The end of January is usually a time of reckoning for media freelancers. The lack of income over the holidays starts to bite. And – most unfairly – the festive spending comes home to roost. Niki Moore gives some advice on how to avoid the slow season.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Making sure you survive the downtime after Christmas – and perhaps the whole of 2012 (a year that has economists shaking their heads) requires a rethink of your whole approach to freelancing. Here, from personal experience, are some hints to surviving 2012.
January always comes as a huge surprise… Freelancers plan their work till the end of the year, then go on holiday, then come back in January to an empty intray and a pile of bills. This year, start planning in October and November for work in January. Make sure you have something to come back to – persuade your clients to give you non-time-bound tasks for that dead patch. Or start a project that you can continue after your break.
2012 is the year of the retainer: Forget diamonds – retainers and contracts are forever. Make this the year when you strive to get some of your regular work on retainer or on contract. That regular income is worth its weight in peace of mind. A retainer means that you can budget, that you get payment even if you take a holiday, that you get paid along with salaried individuals instead of submitting invoices and then biting your nails till you get paid.
Five years ago I couldn’t spell social-media professional… now I are one: I always enjoy telling people that I started freelancing in the days of the manual typewriter. How times have changed! The pace of technological transformation is accelerating and as media professionals we need to keep up. This is not a choice, it is a necessity. It is simply not good enough to be a creative spark any more, you really have to become a technocrat. The whole media working landscape has moved into areas that didn’t exist five years ago, and unless you can deliver a service using these new fields like social media and the Internet, you will struggle to find work. So reskill and upskill yourself.
Find out what clients want and equip yourself with those competencies. However – don’t confuse technology with talent. New media is a platform, a means to an end, not an end in itself. The time-honoured basics of freelancing – good communication, old-fashioned skill, reliability and hard work – still apply.
Add Value: So you do a regular job of work for a client. Have you thought about what else you can add to the task that will increase your fee? Don’t just write the press release, offer to distribute it as well. Don’t just take the photograph, offer to put it into an exciting CD presentation. Think about syndicating your work to several clients.
Extend your thinking into project management instead of just being a cog in the wheel. Expand your work into a field that you might not have thought of before. There’s a disclaimer here though: never undertake to do extra work unless you are sure you can actually do it (see point 3….) And if you don’t know where to find training or mentoring, join a network like Safrea to find out.
Stop being a freelancer… and become a service provider. Get away from perceiving yourself as someone who works from home in their pyjamas and goes to movies on a Wednesday afternoon, rather think of yourself as a consummate professional who can take on projects and deliver services (and who just happens to operate off their dining room table).
Project a professional image, dress appropriately for meetings; don’t complain to your client about your sick spouse or annoying neighbour – especially not as an excuse to miss a deadline! People who ooze professionalism tend to get the bigger contracts and the higher pay.
Never stop chasing the chances: I am honestly amazed by people who claim to lack work, and yet play Harry-casual when work opportunities float past. There is so much work out there – but you have to track it down and wrestle it to the ground. Never be shy to follow up potential work: clients have a lot on their mind and they tend to forget about you unless they get gentle reminders.
And on that note, cast your bread upon the water: Everyone you meet may be a potential client. Or they might know someone who is a potential client. Many freelancers find it difficult to get out there and market themselves. But no-one will hire you if they don’t know about you. Wear your profession on your sleeve. Don’t only be visible when you are looking for work – it might be too late. Networking is vitally important for freelancers. Use social networks by all means, but never under-estimate the importance of the face-to-face personal contact, ie, press launches, networking events, those dreaded cocktail parties. Dish out your business cards. And it might be useful to network outside your comfort zone.
Some professionals (especially more senior ones, I have noticed) tend to underplay their achievements and skills when marketing themselves – one of the biggest drawbacks of freelancing is that often you are in a lonely place with no-one to compare yourself to. And as a result, we tend to undervalue ourselves. Make up a (private) list of achievements – I call it an ego-box – and every so often remind yourself of the things you have got right. Networking with other professionals is also handy as a personal gauge.
And finally…There are some people who think that freelancing is impossibly tough, they live constantly on the edge of disaster with no work on the horizon, or they are at the mercy of exploitative clients. If this applies to you, then it is time you did some serious introspection: either you are not skilled enough; you are not flexible enough, or you are not confident enough. Perhaps you have (fairly or unfairly) a reputation for unreliability or poor work.
If any of the first three applies to you, you can fix it. If the last applies to you, there is not much you can do except perhaps rethink your future in the media profession: freelancing should never be a hiding-place for people who can’t find a job, it should be a career choice for skilled, talented, self-motivated and reliable people who enjoy the lifestyle of the self-employed professional.