Producer, runner, and snowboarder, Shandi Kano has been working in the outdoor or sports production realm for over 10 years and freelancing for 7. She didn’t start off planning for a long-term career in freelancing, but after an intense burnout working for ESPN with Global and being in the 2013 Boston Marathon when the bombs went off, she took a year of medical leave and needed a way to slowly get back into the workforce.
Now, she’s worked on award-winning productions including a film about Zion National Park, Forever Is Now, which won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival.
Here’s what she has to say about freelance production, working with agencies, hiring her crews, managing burnout, and more.
Year started freelancing full-time: 2014
Age when started freelancing full-time: 29
Preferred Pronouns: she/her
What did you do before freelancing?
Before freelancing, I was doing the same sort of stuff at ESPN. I started my career at ESPN. I was a production assistant and associate producer. And I edited a lot of stuff in the newsroom, where I would cover anything that was going on in sports that day.
What made you decide to start freelancing?
A fairly long story of its own. It’s not like I was over there being like, ‘you know what I just think I want to freelance.’
The abridged version was I was really stressed. I had been promoted to take over XGames.com video, and we were expanding from two events stateside to six events all over the world. So I had a lot going on with my work.
And then I was also training for the Boston Marathon pretty aggressively — I wanted to break the three-hour time limit, which would make me qualified as an elite athlete or called a local elite. The combo of those two plus a recent breakup, I was maxed out on all areas of life and I started to experience some severe health consequences.
I did run the Boston Marathon, but that was the year the bombs went off. So I had a nervous breakdown in the medical tent and then the bombs went off.
I was on a six-month leave and just focused on returning to be a full human. I had some pretty bad brain damage, my right foot was numb for six months, my hormones were very backwards, I couldn’t sleep. It was a really intense period.
So I was on medical leave for a long time and while I was on that leave, the global X Games Department got shut down and moved back to the normal stateside. So my whole department was let go and I came back in October of that year and was there looking for more jobs internally but I wasn’t feeling good about it.
My best friend flew me out to Utah, where I had gone to school and loved, and I just knew I needed to come back here, so I did. But because of the state of my mind and physical health, I couldn’t get a full-time job because I couldn’t handle it. So I started freelancing as a means to make money and to slowly get my way back into working shape. It was never my goal.
What was your education before starting freelancing and production?
I studied broadcast communication, so it was a communication major with an emphasis on broadcast journalism. I took a lot of sports broadcast classes that were supplemental to that degree. They were the most helpful, to be honest.
What do your freelancing jobs usually look like?
They all look different, and it’s the best thing about it. There’s a recipe for doing all of them from a work standpoint but they’re all going to be different. Just like you turn your camera on every time, but it’s looking at something different every time, same with these projects.
What does that formula look like?
You win a job. You get the creative. If it comes to me, I’ll reach out to a director and if it comes from a director who’s called me, together we’re crewing up. So, based on the creative and what’s expected to be delivered at the end of the day, I’m staffing up all the different positions.
I’m making sure that the locations are being scouted and appropriately permitted. I’m making sure all the crew and staff know their rates in their jobs. I’m organizing for people to be fed. I’m organizing schedules and timelines and making sure that props and wardrobe and hair and makeup are all going to be taken care of.
Making sure the director and the DP (Director of Photography) have shot lists and making sure that the light technician otherwise known as a gaffer and his staff have the things they need to pull it off. Making sure the client’s happy all along the way. We get to shoot day, the shoot happens, and then you’re making sure that things go off without a hitch in post and all the feedback revisions with your client are looking good. Something gets delivered eventually.
So it’s the same recipe but very different, very nuanced per project.
How did you start working with bigger brands like Peet’s Coffee, REI, etc.?
It’s all networking. Freelancing is all about networking and how you use your network is what gets you jobs. Being good at your job gets you more jobs because the more jobs you’re taking, the more opportunity you are exposed to other people, to other clients. The right people notice the right things about you and they call you back or they recommend you.
In those particular cases, I was called by people that knew me or knew of me, and we were able to deliver. It’s not like I called Pete’s coffee and said ‘hey, let me make some content for you.’ A lot of those bigger brands have agencies and the agency producer knew me and he called me and asked me to tackle this with him.
Does that work look any different from working with smaller independent brands?
It definitely can. Larger corporations have a lot more red tape, a lot more hand-holding, a lot more bullshit going on that can test your patience.
