Cotton years, cashmere years — what full-time freelance is really like

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

Many of you have — or want — a full-time job. One with paid vacation, benefits, a boss, colleagues. Maybe an office of your own.

But one-third of Americans are now working as I do, freelance, temp or on some sort of contract. At tax time, we look forward to a thick stack of 1099s, the forms sent to us (and the IRS!) by every client who we billed for more than $600 per job. We can also claim a raft of business expenses as deductions, from car repair to a new computer to travel to a distant conference.

I recently spent four weeks in Paris and London; while in England, I reported three stories. I plan to write off my airfare and some of my costs as well as I clearly produced paid work while there.

My last staff job was working as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the sixth-largest newspaper in the U.S. I had a big laminated press credential I wore around my neck on a metal chain. It showed everyone I was one of the cool kids, working press conferences and stake-outs and racing every day, sometimes physically down the street, to beat reporters from the New York Post and New York Times; (they always showed up wearing silk and linen — starting Times salary being a cool $90,000.)

I enjoyed having a paycheck, the job less so. I was let go in June 2006 and have been full-time freelance ever since, a sort of work I had done many times before then as well. I apply occasionally for a full-time job but my heart isn’t really in it; I’ve already worked for three big daily papers and had the most fun there one can have and get well-paid for it. (As many of you know, the newspaper industry these days is about as steady and viable as a whaling ship fleet.)

I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal
I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal

But freelancing is a way of life that some people just aren’t cut out for.

How about you?

You must hustle every single day. If you slack off, you have to hustle twice as hard (vacation, illness) to make up for lost time

Clients come and go: editors get fired, move to Thailand or Berlin, take maternity leave and don’t come back. Entire magazines shut down overnight. Relying on a steady set of clients means you better have a lot of them. I see them like a pack of sled-dogs — you need a bunch of them, all pulling hard, in case one goes down or gets injured.

You have to be self-reliant. Tech support? Supply closet? Training sessions? Hah

You’re the CEO, CIO, CTO, CFO, R & D, sales, marketing, distribution, payroll and the janitor. No one is standing by to help you so it’s up to you to find, create and nurture those relationships. You also need to set aside some of your income for this stuff.

Nope! Not til the workday's done
Nope! Not til the workday’s done

Working alone at home requires self-discipline

No one cares if or when you clock in or out. No one cares if you sell a thing. It’s all up to you! But, on the other hand, no one is standing in your way if you decide to double or triple your income this year — a feat all but impossible in any staff job. Your earnings are up to you. But you have to put your bum in the chair and get on with it. I’ve only turned on the television in working hours during major news events, and now just check Twitter instead.

Your networks will save you, time and time and time again

Paradoxically, you’ll need other professionals in your life far more as an independent worker than you probably ever did in a staff position. Whether you need advice on contracts or rates or how to handle a PITA client, you’ll need to find, join and nurture a wide range of professional networks so you’ve got access to people you can trust when you need their help. You also have to give it! I belong to more than four separate writers’ groups — one with 2,300 women writers in it — and check in with them daily. I find new markets, ideas, insights and offer my advice when possible; what goes around comes around.

My desk, in the corner of our living room
My desk, in the corner of our living room

Social media matter more than ever

You need to find sources, fast. You need advice, fast. You need to boost your brand’s visibility. Your new book needs thousands of eyeballs. Your networks will come through for you — if you’ve been a good egg for them as well.

Mentor whenever and wherever possible

The freelance world is filled with clueless, helpless newbies. They can suck you dry! Give them your help when you can; charge for your expertise the rest of the time. (I coach, $200/hour.)

Stay healthy!

Making time for regular exercise, social events, lots of sleep and healthy food choices will keep you ready to work hard. I work a standard six to eight hours a day, five days a week. I very rarely allow work to leak into my nights and weekends. Yes, that lowers my income. It also reduces my stress!

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Have little to no debt, low overhead and a cushion for slow payments

The hardest part of freelance? Not finding work or clients. If you have skills, charm and hustle, you’ll find them. But even the biggest — sometimes always the biggest! — can take months to pay you. In the meantime, you still need food, rent, gas, health insurance, haircuts. A life! I have a $16,000 line of credit through my bank and two low-interest credit cards. But I never work without a contract and insist on payment 30 days after receipt of invoice.

Forget the word freelance. You run a small business

Too many people fantasize wildly about the incredible freedom they’ll have once they work for themselves. Yes, you will. But the romance fades mighty fast when your payments are months late or your work dries up (see: cotton years) or you end up, as I did in March 2007 for three days, in the hospital with pneumonia — from overwork and exhaustion. You must decide on your income goals and do everything in your power to make them real. It’s not a cute hobby working from home. It’s a business.

Your business!

