The Freelancery Thriving on your own Wed, 26 Feb 2014 16:56:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Q/A: Good client stopped calling. How do I find out what went wrong? Mon, 23 Dec 2013 14:27:41 +0000 Lisa writes:

I have a good client I have worked with steadily for years. I thought we had a good relationship. Then, for some reason, she stopped using me. When I call, she says “I don’t have anything for you right now.” No explanation. This has gone on for months now. I’d like to write her to find out what went wrong. Did I offend her? Was my work not up to par? How do I do this professionally? I really need to use her as a reference.

My guess is, you won’t find out what happened.

I’ve been ‘fired’ like this plenty of times. It’s always a mystery. At least when I got canned with a lot of yelling, I knew precisely why. (“You’re always late. You argue too much. You turned this job into a spectacular mess and made me look like an ass. You write like a hack.”)

My other guess is, whatever happened isn’t your fault. Maybe her needs shifted. Maybe she’s stuck with a new freelancer policy she has to deal with.

Maybe her boss foisted some other freelancer on her. Maybe she found someone she ‘connects with’ better. Maybe she’s wrestling with personal drama right now.

Or maybe nothing happened at all. Maybe it’s just a natural lifecycle at work. Who knows? You will make yourself crazy thinking about it.

Since she hasn’t said anything so far, asking her to explain would only make things more awkward. You will sound paranoid, or needy, or clueless.

Like in ninth grade, when I kept asking Mona Delaney why she broke up with me.

Besides, whatever your client might say wouldn’t be useful to you anyway.

No upside there.

So what to do?

Using her as a ‘reference’ may be risky, if by that you mean having a potential client ask her about her experience with you. You don’t know what she’d say, if anything. Although, in my 194 years of freelancing I have NEVER had one client call another for a ‘reference’. Never happens with any freelance friends either. Maybe your line of work is different.

But it would be perfectly fine to include her work on your resume or web site. Just say you did such-and-such work with her, or the company. Even show samples, clips, whatever. Any potential client is probably more interested in the work, anyway, rather than anything your former client might say.

Best bet is to shoot her a note now and then. And quit worrying about it.


Always enjoyed the projects I worked on with you. I’ve been busy, but I do miss doing pieces like “XXX XXX.”

If I can ever be of help sometime in the future, please let me know.

If not, that’s okay too.

Anyway, stay in touch.

Then start working on some new clients, which you’re doing all the time, of course.


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Your smartest career strategy: Pleaser? Or Artiste? Tue, 29 Oct 2013 03:08:12 +0000 There seem to be two different ways to ring the bell in this business.

Two different paths to glory and riches for us solo practitioners.

The choice depends entirely on how you’re wired, how your brain works, what delights your soul.

And I’m convinced it matters. Get this right, and it can make a huge difference in how happy you are, and how much money you make.

Here’s the idea.

Over several late-night sessions of the Renegade Roundtable, we were swapping stories of the most enviably successful freelancers we knew. Including the ones we hated. The ones who made good money, had plenty of work, had their acts together.

After a while, it dawned on us. All of these A-list players seemed to do it one of two ways:

They were brilliant at understanding clients, tuning into their likes and needs, delivering what they wanted.

Or . . .

They were brilliant at their craft, raising it to high art, becoming the best in the hemisphere in their particular niche.

They were pleasers. Or artistes.

They were 80/20 about clients.

Or, they were 80/20 about the work.

Oddly enough, it seems that the more sharply they leaned one way or the other, the better they did. Artistes did remarkably well. Pleasers did remarkably well. Middlers, trying to play both roles, not so much.

I’m not sure this is a conscious choice. The difference, I think, is built into your DNA. It determines where your satisfactions come from, how your instincts tug at your sleeve. You just can’t help it.

When you sit down to work, what are you thinking?

“What would Katharine like here? What does she want?”

Or, “What would be really good? What’s the best solution?”

For years, came down on the side of ‘doing what clients like.’ Because, well, it seemed well the ‘right’ answer. (Even if it made me miserable. And got me fired anyway.)

But I’ve changed my mind. There is no ‘right’. There is only who you are.

And you will do much better by going with your inborn tendencies and reflexes.

Where is your joy? Where is your satisfaction?

Is it in the work? The art? The craft?

Or is it in your clients, your relationships, the teamwork?

There is no right answer.

You can make a mint either way.

But you have to pick one.


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The most lucrative ways to specialize Wed, 18 Sep 2013 00:56:04 +0000 Yes. Specialists always do better. There is no debating this.

