I started my new communications consultancy almost a year ago. Since then, I’ve been hard at work delivering a combination of mini-courses, workshops and one-on-one coaching. What’s odd is that although I’ve worked as a freelancer before, I’m learning a whole new set of skills this time around.
This post is aimed particularly at those of you who’ve always dreamed of setting up your own businesses. Here are five things to bear in mind:
a. Negotiate your deliverables in detail. That might sound obvious, because, hey, what are contracts for, right? But I’ve got news for you: contracts can be super vague. Trust me, in my previous job, I wrote them all the time. And especially if you’re working with a client you know well – deliverables can be vague and fuzzy – because, hey, we’re all friends, right? The only person who benefits from a fuzzy deliverable is the person paying for it. It gives them leeway to claim that whatever they are asking you to do – including work neither of you initially discussed – plausibly falls within the contours of the agreement. So be precise. Super precise. And if they ask you to do something that doesn’t match the original deliverable, ask for more money. Which brings us to money.
b. Always charge more than you think you should. A year or so ago, when I was still in the concept development phase for my new company, I got some great advice from the women in my Ellevate squad: if a client accepts your budget up front, you’ve charged too little. Damned straight. Entire books have been written on how to sort out our collective discomfort with asking for money (The Soul of Money is top of my list… ). But once you work throught all of that, you need to remember that you are running a business and that time is money. So there are two reasons to ask for more than you think you should. First, everything in life is a negotiation. However high you come in, they are likely to come back with a lower offer. Adjust for that in advance. Second, when you’re starting out, much of what you’re offering is new. So if, like me, you’re delivering workshops or mini-courses, you need to factor in not only your delivery time, but your prep time. This doesn’t meant you should never charge less than your day rate, once you’ve determined what that is. It might be a client whose name you’d like to see on your resumé. Or it might piece of work you’re so passionate about that you’re willing to charge less. Or, because you’re new to this line of work, you might decide that you’d like to demonstrate how much value you add – and get some testimonials under your belt – before raising your rates. Whatever you do, remember that failure to talk openly about pay usually translates into lower rates.
c. Learn to say no. I’ve said this before, but it really does take a while to let it sink in: learn to say no. When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to say yes to everything. But – take my word for it – that can quickly erode any balance you might be hoping to establish in your life. Just as there are good reasons to accept work that doesn’t pay as well as you’d like, there are equally good reasons to turn down work even if you have time. It might not be something you enjoy very much, so the opportunity cost of doing it is higher than for other jobs you might take on. You might not need the money all that much. Or you might foresee that it’s going to be way more work than you bargained for, and will simply amount to a headache. I have taken this approach to editing. Editing is part of my current portfolio. But because I’ve done so much of it in the past, it’s not as exciting as the other work that I do. So I only take on editing clients who either pay exceptionally well or who represent clients I’d really like to cultivate. (See b)
d. Fake it Til You Make It. When I teach public speaking and my course on life skills for offices, I encourage my students to adopt that adage “Fake it til’ you Make it.” A year or so ago, a friend of mine, who’s also a very seasoned communications consultant, gave me this piece of advice: “Never tell people you ‘could’ do something. Always say that you ‘can.'” And how. Before they hire you, people want to know that you can do something. And chances are, you can, even if you haven’t. So while I never accept work that I don’t think I can deliver to the very highest standard, I have been in the position of saying “Yes I Can.” It’s amazing how empowering those three little words can be. And guess what? Once you’ve done it, you can do it!
e. Learn when to give up. Much like asking for money, it can be very uncomfortable to pester someone to get back to you on work you’ve pitched them. So how often to ping? I used to approach people only three times before giving up. I assumed they just weren’t interested, but were too awkward – or busy – to bother telling me “No.” Then I started asking around. One colleague told me that the magic number is “seven” – assume that your name has simply filtered to the bottom of their inbox and they need a quick reminder. People are busy, after all. Seven sounded high to me, but I tried it. And in one instance, after five tries, I got a gig. Another colleague told me that his approach is to “pester them until they either give you work or tell you to F#$% off.” Works well for him! The one thing I would say is that if someone has made it clear to you that he or she isn’t interested, leave them alone. If you push too hard, it can actually be off-putting and alienate them permanently.
My best advice is to be patient. You won’t make a lot of money during your first year while you build up your portfolio of offerings and client base. But if you remember that “Every Day is Groundhog Day” and persevere, you may end up really glad you sallied forth.
How about you? What advice would you give your newbie entrepreneur/freelancer self?