The Little Things That Matter The Most – Part I

Posted: March 11th, 2009

Part I: The Search For Stability

Freelancers often take a lot of things for granted. This is fairly normal and is primarily due to there being an endless number of things to learn while you actually are freelancing. We do learn the basics pretty fast: find work, do it fast, collect and repeat. There are essential lessons we need to learn, however, so our freelance business doesn’t go under which can happen faster than you think.

This will be the first post in a three part series on the simple, typically overlooked things that a freelancer should pay attention to. Today’s post covers an essential business lesson that a majority of freelancers, not just newer ones, often overlook: the source of your income. Wendy Piersall somewhat outlines this in her article in Sparkplug CEO:

You may be thinking to yourself – I don’t run a blog network, and I don’t sell text links or paid reviews, so this story has nothing to do with me or my business. And you’d be dead wrong.

The story of KMM [Know More Media, who went out of business] isn’t about networks or selling page rank. It’s about having all of your eggs in one basket.

Even if you are a one-man or one-woman show, this is an absolutely critical lesson you must learn. My freelance business ended because of two reasons – lack of work-life balance and lack of diversification of my income. I started my business at the end of the dot-com heyday. 4 years later the market was so saturated with laid-off freelancers that I couldn’t find work at half of my old rate.

I was kind of surprised at the number of conversations I had at BlogHer with people who were struggling with this same issue – that the economy was starting to take a bite out of their income, and that it was getting harder and harder to find clients. These people were still thinking of how to grow their business by finding more clients. They are making the Know More Media mistake.

Now, this post refers to entrepreneurs who have businesses in blogging, yet the same principles apply to us as freelancers. The typical freelancer has a varying client client base but depends only on a few clients for steady work and income. One problem with this is if the main clients are the wrong type,  you may fall victim to a sudden loss of work in the event of, say, an economy collapsing into despair.

To counter this, freelancers need to be on the lookout for clients with stability. That is, clients who are in established and successful businesses. These clients are typically ones that you will have a long and profitable relationship with, even in troubled times. If you haven’t paid attention to this, you may be surprised to find that most of your clients don’t fit the stable type. The following are signs of a stable client:

  • Client has continual growth in their business
  • The business is well managed down to the fine details (i.e. communication)
  • There is a contingency plan in the event of unexpected emergencies (or recession!)
  • Professionalism in everything they do

Now we have the following signs of the client who exhibits instability:

  • Start up businesses
  • Businesses or individuals constantly “trying new things” instead of sticking to one idea and riding it
  • Has you starting, stopping and scrapping way too many projects
  • Your instinct tells you that you don’t honestly see their business going anywhere

Does this mean you should leave your clients if they fit the above criteria? No. A client that appears to be unstable may, in fact, give you reliable business for a long period. The tendency is, however, that your business relationship will be short-lived with cost (yours) almost always being the determining factor. Cost issues arise due to lack of funding or income, poor business decisions, or sudden economic change which typically afflicts “unstable ” clients.

If these types of business or individuals make up your major clients then its not time to panic yet, but actively search for those clients that have a record of  stability. Do the research and see how long they’ve been around the block, ask them questions on their business and get a feel of their stability before you agree to work with them.

While, personally, I’ve had my share of unstable clients in the past, I am lucky to work for a small company who met all of the criteria for stability. They are currently laughing off the recession, while supplying me with enough work that I can’t remember if I actually signed a treaty with the devil for it or not.

The point is to KEEP LOOKING for clients who fit this type. They are out there and they will be the ones who keep you in business for the long haul.

See also:

Part II: The Phone Call
Part III: Document Everything

What’s Your USP?

Posted: February 24th, 2009

The attraction to freelancing as a career is pretty obvious. You are the boss and you play by your own rules. For those of us that are freelancers, though, we know that this is indeed true but there is a lot of added responsibility to go along with it. First of all there is the stress of managing our own business and income which can overwhelm us at times. Despite this, what keeps us moving on?

The answer is simple. Its our purpose, or in a term related to our careers, the USP, or unique selling position.

USP is common knowledge among the sales and advertising community. It is a sentence or phrase which summarizes your business. Sometimes it includes a mission statement and other times it includes a catchy slogan. The main point of it though defines your business and purpose for the services you provide.

For freelancers, it works the same. It defines your purpose for the services you provide. I can almost guarantee that any freelancer who does not have a USP has either quit or is on their way to quitting in the near future. The reason is that if you do not have “that” reason to keep you going as a freelancer then there is no reason to continue on, especially when times get rough such as a slow workflow.