I can’t think of any freelancer who made it big as a handyman.

The world already has plenty of all-purpose copywriters, versatile translators, general web designers and utility infielders. Don’t jump into that haystack. You will be lost forever.

It sounds paradoxical, but the longer your ‘list of services’, the broader your ‘expertise’ the less skillful and useful you appear. And the lower your fees will go.  (“But I really can do all that” you say. Maybe, but clients won’t believe it, and certainly won’t be considering you top tier. It looks like you’re flailing, hoping to hit something.)

If ‘doing everything’ were the key to riches, the superstars would do be doing everything. They most definitely are not.

Write this down:

This freelance thing screams to be practiced narrow and deep

Narrow meaning you stake out your private territory, even if it’s the size of a beach towel, and then own it. You’re not trying to cover all bases, appeal to everyone, do everything. You have your thing.

And deep meaning you dig into your patch of turf until you hit bedrock. Then no generalist can uproot you. You become the best in the hemisphere at what you do. You know more, and do it happier, faster and more elegantly than any freelancer trying to be a twelve-bladed Swiss army knife.

That’s precisely how every high-earning, always-busy freelancer does it. All of them work surprisingly limited territories.

Jonathan Mann just writes clever songs. My designer friend Dave became famous for doing Annual Reports. Writer Hugh MacCleod draws cartoons on the back of business cards. There’s a carpenter in the next town who makes custom, hand-crafted staircases and nothing else. He earns four times the usual carpenter money.

When I was a ‘generic’ copywriter, no one called me back. When I was a writer who could handle gnarly high-tech networking services, they wanted to talk. Well, more often than usual anyway.

The worst path is to be migrant labor, a warm-body freelancer: Sit here, make this. It pays $5.

Better to be the indispensable genius. The only one who can can untangle this knot, or make this particular frog sing.

That way, clients ask you what to do, not tell you what to do.

Start here

First thing. Don’t fear ‘limiting yourself’. That’s newbie thinking. It took me years to get over that.

Unless you have 973 clients right now, you are already limiting yourself to a tiny niche. (Once, I specialized in ‘small business owners who didn’t care a lick about marketing, but sort of felt sorry for me.’)  The trick is to find a specialty that pays better, has more legs. Adding more stuff never does it.

Besides, all you need are ten true fans. Not the whole world. Find twenty fans, and you can retire early.

Next, you don’t have to pick your personal niche today. Noodle around, try different things. See what gets attention. If an idea doesn’t draw a crowd, fold your tent and move on. You’re freelance. You’re allowed to do that.

Often, a specialty will find you. Don’t be sleeping when it comes looking.

And no rule says you have to work one idea at a time. For years I carried three sets of business cards: ‘Scriptwriter’, ‘Copywriter’, ‘Marketing’. For about $150, you can have three different websites up and running. See which one rings the bell.

The overriding idea: You’re specializing to catapult yourself nine rungs above the competition — or effectively eliminate competition. You do not want to appear interchangeable with 26 other freelancers. That’s what causes low rates and getting fired.

You’re specializing so that it’s far easier to find clients, and for clients to find you. You’re specializing so you can say something more meaningful than “Hello. I design beautiful websites.” You’re specializing so you know exactly who your best clients are and where they hang out.

You’re specializing so you can charge more.

Try any or all of these:

Go with what you like most, what moves you. The advantage is, you’ll care about what you’re doing. You’ll be having fun, feeling good. Is there a business in that? Maybe, maybe not. Try it and see.

Suzanne Shelton was doing marketing communications, just like 17,308 others. Nothing much happened. Then she decided to work only on projects involving sustainability and energy efficiency. She cares deeply about that, knows gigawatts more about the issues. Yes, making the transition was a bitch, it was scary. But now she is the expert in that realm. She gives twenty speeches a year.

Go with what you’re naturally good at. Even if it doesn’t give you goosebumps. You’ll have an unfair advantage by virtue of your DNA and heritage. Milk the hell out of that. Skip what you suck at.

Go with what clients always ask for. Even if makes you yawn at first.

Nancy Duarte and her husband had a nice design business. Like everyone else, they did a little of everything. Then business tanked and they struggled. But a few clients still asked about presentations. In the design world, presentations were tacky stuff, a backwater. But the Duartes said okay. They embraced presentations with both arms. And they raised presentations to high art. Now, that’s all they do. And they’re famous for it. They are quoted, sought out. They need staff to handle all the work.

