Dear Freelancers: Prepare to Kick Ass

Eric Garland Uncategorized 9 Comments

Recently on Twitter, I overheard a conversation with a group of freelance writers and artists bemoaning the injustice of the marketplace. These individuals choose to sell their work product to “The Media,” an industry that is in rapid transformation, if not precipitous decline. As you can imagine, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth. These freelancers were openly discussing all the terrible business practices they were suffering – reduced compensation, late payment, even no payment.

“What should be done?” they asked. “Should we publicly shame these terrible organizations to make them reform – or should we create a union, an institution that might fight our battles collectively?

After a decade as an entrepreneur, here is what I advised: Embrace the freelance life – especially the part of a guy with a razor-sharp killing weapon, available to the highest-bidder. Less pity. More ass kicking. 

Here are my observations on why everybody who calls themselves a “freelancer” needs to embrace a new world that requires an aggressive, no-bullshit attitude. It’s time to kick ass. Here’s how and why.

There is no system

The industrialized world of 2013 gives every young person the impression that there is a seamless economic system designed for their comfort and well-being. We start in school at a tender age – four or five – and immediately begin hearing of a predestined future. There is a whole system of schooling that will last until we are between 18 and 30 years old. The cream, we are told, will rise to the top, and thus professions and monetary compensation are doled out accordingly – and fairly. There are various degrees and job titles and there should be a spot for everyone, each clearly marked with our name.

This is an enormous illusion. The economic world is total anarchy and its only structure is in a series of institutions designed for another age. Nobody is in charge, and those with authority are interested in stability, not functionality or fairness.

Just because you have agreed to deal with certain institutions (schools, central banks, nation-states) does not mean that any of them owe you a single thing. There is no master plan for your well-being. You are seeking a livelihood in the midst of anarchy.

Welcome to the open market.

You have no friends

George Soros is one of the richest men on Earth. In regards to Wall Street “advisors,” he has stated that nobody should assume that any actor in the market has their best interest at heart, or to paraphrase him, “You have no friends in the market.” When it comes to money, nobody is your friend. They do not have love or affection for you, only economic interests.

Throw away your books on parachutes and following your heart, ignore everything uttered by “human resources” and read E.H. Carr and Henry Kissinger, amoral political realists. Instead of some overly fuzzy nonsense about how businesses should treat their employees “like family,” you will read about  how the world is governed by interests and balance of power – not by sentimentality. And the market is the same.

You may love some of the people with whom you do business – I certainly do – but when money changes hands, it is never about affection.

The job is dead

Many freelancers need to go through a very real process of mourning because they may never have a job again. Every person in the working world was born in the 20th century, an extraordinary period of time in which labor – temporarily – became a stable, positional affair. Decades ago, if you were any good you learned some stuff and then got a job. If you couldn’t get a job replete with salary and benefits, then there was something wrong with you. If you did not have a job with a company, many people would assume that you were either a hobo/drunk who could not stay in one place long enough. These assumptions have stuck around. They are also out of date.

Here is a history lesson: “job” comes from the Old English word “gobbe,” or “a big wet mouthful of something.” This was a metaphor used by tradesmen who, like general contractors today, would never have one employer forever, but a series of temporary arrangements – a mouthful of sustenance, if you will. It wasn’t until the 19th century that this began to be associated with an unusual innovation – lifetime employment. Factories created a labor pattern that was more structured and stable, very suitable for the capital investments, technological innovation and competitive dynamics of the time.

It’s over. For many industries, the 20th century job makes little sense.  The market is evolving so quickly that hiring people under traditional circumstances is increasingly risky for many organizations. Ergo, organizing your economic value according to this moribund construct is a recipe for insecurity and misery.

You need a moment to mourn

The emotional side of business is very rarely discussed outside of motivational speeches for salesmen. Even then, the only acceptable emotions to explore are positive ones. To make the transition to CEO of your own business, you need a period of time to mourn the loss of your defunct expectations.

You will never be offered permanent safety.

Nobody loves you just for you.

Your existing achievements are not enough to guarantee permanent success.

The things your parents, teachers and mentors told you about the working world are no longer true.

There are plenty of emotions associated with these realizations. Anticipate them, deal with them, and get ready to move on. There is work to do.

Sell valuable products and services to your clients

Tears dried? Game face on? OK, let’s get to it.

Your education probably taught you that you were becoming somebody, ascending to some position in society with a certain title, salary and expected behaviors. That’s how it worked in 1971 – but not any more. Today, as economic institutions unravel, individuals and organizations want a specific economic service – and that’s it. This is why unemployment is so endemic – nobody wants to create a full-time job when there are myriad ways to get the economic service on a transactional basis.

Put another way, you are selling a service to the world. You always were, it’s just that with jobs, you sell your time in bulk. In the future, you will be selling services in smaller chunks, very much in line with rapidly evolving economies.

Do you know how to sell to people? You have to understand the value you provide and detail those benefits to clients. NOTE: This is not the same thing as describing what you will be doing (“I will write Op-Eds for you” or “I will make you a website“) Those descriptions are focused on your activity, not the economic value to customers.

You need to understand the value that your service provides to other people, set a price, and attract customers – just like every other business on earth. 

Writer: “I write stories that put your advertisers in front of eyeballs, making both of you more money.”

