how to be a successful freelancer

The Magnet, the Colander, and the Clay

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Promotion 14 Comments

making potteryAs a blogger, coach, and voice talent, I think a lot about why certain people make it in this business and why others don’t.

Those who are doing well don’t always know why they belong to the happy few. “You’ve got to have a lot of luck,” they say, and “be at the right moment at the right time.”

It’s a nice observation, but as a teacher that doesn’t help me much. Just as I can’t predict who’s going to win the Powerball, I cannot influence luck. And if I knew how to be at the right moment at the right time, I probably would be doing something else with my life right now. 

What I can help people with as a coach, is preparedness. If you’re lucky to be at the right place at the right time and you’re not prepared, you’re not going to get very far. But preparedness alone is no guarantee that you’ll have a successful career as a creative freelancer. 

Let’s say you’re talented, you’re well-trained, and you have the right equipment that gets the job done. Is that enough to start and grow a for-profit business? I think we all know well-educated people with great skills and a nice set-up who can barely make ends meet. So, there must be other factors at play that determine the difference between success and failure.

Looking at colleagues who are at the top of their game, I have identified three characteristics all of them have in common. Number one I call:

THE MAGNET

The difference between dreamers and achievers is that achievers attract jobs. This is anything but a passive process. People don’t become magnets overnight and without planning. You’ve got to have an extensive network in place that generates a continuous flow of leads from multiple sources. If you’re just starting out, this is where you have to spend most of your time, energy, and money.

How do you become a magnet? Think about what you can do to draw people to you. You’ve got to offer something special at a price that tells people you take your work seriously. You have to make sure your presentation is in line with your (desired) reputation. Then you need to connect with clients and colleagues to let them know that you exist.

Obviously, this is not something you can do in a few weeks or months. Every self-employed person can tell you that this will be your life from now on, until you decide to close up shop. This type of magnet is like a rechargeable battery. If you don’t charge it regularly, it will quickly lose its power.

Now, let’s assume your magnetic powers have the desired effect and job offers are rolling in. Should you jump on every opportunity? Here’s where the second factor comes in. I call this:

THE COLANDER

Beginners often make the same mistake. They go after every single job offer, if only “to gain experience.” I remember when I first became a member of an online casting site. As soon as I had posted my profile and the membership fee was paid, the auditions started coming in. In my naïve enthusiasm I applied for every job, thinking that the more I auditioned, the greater the chance I would be hired. I was wrong.

Being a successful freelancer is not a numbers game. It is about going after the opportunities that are right for you. In order to do that, you have to filter out the misfits. That’s where the colander comes in.

Runners know their strengths. Some of them run marathons. Others sprint. In my line of work, some voice actors are great at narrating audio books. Others excel in voicing short commercials. Only a handful of people in every profession are true all-rounders. Chances are that you’re not one of them. That’s why you have to do yourself a favor: know your strengths, and become picky. Very picky.

There’s one last factor that separates the wheat from the chaff. I call it:

THE CLAY

No matter how good you are at attracting and selecting jobs, once you have landed a new project, you have one objective and one objective only: to make your client happy. That’s by no means an earth-shattering revelation, so why even mention it? Here’s why. So many people believe that if you do the very best you can, the client will be pleased with the result. That’s not necessarily true.

Your very best might not be good enough, and/or the client may have different expectations. That’s why it is so important to find out what those expectations are before you get to work. I often tell my clients: “Any text can be read in a million ways. The more specific you are about what you’d like to hear, the easier it is for me to give you the read you need.” And that’s where the clay comes in.

Clay is just potential. It can be molded into any shape, depending on the talent and skills of the potter. No matter what kind of freelance work you do, whether you’re a script writer, an industrial designer or a voice-over, you’ve got to know your material and be a master molder. The better you are at understanding your client and at working the clay, the more successful you will be.

Mind you, this isn’t something you can pick up from reading a book, or by listening to a podcast. It will take talent, training, and time. It may take a few years before you break in and break even. But when you do, this is what you will discover:

Doing exceptional work almost always leads to more work, which brings us back to the concept of the magnet.

One last thing.

If your career isn’t where you want it to be at the moment, ask yourself: “Where are my greatest challenges? What needs more work?

Is it the magnet, the colander, or is it the way I handle the clay?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Shaping the Heart via photopin (license)


The Secret to Sustained Success

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 18 Comments

Soybeen sprouts“Seize the day,” “Carpe Diem,” “Maximize each moment.” 

In a society as hectic as ours, that seems to be sound advice. All of us are given a limited time on earth. The best thing is to use it wisely. Don’t worry too much about tomorrow. Get the most out of each day.

Go to any electronics expo, and you’ll find tons of smart gadgets designed to make us more productive. Here’s what I find ironic. They won’t give us any extra time off, but they will allow us to do even more with the time we have saved! Just thinking about that makes me tired. 

While some of these ingenious tools can be helpful, they are part of a trend that worries me:

Life is speeding up, and people are losing their patience. They are more focused on the short term, instead of thinking ahead.

Why? Because we crave certainty, and it’s easier to predict what will happen in the next moment as opposed to years from now. Instant gratification has never been more popular, and has never been more destructive.

A few examples. 