Go with a subject matter. A field of knowledge. This works best for writers, for translators, maybe for coders and consultants. When you know the intricacies of pharmaceuticals, regulatory affairs, healthcare, secure e-commerce, international finance, food technology, you are miles ahead of the generalist. Plus you know exactly how to Google for clients. And you can talk to them intelligently.

I once worked several projects that forced me to learn about arcane areas of liability insurance. (No, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.) But one afternoon I sent twenty emails to companies in that business. I received ten responses in a couple of days. Suddenly I wasn’t just some faceless writer. I was some faceless writer who could talk about ‘selling into the soft market in financial D&O.’ I didn’t pursue that niche for long for fear of irreparable brain damage. But the principle is sound.

Go with a type of business. Much like above. Your claim to fame is that you work with telecom firms, or not-for-profits, banks, universities, publishers, franchises, toy designers, management consultants, or whatever. They’re easy to find. You get to know their problems, their quirks, what they like. But almost never is ‘small business’ a profitable speciality.

Go with a style, a voice, a philosophy. This is good for writers, journalists, designers, illustrators. Don’t pretend to be versatile and flexible. Lean hard on your natural style and inclinations. You’re a minimalist, or irreverent, or retro, or ultra-conservative? Be the most distinctive, the most unapologetic of your kind. You are old-school, persnickety, or snarky? Take a stand, espouse a point of view. Evangelize what you believe. The wishy-washy middle gets nowhere, pays nothing.

Go with a technology or a medium. You do only YouTube videos. You translate advertising, marketing, or government publications. You work in WordPress, or Joomla, or Drupal. You write only speeches. You develop GPS-based iPhone apps. You illustrate with black crayon and watercolors. (I’m making this up.) You only do type-based animation. You create multi-layered cello compositions.

The idea is, whatever you pick, you become unbeatable at. Because that is all you do.

Stake out some turf. Own it.



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What if you doubled your fees? Tomorrow? Sun, 11 Aug 2013 01:33:55 +0000 Years ago there was a cranky old freelancer I looked up to. He was an artist and illustrator who had made his own way since the days of Mad Men.

He did brilliant work. Made piles of money. He was in demand. He answered to no one, drank too much and smoked like a diesel. He was one of my idols. I often pestered him for advice.

One evening over beers, I was griping to him about how my income had stubbornly plateaued. I despaired of ever getting ahead, fearing that there was no way to make decent money at this freelance thing.

He listened to me bitch for a while. Then he said, “So charge twice as much.”

I laughed him off. I recited eleven reasons why that was utterly unrealistic and stupid. Clients would never stand for it. You had to remain competitive and reasonable. There are 6790 copywriters per square mile out here. There are norms. Budgets are tight. I’d never land any more work. Clients would think I was deluded.

Then he shrugged. “I never thought of it that way. I guess you are stuck, then.”

(He was playing that Socrates-guru-zen-grasshopper game. Which I hated. It always took me too long to understand what he was getting at.)

But weeks later, it hit me. The exercise he wanted me to go through was a bit painful. A little discouraging and humbling. But it clarified everything. The sun came out. It also revealed what was holding me back, what I needed to work on.

Now I’m inflicting it on you.

You need to think about this.

Then, at least once every full moon, or each time your car payment is due, you must actually try this. For real.

Here’s why:

As a freelancer, the difference between 90K a year and 180K is not about working twice as many hours.

It’s not a matter of pushing twice as many jobs out the door, cranking out twice as many pages, fooling twice as many clients.

The difference is, simply, generating more income from what you do all day. That’s it.

For independent practitioners like you and me, there is no other way to scale.

So let’s start there.

What if, as of 9 am tomorrow morning, you decreed that all fees were now 2X?

If it cost $925 yesterday, it would cost $1850 tomorrow. Instead of the ‘customary’ $75 per hour, your rate would be $150. That $4800 branding project would now be $9600.

What would happen?

(Just for the record, note how your brain first reacts to this idea. Does it scare the hell out of you? Or does it excite you? Or do you dismiss this as foolhardy, clueless, and impractical in today’s world, like I did? Your instinctive reaction will reveal much about where your head is at.)

Back to what would happen if you doubled your fees.

Would your current clients flee? Or would they agree?

Maybe they would pay, especially if you have been really really ultra-cheap up to now. Or if your projects were so variable that your clients could never tell your fees had gone up.

Or, maybe they’d go along if your talents are indispensable and irreplaceable and pivotal to life as they know it. That is a good place to be.

