Why you’re not a freelance fraud

Fingers crossedMany freelancers, and even some small agency owners, struggle with the fear they’re pulling a fast one. They worry they’re not as good as they claim to be. That they’re just puffing themselves up. And that one dark day, all of their clients will discover they’re just a freelance fraud overcharging clients. In fact, they’ll all figure it out on the same day, bringing their solo creative career to an ignominious end. Followed, without fail, by poverty.

Relax. For most of you, these fears have no basis in reality. Here’s why:

Most of the time, the “freelance fraud” fear is triggered by money. We find it hard to believe anyone in their right mind would pay a living wage for what we do. And it doesn’t help that most creative types are their own harshest critics. We have encyclopedic knowledge of every “flaw” in our work. Who cares if anyone else will ever notice? We know.

Here are five of the most common misconceptions that get this lizard brain fight-or-flight response working overtime in our heads, and some down-to earth reasons why you can let it go.

“They shouldn’t be paying me this much.”

Yes they should. You have a valuable skill that requires training and talent. Clients hire you because they need the service you provide and think you’re the most efficient way to get the job done. They’ll push back if you ask more than the market will bear, but don’t be afraid to stretch the envelope. The price they consider reasonable might be higher than you think. In fact, great clients may actually turn you down if you don’t charge enough, because they’ll assume you aren’t ready to work at their level.

What’s more, if you’re undercutting the market with lowball prices, you’re not just doing a disservice to yourself. You’re harming the industry as a whole by giving clients unrealistic expectations about what creative work should cost.

“It’s so easy for me to do this. How can it be worth what I’m charging?”

Strange as this may seem, what’s easy for you — whether it’s design, photography, writing, or any other creative skill — isn’t easy for a lot of other people. That’s why it has value.

If your creative projects don’t feel like work but your results look professional, congratulations! Doing what comes naturally to you is an ideal way to make a living. Recognize all the work you’ve done to develop your talent into a marketable skill.

“Creative work is subjective. Do I have a right to claim it’s worth this much?”

All value is subjective. For example, many people think diamonds are valuable even though they’re one of the most common gemstones on the planet. Their value has its roots in a de facto monopoly established by the De Beers Group of Companies, which created artificial scarcity by limiting production in the 20th century.

These efforts were enhanced in 1947 when a young copywriter named Frances Gerety coined the classic slogan “A Diamond is Forever.” Those four words were so valuable that Advertising Age magazine named them the best advertising slogan of the 20th century in 2000 — definitively proving that it pays to work with a good writer.

In any case, the subjectivity that matters here is in your buyer’s head, not yours. If clients think your work is worth the rates you charge, they’ll pay it. Otherwise they won’t. And since you can’t work for everyone, you have a seat at the table when the haggling over that value is taking place.

So if the occasional client isn’t willing to pay what you believe is a fair price, it doesn’t make you a freelance fraud. More likely, they’re probably not a client you want because they’re not willing to invest in professional creative work.

“I don’t have that much experience.”

Maybe not, but you’re committing to earning your living as a creative professional. That requires investments of time and money. You may not be able to charge top dollar out of the gate, but you still have the right to earn a living wage.

Even if you’re fairly new to your creative skill, that’s all relative to someone who doesn’t have the same training. For example, I’m not an engineer, but I do a lot of work for engineering companies because I can translate technical concepts into plain language.

“They could pay an in-house person a lot less to do this.”

You can still be a valuable resource — and someone your client will come back to — even if they have some internal resources.

For one thing, they could also pay a big agency a whole lot more than they’re paying you. Compared to that, your top rate probably looks cheap.

There’s also a good chance they’re calling you because all their in-house people have their hands full. Many of the corporate managers I’ve met at the HOW Design Live conference the last few years have said their biggest challenge is finding enough freelance talent to back up their in-house team. I also see the same trend closer to home. One of my best clients has multiple full-time writers on staff. They recently hired another one, and they’re still keeping me busy.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: even if you’re doing identical work to an in-house person, you’re also paying for your own equipment, insurance, and taxes. Even though these expenses don’t show up in the paychecks your in-house peers receive, their employers are still paying them. So if you’re not charging more than a comparable in-house salary, there’s a good chance you’re actually charging less than they’d pay one of their own people.

