Freelancing

Why Navel-Gazing Is Bad For Business

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 9 Comments

photographerI love being part of my sweet, supportive, and unpretentious voice-over community. It’s one of the many perks of the job.

When one of us lands the gig of a lifetime, all of us rejoice.

When one of us is down in the dumps, many of us reach out.

When one of us spots a scammer, we spread the news and warn our colleagues.

Most voice-overs I know, are sharing and caring people. We like hanging out with members of our invisible community, whether it’s in person, or online. While we may disagree on certain issues, we tend to have “warm exchanges,” instead of heated debates.

Spending time with our peeps is good fun, and often educational, but there’s a slight risk involved. The more time we spend inside our rosy VO-bubble, the greater our tendency to look inward. 

That inner focus may lead us to believe that the challenges we’re dealing with are unique to our profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is estimated that over one third of the U.S. workforce consists of freelancers. That’s over 54 million people, and those people have a lot in common!

So, when I am searching for answers and inspiration, I like to look outside of my small circle. Take freelance photographers, for instance. You may think that there are quite a few colorful characters among voice actors, and you’re right. But have you ever watched photographers on YouTube? Oh dear!

A DIFFERENT LENS

But let’s be serious for a moment.

Like voice-overs, many photographers operate as a one-person band. Like us, they tend to have studios. Just as the microphone is our professional ear that zooms in on sounds, the camera is the all-seeing eye that registers images.

Both voice-overs and photographers edit in “post,” using software. And if you think VO’s go crazy for the greatest gear, you should spend some time reading reviews of the latest lenses, filters, and other accessories!

If you still believe that any comparison between VO’s and photographers is a bit contrived, listen to David Shaw. He writes:

“More gear won’t make you a better photographer. Don’t get me wrong, I love camera gear. New bodies, lenses, and accessories are fun and exciting, but they won’t magically make you better at photography. To be a better photographer you need to learn how to find images. The gear can help you capture them, but the finding part is up to you.

Whenever I’m thinking of buying a new piece of gear, I ask myself, “Is my current gear holding me back?” Sometimes the answer is yes. (…) More often though, the answer to whether my gear is holding me back is no. The actual reason I want a new piece of gear is that it is shiny. I may lust over new camera stuff, but if that gear won’t improve my photography in a very tangible way, I don’t buy it. Remember that good photography comes from your heart and your mind, not your wallet.”

YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED

Whenever I try to explain the value of my work as a voice-over pro to a potential client, or even to a lowballing colleague, I often use the metaphor of a photographer. Since everyone carries a camera (disguised as a phone), and we all take snapshots, most people can relate to that.

I’ll often tell a hesitant client:

“Imagine it’s your wedding day. One of the best and most important days of your life. Who is going to take the pictures you will one day share with your grandchildren? Uncle Arthur with his silly smart phone? Cousin Fred with his point-and-shoot, and unsteady hand? Or will you look for the cheapest hack on Craigslist? You’ll save a lot of money, and you will regret it every single day.”

And all of a sudden, people who know very little about hiring a voice-over, get it.

IT IS A GIFT

Now, another thing photographers and voice-overs have in common is this: people tend to underestimate what it takes to get to a certain level. An amateur can take pictures all day long, and doesn’t have to live up to a standard. He or she can learn on the job. Pros, on the other hand, are expected to know what they’re doing. It takes hard work to make something look effortless.

Once again, here’s David Shaw:

“A few times, I’ve been told by people looking at one of my images, “You have such a gift.” I know they are being kind, that they are offering a compliment, but I can’t help feeling insulted. I want to say, “It’s not a gift! I worked my ass off to make that image! That shot is the result of years of effort, of early mornings, and hours of travel, of study and practice, tens of thousands of failed and deleted shots, and thousands of dollars in equipment. Nothing about that image was given to me, I earned it.” Of course, I don’t say that. Instead, I smile as though they’ve just said the nicest thing, and say thanks. (…) So no, photography is not a knack – it’s work.”

That’s precisely why professional rates are based on experience, and not on time spent. What’s true in photography is true in voice-overs. Talent cannot be bought. It has to be cultivated. Patiently. It requires discipline. It requires commitment. It may take years before you see a decent return on investment. David Shaw agrees:

“With the exception of the very top people in the industry, we pros aren’t millionaires, or anywhere close. Out of our meagre incomes have to come our mortgage, food, computers, software fees, travel, and yes, camera equipment. When I made the transition to full-time freelancer, that new reality hit me like a falling piano. Science fiction writer John Scalzi once wrote that you shouldn’t consider leaving your day job until you are making TWICE your normal income with your writing (or in this case photography). It’s good advice.”

LOOKING BEYOND

So, if you’re searching for answers, inspiration, and a common cause, look outside of your familiar circles. Extend and expand your network, and reach out to fellow-freelancers. Find script writers, copywriters, cinematographers, graphic designers, art directors, authors, artists, photographers, et cetera. Learn from their struggles. Immerse yourself in new ideas. Stand with them, be stronger, and be ready to be surprised.

This the really exciting part:

One new connection will often lead to another, and another, and another.

A photographer I had been in contact with, was getting into video production. She wanted to produce virtual house tours for realtors, and she needed someone to do the voice-over narration. Guess who she turned to?

Had I stayed in my sweet, supportive, and navel-gazing community, she probably wouldn’t have found me. What she needed, was a personal connection. 

Here’s what you have to understand.

These things don’t just happen. You have to be the one who reaches out. Today.

Do you get the picture?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: ** RCB ** pictures the hard way via photopin (license)

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What Clients Hate The Most

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 19 Comments

SurpriseOkay, this may sound like a pop quiz, but are you a go-with-the-flow person, or do you like to plan everything out?

Do you like surprises, or do you prefer to know what will happen next?

How well do you handle uncertainty, and last-minute changes?

Personally, I think life would be unexciting without the unexpected. I like not knowing what I will get for my birthday. I love to give a chef free rein, as he creates a special dish for me. I purposefully seek out new ideas and uncharted avenues. It keeps the brain cells bouncing around in playful anticipation.

But forget personal preferences for a moment. Let’s talk about the lifeblood of your business: your clients.

If there’s one thing clients all over the world consistently hate, it’s not knowing what to expect.

That’s understandable.

In an uncertain and stressful world, clients want reliability, dependability, and predictability. If your work is inconsistent, you can’t be trusted to deliver a product or service a client can count on.

I’ve been going to the same restaurant for years, and the food was always outstanding. Always. Until a few months ago. The menu had changed. The wait staff wasn’t the same, and the open kitchen had disappeared. That evening, I had one of the worst meals ever, and now I hesitate to go back.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

So, let’s talk about inconsistency for a moment.

Since I’m continuing my series on script delivery, you may be inclined to connect (in)consistency to your (voice) acting performance. We’ll get to that later, because we have a bigger picture to discuss.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this post, it is this:

Consistent delivery is about much more than the way you read your lines.

As a solopreneur, you’re judged by the way you deliver a total package. This starts with first impressions:

  • What does your website look like?
  • How do your demos sound?
  • What kind of equipment do you use?
  • How do you present yourself in person, via email, in social media, and over the phone?


If done right, all of these elements should send one consistent and congruent message:

Professional At Work

In a time where anyone can hang out a shingle and pretend to be a pro, it is easy to spot the inconsistencies that turn clients off. Do you want examples? Be my guest!

MIXED MESSAGES

On her website, one freelancer boasted about “years of experience.” Then I looked at her client list of… seven companies total. None of them were names you would recognize.

Another colleague thought that adding that amateur Polaroid snapshot to his website would really impress visitors. I hope his ideal clients are into Margaritaville, because that’s the logo I spotted in the picture’s background. 

Can it get any worse? Of course.

A few years ago I went to a recording session in Manhattan. The first thing I heard when I came in, was the sound of crying kids. One of the other talents had brought her two toddlers to the studio. The high-end client who had flown in for the session, was not amused.

One voice actor described himself on his website as detail-oriented. In the next paragraph I found not one but two spelling errors.

Sending mixed messages like that, undermines credibility. It kills trust.

DECEPTIVE DEMO

Here’s another inconsistency clients talk about all the time. They hire a voice-over based on a kick-ass demo. The talent gets the script and records the audio. But when the client receives the recording, it sounds nothing like the voice on the demo tracks.