But most likely they wouldn’t pay double. Which is understandable.

It just means that where you’re going, those clients can’t follow. No hard feelings. You need to move on. But they need to stay where they are. That’s all fine.

No, I’m not suggesting that you push your good customers out of the boat just yet. But understand that to move up, you always need different clients. Not more clients, but better clients.That’s what you must be thinking about when you get up in the morning.

You must work with people who live and breathe and die on what you do — and also have money. For whom is this oxygen? Who cares about this? Otherwise, don’t waste your efforts.

Does that sound harsh? Michelangelo only got famous — and did his best work — when he had the Pope for a client.

What about new clients?

Try this: The very next prospect or inquiry or referral that comes through the door, you quote 2X what you normally would. Don’t argue, just do it. At least once a month or so.

What would happen?

I know, you are reluctant to do this. Me too. I have been freelancing since the previous century. I’m much bolder when I have just deposited a huge check, and the bank account is full, and there is a stack of paying work on my desk. Then I grow all sorts of balls.

“Thanks for asking. That would involve about $4750 or so.”

But you can do better. The only way to know where the ceiling is, is to bump against it.

So now and then, quote double. Not nine percent more or forty-two dollars more. But double. That’s the only way to find where the fences are. See what happens. Figure out who the client must be, and what you must say for the job to happen.

If you wish, wait until it’s a job you don’t want. Or when you’re leaving on vacation. Or your calendar is way too full. Or you feel extra ornery. When you have no fear. (Those are the best days.)

A recurring story from Freelancery readers: “I didn’t want this migraine of a job, so I quoted an outlandish fee to make them go away. But they bought it.”

If you quote  double and the client accepts, you’ve learned something. Plus you get to do the job (even if it sucks) for twice the fee. Keep charging that. From now on. You have learned something.

If the client says no, you’ve learned something, too. And you avoid doing a nosebleed job for nothing.

But the bigger lesson is this:

What would it take to land assignments at double your current fees? You need to fall asleep at night thinking about this.

How good would you have to be? What would you have to change? What could you do better? How could you run rings around the other ‘experts’ in your field? What would it be like to work with you?

Fantasize if you have to . . . “A year ago, she was cobbling together web sites for $100 apiece. Today, she’s working for . . .”

Fill in your own blanks. Write your own story. This is hard. Most freelancers can’t do it. They will continue doing what they did last month, over and over again. (There is your opportunity.)

Picture if you charged double. What would work?

What if you were among the highest-paid translators/copyeditors/programmers/writers/designers on the planet?

What would you be doing different right now? How would you attack your work tomorrow morning?



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What numbers should you watch? Fri, 05 Jul 2013 13:10:15 +0000 edometer


You and me, we are working the simplest business model there is. Let’s not complicate things more than necessary.

First, the tax people want to know how much money clients gave you, and how much you spent on business expenses. The easy way is to get those numbers from your 1099s and bank records.

That’s all I care to say about bookkeeping. (Except that it is the only English word with three double letters in a row.)

Otherwise, what numbers should we be watching?

As few as possible, I say. If we loved spreadsheets and stock tickers we would have chosen a more persnickety profession. For us, streamlined is easier. And it works better.

Try these.

Things that need fixing

I heard this story ages ago. In a steel mill, the shift boss comes down from his office onto the shop floor. He goes to a foreman and asks “How many tons did your crew handle today?”

The foreman thinks back, counts on his fingers, “Twelve.”

So the shift boss takes out some chalk, goes to the wall and writes “12″ in numerals about two feet high. He goes back to his office. For the next three days he does the same thing. He asks the tonnage, chalks it on the wall. It is always 11 or 12.

The fourth day, the shift boss comes around again. This time, he sees that someone has already chalked a number on the wall, in numerals two feet high:  “14.”

And across the shop floor, on another wall, another crew had chalked “15.”

The idea is, whatever you start counting gets better. Whatever you start measuring, improves. You can count miles run, clams dug up, buttons sewn, inches of belly.

Once, when my client list became too stale and inbred, I started counting how many new people I contacted every day. (It wasn’t a quota, it wasn’t a goal. Those don’t work.)  I simply put a hashmark on the calendar when I talked to someone new. Some days were blank. And it was glaringly obvious. After a while, the calendar was full of hashmarks. After a while there were some new clients, too.

You might count pages done, like Mark Twain did. Or how many bills you send out. The trick is to pick something small and simple that you can directly control. Just measure it, count it. It will get better.

