Posts filed under 'Ask the Cubicle Expat'

Ask the cubicle expat: Help! My star client has begun making unreasonable demands on my time!

L. asks: One of my favorite copywriting clients has me on a retainer, which usually works out very well for us both. However, in the last two months a third project manager has been added. My lovely retainer has gone from well-managed to every reason to say “no” to such work in the first place: non-stop emails, minuscule timelines, and repeated fires. When I talk to the PM and try to correct the behavior, her response is, “Just tell me and I’ll get another writer.” (A family member of hers is a copywriter.) My three contacts are peers, so I’m not sure how to best broach the issue. I’d hate to lose the client, but things do need to change. Any recommendations? Thanks!

I answer: Ack! I feel your pain! Obviously this is not a sustainable situation or you wouldn’t be writing to me. Some suggestions (feel free to mix and match as you see fit):

1. Meet with all three managers (or whomever was your initial contact) and tell them you can better serve the company by having one point of contact, not three. Make it about the benefits to their business (more efficient, more personalized attention, whatever) than the benefits to you. If you only meet with one of your contacts, don’t badmouth the others; be diplomatic.

2. Let the client(s) know that the workflow has changed and it’s no longer efficient. (Last minute requests mean you’re not always available that minute or you have to do a rush – and thus, less than ideal – job.) Suggest that they funnel all requests into one daily or weekly phone meeting or email. Any other requests will have to wait until the next meeting/call.

3. Since I don’t know what you’re making on this gig, how many hours you’ve agreed to work, and how many hours you’re actually working, it’s hard to get super-specific on how much more money or what timeframe limitations to ask for. But clearly you’re being subjected to scope creep, which can only mean one thing for a freelancer: you’re working more for the same amount of money, which means you have less time for other clients and essentially are losing money. This has to stop!

Tell your client(s) that the parameters have changed and you’d like to renegotiate. You can put a time cap on the hours you devote to them each week, you can ask for more money, or you can ask to reconfigure the pay structure (instead of retainer they pay you per hour or project). If what’s happening is that they expect you to be on call 40 hours a week but are only paying you for 10 hours’ worth of work, I’d say you’re getting the short end of the stick. If they want you on call all week long, they should give you a full-time contract.

4. Speaking of contracts, do you have one? If so, I’m guessing they’re violating the terms. Even if you don’t, it sounds like it’s high time you mentioned – nicely – that they’re not sticking to the agreement you made at the start of the project and since the parameters of the job have changed, you’d like to renegotiate. And this time, get all the terms in writing so you can point to them later if things go haywire again.

If the client finds any of these requests so unreasonable that they feel they need to hire a family member they can abuse instead, it sounds like you’ll be dodging a bullet by letting them go, regardless of whether they’re friends of yours. It’s just business; in fact, letting them go might prevent any damage this situation is causing to your friendship. Also think of all the time you’re wasting and money you’re losing on this gig. Instead you could focus those however many hours a week on replacing that client with a saner one.

Good luck with this!

Folks, if you want to hash out client problems like this with me and a group of your freelance peers, check out my online class on dealing with nightmare clients, which starts Feb. 5 and still has openings. Details here.

2 comments January 29th, 2011

The startup cost no new freelancer should go without

Got an email from some mystery reader the other day asking, “Is this site still active? I haven’t seen a post from Michelle in many months.” (Actually it’s been just under two, but who’s counting?) In an upcoming blog post, I’ll explain why I disappeared from the blogosphere for such a long stretch. But first, some fresh content…

Work It, Mom! just ran a new Q&A with me and I wanted to share my favorite question of the bunch:

If you were just starting out as a full-time freelancer and had just enough money each month to pay for ONE of the following things, which would you choose, and why? (1) Hosting for your own website. (2) Mobile web and e-mail on your cell phone/Blackberry. (3) Membership in a paid job listing site like FreelanceSwitch. (4) Four Americanos.