With a small client, maybe you’re going directly to them. With larger companies, you’re going through the agency reps, you’re never actually talking to people at the company. Then there are levels and levels of approval in every little aspect. So, it’s sometimes more frustrating to work on larger branded stuff.
Every once in a while you hit the jackpot with a large client that trusts you and then you don’t have to be quite as annoyed. The process is still the same, but there’ll be a lot more nuances that you’re maybe not as stoked to deal with. But again, sometimes it’s wonderful.
Just keeping it real — it can be complicated. Agency work which is usually where the clients come from, becomes complicated, it can be diluted, the agency’s taking a large chunk of the fee but is kind of like this middleman. And you’re just wringing your hands like ‘can I just talk to the client so I know what they want?’ So it can be great, and it can be frustrating.
Do you have any advice for working with agencies?
My best advice for working with agencies is to be patient, flexible, and positive.
How do you typically find the people you hire for a crew?
At this point, I’ve got a really big rolodex, so I just know.
In the beginning, I would just ask. Ask people you’ve worked with before. Ask people in a network you think is the right network. I do a lot of social media calls. I do a lot of casting for extras on social media, or even just put out there “hey anyone know any good designers?”
That’s how I started and that’s what a producer does – they walk into the unknown to discover what they need. They just out of thin air will make something happen.
When you’re hiring people, what do you often look for?
It’s probably a combo of how they treat other people, their commitment to working hard, their talent, obviously. But also if they’re trustworthy. I think that’s probably the most important factor for me, especially in the freelance world.
You’re a freelancer, your mentality is kind of like every man for themselves. So it’s not always a safe place, but when you treat people well and you can forge trust in your freelance relationships, that’s the thing I look for most. Does it feel like a fit and are you good at what you do?
And there are cases where I’ll hire someone less talented but easier to work with. People who work hard. People who have a good attitude and they want to be there.
How do you manage boundaries with your clients?
It depends on your relationship with them. If you’re forging a new relationship, you’re kind of willing to be a little bit more flexible, especially if you’re new. If you’re young and you’re new, you kind of go through a phase where you say yes to everything because you’re just trying to get your name out there and you’re also trying to get paid.
When you get to a place where you have had some years of experience under your belt, you know what your boundaries are and it’s easier for you to manage that.
Sometimes it’s as simple as not responding till the next day. You don’t have to respond at midnight.
As a freelancer sometimes there aren’t a lot of boundaries there. So, if you want it you just have to make it and a lot of times, I’m engaged enough with my clients that I’m fine to take a call whenever. If it’s a client I don’t like, I’ll be a little more hard on, I just won’t respond [right away].
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started?
Being poor. Laughs.
Aside from lack of income, I think it was feeling like you weren’t needed anywhere and that was hard for me. Not that I didn’t have a purpose in my life, but it just brings me down when I don’t have something to do. I’m a goal-driven person, so having a goal and working towards it, is itself inspiring to me. And when you don’t have a project or something keeping you going, it can bum you out and make you question things.
You just start to feel crappy about yourself and undeserving. That was a struggle for me mentally and emotionally. Aside from worrying about having enough money for stuff — that was rough, too.
What helped you the most when you were starting out?
Just keeping going. I’m fairly relentless. Not that I was out there knocking on doors every day, but I was continuing to try to make an effort. It was just continuing to network, continuing to put myself in places where I could be useful. Just working hard.
If you’re good at freelancing, I feel it’s because you’ve earned that. No freelancer was just handed a freelance career with their own networking contacts. It’s all you. You are on your own. You’re your own advocate.
How did you get clients when you first started?
When I left ESPN and came here it was that networking thing. Friends of friends connected me to friends of friends and I ended up having lunch with a creative director at an agency here and it turned out that they needed a contract producer for a few clients.
So, it was a network. I’m very grateful to my friends who hooked me up with their friends. They sort of knew what I did, and they sort of knew what this guy needed and so they said why don’t you just meet, you never know. Then I was contracted at an agency and I was working on three different accounts for them. Network. Being good to people.
How did you get into the outdoors niche?
I guess I just always was.
I went to the X Games because I love snowboarding and I’ve been a runner my whole life — I ran in high school and college. The outdoors were always just where I spent the majority of my time, as a person so it was a natural fit.
Eventually, I had worked on a handful of running events with an old friend, and she recommended me to a woman named Julia, who is to this day one of my closest friends. She and I founded the Outessa Summit, which was an event where we had a weekend-long retreat for women in the outdoors.
