Canadian Magazine Industry News
26 June 2008,     VANCOUVER
Notes from Magazines West: Best business practices for freelancers

The biggest problem with freelancers, according to Elisa Hendricks, a long-time freelancer and managing director of Midlyn HR Communications, is a reluctance to admit what they are. “All of a sudden, after a couple contracts you wake up as a businessman or woman without ever having written a business plan.”

Hendricks talked about the trials and succeses of her life as both a freelancer and someone who deals with them to an audience of writers, photographers and editors last week at Magazines West.

Approach it like you’re running a business

Freelancer are like dentists, Hendricks suggests. Besides doing what they were trained to do (journalism, photography, root canals), both groups have to know how to run a small business. They're “reluctant entrepeneurs," and if they want to succeed, they need to acknowledge this part of the equation.

Freelancers need to understanding marketing, operations and, yes, even human resources to succed. As a business owner you have the responsibility to treat yourself right or the business will fail. Most employees would never let themselves be abused by an employer, but unfortunately, when it comes to self-employment, long hours and no vacations become the norm.

Marketing and landing great jobs

“Start with what you know,” says Hendricks, and “know who you're approaching.” The number one complaint from editors at the “Grilled Editors Luncheon” at Magazines West on Friday was constantly receiving pitches not appropriate for the magazine.

Carefully manage your Internet profile, Hendricks warns. It's not enough to have a great portfolio site—you also want to make sure nothing embarrassing pops up when your name is Googled.

Hendricks cannot say enough about having a referral network—a group of professionals who will pass on your name to clients for jobs they cannot take themselves. Make these connections, she says, through professional associations. Take professional development seminars and network, network, network. This also comes in handy when you want to trade notes about abusive clients. Keeping a blacklist will make your life easier.

Your skills are transferable

When Hendricks worked with young offenders, she would ask, “what are you good at?” Inevitably, the youth would boast of their prowess at breaking and entering, drug selling and the like, all of which Hendricks would point out involved skills in demand in the real world. “It opened a lot of eyes.” If you're going to make freelancing work, you need to assess your skills and look beyond what you already do. Good writing and design, once absent from corporate communications, is now the norm—contracts abound.

Invest in the tools you need to do the job

Don't skimp when it comes to essential tools. A dentist would never think of filling a cavity without a professional drill. Investing in the proper tools, whatever your craft, will pay in the long run. Don't only think about tangible things such as a camera or computer; a healthy work environment is also essential.

You're also allowed to ask for help—or outsource—when you need to. Chances are the amount of hours spent doing your own finances is actually losing you money and resulting in shoddy bookkeeping. Farm out the financial stuff and you'll be much happier.

Don't underbill

Calculate how long a project should take in advance and work within that time. Calculate your per hour rate and make sure it's acceptable to you. Too many freelancers end up working minimum wage because they don't budget their time right. Also, realise what constitutes “working.”

Experienced freelancers always bill for PITA or Pain in the Ass Time. Like injury time in soccer, tack this on to your invoice for having to suffer through a particularly difficult client. On that note, you need a system for regular invoicing. Often it's the client bugging delinquent freelancers to get their invoices in so they can pay them. Don't cheat yourself.

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— Aaron Leaf
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