My answer: Easy: web hosting. It’s criminal to not have a website as a freelancer these days. You need your own corner of the digital universe where people can easily learn who you are and peruse your samples and/or client testimonials.

Number one, it makes you look like you’ve joined the twenty-first century (if you forego a site, don’t expect potential customers to be impressed). Number two, it saves you extra time you might have spent explaining your work/approach/MO to a new client. Number three, you can make a one- to four-page WordPress site in a morning. Number four, Web hosting costs less than $10 a month. Number five, in the time you spend scouring those (often crummy, $10/hour) ads on freelancing job sites you could have sent your new URL to everyone you’ve ever met in your life, started schmoozing with other freelancers on Twitter, and drummed up your first client by word of mouth or the power of SEO. I’m a big fan of joining a community and cultivating relationships rather than bidding into the void on projects advertised on job sites, unless it’s a really, really kickass-sounding job.

As for options (2) and (4), I don’t use a smartphone and I don’t drink coffee.


Bonus answer: Yes, you can build a site with an address like http://anti9to5guide.wordpress.com/ for free, but having your own URL is so much easier for people to remember and looks a bit more serious.

Yes, coffee makes the deadlines go ’round, but it’s expensive. If you drink it, brew your own.

Yes, a cool smartphone + data plan will liberate you to work anywhere, but as a new freelancer you should be watching your pennies. Besides, do you really need to be online 24/7?

And yes, some people swear by using freelance job hunting sites like Elance, oDesk, and Guru to land their first few gigs or to supplement their freelance income, despite all the cons they themselves are all too happy to admit (wading through all the crap-pay listings, giving the site a cut of your earnings, the preponderance of bidders willing to work for slave wages). But on freelance email list after email list I subscribe to, people regularly say that they haven’t found such race-to-the-bottom bidding frenzies worth their time.

I can’t speak to the job listings on Freelance Switch specifically; if anyone has a review to share, by all means please do. I’d love to find a job listing site serving multiple freelance disciplines to recommend to new freelancers. As for writers, I hear wonderful things about the publication editors and the freelance listings they post on Freelance Success, which costs about $100 a year.

13 comments June 4th, 2009

Ask the cubicle expat: Is it okay if my future employer knows that I ultimately want to be a full-time freelancer?

Kate asks: If you’re not quite ready to quit your day job…or in my case, if I’m just about to graduate college and plan on getting a “real” job before transitioning to full-time freelancing, would it hurt my chances with future employers if they know that I ultimately want to be a freelancer? My Dad was looking over my LinkedIn profile and mentioned that he thought it wasn’t a great idea for future employers to know that I eventually want to work for myself. Do you think that a magazine wouldn’t hire me for that reason?

I answer: This is a great, great question. I wouldn’t tell them. At all. Or put that detail on LinkedIn. It’s just like saying, “I think your magazine is a nice way to pass the time for now, but I really want to go into veterinary medicine.” It’s a turnoff to an employer. It basically screams that you’re out of there as soon as you get your big freelancing break, which is not a message you want to convey.

Just say you want to be a writer (or editor, designer, or whatever it is you want to be) and keep your dream of full-time freelancing on the down low. If you do pick up a bit of freelancing work on the side while at your 9-to-5 gig and your coworkers catch wind of it, just play it off as something you’re doing because you need more money (don’t we all?) and because you’re looking to beef up your skills.

Before you freelance on the side, make sure your day job doesn’t have a “no moonlighting” clause in your employment contract. This could prevent you from freelancing in the same industry that your employer’s in, at least while you’re still working for that employer.

2 comments February 26th, 2009

Ask the cubicle expat: How do I ask my clients for referrals?

February finds me wanting to catch up on my backlog of Ask the Cubicle expat questions. Here’s another good one I hadn’t yet answered online…

Rebecca asks: I’d like to ask my current clients for referrals, but I’m not really sure how to go about it.  Can you help?

