17 years. 50+ clients. And 10 lessons I’ve learned running my freelance communications business (sometimes I’m schooled a few times, lucky me).
Obey your contracting creed. We all have our happy work place — pay attention to it. If you’re the type that gets distracted easily and seeks quiet to concentrate, park yourself at home (like me). If you crave socialization, head to the co-working space. Though these sound like obvious choices, the almighty dollar can sway you otherwise. When I moved to San Francisco from Sunnyvale seven years ago, my frequent and long drives to clients back and forth to the south bay were making me miserable. After my inaugural year of barely-contained road rage, I committed to only taking Silicon Valley gigs that were remote or called for only a few office visits. I am clear I don’t want to spend half my time in the car. Have I lost work because of it? Absolutely, but I’m also open for contracts that fit within my lifestyle (and there is much less yelling in the car).
Fake it till you make it. Let me explain: when I am asked if I do graphic design, the answer is always no — that is a gift that I do not have nor claim, BUT I can recommend designers and oversee project management (always offer clients a silver lining). On the other hand, several years ago when clients asked me for social media help, I self-taught online, grilled social media experts I knew, and implemented in my own business. Point being, if clients want a new skill and you realistically can and want to add to your wheelhouse, do it. But don’t ever lie about a skill. That will come back to bite you in a painful way, not to mention you’ll make enemies fast.
Trust your gut. Like most things in life, if something doesn’t feel or smell right, it isn’t. If a client seems vague, the work has PITA written all over it, or any other reason your brain and gut are duking it out, follow the gut, it will always set you straight. Example? An ex-client (emphasis on ex-) blurted out during our interview “You’ll really dislike me and want to leave this job.” We both laughed, but she was right, I was gone a few months later. And so was the other freelance writer she hired. This is a rare occurrence, but it does happen. In the battle between head and gut, embrace the latter instead of shoulda woulda coulda thinking.
Always carry your business card. These days, business cards are considered passé or unnecessary. But sometimes analog wins. There is nothing like a visual reminder for potential clients than your business card. One of the largest contracts I’ve had in my consulting career appeared during a mani pedi session at the local salon. The woman in the chair next to me turned out to be the director of communications for a leading Silicon Valley company – and was looking to fill a contract marcom role. Voila! A new client was born (and yes, my biz card was handy). You never know when your services will be needed for a gig. This doesn’t mean you’re always in “sales” mode, it means be ready when it happens.
Different rates for different tasks is a no-win. If a client wants an a la carte rate menu, you’ll usually end up with the short end of the financial stick. Why? This payment model is based on the premise that certain tasks are more important (and should pay more) than others. Think of it this way: no matter where you’re spending time, it’s related to the project. For me that would be research, writing, editing, or meetings — they are all interrelated in producing a great end result. The one thing you cannot get back is time, so don’t give it away – it’s your most valuable asset as a consultant.
It’s client or company bon voyage. If your client quits to go to another company, be prepared to stay with to the company or leave with that person in their next role. Also know that sometimes you’ll be out of a gig when the new client comes in with “their own people.” Prepare for all of these options at any time. You never know what’s going on behind the scenes. Cultivate good, healthy relationships around your client— a stakeholder or decision-maker surrounding them could be your next boss. One company I worked with went through three marcom directors before it was purchased, but I stuck with the firm.
Hold your work cards close. Whether you’re busy at the moment, courting other clients, or desperate for a new gig, there is no need to tell potential clients. When asked about your bandwidth, find out what the work scope is first. This is not a game or sneaky tactic, it’s just good business. And when it comes to the almighty dollar, think of yourself as a negotiation ninja — the first person who opens their mouth usually loses. That doesn’t mean you’re out to gouge clients, but get the most financial power for your skill-set. Be reasonable in your expectations, but also be smart and never, never undersell yourself.
Say goodbye to team spirit. Truth: You are not part of the team no matter how many happy hours you attend, kudos you get on that project, or office friendships you’ve cultivated. You are not getting a regular paycheck, you are an outsider contributing to projects at a company. You must be OK with this fact. Some freelancers get their feelings hurt along the way. I appreciate and respect the people and teams I have worked with, but the nature of consulting is impermanence. If that premise makes you uncomfortable, hit up the full-time job ads.
Set ground rules early with friends. Some consultants have a policy that they never work with friends. But if you decide to engage, it comes down to communication. I have worked with one close friend for years because we keep business and friendship separate and professional. If there was ever an issue, we put friendship first. We also benefit from a shorthand that improves project collaboration and outcomes. Conversely, I’ve worked with one friend who took advantage of the situation and didn’t put in her best effort as a sub-contractor. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t work together again but we’re still friends. Wherever you stand on this, know the risks and rewards before you commit.
There is one word I haven’t mentioned anywhere, and one most associated with consulting: risk. This is a top reasons people don’t go into freelancing, or leave it. So here’s your last commandment (that is also one of my favorite quotes): Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Believe it. Consulting never ceases to amaze me — the variety, the fun, the challenges. One thing is for sure, when you join the ranks of the independents, you’ll never be bored.