You can guess how this came about. The super slick demo was overproduced, and later doctored by a talented audio engineer. When it was time to do the real work, the voice talent went back to her boomy closet booth where she self-directed.

“I’m not going to pay for that,” said the angry producer. “This girl charges top-dollar for something I can’t use!”

That’s another inconsistency. In this case, the quality of the product did not match the price.

Here’s one more pet peeve of mine.

A talented voice actor offered a quick turnaround time. It took him over a week before he got back to me. Mind you, during that period he was all over Facebook. I’ll have to think a very long time before I ever recommend him.

NEW AND OLD

Now, before you tell me that this blog post is one of those “nice reminders for beginners,” you should know that I find these types of inconsistencies across the board. In fact, fresh talent seems a lot more willing to please, because they still have to make a name for themselves.

Some veteran voice actors, on the other hand, have become complacent. They believe that their reputation should speak for itself. Although a nice portfolio doesn’t hurt, many clients don’t want to know what you have done for others in the past. All they need to know is this:

“What can you do for me, today?”

Here’s the bottom line. If you advertise yourself as a pro, you have to present yourself as a pro on ALL levels.

There’s a reason why a fashion designer doesn’t dress like a slob. It is obvious why a fitness trainer is usually in good shape. It’s part of a consistent message. A message a client is more likely to remember and respond to.

And what about consistency when it comes to the delivery of your script?

Let’s continue that conversation next week, when I’ll also look at the big secret to audio book success!

How’s that for a surprising teaser?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS This is part 4 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link. Click here for part 3.

PPS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: dawolf- via photopin cc

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The Wind Beneath Our Wings

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 19 Comments

FriendsThis blog post is dedicated to my wife Pam.

 

Some fifteen years ago, I walked into the office of my very first U.S. casting agent.

I was absolutely thrilled, but I didn’t realize that I was about to make a big mistake.

The walls were filled with posters of all the blockbuster movies the agency had been involved in. Signed thank you notes from famous directors decorated the hallways. Old awards were gathering dust in the renovated warehouse-turned-office that oozed sleek, expensive minimalism.

“Our voice-over director will see you shortly. One of her sessions is running late. Would you care for some coffee?,” asked a secretary.

Ten minutes and a perfect cappuccino later, I was handed an audition script. It would take a little longer, I was told.

“No need to be nervous,” the girl said. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

It’s strange how these things work. When I walked in, I was feeling great. I knew I could nail this. But as soon as she mentioned nerves, I felt like a kid waiting outside the principal’s office, wondering what I had done wrong.

GETTING STARTED

It was my first year in the States and I was green. I even had a Green Card to prove it. I didn’t really know anybody, and nobody knew me. That’s why I had brought a friend along for the audition.

I just needed some backup, a second opinion if you will, to make sure this place was legit. Too many people were being taken for a ride by shady characters posing as casting directors, and I didn’t want to become one of them.

This friend happened to be nosy. Very nosy.

If you were to invite him to your house, he would read the back of the postcards that are hanging on your fridge. He would open up a family photo album without asking permission. I once caught him checking out a closed bedroom on his way to the smallest chamber in the house.

So, while I was learning my lines for the audition, you can imagine what my friend was doing. When the secretary was away to get the coffee, he went over to her desk and looked at some of the contracts she was working on. When she came back, he grilled her about the business, as if this was an episode of Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.

I tried to give him the Cut it out, You’re not helping me-look, but to no avail. He acted like a pit bull sniffing a hot trail.

It got even worse when we finally met the voice-over director. Initially, my friend was wise enough to let me do all the talking. But when I went into the vocal booth to record my script, I could see him distracting her with all his inappropriate questions.

When the session was over, I heard in my headphones: “Paul, we need to talk…. in private. Ask your friend to go back to the waiting area and tell him not to snoop around.”

ONE ON ONE

“Let me level with you,” the casting director said when we sat down. “You have talent. You have experience and I love your accent. I don’t think we have anybody that can bring that European sense of sophistication to a read. In short, we’d like to represent you, but on one condition.”

I knew what was coming, and I knew she was right.

“Don’t ever bring your friend to this office again. I can understand you’re new to this country and you needed some support, but seriously… I almost kicked the two of you out. He was asking all sorts of questions about how much you would be making and how many jobs we would offer you each month. It was obvious that he knew nothing about the casting process, and we hadn’t even taken you on board.

Let me be clear. Contrary to what your friend seems to believe, there are no guarantees in this business. We can send you auditions, but YOU have to book the jobs. We don’t control our clients. If they ask us to recommend five voices for a project, we give hem five voices. You might be number one on my shortlist, but that’s irrelevant. You’d be surprised how often a client picks the voice I personally find least suitable. It’s all very subjective, and you have to be okay with that. By the way, did you bring some recent headshots?”

We talked for another ten minutes, we shook hands, and I left.

“It’s up to you, but I would never do business with these people,” said my nosy friend when I came out of the meeting. “I got the weirdest vibes off that casting director. You should have seen the way she looked at me. All I did was ask some simple questions to make sure the place was kosher. What’s wrong with that?

Of course it’s up to you what you want to do, but I think you should explore other options. One day you’re going to thank me.”

He was right. I did thank him for teaching me a valuable lesson that day. I also told him that I had signed with the agency. Two months later, he went his way and I went mine. Recently, someone told me he’s now an investigative reporter at some magazine I’d never heard of.

SUPPORT SYSTEM

Our choice of friends says a lot about who we are as a person and as a professional. In order to be successful in any business, it’s important to surround yourself with people you believe in, and who believe in you.

I don’t mean people who think that every word that comes out of your mouth is pure gold. That role is reserved for proud mothers and misguided fans. You need people who look out for you in a discreet, intelligent way. Preferably, people who know the territory. There’s nothing as useless as the advice coming from the mouth of a person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

And let me tell you something else.

The most important friend you and I will ever have, is the person we choose to live our life with. First and foremost, this friend needs to be comfortable with uncertainty. Although attitudes are gradually shifting, most people still prefer the predictability of a steady job (and income) over the freedom and fluctuation of a freelance career.

If you’re living with a voice actor, you know some months are slow and others are crazy busy. You probably know how much money goes out every month, but you never know how much money will be coming in. That makes it hard to plan ahead. The perfect partner for a voice actor has a steady job with benefits. This is especially important in the beginning of a career.

Because of the ongoing uncertainty, this partner also has to be incredibly patient, flexible, and understanding. Ask any established talent, and they’ll tell you that a voice-over career is not a sprint but a marathon. If you’re still in business after the first three years, you’re either a fool or you’re beginning to get somewhere.

Not everybody can and will hang in there while you’re trying to make it in a field that’s becoming increasingly competitive. You need to sow a lot of seeds, and the harvest might be years away.

BENDING OVER BACKWARDS

Talking about flexibility… I can’t tell you how many times we have had to change our family’s plans at the last minute, because some client needed me to record a script pronto. At times I wish I had the audacity to tell that customer:

“You can’t do this to me. I have a life, you know! When you called this Sunday morning, we were all wearing our bike shorts, ready for a ride.”

Instead I keep quiet, go down to my studio, close the soundproof door and start recording that darn, poorly written script about the importance of family time. When the client says “Dance,” I dance. Meanwhile, the family goes on a bike ride without me.

If you’re not ready to roll with the punches and take life one day at a time, you’re not ready to start a serious relationship with a voice actor. And if you are, you must be a saint!

People with a steady job often have a hard time wrapping their brains around what it means to be self-employed. I’m lucky to be married to a professional musician. She understands that if someone offers you a good gig, you take it. If you don’t, someone else will, and they’ll start calling that person next time.

EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER

On paper it sounds great. Today’s voice actor stays home all day, recording short commercials and promos that bring in more money than most people will make in a month. It’s easy to forget that getting the work takes up far more time than doing the work.

Every audition brings new hope. “What if I get picked to be the next voice of ….?” (name a big brand name). “I’d finally have some income I can count on, and the recognition I’ve been secretly longing for.”

Of course you’ll never hear back about the role you thought was made for you, and when you turn on the radio three months later, you hear a complete idiot mess up the lines you auditioned for because they chose him over you. That morning, you will hear that stupid commercial over and over and over again. This will make your day. I guarantee it!

But you’re never going to take your frustration out on the one you love most, right? You always manage to stay calm, composed, and positive. You never take things personally. It’s only your voice they’re evaluating.

