done. Knowing this, I put my worldly possessions in storage at the beginning of the year and packed a suitcase. Instead of waking up every day and commuting to the same building in Times Square, I did things like live in Costa Rica for two months. You can't do that with a day job!

Unfortunately, since returning to NYC, I've found over the past several months that freelancing is not all that different from having a day job. Yes, you have the right to say "no" to jobs you don't want to do, but you also often work nights and weekends, and the resulting True Hourly Rate (inclusive of soliciting work, taking meetings for jobs that don't result in anything, incurring unreimbursable travel time and expenses, and spending time on business administration) ends up being much lower than the Quoted Hourly Rate. For example: my Quoted Hourly Rate for graphic design varied, but averaged roughly $60/hour. This is fairly average for web design, but over the past several months of freelance work -- during which I've been paid to design, shoot, edit, write, and direct -- my True Hourly Rate actually worked out to be $27/hour, once you include unbillable hours and expenses. To put that in perspective: a full-time job at my QHR of $60/hour works out to be $120k/year. But at my THR of $27/hour, my full-time annual salary would work out to be $54k. Big difference.

Lean Time

Of course, there's also a big difference between $54k and $18k. So what was I doing with the rest of the time, when I wasn't freelancing? This is where the "vision quest" part comes in. I co-wrote six drafts of a screenplay and wrote half of another on my own. I conceptualized a project that I'll soon be shooting a trailer for in order to mount a crowdfunding campaign. I designed and relaunched this site (more on that in a second). But the key thing to quitting a day job and living minimally is it really makes you think about what's important to you. Is it living a full life? Is it feeling creatively fulfilled? Is it spending time with friends? Is it traveling a lot? Is it having nice things? All of these things can be achieved even during a lean time -- except for "having nice things." That's really the only one you have to sacrifice.

If you want to quit your day job, the first thing to realize is this: it's less about how much you make as it is about how much you spend. Most of us aren't independently wealthy and so no matter what we choose for a career, income generation is a necessary part of our lives. Many people who have families and dependents can't do what I did. But if you're young and unmarried, I think if you take an honest look at your finances you'll find a lot of fat can be cut out. For me, this fat was rent (see the next section for more on how to not pay rent for a year).

Taking an honest look at your finances requires objective analytics. Many people work day jobs so they don't have to consciously think about money -- this is how I used to operate, too. But in this situation, what we imagine and what is actually fact are two different things. Ignorance is not bliss. To analyze my finances, I used Mint, a great free financial web site/mobile app. I kept track of exactly how much I had in the bank and how much money I was spending (and on what I was spending it). At left is the money I'd saved up while working at MTV -- it wasn't much, basically enough to buy a used car. If you look at the timeline along the bottom of the graph, you can see that I spent very little money since leaving the day job behind. I basically just bought food and the occasional plane ticket -- no expensive clothes, no expensive drinks, no expensive toys. By far my largest expense was in fact my Canon 5D, which I only bought after much deliberation via a combination of selling my old camera and moving out of my apartment (for which I got back my security deposit). In fact, looking at this graphic, the only reason February and March of this year show more spending is because I had surgery, ((Personal note: I had my third sinus surgery, which I'm happy to report was successful -- for the first time in 11 years, I can adequately breathe out of my nose, and I cannot tell you how big of a difference this makes! Seriously. I'm like a kid in a breathing store.)) and not all of the operation was covered by my health insurance (which I wouldn't have at all without COBRA). If you can find a way to cut out your largest expenses, you can cut out your largest sources of revenue too.

