There’s an entrepreneurial voice inside you who wants to be free. Who wants to bust the shackles of ‘the man’ and fly where you want, when you want, how you want.
Before starting an ad agency, I had two successful stints as a freelancer. Here’s what I learned that you may want to know.
1. Strip down your expenses. Now that you’re in business for yourself, you’ll have to concern yourself with the absence of regular paychecks. The 15th and last day of the month will just be two more days on the calendar. Your income will be sporadic, at best. You’ll go through dry spells and busy spells. While you can’t control your income, you can control your expenses, so slim them down (good advice for people will full time jobs, too). Do you really need to hit Starbucks twice a day? Watch your meal expenses, happy hour bills, entertainment costs. Look at everything you’re spending money on and decide what is absolutely essential and what can be cut back. Get health insurance but don’t overpay for it. Get the highest deductible available. You need catastrophe insurance that will cover major medical expenses if your health goes seriously south. In short, you don’t have to live like a pauper, but you’ll be better off if you keep your splurges to a minimum, until you get established at least.
2. Consult with a good accountant. Find out the essentials of keeping books, expenses, what’s deductible and what isn’t. A good accountant will tell you the red flags the I.R.S. looks for. It is not as difficult as it sounds, but it’s good to know the rules of the game before you start playing it. Or, take this simple attitude, “Everything is deductible, until you’re audited.” Do you feel lucky? Do you look good in orange? Do you want to be the husband or the wife?
3. Find your happy place. You need an office, a workspace, some place to call your own. This is your professional space, where you’ll get things done and run your business doing trivial things like work, writing letters, e-blasts, billing, etc. It can be a spare bedroom, or if you’re tight on space, your kitchen table or countertop. It can also be a neutral space: the library, a coffee shop, a fast food joint (although these ‘squatter spots’ are not ideal since management will give you the hairy eyeball if you’re hanging there for hours on end– they’re trying to run a business, too, you know). You need a place where you are your company and you can get down to business. All business. This work space is sacred, essential and critical to your success.
4. Look legit. Print your own business cards and stationary. Don’t cheap out on the card and paper stock. 5,000 business cards for $29 looks like 5,000 business cards for $29. Have a tasty design and typography on your card that speaks before it’s read. Here’s what it should say: “this person is good, really good. He/she may be pricey, but he/she is worth every penny.”
5. Name your price. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, eventually people will want to know what your talent costs. So figure out your hourly rate, day rate, weekly or monthly rate. How? Find out the market rate for people with similar backgrounds and experience to yours. Adjust accordingly. If you feel your work is more brilliant than others, set your rates higher. The free market system will tell you if you’re worth it. If someone wants you at a discount, you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to work at that price or not. Job #1 is to get demand for your service, so concentrate on that. Money will work itself out, eventually. You can always say no and many times refusing work makes you even more desirable. Of course, you may wish to charge by the project so you don’t have to discuss mundane matters like hourly or daily rates. Go ahead, do project fees but be careful. Be exact in defining the scope of work. State the number of revisions your price includes. Be as specific as possible with what the project fee covers, and what it doesn’t. People love to revise work endlessly, and they will do so– until it’s costing them money. Get a signed P.O. and go. Doing projects is the deep water and I don’t recommend it for freelancers just starting out. If you’re not careful, it can be an expensive way to learn the game. P.O.s are always a good idea, but if you’re working for a company directly, they are essential. I once got stiffed by a multi-billion dollar corporation because I didn’t have a signed P.O. and the guy who gave me the verbal assignment got whacked just after giving me the go-ahead. I did the work and they refused to pay me because there was no paper trail. Wah-wah-wahhhhhh! Lesson learned. Bureaucracies run on paperwork. Get it signed and get paid.6. Make sure your work looks great. Your past work is your biggest calling card for yourself. For creative people, it’s all you’ve got. Not many people will hire you just to be fun to have around– it works for party clowns but not marketing folks. If it helps to present your work as case histories, give the proper backstory and context. Stress results. People like to know you care about making things happen. Build a website for you and your business. Don’t get too fancy with flash and gimmicks. People want to see your work, know a bit about you and be done with it. Show you’re diverse in your approaches. Prove you know your craft in a variety of styles and media. If your work shows you to be a one-trick pony, not many people will pay for rides. If you like, show more sides to yourself in a blog (see below). Have a link to your blog on your site. Oh, and don’t forget to have your website address listed on your beautiful business cards printed on quality stock.
7. Plug in and activate your network. All those people you know, the ones you’ve worked with, worked for, met at professional organizations, seen at seminars, friends, relatives– basically anyone with a pulse– they can all be the lead to your next job. Let everyone know what you’re up to and what you’re looking for. Give them a business card or two. Let them know you’d appreciate any referrals to keep you in mind. It’s that old ask and you will receive thing. It may not be today or tomorrow, but plant the seeds for future success and work. And plant like crazy.
8. Get to know the freelance network. Yes, they are your competitors but they are also could be a source of business. Writers need art directors and vice versa. Sometimes competitors get swamped and have to turn down work– work they could dish your way (don’t forget to return the favor). Know who’s out there and stay connected. These people can do you good, and when they do, pay them back with lunch, dinner, drinks or a villa in the south of France.
9. Get social. Use all the social networking tools you can to stay in touch. You don’t have to constantly hump legs, but you do need to have a presence so that people know about you and what you do, in case they need you to do what you do..
10. Blog. This isn’t for everyone, but it might be for you, if you have something interesting to say. Blogs are great for those who want to speak as an authority, a sage, a philosopher king or someone passionate on any subject. It can be business related but it doesn’t have to be. If you don’t have anything to say, that’s fine. Blogging is not for everyone. Write a blog about not blogging. Hmm, I’d better copyright that idea before Cosmo Kramer does…
11. Act like a shark. Some sharks stay in constant motion to survive. Consider this a good guide for your freelance success. You should always be networking, showing your work, pimping your work, attending events and professional functions, etc. Even if you’re busy, keep planting seeds for future harvesting. What if you’re an introvert and like to work quietly in the shadows like some genius Boo Radley? Well, you’d better be damn great, or get yourself an agent. Freelancing is tough for introverts. Someone’s got to pimp you and if not you, who?
12. When you’re hired, be professional and over-deliver the goods. A freelancer is a mercenary. You’re a professional hired for a specific, specialized task. Be prompt, or early on the job. Don’t jack around waiting for divine inspiration. Be a professional problem solver. Dive into data, ask smart questions, identify the problem and surround it. The beauty of freelancing is you don’t have to get involved in agency politics, client politics or typical business B.S. Your task is solving the problem at hand. Show agility and flexibility in thought and over-deliver the goods. Doing a great job the first time you’re hired is your best insurance of getting a job the next time. Freelancers are typically called upon until they don’t deliver… then companies go to another freelance source. Strive to always be the first freelancer call they make.
13. Get plugged-in on your jobs. When you get work, be personable and get to know the people you’re working for. Get to know the support staff, the people involved on the account. The more people who know and like you, the better your odds for getting more work down the road. Don’t get me wrong, being a swell joe isn’t what they’re hiring you for, but being a moody introvert, angry misunderstood genius or a stand-offish prick will hurt your chances of repeat business. Misery may love company, but who wants to hang with misery?
14. Check your ego. This is the toughest part of freelancing for most people. You are hired, you are paid and you do what you believe to be outstanding work. Then they take your precious babies and revise them, mangle them and ruin them (in your humble opinion). Get over it. You did the work, cashed the check and the deal is done. The great thing about freelancing is the lack of politics, the terrible thing about freelancing is the lack of control. When you are employed full time, you establish relationships inside the agency and with the client. All too often, when you’re freelancing you are kept in the shadows creating ideas that are taken forward. You have no control, no face, no voice. Unless the idea is so brilliant and the taste of agency people and client match yours, chances are your child will become something you may not recognize when it gets produced. Yes, it hurts, but until you have your own clients and your own relationships, you’re just a hired hand at the ranch. And hired hands had better get used to getting kicked.
15. Your book’s in mothballs. Because you have little control, freelancing can be tough on your book and reel. It’s tough to get work produced you love. All too often, you have little more than cancelled checks to show for your brilliant efforts (cancelled checks can look great when laminated). For this reason, I caution people early in their career from freelancing. Build your book, create something worth money to someone else, then you can afford the luxury of not having to scramble to add to it. But it’s damn hard to build a book as a freelancer, although I do know one guy who did it– Chuck Porter. Chuck’s had a very successful career as nothing but a freelancer, until he had his name added to Crispin Porter (and eventually + Bogusky). But then again, Chuck Porter is Chuck Porter, and he’s making us all look bad. Grab a torch and pitchfork, townspeople– let’s get him!
16. The Trojan Horse Strategy. Perhaps you don’t really want to freelance but you like the idea of having money for things like food, shelter, movies, video games, transportation and designer beer. No worries, freelancing is an excellent entree to test driving an agency, and vice versa. When you’re looking for a full time job, it can be tough getting into an agency to show your work. The economy sucks. It’s easier to get in as a freelancer showing your work, available for hire selling genius by the hour. So, open the door by showing your work as a freelancer, but state you might be interested in full time, should the right opportunity come up. Most agencies like this. It gives us the chance to test drive you and you to test drive us.
17. Shut your cakehole. Freelancers are like honeybees flying from flower to flower. Don’t pollinate confidential information, upcoming campaigns and gossip along the way. If people know you’re a busybody, you won’t stay very busy.
18. Paper out, paper in. The moment you finish a job and everyone’s happy, write a thank you letter to the person who hired you and include your invoice. DON’T WAIT. Do it now, now, now. Billing is not the same as receiving. Many companies like to take a loooooooong time to pay, aging invoices like fine wine. So you want to bill quickly because until the paperwork is in the system, absolutely nothing will happen. The quicker you get the paper out, the sooner checks will show up in your mailbox, and that, my friend, is the best feeling in the world.
19. Enjoy yourself or do something else. Freelancing will teach you a lot about business– the business of running a business.
You’ll discover a lot about yourself, agencies, clients, life. You’ll have a much better appreciation of our craft and what it takes to get things done and be successful.
You’ll also learn that just because your phone isn’t ringing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s broken. And that’s the hardest lesson to learn– patience. Can’t wait until I learn some patience my own self.
Happy hunting and feel free to toss in your advice.