Massage therapist: “You will feel better and be healthier after 60 minutes with me.”

Marketing consultant: “I will make sure your messages reach the right customers and become sales.”

Notice that none of this is about self-worth or respect or anything mushy. It’s about value, and cash. I do my thing and we both make money. It’s just business.

If you cannot accomplish this, either you have insufficient skills, or your industry sucks and you need another line of work. Learn to sell what you can do, or get something different to sell.

Set up your business like a business

There has never been a better time to run a small business. Technology is giving you incredibly powerful tools to run your own thing. You can market to customers, convert leads to sales, submit invoices, process payments, and do basic accounting for free or nearly free.

If you are your own business, you need to be set up like one. Get a bank account, a name, a logo. Have your own website and an email that isn’t Gmail or Yahoo. Design invoices so you can tell people how much to pay you. Set up multiple ways for your clients to pay you – PayPal, Square, checks, BitCoin – whatever.

And don’t forget the tax man. You don’t need to be a Delaware-based C Corp – but you need some plan to get straight with the Feds and the State. Then you can move on to the all-important process of saving every receipt and declaring every possible expense – just like real businesses.

Deal with money like a boss

One of the most common laments of “freelancers,” is mistreatment when it comes to money. This is especially common among journalists. “Oh, the money is so pathetic now – it’s not right.” Or “it’s time we spoke up to expose the wretches of humanity who withhold payments from their freelancers!

Stop being emotional about money and think like a mob boss. Always make a plan to get your money – including dealing with deadbeats.

First, decide how much you want to be paid. Determine the terms of payment – in advance, on delivery or Net 30. Whatever you agree to is “the deal.” And when one party in the relationship violates those terms, have a plan for swift and cruel retribution. This can be small claims court, complaining to somebody’s boss, or public humiliation. Have a plan. Execute it when necessary. Do not be “cool” about it. Don’t break anybody’s legs in the style Giovanni “Joey Two Fingers” Calabresi – but don’t be anybody’s punk either.

It’s business, capisci?

Strap on your armor, sharpen your sword, and kick ass

freelancerDoesn’t this seem like more fun than feeling like a person who is too lame to get a “real job?” Today is a great time for talented badasses, so why not become one?

Schools, the media, even your parents – they never prepared you for this. They probably told you that most people get “real jobs” and that only a few creative freaks start their own businesses. They didn’t do this to be mean – it’s how the world worked. But now it’s time for a new way to think about how we make a living.

Even better news: if you sharpen your skills, set prices, deliver value and collect money effectively and THEN a company offers you a fat gig – you will be in an even better position to negotiate a salary and relate to your new employer in a spirit of mutual benefit and mutual respect.

Basically, this way of thinking is unavoidable if you want to succeed in the cold, harsh economy of the 21st Century. But you’ll be okay, because you’re a badass now.

Good luck. I’m pulling for you.

  • At Aurora, we still hire full time staff from time to time, but the top “jobs” (Directors, see http://aurorawdc.com/people) are always strategic hires; in other words, they’re designed to expand the company logarithmically with a complimentary new business or line of offerings that makes the new whole greater than the sum of its component parts.

    This means business leaders need to think constantly about who’s missing from the team in order to improve the business for their customers. When that person becomes available, jump at the chance to attract them, redirecting resources if necessary. That’s been the growth strategy for Aurora WDC for more than 18 years now.

    The flexibility of lowering the monthly breakeven point that collaborating with contractors allows us means we can work with the very best of the best and produce outcomes for clients that are really what they need, rather than the activity they perceive themselves wanting. Finally and best of all, the most desirable clients know and love this approach already (including me, whenever I’m the client).

    Keep up the great work, bro – great catching up yesterday too 😉

    ~ Arik

    • This is a more rational approach to the market – it’s just that America needs a healthcare system that doesn’t punish the pre-established.

      Aurora roxx.

      • Medicare for all + a means test to depreciate benefits adjusted for individual net worth – surely we can figure that one out.

  • Ann Lee Gibson

    Eric, this is a great manifesto for consultants and freelancers, young and old. Great, great piece.
    And for those who still have a job, here’s the best job advice I ever got from a boss: “Do your job like you’re not afraid to lose your job.”

    • When you get fired as often as I do, you need to take this kind of posture toward the world.

      I’m glad you liked it, Ann.

  • Screech

    Eric wrote: “job” comes from the Old English word “gobbe,” or “a big wet mouthful of something.”

    Here’s another source of the word “job.”

    The fact is that for almost all men the major part of life
    consists of obligatory occupations, chores which they would never do out of
    choice. Since this fate is so ancient and so constant, it would seem that man
    should have learned to adapt himself to it and consequently to find it
    charming. But he does not seem to have done so. Although the constancy of the
    annoyance has hardened us a little, these occupations imposed by necessity
    continue to be difficult. They weigh upon our existence, mangling it, crushing
    it. In English, such tasks are called “jobs”. In the Romanesque languages the
    term for them derived from the Latin word trepalitum, which originally meant a
    terrible torture.

    Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting,
    Scribner’s, 1972.

    • Wait, “trepalitum” is the root of “travail” and “trabajo?” Whoa! Thanks for this.

  • lovely writing and thinking … great to see your evolution .. and my own .. thanks

    • Evolution is its own reward.

      Always good to hear from you.