Instead, you send a quick email to congratulate the lucky bastard who landed the job, and you put on a fake Facebook smile because it’s so wonderful to be able to do what you love and get paid for it. Meanwhile, you don’t know how you’re going to pay this month’s health insurance premium, or how to fix the fridge that just broke down.

At that point you need a soft place to land. You need someone who has your back. Someone who doesn’t think you’re a failure. Someone who says:

“I love you. Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day.”

SWEET SUCCESS

Other times you do get lucky and you hit the jackpot. You get tons of work and you need the house to be quiet so you can finish your recordings. Who’s there to make sure you can work in peace? Who’s taking over your household chores so you can finish editing that never-ending audio book?

When things go really, really well, and your voice is heard all over the nation; when hotshot agents who always ignored you all of a sudden know who you are; when you yourself start believing that you’re the Big Kahuna now… Who’s there to celebrate your success, and keep you grounded?

When you’re too big for your boots, who will gently put you in your place? Who will tell you that there’s more to life than talking into a microphone, or being adored by countless fans? Who’s going to be there for you when the applause fades away? With whom will you share and develop other interests?

I guess it boils down to this:

WHY are you doing what you’re doing?

Does it make any sense if you can’t share your setbacks or successes with someone?

Mind you, even though I am happily married, I’m not advocating the advantages of matrimony per se. I am simply in favor of surrounding yourself with a couple of close friends who can keep you sane in a weird and complicated world. People with whom you can let your guard down, be vulnerable, and be yourself.

It’s about time we give those friends the credit they deserve.

They truly are the wind beneath our wings.

Paul Strikwerda @nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Daadi via photopin cc

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If Only I had Known

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 17 Comments

Crystal Ball“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

This question (and many of its variations), is really popular among those interviewing the rich and famous. It’s meant to elicit golden nuggets of priceless information, acquired over a long and illustrious career. It’s an old trick, and it still works.

As an interviewer I’ve probably used it dozens of times, and I could only get away with my lack of originality by editing myself out. I usually kept the answer until the end of the conversation. After a short musical interlude, the celebrity I was speaking with would “spontaneously” get philosophical, and come up with this profound life lesson that resonated long after the interview was over.

Mission accomplished!

Last week, the tables were turned when a young colleague asked me same question: “Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

At that moment one realizes that it’s much easier to ask than to answer, but I knew pretty quickly what I was going to say. It brought me back to the beginning of my American career, some sixteen years ago. Here’s what I came up with:

“I wish I would have listened to my heart, instead of to my mind, when I thought of becoming a voice-over.”

I realize that this is not an eye-opening, Zen-like insight, but I know I’m not the only one struggling with the battle between warm feelings and cold logic. 

At that time my analytical, practical mind came up with all these brilliant rationalizations as to why a VO-career would never work for me. This was at the beginning of a new millennium, and I had just arrived in the United States.

I had very little money, no contacts in the industry, and I didn’t know where to begin. How would I promote myself in a country with over 300 million people? Who would hire this nobody from Holland with his funny accent?

I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and insecure.

Of course there was no Facebook or LinkedIn group where aspiring voice-overs could ask questions. There were no books about the business, and the concept of home studios did not exist. It was much easier to find a job waiting tables, and as someone who needed to make money, that’s exactly what I did.

My first job was at The Fish House in Lambertville, NJ, and even though I was a vegetarian, I knew how to sell sardines, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass. Because I didn’t know anybody, the so-called celebs who frequented this restaurant didn’t impress me.

One day, a colleague took me aside and said: “Do you know who you just served?”

I had no idea.

“The coach of the Eagles!” he replied enthusiastically. “You know… THE EAGLES!!”

I looked at him with a straight face, and said: “What Eagles?”

In hindsight I think coach Andy Reid appreciated that I treated him like a regular customer. He even laughed at one of my wine jokes. His wife Tammy wanted to know why the Jersey Chard she was drinking had such a distinctive yellow glow. I told her the vineyard was next to a nuclear power plant.

Fortunately she though it was funny. 

Meanwhile, I didn’t know that I had just taken the first step in becoming a real actor: I was waiting tables!

The restaurant was also where people began commenting on my voice, my accent, and my ability to speak several languages. To me it was kind of a party trick to help my tip jar, but kind customers asked: “No offense, but why are you a waiter? You should really do something with that voice of yours!”

Encouraged, I signed up for an open casting call at Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My heart told me that’s where I should go, but my mind was skeptical. Once again it came up with a million reasons as to why I wouldn’t make the cut. All those reasons made perfect sense, but they were all wrong. 

That day, voice casting director Joanne Joella signed me on the spot, and my American adventure in voice-overs officially began.

Well, not quite.

Even though I was booking some decent jobs here and there, my mind told me this wasn’t going to last, and that I really needed a serious position doing serious work. I was doing well on tips as a waiter, but recommending Jersey wine and pan-seared scallops did not make a career.

That’s how I ended up in a call center, surveying European hard- and software specialists by telephone. Of course these overworked, stressed out professionals had nothing better to do than talk to me, and they all loved telling me about their satisfaction with the latest network servers.

NOT.

This job had two amazing perks. One: Because we called businesses in Germany and in the Netherlands, I lived on European time, getting up at 2:00 AM, making my first call at 3:00 AM (9:00 AM in Amsterdam and Munich). Two: I had to use a script from which I was not allowed to deviate.

That was my second step in becoming a real actor: I got to use scripts!

A year or two into that pathetic call center job, something wonderful happened. All the interviewers were mercifully replaced by an automated voice response system that was much better at taking verbal abuse from German software specialists who were sick of revealing their satisfaction with product X on a scale of zero to ten, zero meaning completely dissatisfied, and ten meaning completely satisfied.

It was time for me to move up the ladder!

Did I listen to my heart this time, and would I be pursuing a full-time voice-over career?

No, my friends. My mind talked me into accepting a job as a customer service trainer at Wachovia Bank. As we all know, banks are a secure place to work. Some of them even offer benefits.

Yea for me!

Luckily, I knew nothing about the financial industry or balancing books, and I suffer from dyscalculia. That’s like being dyslexic but with numbers instead of words. It’s particularly useful when you have to stare at bank accounts all day long, and figure out why this infuriated client got slammed with five overdraft fees after buying a burger with money he didn’t have.

Here’s what I loved about this job. Since I was the lead trainer, I was in front of a class of sleepy, unmotivated students all day long. 

Looking back, Wachovia was my third step in becoming a real actor: I got to perform in front of a live audience!

By the way, if you can’t remember the name Wachovia, that’s perfectly understandable. Wachovia was eventually overrun by the Wells Fargo wagon, and they brought in their own training team to cultivate a new corporate culture.

Good for them. Great for me!

After three pointless, mind numbing, soul crushing, dream dashing jobs, I finally got the message:

“Follow Your Heart, you idiot! Become a full-time voice talent, and conquer the world.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

I strongly believe that living is learning, and that every job helped prepare me for the future I created for myself. Yet, when I look back at all those years of doing things for money while my heart wasn’t in it… When I think of how miserable I used to be, and how happy I am now… I often wonder:

If only I had known…

If only I would have taken the risk, and had followed my dreams from the get-go. Where would I be now?

Would I be a household name? Would obnoxious fans ask for my autograph at crazy comicons and conventions? Would agents fight to represent me? Would I be rich and famous?

Well, if that were me, I’m pretty sure that one day, a young reporter would knock on my door. After an in-depth, hour-long interview, he would pause and get ready for that very last killer-question:

“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: you probably don’t wanna know via photopin (license)

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How Not To Be Like Jeremy Clarkson

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Journalism & Media, Social Media 26 Comments

Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May with Tony Harrison's Lancia Beta Coupe Stanford Hall 2008 Last Sunday, the BBC premiered the 23rd season of Top Gear with a new team of presenters. The program drew disappointing ratings in the UK and abroad. This had a lot to do with the absence of star presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who was forced to leave the show. More about that later.

Because Clarkson was such a dominating presence on Top Gear, he might have thought that the program wouldn’t stand a chance without him. Perhaps the critics and viewers proved him right. After all, there’s only one Jeremy Clarkson. This had me wondering…

Do you ever think you’re indispensable?

Do you believe your clients, your readers, or your viewers can’t live without you?

Unfortunately, the reality for most independent contractors is that they can be tossed out any time. The price of freelance freedom is often paid in uncertainty and stress.

