I met Adam Vicarel last year at a week-long design session with Danone in Denver. From the onset, I could tell that I needed to get to know him. Besides his sick hand-lettering skills, he’s also extremely intelligent, makes time to travel the world, takes months off at a time and has a sweet story of how he got started living the (literal) dream. If his mad skills, wit, charm, good looks and nomad lifestyle aren’t enough to make you green with envy, learning that he’s humble, approachable (and not even a little bit self-centered) might. Basically, Adam’s a legit nice person.
And, he’s a hustler (in all the right ways, and you know over here at MANMAN, we love that!!). In this interview, he spills all his secrets...including how he affords his jet-setting lifestyle, why he takes off work 2-3 months a year, and how he has scored projects like:
Mandy: Hiey, friend!! Let’s jump right in. Tell me a little about your background, how did you get your start?
Adam: I graduated with my BFA in visual communication design in 2011. My plan was to get a job in an agency and work my way up the ladder over a decades-long career. And I did work in an agency for a little over 2 years in Mason, Ohio.
In 2014, I quit and traveled around the world for about a year. I traveled around the states and Asia, and then ultimately landed in Denver where I currently am. The plan was to come out here, find a job with an agency and then work my way up. But after being on the road for almost a year, I felt very indifferent to getting a full-time job.
Mandy: Haha...I bet!
A: Haha yeah, it wasn’t laziness by any means, it was just that my priorities had shifted. While in Asia, I had fallen in love with hand-lettering. For me, it’s the perfect amalgamation between fine art and design. And that’s where I’ve found my sweet spot as a professional, combining those two.
Here in Denver, I was fortunate to find an opportunity to work part-time with an agency, which gave me just enough money to pay my bills (nothing extra) and lots of time to practice my lettering skills. I’d spend about 30 hours a week practicing lettering. Some of it was for fun, some of it was commission work, but the bulk of it was just practice for the sake of practice.
I wanted to implement handlettering into my skillset so that I could offer that to clients or to an agency, but even more than that, I just loved it and wanted to see where it could take me.
After about a year and a half of working 14-hour days, I was burnt out. So I stopped, quit my job and backpacked in Europe for a couple months, then came back here and snowboarded for a couple more. On that hiatus, I fell in love with hand-lettering again, so I put together a self-promo piece and sent it out to about 30 agencies in the Denver/Boulder area. Since then, honestly, the work has never stopped.
M: That’s so awesome! You know, any time I tell people about your story, they ask me, “But how does he do it? How can he pick up and leave for months at a time—financially and relationally.” So tell us! How do you do it??
A: I knew I wanted to go to Asia, so the year leading up to it, I worked my ass off. I worked full-time and also took freelance work. I saved every scrap of money that I could and I even moved in with my parents for a little while to cut down on expenses. For lunch, I would eat a can
of tuna and mustard (the most inexpensive condiment) on the cheapest bread I could find. Chips were even too expensive, so I bought pretzels. When I went to the bar with my friends, I would drink PBR instead of an IPA. Or I would drink before I got there. It was little financial decisions like that compounded over 9 months that enabled me to make this trip.
Also Asia is not very expensive once you get there (cost of living is about $9/day), and I wasn’t living lavishly while I was there. I don’t need avocados and feta cheese to survive.
It was just a different mindset. I didn’t give a shit about my 401K or saving money or buying a car. It was all about experiences and trying something new. Every penny and every thought process was directing me toward that.
M: What about now? Do you still travel a lot?
A: For the last 4 years, I take at least one month off every year, and often it’s more like 3 months spread throughout the year. This year, I spent the month of February in Mexico. And I also took off the month of September to step back and think about my future a little more intentionally, update my website, create a new self-promo piece, etc. I actually decided during that month to take off the rest of the year to focus on the future of my business. I’m booking jobs for February 2019 right now.
A lot of it comes down to planning ahead a little bit. For example, when I know I’m going to be off for a full month, I’ll work a ton before and after to make up for it so that when I’m on vacation, I can relax and enjoy it.
M: That’s really cool! How does that work with your clients then...are you afraid of missing jobs when you’re away?
A: Most of my clients are one-off projects, so when I’m going to be out of town, I just set up an automatic email reply. I’ll check my email every once in a while and if something significant comes in, I’ll follow up and try to push it out a few weeks. But for the most part, I just accept that whatever comes in that month, I’m not gonna get.
A lot of freelancers have this scarcity mindset that if they don’t take everything that comes to them, the next project won’t come through or they won’t make enough money. But I’ve learned over the years that if you have talent and work really, really, really hard and network well, you can pick and choose the work you do more. That makes your work more fun, which means you do a better job, put more time into it and ultimately create better work.
I also think when people know you are doing cool things and hear you say something like “Sorry, I can’t right now, I’m scuba-diving in Mexico,” they all of a sudden want to work with you more and are usually like “Cool! Hope we can work together in a month!”
M: Haha that’s hilar. So...how do you currently market yourself? How do you get new work?
A: Feel free to cut me off if I go down a rabbit-hole because I’ve had about 95 cups of coffee already today and I just love talking about this kind of stuff.
M: Haha me too! I think we could talk for 3 days straight about these topics! But yeah, back to it...
A: Ok, well, at first I did a lot of networking and promoting myself, like with the self-promo piece. But right now, Instagram is my main marketing tool. That’s how I get most of my work, including big clients and big projects. However, even though right now I’m too busy to keep up with the work that’s coming in, I don’t want to take that for granted and get too comfortable.
That’s why I took the month of September off, to take a step back and get myself caught up and get my website up to date. The self-promo piece worked really well for me the first time, so I’m going to try that again. I want to be more intentional about the kind of work I do. I want to go after certain kinds of projects, like the stop-motion that I’ve been doing recently.
M: What do you think is the most rewarding part of a #freelancelife?
A: One is that the work that I do is my choice, and that enables me to be more passionate about it and to produce better work. I’m happier, my client is happier, and I’m more engaged and have more of a say in the direction of the business.
Also, you can’t beat the freedom of the schedule. The hours I put in are no longer the metric for my success. Am I getting the work done that I promised to my clients? And am I able to fund my lifestyle? If both of the answers are yes, I’m successful.
M: What’s the most challenging aspect of a #freelancelife?
A: Trying to have a normal life. I love to work, and I love the work that I’m doing. I love the feeling of being productive and being creative and seeing the output of what I create. I love growing my business independently, being successful on my own terms. But it comes with its faults as well.
I have consecutive weeks where I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, head straight to the studio and I won’t leave until 9/10/11:00 at night, go home, eat dinner really quick and go to bed. That’s ok for a short period of time, but it’s no way for a human to live long term. You’re really sacrificing your quality of life. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the hustle and the grind from the normal life where I have friends and go out and drink beers and just relax.
M: What’s one thing you’ve learned that you wished you knew starting out?
A: Realize that you are a business, not just an artist. That was really hard for me to wrap my head around, but I realized at some point that the better I run my business, the better off I’ll be all around.
Also, the true and utter importance of networking. Reaching out to people, letting them know what you do, who you are. Getting coffee, going to events. When you’re doing work for a company or a product or a brand, you’re doing work for people so be as relatable and personable as possible. It’s a huge deal. People love to work with good, enjoyable people and sometimes even a random 5-minute conversation with someone can turn into a huge opportunity down the road.
Adam, thank you so much. I always enjoy our chats. We have the same outlook on so many things related to the philosophy of freelancing! Can’t wait to catch up again soon!