Does freelancing appeal to you?

 

 

 

 

 

Five reasons to freelance — and five reasons not to!

By Caitlin Kelly

I went freelance, for the third time, in 2006 after losing a staff job at the New York Daily News — but I also freelanced, by choice, full-time for four years right out of college, so it wasn’t a terrible shock to lose an office, colleagues and a paycheck.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, people who wrote for print and television and my father was a film director. No one had a steady paycheck or pension to look forward to and rely on. So it all felt normal to me.

You can attend a mid-week matinee!
You can attend a mid-week matinee!

Five reasons to go, or stay, freelance:

You’re very intrinsically motivated (i.e. you don’t need a whip over your head to get it done)

Autonomy ‘r us! Some people are just a whole lot happier not having a boss. And any organization, no matter how small, is going to impose policies and procedures, some of which are usually inane and some of which you might deeply disagree with.

All of which come with someone else’s paycheck.

You want more control of your work/life scheduling

Maybe you have children and/or pets and/or an ailing loved one who needs your attention as well. Maybe you prefer to work from 4pm to midnight or 2am to 8am…or whenever it suits you. Freelancing allows you tremendous freedom, within limits, to set your own hours and schedule.

I take a jazz dance class on Monday and/or Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 10:30 or 11:00 a.m — and no staff job I know of would allow for that. It’s fun and social and gives me tremendous pleasure and keeps me healthy. And I like knowing this is a bonus no job would offer.

I also take as much vacation, whenever possible; my husband, even after 30 years at the Times, must request his vacation time in early January and defer to those (!) with more seniority than he.

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!
This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

You can choose a wide variety of clients and projects

Staff jobs, de facto, have set roles and responsibilities they have hired you to perform. Freelancers can freely pick and choose our clients and types of work, from quick 300-word stories to 3,500 word features to 100,000 word books. We can fly to another country to do some reporting or spend a week at a conference meeting cool people who can help our careers.

If you’re getting bored or have a difficult client, switch it up!

Intellectual challenge is up to you

If your personal life is crazy and all you have energy for is lighter projects, that’s your call. That’s a huge benefit when our personal lives go haywire and we need to lighten our loads for a while. When you work for someone else, it’s all up to them. Plus, your professional opportunities for advancement and growth (and pay) are largely within their budget, schedule and control.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Your income is your choice

Key! If you want to double or triple your income — or even just boost it by 22.3% — that’s also within your control, not something at the pleasure of your boss or company CEO.

Freelancers see a very direct and satisfying correlation between our energy, stamina, skill and experience, and the zeros on our tax returns — with no office politics and no bullshit excuses why you still, somehow, don’t deserve — or just won’t get — a raise, commission or bonus.

Five reasons to stay on someone’s payroll

You’ve got huge overhead you can’t quickly and easily reduce

If you’ve got multiple children expecting you to pay for their educations, freelancing is going to be tough. If you’re crushed by student debt yourself already and/or credit card debt (especially with a high APR), freelancing — i.e. not having a reliable income each month — can be really stressful, certainly as you are just getting started and cannot command the highest fees.

And many clients pay late (45 to 60 days after invoice) while some try to screw us out of our fees.

I know some people earning $100,000 to 130,000 a year freelancing, but they are not, certainly as writers in journalism today, in the majority.

You need someone telling you what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it right

If you’re the sort of person who craves routine and a structure and people making sure you have done the work correctly, freelancing may feel too loosey-goosey. Every single day’s productivity is completely your own responsibility, so if you’re someone who likes to watch daytime TV or Candy Crush, good luck with that.

Your ability to make enough income to gas the car, feed your family and take your dog to the vet are often the primary or exclusive measure of your success. Your primary goal is to find, nurture and keep ongoing and profitable relationships — not please your superiors and colleagues.

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!
A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

You really need the company (and input) of other people

Working alone at home is lonely and isolating. If you treasure your office pals and going out for margaritas with them, freelancing all day by yourself may drive you nuts. Yes, you can rent a co-working space, but you’re still there to work and paying for additional space, and not necessarily surrounded by like-minded folk.

Hustling scares you (to death)

Freelancers eat only what we kill. No, not literally! But we start many weeks, or years, with no clear, definite idea what our income is actually going to be. Sure, we set income goals — but clients die, turn into insatiable monsters we have to fire, publications suddenly close or trim their budgets and mayhem just happens sometimes.

Yet those monthly bills keep coming! If the idea of constantly seeking out, and nurturing, new client relationships fills you with dread, keep the day job.

You crave the validation of “I work at…”

A phrase that drives me crazy is “Who’re you with?” I’m with myself, actually.

The constant status-check of ascribing your value and prestige to your Big Name Employer seems, to me, sadly antiquated now that 30 percent of Americans work for themselves, or as temps or contract workers only.

