No Go For The Status Quo

Posted: January 12th, 2011

Image by Vipez (Flickr)

Image by Vipez (Flickr)

I was a bit disturbed this week after viewing some news that really hit close to home. As you may have already heard, a shooting occurred in Tucson, Arizona where six people were killed, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, and a U.S. congresswoman shot in the head.

Tucson is where I grew up and graduated college, not to mention, I regularly frequented the Safeway store where the shooting occurred.

What further disturbed me was that I found out in the headlines… all the way out in Spain.

Now, I have a general dislike of the media (though, yes, I do need some news sources once in a while) and couldn’t help but attribute the shooting as a product of the media and some deranged young man whose switch suddenly flipped. I could go on and on about that but that’s not what this post is about.

I’ve thought a lot about it in the last few days but my real beef with the media is its extreme power in shaping our actions without us knowing whether we are really hearing the truth or some crap to get our attention. This especially hold true when it comes to our employment. In case you haven’t you heard:

“Job prospects remain grim for 2011″ – Chicago Tribune

“Unemployment rises to 9.8%” – Miami Herald

“Evergreen Solar to cut 800 jobs as it tries to compete with China” – Boston Globe

And my favorite…

“A Modest Proposal to Stimulate Employment and Fight Terrorism” – NYT

I’d be lying if I said I never always trusted the media because, at one point in my life, I’d get my daily dose of CNN “world” news and the then the local news at 10 PM. I still remember that “It’s ten o’ clock. Do you know where your children are?” in that eery voice as it comes on.

But these were the days when I believed it was hard to find a good job and maybe I should consider further education to expand my degree. If I remember correctly, around the begining of the last decade, the job market was requiring skills beyond a bachelor’s degree.

In other words, I followed the status quo right to the tee.

As I began my freelance career, it took a few years to realize not to believe everything I hear in the news, if anything at all. In fact, I can sum up all the news for you in two sentences. If the economy is going south, there’s no jobs. If it’s in a boom, it’s still hard to find a job in a crowded job market.

Complete bullshit.

I can sum up the REAL news you need to know in two sentences. If there was no work  available, there would be NO economy. There is an economy and, in fact, economies all over the world so work must be available.

Of course, it isn’t to say that work is that easy to get. It takes a lot of work and, pardon the expression, some balls to get the work you desire but it’s there for the taking.

Now it’s time to get to it… or sit back and wait for the news to come back on again.

4th of July Homework For Freelancers (After Your Barbecue)

Posted: July 2nd, 2010

Photo by Space Pirate Queen (Flickr)

Photo by Space Pirate Queen (Flickr)

Yes, it’s one of those few celebrated holidays of the summer. So before you’re about to scarf down your allotment of barbecue and potato salad for the year or head out to Yosemite for a nice hike and a picnic, you may have already realized you’re at the midpoint of the year. Already!

While you’re resting and recharging, it’s also a good time to reflect on the past year so far. Is your freelancing business going how it should? Is there anything you want to change or haven’t begun to do yet? What can you do better?

Those are a few questions a serious freelancer would think about throughout the year. So I’ll leave a few compiled posts here to get you started for the holiday break.

Happy 4th of July!

Recognizing The Red Flag Client (Like a Bad Date)

Posted: June 30th, 2010

Photo by Kioan (Flickr)

Photo by Kioan (Flickr)

Picture this: A potential client consults with you. You give a (rather pricey) estimate. He is still interested and looks like a nice project to keep you going for a while.

Then you get to further discussions. He doesn’t pay attention to your suggestions. He is unclear of his goals and vision for the project. You just don’t see eye-to-eye.

Memories of a bad date are popping into your head.

So now you face an interesting dilemma in freelancing. Do I give up a great project and the nice income it will provide or do I take those red flags into account and let this client slip away to another freelancer?

Well, do bad dates ever get a second chance?

OK, maybe once in a blue moon but you eventually become quick to learn that, at any signs of trouble, it’s time to bolt.

