Five Questions for the Freelancer

Becoming-a-Freelance-Article-Writer-1170x731It’s National Small Business Week! That got me thinking about the friends, colleagues, and random folks who ask me questions about running a freelance biz. So here they are, in no particular order.

Is it hard to start a business?

Yes and no. You can make it as easy or complicated as you want. If it’s just you and you’re working out of your home office, it’s pretty straightforward.  If you’re going to be setting up a remote office, doing tons of promotion, etc. you’re taking on more at the get-go. But you will need to do the essentials, like a DBA (if you’re naming your business), a business license, biz cards (yes, I still have one and I use it), any necessary office equipment, a simple website, and an accounting and expenses program. I also recommend that you put aside a healthy chunk of money in the bank before go out on your own. When I started out in 1999, I cashed out stock at my prior company, which helped with startup costs and slower times. Which leads me to the second question I get.

Don’t you worry about getting business?

Fact: If you’re not concerned where you’re next job is coming from, you shouldn’t be in business for yourself. Even when I have the steadiest of gigs, jobs can end ANYTIME and sometimes do. Or last for years. Change of personnel, budget cuts, and other factors can turn on a dime. There’s always an element of risk. Some months I’ll have tons of work and leads, and others can be dry as a bone. There is also the investment of time to get a contract and it doesn’t always pan out. That’s why it’s critical to stay sharp, focused, and consistently be on the hunt for your next gig. I attend networking events, actively search on Linkedin and job lists, and put out the word to my network. It’s a constant cycle and requires a certain tolerance for risk. This is the beauty and the beast of having your own business. Embrace it or stick with 9 to 5.

How do you decide how much to charge?

That is the $64,000 question and an enigma wrapped in a quagmire. There are standard industry rates for many freelancer roles, but other factors go into deciding how much to charge. Here are some criteria I take into consideration that can push a rate up or down: Is it long-term or short-term opportunity? Is it with a cool company I want to get on my resume? Is it a startup that doesn’t have a lot of cash, through an agency, or a big corporation? Is it on a really interesting project that I’ve never done before and can use as a new type of work sample? Ultimately, I have to feel that what I’m being paid is fair, otherwise it will cause resentment on the job. Know your market worth and it will make saying yes and no a lot easier (remember to stash some cash too!).

What time do you get up? 

This is the most annoying question I get. There is this persistent image of the freelancer waking up at 10am grabbing some coffee, watching daytime talk shows or binging Netflix, and then eventually working for an hour in the afternoon. This is only on Fridays. Kidding. Truth is we don’t get paid unless we work, so there is high motivation to sit at the desk, co-working space, or couch and get sh*t done. We can make our own schedule since we know the deadlines, but many of us work strange hours, or weekends. Conversely, we’ll also have those slower times regular employees don’t. That’s when we can grocery store or run errands or schedule lunches during the day — but sorry to burst your bubble — a life of luxurious relaxation this is not.

Would you ever go back to a full-time job?

I tried that once in 19 years and not long after, I was back in the freelancer’s chair. Once I had a taste of that freedom, I didn’t want to go back. Sure it’s nice to get a regular paycheck, benefits, etc. but there’s another price to pay, and for me, it’s a lifestyle choice. I love picking and choosing the jobs that I want, meeting new and interesting clients, and learning new products. And if the the gig turns out to be a disaster, I can walk away, relatively unscathed. Of course I still do my fair share of griping about the contracting lifestyle, but in the end, I’m in the fly solo zone  — and that’s exactly where I want to stay.

What other questions do you wonder about? Freelancers: what are some of the common questions you get? What did I miss?

 

 

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The Ten Commandments of Consulting

10 commandments17 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.

 

5 Tips For Working With Freelance Writers

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Ever wonder why some of freelance writing projects go smoothly and others sink like the Titanic? Peek inside our brain with some first-hand insights that will help your content hit the nail on the head – instead of the last one in the coffin.

Be a Great Partner

Collaboration is key in content development. We don’t automatically flow words together without effort. We rely on the best information to create that fabulous writing for you. We do our part by getting all the materials to the job done, including asking smart questions and confirming details. Your part? Help us close the understanding gap, like legacy knowledge or a relevant back-story, so we don’t risk missing the mark. Say, for instance, I’m the second writer you hired for this job. Why didn’t that first engagement work out? How can we improve this one?

Chart the Course

Set expectations about the project – that means the schedule, reviews, logistics, milestones and any “gotchas” along the way (um…we may add in a new product at the end). Most of these questions can be answered with a project plan – even a loose one. Schedules change but at least we’ll have a roadmap. For example, a recent website client didn’t include all the players for early reviews, so near final copy, major changes were required. That added up to wasted time, resources, and money for everyone.

