Five Glorious Things That Will Keep You Freelancing Tomorrow, Maybe The Next Day

Posted: November 10th, 2010

Photo by Banlon1964 (Flickr)

Photo by Banlon1964 (Flickr)

Every day is a good day, right? Anyone?

There are many little joys to freelancing. Actually too many to even revel in them.

That fat check you got from Mr. Jones, spent a week later.

That week you finally took off because you were overworked… passed as if it were only a few hours.

A masterpiece of a project that gave you pride but not giving you the same feeling on a sort-of-blah-as-vanilla project being worked on now.

Then, of course, there are the so-called bad days. I’m not talking about Mondays or slaving away with bird flu and a bad back, but those days where the shit hits the fan and you see your career hit a breaking point.

Why? These stay in our memory forever as we look back on them like childhood memories saying to ourselves “boy was I reall that stupid.” Today, you can learn to do almost anything (actually more like learning to do something right) but there is only one way to really learn something.

The wrong way. Don’t tell me these are unfamiliar.

Month-To-Month Living

Many freelancers have jobs to back them up. Fraidy cats, I say. You never forget the experience of jumping in head first and blindfolded. Nor the wait until your head hits the bottom of that empty swimming pool.

Oh, such as the days where I used a decade-old laptop, worked in a dark room and ate hearty meals of beans day in and day out. Then the crumbs of work to earn those daily beans. Even charging clients in beans but, for a good client, an extra loaf of bread.

There is no greater joy, however, moving up to the can of tuna to accompany your meal.

Lesson: It gets better. It can only get better.

Getting Stiffed

It so happened that, years back, the first client I ever had offered me a great rate (better than beans) and all the work I could use at the time. I’ll admit, I did a half-ass job and was probably a quarter-ass skilled freelancer but work got done by golly.

Long story short, a lot of work and no beans make a freelancer hungry. Don’t sweat it. You’ll live to tell about it, albeit while suffering hunger along the way.

Lesson: Know whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do and don’t forget to collect the deposit.

Computer Crash(es)

Hmmm, computer isn’t booting up today. Restart (times 50) and we have… a blue screen. Dammit, you knew those strange choking sounds were the beginning of the end. Oh well, time to take the day off and hit up your friend to borrow that laptop. Problem solved.

Oh wait, there was still that project you were working on in there trapped on a useless hard drive.

Lesson: Backup. If you skip it, you won’t miss those lost photos pulled off the Victoria’s Secret website anyway.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

Being needy for projects is nothing new for anyone new to freelancing. Many projects equals a pretty hefty payday, if I’m correct. Taking on a request for a new, improved Twitter wannabe for big-budgeted Mr. Know-it-not isn’t quite the way to go though.

Sure, we all like to think we are the designer, developer and marketer all in one when all that can really be done is installing WordPress with a cheesy logo. Ambition eventaully comes to terms with ability and crashes back to earth.

Lesson: Before starting a project, stop counting your money as if it were in a big pile right in front of you. Count the hours you’ll spend on forums pleading for help instead.

Screwing Up

The granddaddy of all things that pervades freelancers. Right up there with shooting your friend in the face as the U.S. vice president. The bright side is that we’re neither flying airplanes nor have the doomsday button at out side (unless that is you’re fallback job). It’s only our clients’ businesses at stake.

Analyzing the situation brings thoughts of a coverup, escape plan or working like mad all night hoping it won’t be noticed the next day. Then realizing the best damage control is uncontrollable sobbing while offering an explanation.

Lesson: Just keep doing what you’re doing. You won’t mess this up this lesson.

Freelance In 40 Days [Day 26]: Common Freelancing Mistakes To Avoid

Posted: November 10th, 2009

Photo by Jasmeet (Flickr)

Photo by Jasmeet (Flickr)

This is Day 26 of the Freelance in 40 Days series where you’ll learn to freelance just by taking it one day and one task at a time. Today you’ll learn to avoid common mistakes made in freelancing.

In the last tutorial I mentioned how mistakes are inevitable and are a normal part of freelancing. There are some mistakes freelancers make that can be very damaging, though, that can cost you time, money and even a client or two.

Rather than repeat the history of many a freelancer, I’ll introduce you to some common freelancing mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. The Feast or Famine Cycle

Every freelancer will have their periods with a heavy workload along with a slow period every once in a while which is normal. If you have periods where you are working (the feast) followed up by periods where you aren’t working and scrambling like hell to find work (the famine) then this isn’t healthy for your business.

