Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Outsourcing: What's Your Policy?

Lately I've been getting more and more emails from other copywriters offering their services as outsourcers. I've never done outsourcing before, and I've never worked on an outsourced project. If I have too much work to handle, I'll generally refer potential clients to other writers whose work I respect. I'm a good source of referrals; I even referred a very long-time client to another writer once because he wanted something I could do, but I felt she could do much better. (I didn't lose the client, by the way.)

However, lately I've been thinking about outsourcing and how it might work for my business. I'm wondering if I could get more done by outsourcing some of the work to others and taking a cut. The graphic design company I work with does this when they hire me. I don't know any writers who outsource work to others under their own business model, but I've considered it and know several excellent writers I'd want to tap for this kind of work if I ever decided to get into it. Here are a few outsourcing models I'm considering:

Occasional outsourcing. Every so often I might get swamped. Instead of referring clients to other writers, I could "hire" another writer to do the project and take a cut. I'm not sure how this works in terms of taxes and reporting, and whether or not I should tell clients if it's me doing the work or someone else. I'd love to hear from other writers who do this regularly.

Regular outsourcing. Instead of being a one-woman show, I could partner up with other writers who specialize in different areas: press releases, business plan writing, et cetera. This would allow me to specialize in the writing work I like best, without turning away other work. It would also allow me to exponentially grow my business.

Outsourcing of other services. Why stick with just writing? Why not partner with graphic designers, web designers, programmers, SEO's, desktop publishers, public relations people and other professionals whose work complements mine? Then I'd have a full-service agency.

What's your policy on outsourcing? Have you had luck marketing your services to other writers or outsourcing your own work?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Are 20-Something Workers Out of Line or On to Something?

I'm a regular contributor to Brazen Careerist, a blog and columnist network for twenty-something professionals. I'm interested in news about how my generation is changing and growing into the workplace, and I'm also fascinated by how the media and the larger corporate culture views us. Unfortunately, it's not all good.

The media thrives on stereotypes. And the ones about Generation Y are mixed. According to common wisdom, we're flexible, innovative, enthusiastic and technically savvy. But we're also arrogant and entitled--we're young upstarts who want a flexible workplace, an influential job, and great work-life balance right away. There's more info on this here, here and here, if you're interested.

I can see how this attitude can chafe on veteran workers who dedicated their early years to getting ahead. I also have great respect for those with more experience and years in their profession than I do--I jump at a chance for mentorship whenever I can get it. But I also feel very close to those Gen-Y stereotypes, because, well...look at me. I'm a 20-something entrepreneur who discovered a regular job just couldn't deliver the flexibility and control over my life that I wanted--so I abandoned the whole concept.

The traditional workplace doesn't like to bend to accommodate its employees' happiness. And maybe I'm naive about this, but my question is: why not? I'm an extremely hard worker. I am 100% dedicated to my job and I'm great at what I do. I know I could've done some great things for a company that was willing to make me happy. But life is awfully short, and I thought I would get what I wanted more quickly if I struck out on my own than I would with a regular job, hoping my employers came around. I might have missed opportunities to work with great companies by doing this--but they missed an opportunity with me, as well.

The bottom line is this: Generation Y doesn't want to wait to be happy. We've seen our parents pay their dues, only to be denied steady health insurance, deserved advancement or better quality of life--things they sacrificed their best years for. The things Generation Y is purported to want too early--flexibility, work-life balance, quality of life--are the same things everyone would like to have, no matter your generation. When people say my generation is out of line in wanting these things now, my internal response is always something like this: Why should I have to wait to be happy? Is any career goal worth spending my twenties in misery? I guess I have trouble seeing those things as rewards that you have to spend decades in toil to earn, rather than basic human rights.

I realize that you have to work hard to succeed. I do work hard. I work evenings and weekends. I work twelve-hour days. But the rewards I see for this are direct: greater pay, a more successful business, and more time to have fun later. Sometimes in a corporate situation, the rewards for such hard work aren't so directly delivered. There might be no time off later if you put in extra hours now. Your department may simply expect that kind of work as a matter of course, with no special recognition. You may deserve a bonus or promotion but not get it due to company politics that are out of your control. People put up with this for years.