In theory, this uncertainty should at least be partially compensated by a higher paycheck. But you know as well as I do that we have to fight for decent rates. 

Small fish in a big ocean don’t have a lot of leverage in the labor market, unless they operate as a school. But what about the big fish? How far are they allowed to go?

INFLATED EGOS

Some people, especially in the entertainment industry, seem to think they are untouchable, and they behave accordingly.

Like spoiled children.

Over the years they have gathered a loyal following, and have amassed a considerable fortune. Whenever they enter a room, people ooh and aah, and ask for autographs and selfies.

When these celebs say something that isn’t even remotely funny, people laugh hysterically. Some are suddenly seen as “thought leaders,” “trend setters,” or as the sexiest men/women alive.

Photographers will pray or pay for a pose and a smile. Companies fight for the opportunity to stuff backstage gift bags, hoping for a tweet of acknowledgment or better still: a product endorsement.

And so, the people who have everything they could possibly wish for, get even more without paying a dime. Those who aren’t as fortunate, can only hope, dream, and drool.

But fame is fickle, and recognition can be a double-edged sword.

The higher you climb, the lower you can fall. But if your cushion is elastic enough, you may be able to bounce back. Comfortably.

TOP GEAR

On March 25th, 2015, the BBC fired Jeremy Clarkson, one of the presenters of Top Gear. Top Gear is one of the most successful programs in the history of the Beeb, bringing in millions of pounds every year. The car show is one of the biggest factual TV shows in the world with an estimated audience of 350 million in 200 countries. People who don’t even care for cars (myself included) watch Top Gear religiously.

Clarkson’s sacking was self-induced. He was fired for physically and verbally attacking one of the producers because no hot food was provided after a day’s filming. Prior to that, he had been given a final warning because of earlier controversies. “This time,” said the BBC, “a line was crossed.” Clarkson was dismissed, in spite of the million+ people who had signed an online petition to reinstate him.

Yes, we’re all unique, but no one is irreplaceable, or above the law.

As Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, said: “There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.”

The question is: Who will have the last laugh?

Clarkson’s contract was up for renewal anyway, and as soon as he left, other networks in Great Britain started fighting over who could offer the man the most lucrative deal. In the end, Amazon Video won out. Like the Terminator, Clarkson (and fellow-presenters Richard Hammond & James May) will be back, making more money than ever.

THE TAKEAWAY

As much as I deplore what Clarkson did, I wondered if we could learn anything from what happened. Like Clarkson, you and I work with producers and directors all the time. Some of them are very nice people. Others are not. Some make unreasonable demands, crazy requests, and give you a hard time when asked if the check is finally in the mail.

There are some big egos in our business, and I’ve seen colleagues suck up to the people with power, and kick those who are lower on the ladder. Here’s something that happened to me while I was working at a radio station.

One day, a fellow-presenter lashed out at an assistant because he had given her a glass of water with what looked like a hair in it. The woman exploded, and left the assistant heavily hyperventilating in the hallway. But when the director of the station paid us a surprise visit right after the incident, my angry colleague was suddenly all smiles.

After we had taped our show, I took a good look at the infamous glass of water. A curly, red hair was indeed floating on the surface.

My explosive colleague happened to have curly, red hair.

SEVEN SIGNS

Most people I’ve worked with seem to have it together. Perhaps this is because invisible voices have a low profile. We don’t have millions of fans, or millions of dollars. 

Those I admire in my industry have certain things in common. They often thrive against the odds. They are loved by colleagues and clients alike. And if you wish to follow in their footsteps, I have a few recommendations for you.

My first suggestion is simple: Treat everyone around you with respect; not only the people in power. Even if some co-workers do their very best to push your buttons, you’re not a robot. You can’t control their behavior, but you can choose your response.

Secondly: Celebrate your achievements, and remember where you came from. You are where you are because people who probably didn’t know you, believed in you, and were kind to you.

You made tons of mistakes. We all do, but were they met with punishment or patience? And even if your teachers weren’t always tolerant, don’t use that as an excuse to give others the same treatment you so hated.

Third: Don’t ever take success for granted. It entitles you to nothing. It has to be earned, and treasured. Over and over again. And what good does it do you, if you make the people around you miserable? They’ll feed you what you want to hear, while spitting out the truth behind your back.

Fourth: Don’t mistake fame for importance, and money for value. Who gives a damn how many followers you have on social media, and how much you have stashed away in your Swiss bank account. Why should we even care about your credentials? All these things do not make you a good person.

You should take your work and your fans seriously, but please take yourself with a few grains of salt.

Fifth: If you end up -willingly or unwillingly- being a role model, know that it comes with responsibilities. You are in a privileged position to influence a great number of people who look up to you. Are you going to use that position, or abuse it?

Sixth: Don’t ever ask: “What’s in it for me?” The better question is: “What can I do today to improve the lives of others without getting anything in return?” It’s the result that matters. Not the reward.

Seven: Be humble, and be grateful. Every single day.

Success is hard to sustain. One moment you’re the flavor of the month. The next you’re yesterday’s news. Clients may seem ungrateful, but that doesn’t mean you should be. 

Appreciate what you have right now, and realize that you couldn’t have done it without the help of others. No matter how hard you’ve worked for it, and how much you think you deserve it, feel confident without being cocky. Big egos don’t make amigos.

One last thought.

No one is irreplaceable, but at least for one project, one gig, or for one show, you were chosen. That means something. 

If you’re lucky, you can make it last.

If it doesn’t, enjoy the ride, but hopefully not in a Jeremy Clarkson sort of way.

Paul Strikwerda ©Nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Jeremy Clarkson and James May Top Gear presenters with my Lancia Beta Coupe Stanford Hall 2008 IMG_6342 via photopin (license)

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Is Your Client Driving You Crazy?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 3 Comments
David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy

After last week’s story about bad clients, one reader wanted to know:

“Have you ever fired a client, and why? I have one customer who is driving me nuts, but I can’t afford to lose his business.”

First of all, that’s a horrible position to be in. Many freelancers choose to run their own business because they don’t want to depend on someone or something else. Having big spenders as clients may seem fantastic, but if you’re not careful, you end up being in their pocket, and they start pulling all the shots. 

David Ogilvy, the famous advertising guru, took great care in selecting his clients. That concept alone was revolutionary. If you’re a service provider, don’t clients choose you? Isn’t that how the game is played? Not in Ogilvy’s world. 

Ogilvy and his partner would turn down about sixty clients every year, and this was one of their rules:

“Never work for a client so big you can’t afford to lose them.”

They once turned down Ford because the iconic motor company would represent half of their total billing. 

So, to get back to my reader’s question: be selective in whom you want to work with, even if you’re just starting out. Don’t put all your eggs in one or two baskets. It makes you overly dependent, and very vulnerable. If that one big client pulls out, you’re toast. 

Have I ever fired a client? I sure have, and I’m happy I did. It wasn’t all about money. In fact, in many cases money had little to do with it. 

Here are a few clients I gladly gave the sack:

THE DICTATOR

Here’s the client who thinks he owns you twenty-four seven. He always knows best; he’s overly demanding, disrespectful, and never satisfied. These people are impossible to please. The more you try, the less you succeed.

Working for dictators made me hate myself and my job. I did everything I could to avoid contact with them because it was emotionally draining. No money in the world could make up for how lousy I felt working for these bullies. 

THE VIOLATOR

Some clients act as if the rules don’t apply to them. Even with a written agreement in place, they try to bend and break it as fast as they can: “Sorry, we can’t pay you within thirty days. We’ll cut a check as soon as the end-client pays us.” 

“Did the agreement say that we have to pay you even if we don’t use your recording? Well, that’s just too bad. We have switched gears, and don’t need your voice-over anymore.”

When you continue working for a client who is not paying your bill, you are sending the message that you are not worth the fee you charge. 

THE  CHEAPSKATE 

Stay away from clients with great ideas and no budget, and the ones that try to nickel-and-dime you from the get-go. I once fired a long-time client of mine that was locked into old rates. When I increased my fees across the board, she insisted I make an exception “for old times sake.” 

While it may seem like a “nice” gesture, deals like that hold your business back. Time spent on these small-budget clients prevents you from spending that time working for a client who respects your rate. Ogilvy was right when he said:

“Only work for clients who want you to make a profit.” 

THE UNETHICAL

When thinking of your clients, ask yourself these two questions:

“Do they sell a product or service I can be proud of?”

