The Freelancers: Natalee Ranii-Dropcho on realising her niche, hiking mountains and staying curious
Welcome to our interview series: The Freelancers! Diving into the challenging world of self-employment, we discuss the highs, lows and day-to-day requirements of freelancing at different design studios and brands as a career choice. For the second entry in the series, we spoke to Natalee Ranii-Dropcho, a New York-based Creative Director and storytelling wizard whose practice has – very literally – travelled the globe! We discussed all things strategy and copywriting, alongside the perfect workplace set-up, and the joy of solo travel.
PT Hi Natalee, welcome to The Freelancers series! How is everything going?
NRD Hey, honoured to be here! I recently returned from a month in Peru, where I hiked through the Sacred Valley and attended an artist residency in Urubamba. It was a complete 180˚ from my life in New York, so I suppose I’m sinking back into the rhythm of the city and the shifting seasons: camping with friends, catching up on exhibits, and reading as much as humanly possible.
PT You describe your role as being a bit of a creative ‘chameleon,’ working across strategy and copywriting and storytelling – how did you find yourself at this intersection?
NRD I never fit into a defined role at a company, so I usually ended up playing more than one. Early on I worked at small agencies where I was responsible for both strategy and copywriting, doing the work to get a project from pitch to execution. I learned how to speak everyone’s language – accounts, designers, c-suites – and became somewhat of a bridge between everyone to make the project mesh. I was a translator: I could listen to what a founder said they wanted, intuit what they actually needed, and then make it happen creatively. There were times when I felt pressure from companies to pick a lane: strategist or copywriter, visual or verbal, and ultimately I followed my instinct and embraced all of it. I feel that I make my best work at the intersection of disciplines rather than just delivering the strategy, ‘writing the words,’ or doing either in isolation of art direction or design. Plurality is my superpower! The hardest part is translating that into a title (this industry loves a box) so I oscillate between Strategy Director, Creative Director, and Brand Architect, which captures what I do holistically: build brand worlds.
So much of our priorities are shaped by what immediately surrounds us.
PT You chose to go freelance in 2018, can you tell us what drove your decision and what kinds of opportunities it allows you to pursue?
NRD I give the universe credit. At the time my employer decided to move the company to a different city, and I wasn’t ready to leave New York. It gave me the jolt I needed to dive head-first into freelancing. I had always wanted more autonomy over my schedule, the types of projects I took on, and the roles I played in them. I figured if I was going to be working as hard as I had been, I wanted to invest equally in my well-being, which I wasn’t getting from company culture. Around the same time, I met Jen Batchelor, who I partnered with to pioneer a new beverage category and build the creative world of Kin Euphorics from the ground up – a huge growth experience that wouldn’t have manifested if I had jumped to another full-time gig. I’ve been grateful that my freelance opportunities have outweighed the obstacles. I can choose what hours I work and where I get it done. I get to work with talented folks from all over the world and help all kinds of founders bring their visions to the public. I can create boundaries to say yes when a project is right and no when it isn’t. And I have the freedom to take a month off to disconnect from my inbox, experience a new part of the world, and nurture other curiosities.
PT How do you think your experiences travelling have shaped you and your creative outlook?
NRD I’ve been thinking a lot about how influenced we are by our environments: so much of our priorities are shaped by what immediately surrounds us. Being in a new space is a palette cleanser that illuminates what’s really important to me. It’s challenged me to be uncomfortable and adapt to new rhythms. It’s helped me to develop a deeper sense of empathy with people who have completely different perspectives. I can also use a different part of my brain that I’m not paid to use, which has helped me to redefine ‘worth’ for myself. I suppose it keeps me humble: faced with a lagoon of pink flamingos in the Bolivian Altiplano or a mountain of spices in the Marrakech medina, I’m reminded that I’m just a speck of dust in this world with so much left to learn. I try to process these journeys by making photographs and writing, and am working on sharing them as stories of their own.
PT Can you tell us a bit about your current roles?
NRD I am employed part-time and freelance the rest of the week. As a freelancer, I work directly with founders, brands and agencies on everything from manifesting a mindful internet to crafting the voice of the gut. Most of my recent projects fall under verbal identity, campaigns and content, but my favourites let me do all of those things and then some. I’m also the Strategy & Copy Director at PORTO ROCHA, where I work on branding across industries: from dating apps to energy drinks. I’ve partnered with the founders, Leo Porto and Felipe Rocha, for a few years, so when they asked me to join the team it was the right fit. They respect my need for flexibility and autonomy to build the strategy department – currently a powerhouse team of two! We’ve been working on lots of cultural projects, like rebranding Sundance Film Festival and releasing a collaborative report called Design Threads, which unravels the state of design today, and as you can imagine, revealed more questions than answers.
PT What is it like managing both sides of your schedule? Does it suit your working style?