I answer: I have a few suggestions.

(1) Call each client (yes, by phone) to discuss their project. Pick a time when you know they won’t be rushed. Tell them you’re looking to expand your client pool or get more clients in their industry or niche (perhaps they’re the first musician you’ve designed a blog for and you’d like to get more musicians as clients). Then simply ask if they have any colleagues — at their company or otherwise — who might need your services. You may even want to throw in a little joke about how they’ll always be your first priority, no matter how many of their friends they refer you to.

(2) Send out an email or social media blast saying that you’re growing your business and offering a referral bonus to any client who hooks you up with a colleague that purchases at least 10 hours of your time (or whatever parameters make the most sense to you). Pick the compensation you think would be most valuable to your clients: $200 off their next job, $100 gift certificate, free one-hour consult with you, free toaster. Stay away from offering a percentage-based kickback. You don’t necessarily want your clients to know what their friends are paying you. Besides, a 1 or 2 percent kickback sounds so low, even though it may be just the right amount to offer (on a $10,000 job, you’d be giving away $100 or $200). And a 5 or 10 percent kickback is way too high (on a $10,000 job, you’d be giving away $500 or $1000, which is excessive).


(3) Couch your plea for referrals in a larger email or postcard update to your clients. Tell them about your website makeover, your spring break (or summer, or year-end) vacation schedule, or a new service you’re offering (SEO consulting, web hosting, translation). Then tell them that, by the way, you have this great new referral policy.

(4) Do a blog post linking to recession-busting tips or deals you know about that could benefit your client. Example: Web hosting company X is running a promo called 5% Discount February. Business coach Y is offering a special introductory package of 10 sessions for the price of eight. And of course, you’re currently offering an excellent referral incentive.

(5) Add mention of your desire for referrals (and any kickbacks you offer) to your website, email sig, and social media profiles. Biznik — a SM site for indie professionals — even offers a spot in your profile for featuring such promotional offerings.

Anyone else have any referral-raising tactics that have worked? Do tell.

5 comments February 3rd, 2009

Ask the cubicle expat: I had a mix of 1099 and W-2 work in 2008 — are my taxes messed up beyond repair?

We talk about taxes a fair amount on this blog. But before we go any further, I would like to remind you that I am not an accountant or any other form of tax professional. So please take the advice you are about to read as one freelancer’s experience and not the gospel of IRS law. (In legalese that’s “I’m not responsible for what happens with your tax bill.”) And if you have any tax questions whatsoever, consult your tax professional or tax software of choice. Okay, on with the question…

Liz writes: At the beginning of 2008, I was a freelance Photoshop retoucher for a photographer in NYC.  Halfway through the year, I took on another part-time contract job with a larger company and was eventually hired on full-time in October 2008 (which subsequentially ended my freelancing career). My questions are:

(1) Having had freelance, contract, and full-time employment this year, will this seriously screw with my taxes, since some of the taxes were taken out and some were not? (The corporate job took out taxes, the photographer did not.)

(2) Unfortunately, I have had a hard year transitioning between these jobs, and I’m afraid I will not have enough money saved to pay the full amount of my freelance taxes by the time April 17th rolls around. What standards does the IRS have for unpaid taxes? (Will I be hunted down at the very moment I cannot pay the full amount, or are they lenient as long as you pay a lot of the amount due, and then make monthly payments afterward?)


I answer: (1) Having a mix of W-2 forms and 1099s (in other words, taxes taken out of your checks and taxes not taken out of them) won’t mess up your tax return. This is my sitch almost every year, as some of my freelance clients pay me as a contractor, and it’s not a big deal. Considering a third of us are now freelancing and contracting full time, I can’t be the only one in this situation. But having a mix of year-end tax forms makes filing more complicated, which is why you should hire an accountant. Or make dang sure you know what you’re doing if you use TurboTax.