“Will I be able to do my very best work?”

Whether you’re a copywriter, a graphic designer, or a voice-over, you will be professionally associated with a product or service you helped promote. Your reputation is always on the line.

An advertising agency I had worked with in the past, asked me to voice a commercial for one of the world’s worst weed killers. I politely declined, and they understood. My voice is for hire, but my integrity is not for sale. 

It’s up to you where you draw the line, but I would never want to be involved in something illegal, or help sell something I’m morally against. 

THE UNPROFESSIONAL

Some clients are completely unorganized and in over their heads. One day they want one thing. The next day all has changed. It’s something you find out once you start working with them. As a freelancer, you’re used to juggling many plates, but you’re not getting paid to help your clients juggle theirs. 

Sometimes clients become overly friendly. They start calling at night with some lame excuse. It turns out: they just want to talk about a personal issue, or they start gossiping about a colleague they’ve worked with. Before you know it, they’ll be asking you favors because of the perceived friendship. 

Take my word: keep things clean, and have clear boundaries. It’s painful to have to fire these clients, because you know they’ll start gossiping about you to the next professional they cling to. But if you give in because you want to be nice, they’ll suck up your time and tire you out.

THE HIDDEN MESSAGE

All the clients I just described have a few things in common: They keep you from growing your business. They drag you away from your goals. They also appear on your path as your teachers.

People who don’t respect you, are giving you a chance to learn to respect yourself.

People who distract you, are showing you the importance of being focused.

People who don’t pay you, are testing what you think of the value of your work.

People who are trying to manipulate your feelings, are helping you grow a pair. 

Now, if you are bound by a contract I’m not suggesting you break your word and fire these clients. Rather than cutting them loose, you’ve got to cut your losses, fulfill your obligation, and learn from the situation.

But should these clients contact you again for a project, respectfully decline their offer. All they would do is take the fun out of your job. And as Ogilvy said:

“Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Mistake You Don’t Want To Make

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 14 Comments

ThinkingIn his books and seminars, motivational speaker and coach Tony Robbins shares what he calls his Ultimate Success Formula.

It’s a deceptively simple five-step process:

1. Decide what you want.

2. Know your reasons why.

3. Take massive action. 

4. Notice what’s working or not. 

5. Change your approach until you achieve what your want.

I could easily write an entire blog post about setting specific goals, but today I want to talk about the third step of this formula: the necessity to take action.

LOUDER THAN WORDS

There’s a reason why Americans like using sports metaphors. Sports are all about energy and action. People bring their ‘A’ game, they step up to the plate, and knock it out of the park. I love that go-getter mentality, but as a coach and fellow-freelancer I think success is as much a result of the things we don’t do, as it is of the things we choose to do. 

Whether you take action or not, there will be consequences.

Comparing those who have made it in a highly competitive industry to those who have not, I see clear differences. Those who ultimately gave up, did that in part because they failed to act in crucial areas. Before I tell you what some of those areas are, I need to address the words “fail” and “failure,” because they are loaded. 

When I bluntly state that someone failed to do something, I merely mean they did not take a certain action. Consequently, they didn’t achieve a desired result. This does not make them a complete and utter failure as a human being.

VALUES AND MOTIVES

When people fail to do something we assumed to be of importance to them, it tells us two things. It tells us something about our personal values and work ethic, and it tells us something about the other person’s motivation.

Let’s say I give one of my students a certain task, and he or she keeps putting it off, or puts very little effort into it. In my experience this has little to do with a lack of time or laziness. Unless there’s an emergency, those who are truly dedicated will always find the time and the energy.

The real reason for the delay or the lack of enthusiasm has to do with motivation. Motivation is the fire that feeds the engine.

To find out what drives someone, here’s the question to ask: 

“Why is X, Y or Z important to you?”

If the “why” isn’t strong enough, people are more likely to slack off or give up. This often manifests itself in small things. Some people start showing a lack of attention to detail. Some will rush to get the job done. Others are easily distracted. Over time, this adds up, and it points to the fact that someone’s heart is not in it.

CARING FOR YOUR CAREER

I often compare a freelance career to tending a vegetable garden. A garden can’t be rushed. It needs to grow organically. If you don’t seed, water, or weed, you’ll never enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labor. 

If you don’t take good care of your garden, that’s easy to see, but what clues tell me you’re struggling as a freelancer?

I often see a failure to:

  • take the initiative
  • get out of the mindset of a hobbyist
  • set clear and realistic goals
  • have enough seed money to fund and grow your business
  • invest in a professional work space, (continued) training, and quality equipment 
  • define what makes you stand out from the rest
  • focus on finances
  • set decent rates
  • find multiple pipelines to generate job leads
  • build a professional network
  • follow up and follow through
  • have a long-term strategy
  • update your website and portfolio
  • check your work before sending it out
  • be active in social media
  • promote and market your business professionally
  • take good care of your body
  • surround yourself with supportive, knowledgeable, and nurturing people
  • be there for those who support you
  • be appreciative
  • be accountable
  • be patient and persistent
  • be flexible and open to feedback
  • realize your life is more than your job
  • learn from the things that go well, and from the things that don’t go so well

 

LIVE AND LEARN

That very last point takes us to the fourth step of Robbins’ Ultimate Success Formula: “Notice what’s working or not.”

Like Robbins, I will ask my students: Are you getting closer to your goal, or farther away? Are you taking advantage of the feedback you’re getting? 

It’s okay to make mistakes, but if you don’t learn from them, you’re likely to repeat old patterns. 

If you fail to learn, you learn to fail.

Now, in spite of what some people may tell you, there is no secret code that will open the magical door to unlimited freelance success. Success depends on so many factors, and not all of those factors can be influenced by you. But remember this: 

Life does not reward intentions. It rewards action.

The daily decisions you make or fail to make, will propel your career forward, or move it backward.

So, the next time you’re presented with a serious opportunity, carefully weigh your options, and take a hint from William Shakespeare by asking yourself:

“To do or not to do,

that is the question!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Eline via photopin (license)

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Right On The Money

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 9 Comments

This is the conclusion of a 3-part series on how to price your services as a freelancer. Click here for part 1 and click here for part 2. 

When Max walked into the warm conference room, he saw two files on the table. On one if them he recognized the name of a competitor. The other portfolio had his name on it. He knew instantaneously what he was up against.

Only a few weeks ago, he had lost a contract to this rival because their bid had been 30 percent lower. Had he just made a big mistake by coming out here in the midst of a dangerous winter storm?

“John Jarvis,” said the CEO, as he walked in. “You must be Max. I’m afraid it’s just me today. I live a few blocks from the office and practically no else dared to come out in this terrible weather.”

Jarvis sat down and took a sip of his coffee.

“Max, when I heard that you were on your way, I only had one thought: This guy must either be totally crazy or totally committed. But looking back on how you’ve handled this opportunity so far, you don’t strike me as insane. On the contrary. You hit all the marks of someone we’d like to work with. All of them, but one.

First of all, you clearly know the value of personal connections. Not once did I receive a generic email or an automated answer to a question. It was clear from the start that you were the go-to person that would not work for us but with us.

You made an effort to get to know your client and his problems first, before coming up with a solution. You learned our language and you translated your ideas into terms we could easily understand and relate to.

Third:  you consistently showed us that you could meet all deadlines and manage a project efficiently, even though we were only in the beginning stages. As you know, delays are usually costly. Not once did we have to send you a reminder. In fact, you were the one following up with us!

Now, as you can see, we’ve narrowed our choice down to two offers. Both companies were invited to present their proposals today. Only one showed up. I shouldn’t tell you this, but we’ve had to chase the CEO of the other company down to get his final plans here on time. It was his secretary who sent a response. This morning I found out why.

I’ll be honest with you Max. Your rival made us a very tempting offer that was 35% below your estimate. It was much more in line with current market prices for your type of services. We’re not talking peanuts here, but about a significant amount of money. So, here’s my decision.

Max held his breath. He knew that he had done everything he could to win this contract, but he had been down this road before. There was a lot at stake.

The CEO picked his rival’s folder up from the table; looked at it for a few seconds and threw it in the trash can.

“Congratulations Max. Welcome aboard!”

He went on:

“In this business we don’t really care too much about resumes and infomercials, but we certainly do our homework. I know some of the other people you’ve worked with in the past, and I‘ve seen what you have done for them. Every penny spent on you was a fraction of what came back as a result of your involvement. As they say:

Quality will be remembered long after price is forgotten.