And don’t forget many companies use freelancers specifically because they want or need something they can’t get in-house. You may have a specialized expertise they don’t have on their staff. One of my design partners, Doug Klocke, has a client with a few in-house people who can do production work, but they rely on him to create templates and do other work requiring more design skill. “I get to do the fun, high-level stuff, and they run with the rest of it,” he says.

Finally, even if you don’t have a skill they lack, you still have an outsider’s perspective to offer. No in-house person can give them that.

Give yourself a break

Just because you’re making good money for creative work doesn’t mean you’re a freelance fraud. In fact, several mentors have told me if a freelancer doesn’t get turned down for being too expensive at least once a year, it’s a sign you’re not charging enough. The most important thing is to be sincere, and to do the best work you’re capable of for every client (yes, even the annoying ones).

Remember too that your rate is an agreement between you and the client. If they’re letting you get away with it, they probably think you’re worth it.

Who are you to stand in the way of their happiness?

  I know that (brand) voice…

Brand voice in actionDriving home down I-71 a few months ago, I looked out the window and chuckled. Standing in an open field was a lonely billboard asking: “Does this board make my ad look big?”

There was no phone number. In fact, there was no other copy at all. The tiny logo below the board was barely visible. But I knew exactly who had written it. How? The brand voice.

While there are a lot of great reasons to make people laugh at marketing copy, a joke that’s “too good” can easily outshine everything else on a billboard. But in this case it works, because the advertiser — Lamar — is known for snarky messages like this one.

Can the reader tell it’s you even if they can’t see your logo or design? That’s the ultimate test of brand voice. But how do you “craft” a voice for your organization? The key thing is to make sure your organization speaks in a way that appeals to your audience. Here’s a handy list of characteristics to consider.

Brand voice development checklist

  • Attitude — What’s your brand’s approach to life? Does it have a sense of adventure, or would it prefer to stay home watching TV? For example, many handyman brands (Lowes, Home Depot) try to present a “can do” attitude. Coke, Pepsi, and most alcohol brands want to be around when you’re relaxing or having fun.
  • Traits — What characteristics does your brand have? Is it helpful and friendly? Cynical and confrontational? Many brand voice descriptions include a short list of traits ranging from level of expertise (“XYZ brand is an expert in widget defenestration”) to communication style (“Bobbie Brandvoice never talks down to customers who have questions about installation.”) Sometimes traits are simply listed (“HealthBrand Q is effective, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, and understanding”).
  • Values — What’s most important to your brand? Protecting the environment? Making a tough job easier? Influencing the next election? While most items on this list shape how you “talk” in print, values help you identify what to talk about.
  • Formality — How casual is your brand? Brands that want to be hip and cool often cultivate a “laid-back” tone. Medical, legal, and financial services are typically at the opposite end of the spectrum. Hotels, restaurants, and the like often fall somewhere in between, adjusting their level of solemnity to the type of business they want to attract.
  • Humor — Is your brand funny? This tends to make your band tilt toward the informal, but not in every case. Some brands are serious in traditional channels, but let their hair down a bit on social media. For an excellent example, check out the Merriam-Webster Twitter feed.
  • Education level — Did most of your buyers go to college, or are they high-school dropouts with a knack for taking things apart? Your brand voice needs to talk on their level. Aim too low and they’ll feel like you lack the proper expertise, or worse, are insulting their intelligence. Go over the top and you can come off sounding arrogant, pretentious, or condescending. This is especially tricky if you’re dealing with multiple related audiences, such as architects and general contractors. In such cases, it’s often worth segmenting your message for each set of readers.
  • Word choices — There’s often more than one way to say the same thing. You can “implement a scalable solution to expedite the elimination of excess vegetation on the enterprise campus,” but it’s usually a lot less effort just to “cut the grass.” Be particularly clear about how you will handle words that create “in” and “out” groups, such as industry jargon or slang. These can make you sound knowledgable and trendy to the right people — if you use them properly — but they can also come back to bite you by confusing potential buyers or making your copy sound dated. When in doubt, stick to words that communicate clearly and quickly. Will your brand use contractions (I’ve, isn’t, he’d, etc.)? If so, does your brand use informal ones like “ain’t” or even “y’all?”
  • Sentence length — Character limits in texts and Twitter posts aside, sentence length influences how “fast” your copy seems to read. Shorter sentences seem quick and punchy. Good for billboards or creating tension. Longer sentences seem to take, well, longer, to deliver their content, which can be good if you want to sound scholarly, clinical, scientific, or otherwise brainy.
  • “Pagans” — No, I’m not talking about your wiccan customers. The term in this sense was coined by Patrick Hanlon in the book Primalbranding to describe people who are wrong for your brand. You don’t have to cater to your pagans, and can actually create a closer relationship with your buyers by poking fun at them.
  • Make up your own stuff — “Finger-licking good,” “drinkability”, “uncola,” and the ill-fated “Fahrvergnugen” are just a few examples of phrases and made-up words associated with specific brands (with varying degrees of success).

