Saturday, 18 May 2019

A Different Voice on How to Become a Successful Freelancer or What It Means to Be One

There has recently been a discussion, yet another discussion in the endless succession of such discussions to be sure, about what it takes to succeed as a freelancer.

I am not qualified by reason of personal achievement to speak as an authority on that, but I want to look analytically and synthetically at where we are with those discussions.

I will inevitably be drawing on the collective experience of such discussions that fit in my attention span.

I will be applying a ruthless, no-nonsense method of intuitive analysis focused on getting right to the point without wasting time on too much mumbo jumbo.

So what does it take to succeed as a freelancer?

It is a platitude to say we need to define success first. It nonetheless needs to be said. It needs to be said because we can't keep comparing apples to oranges to strawberries and melons.

There are up to as many planes and criteria upon which success can be judged as there are the 'judges' of it. Some trimming is therefore necessary. Let's cut it down to two things:

1) Being good at what you do.

This one is easy to define and take further. There exist objective criteria to assess skill. Who wants to can use those, end of analysis for us here. Let's move on to the next one:

2) Money and other benefits to you.

For 'other benefits', generally see no. 1. Let's focus on money now.

Contrary to what some suggest, being successful on this front does not include frugal lifestyles. However you choose to spend your 'salary' does not affect how much you are paid, which is the primary question.

Frugality in *business* expenditure may count, however. Still, money is not created by spending less. It is created by earning more.

The more you earn, the bigger your business success, simple as that.

And that is a matter of:

  • finding and landing clients and jobs, and secondarily keeping them
  • justifying your fees

In other words, it's basically successful sales — generating enough leads and turning them into enough conversions at good enough fee rates to cut a nice profit. The rest is footnotes.

Therefore the kind of advice people need to hear is not a reminder after reminder of how they are not the people who succeeded and how they differ (at some level we aren't all brilliant scientists because we aren't all geniuses), but practical advice on how to actually:

  • get clients/jobs
  • get good rates

Just two things. The essentials.

The whole science of the 'get'. It can be a million words, a thousand books, but it basically comes down to the how to of getting things done.

We can expand this a little as we delve into more detail, viz. how to:

  • get clients with jobs
  • keep them coming/returning, get more coming
  • avoid losing the ones you already have (which tends to be easier than winning new ones and has the same effect)
  • avoid making other stupid mistakes that are easily avoidable (to avoid small mistakes that lose you big money is generally easier than to make the same amount of money back from scratch)
  • keep keeping keeping up

The rest is a matter of degree:

  1. If the degree is low, you struggle. Your success is minimal and consists mostly in not having failed as of yet.
  2. If the degree is moderate, you get by. That is some success, if only in not failing.
  3. If the degree is comfortable, you make it. There is a modicum of success in that.
  4. If the degree gets closer to the wow point, congratulations, you're 'successful' in the typical sense of the word.
We want people to get to point four, but we can't always achieve that by skipping the previous steps. We need the 'A to B' — practical advice on making the small steps.

We don't really need to raise more awareness in people that they are not successful and that that is because they are doing something wrong — they already know that.

'Just do what I did,' is helpful advice provided you explain what you did, in a way that can be repeated, and in a way that demonstrates it was a methodical approach with justified expectations of a desirable outcome, not just a lucky turn of events.

Simply reminding people they aren't quite where you are, and that you are there and they are not, is not helpful. Again, they already know that anyway. Repeating the point time after time again is not helpful advice, it's more self-promotion (not that there's anything wrong with self-promotion per se, but let's just tell that one apart from helpful advice).

'You aren't doing it right,' is not helpful advice. They already know that. And if you keep focusing on how they aren't getting it right without being able to tell them how to do it right, then it gives an impression that you yourself don't quite know what it was that you did right — happens to all of us a lot of the time. The point is, it's not a recipe if it can't be followed with some assurance of achieving the intended result if nothing is done wrong along the way.

And again, people already know they are doing things wrong or at least not doing them right. Presumably they want to change that. So no point dwelling on these two. What everybody needs is some practical, followable, mumbo-jumbo-free advice on — and at least in the form of pointers toward — these two things:

  • how to get clients/jobs
  • how to justify nice rates

(This presupposes the recipient of the advice already knows how to do the actual job and doesn't need to be taught that first.)

To the vast majority of people, myself included, I would suggest leaving the personality/mindset/coaching/esoteric/whatever stuff aside and just simply reading up on:

client acquisition
client retention
communicating your value, being assertive about it, persuading the clients/prospects you deserve the fees you charge or persuading them that it pays to pay what you charge

A lot of this is sales, marketing, negotiation and communication in general, with some aspects of economy and management thrown in, of which a lot of people are unaware simply because of being self-taught (or rather not yet taught) entrepreneurs and not having gone to business school. Some are naturals at it, some aren't. The latter need to learn the basics and expand on that. It starts with reading a book or two about the subject. But people need to be told where to look for the knowledge they need.

My own view is that there is simply not enough knowledge of the basics actually reaching most freelancers, i.e. those who are not business naturals.

Once you've got the basics, you can go on to more advanced stuff, such as image management, successful PR, streamlining your processes, selecting the right prospects, the right deals, honing your deal-closing skills, etc. Discussing these before covering the basics may in fact be counterproductive — confusing and discouraging.

Consequently, I would give people pointers, as specific as possible, to the right resources where they can learn basics and then pointers in the basics of the more advanced stuff they need. From A to B without skipping the basics, unless there is a valid single-issue question that somehow needs to be addressed right then and there (provided it actually can).

Where self-learning from books doesn't seem to cut it, perhaps class would be more helpful. Everyone's learning style is different, as is everybody's learning curve (and in fact slow learners initially are not prevented from becoming big successes in the long run).

Probably some personal practical advice will be necessary on how to apply book knowledge to life in one's specific line of business, which is perhaps what we should focus on when giving people advice — once they're back from the library having covered the basics we asked them to.

If they don't want to, well, that's their problem, I guess. You can't force them. You can't save those who don't want to be saved.

One other thing to consider is that some of us are bottlenecked not so much by any lack of business aptitude as by general life issues such as depression, anxiety, lack of confidence or self-esteem, lack of motivation or agency. All of these need to addressed on the plane they exist, which is not business but life in general.  In those cases reasserting the need to get up, get down to work and get things going will generally not be successful advice (pun somewhat intended).

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