And do you know what impressed me most of all, Max? Not only are you committed and conscientious, you know what you bring to the table and how valuable your services are. At the end of the day, it wasn’t just your competence that sold me Max. It was your confidence.”

His startup coach had been right. Max remembered the day his mentor took out a big black marker and wrote on the flip chart:

A fair price is a price you believe in… plus twenty percent.

“I know you, Max,” his coach said. “As an entrepreneur, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.”

“And what might that be?” asked Max, puzzled.

“You’re not motivated by money,” answered the coach.

“Let’s face it. You’re creative. You’re an artist. You want to contribute. One of the reasons you’re so good at what you do is the fact that you’re absolutely fascinated by it. It’s a magnificent obsession. You want to be the best you can be in your field. It’s that powerful internal drive that gets you up in the morning.

You don’t do what you do just to pay the bills. You do what you do because it matters and it is meaningful. To you, the ultimate reward is in the result, not in the remuneration.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Max wanted to know.

“Well, it’s what made Mark Zuckerberg the youngest billionaire in the history of mankind,” said his coach. “As far as we can tell, he wasn’t motivated by money when he came up with Facebook. Sir Richard Branson didn’t open up his record store to make millions. Steve Jobs co-founded Apple because he wanted to ‘make a dent in the universe’. Jobs once said:

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

The challenge is to channel that passion and turn it into a profitable product people want to buy.

Now, here’s another basic human need: the need for autonomy. Most people want to be able to direct their own destiny; make their own decisions and create their own future. In one word: they want to be FREE.

The most dissatisfied workers are the ones that are being told what to do. They have uninteresting, low-paying jobs and no hopes of ever escaping the rat race, other than winning the lottery.

In order to gain autonomy, having an interesting, purposeful job is not enough. Being able to contribute to something greater than yourself is nice but not enough. Without money -or with very little of it- we operate in survival mode, focused on taking care of our basic needs. Without money, we’re dependent, we struggle, and we’re stuck.

You might be the most promising painter of your generation, but you need money to buy canvas, brushes and paint. You need money to rent a studio and promote your art. You want to be able to take trainings and hone your skills. The better you become, the more you will require: more expensive canvas, better brushes and the highest quality paint… a bigger studio. Someone’s got to pay for that!

You might think it’s mundane, but one way we express how much we value things, is by putting a price on it. Rumor has it that super model Heidi Klum‘s legs are insured for $2.2 million, but one leg is insured for $200,000 less than the other because of a scar. 

What I’m trying to say is this: money is a means to a beginning. That beginning is called “autonomy.” As long as you lowball whatever it is you’re offering, you’re telling the world that you don’t believe that you’re worth a penny more. That’s not the road to independence. It’s a road to nowhere.

In 2008, Dara Torres became the first woman in history to swim in the Olympics past the age of 40 in her fifth Olympic games. On July 5th of that year, she qualified for the finals in the 50-meter freestyle breaking the American record. In the finals she broke that record for the ninth time, winning a silver medal, only one hundredth of a second behind the German girl who won the gold.

The hours and hours of resistance stretching and time in the pool played a huge part in this phenomenal achievement, but it didn’t win Dara the medal. She won because she believed she could do it

You might not operate this way, Max, but people tend to not value things that don’t cost them much. That alone should be reason enough never to devalue your talent.

If you want your business to grow, you’ve got to start thinking long-term. Today you might be offered a dream deal. But what about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow?

Not only do you need money to cover costs, you need it to invest, to expand, and to contribute. Passionate people have a tendency to be stuck in the now, absorbed in the moment. But even those who have reached the top will tell you that you need to think ahead if you want to stay ahead. If you want to manage your career, you have to learn how to manage your money.

“But what if a client can’t afford me?” asked Max.

“And how would you know they can’t afford you?” countered the coach.

“Well, because they’d tell me!”

“And you always believe what clients tell you?” asked the coach. “Oh please… The two oldest excuses in the book are not enough time and not enough money. Time is something all of us happen to have the same amount of. It’s how we choose to use our time that matters. Not having enough money is a comparative deletion: compared to what?

If you’re stuck in the middle of a snow storm and you absolutely need to be somewhere, are you going to nickel-and-dime the only driver who’s willing to take you to your destination? It boils down to this: what’s it worth to you? Does the added value or benefit outweigh the cost?

The more valuable your product or service and the greater the need for it, the more leverage you’ll have to name your price.

Listen to me Max. Never assume you know how much or how little a client can afford. You don’t. Do your homework instead. Ask questions. Make your offer as relevant as you can… not to you, but in the eyes of your client. Make it irresistible.

Think about all the objections they might throw at you. Be prepared to answer the most difficult question they could ever ask you. It may never come up, but if you have an answer to that question, you know you can handle anything else that comes your way. That’s how you prepare for negotiations!”

“Max, are you okay?” asked John Jarvis.

“For a moment it looked like you were lost in thought.”

“I guess I was processing what just happened,” said Max. “Thank you so much for choosing me. I couldn’t be happier!”

“Well, the feeling is mutual,” said Jarvis. If all of this works out -and I don’t see why it shouldn’t- we’re looking at long-term cooperation. And by the way, call me John.”

Max stood up from his chair.

“Can I ask you something, John?”

“Sure, Max. Shoot.”

“Just out of curiosity… you mentioned that my competitor didn’t hand in his plans on time, and he wasn’t here today. Any idea what happened?”

“I know what happened,” answered Jarvis.

“His secretary told me this morning that his company went under. Apparently, he had a tendency of over-promising and under-delivering. His work looked great on paper, but in reality, he couldn’t meet minimum quality standards. Because of his aggressive pricing, the money that was coming in wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat.”

Jarvis put on his winter coat and said:

“But let’s not worry about that, shall we? Let’s just say that Karma is alive and well in this country. More importantly, we need to get you home safely. I can’t afford to lose you at this stage of the game. We’re barely out of the gates. Let me call our driver. He’ll take you to a hotel near the airport. This storm is not going to last forever.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Max. “There should be someone waiting for me outside.”

“You mean that black SUV in the parking lot?” asked Jarvis.

“Yep, that’s my driver,” replied Max. “His name is Anatoly but his friends call him Stoly.”

“That’s not your driver, Max,” said Jarvis.

“What do you mean?” asked Max.

Jarvis smiled as he opened the door. He shook Max’s hand and said:

“Don’t give that man any tips. I paid him a fortune. Stoly works for me!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Taken For A Ride

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Freelancing, Money Matters 3 Comments

Stock tradersThis is the second part of a story about how to price your services as a freelancer.

Click here for part one.

The black SUV was slowly making its way through the worst winter storm on record.

“Anatoly, at your service,” said the driver as he reached out to shake Max’s hand. “But my friends call me Stoly. You know… like the vodka.”

“Pleased to meet you, Anatoly,” said Max. “Thanks for taking me to my presentation in this blizzard. I really appreciated it. One question, though: are you sure this is legal? I mean, don’t you need some sort of permit to drive people around like this?”

“What do you mean, permit?” replied Stoly. He sounded a bit agitated. “This is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Right now, I’m the only one brave enough to take you to your presentation in this snow storm. Do I need a permit? Give me a break! My parents didn’t leave the Red Square in order to deal with more red tape. All those rules and regulations are in place just so some pencil pusher can stick his nose into my business.”

Max had clearly hit a nerve. Anatoly went on with his rant:

“If there’s one thing responsible for the American Dream, it is the free market. We have a government for the people, by the people. I think it’s time for big government to start trusting those people to make the right decisions and not interfere in our lives. The entrepreneur is the backbone of the American economy. If we’d need a permit for every single thing we wanted to do, we’d never get anything done.”

Max remembered discussing the concept of a free market with his startup coach. The man was a genius. He could explain complicated concepts in simple terms. 

“Before we come to any conclusions,” said his mentor, “we really should identify what kind of market we are talking about, and what we mean by free. It’s so easy to speak in generalizations and pretend we understand one another. When we do, we usually don’t.

First of all, there is no such thing as a single market. Rather, it is made up of a great number of small markets, serving different segments of our economy.