I believe that everyone, no matter their age or place in the company, deserves a reasonable work-life balance, a flexible schedule and great quality of life. I might get people writing in to say that Corporate America would dissolve if such lax rules were in place, but I'm not so sure--if employees are engaged in their work, work in positions that use their strengths to best advantage, and see direct reward for their contributions, they'll work hard. And today's technologies have made remote working possible for people in diverse industries and positions.

People say Generation Y will change the workplace. I don't know if they will or if they'll just wind up settling for the status quo once they have children and mortgages and can't move around as freely. But it's my hope that older generations will take a look at them and think, "why shouldn't they have these things? Why shouldn't I?"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Writing for College Credit? Do Your Homework First.

This one's for the college students.

Cruising the blogs yesterday, I found a post on Words on the Page detailing a sham job advertisement looking for students (it's always a bad sign when they're looking for students, isn't it?). The job post was from a start-up "online fashion community" and was looking for bloggers, forum moderators, article writers, e-blast writers, and such to "Develop strategies to motivate and engage our members to become an integral part of our online community"; "Support the expansion of our community with new features and member interaction"; "Write and moderate persuasive, effective and appropriate content for blogs with compelling topics and discussions" and perform other important-sounding tasks. The job wanted students who could commit to a six-month, UNPAID internship. The payoff? College credit.

You see a lot of these job ads for college credit lately. Often they're offering credit instead of payment. And so many students are willing to take these deals because the resume booster is more important to them than the money. But what many students don't realize (I didn't, back when I was a student) is that an employer can't just declare willy-nilly that it can grant you college credit instead of pay. That's up to your school. Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking into internships that offer credit.

Your college may not accept that experience as credit. Some colleges don't offer academic credit for internships at all. Others offer specific internship programs that pair students with approved employers. Generally, you don't get college credit for working with an employer outside that network. In other schools, the policy varies by department. Still others will award you credit, but they'll charge you for it. Overall, the knowledge you gain at the internship has to be of academic value to the school, and may need to be directly relevant to a certain course to justify credit. Be sure to talk to your department head before signing on to any internship program that claims to "offer" college credit. It can't, unless your college goes along with it.

Federal Law has a few things to say about the credit situation. According to Federal law, an intern can't do the same work as a regular employee, and the employer isn't allowed to get an immediate advantage from the work of the student. In other words, it's an arrangement that's supposed to have academic value for the student, not monetary value for the employer. Go to Lori's blog and read that job offer again. Does it sound like this one's breaking any Federal rules? Granted, a lot of legitimate credit internships do break those rules, but interns usually don't know to report them--and wouldn't if they did. This article from Slate has more info on Federal laws regarding college credit.

Be wary of start-ups offering credit. If I were looking for an internship now, I would not look for one with a start-up advertising on Craigslist. First of all, these people are not looking to offer an academically valuable experience to students. They are looking for full-time employees who will work for free. Your work will indeed be monetarily valuable to that company. If you want to be involved with the start-up experience, start your own business this summer instead of carrying someone else's--you won't get college credit for that either, but you might make some money. Second, that start-up looking for a six-month commitment may not even be around in six months. Third, nobody has heard of these companies--and it's doubtful they'll make it big later, especially if they don't even care enough to invest in real employees. They're not likely to give your resume much of a boost. If you want to work in online media, get an internship with an established site instead.

Don't fall for the "college credit" scam being peddled in so many online job offers. If you want an unpaid internship, go with a company that can actually offer you a prestigious-looking line on your resume--and make sure your university will grant you credit for it. If you don't, you may find yourself getting nothing at the end of your internship--no pay, no resume booster, and no credit.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Is the Client Always Right?

Recently I wrote copy for a small postcard flyer. The company was quite technical, but I came up with a snappy concept and covered all the required benefits and bullets in concise, attention-grabbing professional prose. Proud of myself? You bet. The client loved it--but wanted it more wordy and "busy."

Wordiness is definitely not always a good thing--especially in a short promotion that needs to capture attention and get info across quickly. As I've matured in my business, I've found myself coming up against clients who have disagreed with me on what's effective much more often. And I'm starting to suspect that it's not that there are just more of these clients around--but that I'm more clued in to what works and what doesn't.