(2) I doubt you will be hunted down, killed, and cooked on a spit over a bonfire by the Feds the moment you don’t pay every last penny of income tax you owe, but the “interest” (the nice word the IRS uses for the penalties they hit you with) on late taxes is hefty. And if they do put you on a payment plan and you don’t pay up when they want you to, that’s when things can get nasty (words like “garnish” and “lien” can enter into play).

A good accountant can ensure you’re deducting the right amount of business expenses, which often can help reduce your freelance tax bill. You may not owe as much as you think, though it’s impossible for me to say without knowing your earnings or being an accountant myself. Get thee to a professional!

5 comments February 2nd, 2009

Ask the cubicle expat: I started freelancing by default. Now what?

My pals Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears, authors of The Boss of You book and blog, ran a Q&A with me this week. I loved that they asked me this question so much that I’m reposting it here. Before you read it, I’d like to point out that Amazon is currently running a deal where you can pick up both my books + Lauren and Emira’s book for just over $30 — in other words, you get all three books for the price of two. To snatch these up and start your year off right, see the Amazon page for My So-Called Freelance Life or The Anti 9-to-5 Guide.

Okay, enough with the Billy Mays impersonation. Here’s the post…

Lauren and Emira ask: We hear from a fair number of freelancers who got into their careers unconsciously — it’s like they woke up one morning and realized they’d become a freelancer, without necessarily planning it that way. What advice would you give someone in that situation?

I answer: I agree. So many people find themselves freelancing in the wake of a layoff and before they know it, they’re running a full-fledged business. If you too are an accidental freelancer, take stock of the work you do and the clients you do it for. Are these the types of projects you want to be working on and the types of people and organizations you want to be working with? If not, list the kind of freelance projects that interest you most and the names of at least ten organizations you’d love to work for. Then tap your professional and personal networks to see if you can find a way in. If you need to acquire any additional skills or portfolio samples to make yourself attractive to these organizations, get cracking.

Even if you are happy with your clients and workload, it’s important to revisit your freelancing goals – income, creative milestones, client wish list, and so on — at least once a year. (January is a great time for this.) Get too comfortable and you’ll quickly get bored, burn out, or start to feel like an employee all over again.

4 comments December 20th, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat(s): How will you streamline your admin workload in 2009?

Let’s play a little game of open thread. Rather than talk about how we all want to land a pile of dream clients, sell more articles/photos/illustrations/tea cozies, and make buckets of cash in 2009, I thought we could discuss something that’s been near and dear to my heart lately: how to streamline the mountains of admin work that can plague self-employed professionals (as well as those working for the man or simply looking for that one decent gig that will get them back into the workforce after being laid off).

If you read my new book, you already know that I’m a spreadsheet junkie. A couple other things I’ve done recently to cut down on the thicket of admin work on my plate so I have more time to focus on writing:

  • Hired a virtual assistant to help with some of my book promo activities. This has been a godsend. Thank you, Jackie for saving my hide time and time again.
  • Hired a WordPress designer to make technical updates to my blog instead of trying to figure out the blasted code myself. (Duh. I should have done this ages ago.) Thank you, Liz of CMD+SHIFT DESIGN.
  • Added a somewhat strident FAQ to this site’s Contact page to cut down on the many, many requests I receive for free product plugs on this site and free career counseling. (It’s working so far — and may have even landed me a couple new consulting gigs.)

A few more things I plan to do in the new year to further streamline my admin work:

  • Hire a blog/social media intern. Stay tuned to this blog for the job listing. Or if you can’t wait, email me. (Note that this will be an unpaid position. For this reason, it may be best suited for a student.)
  • Have the fabulous Liz continue to improve this site — something I’ve been threatening to do for months now.
  • Finally automate my expense tracking (beyond the Excel spreadsheet I’ve been using) with a program like QuickBooks. (I know, I know. I’m old school.)
  • Set up more rules in my inbox so that every last press release, newsletter, and media list (that is, those I actually want to receive) goes to a special “to read later” folder far, far away from my inbox.
  • Finally read Gina Trapani’s Upgrade Your Life.