Secondly, people talk about these markets all the time, as if they were solid, static entities we could take home and put on a shelf. In reality, these so-called markets are more like our health. They are the fluid result of many factors and influences, and they adapt and change constantly. They’re like living organisms. We are all part of those organisms, sometimes as buyers, and sometimes as sellers.

The cumulative result of millions of individual decisions is what makes these many markets move. Even one small decision has the potential to impact the whole. 

Now, some of these markets have become so complicated that humans alone can’t handle them anymore. Take the stock exchange. Most of today’s trading is no longer handled by shouting overachievers in weird blazers, but by computers. Does that make Wall street freer, or more dependent on whiz kids, software, and algorithms?”

Max said he had no idea.

“Let me ask you another question, Max.

Do you remember what happened on May 62010 at 2:45 PM?”

Max shook his head.

“I’ll tell you!

The United States stock market crashed when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged about 900 points in the biggest one-day point decline in history. It was called the Flash Crash, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) blamed it on a computer algorithm used by a trader to determine how to execute a trade.

Within 13 minutes, some $40 stocks were selling for a penny a share, until a market circuit-breaker paused trading. Regulators later undid those bizarre trades, calling them ‘erroneous.’

On June 10th, 2010, the SEC approved rules that require the exchanges to pause trading in certain individual stocks if the price moves 10 percent or more in a five-minute period.

Let me ask you, Max: is that still a free and independent market, or are we talking about intervention in order to prevent shares from becoming worthless, courtesy of a computer glitch?”

Once again, Max was silent, as his mentor went on.

“Now, think about what fuels our economy: crude oil. An important benchmark for crude oil prices is a weighted average of prices for petroleum blends produced by the OPEC countries. OPEC constantly tries to influence that price by increasing and decreasing production. We all know what happened in 1973 when oil ministers agreed to an embargo.

Again I ask you: is this the famous free market people are always touting, or are prices kept at an artificial level and used as weapons in an effort to influence political decisions and certain economies? Think about what’s happening right now. 

Led by Saudi Arabia, OPEC decided in 2014 to wage a price war with low-cost producers in the U.S. and elsewhere in a bid to defend market share. Since oil prices began collapsing, oil companies have sacked hundreds of thousands of workers, and slashed investment budgets.

But there are other factors that influence how much or how little we pay at the pump.

The yearly maintenance of refineries influences gas prices. A blast caused by a few individuals at a pipeline in Nigeria can cause the price of petrol to explode at your local gas station. We might long for energy independence all we want, but for now we’re as interdependent as never before.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: because we’re so connected, markets are never completely free. Contrary to what some republican presidential candidates want us to believe, we’re not living on an island.”

“I understand all of that,” said Max. “But when people talk about the free market, don’t they typically refer to a market free from government intervention?”

“Here’s my take on government intervention, Max:

Too much of it is called dictatorship, and not enough of it leads to anarchy. You pick.”

He continued:

“I can’t tell you how many times the argument it’s a free market has been used to defend or excuse the most appalling working conditions and low wages on this planet. Just because humans were born with free will and have the power to exploit one another, doesn’t mean they should. Sometimes the administration has to step in to prevent the greedy from taking advantage of the needy. Is that big government overstepping its boundaries, or a matter of society upholding basic human rights?

One could argue that the institution of federal minimum wage is a form of intervention in the labor market. It started when government tried to control the explosion of sweat shops in manufacturing industries. The sweatshop owners were thought to have unfair bargaining power over their workers, and a minimum wage was proposed as a means to make them pay fairly.

Some might say that sweatshops are a thing of the past. Well, on a different but related note, tell me: What’s one of America’s favorite non-alcoholic beverages?”

“It must be coffee,” answered Max.

“Correct,” said his coach. “A few years ago, Starbucks finally started selling Fair Trade coffee, and for a good reason. We don’t always realize that agriculture workers in the coffee industry often toil in what has been described as ‘sweatshops in the fields.’ Many small coffee farmers in Africa and South America receive prices for their coffee that are less than the costs of production, forcing them into poverty and debt. To become Fair Trade certified, an importer must pay a minimum price per pound, allowing farmers and their families to make a living wage.

Laissez-faire economists might frown upon fair trade, but here’s the underlying question: whom is the market supposed to serve? Is this market some amoral, illusive, impersonal entity that cannot be influenced, or could the players in that market actually have an effect on how decent business is conducted?

Are people to serve the market (at any rate and at any cost), or do we want to have a market that serves the people? Should we intervene in that market by setting certain levels that are considered to be fair, humane, and reasonable, or should we leave the market alone?

Our economy is still recovering from the subprime mortgage crisis that was -in part- the result of an unregulated, greed-driven market that left so many homeless. Just because people were able to get a mortgage with no money down, doesn’t mean they should have.

Cars used to have no seat belts and smoking was allowed everywhere. Then the government stepped in to prevent intelligent people from doing stupid things. Yes it’s intervention, but for a good reason. 

My belief is that the ideal market -if we can even speak of such a thing- should serve the people. If a market leads to desperation exploitation, it becomes an issue of ethics, and adjustments should be made.

I realize that I’m painting a picture with broad strokes, Max, and you’re free to disagree. So, why don’t we bring this discussion back to rates? After all, that was what we were talking about. Here’s my question:

Would you rather be paid a fair rate, or a market price?”

*          *          *          *           *

As Stoly skillfully maneuvered his car through the snow storm, Max noticed something disturbing. In some boroughs the streets were much more accessible than in others. How could that be?

Suddenly, bright headlights appeared out of nowhere, and they moved straight toward their SUV.

“What the heck is that?” screamed Stoly as he quickly turned the wheel.

“That, my friend, is government intervention,” said Max, as a huge snow plow drove right past them. “Why aren’t they out in full force in every neighborhood?”

“It’s been a long winter,” replied Stoly. “Some municipalities started running out of funds, especially those that paid the drivers by the hour. They found out that if they paid the snow crews per amount of snow removed, a lot more got done in less time. The folks that got paid per hour took their time. It’s human nature. Plus, some of the lowest bidders turned out to have the worst equipment, and it took them forever to get the streets plowed. You get what you pay for.”

“When I was young, the whole neighborhood came together to clear the streets and sidewalks,” said Max. “It was actually fun, and we got to know one another. Senior citizens and others who were too weak to plow didn’t have to worry about a thing.”

“How about now?” Stoly asked.

“I’m afraid it’s every man for himself,” said Max. “People clear their own little bit of sidewalk and make sure others don’t park in their spot. There’s an eighty-year old woman on our block who can hardly leave her house, let alone clear her walkway. One day, two teenagers knocked on her door, offering to take care of the snow for her.

She was so happy that these young gentlemen were ready to do a good deed. That was before they told her that it would cost her ten bucks. She said to me that she could barely afford her medication, let alone ten dollars every time there was snow on the ground. But hey, it’s a free market!

Meanwhile, her next door neighbor has one of those gas snow blowers. He was clearing his own sidewalk when she asked him if he’d be willing to lend a hand. He said that he’d get to it, once he had taken his wife to the nail salon. Then he forgot all about his neighbor’s sidewalk, so I took care of it.”

Stoly’s SUV slowly made its way through town, until it stopped in front of an office building.

“This should be it,” said Max as he gathered his stuff. “Will you wait for me? I do need to get back to the airport.”

“If you insist,” said Stoly.

“Great,” said Max. “Would it be okay if I pay you on the way back?”

“What do you think?” asked Stoly with a big grin on his face. “You pay me now, my friend . This is the US of A…

There are no free rides.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Next week I’ll bring you the final installment. Click here for part 3.

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The Power Of Pricing

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 23 Comments

Snow stormSNOW EVERYWHERE… and Max was in the thick of it.

His client was expecting him within the hour, and he was all dressed up but couldn’t go anywhere.

This was the account he had been grooming for months, and today was D-Day: Deal or No Deal. Snow or no snow. He had to get out of that airport.

“This is the worst snow storm we’ve seen in decades,” said the dispatcher. “No cab driver is going to go anywhere today. I’m afraid you’re on your own.” Max headed out anyway. Perhaps he could hitch a ride with one of the other passengers that was being picked up by brave friends or family members.

As the snow was coming down, visibility was at a minimum. All flights were canceled until further notice. Just as Max was about to head back inside, a black SUV came out of nowhere, and stopped at the pick-up spot. The driver rolled the window down:

“Need a ride?”

“How did you know?” said Max, as he hopped in. “I have to get to my presentation. Are you here to pick somebody up?”