Summing up: documenting the brand voice persona

What ultimately makes a “brand voice” is when your organization agrees on where it stands on each of these points, and — most importantly — documents those decisions. That way they can be implemented consistently, over and over, by everyone who writes for you. Even outside providers like freelancers can match your voice reliably if they know the “rules” it lives by.

An easy way to jump-start this process is to ask this question: if your brand were a person, what would he or she be like? If you’re in the design business, you might envision your brand as a slick hipster in tune with all the latest trendy fashions. On the other hand, if you sell tools for fixing industrial machinery, your persona is probably wearing blue jeans and driving a pickup truck.

One agency I write for designs each brand voice in this way. The end result is a lot like a customer persona, complete with a name, photo, and distinguishing characteristics. This might be the founder of the company, a spokesperson prominent in the organization’s marketing, or a fictional character who’s only used in-house. It’s a useful exercise whichever option you choose.

Do you know your organization’s brand voice? If not, try defining it now. Having clear, documented guidelines about how your organization “talks” will make everything you write easier to create, more consistent, and — if you do your job right — a lot more recognizable.

Even if we can’t see your logo.

  Being the best is overrated

We're Number 2!Less than a stone’s throw from my favorite coffeehouse is a small driving school that caters to teenagers approaching the magic age of 16. The company’s roadster is tricked out like a racing car, featuring the tagline “if you’re not the first, you’re the last.”

Setting aside the hazardous implications of this motto (do you really want your teenager driving like that?), this fixation with being the lead dog implies a mindset that is particularly dangerous, not only for new young drivers, but for solo creative professionals.

For one thing, setting a goal of being the best at all costs can make you overlook other stuff that matters just as much, if not more so. The recent meltdown at Uber is a classic example of a company that went off the rails by sacrificing good business practices on the altar of “high performance.”

Obsessing over being the best might provide useful motivation for professional athletes, competitive salespeople, and politicians. But it can also be seriously depressing. You’ll always be able to find examples of people who outshine you in some way.

One of the most rewarding epiphanies in my life hit me a few years ago. I realized Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ, William Wordsworth, Jack London, and many others had all completed the works and achievements for which they are best known by time they had reached the age I was then. (In fact, most of them had done it all — because by that point most of them were dead.)

Yet despite my “failure” to change the world in any obvious, earth-shaking way by then, I was keeping the lights on by working for myself, loving my job, and enjoying a happy personal life.

Not a bad accomplishment, that.

So instead of stressing about being the best, simply strive to be your best. It’s a lot less frustrating and you can still push yourself to succeed. Here are a few tips to keep your achievement level high and your anxiety low:

  • Choose your own yardstick. You’re far more likely to achieve in your niche if you select it for yourself. Make it as specific and personal as possible.
  • Be your own competition. It’s far more motivating to measure yourself against your past performance then to compare yourself to others. If you outdo yourself, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve improved. If not, you can still take pride in past achievements while striving to meet or exceed them in the future.
  • Remember: there’s only so much of you to go around. Do your job well, and your business will reach a point where you have more work than you can handle. When that happens — and it will — you’ll want other colleagues around who can take up the slack for you.

Ultimately, the notion that being the best is the only way to win is, in fact, complete nonsense. If you’re a solo creative professional but not “number one,” big deal. You still have a better chance than most to have a great life. You’re more likely to be working when you like and not working when you don’t like. Your work is more likely to satisfy and matter to you. And you’re probably living a far richer, happier, and more productive life than most people who’ve ever lived on this planet.