You never want to put yourself in a situation where you are desperate for work. Not only does this cause unneeded stress but there is also the tendency to take “whatever work comes your way” that may not pay what you like nor be what you really want to do.

Avoiding the feast or famine cycle:

  • Never stop looking for clients. When we have work to do, we tend to take comfort in that instead of planning for more work in the future. One technique I found useful is spending a few minutes a day to look for one client.
  • Start saving for that rainy day. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard for freelancers is to have a backup savings to help you out of a rough patch. It is more than likely that you will have to rely on it at some point in your career since a famine cycle can happen that is beyond your control.
  • Learn a new skill. If your particular field is having a slow period, it helps to have another skill you can fall back on to keep the work flowing.

2. Not Using Project Agreements

A project agreement tells your client, “This is exactly what I’ll do, this is what you’ll pay me and these are some conditions I have for you.” Skip this and guess what? You open yourself up to being walked all over by the client and possible disputes with her.

Remember, in the client’s eyes, you appear expensive and a prudent one will try and get her money’s worth. The project agreement will keep her in check.

How to start using project agreements:

3. Sticking to Only One Client

There’s no better feeling to the freelancer than finding a client who gives us a lot of work. There is a danger to this, though. What happens if, say, a client decides to cut costs due to an unforeseen circumstance? Don’t think it won’t happen either. If a freelancer is taking up a chunk of a budget, they are usually the first to go.

Then you are left in a famine cycle. Uh oh.

Avoiding this scenario:

  • Never rely on just one client for work and seek out many so, in case one drops out, you have others to fall back on.
  • Reduce your workload with the main client so you can accommodate other clients. You may have to turn down some work, which is difficult, but its better than being left with no work at all should that client decided to leave you.

4. Not Planning Enough

I’m probably not the only freelancer that has started a project only to find that grew to twice the workload by the end of it. What really hurts is that, while the workload increases, the compensation doesn’t increase much, if at all, since a budget is often determined in the beginning of it.

Any underestimation of work is the fault of the freelancer (usually) and can be eliminated just by planning from the start.

Avoiding poor planning:

  • Spend the time to do the research on a project, especially larger ones. Sometimes this can even take days. Remember, there is no wasted time in planning.
  • Know exactly what you are getting into. If a project requires any skills you aren’t familiar with, then get familiar with them before starting.
  • Break a project down to it’s smallest parts. Usually the hard or questionable parts expose themselves. Do more research, if necessary, until all parts are understood.

5. Missing Deadlines

It shouldn’t have to be said but consistently missing deadlines makes you unreliable and hurts your reputation. A client may think twice about referring new business to you or may even decide not to work with you again.

Avoiding missed deadlines:

  • Do careful planning (see above).
  • Be realistic and give yourself ample time to complete any project. Come up with a careful time estimate to complete any project and then add overhead time on top of that. You’ll find yourself having to dip into that overhead once in a while.
  • Treat each project like a term paper in college and do what you have to do to meet a deadline. If that means working weekends and pulling all-nighters, do it.

Your Homework For Today

Understand and avoid the common freelancing mistakes above. It could mean the difference between a successful career or not.

Freelance in 40 Days [Day 25]: Uh Oh, I Just Made A Mistake

Posted: November 9th, 2009

Photo by Katey (Flickr)

Photo by Katey (Flickr)

This is Day 25 of the Freelance in 40 Days series where you’ll learn to freelance just by taking it one day and one task at a time. Today how to deal with the occasional mistakes made in freelancing.

No Freelancer Is Perfect

Sometime in his career, there comes a time when the freelancer has a momentary brain lapse and makes a mistake in his work. Even when we strive for perfection, it is inevitable, even for the most experienced of the litter.

Freelancers are human after all.

Luckily mistakes aren’t career killers and freelancers learn very quickly from them. Handle them correctly, too, and you can actually come out of it establishing more reliability with your clients. That is, of course, if you don’t make it a habit of making mistakes with them.

So let’s get started with the steps to remedy a mistake made.

1. Contact Immediately

Whether you are notified by the client or notice the mistake on your own, its important to get in contact with the client immediately. Handle this with a phone or Skype call, if at all possible, since you can gauge the client’s reaction and calm him down (if necessary) to explain the situation.

2. Honest Explanation

This is crucial. Be completely honest and upfront and explain what the mistake was. Don’t skip essential details either. More importantly, do not sugar-coat it and make it anything less than it is or you appear dishonest. Then follow this up with an explanation of how you will correct the mistake.