No “Sh*tty First Draft”

Writer Anne Lamott aptly stated the truth about first drafts years ago and it won’t change – mark my words (sorry couldn’t resist). By the time you see our work, we’ve put a Herculean effort to make it the best it can be – but we do expect changes. It’s rare that the first time you see a document it will be “perfect” and require nary an edit. We can pine for this utopian scene but don’t expect it (that’s why it’s called Utopia, people). We are prepared to revise and get constructive criticism. Those writers who can’t deal should pick another career. Which leads us to the next tip…

Show Me, Don’t (Just) Tell Me

The way you review matters: Slap-dash or vague verbal comments will produce a sub-par result. “This paragraph doesn’t work” isn’t specific. Why? What’s the issue? If the tone of the document is off, that’s one thing, but if there are parts you want to change, be clear and note it on the document, email, or whiteboard – anything. But know that verbal feedback can sometimes be tricky to interpret. A former client would not review documents in writing as she was “too busy.” The result? A protracted review loop with misunderstandings and ad hoc changes all along the way. Bottom-line: Clarity early saves time later.

Shift Happens

Sometimes mid-way or at the very end (see “gotchas” above) someone, somewhere decides that this document needs to serve another purpose, the messaging has changed, or a response to a competitor should be weaved in (and of course deadline hasn’t changed). Hopefully, the entire document doesn’t have to be scrapped, but sometimes that’s the reality. Know that we will likely need to add to the budget and schedule if it’s not baked in. Small changes? Fine. A rewrite is a whole different animal. We’ll be fair and work with you on this, but know there is a difference between revisions and starting from scratch.

Circle-Slash Whiney Writers

Occasionally, there is a piece of content that just doesn’t work – period. Maybe the CMO jumped in and forced a paragraph that changed everything; or a success story wasn’t all that impressive; or the blog post is watered down because too many people got their hands on it. None of these situations is anyone’s “fault,” but they do need to be resolved. Moments like this can also be a breeding ground for misunderstandings and delays. Writers take a lot of pride in what they do and will help solve the issue if we can. But ultimately it will be your decision, knowing we’ve done our best work and it’s out of our hands. Though difficult, this is the life of a freelancer. The end result may not be our perfect ending, but it’s yours – and we have to accept that and walk away.

The Wrap

Freelance writing projects are an intimate exchange of partnership, jumbled words, and moving parts that can churn out a great result – or turn into a failure to launch. The best outcome? That the content serves the purpose, it will be read by your audience (and shared too!), oh, and you get well-deserved kudos. The beauty is that we can learn something from each engagement – about you, ourselves, and how to improve our writing for future projects.

Oh, and one more thing of beauty – that you’ll call me back for your next project.

Answer These Questions Before Starting Your Freelance Business

Every year, millions of corporate employees fantasize about breaking out of their cube shackles to start a consulting business. In fact, freelancers make up 35% of our national economy—that’s 53 million people! Are you going to be one of them in 2017?

Before you make that jump, answer these nine questions.

#1 Are you obsessed with it?
enOk that sounds a bit extreme and stalker-ish but like most things, if you don’t really (really) want it and aren’t fully committed, it won’t happen. You’ll find excuses, you’ll delay, you’ll talk about it but never take action. It has to be at the top of your priority list. Something you can’t stop thinking about. An itch you have to scratch. If you don’t feel this way, you’re not in 100% and that’s a recipe for failure. I’ve witnessed this as colleagues “trial” freelancing it but don’t go all-in, and unsurprisingly end with a thud (and feeling bad about themselves). Freelancing isn’t like going vegetarian for a month – it’s going to be a big part of your life. Take it VERY seriously or don’t take it at all.

#2 Does it scare the sh*t out of you? (in a good way)

f6There is a saying “Fear is the great extinguisher of  dreams…Conversely, it can be your best mentor and source of motivation.” Though my uncorporate lifestyle seems natural to me now with the built-in highs and lows, life wasn’t always this way. Freelancing to me is “controlled risk”: you look fear in the face most of the time but also get the rewards of your efforts. When you close the door on corporate, you  hit salary, benefits, and other cozy securities on the way out (not to mention those awesome free snacks). As a freelancer, you may have periods of “stability,” but get used to those air quotes – that word won’t be in your vocab often.