But if you really like saying “I work for BNE”, then get and keep a job there.

The downside? If or when you’re laid off from a staff job, your identity — and your income, of course — may take a serious and unexpected whack.

How about you?

Which lifestyle suits you best?

Monday Morning Alone

Photo of the Grand Canyon on the south rim at ...
Image via Wikipedia

Monday mornings feel the way I did when I hiked the Grand Canyon. It was four hours down, and eight hours back up.

You’re looking up at a daunting sight, a very steep climb.

I work alone in a suburban apartment. The sweetie is gone 12 hours a day and his work is sufficiently crazed that, while we can speak between his six daily meetings, our conversations tend to be a few minutes at best.

So waking up alone on a Monday morning — my swim classes are Tuesday through Thursday — feels a little lonely. For the past year, I was a member of a blogging community, True/Slant, with some 300 members. I loved our banter and exchanges, but it has closed down in its original iteration, scattering many of our talents and energies to our own individual sites or other group blogs or into radio silence.

I chose the path of being a professional writer when I was still in my teens. I do love writing, but, when you work alone at home, it is one of the loneliest ways I know of to earn a living. Go to any cafe and you’ll find every table piled with laptops, people staring intently into them, many of whom may well be other writers.

Great! Being surrounded by strangers busily staring into computers doesn’t do it for me.

So I am doing what I do every morning to jump-start myself:

1) Listen to BBC World News. I get some idea what’s going out out there. 2) Read three newspapers; ditto. Gives me some blog ideas and maybe some notions of what to pitch to other editors. 3) Place bum in chair. 4) Ignore every possible, tempting distraction, from the pool to email to Facebook to email to the huge stack of unread magazines to housework.

Work!

(How do you settle down and focus?)

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Sharkproofing 101: Seven Lessons For New 'Entrepreneurs'

Picture taken at Georgia Aquarium, pictured is...
Just when you thought it was safe to go into business for yourself....Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking a lot about this “entrepreneurial” thing of late.

One of the enduring challenges, sometimes the primary challenge, of working on your own, is knowing how to discern the predators and make sure you protect yourself from them, or stay out of their way. Whatever their motives, sometimes without motive — you’re just collateral damage — they can inflict serious harm to your income, your confidence, sometimes your reputation.

An an entrepreneur, without an excellent credit score, you’re toast. If people don’t pay you, (on time or ever) and you’re late paying your bills, kiss your excellent credit score goodbye. Bottom of the food chain, baby.

Welcome to planktonworld!

I learned this sad lesson when I was only 19, still in college, and working freelance like a madwoman to make as much money as possible; I lived alone and paid my way through university. One of the magazine publishers — this happens a lot, I would see over the next few years — screwed a bunch of us out of earned income for work used. We had to sign some “we won’t sue” document to collect pennies on our pay.

I ran into this guy at some party a few months later. Silly me! I thought he was…broke! I had pictured him wearing a barrel, begging for apples on the street, living in his car. Hah! Useful and memorable lesson. In the fall of 2008, two magazines in the space of two months tried, again, to screw me out of more money. Thank God for lawyers!

I recently heard — chutzpah! In the heartland! — from another deadbeat publisher who I had to sue to get my money from. Turns out I gave her all rights to my unpublished material in so doing (about four stories) so she made out like…a bandit. Now she asks if I’d like to work with her again.

See: snowball, hell.

Every single person who works for themself, for now or forever, needs to know these.

Sharkproofing 101

1) Join every possible professional group in any way related to your field, specialty, industry: alumni groups, LinkedIn groups, professional organizations. Even if you’re a fresh grad with no connections, make some, today. They have listservs and newsletters and on-line forums and chat rooms where pro’s will dish freely and name names. How else will you know who to avoid?

2) Because knowledge — of the deadbeats and cheaters — is power. For fear of being sued, very few professionals will name names publicly. But, for example, within the American Society of Journalists and Authors (on whose board I sit), we have a Warning List, available only to our members. Several Very Big Magazines are on there so we know not to bother working with them. It costs a fat $200 a year to join ASJA; saving your butt, if you meet our qualifications, is surely worth $16.66 a month. Freelance Success is also a great resource.

3) Know a lawyer who will answer your email and call promptly. Use them whenever necessary.

4) Keep an excellent FICO score and five-figure, low-interest line if credit open and available to you at all times. I am about to ditch Chase — hellooooo? — for their appalling, greedy new habit of charging me $30 every time I access my line of credit. The one they already cut and won’t restore and charge me double-digit interest on — and, wait there’s more! — told I was lucky it was only $30. After $90 in charges in one week, I took this issue to TD Bank where a banker said, “Hm. Sounds like extortion to me.” You have clout, use it.