When I first started out, the client always knew best. Lately, however, I've begun to respectfully disagree when I've suspected I might know more about something than the client does. That's why I was hired, presumably--because I bring to the table an expertise that the client lacks. So I make suggestions. I point things out. Sometimes the client sees my point and is happy for the feedback. Other times I get more polite versions of "just shut up and do what you're told."

What's your experience with disagreeing with clients? Do you speak up when you feel it's warranted, or is the client always right?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Are You Cut Out to Be a Freelancer?

I think my job is the greatest job ever. But recently I was telling someone what I do--very enthusiastically--and she wrinkled her nose. "You mean you don't know what you're going to make from month to month?" she said. "I would hate that."

We're not all cut out to be freelancers. Here are a few signs you shouldn't give up your day job--at least for the time being.

You really can't bring yourself to sell or market. I was like this when I first started, and to be honest I still don't market much. But I did do a fair amount of it when I first started, and before that I delayed starting my business for years because of a fear of marketing. It's a necessary evil, though. If you really can't do it, you have to learn--and you'd better not quit your day job until you do.

You can't stand the uncertainty. Freelancing comes with a lot of ups and downs. To me, it's exciting--I don't know what I'll make from month to month, and I might make a fabulous income next month! Of course, there's always the possibility that the opposite will happen. Some people are naturally more at home than others with the uncertainty, and some people have higher overhead--a mortgage, kids to support, college loans to pay--that makes them less able to handle uncertainty. Depending on how comfortable you are with an irregular income, you may be better off hanging on to your day job--at least until you have significant savings to get you through lean times.

You just want it to be easy. Some people just want to roll into work, do what they're paid to do, and go home again. With freelancing, you will take your job with you. You will work overtime and weekends sometimes. You will have lean months and periods of too much work. But you can also go jogging in the afternoon if you want, take on only the projects you want, and skip it all to go have coffee with a friend or catch a poetry reading. It's a balance, but running a business demands a lot of time and energy you likely wouldn't spend at a 9-to-5 job.

You need cash now. If you're looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, don't look here. Any freelancing business takes time to build, and you could labor for years before you're earning as much as you did at the office. Then again, you could earn signficantly more--who knows? But you're not likely to earn it quickly. If you have bills that need to be paid right away, you're better off looking for a full-time job to gain solvency before you strike out on your own.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Five Signs You're Working Too Hard

Ever have one of those weeks where you're so busy you forget to eat? Okay, maybe that's a little extreme. Or maybe it's not. I've done it. Here are a few signs you're working too hard and you need a break from the computer.

You're not eating right. You know the drill: the alarm goes off. You hit it a few times, then you go get your laptop, bring it back to bed, and start typing with half-closed eyes. You want to get a head start on the day, and you figure you'll get up in an hour and go get some corn flakes. Well, you don't. You want to get five articles done before lunch and you're already behind because you spent an hour answering emails and next thing you know it's halfway to dinnertime and you haven't eaten--or moved--in hours. Be vigilant about your eating schedule. Set the alarm clock for lunch and dinnertime.

You're not exercising. Ever have one of those days where you literally sat in one place all day? I do this sometimes. Ours can be a sedentary life, and it isn't healthy. For a while I did well when I got up early to exercise--then my whole day was free to write, guilt free--but it's tough for me to maintain because I'm really not a morning person. Still, it's important to set aside time for physical activity regularly.

You're slacking on your personal projects. We've all got a novel or screenplay or chapbook of poems we're working on. Chances are, you started your freelance business in part so you would have more time to work on these things. So why haven't you touched your personal projects in a month? If you're ignoring what gives you joy, you're missing the best part of being a freelancer. Be sure to set aside some time each week to dedicate to creative work. Your clients will benefit as much as you will.

Your friends and family forget you exist. Have the social calls tapered off? Has your family given up on knocking on your study door? If your kids are going "mommy? We have a mommy?" and your husband refers to you as "the troll who lives in our spare room/office," you've been in there too long.