On the other hand, with clients, it’s not so easy. Especially if you have kids to feed and rent or mortgage payments looming every month. When your own livelihood is at stake, turning down clients doesn’t seem like a very wise option.

Let’s, however, take a look at the real cost of turning down work from “bad date” client for a second.

It’s not the lost income

It’s easy to see that letting a potential (but temporary) cash cow go is equal to taking money right out of your pocket. The mistake in this line of thought is that you haven’t earned the money yet. There is no income lost at all.

Note that the keyword here is earned. How many hoops do you think you’ll have to jump through to even know what the project scope is and create a spec for it? Plus working with a client who isn’t aligned with your own style and goals means you’ll be spending most of your time trying to figure out and give the client what he wants while he continuously rejects your work.

All this adds up to significant extra time aside from the actual time worked on the project. And extra time costs you money in time that can be spent with clients who work well with you.

Read the signs

Much like a bad date (hell, we can say exactly the same as a bad date), your un-ideal client carries visible warning signs to stay as far away as possible. These can easily be seen within the first few consultations of a project.

  • The client is not receptive to your  suggestions. You begin to wonder why you were chosen in the first place.
  • One sided (that would be favoring the client) and long communication through emails, IM or calls. While you’re trying to comment and advise, you are interrupted with speeches on the client’s requirements.
  • The client couldn’t “work” with several other previous freelancers. It’s important to ask about this since it usually means others had enough of the client in the past.
  • You can’t figure out what the client wants… even after spending the time on all the emails and calls.

Hey, I won’t go as far as to tell you to let the client down gently and run but it is in your best interest. There are plenty of other fish, er, I mean clients in the sea that are great to work with and have great projects available. There is no sense in getting down in your loss either.

Nothing like the job boards to get you back on track again.

* * *

Let me know some more of the warning signs you’ve experienced with “bad date” clients in a comment below.

7 Things You Can Do Today To Be A Better Freelancer

Posted: March 1st, 2010

Photo by Keraoc (Flickr)

Photo by Keraoc (Flickr)

Every freelancer could use a tip or two to become a little better in their careers. I know this isn’t the only list out there but I compiled my own of seven tips that have really helped me out personally and wished I learned a lot earlier. Oh well, live and learn.

1. Follow and interact with other freelancers in your field on Twitter.

After being on Twitter for about a year, I’ve come to realize one thing. There is always someone that knows how to do what you are doing, but a thousand times better. That’s not to say you aren’t good at what you do, but there are some really savvy freelancers out there who will amaze you with the work they do.

Those exact same users are more than willing to share their “secrets” if you follow and tune in. Make an effort to seek out and follow other freelancers in your field, check out their websites and other work and don’t hesitate to strike up conversational tweets.

Sure, not all will respond but the majority on Twitter are sociable. After all, that’s what it is about.

2. Limit your free time on the internet.

Yes, freelancers need to email, use Twitter and other social media, check their readers and visit blogs every day. When you add up all the time you spend on the internet related to freelancing, though, does it make sense to spend any free time you do have surfing around?

OK, we do have to keep up with our news, sports and whatnot. Try this out your next work day though:

  • Make a log and record the times you are on the internet throughout the day. Then add up this time.
  • Does this number surprise you? Could some of this time be better spent, say, outside in the sun?
  • Can you really go without visiting those websites, games, etc. or reduce the time to a half hour or hour most a day?

Personally, I found a new hobby during my internet reduction… reading. Beats eye strain I say.

3. Record all your business related expenses using Outright.

At the start of this year I ran into an online accounting app, called Outright, that records all your expenses and  categorizes them for taxes. It is free, easy to use, and can be used in a number of currencies. Plus, it will keep you from scrambling to find those receipts come tax time.

Trust me on this one because I’m currently having brainstorm sessions to recall those expenses and find those receipts from last year that I need for my taxes this year.