3. No Excuses

It is almost a natural instinct to give an excuse for anything we did wrong. Nothing damages your credibility more, however, than making an excuse even if it’s true. An excuse says, “it’s not my fault” when you are actually at fault for any mistake you make. Client’s can see right through excuses anyway.

So if your beloved pet dog dies and you weren’t in the right frame of mind that day, keep it to yourself.  All that is really necessary is a “Hey, sorry I messed up. Here’s what happened…”

4. Fix The Mistake Quickly

This may cost you some time and/or money, but do what you have to do to correct the mistake as quickly as possible. If it will take more than a day to correct, let your client know and give him a timetable for the correction. The less time you take to fix a mistake, the more the client will be willing to forget about it.

5. Check Back With The Client

Once the mistake is fixed, call or email the client and let him know. Most of the time, he will be satisfied that you admitted the mistake and handled it in a timely manner. This often reassures a client that you can reliably handle adverse situations as well.

If you sense any dissatisfaction or lingering doubt they may have, though, it won’t hurt to offer for free a service you provide to smooth him over.

One Step To Prevention

Here’s a bit of expert advice if you are a web developer, designer, programmer or edit a client’s files or database in any way… make it a habit to always create a backup of of the work you are about to edit before you begin to edit it. There will come a day when you will need that backup and only have to restore that instead of having to follow the five steps above.

Your Homework For Today

Let’s keep the mistakes to a minimum. If you make one, keep this tutorial handy and relax. You’ll get through it.

Planning, So Your Project Doesn’t Kick You In The Ass

Posted: March 25th, 2009

Today, after a week and a half of balls-to-the-wall work to get a project done by today (on time!), I learned a valuable lesson which I repeated as a fledgling freelancer. One single word: PLAN.

Normally, new freelancers do not give much consideration to the planning stages before bidding or starting on projects. The misconception is that time spent planning is not time spent working. The truth is that even a few hours of planning, or however long you need, can help you find and uncover those important details to help you make accurate estimates. By an accurate estimate, I mean you don’t severely underprice which is often the case when you hurry through this process.

Surely, you create a project agreement or project specifications (I’ll save this for another post) for every project you undertake. If not, lots of luck to you. Before creating an agreement or spec, though, is an exact outline of what you will do to complete a project has to be done. This is where the details come in. You have to list every last one of them.

The following is a good procedure for outlining your project:

1. Break your project down into smaller tasks. If necessary, break them down further into even smaller tasks. Write down these tasks in an outline form. By breaking down you can usually find parts of a project that are more time consuming than others. Others may be new and not have been done before which leads to. . .

2. For those “new” tasks, do the research and come up with a method to complete them. Don’t just wing it. Be 100% sure you can do them.

3. For smaller projects, create a calendar and set a goal to complete one or more tasks on a particular day and chart this until the end of the project date you set. For larger projects, this could be done on a weekly basis, but I highly recommend charting it daily even though it is cumbersome.

4. After charting your project tasks on a calendar, you should be more able to calculate the time required for the entire project. A pretty reliable rule of thumb is to add an extra 15% overhead time to this since poop happens.

If you follow the above, it can be time consuming but you come out ahead in the end. From what I learned, though, is that even if you spend an entire day planning a project down to the last day, you can probably save anywhere from a few days up to a week in added time completing it. Projects that drag on and on end up costing you time and money, WAY more then the planning time, itself.

Which leads me to my last point. Your time planning is also a part of any project. Include this time in any project estimate.

Odds are you’ll repeat my mistake of not planning carefully but better to learn sooner than later.

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:

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The Monday Hangover No. 5

Posted: February 2nd, 2009

Routines are made to be bent (but not broken)

Well, here I am in Barcelona, Spain and I somehow managed to find some pirated access to Super Bowl coverage over the internet. It’s also just past midnight on Monday morning and the game just barely got underway. It’ll be a long night but, what the hell, I’ll type away here, too. After all, its not every day you can blog and watch football… starting at midnight.

Usually I’m in bed at this time. In fact, I make sure to get a good night’s sleep Sunday night to prepare for the Monday grind. I honestly can’t even remember the last time I stayed up late on a Sunday, even without the boozing. I had to even twist my own arm to stay up and watch this game in shitty internet quality.

You know what though? I’m glad I have routines that keep me in check. I get plenty of sleep on weekdays, save the late nights for the weekends, no happy hours… and my freelance career thanks me for it. Eventually, I guess you have to break out of your old college habits which might have allowed you to pass Chemistry but won’t you help pay the rent.