You go pre-verbal. Freelancers don't talk to other people much. We're naturally reclusive and hermit-like. We can go full days without talking to anyone. Sometimes we forget how to talk entirely. If you're responding in grunts and nonsensical mutterings instead of real sentences, it's a sign you've been spending too much time in the office and not enough time interacting with human beings.

What are your personal signs of workaholism?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Are You the Right Writer For That Project?

When you're a freelancer, it can be tough to say no to any work that comes along. But sometimes money isn't the issue--there are legitimate reasons why you should turn a certain project down. Sometimes you can spot these signs a mile away--and other times you need to get your hands dirty before you find out.

The industry requires specialized knowledge. For many industries, the principles are the same for good copy. Know your audience. Emphasize benefits. Prove your claims. Paint a picture. But for some, specialized technical knowledge is required. I tend to avoid all but the most superficial copy in the tech and medical industries, and the legal industry is a whole 'nother ball of wax--it's extra sensitive to any possible misunderstanding, and sometimes you need to be a lawyer to know where to put the disclaimers. Even if you work for a wide variety of different industries, you need to know where to draw the line.

You're not comfortable in that format. I'm a strong believer in the idea that you should try new things, especially when you're first starting your business. But sometimes you know enough to know that you don't like writing a certain type of project. When I first started, I was uncomfortable with sales. I quickly learned that if I wanted to have a thriving business, I'd better get comfortable--and I took steps to become a strong sales writer. But I believe that the clarity and organization skills I learned writing primarily educational copy still serve me well. Some people aren't crazy about writing press releases or prefer writing for print than online. As freelancers, we have the freedom to follow our joy--so follow it.

This is a job for...not you. Some clients want you to be more than a writer. They want you to be a business adviser, a marketing strategist, sometimes a graphic designer or SEO or administrator. I stick to work that requires just the writing--I especially don't like technical troubleshooting, so I stay away from anything requiring uploading or maintenance of a site. Occasionally I'm willing to do basic formatting, but I always let people know up front I'm not a designer.

You and the client work very differently. This is tough to spot, but sometimes the client lets you know off the bat how they work. I've seen gigs advertised on bidding sites where you have to have your computer camera enabled so the client can see that you're working a certain number of hours. Even if the pay was good I'd avoid those gigs; they're a little too Big Brother for me, and I got into this business in the first place so I wouldn't have to put in face time. Sometimes the client won't go for your non-negotiable business terms, or is a micro-manager while you're a free spirit. To keep yourself happy, weigh the level of hassle with the level of pay--and get out if you're miserable.

You're not the right writer for every project. As a freelancer, it's key to know thyself--and what you'll put up with for a certain amount of money. Sometimes these guidelines are worth bending if the price is right.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Are You Working With the Wrong Regulars?

As a freelancer, regulars are invaluable. They're the folks who have a lot of writing needs, and they come back to you regularly, month after month, with substantial orders. These companies can keep your business going during the lean times. It can be tough deciding to let go of such steady work--but sometimes your regular client might not be one you should hang on to. Here are a few signs you might want to consider moving on--and they're not all about the money.

Are you keeping quiet about your work? When I'm thrilled about a client, I tell everyone I know about the cool business I'm working for. Seriously, my friends and family are sick of hearing about it. But eventually in your career, you'll probably land at least a few clients you don't talk much about. Maybe their values clash with yours--you're an avid anti-smoker and they're a cigar-manufacturing company, or you're a passionate conservative and they're a political organization with a liberal bent. You get my drift. Sometimes these clients pay well, but you're kind of disappointed in yourself for working with them--and you don't tell everyone you know about what you're doing. Ultimately even if the paycheck is good, it's better for you to walk.

Are you being asked to do something shady? Sometimes you'll get asked to do things you're not comfortable with. Like write an "article" that turns out to be a college student's essay, or write website copy promoting a scam product. There are plenty of gigs out there that aren't for everyone--and some that shouldn't be for anyone. If you feel what you're doing is wrong, get out sooner rather than later.

