The other skills you need for successful self-employment

By Caitlin Kelly

People who choose self-employment often focus on the freedom — No office! No boss! No politics! No commute!

Freelancers Union Logo
Freelancers Union Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But successfully running your own show requires a wide range of skills beyond the specific product or service — dog-walking, gluten-free cupcakes, general contracting, writing — you’re hoping to sell.

Here’s a great post from one of my favorite blogs, Freelance Folder, on this topic, which lists 17 separate skills with a link to even more:

Communication skills. Freelancing is all about clear communication. As a freelancer, you must express your ideas and requirements to prospective clients, current clients, and other freelancers.

The first one can be a real toughie.

Once you’ve established a good working relationship, and a track record, with your clients, you’re usually good to go. You probably speak the same language, emotionally, so you click naturally in your communication style.

But to steadily earn a good living will also mean working with many people quite different in their style.

Would-be clients are busy with competing demands and may not communicate quickly, clearly — or at all! I see many emails from fellow freelancers asking when, if and how often to follow up with a pitched idea so we can close the sale (or not), find out the fee and budget our time for the work and the income for our expenses.

Follow up too often and you’re a stalker. Not often enough and you’ll starve because you can’t keep enough work coming in.

Whenever I start working with a new client, I ask a few questions about their communication style: do they prefer phone or email? Are specific days or hours in the day off-limits? How long, typically, does a pitch take to get approved?

When I work with The New York Times — which is almost weekly — I know from experience that my emails often end up in their spam filter due to my email address. So I know to call and leave a voicemail message to follow up.

Estimating skills. How long will a project take? Successful freelancers need to be able to answer this question so that they can schedule their time effectively and still earn a profit.

This is also a difficult one, no matter what you do for a living.

I recently blogged about knowing your CODB, your cost of doing business. So you know what you must make to cover your expenses — but what about short and long-term savings, retirement savings, attending a few conferences every year to upgrade your skills and meet new contacts?

Illustration from "Living Up to Your Empl...
Illustration from “Living Up to Your Employment System” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when someone quotes you a price, or vice versa, never forget all those other costs, not just the short-term gain of that payment.

The challenge of estimating is that it’s one-sided! We know how long we might need to do the work…but what about your client?

Does the work require reviews/edits/approval from several other people? How long will that take? (Can you negotiate partial payment up front?) Are they known in the industry as challenging or difficult?

Ask around so your “estimate” isn’t naively and stupidly optimistic.

Interpersonal skills. The stereotype is that freelancers work alone and don’t need interpersonal skills, but that’s a myth. Freelancers interact with prospects, clients, and other freelancers.

Oddly enough, this might be the most essential skill of all. The (mis) perception of freelance or self-employed people is that we “don’t play well with others.” Which isn’t true at all — if we didn’t, we’d never find or retain satisfied clients!

From the very start of your freelance life, you’re going to need other people to help you: for advice, insight, feedback, moral support, sometimes a shoulder to cry on or to toast your latest coup. Almost every single day, by phone, email or social media, I’m asking for, or giving, advice to someone.

At this point in my career, 30 years into it, virtually all my work comes from established clients or personal referrals to new ones from people they know, like and trust.

So play nicely, ladies and gentlemen! Never steal ideas, backbite, gossip.

And don’t be nasty, even if you’re feeling really shaky and insecure.

Networking Freelancers
Networking Freelancers (Photo credit: solobasssteve)

So, go out often — at least once every month — to industry parties and events and panels and conferences. Bring a genuine smile, a well-designed business card and a generous spirit.

And look professional! At a recent NYC roof-top event I attended, a woman around my age was wearing chipped red nail polish. Seriously? You need a great/recent haircut (and/or color), polished shoes, fresh mani/pedi (do it yourself, but do it!)

We make snap decisions about people within seconds of meeting one another. Make sure they’re positive.

Do not — I beg you — use the phrase “I’d love to pick your brain”. Ever!

Of course you would.

You think it’s flattering. It’s not, really. Because our brains are already spoken for. Instead, be classy: offer to pay us a consulting fee, make a useful professional introduction or buy us a good meal. Don’t be cheap and assume it’s our job to mentor you because you’re needy. It’s not!

And don’t become the whiny/negative/raggedy/sloppy person whose calls we dodge and emails we delete.