#3 Do you get bored with routines?            

f1Sure there are built-in habits we all have, whether it’s the rabid commitment to three cups of coffee before you talk to anyone, or lunch with your bestie every Friday, or being crazy busy during tax season if you’re an accountant. But the guts of your business – the pace, the timeline of work, the daily schedule, the ups and downs, will have a choreography of their own. One evening you can burn the midnight oil for a deadline and the next morning scout for a new client, or go for a walk in the middle of the day  – but you need to thrive on the variety, not fear it.  Which leads me to my next question…

#4 Are you exceptionally self-disciplined?
f3Yes, you’ll have an ever-changing life, but you also have to hunker down when you need to – big time. This is a core characteristic of freelancing. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I’m tempted to watch TV all day (no, just while eating lunch); or if I get up at 10am (nope again, but I don’t get up at 5am either). Like a regular job, you have to prioritize work and get it done in a timely fashion. The difference?  You won’t have a boss in your face pressing you on a deadline or cube mates noticing when you leave the office. And sometimes you’re working with two or three clients at a time so you practice your juggling skills. Sure there are times you can relax with wiggle room, but the majority is spent working or hustling for new work (or both).

#5 Do you have back up in the bank?
small busThis is another biggie if you’re going out on your own. How much is up to you. I recommend six months to cover personal expenses (not to mention start-up costs for your business). I realize not everyone can do this. However, a baseline of financial security provides a good balance of work-your-butt-off to-get-clients but also know that you have resources to live and take the stress level down a notch. Yes, you could challenge yourself to go out on your own without funds, but you may make decisions you regret – like take a client you’re not crazy about, sign up for work beneath your level, or even slog some lattes at Starbucks if you’re that desperate. The healthiest balance is to have a financial security blanket as you build your business.

#6 Are you able to turn off the perfectionist gene?        
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Here’s a secret: it’s pretty darn easy to start a freelance business. A lot of people think it’s tons of work and get overwhelmed and scrap the idea altogether. You don’t need an elaborate marketing plan, payroll system, or office space – especially these days with a computer, connection, and tons of online freelancer services for everything from productivity to accounting. Don’t spend tons of money on your business when you’re just starting out. A few years ago, a colleague delayed her coaching business until she built this complicated client interface that cost thousands of dollars. Start professional but lean. Pivots are common and your work focus can change, especially at the beginning. Pick and choose the must-haves. It’s easy to feel pressure to have the crème de la crème when you start out, but it’s better to iterate your business as you go.

#7 Do you enjoy your own company?
f2This is not a question we often ask ourselves. When I went out on my own in 1999 the world of the internet was a lot smaller. Yes, there was email and the “net”, but there was no social media, Skype, apps, smartphones, and the rest of technology we rely on to keep us connected (and often distracted by). Back then, you had to be very purposeful in daytime socializing. Even though now we have a plethora of red notification lights continuously assaulting our senses, you’ll likely still spend a lot of time by yourself. There are ways to reduce alone time if it bothers you: join a co-working space, go to your client’s office, or schedule social time every day, but it won’t make solo time disappear.  If you find this inherently bothersome, freelancing may not be for you.

#8 Are you a natural or unlikely sales person?
smmmmGet that used car salesperson image out of your head. We’re all in sales one way or the other. Think of when you sell an idea to your boss with a PowerPoint presentation, or try to convince an employer to hire you, or sweet-talk a friend into trying a new cuisine she’s unfamiliar with. Freelancing forces you to be a natural connector. That means everything from going to networking events to having your elevator pitch down for random people you meet, to branding on social media. One trap I’ve seen (usually accompanied by the disdain for selling) is to rely on one client. That work could go away at a moment’s notice for a variety of reasons, but more importantly, it flies again why started a business in the first place. I know one colleague that only works for her former employer as a contractor, so she’s just working the same job for the same company without benefits.

#9 Are you prepared for blowback?
f4You’ll be starting a business, running a business, and thinking of your business – a lot. All of this “business” bleeds often over to your family, friends, vacation plans, and other important parts of your life. Some people may not understand why you work for yourself or worry about you. You’ll likely hear comments from certain corners like: “You work too much” or questioning your judgement with “Don’t you want an easier life?” and negative comments that (mostly) come from care. For this reason, make sure you cultivate plenty of social opportunities with supportive people who either have their own business or appreciate it. Join consulting groups, have coffee (or drinks for venting get-together) with other freelancers, and always remember why you stepped out on your own in the first place.

Well there you have it…did you answer a Big Fat Yes to all of these? Yes, there are many other factors that go into deciding to go freelance, but you’re off to a great start!

 

 

Size Matters: What Small Business Wish You Knew

smmmSan Francisco Small Business Week came and went in May, but we carry on long after the most pricey city in the land pays homage to its 85,000 independents. The mom and pop shops. The consultants. The entrepreneurs (I refuse to legitimize  solopreneurs). We’re growing like crazy, but still the outliers of the American worker.

SMBs appreciate the attention once a year, but here’s what you should know about us—from those curious to start their own business to others who cannot fathom how we slog through this life after year.