4. Learn and apply something new each month.

I’m sure I share this situation with other freelancers but, when I’m busy and have a steady line of projects lined up, I have a tendency to complete them as quickly as possible. What’s the problem with this you ask?

While we are trying to be efficient, by finishing a project quickly to move on to the next project, we usually stick to only what we know when completing our projects. Over time, our knowledge grows stale and it becomes harder to grow in our fields and as freelancers.

Now, I’m not saying each and every project must be unique and has to be developed from new ideas. You can develop your skills further, though, just by setting aside a half hour to an hour a day to learn something new in your field or a new skill entirely. Then slowly incorporate this new knowledge into your new projects.

5. Blog

I can’t say enough on what blogging has done to my freelance career but I can say that if it has this effect on me, then it can for you too.  Here’s what it has done for me:

  • It’s a creative outlet that clears my head so I can focus on work.
  • I have to put into practice what I write. Being a hypocrite doesn’t bode well with me.
  • It’s empowering to know people read what I have to say.
  • Sometimes I forget my own advice so I check back here for it.

6. Have daily work goals.

I tried a bit of psychology on myself to see if it would improve my productivity. To my surprise, I was gullible enough to fall for it, but it worked out. Here’s the skinny:

  • Each workday, write out your task list. Go a step further, though, and write, specifically, everything has to be done in detail for each task.
  • Give yourself a time limit to do it all.
  • Give yourself a little reward if you complete the list, say, an import beer or a pizza (or both).
  • If you easily complete your tasks in the time you set, set the bar higher the next day with more tasks.

What I noticed was that on the days where the tasks weren’t completed, I would work harder the next day and complete the tasks I set out. This eventually becomes a habit which is the real purpose of this.

7. Work on a personal project.

Every freelancer has some kind of idea for a new app or novel, so why not start it.

Now.

Don’t worry if it will be a success or not. That’s not the point. Your passion in your career will grow with any personal project you do. Not only that but you may learn a thing or two along the way which only helps in your career.

* * *

What are tips you have to be a better freelancer… right now? Share one a comment below.

4 Surefire Ways To Stay A Mediocre Freelancer

Posted: July 28th, 2009

Its almost guaranteed that as a new freelancer you will go through some major growing pains until things start to work out for you and your business. Right at that point we feel like we’re cruising and everything seems easy when we can juggle around our work while maintaining the business. We finally made it.

Believe it or not, we still have a ways to go before becoming the absolute best freelancer we can be. Until then, we may be paying the bills and things might be looking good but we may be falling into the traps that keep us just mediocre freelancers. The following are four ways to guarantee this:

1. Getting into a comfort zone.

When the time comes when we have clients that give us a lot of steady work, we take for granted the fact that steady work can disappear at any moment. This is in addition to the fact that, for developers and designers, technology is evolving fast and it is imperative we keep up with it.

That means freelancers have to consitently dedicate a portion of their time marketing their services and searching for new clients. It is a myth that all your time should be spent working on projects and earning the dough. And for those who rely on the latest developments for their work (hello jQuery), visiting a few tutorials every once in a while will keep your skills fresh and your services at a premium.

2. Not organizing your business.

Once a freelancer’s business gets rolling and and the work starts piling on, its easy to overlook essential tasks like accounting and time tracking.  Keeping on top of accounting and hours worked helps make the freelancer more efficient and keeps him from scrambling to find those receipts come tax day. Plus it helps to have some hard figures to see how your business is doing and if you are meeting income goals.

If you are not quite at the level to hire your own accountant, here are some recommended free tools:

Time tracking: Paymo Timetracker

Accounting: Quickbooks Quick Start

3. Faulty communication with clients.

Most freelancers work over the internet so the primary form of communication is usually email and instant messaging to a lesser extent. Let’s face it, its hard for typed words to clearly express what you or your clients want to. Plus there is huge potential for miscommunication. Speaking from experience, it is very important to word emails and explain whatever you have to in a very clear, simple manner.