“No one in particular,” said the driver. “But I’d be happy to take you.”

“Well, that’s awfully nice of you,” said Max. “Thank G-d for Good Samaritans.”

“Dream on,” said the driver. “It’s going to be one hundred dollars. Cash only.”

“You must be joking,” replied Max. “They said a cab would cost me no more than ten.”

“Well, why don’t you get a cab then?” asked the driver. “I’ll go and rescue some other grey suit in a hurry.”

“I’ll offer you 50,” tried Max.”

“Listen,” said the driver. “You look like a smart businessman. You and I, we don’t run charities. We’re both entrepreneurs. We see an opportunity. We jump on it. We take risks. Today I am risking my life and my car just so you can get to your meeting. That must be worth something, don’t you think?

“How about 60?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” said the driver. “My economics teacher taught me: ‘When something is scarce, it becomes more valuable.’ You have a major problem. I am offering you a solution. No one else will. If you want to stay, you’ve got to pay.”

“70?”

“Think of it this way,” sighed the driver. “This meeting you want me to take you to, must be important, right? Otherwise, why bother? Is there a lot of money at stake?”

“You got that right,” answered Max impatiently. “I’ve got one shot to seal a deal.”

“Well,” said the driver, “It’s none of my business, but what’s 100 bucks compared to the money you’ll bring in after that contract is signed?”

“Alright,” said Max as he took out the cash. “I get it. Now, drive!”

While the SUV was battling the elements, Max looked at his chauffeur and said: “I gotta give it to you, man. You know what you’re worth, and you’re not afraid to ask for it.

Some ten years ago, when Max started his freelance business, he had had such a hard time putting a price on the service he was providing. To help him focus, his startup coach had asked him a couple of simple questions:

  1. Do you consider yourself to be a pro?
  2. Do you want to run a for-profit business?
  3. Do you want that business to grow?
  4. What are the costs of running that business?
  5. What’s your break-even point?
  6. How much do you want to make?

In the past, Max had always treated his services as a hobby. That’s exactly what it was. There was no plan. No purpose. Just a passion. He spent hours and hours helping people and never worried about what to charge. That is, until he lost his day job, his benefits, and his security. Perhaps this was an opportunity to turn his hobby into a real business. That’s when things got serious and complicated.

“Here’s the good news,” smiled his coach. “You’ve got clients, don’t you? I mean, you’ve been helping friends all along. If you want to turn your hobby into a genuine profession, why not start close to home. You obviously offer something people want. You already have a market… Go for it!”

“Here’s the problem,” said Max. “I never really charged my friends anything. Most of them gave me pizza and a six-pack. I can already hear them say:

Why would we ever pay you if we can get you for free?

“Good point,” admitted the coach, and he went on: “My brother is a computer geek and he’s crazy about technology. But if he would do every single friend ‘a favor,’ he’d be fixing broken laptops all day and night and not make any money. Free pizza does not pay the mortgage. Besides, I don’t think he’d make the guys happy who repair computers for a living.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s not okay to help out a friend in need, but as soon as people found out that my brother knew how to fix a computer, everybody wanted to be ‘friends’ with him. He had to draw a clear line between real friends and those who were well below the rank of Facebook buddies. That’s what you have to do too, Max. No more giveaways. From now on, you run a business; not a charity.

One of your jobs as an entrepreneur is to manage your client’s expectations. Let me give you an example. If you take on a project you know you can easily do in two days, tell your client you can get it done in three. Guess who’s going to look good when you hand it in 48 hours later?

That way you not only create the expectation that you can beat a deadline. You’re also showing your client that she’s a top priority, and that you really know your stuff. Meanwhile, you’ve allowed yourself an extra day should anything unexpected come up. Does that make sense?

Pricing is one of the most important tools for managing your client’s expectations, as well as your bottom line. Your price point sends a clear signal to your market:

This is what I am worth.

Like it or not, there is a clear link between perceived quality and price. Otherwise, every wine connoisseur would drink Beaujolais out of a box, and Pottery Barn would be out of business.

Remember this: Your fee structure will help you attract the kind of customers you want to be working with, and the type of jobs you are shooting for. At the same time it will weed out the folks that cannot or will not afford you; the ones that are most likely to give you a hard time anyway.

Here’s the deal, though: Your fee must be backed up by experience and expertise on one hand, and by a realistic sense of your value in the market place on the other.

Simply put: Be an expert and do your homework. Don’t just pull a rate out of a hat. That’s lazy and crazy. Find out what the competition is charging. Then ask yourself: “Do I want to charge more, less, or the same?”

“I can’t imagine it’s that simple,” said Max.

“It’s not,” answered his coach. “Smart pricing decisions require at least three elements:

  1. Facts about your own cost of doing business
  2. The client’s evaluation processes
  3. Competitive activity

I know you really care about your work, Max. To you, it’s much more than a way to pay the bills. You’re an artist and somehow, some artists (and clients) believe that there’s a clash between creativity and cash. Doing what you love should be enough of a reward.

I don’t think Andy Warhol or Keith Haring would agree with that. Being creative and being commercial can go hand in hand, and since you’re in business to make money, let me give you a simple formula:

Profit = sales volume x price – cost

Have you ever heard of Hermann Simon? He’s a German economics professor and one of the leading experts on pricing. Together with Robert Dolan, he wrote a book called Power pricing: how managing price transforms the bottom line. He calls volume, price, and cost “profit drivers.”

Simon says something very interesting:

“The customer’s willingness to pay is not determined by the costs of a product but by its performance and resulting value to this customer.”

In other words: when people get a haircut, they conveniently forget that they’re also paying for the rent the salon’s forking over every single month, or for the training the staff receives so they can make every teenage boy look like Justin Bieber.

Clients don’t care about your costs.

You should.

That’s why you have to figure out the answer to this question: How low can you afford to go? What is your Price Floor?

A Price Floor is a point below which a product or service should not be sold. In the long term, the price must obviously cover the full costs of a product. Otherwise the seller cannot make a profit and will not survive. Volume never makes up for selling below cost. 

Every year, tens of thousands of self-employed people file for bankruptcy because they made one big mistake: they followed a dream and forgot to run the numbers. They are what I like to call ‘under-estimators’. Literally.

Knowingly or unknowingly, they started selling below cost in an effort to drive out the competition or even out of ignorance. Some started giving their work away for free, hoping to get exposure and attract business. Last time I checked, my local baker was handing out free samples but never entire cakes. And between you and me: he doesn’t strike me as a marketing genius.”

“Speaking of prices… a friend of mine just bought a brand name watch at a price that was too good to be true,” said Max. “It turned out to be fake.”

“Were you surprised?” asked the coach.

“Not at all,” said Max. “You get what you pay for.”

“That’s right. In part, price is about perception. That’s probably why your friend wanted to buy that Rolex rip-off in the first place.

Professor Simon puts it this way:

“Price is the economic sacrifice a customer makes to acquire a product or a service. The customer always compares this sacrifice with his perception of the product’s value. (…)

“In essence, a customer buys a product or a service only, if its perceived value -measured in money terms- is greater than the price. If selecting from several alternatives, the customer prefers the one offering the highest net value, i.e. the greatest differential of perceived value over price.”

Go to any tattoo parlor and see for yourself how much pain people are willing to suffer in exchange for the pleasure derived from a name, permanently painted in the perforations of their delicate flesh. Years later, they spend a fortune burning out their ex-hubbie’s initials with a laser beam… turning the man in question into an ex-boyfriend, once removed… But I digress. We were talking about perceived value, weren’t we?”

“You’ve mentioned volume, price, and cost,” said Max. “How exactly does the market factor into this? Isn’t a certain price ultimately the result of the interaction between supply and demand? That’s not something I have any influence over, is it?”

“Great point,” smiled his coach. “First off…

*          *          *         *         *

THE BLACK SUV slowly made its way through the winter weather.

“Care for some hot cocoa?” asked the driver as he pointed at a thermos.

“Yes please!”said Max.

“And help yourself to a muffin too,” said the driver. “This might take a while.”

“Well, you certainly know how to treat your customers,” remarked Max.

The driver smiled. “Always exceed your client’s expectations. That’s my philosophy.”

“Will you pick me up when I am done?” asked Max.

“Of course,” said the driver.

“I love return business!”

Click here for part 2.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: It’s been DUMPING snow at Heavenly… via photopin (license)

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