Either that, or you’ll just quit measuring.

When money is coming

I flunked Calculus twice. But I do have a Rain Man-like ability to calculate that 45 days from February 26 is April 13. (Non leap year.)

That’s because I was cursed for years with corporate clients who paid in 45 days, take it or leave it. When I issued an invoice on November 3, I knew payment was due decades later on December 19th. (The only way to deal with such laggards is to charge the hell out of them, and try to replace them with other clients.)

To this day, I can close my eyes and picture a calendar arcing out a few months ahead, with all my ‘paydays’ ringed in silver halos.halocalen

My designer friend Kevin visualizes a huge, slow-moving ferris wheel, with money up there in the cars, slowly coming around to the bottom, where he can scoop it out.

Paint your own picture, or use a spreadsheet if you insist. But you should know when the money’s coming. Or at least when the money is due.

[ At this point, after rereading this post, I am worried that I didn't include enough useful information here.

So I am inserting this:

You know how when you are working at your desk, or trying to watch a movie, and a fly keeps circling your head, driving you crazy?

Do this:  Kill all the lights in the room, draw down the shades. Then go into the next room, or into the hall, and turn on every light there is. The fly, not knowing any better, will meander out the door toward the light. As soon as he leaves, shut the door behind him and go back to your movie. This also works with mosquitoes.]

How long did that job take?

No, I am not telling you to charge by the hour. The top-earning freelancers have all outgrown that hourly thing. Surgeons and film directors never charge by the hour, and they make more money than you do. But we can argue that another day.

Part of being a pro is knowing how long things take, or should take.

Is this a four-hour job, or nine-day job? You should know that in your bones — which only comes from actually timing a lot of assignments, for real, without fudging. You need to know this for scheduling and planning. And you need to know if you are futzing and fiddling more than necessary. (You should also know how your brain works, or doesn’t. That is part of being pro.)

And no, you are not doing this so you can charge by the hour. But we can argue that another day.

What you do all day

It is one thing to suspect that you fritter away too much time each day. But it is another thing to discover that over the last two days you spent merely 24 minutes and 11 seconds actually writing in Microsoft Word — and the rest of the time screwing around in one manner or another.

I was using a nifty free app for the Mac called Timing Lite. It could tell me in exquisite detail how much time I squandered, by diligently recording my moves on the computer. After a few days, I quit using it.

The common advice is, if you are a designer, you should be designing all day. Or making pottery, translating, illustrating, or writing all day.

But here in the real world, you should shoot for four, maybe five hours of pure work. That is, writing from scratch, designing from a blank page, translating raw text, building brand new code, illustrating out of thin air.

That’s all the human brain can muster. The holics who say they ‘work’ eighteen hours a day aren’t actually ‘working’ all that time.  Most of that will be foof like paperwork, email, phone calls, tinkering, fiddling, meetings. Of the ‘real’ work, the devilishly painful work, four hours is all you can do.

Manage that and you can build a legacy.

[ Another thing. If there's a fly buzzing around the kitchen when you're trying to cook, don't try swatting him. You will only break a lamp or dislocate a shoulder.

Instead, wait till he lands. Then, creep up on him, and sharply clap your hands together exactly six inches above where he's sitting.

The fly, not knowing any better, trying to evade you, will stupidly fly up directly between your colliding palms. Game over. You can win bar bets with this trick.

I worked for one whole summer in a horse barn, where I learned this and other things about flies.]



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The Freelancer’s Guide to Saying ‘No’ Wed, 03 Jul 2013 16:07:58 +0000 First thing:  You are allowed to say no.


It’s a perfectly acceptable answer. It is always an option.

You are not obligated to take on every assignment and every client that blows in. You are not required to accept a lousy fee or lopsided terms, either.

I hear from too many freelancers who are agonizing over this. You need to cut that out.

You are already endowed with the right to beg off, pass, turn down, and gracefully decline. And you need no second opinion, prior approval, or special dispensation.

You just decide and that’s that. You are, after all, freelance. If you screw up, so what? Mostly, you’ll regret the bad jobs you did take, and not the ones you didn’t.

Fact is, by common law and tradition you don’t officially make your bones as a freelancer until you actually turn down an assignment or a client or two.

The first time you look at a job that spells trouble, and say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, that’s when you truly feel the tingling warmth of being an independent. Even after 124 years, I still get a rush from that. Maybe I’m childish, but so be it.

Of course, you aren’t saying ‘no’ just because you’re tired, or the ball game is on, or you don’t feel like it.

