Most of us learn from an early age that to please others, we have to mind our manners and be prepared to compromise.
But that approach to life doesn’t work so well in freelance business, where being quiet and polite means going unnoticed — and accepting too many compromises leaves you working too hard for too low a rate.
I grew up in North Carolina, the land of sweet tea and southern belles. I was a nice girl — friendly and deferential, without too many strong opinions.
Then I suddenly became a single mom, with no income to speak of. I decided to give a real go at freelancing so I could stay home with my baby.
Without warning, all my plans were out the window and the safety net became very, very small. I had to roll up my sleeves and do some hard work. And with the little guy taking up most of my time, I didn’t have time for wheel-spinning, cowering, and other nonsense.
You don’t have time for those kinds of shenanigans, either.
If you really want to make a go at this freelancing thing, you need to be ruthless.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not talking about being unethical. No shady tactics, no cheating people, no lying about your work experience, no poaching customers from your client’s company (but you can borrow Sophie’s clients any time!).
What I’m talking about is cutting the fluff and no longer putting up with the things that get in the way of your success. I’m talking about setting priorities and not shifting them. Drawing red lines and not crossing them. Taking a deep breath and hitting ‘send’ on the scary email.
Being ruthless is not something that came naturally for me. I used to be pretty accommodating by nature, but it was getting in the way of my business growth. I had to learn how to hold myself — and my clients — to the highest standards, to the exclusion of anything that would slow me down.
It was uncomfortable at first, to be honest. There were quite a few pep talks before quoting a higher rate than I’d ever quoted before, and quite a few late nights poring over marketing practices trying to find the things I could do quickly but effectively.
But once I learned how to take charge of my business — including my day-to-day schedule — things began to shift. And the key was ruthlessly getting rid of all the ridiculousness that I’d been tolerating up to that point.
Are you dealing with too many shenanigans, too? Here’s a good starting point for your new training in ruthlessness.
Establish your rates — no exceptions!
When you need work — especially when you reeeeeeally need work — it can be easy to undercut your efforts by taking ridiculously low-paid work just to get some sort of money rolling in the door.
Here’s the thing: that is an extremely short-sighted strategy. If you need $50 to pay the power bill tomorrow before they cut the lights off, OK. But if you aren’t in that kind of immediate emergency, do not compromise on your rates. Set your floor and don’t go below it.
Not sure what your floor is? Here’s a quick guideline: you don’t write anything for less than 10 cents per word. Even if you’ve only been freelancing for 5 minutes. Some people think that’s crazy advice, but who cares? We’re being ruthless, remember?
To start landing clients that will pay that kind of rate, it’s time to start pitching (more) aggressively.
A good place to start is The Ultimate List of Better-Paid Blogging Gigs, which you can download for free here at BAFB. But don’t expect that list (or any other directory of paying markets) to make it easy for you. They’re only starting points.
You’ll still need to put in the time it takes to find your own clients. And when you land gigs, it’ll be down to you to ask for half the fee up front to get your cash flow started.
And while we’re on the subject of rates, what’s up with yours?
Have you been quoting the same rate for more than 6 months now? If so, it’s time to give yourself a raise. It’s not that hard — you just need to do it. Here’s how it works:
The next new client you land gets a higher rate quoted. It’s that simple.
Mentioning a per-word rate is kind of like splitting hairs to me, and I don’t have time for that. One strategy I like to use instead, especially when stretching to a higher rate, is to quote a flat fee for any given project.
So if a client comes to me and asks how much I’d charge for a long-form post that’s 1500-2000 words, I’ll send back one flat fee that’s based on the higher word count using my per-word rate. (For example, if your minimum rate is 10 cents per word, the flat fee for that post would be $200. And if you’ve been sitting at 10 cents per word for a while and you want to stretch to 12, you’d quote $240 for the post.)
If your rates are really low, make the jump up to 10 cents per word immediately. (If the idea of that gives you a panic attack, settle for 8 cents. Once you land one client at 8 cents, quote the next one at 9. And if you can get 9 cents per word, you can surely do 10.)
If you’ve got the chops, the portfolio, and the professional demeanor to back it up, you’ll land work at your new rate.
And if you find yourself getting pushback from all directions, it’s time to take a closer look at what you’re doing.
Define the scope up front
Clients are wonderful. They are manna-bearing dreamboats of clips and cash and the answer to all of your freelancing hopes and dreams. I love clients.
The thing is, clients are sometimes completely clueless. In fact, the bane of every contractor’s existence is not taxes as you might assume — it’s scope creep.
Scope creep happens when you agree to do a project, and then after you get to work there are about a hundred-thousand new little things that creep up and eat away at your profitability.