Likewise, on your part, it is important to get to know the style of communication from the client. Many of them are unaware that, they too, need to explain their needs clearly to you. It is you job to pry it out of them by asking questions until you understand the tasks at hand fully.

It also helps to read every email completely and even multiple times if you have to. Nothing is worse than making mistakes and having to redo work due to something you missed in a message.

In the long run, good communication will inspire confidence from your clients and helps those projects go smoothly and more efficiently. More importantly, you virtually guarantee yourself repeat business in the process.

4. Not bothering with networking.

Many freelancers do not want to bother with networking their business since it is more or less viewed as asking complete strangers for work or, in other words, begging for jobs. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, getting to know other freelancers, especially in your own field, have the following benefits:

  • You keep up with the latest going on in your industry
  • Sometimes collaborations on projects in your network can come around
  • Sometimes work gets referred to you
  • You can turn to your network for advice  (and even social stimulation)

Networking is not hard, either, especially with Twitter and Linkedin perfectly suited to freelancers. It just takes a little action on your part to say hi and meet others.

Take it from a once-mediocre freelancer

These ways of the mediocre freelancer weren’t observed from others but were all things I went through personally in my journey. The truth is we are all constantly learning and evolving in our careers and mistakes are a just part of the process. It helps to learn from those of others so I hope this can help you recognize what can hold you back so you it doesn’t happen to you.

If you have any stories of personal mediocrity in freelancing, I’d love to hear them. Send a comment below.

The Little Things That Matter The Most – Part III

Posted: April 2nd, 2009

Part III – Document Everything

It’s tax time already. Do you have those little receipts compiled for your deductions or do you have to hunt them down (or “make” them up)?

Well we won’t go there, but if this is you, you may want to listen up. Here’s a little tip when dealing with clients,  something that tends to be taken for granted among freelancers. That is, to document all the work you do for any client when your client sends you tasks to do. Usually these tasks are small enough to where it takes too much time drafting a long project agreement and having the client agree to it. No task is too small, though, to have a record for billing purposes.

What happens is that a client may appear to give you the green light to keep the meter running. This may be true in some cases, but it usually is a sign that the client wants things done now and then pays attention to cost later. Freelancers often assume they are free to work away and tack on the hours, eyeing those dollar signs on the next invoice.

When it comes time to pay the bill, however, you might be surprised to get an objection if you cannot provide the detail of everything you did and the time/cost involved. Believe me, they will fight you every step of the way if you can’t. That’s why it is important to assume this will always happen and prepare yourself accordingly.

Therefore, get in the habit of documenting these minor tasks by doing the following:

1. Prior to doing anything, write an email noting each task and the total cost involved. Have the client approve it by responding with a “go ahead” and your email copied in the email body. Save these emails in a folder so you can easily find them later.

2. Create an Excel or Word document and note the date, each task and the total cost. Add to this list if there are more minor tasks done and send this document with an invoice upon billing the client.

3. If billing is done on a monthly basis, you may want to send the client a copy of the above document on a weekly basis just so they are aware of the work you have done up to that point.

These small documenting tasks even take relatively little time to do. It can save you the time, however, of retracing your steps in the event the client decides that he wants to know exactly what he is being charged for.

This is much the same way you can save time on taxes by having all your receipts in one place.

See also:

Part I: The Search For Stability
Part II: The Phone Call

The Little Things That Matter The Most – Part II

Posted: March 22nd, 2009

Part II: The Phone Call

This is the second post in a three part series of some of the most simple, overlooked things that are important to freelancers. This week, I’ll explain an important building block in the freelancer-client business relationship: the simple phone call.

For starters, it is probably safe to say that the majority of freelancers out there work over the internet. In fact, it is pretty common to never even see the face  nor talk to your clients… ever! Communication is done almost exclusively through email and instant messaging. Sticking to this level of rather impersonal communication right from the start is not a healthy way of building client relationships, though.