With that said, I think its time for for a little change-up. Routines help you make it to where you want to get to but they can also eliminate your spontaneity and eventually the passion you have in your work. Think about it… you are driven by your habits, good or bad. Sometimes, though, we are just too consumed by them. Can you remember everything you did at work last week? If we were that passionate about it, shouldn’t we remember?

OK, don’t get me wrong, here. We actually need good habits and  routines to succeed so let’s not throw them overboard just yet. The hardest part is even developing them, too. After all, we all should know (or at least have an idea) a good habit takes three weeks to develop and a bad habit can be learned on the spot.

Despite their importance to us, would it be SO bad to stray from them and go back to the old college habits, albeit just for a night (or four hours for me right now)? Now some people can handle doing the same productive routine at the same exact time every day of their lives and not even care. I firmly believe for the majority, routines eventually get stale and give you a feeling of “missing something” out of work or your career. At least for me, I finally realized this tonight.

So now, as I break my routines by boozing it up late on a Sunday and staying far past my normal midnight bedtime, I am happy at myself for doing so. I may not quite feel this way when I wake up, but from now on I’ll allow those little temptations to stray away from the essential routines and accept the consequences… a little piece of mind.

Go Cardinals!

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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Freelancing For Dummies: Just Ask Me

Posted: October 25th, 2008

I’ve been a freelancer for a little over five years now and I’ve finally come to a point where I am really taking time to evaluate my business to see how I can improve…  which is more or less thinking about how to earn more money. My primary conclusion: I could be doing A LOT better.

I know a lot of people would kill to be in the position I’m in working without a boss and making a good living out of it (though I won’t give it out here). I could easily sit back, continue my routine as usual and cash those checks at the end of the month. At least that’s what we are molded to do in the J-O-B.

Well, this is freelance and you get the green light to do whatever the hell you want. To grow in your freelance career, though, it’s a pretty good idea to break your routine, no matter how comfortable you are in it, and do a self-evaluation. After five years, I guess it would be a good time to give myself a performance review.

To my own relief, I found I was doing a lot of important things right. Not surprisingly though, I was doing a lot of things wrong, too. What was interesting to me was that nearly all of the things I do right had to do with my work ethic, working habits and good instincts. All of the things that I was doing wrong, however, was strictly business related. I’m sure I’m not the only freelancer in the same boat so I’ll go ahead and outline the major ones here. Who knows, maybe someone else can learn from this.

The Rights

First of all, I pride myself in the work I do. And it gets done when I say it will get done. Period. My reputation developed as a hard worker who could solve problems and I’ve done that since day one. I wouldn’t say people were lining up at my door to hire me for projects (I’m a web programmer), but most of my work were from referrals and I’m contracted full time for a small company which provides very steady work.

Next, I take care of my clients. If something goes wrong, I fix it. If I make a mistake, I fess up to it and fix it as soon as possible. Also communication is key, never leaving a client in the dark about anything. These are also things I pride myself on. Given that I have never met most of my clients face to face, any way I can build trust works in my favor. That’s not a hard one to learn.

Last, I manage my projects in a way where I have no down time. No downtime = steady stream of income. This took me a while to become a habit but I developed a sense to always plan ahead even when your current situation looks great. I try to have at at least two projects to work on simultaneously and in slow times I’m always working on one. It’s as simple as looking for more work while your working. It should always be a part of your routine.

The Wrongs

Finances – I am pretty good about spending. Don’t spend more than you earn and save when you can. Check. An example of the bad is that I had to pay the IRS a $200 fine for not paying my quarterly taxes. Taxes have always been a nightmare since I didn’t save receipts or track business spending. If you have your own business these should be a priority! Needless to say, I’m still looking in the trash for those receipts.

Marketing – My business has been primarily on referrals, but I’ve never actually marketed myself to attract new clients. I realized that this hurt me by not getting those clients willing to pay a premium for my service since I do have quite a portfolio. You can guess that equals a smaller check at the end of the month.

Branding – This relates to the above but I also haven’t branded my business. I’m just Johnny that does web programming. With a nice portfolio and putting a name to your services, however, you have half your marketing already done for you. The rest is just letting those in need of your service know you exist.

. . .

During my years as a freelancer I’ve always come across advice through the occasional web page and friends who are also freelancers. I never really noticed that much of that advice has gone between the ears.  Maybe it’s time to take notice… or essentially leave a bunch of cash on the table for someone else.