It is not uncommon to have the “office” mentality when freelancing. We work during the day, sometimes without thinking about it, and collect a check periodically. Our purpose therefore doesn’t lie in the actual work we do, but instead, the anticipation of getting that check.  The work may or may not be great. We don’t care though. We just want to get paid.

The problem with the office mentality is that it diminishes the quality of our work and murders a freelancer’s  business and career in the process. That is where the USP comes in. When the pupose of your USP becomes more than working for a check, then you will see your career grow and those checks will come automatically anyway.

My personal USP as a web programmer is “Honest, Professional Service With Fast Turnaround or Your Money Back.” It may not sound like anything out of the ordinary and may even be a little cliché. I do, however, pride myself on being upfront, giving my clients my best service and have all work done when I say it will get done. You might be surprised on how many previous freelancers some of my clients have had that didn’t have these values that I do. I am also a successful freelancer because of them, too.

With this in mind, what is your USP? Don’t forget this is the reason why you are freelancing in the first place.

The Philosophy of Freelancing

Posted: February 17th, 2009

On the internet you can find countless articles and resources on how to be successful in freelancing. Despite this, countless people will fail while others will find success, even without the advice from experienced freelancers. Whether you succeed or fail does not depend on following advice. It simply boils down to a lower denomination of preparation. That is, mentally preparing yourself to do it.

I rant into an interesting page not too long ago, the The Ten Rules For Being Human” by Cherie Carter Scott, which could arguably summarize your proper mental outlook when taking up a freelance career. Her rules apply to any aspect of life in general but it has a great significance in our careers, especially when we are working for ourselves.

Here are a few rules to dwell on:

Rule Three – There are no mistakes, only lessons.
Growth is a process of experimentation, a series of trials, errors and occasional victories. The failed experiments are as much as a part of the process as the experiments that work.

Rule Four – The lesson is repeated until learned.
Lessons will be repeated to you in various forms until you have learned them. When you have learned them, you can go on to the next lesson.

Rule Five – Learning does not end.
There is no part of life that does not contain lessons. If you are alive, there are lessons to be learned.

Yes, freelancing is filled with trial and error as we experiment on what does  and does not work for our business. That’s the point of freelancing, though, to learn and grow on our own terms in our career. We do this by making mistakes. Of course the bottom line is to earn a decent income but we’ll never get there without learning the lessons of our trade which doesn’t always put money in your pocket.

The lessons will humble but make you grow faster than you imagine, too. It doesn’t stop there either. Once you as a freelancer there will be other, more advanced lessons to approach. By then, you can be assured you will have an excellent  grasp on how to face them as they come.

These other two rules should also be your mental approach  as a freelancer:

Rule Eight – What you make of your life is up to you.
You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you.

Here’s where all those articles and resources come into play, so use them. This also refers to your own mind here. Unlike a regular day job where most of the time someone higher makes decisions for you, you have to use those instincts of yours that you may never have had to use before. Many freelancers don’t realize they have this capacity or are too scared to use it. Failure is often the result.

Rule Nine – Your answers lie inside of you.
All you need to do is look, listen, and trust.

I can’t emphasize enough how much you need to rely on your instincts and gut decisions as a freelancers, though it is very difficult to explain how. The reason is that they are acquired and come with experience and time… and making A LOT of mistakes. Again, you will make mistakes but they should be welcomed and not be seen as a roadblock to your success.

Finally, there is Rule 10: You will forget all [these rules] at birth. This is very true but its never too late to learn them all again.

Cut Back Your Television… Like You Should Those Marlboros

Posted: February 5th, 2009

I would be lying if I said television wasn’t a big part of who I am. I would estimate that I spent around five years of my life up to now actually glued to it, too. Yep, part of the original MTV generation. Despite the fact that probably half of those five years were watching reruns, I wouldn’t call that whole period a complete waste of time. I suppose I could have been outside making treehouses but what’s done is done. I’m happy to be a product of the original cable TV.

Now fast forward to today and it’s a completely different story. While I haven’t stopped watching TV 100%, I rarely turn the thing on anymore. The primary reason is my desire to be productive. While I have my freelance job as a programmer, I still have my own side projects and other goals aside from that. Television would cut the time devoted to those to practically zero.

Well, just today I ran into an article by Trent Hamm who gives ten financial reasons to turn off your television and ten things to replace it with. I’ve pretty much weaned myself from the TV but here were a couple reasons to turn it off that caught my attention:

Continue Reading »

Three Simple Steps To Earning What You Think You Should

Posted: February 4th, 2009

One of the trickiest parts of freelancing is getting the project pricing right and earning an income that is expected for what you do. This is quite often a mystery, though. Many freelancers simply feel that if they make ends meet at the end of the month then why worry?