Taking your own Vision Quest/Sabbatical/Hiatus/Lean Time

If you think you might want to do this yourself, the most important asset you have is your friends. These friends hopefully understand that creative pursuits are more difficult to get off the ground than more "traditional" careers. Some of these friends also have couches or futons or guest rooms or a place that you can stay. If you're sick of your day job and you have a creative itch you want to scratch, figure out with whom you can crash -- what about that college buddy who now lives several states away? Do you have a significant other you stay with often as it is? Would your parents love to have you back on the homestead for a bit? What about people you haven't seen in a while? Comb through your facebook contacts. This isn't a time to be bashful. Have you thought of couch surfing with strangers? What about living in another country where the dollar goes farther? I went from paying $1,650/month in Manhattan to paying $450/month in ludicrously nice Costa Rica, and that can be cut down even further given Costa Rica is far from the cheapest country out there (it does, however, have very inexpensive airfare -- my roundtrip ticket was less than $300). Take stock of all these options, and combine them -- it's not about settling on one ideal option, it's about stringing together several opportunities. Before you know it, it will add up.

While you're on the road, you'll be surprised at how productive you can be. If you're staying at a friend's place, they're probably gone all day at their own day job -- a perfect time to work on your own creative pursuits. When I was in Florida I managed to re-launch this site (which has been successful so far), while also doing a few freelance writing and design gigs. Meanwhile I was going for a run and/or swim in the sun almost every day -- while it was thirty degrees colder in New York. When we were in Costa Rica we wrote three drafts of a 145-page script that got us meetings with twenty studios (fate TBD) -- and went to the beach every day, too. When it comes down to it, reclaiming the 8-10 hours a day you used to spend at your day job gives you the ability to:

Build Something

During this lean time I've worked not only on "products" (meaning, movies), but also on "byproducts" (meaning this website, for which you can see the traffic at left). In fact, I ended up unexpectedly spending more time on the latter, because going on an extended hiatus doesn't do anyone much good if they have to return to the rat race (right back where they started) when their eye-opening sabbatical is over. In this case, the byproduct -- a website -- can have a much shorter route to profitability than the product, simply because a film requires a lot more time and resources.

So -- what was the result of my eleven transient months? ((Originally I thought it was only ten months, but when I looked back over my calendar I realized it was eleven and change... thus the title change to a "a year.")) I built something that replaced my day job. I'm happy to say that the apartment I'm moving into tomorrow rents for less than this blog generated last month. This is partially because I'm moving into an apartment in Brooklyn that is cheaper than my old place in Manhattan, and I'm by no means saying that I can live solely off No Film School income. I'll still be freelancing for a while and my need to crowdfund is even more important without a larger, steady stream of income. But in terms of building a website that pays the rent, I managed to go from (re)launch to that goal in 6 months -- because I quit my day job and lived out of a suitcase. This site is making more than it did a couple months ago, but more important than the amount of revenue is the amount of debt this "startup" incurred while I launched it from a suitcase: none.

The fact that this site is generating a small amount of revenue, however, is not my point in writing this. My point is this possibility never would've even occurred to me if I were still sitting at a day job. When I packed a suitcase I didn't know what I was going to do, only that I was going to try to stick to a promise that MTV would be my last day job. You don't have to have a concrete plan to leave. Only the desire to find something better. If you're reading this at a creatively unfulfilling day job, I strongly urge you to consider packing a bag and embarking on your own "lean time." Imagine the possibilities!

[Suitcase photo by Flickr user Phineas H (CC)]

Your Comment

24 Comments

Love the honesty, hope the site continues to grow.

July 8, 2010

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That's a great and very inspiring post. Reminds me a bit about what Will Smith's saying but without the "really focus on one thing" part. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfWGoLj1JCM)

July 8, 2010

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Did Will Smith "really focus on one thing" though? He was one of the biggest crossover artists in terms of being a rapper AND an actor. You can also add film producer, TV producer, and record producer to his resume...

July 10, 2010

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

I have to say to each his own. I don't agree with this approach for one sole reason. In my personal experience, freelancing and being a free agent causes so much mental strain (for fear of not having enough to live on) that it sucks the soul out of anything creative that can be brewing. My approach is to have a steady income and live very "lean" as you say so that I can have a sizable chunk towards producing creative works. Most, if not almost all, of the microbudget independent filmmakers I know use this approach and they have managed to churn out feature films this way. I know that focusing on one thing intently is the best way but for most, unless you are indeed independently wealthy, it's a dual process of creating & paying rent at the same time.

