Going Solo for Fun or Profit?

Sara Horowitz has serious chops. Independent herself, she started Freelancer’s Union way back in 1995. Back then it was tougher as a freelancer. Through her great efforts, we’ve all benefited.

So when I saw she’d published a guide called “Freelancer’s Bible”, I was quick to grab a copy. And the book doesn’t disappoint. I wish this book had existed when I got my start way back when I first moved to NYC in 1996.

A budding freelancer

As a budding freelancer, you’ve got a ton of new skills to pickup, where to start? Flip to Part 1 and you’ll get a quick hitchhikers guide, with advice on setting up your office and organizing your time, to pitching to prospects, networking, and building a portfolio of different types of clients to keep your workflow steady. You also learn how to package your services, and the myriad ways to set fees from hourly, to project based and day rates to packages.

[quote]Network & market yourself, package & price services, communicate well and manage timelines, deliver, bill and finally get paid. Each step is outlined here in easy to read bullets, and helpful “Ask Sara” sections. Easy layout, and a pleasure to read.[/quote]

As I was reading these early chapters, I thought it would be nice to have a chapter on social media. Turns out I spoke too soon, as I flip through the pages, chapter 9 is all about marketing and social media, online tools to build your reputation and influence. Also I like that she appeals to the practical approach. For example Sara emphases that you let go of strategy, and experiment with different options, and methods. This is exactly what I’ve done over the years, and it’s the best way to find out what works for your personal style, as well as your industry. Trial and error!

I’ve written a guide on this topic myself. Take a look at my three part Guide to independent consulting 101.

Advice for Seasoned & Growing Operations

I’ve been working as a freelancer for 17 years now, and I’ve certainly learned a lot. So when I flip through the book, it confirms many of those lessons. But I also found material that I could use. For example chapter 7 Troubleshooting she has examples of situations where you and your client are out of sync, and offers “triple-a communication” solutions to those problems. This is the type of advice you’ll definitely need, as these scenarios are inevitable in freelance work. Also I found Chapter 10 Ways to Grow very helpful. Her list of “How do you know it’s time to grow” outlines some surprising and helpful thoughts on what to do if you have too much work. I’ve started dabbling with subcontracting and hiring additional help, so these chapters I’m finding very helpful.

Criticisms

There are a few things that I’d differ with Sara slightly on. Here are my thoughts.

Avoiding Contracts and Lawyers

I don’t get to heavy with lawyers and contracts. I know I know people say this is crazy, but over the years my method has served me well. It starts with a simple premise – I never intend to go to court. What do I mean? It costs too much, both in real dollars, time spent, but most of all stress. If you’ve ever been on jury duty you know what I mean.

With that, you pull the perceived safety net completely out from under yourself. So I am careful and cautious as a result. My *contracts* are simple emails, in which I outline what I’ll do, what the client will do, and who will do what when. I do all this in plain language, without any lawyer-ese. What I do get though is a confirmed *yes* in an email. This email thread is above and beyond verbal conversations and phone calls. It allows clarification down the line if you and the client have differences.

I also insist on a deposit of some kind. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it is a hoop that you ask your client to jump through. This is very important. So-called dead beat clients will fail this test. If they are very very hesitant to provide a deposit, they are either uncomfortable with you, or are short on budget. Either case should be a red flag. Managing this relationship is very very important, when you plan never to rely on legal recourse for differences.

Who’s Played? Get paid!

On page 195 she talks about the Freelancer’s Union Client Scorecard, and “outing” clients who don’t pay. I personally think this is a bad road to go down. Why? Well there are a few reasons.

1. There are two sides to every coin

When a company hires an outside resource, they don’t have control over day-to-day operations, and overseeing what the person is doing. And yes, sadly there are many levels of work quality. So there can be differences. In my experience all those differences can and should be worked out. Communication is key and I think if you follow all of Sara’s advice on triple-A communication, you’ll avoid these situations. I do feel though that these ***

2. You can ask for an insurance deposit

Asking for a deposit from a new prospect is an important step. Without a past history of paying, and paying timely, this is a hoop you’re asking them to jump through. It proves that the budget exists, it proves that the team or director that hired you has communicated that to AP, and simply that you’re in the system. In my experience after the first check, things tend to go smoothly. If you’re experiencing trouble with this step, ask yourself – Are we on the same page? Where is the disconnect? Is the client confident you’ll deliver, and complete? Where is the hesitation?

3. It could hurt you in the end

Lastly these type of “outing” boards might hurt you in the end. If you gain a reputation for creating bad publicity or press for one firm, others may not want to work with you. I also think they are a distraction from communicating and resolving issues, and/or finding other work.

[quote]Apply all of Sara’s advice, especially those around Triple-A Communication, and you’ll likely do very well as a solopreneur. Let’s avoid becoming part of the 44% of freelancer’s who’ve reportedly had trouble getting paid![/quote]

Don’t undercharge for Services

Another point I’ll underline is charging for services. There is some talk in the book of wage wars, and 44% of freelancers not getting paid. In my experience being a freelancer is more like being another corporation. Corps fight with each other all the time. They have differences, and duke it out. It’s a bit dog eat dog out there. If you’re not prepared for that, you may be in for an uphill battle. Over the years I’ve certainly had differences with clients, but I’ve never not gotten paid. I *have* however turned away work, if I got a bad feeling about the client.

I wrote a critique of John Greathouse’s Beware the Consultant that might interest readers here. Take a look at my article Beware the Client.

That said you should be charging more than your fulltime brothers and sisters. Let’s give an example. Say your fulltime job would pay 75k/year. This theoretically is about $37.50/hr (40 hours x 50 weeks). However as a freelancer you must also pay for benefits like health insurance, retirement funds, downtime when you’re not billing, overhead of networking and meetings. You also have some additional taxes to pay. I my experience at minimum you should be charging roughly double this amount just to break even. If you’re not, it simply won’t make financial sense to stay freelancing. More likely you should be charging roughly 3x this base hourly amount. If you’re not, you may over time drift back towards fulltime employment.

I wrote another article on this topic Why do people leave consulting.

All of this should be part of educating the client. It’s often forgotten when firms look at outsourcing to get projects completed. So you should explain all of these costs clearly, and compare yourself to larger firms and agencies. These folks tend to be a *LOT* more expensive than a solopreneur.

All together now…

Sara’s bible is one every freelancer should have a copy of. It is the most complete book for a solo operator I’ve seen. Besides a few criticisms I have, it is a superb book and sure to be a reference you’ll turn to again and again.

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