NRD The Earth signs in me crave control, and despite freelance’s chaotic tendencies, it gives me that. Adding part-time into the equation has been the best of both worlds: I have the opportunity to be part of building a brilliant team, can pursue projects of my own, and am not limited to a finite number of days off. It’s a lot to take on and I definitely work for it, but it affords me the freedom to create and rest and play. There’s an element of code-switching that’s unavoidable as I’m sometimes working between five clients in a day, but I’ve always been good at ‘time management.’ Things that have worked for me: stack meetings on the same day, carve out blocks to deep think, set deadlines before they’re due, exercise regularly and don’t fight your biological clock (I’m a night owl).
Time is my most precious resource and I’d rather spend it doing things I enjoy.
PT Since starting out, who or what would you say helped you to navigate freelance life the most?
NRD Knowing what my expertise is and being honest about what isn’t. I was never great at math, so was it worth spending hours on tax strategy every month when I could hire someone who knows what they’re doing? CPAs and lawyers are a significant cost to shoulder, and it took me a few years to get there (I don’t gatekeep; ask me anything). But time is my most precious resource and I’d rather spend it doing things I enjoy. For my clients, this means starting every relationship by being upfront about my limits. Roles, especially when you play a few, can mean different things to people, so I clearly outline mine; for example, I can craft any voice under the sun but am not your top choice for SEO. I’m upfront about what I need to be successful, including bringing other creatives in when the project calls for it. One of my ongoing dilemmas when it comes to taking on new work has been solving the how much is enough vs too much equation. Time tracking has been key to understanding how long something takes me which I use as a baseline to scope new projects.
PT Whereabouts do you primarily work, and what is your typical work setup?
NRD Polarising opinion, but I work from home and love it. The hour and a half I gain from not commuting is sleep that I need. Environment is everything for getting into a flow, so I invest in setting the mood: my dream desk, noise-cancelling headphones, things that smell nice, and a pile of books when I need to get out of my head. I try to go into the PORTO ROCHA office once a week, which is bright with good music and sometimes turns into a party. And I do enjoy first meetings and workshops in person; if you’re reading this, I rarely turn down a working lunch!
PT Is there anything that you’ve learned throughout your career that you wish you’d known when you first started out?
NRD It’s okay if you don’t have it all figured out. We’re all figuring it out! When I started at my first agency, I didn’t even know strategy existed. But the magic of this work is that you never solve it all – every project is an entirely new challenge and crash course in another corner of the universe: urban housing, the microbiome, the chemistry of love. If someone tells you they have all the answers, they’re lying. I named my company Trial and Error LLC because every project is the process of figuring it out; I’ve just gotten better, faster and stronger at it.
Also, people will try to put you into a box. If your instinct is to expand, don’t let them. For years I had this internal struggle of “am I a strategist or a creative?” “Am I left-brain or right-brain?” Ultimately, I made peace with owning all of it. This isn’t for everyone; some people are niche specialists and thrive there. But the nature of companies is to create hierarchy that constrains you to a job description rather than a vision. It’s hard to take detours if the path is already laid out, so you might miss something you’re really great at. Just stay curious and follow all the rabbit holes until they lead somewhere that feels like you.
It’s okay if you don’t have it all figured out. We’re all figuring it out!
PT What skills are most essential to you on a day-to-day basis? Both in your creative roles and from an admin perspective.
NRD Freelancers have to do their job plus learn a bunch of other jobs they weren’t trained to do. In addition to delivering strategy and creative that my clients love, I also have to be my own new business lead, project manager, bookkeeper, accountant, and lawyer (I have the last two now). On projects where I’m leading a team, I also need to show up as a manager and mentor. So flexibility, organisation and juggling multiple things at max capacity is a given. And patience. I could have thought through every angle of a tagline only to have someone who attended one meeting three months into the project rule it out subjectively. So much of my work is deep listening, showing people that I hear them, then gently guiding them toward the ‘why’ with rationale. Most importantly, the resilience to advocate for myself, because I’m the only one who can. Holding my ground on what I’m willing to do and what I’m not, setting a fair timeline and budget, requesting contract revisions – even if it means tough conversations or turning down a project. I’ve had to trust my instincts on this, and I’m still learning.
PT As 2022 draws to a close, what projects/plans/adventures have you got your eyes set on for next year?
NRT The blessing of my job is that I spend a lot of time making other people’s dreams come true. The curse is that it leaves me with little energy to figure out my own dreams. I’d like to set my sights on unearthing those, beginning with sharing some stories I’ve been holding onto for no reason. I’d love to get in a rhythm of making for fun and maybe find some collaborators to make with. No adventures booked yet, but I’m a serial trip planner and Patagonia is at the top of my list. And I’m taking on new projects for next year, so consider this your sign to call me.