It is wrong to exploit ex-colleagues

For the first six months ((you heard, six months)) of my self employment, things did not go totally well. Work did not come pouring through the front door as I had rather anticipated it would. Christmas arrived cold and, in terms of presents, rather limited.

Over the Christmas break my partner gently suggested I talk to one of my friends a talented marketer. We walked the dog and I explained the complexity of my situation ((I had no work, not actually that complex)). He considered carefully.

“Have you actually told anyone that you are available for work?” he asked.

“ Oh yes”. I said.

“Are you sure?” he asked ((it was Christmas, pantomime was appropriate))

“Maybe not” I confessed.

So on my return to work I collated a list of people that I used to work with. People who knew me and, presumably, had made some sort of assessment of my skills. People who did not, so far as I knew, hate me ((though obviously we all have a face that we hide away forever and take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.)). People who would not be distressed to find out what I was up to ((before LinkedIn was a thing, even so people aren’t glued to your LinkedIn profile: see “No-one cares about you” for more on this sort of thing)).

I wrote a brief tailored email to the effect that I was now freelance and though they probably knew a thousand people who were better than me and could add more value to their organisation I hoped they wouldn’t mind me letting them know that I was now available for hire, should they feel the need to hire me, which of course they probably wouldn’t do, but just in case ((this could have benefited from being clear what I did: see “What do you do?” if I ever get around to writing it)).

It was not the finest example of a marketing email.

It did not have a call to action.

It barely had a hint of a suggestion of the fact that an action could one day be contemplated.

And yet I received a reply by return from an old colleague.

“I was just talking about you” she said “We need someone to draw up a comms strategy. Is that something you can do?” ((mind they took ages to pay))

And, do you know, it was.

100 is the magic number

Ever hired a freelancer? Maybe you hired a designer or a PR guru? Or brought someone in to help you with a particularly knotty HR issue.

And you boggled at the day rate didn’t you?

£200, £500, £1,000 per day? ((not me though, for MY rates you need to get in touch obv.))

And then you did a quick mental calculation and compared that figure to your annual salary.

And then you thought “I’m in the wrong business”.

And then you followed that thought through and took the plunge yourself.

And then you found that you were earning a lot less than you were expected. A lot less than when you were in that job ((working all day for a mean little man with a clip on tie and a rub on tan)).

And then you found yourself here. Hoping that finding out how I failed will make you feel better about yourself.

But it won’t.

Your error was introduced right at the start. When you did that mental arithmetic. Because 100 is the magic number ((obviously three is really the magic number)).

As a rule of thumb even a really successful freelance can’t expect to bill more than 100 days in a year.

Why not?

Well first of all you need to get the work. That all takes time, that web content won’t write itself and business breakfasts are less effective networking events if you don’t attend.

Then when you do get the work it will actually take longer than you said it would ((which is why billing based on days is rubbish see my yet to be written post ‘bill by the hour’)). You can’t bill more so you just have to get on with it.

Then there are administrative things that need to be done. The government requires a tax return for example, the dog needs walking.

And as you start to get busier you get diary clashes. You really want to run that workshop in March but you are already committed, how’s April? May?

And you’ll get no work in August or December.

So you will be doing fabulously well if you bill 100 days in a year.

And 100 days at, say, £400 a day is a decent income ((though obviously it isn’t a salary, lacks sick pay, holiday pay and any certainty it will ever appear again)). It isn’t what you probably thought that consultant was earning though.

If you do want to earn the big bucks try interim-ing or running a proper business ((where you employ people, the secret of making money being that you shouldn’t have to be there while it is being made, though there’s all the stress of managing people, booking leave and generally having to think about others your hatred of which was why you left your job in the first place)). Subjects, sadly, beyond the scope of this blog.

Round up 20th April 2014

In a desperate attempt to get people to read and share posts that everyone has already got bored with and moved on from here is a round up of the top five ((this is arbitrary no actual data has been used to collate this chart)) How to Fail at Freelancing posts.

In 5th place Just walk out of your job. This was the first post so you might have overlooked it. And it took me just ages to write so let’s have another go.

In 4th place Competition, the stuff of failure. Allowing me to exorcise the demons of my hippy upbringing. Though the home-made yoghurt still haunts me…

In 3rd place Spiritual guidance. If you’re just following links from Twitter you’re probably missing out on these little vignettes. This might not cause you to change your behaviour of course.

In 2nd place Your customers are idiots. They aren’t, obviously. Though you may be ((you’re not, please don’t leave, I’m ridiculously needy)).