If this sounds familiar, you may actually be suprised by how much you could be leaving on the table. With a few steps, though, you just may see where your income stands and finally put a dollar figure to your work.

Step 1: Know your hourly rate

It’s easy to take a look at a project and say to yourself it’s worth X dollars. Then another project is worth Y dollars. In other words, freelancers have a tendecy to guess. More often than not, too, it ends up being worth more than we thought and we short-change ourselves in the process.

Since freelancers are essentially their own businesses, it’s important to target your income. Once you determine your target income, then you can break it down further into the hours you will have to work and, finally, your hourly rate. Your hourly rate will be the key for estimating a price for any project and reaching your target income.

Resources to help calculate your hourly rate (Freelance Switch):

Hourly rate calculator

Factors to consider when determining your price

Step 2: Always track your time on projects

Tracking time your time serves two primary purposes. First it is done to see if you are spending too much time on a project. The second is using that data for determining estimates in the future. The day will eventually come where you get requests for project estimates that are similar to previous projects you have completed.

Time tracking is simply using software, an excel spreadsheet or even pen and paper and recording EVERY DAY:

1. The project(s) worked on and the exact time spent on each project

2. Other non-income task(s) and exact time spent on those (includes invoicing, searching for clients, etc)

2.5 (It also helps to total the hours upon project completion)

Using time records from old projects can greatly simplify and save the guesswork from determining a fair price for your work since you now have accurate measures to go by. You can simply multiply the time by your hourly rate calculated above to get a project price.

Here are some free online time tracking services as well:

Paymo Timetracker

Slim Timer

Step 3: Always use project agreements

This is the most important part of any project. A project agreement outlines exactly what you will do in a project and exactly what you will be paid. The key to it’s effectiveness, though, is to note EVERYTHING that you will do to complete the project with specific details and no vague statements. This is done so there are no surprises or sudden additions to the work and time required for completion.

Clients have a tendency to add on more work as ideas come to them. Without a project agreement, however, they often think they are to be included as a part of the project, adding to your time. That’s why its important to draft the agreement and sign it along with your client. To handle those changes or additions, another document called a change order is used to outline those changes plus any incremental costs to the client.

Here is a sample  project agreement template and change order template from Elance.

Freelance No-No: How To Not Get Taken Advantage Of

Posted: January 24th, 2009

Every freelancer has gone through a trial period where they learn what works and what doesn’t work in order to make money in the business. The hardest lesson to learn is arguably how to keep your clients from walking all over you. I’ve experienced this myself and, unfortunately, still see this happening to some of my freelancing friends.

The result of having a client take advantage of you is obvious. You lose money, time and a bit of your pride. It’s usually not the intention of clients, however, to bilk freelancers. You have to remember, though, they tend to see the services of freelancers as costly and try to keep costs down to a minimum.

On that note, here are some ways to keep this from happening in the first place:

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Who Doesn’t Want To Hang Around Freelancers?

Posted: January 20th, 2009

I came across a blog article today by “Amy” at quietrebelwriter.com and read a funny little article. Here’s a bit I liked:

What, you think you can afford to be picky? Hallelujah and pass the ammunition, what the hell are you smoking? […] You can’t afford to be choosy! You can’t rely on your talent to pay the bills! You can’t negotiate! They’re all gonna laugh at you!!

Now, you may not see what I see what I do in this but the first thing that struck me was she (almost) used a rather famous quote that’s a personal favorite of mine. That I’ll save for some other blog though. What really struck me was that I finally realized this is the kind of community that freelancers are made up of: optimists and good humored fun people. People that could tap into your circle of friends and probably would fun to have a beer with.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty new to the freelance community. In fact I’ve really only begun to visit other freelance blogs within the past month. I can’t help, though, but to spend more and more time reading those I found and searching for new ones like Amy’s. All of them have the same thing in common, too. They provide good advice on how to succeed in freelancing and offer a little entertainment as a side dish.

I don’t think there is a better time than now to ride in the wave of freelancing. There are so many resources, stories, guides, blogs, you name it that you can already get an impression on how it will be like before even starting. The best part is that they are all overwhelmingly positive and helpful. You rarely find articles or stories of someone’s failed attempt at a freelance career.

Just surrounding yourself with optimism alone will take you far in anything you do. If your a freelancer, join in the community, read the blogs and take in the positive vibes. You’ll see what a change it makes in your outlook on freelancing.

Well, cheers to Amy and off to read more blogs…

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