For me at least, that’s enough.

  Writer’s Block is a Myth

Writer's block is bad for pencils.You’ve heard the “writer’s block” story hundreds of times. Maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself. It usually goes something like this:

  1. Writer sits at desk to create amazing masterpiece.
  2. Nothing happens.
  3. Writer stares at a the wintery wasteland of a blank, white piece of paper/screen.
  4. Nothing happens.
  5. Agony/weeping/gnashing of teeth.
  6. Nothing happens.

There are few things more miserable for a writer than not knowing what words to put on a page, especially when there’s a deadline looming.

Yet despite its infamous reputation, “writer’s block” isn’t some wordsmith’s disorder that strikes without reason. In fact, it’s not what’s “causes” the block at all. It’s a symptom that appears when you haven’t done your pre-writing homework.

Writer’s block: fiction vs. reality

There’s a common misconception that writers just go into their lonely writer’s garrets, sit down, and start plopping words onto the page. This can work if you’re a fantasy novelist who practices “discovery writing,” but it’s a different story when it comes to marketing copy.

Writer’s block, then, is a sign that your brain needs you to do one or more of the following things before you hit the keyboard:

Listen to the client

What does your client want to communicate? If you’re working with someone who already has some marketing savvy, you’ll probably get a creative brief with background on the topic and some strategy guidelines. If not, you may need to ask the client for more details. Try to think like a member of the target audience when the client is filling you in. This will help you spot information the client may not have thought to provide because of their intimate familiarity with what they sell.

Identify the desired action

Every piece of marketing copy should focus on encouraging the reader to take one specific action. Download content. Request a consultation. Attend an event. Make a purchase. Make sure you know what it is before you write a single word.

Do research

Writer’s block sometimes strikes when you don’t know a key piece of information. For example, if you’re dealing with a very specialized or technical subject that you’re new to, you might need to learn about it before you can write about it. You’ll also want to learn as much as you can about the people you’re writing for. Who are your client’s buyers? What do they want and need? How do they talk? Do they think like your client, or do they have different motivations? The more you know about them, the more effectively you’ll be able to communicate your client’s message and encourage the action they want.

Focus

Another common cause of writer’s block is being overwhelmed with information. When this happens, your job is to get organized. First, figure out what you don’t need. Compare your material to the goals of the project, and set anything that isn’t relevant. Next, organize the remaining information in a logical order for the reader’s action journey. Stuff that attracts and excites their interest needs to appear first. Everything else should build on that, with each additional point of information guiding them one step closer to the desired action.

Low-tech solutions often work best here. I frequently tackle complicated projects by making 3×5 cards with summaries of all the key copy points. I spread them out on the table, move them around to find the most compelling flow of information, then gather them up into a stack and use them as my guide for the finished piece.

Outline

Still not sure where to begin? Try mapping things out in outline form. Once it makes sense there, you’ll literally have a roadmap that tells you exactly what to write. All you’ll need to do is add a little polish and detail.

If you’ve done the 3×5 card exercise described above, you’ve essentially built your outline already. Just pick up the stack and start at the top.

  International Freelancing

international freelancingThanks to the Internet, international freelancing is easier than at any time in history. Here are a few tips to help your business reach across borders.

A world of opportunity

I never set out to become an international freelancer, but over the years I’ve attracted clients from many corners of the globe without ever leaving my office in Cincinnati. I’m currently serving clients in Canada, Spain, Italy, and Dubai. I work with partners in Great Britain, Eastern Europe, and India. Last month I even had a Skype call with a prospect in Sydney, Australia.

International freelancing can be exciting, challenging, and highly satisfying all at the same time. It offers new opportunities. It expands your horizons. It makes you feel like a connected global citizen. While it’s not without a few risks, it’s easier than you might think. And just about any creative pro can do it with a few simple tools.

You don’t have to know the language

Knowing more than one language is an advantage in international freelancing, but it isn’t necessary. Many clients come to me because they want copy written by a native English speaker. They know local partners will help them look and sound more natural while avoiding cross-cultural embarrassments.

Make sure you know who the client’s target market is, and how they prefer to communicate. For example, some of my international clients want American English (“the trunk is organized around the spare tire”), while others prefer British usage (“the boot is organised around the spare tyre”).