And the winner is Work for free. Which seemed to touch a chord with quite a lot of freelancers out there. I may not know much but I do know that this is a guaranteed way to fail.

If this sort of thing appeals why take the chance of missing the latest post when you can have it emailed to you free and gratis whenever there’s something to read.

No-one cares about you

You were blooming brilliant in that job. A superstar. The way you handled the Jenkins acquisition, the way you restructured the engineering department, the advice you gave to the board which kept them all out of jail.

In fact you are so brilliant that your skills should not be constrained by the petty concerns of a single organisation. There are so many other boards that need your special blend of skills and experience ((which is a concern in itself)).

Your reputation is such that you bestride your sector like a colossus ((which reminds me that my all time favourite pun is that Thomas Telford was known as the Colossus of Roads. I have something of a Telford obsession. He may feature again in this blog as he was both an early mobile worker and a very successful freelancer. And better than Brunel. If less showy)).

And yet the moment you leave your job everyone will forget you.

Even the people who you absolutely know will remember you ((because you kept them out of jail)) will dismiss you from their memory.

Because the truth is no-one cares about you. They care about their own stuff. You aren’t it.

In a previous job I did a notable and successful job in improving the way we planned for and dealt with emergencies. I got a little internal award for it. My boss was very happy about it. It came up in appraisals ((in a good way)).

I went freelance. My boss went elsewhere and became even more senior. There was an emergency. It didn’t go that well. They needed someone to help them improve it. Someone with a track record and a relationship of trust with one of their senior managers.

So obviously she called me.

Er no ((well obviously otherwise this would be a VERY confused blog post)).

She wondered: “Who would be the right person for this task?” concluded she had no idea and went away for the weekend to a music festival. Where, by chance, she encountered me. And presumably thought “Oh yes, that chap was good at emergency stuff”.

And when she got back to the office she did, at last, call me ((and clearly it was a great success and my involvement was instantly forgotten by all those involved)).

The moral of this story is either

  • no-one cares about you or
  • the secret to successful marketing is to hang out at folk festivals ((it isn’t))

You decide.

Everyone loves networking except you

When I had a proper job I would occasionally get sent to Britain’s fair capital ((by which I mean lovely capital rather than the place with the best fairs though I imagine the fairs in London probably are great because why would the people in charge allow the fairs in the rest of the country to be better than London fairs)) to a conference or a workshop. Always there would be a section in the agenda where the MC would say “we are going to break for networking”. Then there would be a long period where people stood awkwardly sipping almost undrinkable coffee and I would go out for a fag ((standing outside a building smoking is NOT networking)).

After I gave up smoking I would go outside and make terribly important phone calls ((I did go through a phase of texting a colleague so she would phone me and it would look like I was desperately in need at the office)).

Then I became freelance and there was no-one to send texts to ((maybe there’s a business opportunity there ™ me)).

I hated networking. I mean I really hated it. It seemed so cynical, so artificial, so… commercial.

I bet you hate networking ((I’m playing the odds here but the house always wins in the end)).

I’ve not met anyone who LOVES networking. Even phenomenal networkers would rather be at a family party, watching a movie or canoeing ((maybe that’s just me)) than at a business breakfast event just off the M62.

It isn’t a totally comfortable experience and it can go horribly wrong. I remember an excruciating dinner held by CBI Scotland. To be fair to the CBI the dinner was fine, I was the problem. Picture me, uncomfortable in an unaccustomed DJ, sitting next to business leaders almost unable to speak. How they must have hated me. “To my left that MSP who wants me to invest in his constituency AGAIN. To my right a deaf-mute with some sort of neck problem. And it looked like he’d never worn a DJ before”.

I’m much better now ((partially with the assistance of the fabulous Heather Noble from Salt Solutions I can walk into a room without panicking about what everyone else is thinking about me.

Everyone feels a bit like a fraud. Everyone feels that sense of artificiality. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone would rather be somewhere else.

But the glorious and terrible thing about freelancing is that all you’ve got is yourself. People have to get to know you. They’ve got to know that you exist.

They don’t have to be entertained by you. They don’t need to be your best friend. But they need to have some sense of rapport with you. They need to understand what you do. They need to know that you understand what they do.

Networking is OK. You can do it. You may not ever relish it but it does get easier.

You hate working all day for a mean little guy with a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie

Everyone has good and bad days at work ((apart from me obv.)).