How about you? What tangible steps do you plan to take in the new year to optimize your worklife?

6 comments December 16th, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: How can I freelance on top of a day job that requires me to be under my boss’ nose 40 to 50+ hours a week?

A couple weeks ago, I was interviewed by personal branding guru Dan Schawbel on his Personal Branding Blog. We talked about everything from getting started as a freelancer to using a pseudonym to the personal branding benefits of collecting bylines. We also talked about how on earth a person can start freelancing on the side when they’re required to be at a day job from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week. Because I get asked this question several times a month, I’m posting the answer below. For the rest of my Q&A with Dan, click this here link.

Dan Schawbel asks: How could someone manage to write, while having a full-time job?

I answer: Because it can take weeks, months, or longer to build up a solid, full-time client base, keep your day job for as long as humanly possible. Some part-time freelancers do their writing and research before work, some do on the bus or train they take to work, some do it during their lunch hour, some do it evenings and weekends, and many do a combination of all these.

Last summer, I worked a part-time contract gig for four months because the opportunity and pay were too good to turn down. Fortunately I could do 75 percent of the work from home. But when I had to go in the office, I edited my stories on the commute (if I was bussing), came up with article introductions that I saved via digital recorder (if I was driving), snuck in interviews with sources during my lunch break (from the cafeteria, complete with Bluetooth and laptop), and worked again after dinner when I got home. When you cut back on “Law and Order” and lengthy phone calls with your BFF, you can accomplish a lot. You just have to be disciplined.

I hear single, child-free people lament all the time that they’re stuck in a cube from 9 to 6 and couldn’t possibly meet clients or look for freelance work. These people haven’t tried hard enough. I have yet to meet a majority of my clients, as many of them live 3,000 miles away, and we do the bulk of our business via email, not phone. If you can shop online, IM your friends, and update your Facebook status at work, then surely you can research new freelance job leads, hobnob with other self-employed professionals online, and email potential clients. Just make sure that you use your own computer or mobile device and that you do your freelance work during your lunch hour or scheduled breaks. If this isn’t possible, then you’ll have to learn to wake with the birds. It’s the only way.

Bonus answer: I can almost hear those of you who work 60 hours a week and spend every other waking hour tending to your children saying, “But what about me? How can I possibly freelance on the side with my schedule?” Let’s be realistic. You can’t. Unless you’re one of those rare freaks of nature who doesn’t require downtime or sleep. That old saw “You can do everything — just not all at once” applies here. The only way someone in your position can find the time to freelance is to reduce your hours at work (not always possible, I know, especially given the crappy economy) or find a less-demanding day job.

8 comments November 21st, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Isn’t it easier to be a freelancer when you’re single and/or baby-free?

Here’s another excerpt I wanted to share from my interview with the fabulous Mir on Work It, Mom! last week…

Mir/WIM! asks: You’re a huge proponent of life-balance as a matter of not just sanity, but better professional production. You’re a young, single woman with an immediate family consisting of one dog. Do people criticize any of your advice based upon your not having a spouse and/or kids and therefore the experience with those added demands? Do you think you’re qualified to speak to those sorts of issues without having gone through them, yourself?

I answer: No, no one has criticized, maybe because I’m 41 and have been working for myself for 16 years. But thank you for calling me young. That makes my day! I’m also not without responsibility. I have a mortgage on a house I bought and own by myself. I have a committed relationship with a guy I’ve been with for more than four years (we don’t live together or share expenses, but we’re talking about it). Negotiating my work schedule with him does come into play a lot, since I’m the one who’s often working longer hours, between my book stuff and my regular freelance workload, and he has a 9-to-5 job with four weeks of vacation time and incredibly predictable work hours. I also have a mom who lives a couple hours away and has some health concerns I’m increasingly becoming involved with. So I am not as footloose and fancy-free as I was when I was a young pup of 27 and could afford to just work 25 hours a week and make $25K a year.