What we’re doing is turning away work that is wrong for us. Clients who don’t have their acts together. Work that can only end badly. Work that blunts your tools for no good reason. Clients who can’t pay. Work that buzzes with all sorts of bad signals. That’s toxic work. You’ll get a good sense for that after a while. You’ll know when that seemingly juicy peach hides a bumblebee inside.

What you’re doing is steering your own career, instead of being pushed around by it.

Saying no is how you define who you are, what you are supremely good at, where you’re going.

Saying no is how you disengage from unprofitable C-list clients, how you keep moving ahead, how you keep from getting distracted, sidetracked and dead-ended on work you hate and or suck at.

“Sorry, but I wouldn’t be a good match here. It wouldn’t be fair to take this on and not do a good job on it. If you’d like, I can point you to a few freelancers who might be more helpful.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I’m not the best choice for this sort of work. I focus mostly on branding and identity. If you’d like a few names of web designers, I could pass them along.”

“Oh boy. You wouldn’t want me working on this. My brain works the wrong way ’round. I’d be nothing but trouble. But I’m flattered that you asked.”

“I think it’s time to give a fresh freelancer a crack at this. I’ve enjoyed the work so far, but I’m no longer a good fit for what you need.”

Understand that clients almost never hear ‘no’ from a freelancer. Some will go wide-eyed. Some will be incensed and offended. So don’t be a jerk about it. Oh, and some may give you a whole new respect for not fawning and begging. Well, sometimes.

You’re also saying ‘no’ when the money isn’t there.

“I don’t know how to do a good job for any less, and you wouldn’t be happy with the work.  But I appreciate the opportunity. Perhaps we can work together sometime in the future.”

“No problem. I’d be happy to talk again if the budget situation eases up.  And thanks for asking.”

“That’s understandable. Heck, there are people even way more expensive than me. I’m sure you could find another freelancer who could work within your budget. Or even less.”

“Sorry, but 30-day or 45-terms aren’t an option for this. I’m not in the position to finance project fees for that long. If you’re hamstrung by company policy, I fully understand. Is there some other way?”

“Actually, if I took the job at this teeny price, I would only be seething with anger the whole time (partly at myself, but mostly at you) and would be trying to push any kind of half-cooked turd out the door as fast as I could. Either that or I’d keep postponing this damn thing in favor of actual paying work, and whenever I see your name on the caller ID, I will pretend I’m not here. So let’s just agree to disagree on this one, okay?”

(Of course, you will not do this all day every day. I am prescribing an aspirin here. Don’t take the whole bottle. I don’t have to tell you this.)

Should you turn down work when you’re too busy? For good clients, try not to. For one-time newbies you’re not likely to see again? Sure.

If a good and steady client wants some skunk work done as a favor, hold your nose and do it.

If a good client hands you a project way outside your wheelhouse or beyond your expertise, you say “I wouldn’t be as scintillatingly brilliant at this as I usually am. If you can go with sort of B- minus work here, I’d be happy to handle it. Or help you find someone else who could help.”

Oh, and this. You will not be turning down that fat and glistening high-profile assignment from the A-list client you have ached for.  The one that scares the hell out of you because you’re not sure you have the chops to pull it off, and you’re afraid of crashing and burning in public and forever ruining your career?

That job, you take.

Crash and burn if you have to, but don’t ever say ‘no’ to that.




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Charge what you’re worth? Please, no. Sat, 01 Jun 2013 22:46:30 +0000 “You should have the confidence to charge what you’re worth.”

When I see advice like that, I wince. I have been there, been stung.

“You should know your worth as a designer.”

“Your fees should reflect your worth to the project.”

Oh boy. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Get that word ‘worth’ out of there.

Tying your fees to your ‘worth’ is just asking for misery. It’s too easy to take it personally.

The last thing we need is to make every quote or proposal or estimate a verdict on our ‘worth.’ As freelancers, our egos take it on the chin enough as it is.

Me, I can only think of it like this:

We don’t get to decide what our stuff is worth.

Sorry, but we don’t.

The client decides that.

What we get to decide is our price.

There’s a huge difference.

Reread that.

When you think of it, the only thing we can control directly is our fee.

We can base it on anything we want. “Years of experience. Nine semesters of school. I’m freaking smart. This is really hard to do. I want a new car. My wife is ashamed of me. There’s a no-talent moron out there charging way more than me.” (All overheard, by the way, at the renegade’s roundtable.)

The ‘worth’ part, that’s in the client’s head. They decide to buy, or not.