A lot of outdoor sponsors were there, REI was our presenting sponsor. We went on to do the Pursuit series which is sponsored by CamelBak. So it was through that event that I got more ingrained with the outdoor industry as we know it now. Before that, to me, it was just my time outside and then the running world and the snowboarding world.
So working on that event. Working on content about running. When I left ESPN and came out here, part of the draw, if not all of the draw was to be able to snowboard. Naturally, you fall into that world and that’s where I was my whole life.
Do you ever go into other topics?
All the time. I did a commercial this year for Quickbooks. I’ve got a commercial in a couple of weeks for a non-profit sports organization. It’s always different.
Can you say a bit more about how you co-founded the Outessa Summit?
You just start. You have your dreams and you set up steps to get to the end goals. Find smaller goals within the big goal, and work towards it. Like, “okay, well I have this concept, and I eventually want to have 10 sponsors and 500 people come.”
Look at that concept and look at all the things you need: you need sponsors, you probably need a place for it, probably need advertising, you probably need some money. And you need a way to express all that to people. So you essentially put together a pitch deck and you start asking questions.
“Hey, do you want to be part of this really cool event? Here’s what I would like you to do and here’s how much that cost and here’s what you get.”
Essentially, it’s pitching your dreams.
How do you work in vacation or sick days?
This year I haven’t because I’ve been insanely busy. Usually, you just say, “I’m taking today off.”
But based on your project load, you can forecast. Sometimes it’s challenging. As a freelancer, it’s hard to say no to stuff because you always want to keep building your network portfolio. But at some point, you have to also build your personal life.
How do you handle your accounting and taxes?
I pay someone else.
How do you manage retirement funding?
My husband worked in retirement planning consulting for six years, so I just do what he says. But I do have an IRA for my retirement.
How do you decide your rates?
In production, the rates are usually decided for you, because there are just standard fees for certain things, but there is a scale. There’s usually a beginning and end of that scale per position.
You can change those rates based on your experience and people’s perception of your worth. As you continue to work within relationships and build them up year after year, it’s easier to start justifying different costs.
How do you decide when you bump up your rates?
I think a lot of times people aren’t sure, so it’s a really important question, I think there are standard grades, across the board for a lot of industries. And you’ll always find outliers — typically the more experience you have, the higher your rate is. The higher quality your work is, the higher your rate is.
For me, as I gained more and more experience, the more I knew about what I didn’t know, I didn’t feel quite opportune telling someone “I’m gonna go from $600 to $650 on this day rate.”
After a time, you start to realize, I have moved past not understanding these things and now I’m doing them on the regular, so I’m gonna start charging $700 now.
It also can be based on budget. It can be based on the creative ask. And there are some instances where the budget doesn’t allow me to pay someone to do props and services and assistant directing my fee goes up because it’s naturally going to fall on the producer to do all those things so I’m gonna charge more.
How did you start making more money?
Just keep going. Keep refining yourself, keep saying yes to jobs, keep networking. You keep using that network, you keep building trust and relationships.
The biggest compliment you can get as a freelancer is to get called back from someone. That tells me that you thought I did a good job. I was worth your time and your money and you’re happy about the work. That’s the biggest compliment. To be able to keep freelancing, I think proves that you’re doing a good job.
Have you ever had to dump a client?
Well, recently there was a client that had spent about six to eight months kind of courting us and moving dates on us and things like that. Then we were at the point where we were finally ready to sign a contract and I’m waiting for it to hit my inbox. They come back and say we’re actually not going to do this anymore, we want to call you in the future.
And I said “please don’t call me in the future. You’ve wasted our time. Disrespected our work and blah blah blah.” I was pretty straightforward and burnt the bridge on purpose because I didn’t see it going anywhere. That also is a skill, it takes time to know when to do that. Wouldn’t recommend ever taking that route — that was kind of an extreme route.
On other routes where you’re not interested, you can come back and say, “Hey, thanks so much. I think it’s kind of more of a one-off for us. We’re more interested in doing this kind of work vs. this kind of work, but this was great, thank you so much.”
Just politely decline because you get to a certain point in your career where you know the kind of work you want to do and people you want to work with, you’re not willing to take everything anymore. The scarcity mentality is very real freelancing and when you get that you sometimes do things that you would never choose to do that you’ve chosen so you can pay your mortgage. But sometimes there are just clients who you just don’t want to do that work and if you’re in a place where you can say no, then I think it’s just declining.
What makes a good client to you?
It’s a tall order. A client that understands the creative process and respects the creative process. Respects you as a creative and trusts you to do the job and do it well.
Sometimes you gotta work to get them there.