If you’re self-employed, what skills do you find most essential to your success?

What’s your time worth? Is it enough?

By Caitlin Kelly

Self Employment Tax Form - Schedule SE
Self Employment Tax Form – Schedule SE (Photo credit: Philip Taylor PT)

Really interesting piece in The New York Times Magazine about the value of ideas, and our time:

Measuring productivity is central to economic policy — it’s especially crucial in the decisions made by the Federal Reserve — but we are increasingly flying blind. It’s relatively easy to figure out if steel companies can make a ton of steel more efficiently than in the past (they can, by a lot), but we have no idea how to measure the financial value of ideas and the people who come up with them. “Compared with the mid-1900s, goods production is not as important a part of our economy, but we continue to devote about 90 percent of our statistical resources to measuring it,” says Barry Bosworth, a Brookings Institution economist who is a leading thinker on productivity in the service sector.

This question is central to my work as an independent creative, a full-time freelancer, whether I’m selling my ideas/skills/time to a newspaper — The New York Times — or a magazine like Cosmopolitan — or a website — like bbc.co.uk, all recent clients.

Or to an individual who wants my guidance on their own material.

Like everyone who works hard for a living, I don’t intend to live hand-to-mouth scraping by. I’ve developed excellent skills and the ability to work on a wide range of projects. But ginning up the income I really want is challenging when I refuse to work more than a 40-hour week and rates are low.

I also — contrary to some beliefs — don’t work 40 hours doing nothing but writing!

Much of my time is spent coming up with ideas, developing them, pitching them, invoicing, filling out administrative paperwork, chasing late payments, delegating to and managing my assistant and working on book ideas and other long-term projects.

I also need to speak to my agent and various editors. I network, in person, on-line and on the phone, with other writers about new markets.

There are many moving parts to running your own business, many of which suck up unpaid time — an opportunity cost in itself. So every hour has to bring in income, shortly or soon thereafter.

Vincent Laforet, a highly successful American freelance photographer, just wrote a really interesting blog post on this, called the C.O.D.B. — the cost of doing business.

If you’re working for yourself and don’t know the costs of every single day, and how much you’re earning in profit (or losing), you’re not running your business efficiently:

Basically it’s a number that represents what it costs you to operate your business for every day that you work. 

On a basic level, you add up all of your purchases and expenses to run your business, as well as your salary (I suggest you add your salary, but some people don’t)  and divide that by the total number of days you expect to work each year.    That will give you a number that is the MINIMUM you must make each day to BREAK EVEN.    If you make more per day on average than your C.O.D.B., you are profitable.   If you match your C.O.D.B but work fewer days than what your expected, your business is in the red, and your on a path to being out of business…

What has amazed me time after time is how few of my colleagues know what their number is, and how that in turn makes it very difficult for them to grow their business over time – let alone what to charge their clients.

You should know this number by heart as it should help you determine the minimum rates you need to charge your clients on a job per WORKING day, to stay solvent as a business.   Keep in mind that if you get paid per SHOOT day – and don’t get paid for treatments, conference calls, research, prep and post – you need to cover ALL of those days in your SHOOT DAY FEE of course.    In other words, if you get paid 3 shooting day rates, but you actually worked a total of 12 days between pitch, prep, shoot, and post – you need to QUADRUPLE your DAY RATE (or daily C.O.D.B. day rate) to break even for those 3 shooting days you are actually being paid for.

When people dream of self-employment, they rarely factor in all the additional attendant costs — whether out of pocket dental bills, maintaining their website, attending conferences or upgrading their equipment.

Let alone vacation days, sick days and days-from-hell when you simply can’t get the work in, or done.

A new client has asked me to do some work for him, and he estimated that the $1,000 he’s offered per story buys three days of my time.

Which wrongly assumes he knows my CODB.

Let’s do the math: three typical work days = 21 hours’ total, tops. That’s about $50/hour if I do nothing but his story. Sounds like a lot, right?

Not in my book.

Every hour I devote exclusively to a lower-paying project, (although it might be someone with a steadier appetite for my services or someone more pleasant to deal with) is lost to finding and/or completing something else paying more, possibly a lot more.

It’s a constant juggling act giving everyone good service, (albeit some in fewer hours).

Do you price your own time?

Do you have a formula?

Is it working?