The Home Office

April 16, 2003

The home office

Tips on leading the life of a freelance content producer.

By Karen Solomon

THE JOB MARKET sucks, and a lot of dissatisfied folks are looking at their apartments in a whole new light (the nonfluorescent kind you can enjoy when you don't sit in a cube all day). Free-flowing personal hygiene, sleeping late, eating bonbons for breakfast, and beating the end-of-day line at the post office are just a few highlights of the freelance content producer's glamorous home-office world. But there's a bit more to freelancing than a flexible schedule and being able to belch with impunity. Not everyone is suited to it, and not everyone has the right expectations. After almost seven years as a freelance writer, I can attest to the joys of working for yourself, and I've counseled a lot of potential freelancers on getting started. But part of that conversation always involves enumerating the thorns on the rose – the potential difficulty of finding work, the operation costs of running your own business, the isolation, the hurdles to actually getting paid. Here's the advice I would have given you had you bought me a cup of coffee and asked for it. Put your buck and a half in the bank and start figuring out whether you're in a position to take the plunge.

It's a sales job

Break out the motivational tapes and self-help books. No matter what aspect of the content-production empire you decide to enter, your top priorities are sales, marketing, and promotion – that's approximately 70 percent of what your job will entail. Shocking, no? Being good at what you do will certainly help, but it's not nearly as important as the hustle it takes to convince people to let you do it for them in exchange for money. Do you often find yourself looking through your favorite print or electronic media and thinking, "I could do a much better job!"? I can almost guarantee you the authors/designers/developers involved were great salespeople. Only so-so at the service they promised to deliver, they were shrewd enough to get their foot in the door and cunning enough to convince someone that the product they were selling – namely, their skills – was worth payment. Unfair? Yes. Much like life itself. This is the most critical skill set the independent worker can possess.

Have money in the bank

The fact that it takes money to make money seems cruel and wrong, but when it comes to working for yourself, it's just a fact of life. It can take forever to find gigs at first – two or three months isn't unusual. And once you've secured some gainful employment, you may be waiting months for the company to process your payment – 30 to 90 days is common. In addition, employers such as magazines, newspapers, and Web sites might not pay until publication, which could be up to a year in the future. Someone's got to pay for your bonbon habit in the meantime, and that's you, the independent warrior. A part-time, bill-paying job to support your freelance work is ideal, but short of that, you are leaving yourself open to financial pitfalls if you have less than four to six months of income in the bank before you go solo.

Establish yourself

If I haven't spooked you off the freelance track by now, the next step is to establish your presence as the best content producer on the planet. You need a portfolio – not just a résumé listing where you've worked and what you've done but pieces that demonstrate your abilities. Paying sources that seek content are far less concerned with where you went to school and what you did last summer than they are with what you can do for them right now. The only way to show them is via a sampling of your best work. "A portfolio was the first thing I did," says Dave Mahoney, a graphic designer who's been freelancing for four years. "It was mandatory." He gathered the best samples from his last job and also created new work – a poster for a fictitious band, company logos – in the style he wanted to be using. Compile something – anything. Even if it means working for free. School and neighborhood newspapers, Web zines, and journals are great places to start, as are nonprofit publications and Web sites. Or orchestrate media on your own, such as a Web site for your aunt's goldfish. Stretch those networking muscles and find someone who knows someone who would like some media for free. Which reminds me …

Network like a fiend

Once upon a time, when San Francisco was flush, "you could walk out your front door and someone was practically waiting for you [with a job]," Mahoney recalls. Selling yourself was almost a nonissue. Those days are gone. Even if you're up to your eyeballs in work this month, you have to keep one eye on the calendar. Cousin Isaac, a Web site designer and Web programmer who's been self-employed since 2000, says, "The first thing I did was go to all of my friends who were employed and tell them I was looking for work." Isaac used a combination of pithy, introductory e-mails and lunchtime investments to put out the message. His message for wanna-be freelancers: "Nepotism is the only way to get work." I couldn't agree more. Though you should always send résumés to Fortune 500s and companies posting on Craigslist, the bulk of your work will likely result from personal contacts and affiliations. "Unless I know somebody at a huge company, my résumé and portfolio are going to sit in a huge stack," Isaac says. "Working the personal angle is key. I get more work through the little guys."

Do good work

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It goes without saying, but I'm saying it anyway: once you have a job, you want to do everything you possibly can to keep it. You also want your client to think about hiring you again and referring you to your next client, which often happens if you make the effort. Don't just do the work and get the money. Listen to your clients, be flexible for them, do more than they're expecting, and tell them you've enjoyed working with them. All this crap is called "value-added service" in the business world. Basically, it just means doing a good job and performing better than expected. Call it sucking up if you like. I call it job security.

Karen Solomon is the best darn freelance writer on the planet. Isn't technology wonderful?