Would you have any actionable suggestions on how to develop good relationships with clients?
Read the room and be good to everyone. Go above and beyond, be kind, thoughtful. Be confident in who you are. Never try to act like something you aren’t. Be honest and be a good person.
If you can break through that barrier and connect with people human to human, I think you’re a lot more likely to succeed.
How do you decide you’re at capacity or not going to take on any new work?
When you don’t have time to grocery shop, or make meals, or see your spouse or exercise or your friends, sex, etc. If you don’t have time for those parts of life, the balancer, you’re maxed out.
Not everyone’s gonna get to that level, I get to that level a lot.
What do you like the most about freelancing?
That it’s different every time. I love that I’m not siloed to one specific thing. If you work for a company, you have one job within these walls and you’ve got people around you, to support or supervise or whatever.
You don’t get to maybe branch out into the supporting role, or supervise yourself or other people. And you don’t get to delegate tasks. I like with freelancing, you can go where you feel like you want to go and the ability to grow is unmatched about being your own boss and dictating what you want.
Have you ever felt or experienced any challenges as a woman or woman of color in the outdoor industry?
Specific to the industries we’re talking about, not that I know of. I feel like I’m pretty good at getting respect from people. That’s the most important thing to me — I just want to be respected.
For the most part that comes across well. There’s been comments sure, but I’m pretty quick to talk back about femininity.
I wouldn’t call it a challenge so much as I’m ethnically ambiguous. So I think about six or seven years ago I started getting asked by photographers if they could shoot with me because they needed an ethnically ambiguous person to do outdoor stuff. And I think that’s great and fine but I think it’s become more of a hot topic.
I think the challenge is you’re getting called because you look sort of Asian or sort of this or sort of that. You don’t get called for a campaign that’s specific to Asian people. There was a client of mine that was asking all the models basically for their permission to use their faces because they were Asian. They didn’t ask me, because I’m not as Asian.
So it’s, it’s a weird place to be when you look ambiguous. I’m Japanese, I’m Native American, I’m Lebanese and my stepfather and brother are black. When you are in one camp in one camp only, there’s no space for anyone else and that’s what’s hard. Within me I’ve got three different camps, so to speak. Am I supposed to just pick one and go all in?
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome?
That’s a really hard question because everyone defines imposter syndrome differently. I think when you hear people talk about imposter syndrome, it’s because they’ve seen what they think they’re supposed to be, to be an outdoors person. And that’s just junk. There are as many ways to be an outdoors person as there are humans on the planet. It means we’re all different and we all belong.
So have I felt like an imposter? No. I’ve felt like I’ve been in over my head. That is not so much that I questioned myself. I was just like, “Oh, well I don’t know what that is, I’m going to go look it up and figure it out.”
Have you ever gotten burnt out? And how do you deal with that?
Yes. The first time, I took a year off for medical leave.
Now, I’ve spent the last 10 years making sure that I maintain a balance where I could detect burnout coming up and I knew what to do. And I’ve had enough tools in my life resource bag to bring myself back down.
It’s different every time but a lot of times it’s just getting away for the weekend, or saying no to things. Turning the phone off at a certain time of the day. Even scheduling activities that are outside of the norm. The way my work has been recently, I have to schedule breaks. Schedule things and really be present.
Just have to be very mindful of your time and be present with the things you’re at and if you’re stacking up, you’ve got to schedule some time to bring it down.
How do you balance being an athlete and your freelance work?
It’s a pendulum swing and it’s priorities. I haven’t raced this last couple of years — last year because of COVID, this year because of work. And that was a choice I consciously made. I thought, “well, my heart isn’t really in racing right now, but I’m feeling excited about all my work, so I’m just gonna focus on that just stay in shape.”
In past years, there’ve been times where I have a lot of races on my schedule or other big physical feats that I would have to just plan for it or say, “okay my work’s light enough that I could fit this in comfortably.”
But that’s the balance that’s always shifting. Every season, every year it’s always different. Just have to be aware and that just takes time to go through it.
If you could give one piece of advice to a newer woman freelancer getting into the outdoor industry, what would it be?
Just keep going.
If you know it’s what you want to do and you’re loving it. You just keep going and keep learning and be present in all of your actions. And trust that with time, things get better and easier and you have more experience and therefore more resources.
Trust the slow burn process. If you know that freelancing is for you, just keep going. It just takes time. It takes years to develop a place where you understand what works for you and what doesn’t.
See more of Shandi Kano’s work on her website.
Some of her previous work: