Thursday, 31 July 2014

Lessons from the Freelancing Frontline

Time and tide wait for no one in plimsolls.
Freelance writing can be a movable feast and sometimes the table seems to be on castors with you running behind, reaching for nibbles. It's all too easy to go from week to week, or month to month, without looking up occasionally and smelling the coffee peppermint tea. 

A quarterly review can give you valuable perspective, revealing not only issues but also what's working well. In short, there are useful lessons to be had that can help keep your freelancing business on track.

Here are a few thoughts, both old and new, from my recent tête à tête with myself...

1. Get a well-defined brief before you write a word (or live to regret it).
The client really know what she wanted. Well, she said she knew, setting out her requirements in five bullet points. The only, slight, teensy fly in the ointment being what she hadn't said. Of course she'd specified the theme and key messages, which source material would be sent over and when she needed the draft and the final version. However, what she hadn't mentioned was her week's holiday slap bang in the middle of the project, or her penchant for changing the theme, mid piece, to the point where the finished version was a distant (and more time-consuming) cousin of its predecessor.

2. Agree the number of edits / drafts.
The need for a  completely new quarter of a lengthy article, last minute, because a TV programme inspired her is not a minor tweak. It's a rewrite.

3. Even with a fixed rate job, know the hourly rate at every stage.
£100 for five hours of work is £20 per hour; at least, until the two hours of further edits kick in and then you're looking at around £14 per hour - an hourly reduction of 30%. Perhaps more importantly, you need to balance the client's needs with the economic viability of the job. Have an absolute base rate and, if you feel the job has exceeded its originally agreed scope,  be ready to talk about renegotiating the price.

4. Your client's time is not the same as your time.
Even the best of freelancers, unless you have a longstanding (and positive!) relationship with a client, is a mere spear carrier in your client's drama. Sorry to break the bad news to you, but you might not be the only freelancer on the job. Also, client response times can vary, depending upon whether you're seeking approval for a draft, checking requirements, or waiting for the invoice to be paid.

5. Know when to walk away.
This can be a painful one, but it comes with the territory. Sometimes, to use one of my favourite Americanisms, writers get hosed. This can happen if a client deliberately takes advantage, or they simply didn't understand the amount of work involved (and let's face it, you're the writer so you're responsible for managing their expectations), or they commit the gravest of all sins and don't pay you.

True story time.

I did some work for a US client several months ago. They're a start-up for people who want to learn or teach new skills and are looking to set up local hubs. (Think 'Craigslist' but with new experiences.) I wrote some blogs for them and did some branding work to create a personality for the organisation, as well as a character they could develop graphically. 

Anyway, all was going swimmingly and payments were made on a regular and timely basis until blogs seven and eight. Emails went unanswered; invoices grew lonely. Ironically, it wasn't even a great deal of money, as I'd adjusted my rate for a start-up. Weeks passed by and then, out of sheer capriciousness, I sent them a wry email about what we'd say if we met at a party and what their response might be. Well, cover me in daisies and call me a meadow if they didn't respond within minutes, apologising for the delay - all 16 weeks of it - and promising to settle their account immediately. Their explanation for the delay was honest and weak, a bit like when I make a normal cup of tea for someone. 

No matter though because my Paypal invoice would be dealt with promptly, right? Wrong. Eleven days later they had evidently paddled away. What's a freelancer to do? Simple. Cut Your Losses. I emailed the client to say tell them they were fired, reminded them that the two blogs they hadn't paid for were my copyright and not for their use, and walked away. 

Of course, I could have used a site such as samplesafe and listed them as a bad debtor. This time, though, it doesn't feel worth it.

6. There is no direct line from outcome back to motive.
You can never make assumptions where clients are concerned, when it comes to late responses, late payments or even no payments. That said, what you can do is take action.

Time for another true story.

I did some script editing for a client. It was a short job and I negotiated the top of the client's budget. Everything seemed to be progressing well and I was asked to include a few ideas about characterisation and development, including suggesting a better title. Halfway through, the client paid half the fee. Naturally, I completed the second half of the work and sent it off. Payment was promised and this time I waited days before following it up. Nothing happened. I chased the client again and indicated that I had tracked their online activities over the internet, so that I knew where they were based and which competition the script was heading for. Still nothing. And then I thought about it a little and did something a little different. I compromised. I emailed the client and said that I'd take a smaller second payment in full settlement, bringing payments to the level of their original baseline budget. They emailed, apologised and explained that, even though they'd said they were happy with my script edits, they had (unreasonably in their own opinion) expected more. A payment swiftly followed.

7. It's your business, so run it your own way.
Every client is different so treat them as individuals. My favourite quote of the moment is one attributed to Gandhi: Action expresses priorities. (Not motives though - see earlier in this post.) I also like to adapt that into: Actions reveal priorities. In business or on the creative page, do what's useful to you.


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