Managing communication

Inexpensive ways to communicate have been one of the biggest revolutions for international freelancing. While I still get the occasional long-distance phone call, most of my international clients are savvy about Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts and similar services.

When scheduling meetings, pay close attention to time zones. I’ve found the World Clock on my phone and iPad to be invaluable, especially when there are people in three or more places on a call. Be particularly respectful when someone has to dial in early or late in their workday. You’ll also want to take extra care in spring and fall when some countries have time changes. Not every country switches to Daylight Savings Time on the same weekend, and some don’t have a time change at all.

Finally, make an effort to be aware of cultural practices and holidays that may affect when international clients are available. In the Middle East, for example, the work week typically runs Sunday through Thursday.

Getting paid for international freelancing

There are numerous ways money moves between countries. I find the easiest way to handle international payments is via services like PayPal, Freshbooks, or Wave. You’ll pay a fee for these transfers, but they handle currency conversions for you and give you access to the funds quickly. If you have merchant services set up, they’ll also give your clients the convenience of paying with a credit card.

Checks in foreign currencies are a hassle, and you’ll pay a fee for the conversion that’s typically higher than what PayPal or a merchant service firm will charge. Direct bank transfers are another option, though some clients don’t want to go to the trouble. Once I even waited in line for a payment at a Western Union office, but I prefer to avoid that.

Make it clear up front what currency you’ll be working in. I quote most jobs in US dollars regardless of the client’s country of origin. Be particularly clear if multiple countries use a currency with similar names. For instance, despite occasional parity, US dollars and Canadian dollars usually have a very different value.

  5 crisis management tips for freelancers

emergencyA few years ago, my wife Toni was working at a school that didn’t allow teachers to have mobile phones turned on during the workday. As a result, I was the one who got the call informing us that her father had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

I was juggling multiple projects at the time, one of which was on a tight deadline, but there was no question about what to do. I dropped everything immediately and made the half-hour drive to her school to break the news to her in person. The next day we were on the road to her hometown to support her family and attend the funeral.

Unforeseen crises like personal illness, accidents, natural disasters, and the deaths of friends and loved ones are a fact of life for any business owner, not just solopreneurs. And since our business model means we don’t get paid when we’re not working, even joyful events like births, marriages, holidays, and vacations can have a disruptive effect on our businesses.

Thankfully there are steps you can take to minimize the impact on your bottom line — before, during, and after a crisis:

1.    Build time for the unexpected into your schedule

Many freelancers and other business owners base time estimates on their peak productivity levels. For most of us, however, reality intervenes in some large or small way practically every day. Keeping a small amount of time each week unscheduled gives you the flexibility to put out minor fires before they turn into bigger problems.

2.    Schedule marketing in advance

Having a few weeks or months of material loaded into your marketing machine requires some prep work, but you’ll be glad you did it. My father-in-law’s death wasn’t the only time I’ve had to take an unscheduled leave of absence from my company, but my automated self-promotion pieces still published on schedule while I was away. Precautions like these help prevent your pipeline from drying up when you return to the office.

3.    Communicate when crisis strikes

Notify everyone who will be impacted by your absence as soon as possible, and be frank about what’s happening. Failing that, try to have a colleague, family member, or friend contact anyone you’re currently working with. It’s much better for you to give them as much time as possible to react to your situation than it is to disappear for a few days with no explanation until after the fact.

4.    Maintain a savings cushion

You’ve already heard this one if you saw Jim Krause’s presentation at HOW Design Live last year. Sock away 10% of your earnings to keep your business afloat — not just when crisis strikes, but to cover the occasional “famine” cycle. Six months’ expenses in the bank will help you sleep much easier at night.

5.    Remember: your real life comes first

It’s tempting to bend over backwards so your business goes on rolling in an emergency, but keep your priorities straight. I did a project launch call remotely a few days before the funeral, but only after I had confirmed I wouldn’t be needed for a short while that day. The rest of the time, I gave my full attention to my family’s needs.

All of my clients were very supportive and understanding during this time, and were quick to revise their timetables. Even my contacts at a company I had just started working with the previous week were sympathetic and accommodating. Good clients understand that this stuff happens to everyone — and could just as easily happen to them — so don’t be afraid to be straightforward about your situation.