(We can affect that a little. By acting like someone they’d like to work with. By showing that we’re on their side. By not being a jerk. By sharing some cool ideas. By putting something on the desk they like.)

But mostly, the ‘worth’ thing is more about their internal dramas, their own politics, prejudices, and priorities. “$1250 for these documents? My boss will kill me . . . I don’t have enough budget for that . . . For the website? Nah. . . I like the other designs better.”

It is almost never about you, and your ‘worth’.

“This Kania guy. On the worthiness scale, he’s only a four, four-point-five, tops.”

Forget all that.

What we get to decide is the price.

That’s our sovereignty right there.

We get to say how much.

That way, it’s just arithmetic.

Easier on my head that way.

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No more self-inflicted discounts Mon, 20 May 2013 16:51:01 +0000  

I catch myself doing this from time to time. And I always want to slap myself.

It’s what Mike Monteiro of Mule Design calls ‘negotiating on behalf of the client.’

Which means, when wrestling with an estimate or a quote or a proposal, we end up finding all sorts of reasons to lower the fee. I was a master at this.

“Don’t get too greedy here, champ. Might be plenty of work behind this . . . These little companies never have any money . . . I could really, really use an assignment for next week . . . I don’t have a ton of experience with this yet . . . I bet they are talking to three other freelancers who are really cheap . . . I bet they are talking to freelancers who are really expensive . . . This is my one chance at this client . . . Once I do a few of these, I can really crank them out fast . . .”

All this is before a client actually bitches about the price, mind you.

These are just voices in our heads.

We need to quit that. We need to quit bargaining against ourselves. It’s not our job.

Why do we do this?

I know, I know, the obvious reason is that we’re afraid we won’t get the assignment. Because of ‘the economy’ and ‘rampant competition’ and nobody has any money. We need to be competitive and realistic and reasonable.

And there’s the magical belief that the lower your fee, the better your chance of getting the job. Low price, lower resistance, more chance of work.

Phooey. If that were true, the cheaper freelancers would be the busiest. They would be scooping up the all the assignments. Which ain’t remotely so.

The real reason for bargaining ourselves down is a little more embarrassing.

We’re chicken.

Sometimes, it feels safer being cheaper. It’s easier to hide down there in the small digits.

Charging a lot feels scary. “What will the client want for all that?” “How good will I have to be?” “I don’t want all that hassle.”

(This is all before the client says a word, mind you.)

With a higher fee, your brain thinks you’re really sticking yourself out there. Which is mostly imaginary, of course.

Me, I lost thousands one year just because one client, one rude client said, “Holy cow, kid. You have one hugely inflated opinion of yourself. You ain’t nearly that good.”

I was so gun shy after that, I went in low for months, even before the client said a thing. I bargained myself down just fine. The clients never had to say a word. It cost me maybe the price of a car.

But it sure felt safer. More comfortable.

It wasn’t of course. It was just me being chicken.

If the client beefs and tries to beat down the fee, that’s one thing. From there, you get to decide yes or no. That’s your call.

But don’t beat yourself up first. Even if it feels the safer way out.


- – -

You might also like this:

Pricing is Mostly in Your Head.

It’s a Freelancery guest post on Lori Widmer’s Words on the Page blog.

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Freelancing Rules of Thumb Wed, 08 May 2013 13:21:59 +0000  


You should lose at least one out of four assignments because you’re too expensive. If you land every job, you’re not charging enough, or, you are irresistibly charming. Either way, you should charge more.



Time from first contact with a client, to seeing any money from them: minimum 30 days. Yes, even if you get money up front. It will take them that long to decide. There is no fast money. Especially when you need it.



To accurately figure out how long a job will take, give it your best estimate, then add 10%. Then double it. Then ditch that number and recalculate. You will still be wrong. If it takes less time than you figured, you forgot something. Or the client will hate it.



For every person on the client side who must approve your work, add 12% to the fee.  (20% for any spouse or brother-in-law.)



For every ten new people you talk to, five will call you back. Three will try you on an assignment. One will turn out to be a long-term client with a decent budget. Somewhere in there will also be a lunatic. Just hope it’s not the one with the money.



To determine your hourly rate, start with the annual income you need. Divide by 2,000. Take your monthly expenses, divide by 160. Add. Or just pick $150 per hour and see what happens.



The day after you receive a huge check, your productivity will drop an average of 82%.



Technically, there are always two days of leeway in any deadline. If you’re running behind, it’s three days.