For those reasons, I definitely think I’m qualified to speak for those with bigger financial and family responsibilities. But just to make sure I’m not talking out of my ass, I interviewed a number of freelancing moms and other caregivers for both my books. I kind of take issue (respectfully) with those who would say it’s easier for a single person to freelance than someone who’s married or shacked up and has a second income in their household as a cushion. I pay my own health insurance (which costs a fortune, even on my cheapskate plan). And if I have a particularly un-lucrative month because I decided to spend valuable working hours promoting one of my books, I have to work twice as hard (and often twice as long) the next month to make up for it financially. There’s no cavalry to call to chip in on my bills.

It’s of course much harder to juggle freelance deadlines with a baby on your boob or kids under your roof. But I do think that many things are easier on two incomes (my mortgage costs me at least twice what all my married friends pay per person). And while I went out of my way while working on my books to only interview freelancers who are the main, the sole, or an equal breadwinner in their household (many of them married with kids), I also know a lot of married freelancers, some with kids, some without, who just earn grocery money from their freelance work, if that. Some of them have even said to me, “I could never do what you do. Without my husband’s income, I couldn’t afford to live.” That’s all well and good, but I’m here to tell you that just like their single counterparts, plenty of freelance live-in girlfriends, wives, moms, and other caregivers make a handsome living working for themselves.

Want more of my Q&A with Mir? Here’s part 1, and here’s part 2.

6 comments October 21st, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Do freelancers have to be sharers?

Last week, I had the pleasure of doing a two-part Q&A with Mir, freelance writer and mom extraordinaire, who writes an incredibly insightful freelancing blog on Work It, Mom! Here’s my favorite excerpt from part 1 of the interview. I’ll post an excerpt from part 2 tomorrow.

Mir/WIM! asks: This recent post at FreelanceSwitch about freelancers sharing knowledge had me nodding all the way through. You’ve made a niche for yourself in the how-to’s of freelancing — so obviously you believe in that knowledge-sharing — but what about freelancers who aren’t in the business of helping others? Do you think it’s possible to thrive as a freelancer without being a supportive/helpful member of the freelance community?

I answer: The item in that post on shunning the “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us” mentality is the aspect of it I like the most. (As for the item on being psyched that someone copied your work because it’s flattering — WTF? Clearly that poster is not concerned about money and credibility lost over copyright infringement. That’s just bad advice, especially coming from a designer. Passing off someone’s work as your own is never cool and can get you in a lot of trouble, as it should. But reprinting someone’s work with permission — and, I would hope, compensation? Now that’s flattery. But I digress.)

I find that far more freelancers are willing to band together with their “competition” than shut them out (or rip them off). That’s not to say you have to share your entire contact list with everyone you meet or give away all your trade secrets or ideas. But a little mutual back scratching goes a long way. Help a freelance pal answer a burning question about how to handle a problem client and she’s likely to do the same for you later on down the line. Pass along a lead to a job you’re not interested in or able to take on and any freelance friend worth her salt will return the favor later.

To answer your question, no, I don’t think you have to be a sharer to get by as a freelancer. Not at all. But for the reasons I mention above, it’s to your advantage. Given the isolation so many at-home workers report, I’d think you’d want to cultivate as many mutually beneficial freelance friendships as possible. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself asking your cat for professional advice, which isn’t very useful.

This isn’t to say that all freelancers play fair in the world of share-and-share alike. I’ve met those solo workers who are all too happy to try to steal your gigs right out from under you or who exhibit a lack of gratitude upon receiving a referral so offensive that you vow to never lend them a hand again. Fortunately, these bottom-feeding opportunists are easy to spot. They’re all take and no give.

Want more of my Q&A with Mir? Here’s part 1, and here’s part 2.

1 comment October 20th, 2008

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Who I am

Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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