We work 24/7

sb3I’m not a drama queen. Believe me, I know people with “regular day jobs” work their butts off too—it’s not a competition, but a very different life. You get a salary no matter what you do. Us? Nope. We only get paid when and how hard we work. And that’s not including the time we think about work on “off” hours. Waking up with a bright idea at 3am, worrying about the client who didn’t pay us, following up on the stale lead from last month. It’s very tough to go on vacation without having concerns. Anxiety-filled questions flood your head, like: will a client find someone new and completely forget me? Did the person I left in charge do a great job or make me look like a putz? And inevitably…Will I ever work again? (OK maybe I am a drama queen). My sister loves to reminds me of a visit years ago to Boston with the promise of helping her move out of her apartment.  I spent 75 percent of the time with one ear to the phone with a client and the other taping boxes (did I mention what a great multi-tasker I am?).

Our Relationship Skills Are Constantly Challenged

 sb2Most of small biz owners do not have psychology degrees and must rely on our smarts—specifically social IQ—to deal with the cacophony of situations, thorny problems, and awkwardness that can occur on a daily basis. There is no playbook for dealing with a wide range of emotions and intelligence we encounter—whether clients or potential customers. We are pushed to rely on our best communication skills (when we don’t have them tee’d up), make instant decisions (which we may instantly regret) or screw something up wildly on the spot (see question above about future employment opportunities). And let’s face it, there are certain people that make working together more difficult than it needs to be. Think of it like communication kung-fu, but without the black belt. One of my first clients (through a friend, even more awkward) included a permanently-agitated, resentful employee who constantly tried to point out flaws, and went from passive to aggressive without the hyphen. I learned early on from this experience and others like it to try and put myself in that person’s shoes. Maybe the person was competitive, or worried I was angling for their job, or stressed about something at home, or maybe, just maybe, was just a certified jerk.  I remained professional and reserved my self-control, which has served me well to deal with the next client problem child(s). Thankfully there haven’t been tons of these “learning opportunities.” And though I would like to think I get better at it every year, there is inevitably a new angle on it each time and I think about what I would do in the future. Speaking of which…

Small Biz Can Reinvent

enSure, the word “pivot” is cliché, along with “disruption” and the crop of other Silicon Valley tech-y jargon. No matter what you call it, change happens, whether you bring it on yourself or it comes hurling to your doorstep. From big decisions to small tweaks: the move from project fees to hourly rates, to add new products and services, to never taking a client to a restaurant again because the waiter was rude. For me, my Reinvention Moment was the day I broke up with Events. We were together for years, though admittedly had a love/hate relationship (mostly hate). I spent years laboriously tending to Events, yet wanted to leave more than a semiconductor show in Orange County. Do I ever miss the great money? Yep. The beauty when a perfectly orchestrated event goes off without a hitch? Uh-huh. But do I want the headaches, lugging crap around all the time, and the stress of  planning and fussing over every detail. Heck no.  And once I quit, I never looked back. I created my own change and freed up more time for writing projects, my first work love. Another great thing about having your own biz? If I ever wanted to get back together with Events—I could. (But we all know how round two usually goes).

There is No “Us” in Brand

smmmmWhether you have a teeny retail shop, a thriving online business, or sell hot dogs on  the streets of New York City, you’re still the boss and Head Honcho of Everything. If an employee screws up your Twitter account, a customer gets ridiculously overcharged, or the hot dogs end up burnt— that comes back to you—it’s your baby, whether you like it in that moment or not. Now is not the time to hide behind excuses (nor tall employees). When something goes awry—as it often does—we own up to it and fix it. Small business takes this commitment very seriously. And if we don’t, things will go south in a hurry. SMB knows better than anyone, the one thing that is difficult—if not impossible to repair—is your reputation. Once you’re “damaged goods,” it’s near-impossible to get your coveted spot back. Think of vendors, stores and customer experiences  you never want to revisit. For a famous brand, say Tylenol or Toyota, or celebrity like Martha Stewart, redemption is granted through time. Humans love that schadenfreude stuff. But these are on-of-a-kind and popular cultural brand icons we want to like (and purchase from). Those same rules don’t apply to small business. Once you screw up royally, it’s pretty much over and onto the next.

We’re a Different Breed

sm5Not to be too black and white. Or Type A or B. But you’re a small business owner—or you’re not. I could rattle off the qualities that make it so, but that would be superficial. I never fashioned working away at my small business when I grew up, but I somehow caught the bug and here I am 17 years later. I think what separates a committed independent is best encapsulated in a conversation recently with a pilot friend of 25 years. He is passionate about flying for a major airline and can’t imagine doing anything else with his life—that’s why he gets up at the crack-ass of dawn, goes through constant sleep deprivation, and curbs his drinking long before the evening wears on. He asked me what job would get me up early and go to a corporate job. I sat there for a minute, paused, and said “nothing” (besides the fact that I despise getting up early). This is exactly where I want to be and in the life I want—like a Silicon valley innovation, it’s designed, produced, marketed, and constantly iterated. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.