Are you getting paid less than you're worth? You don't always realize this will happen right away. You sign up with a company promising regular work. You discover those articles you quoted an hour for are really taking you three hours to complete. You're working more than you thought you would, and suddenly that great pay rate doesn't look so hot. It happens to the best of us. While it can be scary to let go of a regular, you'll have more time to develop your business if you drop the low paying projects.

Are you bored? Five hundred keyword articles around the word "California Real Estate," anyone? Sometimes projects can be boring or repetitive. Maybe you're just writing too much about a subject that's too small--or you're just not interested in the topic. They say a great writer should be able to make any topic interesting, but before you can do that you have to develop your own interest in the topic--and nobody is interested in everything. Spending weeks bored out of your skull is why you left your cubicle job in the first place, right?

Do you and the client have conflicting visions? With some clients, you can't get anything right. And some clients will be ultra-picky even if they like you enough to keep coming back. This is fine if it only happens once in a while with short-term clients, but when you're doing a lot of work for someone, it can be draining to your ego to be nitpicked to death all the time. If you're doing substantial amounts of work for a client who's never satisfied, it may simply be that you and she are not a good match.

It can be tough letting go of regular work. If you're reluctant to let go of a lucrative regular, start marketing to find some new clients who are a better fit for your business--then drop the ones that aren't. The freedom of freelancing is wasted if you can't do just that.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Nice" is a Double-Edged Sword

I've been thinking a lot lately about being nice--and how niceness affects my business. Is being "nice" good for your business, or does it hurt you? And are women entrepreneurs and businesspeople under more pressure to be nice than men?

A disclaimer here: I am not advocating being mean or treating people badly. I'm not even saying you can't get to know your clients better--or even have clients become friends. But in those relationships, business still has to come first, and things can get cloudy if either party doesn't understand this.

One of the reasons why I had such a hard time changing my mindset when I first started freelancing was that a lot of sound business practices jarred with my idea of who I was and how I was supposed to act. In those days, I knew myself as a friend, a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend. In all of those roles, niceness and kindness would get me ahead--and putting myself first, although necessary sometimes, was something I had to do diplomatically and usually brought at least a little guilt. I'd just graduated from college. I was just getting used to myself as an employee, and I didn't know myself at all as a business owner or service provider.

And a few things I knew I had to do in those roles didn't sit well with me. Take marketing and sales, for example. I felt weird telling people how great I was. In my past life as a student, I was used to doing a really good job and having recognition come to me in the form of good grades and awards. It never occurred to me that I would have to push people to give me what I wanted instead of working really hard to deserve it and hoping they noticed. But that's how people succeed in the business world.

When it comes to client relations, I've been thinking about niceness lately and its worth. I'm not convinced that being "nice" is such a great selling point. If I were hiring a writer, I wouldn't care how nice she was. I would care if she got results. And I'm not saying that we should all go around being rude to people, throwing rocks at squirrels and making babies cry. I never say anything to clients that's less than civil, even when I'm refusing a request or demanding a late payment. But I also don't back down on my business terms, don't give freebies, and don't cave under pressure.

These are qualities opposite of what you'd call nice. Nice people make personal exceptions all the time. Nice is unselfish. And although unselfishness is an admirable quality, you have to be careful when someone demands it of you. When people expect you to be nice or act surprised that you're not being nice, it's usually because they want and expect you to put their needs before yours. And in a business situation, sometimes that's not a great idea.

Sometimes I suspect that niceness and professionalism sometimes clash in values. Businesspeople have to guard against being taken advantage of, but friends should trust each other. This is why I never do business with friends. I do favors.

I've always been nice and friendly to clients. I like to have fun, let my personality show through, and get to know people. And often that solidifies the business relationship. But nice can be a double-edged sword, leading some to think you can be taken advantage of.

I'm sure if I say that women face the expectation to be "nice" rather than professional more than men do, I'll get a few protestations from guys. And I'm sure there are guys out there who have experienced the same thing. But it's a commonly held belief that women are more often expected to be nice, to grant favors, to smile. Friendliness in women is more often mistaken for an invitation to take advantage. And women are more often penalized as being "mean" if they're assertive.

What do you think? Have you faced expectations to be nice in the past? Has being nice helped or hurt your business? Are niceness expectations different for women? And what does "being nice" mean for your business?