On a $1000 project, you will need to endure $1000 worth of pain and effort. For a $300 project, it’s about the same.



When discussing your fee, every time you say ‘Um. . .’ you give away 15%. If you clear your throat, you’re working for minimum wage.


Now, continue to:

The Freelancer’s Right to Bail™

 The Freelancer’s Soul-Saving Mind Hack



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Moving up the fee scale: From nuisance to indispensable Sun, 05 May 2013 17:40:46 +0000 The worst place to be is where your work is something the client doesn’t much care about.

Maybe it’s some nuisance item to be checked off a to-do list. Or maybe it’s something they need, kind of, but it doesn’t matter how good it is, or who does it. You are auto insurance.  Gutter cleaning. Someone to mow the lawn.

No, this not about your value as a human being, your worth on this planet. It’s only about how the client perceives things.

They want someone to ‘write up some verbage’ for the website.*  Someone to put these instructions into French, so we can get this stuff shipped to Canada. Someone to draw a picture of a swordfish for our menus. I have worked this low country, writing two-line descriptions for 63 varieties of electrical cable. It was mostly typing.

Your only chance here is to be the cheapest, fastest, most convenient one around. And even then, you will make more money mowing lawns. Move on. Wrong work, wrong clients.

Next worse place is where your clients care about the work, mostly, but don’t have the money.

The local cupcake shop needs a website. But they only have $427. They will drive you insane for that $427. The only hope here is to be impossibly fast, efficient, and still cheap. Recycle and reuse. Do them by the dozen. Keep your overhead low.

Long-term potential: zero. Take this stuff to start, then move on up. Right work, wrong clients.


Then, there are clients who have the money, but the project is rather low priority. It’s not make or break. They don’t live or die by their logos, their social media, or how well their website reads in German.

I’m sitting on three of these toothache clients right now, all referrals from friends who I wanted to accommodate. The problem: they delay and cancel conference calls. They don’t look at stuff you sent a week ago. There is no urgency. Projects drag. You will get paid, but the project will take forever.

It’s not your fault. Their minds are elsewhere.  Right work, wrong clients.

Bottom line: Take these when you must. You will not get prime rate, nor find any repeat business here. Charge money up front: No check, no start. Keep looking.

Maybe you’re doing something that is clearly needed, well-recognized, but clients perceive it as relatively low value, routine, or a commodity.

They’d never think of publishing without proofreading and copyediting, but well, there’s only so much they’d pay for that.

After all, the website for the Editorial Freelancers Association says proofreading should cost $30 to $35 per hour. Copyediting, light: $40.

Your options? It’s hard to be seen as a genius rock star here. Try being delightfully fun to work with. Or robotically and rigidly punctual. Maybe you can be surprisingly fast. (By fast, you mean “By Friday,” not “Just an hour and a half.”) You can get maybe 20% more per hour.

Or specialize in an impossibly arcane and ugly form of proofreading or copyediting, such as SEC filings EU publications, or pharmaceutical submissions to the FDA. You will want to die, but you might get double per hour.

Next to best, is working with clients whose business depends heavily on what you do. The e-commerce website manager who needs kick-ass designers and coders. The news publication that publishes in three languages. The upstart tech company trying hard to compete with fat-cat corporations. They use a lot of what you make, and they care.

Or maybe it’s the manager or coordinator whose job is to buy what you do.

The marketing guy, the global relations manager, the technical editor, the publications director. They are looking for writers, translators, illustrators. It’s what they do. They have budgets. Their careers depend on looking good.

But, it also means they assuredly have freelancers on their rosters already. Sometimes, they are hard to get to. It can take time to win them over and get yourself a chance. But they can’t survive without you, or at least people like you. They are worth the chase.

Anyone who has made a big splash in the business works for people like this. That’s where your career is. They are pro buyers. You should start looking for them the first day you go freelance.


Oh, and there is the client in pain. The client dangling off a cliff.

A month ago, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, needed to respond to a shitstorm of bad publicity in China. So he issued a statement in Chinese.

I can guarantee you whoever did that translation wasn’t charging the usual XX dollars per 250 words. There might have been nine translators working that, some from the Chinese side, some from the English side.  I don’t know. Maybe they worked all night. I don’t know.

But for sure, there were some handsome fees changing hands there. People got noticed, got on  lists.

There is money in being a savior.


* Just for the record it’s not ‘verbage’ but ‘verbiage’, which connotes blather of too many words. When people ask for that, I usally recommend cabbage instead.




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