Sometimes it’s a request for a 4th round of revisions. Sometimes it’s “We’d like you to send an image, too.” Sometimes it’s “could you suggest a few Twitter updates we could attach to this?” or other such nonsense. There are even clients who want to have phone calls with you all the time about your assignment, when one quick chat will suffice.
Don’t let scope creep happen to you. Define exactly what you will (and won’t) be doing, for exactly how much money, before you do one single search or write one single word.
Get it all down in writing, and get the client to sign off before you start. (This is a great time to work in that half-the-fee deposit up front, by the way!)
- Only want to do one round of revisions? Put it in the contract.
- Do they expect an image? That’ll mean an adjusted (read: higher) rate for the piece.
- You’d love to offer some social media suggestions, and those come a la carte at a rate of ABC for XYZ updates.
If you’re in the middle of scope creep right now, you may feel stuck or nervous about dealing with it — but if your client requests more stuff, don’t be afraid to say “I’d be happy to provide that for you, but it’s beyond the scope of our original agreement. If you’d like to add it on, I’ll just invoice you for an additional $__.”
Shut down distractions
I mean things like technology. Living distractions require a different approach, because they don’t have an “off” button. If you (like me) have small and/or large people — and sometimes pets — running around underfoot, you might be better off with a pet gate or something.
I’m talking about all the things we let steal our attention. Things like email, notifications, social media (do not even get me started on social media), and that kind of thing.
What you need is an iron grasp on your schedule.
Set yourself some basic workday rules. For example:
- Don’t check your email until you’ve done 30-60 minutes of marketing or other business-building. (And business-building does not mean tweeting at people.)
- Close your email when you’re writing, brainstorming, or otherwise doing brain-powered things.
- Mute your cell phone, or leave it in another room.
- Turn off every notification and pop-up that dares impose itself on your monitor.
- Before you close up shop for the night, make your list of 2-3 absolute-must-do’s for tomorrow. Then, when you first start working the next day, get those things done before you work on anything else. (No more wasting time trying to figure out what to do with your day.)
There are tons of blog posts out there about productivity. Chances are, you’ve read a few and you know how to be more productive. But “knowing how” and “making yourself do” are two different things.
No more letting yourself off the hook. Buckle down and take charge — you’re the boss, after all!
Stop making excuses
Excuses, in my estimation, boil down to fear. It’s fear that pretends it’s logic, but usually it’s still just fear.
Here are a few common excuses, what the underlying fear tends to be, and how you can move past it:
I don’t know enough yet: fear of failure, fear of looking stupid
What all do you really need to know?
Being a freelance blogger is not anywhere near as complicated as we like to make ourselves think it is when we’re looking for an excuse.
My website isn’t ready: fear of rejection, fear of failure
Your site is never going to be perfect, and even if you do get a perfect site (which doesn’t really exist), it’s just one WordPress update away from being broken anyway.
There’s no reason to let your website stop you from going for work. I’d bet actual green-paper money that there are very few people who’ve lost out on a gig because they didn’t have the perfect plugin on their site.
I don’t have enough time: fear of failure
Nobody has enough time for this. Some of us make time anyway. You get to choose how you spend your time. Need help? Read this.
My pitch isn’t ready: fear of rejection
If you think your pitch stinks, well… that’s kind of legit. But it’s only legit for the 30-60 minutes it takes you to come up with a better one.
With so many pitching resources available here and elsewhere, plus feedback available in the forum from people who are editors and know what makes a good pitch because they’ve read hundreds if not thousands of them, there’s absolutely no reason to let your perceived weak pitch stop you for very long.
Noticing a trend yet?
Our fears are pretty basic. We want to be accepted. We don’t want to fail. We want things to be easy so we don’t have to take risks. Risks are scary.
But here’s the thing: there will always be reasons not to do something. Sometimes these reasons will be really compelling.
Here’s the other thing: you’ve got to stop taking these excuses seriously if you’re really going to make some headway as a freelancer.
You already know enough. You’re already capable enough. You’re ready. You just need to do it. And trust me: it will get easier, the more you go for it.
Don’t let the fear win. Don’t! There’s too much at stake.
You get to take control
There are some things within your control.
You get to control how you spend a large portion of your time. You get to control who you will or won’t take on as a client. You get to control the distractions you choose to let in. You get to control your rates, and therefore how much money you’ll make.
This is your business. You get to control it.
Treat it right, and it will grow. Don’t, and you’ll keep floundering.
Remind yourself regularly to take your work seriously — more seriously than you’d take a regular job, even.
The more you’re willing to buckle down, cut the fat, and get to work, the better off you’ll be. Be ruthless — especially on yourself — and it’ll get easier as time goes on.
If you ever get stuck (and we all get stuck at some point), don’t just sit there. Reach out and get some help, fast, so you can get back on your way.
No one else will do it for you. So be ruthless and do it for yourself!