Before writing this, I thought about all of my clients that I still have today and all of those “one-hit-wonders” who I did a project for and never heard from again. What I did notice was that for all of those that I still retained, I had talked to them at least one time by phone. I had never talked to the one-hit-wonders at any point. While not talking to a client is probably not the single smoking-gun reason why I was not retained, I did notice that bridging that communication gap with a call was a big part of why I am still retained by some of my other clients today.

All that has to be done is to have a single conversation, by phone or Skype, with any new client before starting any project. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to BS about the weather, sports or look for common ground, but lay down the framework for your business relationship. For instance, explain yourself, methods, deadlines and reassure the client that you can do the job they ask of you. Then ask of their expectations of you (if theydont’ tell you first).

It is also possible that clients have had bad experiences with other freelancers in the past which they will definitely let you know about. This knowledge paves the way for you to fill in where others couldn’t. When the client finally has a trustworthy freelancer in you, that is where a business relationship begins and steady work starts to flow.

One common fear of talking with clients over the phone is that they might continue to call knowing you are always available by phone. The truth is that most clients are busy individuals like freelancers and would rather email or IM in future communications.

What I’ve noticed, too, is that future calls are usually for important matters and the client respects your time and keeps these conversations to a minimum anyway. For the client that does get chatty, however, all that has to be done is politely explain that you are busy and have to keep the calls short, which they normally oblige to.

Taking the one extra step of getting to know your client before you start working with them can prove useful in establishing a long-term relationship. It is not necessary and not a deal breaker, but it is a little step that can go a long way.

See also:

Part I: The Search For Stability
Part III: The Search For Stability

Spec Work: Taking Advantage of Freelancers

Posted: March 15th, 2009

Sooner or later creative freelancers, or those who are writers, designers, photographers, and those in marketing, will face a dilemma of doing spec work for their services. In a nutshell, spec work (also known as pro-bono work) requires that you submit sample work, often a completed project, to a potential employer in order to compete with work submissions from other freelancers. The “winner” gets compensated and the rest are out of a paycheck for their efforts.

Here’s the real puncher. Sometimes the work of  non-winners gets used, regardless.

This type of work arrangement raises several issues that hurt the freelancing industry:

  • Legal fraud. Some employers ask multiple freelancers to submit a project or design and utilize non-winning submissions without compensation. If an unsuspecting freelancer happens to sign away the rights to their work, then an employer can use it for free. It is, unfortunately, common practice by some companies to not even compensate for ANY work submissions.
  • It creates the illusion that freelancers have a good opportunity to get their foot in the door. Meanwhile, employers quietly benefit by receiving and using high-quality work for free or low cost.
  • It creates intense competition for projects, placing freelancers in a position where they have to win some of these projects in order to survive in their careers. It doesn’t help that promises of future employment and recognition (often unfulfilled) adds to the competition.

It is extremely important that freelance designers are aware of this type of practice. Keep in mind that not all employers are fraudulent in nature and do compensate project winners. This is, however, seen as a cost-cutting move while receiving high-quality work in the process. Basically, it is a practice not surprising given these hard economic times.

On that note, here is a way spec work offers should be handled, by Lindsay Berger of Freelance Switch:

Alternatively, “I’ll decide which freelancer to use after I review several projects.”

Let’s address spec work first. If a client wants you to submit a completed project to compete with other freelancers, I would walk away in most cases. A potential client is only going to pay you if they choose your project (in other words, you’re gambling with your paycheck). When declining, be polite: “Thank you for the opportunity, but my schedule does not allow for spec work at this time. My current contracted clients demand most my attention.”

Here’s evidence that  politely declining can even get your foot in the door. Bottom line: you are gambling your paycheck for recognition or promises that may never be fulfilled anyway.

Do your part to bring down this practice by not participating if you are a freelance designer. There are plenty of willing employers who will pay a premium for your services. Your portfolio will look just as good and your bank account will be a lot healthier. Not just for you, but industry wide, too.

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