Some people hate their jobs.

Some people hate their bosses.

Some people hate the existence of bosses, of being bossed about at all.

Those people often quite fancy the idea of freelancing.

They call it working for themselves.

But they aren’t working for themselves, they are working for loads of people ((if they’re lucky)).

Which is the opposite of a good thing for people who hate being bossed.

Obviously it’s not exactly the same.

These bosses aren’t constrained by employment law, the norms of an organisational culture or the mores of appropriate conduct in society. They are unconstrained by knowledge of or concern for the other demands on your time.

They can make completely unreasonable demands.

They can be rude.

They can be arbitrary and mercurial ((capricious even)).

But then freelancers aren’t constrained by these things either.

You don’t have to work for them.

You too can be rude ((though this doesn’t necessarily increase your chances of return business)).

You don’t have to tell them where you are. If you want to walk the dog, just go walk the dog. Work from Starbucks. Work from the train. Go on holiday ((I still struggle with the idea of “booking time off”)).

But you will have to do what some people ask. And to a large extent your success will be measured by your ability to do what your bosses want. Just like in a job ((only with more dogs)).

Work for free

I sometimes think that my preferred business model is the one where a kind benefactor gives me enough money to be comfortable, not for a return – just because I’m great. Then I am free to float around the world doing good things of social value ((If you *are* a wealthy benefactor do get in touch, obv.)).

For some people work is actually quite like that. If you have a job which really motivates you, which you think is really worthwhile, which delivers things that you are important then it’s exactly like that ((my job is exactly like this, of course, just in case the boss is reading)). If you are paid a salary, have a contract of employment, paid leave, and even sick leave. This money keeps coming, you can plan, you can get a mortgage. The good things of social value you do are quite disconnected from the money that people send you ((send you)).

Being freelance is NOT like that.

In the world of a freelancer every penny is directly related to the work that you do.

On top of which you have to spend plenty of time not being paid while you convince people to pay you, in the future, for doing some more work for them, which may or may not be of actual value ((see the post on 100 is the magic number which I haven’t actually written yet)). And there is no holiday pay, sick pay, often just no pay.

Accordingly this means that working for free as a freelancer is actually working for negative income. Not only are you not being paid, you are putting off the unpaid work you will need to do in order to get paid in the future.

Working for free as a freelancer sucks.

And yet so many freelancers do it.

They do favours for friends, they do little pieces of work in the hope of getting bigger pieces of work, they blog ((ahem)), they organise events, networking clubs, barcamps, they speak at conferences.

And on each occasion they are not just working for free, they are subsidising someone else. Often from their children’s Christmas present list.

Of course freelancing gives you the freedom and flexibility to do what you want to do ((be what you want to be)). But if a major attraction of the freelance life is to do things of value that no-one will pay you for then you might be better served by getting a different job ((or winning the lottery, see footnote in ”Walking out is awesome and totally a good idea”

The secret of success

The secret of success in business is simple:

  1. Understand the market.
  2. Spot the gap in the market.
  3. Sell people what they need

Did you spot the deliberate mistake there?

Surprisingly many of us can’t see the error ((I imagine that this could form part of a sort of Rorschach test for potential freelancers, what do you think when you see this apparently normal group of management-speak statements)). If you are screaming the answer in your head then you may be in the wrong place: this is how to fail at freelancing ((if you are screaming the answer out loud, it may be time to take a break)).

Of course selling people what they need is a sure-fire way to fail at freelancing.

I sense your caution ((it’s possible I’m projecting here, you’ll be reading this some time after I’ve written it, in order to, in fact, sense your caution we would need to believe in both ESP and time travel)). After all, I am a self-confessed freelance failure.  

It sounds sensible: sell people what they need.

The truth of course is that people don’t buy what they need, they buy what they want.

You may be a plumber of 20 years standing but if I want the toilet over there and the shower over here the only question I want answering is “can you do that for me?”

It’s no different for you professional services people. Maybe bosses should have effective HR policies in order to make it safe and easy to hire and fire people but what they want is someone to come and sort it out for them when it all goes pear-shaped. Small businesses may need an integrated digital marketing approach but what they want is a website, like the last one, on WordPress ((next week, and for £2.50)).

If you are smart you can sell people what they want and make sure you deliver what they need.

If you sell them what they need you’re going to end up gazing into space pressing f5 every three seconds to see if someone has sent you an email yet while the dog gazes sadly at you from a safe distance in the hall ((not that I speak from experience here)).