July 8, 2010

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Rebecca

I agree, Rebecca - though it didn't cause me any mental anguish to freelance, I did say "freelancing isn't that different from having a day job" for some of the same reasons you list here. Of course, I spent (a lot of) time building up this site in order to freelance less and less going forward.

July 9, 2010

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Great article. I pursued the same path when making my first film. I quit my job, moved back home and worked only 2 days a week, just enough to keep my head above water while giving me the time and freedom to pursue the film full time. Working full time is the single biggest hinderance to being creative.

July 8, 2010

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Dean

How much money did you had on your account before taking the lean time? I suppose you didn't really had much, otherwise there wouldn't have been any challenge, right?

July 9, 2010

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xtfire80

Right -- if you have fifty grand in savings, this is more of a no-brainer. I didn't, and as I say in the post, I had "basically enough to buy a used car." I don't know the exact amount as Mint calculates your net worth not only on your money in the bank but also on things you wouldn't touch (like a 401k). The point of posting the graph is to show that it's possible to do this without draining very much from the bank account -- no matter what you start with.

July 9, 2010

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Great post, Ryan.

July 9, 2010

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Thanks for the answer, Ryan! I kinda wondered if it would look something like that. Fwiw, I've found Ken Rockwell's article on a related topic valuable: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/how-to-afford-anything.htm

July 9, 2010

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Yo yo, as always it kind of feels like you and I are living parallel lives at the moment Ryan! I worked like an absolute whore for my own production company teaching myself a number of different trades in order to pursue my long-term career goal of drama. Winning a big competition has helped me financially, but mainly being smart with my finances, investing in the right technology (namely DSLRs) has also assisted, but being able to pick and choose my hours, devote almost 100% of my time to drama projects that didn't originate in my own head has also been massively useful. When it's not your baby you can be way more objective, learn way more and stress less. When I embark on my feature project next year it will be with so much more experience on the ground. I would never have been able to contemplate taking the time to do that this year without all the groundwork laid over many many years busting a gut when I was younger. Be smart, work hard, but work smart and you'll definitely find the rewards. However.... big caveat here... relationships do get in the way, and I take it you're probably not in one right now or you'd never have been able to live the vagabond life!

July 9, 2010

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Robin — glad to hear that working on other people’s projects has been rewarding for you. I haven’t worked on very many adequately budgeted (time or money-wise) shoots and so my experience hasn’t been as stress-free as yours, but I can see how that could be the case as long as folks are organized and competent. As for relationships, it can be a challenge and/or it can be a help — every situation is different!

Andrew — thanks for the article, I agree with much of what Ken says on his self-sustaining site.

July 10, 2010

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Man o man...was this timely. I am a old film guy who really wanted to be indie. But it has taken many years for gear to evolve and to be economically viable.
In August of this year I signed off the board of my software startup, I sold all my shit, bought a T2i and an H4 and moved to Mexico to write a script. I had always been a big fan of el mariatchi and I had grown up in Mexico as a kid. So I have spent the last 3 months very lean, and writing the screenplay.
I have struggled with not having an income, but am soon to change my status here that will allow me to work as an artist and also put me into one of the lowest taxes in the world. My big concern was not displacing any other people in the process...so far so good.
Thanks Ryan for your awesome site and for your great DSLR Cinematographers guide.

December 9, 2010

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Great article.
I admire how through all of your couchsurfing, surgeries & apartment hunting... you have maintained a crisp blog.

And the DSLR guide should get one mention a week.
It is fantastically laid our and visually appealing.

December 10, 2010

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xlerate

Very inspiring post, Ryan. Thank you for this. You sharing your expierences has been so helpful for me.