Politics doesn’t think in decades anymore. Voters have short memories, and demand quick results. Policies that lead to temporary gains are often favored over measures that may take years to implement and bear fruit. Let’s drill for energy today, and we’ll worry about the environment later!

We’re not interested in diets or exercise that lead to gradual, lasting weight loss. No, we demand results by the end of the week. And if that scale doesn’t give us a number we’re happy with, we blame it on the method and move on to something else. But everybody knows that losing pounds is the easy part. Keeping them off is much more challenging. That requires long-term commitment.

Makeover shows on television tell us that people can change their lives in a matter of days. It takes us a week to build an Extreme Home, five days to turn a failing restaurant around, and 48 hours to learn what not to wear. After that, we’ll never be the same again! Well, a few weeks later our dream home is leaking, the bistro is going bankrupt, and that fashion-challenged girl dresses like a slob again. 

I’m sorry to break it to you, but quick fixes rarely lead to lasting change

Short-term thinking is a big problem in the “industry” I’m a part of: the wonderful world of freelancing, in particular, the voice-over industry.

THE MYTH OF THE SHORTCUT

Thanks to false advertising, unrealistic expectations, and an attitude of entitlement and impatience, some people still believe they can rise to the top in very little time. Just read this book, take that seminar, and buy some equipment. Before you know it, you’re in business! No experience necessary. 

And when these people finally come to me for coaching because they’re not getting anywhere, they are shocked when I present a long-term plan without guarantees. 

“That can’t be,” they say. “This takes too long, and it’s too expensive. I don’t have the time, and I don’t have the money. I thought this would be easy.”

I tell them: 

“If you’re in this for the long run, a few simple steps won’t get you anywhere. Would you throw some seeds into the soil and expect a few trees to magically pop up the next morning? And would you expect these trees to bear fruit the day after? It may very well be a couple of years before you book your first job.”

One person responded: “If it takes that long, you’re probably not a very good coach.”

I replied: “If that’s what you believe, you probably won’t be a very good student.”

THE CASTING TRAP

Another example of short-term thinking is the way some people perceive the “membership” fee for online casting sites. They tell me: “If I book one nice job, this whole thing pays for itself.”

No, it doesn’t. It wouldn’t even be true if you only booked that one job. If you spend let’s say $395 on membership, and you make $395, what’s your profit? To see if that $395 would be a worthwhile investment, you’d have to look at an entire year of membership, and ask yourself:  “For all the time and money invested, how many dollars did I get in return?”

You’d have to add up all the money made through that Pay to Play in one year, and deduct the membership fee, taxes and other expenses. Then you divide your net profit by the total number of hours needed to generate that income. By hours I mean all the time spent looking at jobs on that site, doing auditions, communicating with clients, and recording/editing the audio.

When you finally look at how much you’ve made per hour in a year, is this still a good investment, or should you spend your time and money elsewhere?

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION

But don’t make the mistake that short-term thinking is just a problem for the newbie. I often encounter it when colleagues discuss the hot topic of pricing. People with a short-term view tend to charge lower rates than those who are in it for the long haul. 

“I’d rather make a hundred bucks now, than lose out on a job,” they say. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” A week later they complain that they can’t seem to make a living as a voice talent. 

No surprise there. 

Your rate is not just about money. It’s a sign of professionalism. It sends a signal to the client: “This is what I believe my time and talent are worth.”

It also sends a signal to the industry: “This is what I believe this job is worth.” 

By the way, it’s much easier to book a low-rate job than to land a well-paid gig. Any fool can undercut the competition (and go broke in the process).

If we devalue the work we do, don’t expect rates to rise. Low rates will become the new normal. 

Realize that short-term actions have long-term consequences. That’s not a popular message, and that’s why many people like to stick their head in the sand. 

If you don’t think about the long-term consequences of your actions, your life becomes inconsequential.

 A NEW FOCUS

If you wish to have sustainable success as a freelancer, you have to start thinking long-term, and big picture. You have to ask yourself:

“Where do I want to be, five years, ten years from now? How much do I need to minimally make in a year to get there? What do I have to invest? How much do I need to charge?” 

Of course you also need to factor in what people around you are charging, and what clients are willing to pay. But don’t let that limit you. Premium products command a premium price.

Even if you were to run a charity, numbers matter. That’s a hard lesson to learn for people with an attitude of “Money doesn’t motivate me. I’m just so happy to be able to do what I do. It’s such a blessing.”

You’ve got to snap out of the thrill of the moment, and plan ahead. 

Thinking big picture also means you have to think about the effect your actions may have on others, and on this planet (sometimes for generations). You don’t live on an island. It’s not just about you. What you do or don’t do may not seem earth-shattering, but it makes a difference. A tidal wave consists of many small drops. 

You can’t just go from job to job, and pick a number out of a hat, hoping for the best. You have to price for profit. You need to develop a pipeline of projects coming from different sources. And you need to save for when times are slow, or when you are sick.

Running a successful freelance business is a game of costs and benefits. It means planning for delayed gratification with all the tools you have at your disposal.

You’ve got to visualize your future.

Find allies and experts.

Dare to say no, and set new standards.

Be patient. Be open. Be humble.

And if you play your cards right,

it will pay off in the long run.

And it will be momentous!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Soybean Sprouts During Early Growth via photopin (license)