5) Attend conferences and parties and events, nay, even the opening of an envelope in your industry — or the one you are trying to break into. You need to meet as many people as possible because some of them, yes, are going to be lying cheats — and some are going to be amazing, kind, cool mentors. The latter will help you suss out, or recover from the flesh wounds of, the former.

6) Be a lovely person. I mean it. Kind, funny, generous, helpful. What’s in it for you? Karma, baby. When the next deadbeat bites your ass and that line of credit just got cut and no one is hiring — you’re going to need a friendly voice on the phone or Facebook. I recently got asked for help by someone very new to me. Sigh. I have very little free time and a crummy income. Can I afford it? Can I afford not to? When it’s just you and your Blackberry and your sweatpants and a lot of prayers and talent, you need backup. We all do. If you’re likeable and have freely given it before, and now ask for help, odds are you’ll get some.

7) Create a posse. The minute I heard True/Slant was…mutating….I called three smart, tough, savvy friends, one of whom I’ve never actually met face to face. They have been advising me since. Corporations and non-profits have boards of directors. This is yours. Like all boards, they add a fresh perspective, multiply your brainpower and, occasionally, talk you off the window ledge.

There, now…..Doesn’t a full-time job sound grand?

In Solitary, At Least They Bring You Three Meals — The Joy Of Working From Home

Working at home
Image by gibsonsgolfer via Flickr

Many people dream of the day they can work from home. No commute! No office politics! No nasty boss!

A piece in today’s New York Post addresses some of the challenges involved: loneliness, isolation, no one to chat or brainstorm or joke with. Tech support? Try your computer’s “help” tab:

Victoria Porter, a medical writer, used to work in a Manhattan office, until she was hired a job a few years ago by a company based in Minnesota. The offer: full-time telecommuting from her Long Island residence, an idyllic setup to the many cube dwellers who dream of working from home in their pajamas all day.

So, how did it feel to be liberated from the need to slog through a commute and show up at an office every day?

She hated it. Instead of feeling liberated, she felt isolated and cut off — and found herself fighting the temptation to call friends and colleagues at their desks just to chat.

“The loneliness was acute, and I just wanted to go back to my old job,” she says. “If not for my cats, it would have been really, really depressing.”

She stuck with it, but one colleague who faced a similar fate decided to go back to office work.

“He wanted to work with other human beings,” she says.

For many workers, the ability to telecommute — to work remotely, enabled by laptops and wireless communication — is one of the prizes of the digital era. An estimated 33.7 million US employees now work from home at least a few times a month, according to World at Work, a nonprofit that studies telecommuting.

A National Geographic documentary crew is spending a week in solitary confinement to see what it’s like, reports The New York Times:

Heightening the sense of imprisonment, the volunteers can send short posts to Twitter, but they cannot read any responses. The live-streaming at ExploreSolitary.com started when the three volunteers entered their cells somewhere outside Washington, D.C., last Friday, and it will continue through this Friday. The documentary will have its premiere on April 11.

It’s a marketing stunt borrowed from reality TV — or perhaps a psychology experiment. National Geographic prefers to call it a complement to the documentary, intended to prompt conversation about a part of the prison system seldom examined by camera crews.

Russell Howard, a spokesman for the National Geographic Channel, said the experiment was rooted in a question: “In a day and age when everyone is hyper-connected, what is it like to be severed socially as well as to be kept in such a small space?”

I started my day driving my sweetie to the train station (get dressed, brush hair, wash face, leave apartment)l ate breakfast at a local diner where I saw a neighbor and type this listening to BBC World News, as I do every weekday morning for an hour. From 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or later, it’s my workday. Alone.

Those of us who work alone at home all day — especially without a separate office space — face our own challenges: when to stop working, finding social contact within the workday, trying (hah!) to control the clutter of books, newspapers, magazines I use for work while my “office” is a desk in the livingroom, staying visible and audible within our industries. I offer some tips on how to handle isolation on my website. Michelle Goodman, who’s written several great books about working freelance, has some helpful tips on her website, including this one.

The only way I’ve stayed sane while working on my book (and blog and freelancing) are two young researchers I found (through trusted colleagues), one in San Diego and one in suburban New Jersey, neither of whom I’ve met. Their energy and attention to detail have allowed me to focus on my own tasks.

When you work on your own, it’s not always easy to find someone dependable to help you and it’s easy to forget to delegate — I found an intern from a local university one year and hired her (at $12/hr, this a decade ago) after the unpaid internship ended. It helped enormously having a fun, friendly helpful assistant.

Do you work from home? What do you enjoy? What (if anything) do you miss from working in an office or more structured/social environment?

Any tips on how to cope?