December 10, 2010

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Hi - interesting read... particularly to me. I'm probably the only "homeless" guy in the country with his own TV/Cinema production studio (I'm defining my studio as being my 5D Mark II plus my computer & Adobe CS5 Premiere Pro/Production Premium suite, and defining being homeless as not having a normal home or apartment that I own or rent... currently I flop in an old trailer that leaks torrents in most every room and doesn't even lock up... the owner doesn't mind me staying here since it makes it less likely that vandals will mess the place up any further - but my spot here isn't guaranteed & at any time I could be obliged to move on). I did just "retire" this last year (started taking my social security benefits early), so I now actually have an income... looking forward to traveling in Latin America (so your stint in Costa Rica got my attention) and in fact may relocated down there somewhere in a more permanent fashion. I speak Spanish fluently, and am conversant in Portuguese as well, and I hope to find ways to produce some income on the side using my 5D Mark II for video projects & possibly some stock photography. Video projects might include some documentary productions, how-to videos, and perhaps some video-for-hire stuff. I might even consider a blog as well. I enjoyed the recounting of your experiences... keep up the good work!!!

January 29, 2011

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Walden

Wow, this is a really helpful but also very difficult thing to read after spending the past 11 months "on sabbatical" using unemployment income and savings. The problem is, I didn't do much creatively with that time -- except travel and recovering from workaholism -- and am now considering taking a job again up in Seattle, which would mean leaving Portland and my documentary film class that starts tomorrow night, which I've already paid for (!).

The tough truth is that some of us can't get our creative act together when we're working 50+ hours/week but also can't do it when we're on sabbatical because we get lazy or don't know where to start. NoFilmSchool has been really helpful in showing me that there is another way and there are tools online to help me start!!! Thank you.

February 8, 2011

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Petey

Hey mate, thanks for your article,
haven't read it yet but am planning on leaving for the road, and i'm sur it'll be useful.
Cheers, all the best, i'll get back to you in a year or two !

April 12, 2011

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Charles

Great article! Being a working cinematographer (less as of late) a newish father (she is three) and a teacher of film for the last two years in Hollywood, I can appreciate many if not all of your points. Certainly, to each their own, I went back to school, film school (AFI) for a MFA ( I also knew I wanted to teach) after 8 years in a production environment. I only now, after being out of school for over ten years have realized that film school was worth it. Why? I actually believe even after eight years on set(s) that I became a better filmmaker for it.
The two schools if you will of thought of learning (the film set), is your "school" or you can take the traditional route. I believe there is needs to be a blending of the two.
That said the one major thing you have not mentioned although eluded to was that you had a great support system, Zack. Or if I'm mistaken, thats implied. If so this is huge. Going it completely solo is a slightly different beast. By no means am I trying to take from what you have accomplished, amazing and frankly you can look yourself in the mirror and say:" I'm doing it". That said the TWO of you were there along this journey to kick each other in the ass, and not it the head!
Cheers, keep pushing cant wait to see the finished feature.....

November 4, 2011

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David W

Koo, you made me think a lot. I have a family and a kid, but the principles are always the same. The only thing is that the whole family should make a choice, not only you

November 11, 2011

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This is honestly one of the most insightful blogs that I have ever read. As for myself, I sold my $1700 a month condo, moved back home with the parents, and am saving every penny from my corpo consulting job for my "vision quest". Taking a hard look at what you want out of life instead of what others want for you is def the first step. Can't wait to continue reading your site!

April 12, 2012

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Jason

Ryan, your blog and all the interesting stories that have popped up after it, have been a true inspiration. I have just been made redundant, and although I have to give up my rented accomodation, I feel like I've got a real opportunity to get up and go and live the life I've always wanted to live. My ultimate goal is to become an actor-writer-editor-director of alternative comedy sketches - and I'm going to do it the NoFilmSchool way! *subscribed*

September 9, 2012

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Exactly, see it as an opportunity! Good luck!

September 9, 2012

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

This would be a bit more complicated to perform with a family - but I like the creative behomian thing a lot ;-)

April 30, 2013

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