Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Freelancing during the recession.

My name is Ronnie Lebow. Back in 2001, I became a full-time freelancer because I was sick and tired of packing up my desk every time the agency I was working for lost a big account. Thanks to the economic spiral after September 11th, it was really my best and only option.
I figured, if I’m going to be in an industry where there is no sense of job security, I may as well be a free agent. I already had experience from working full time for almost 10 years, and I also understood how to sell to clients having been in many boardrooms. So, it only made sense to me to go out and find my own clients and stop relying on “here-today and gone-tomorrow” agencies to provide me with a paycheck. I guess you can say that I came to the conclusion that nobody ever really gets rich working for somebody else*.

Flash forward to today.

I’ve been writing articles about my freelancing experiences for several years now and contributed to this blog where I have continuously stressed the fact that this economic storm was coming. Of course, there are many in the industry that thumb their noses at freelancers and consider them not only unworthy, but as those that simply couldn’t “make it”.

My how the times have once again changed.

In the last month, I have received so many emails asking for freelancing advice that truthfully, I am actually starting to despise them. People losing their jobs, people about to lose their jobs. Many scared individuals wondering if becoming a freelancer is also their best and only option? Somehow, I have become the expert that everyone is turning to and I thank you all for it. I truly appreciate the fact that I have become a considered expert in an area of this industry. However, you can kind of understand that I would rather these “freelance” emails come from agencies and companies looking for my services than from those that will end up out on the street as my competition.

So, for those of you now in this boat (or thinking about it), I’m going to (once again) be a nice guy and offer a few bits of advice.

Some agencies do in fact need freelancers at the moment. I am working for one in particular that has kept me very busy. However, the agencies that are thinking about firing staff will keep on a few to handle the work/clients they still have. They don’t need you right now. They may need a freelancer at a later date when things start to pick up. But probably not at this very moment.
My guess is that they are also being inundated with calls from those recently laid off. If you are not already on their roster, you may want to forget this route. You can put your name on their list. But there are a hundred others on it as well. Very rarely do I call agencies looking for work. Most often, they find me.

The one question I get asked the most is “what should I charge”?
There are a dozen factors to take into consideration. What’s your level of seniority? What will you be working on? Which agency/company? Etc. Etc. Etc. I like to find out immediately what their budget is for my services. It changes often. If you are hoping for a set rate/price, and are unwilling to budge, you won’t be working much.

Companies (if they are smart) MUST advertise right now. Your mission is to find them and convince them of this. This is in fact a full time job.
The most important thing I can tell you is this…NOTHING in this business is overnight. If you get a client interested in your services, expect at least 6 weeks (or more) before something is signed and you begin. To put this into perspective, I’ve had a few proposals out since August and I am still waiting to hear if I have a go-ahead. Waiting is absolutely normal. In the meantime, keep going. Keep looking. The proposal you have out there has more of a chance of not going ahead than proceeding. So try and put many out there. I like to equate this to fishing. Keep throwing out baited lines. The more lines you have out there the better your chances. Eventually, one of them has to land a fish. The fisherman that relies on only one rod is going to starve.
Also, keep in mind that once you finish the project, expect 30-90 days before you receive final payment. If you need some immediate cash, insist on a retainer. In all my years I have NEVER received a retainer from an agency. With other clients I insist.

There will be months where nothing happens. If you can’t handle this fact, freelancing is not for you. It took me years to finally understand this. Please read my blog post “Recharging your Batteries”. Develop a serious hobby. You’ll need it. It will help take away from the stress of having nothing going on and hopefully to help find some new contacts. I hand out many business cards on the golf course and at the poker tables. Sometimes these introductions work out, often they don’t. But one thing is certain, you must ALWAYS be selling yourself. If you are shy, or are not good at striking up conversations with strangers, get over this hurdle quickly.

And last, some of us have been preparing for this for quite some time. Think it’s coincidence that some of this industry’s top people evacuated their posts to start up their own companies? Rather than slamming them in the industry forums for having the massive kahonas to take such a leap, you really should have been paying attention to the fact that the rats were fleeing the ships.
Becoming a freelancer is exactly like starting a business. It may take months and even years to get the ball rolling and keep a continuous supply of eggs in your basket. Sometimes, no matter how good the last year was, you will be back to square one and must find new eggs to fill up your basket. It can be extremely rewarding. It can also be a very rough ride.

For those of you thrown recently into the unemployment pool, I’m going to tell you straight out how it is for I have NEVER sugar-coated the truth. Many of you are going to drown. Prepare your game plans. I lost a lot of friends (in this industry) in the last economic downturn.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that when all of this blows over, when things start to really pick up again, there will be jobs that need filling.

In the meantime, I thank you all for your emails and leave you with this final statement as we head into a long downward slide…

Every man for himself.

Good luck.

*This statement does not include those that originally joined a start-up company called “Google”.

The D&AD Awards screening in Toronto

Last night I attended the D&AD Awards screening in Toronto.
To say I had a good time is to put it mildly.
Once again, Ihaveanidea (and its sponsors) did a great job.
For those of you in the remaining cities - San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles, you should go. Simple as that.

Here are some observations from the evening…

Winning a Pencil takes big budgets. Much of the work involved was not produced on a shoestring. If your goal in life is to win one, you really should not work at the little boutique with clients like “Joe’s Diner”.

The timeframe between being 22 and 39 years of age goes by in a flash. For one of the first times in my life, I actually felt old.
With this in mind, I was shocked at how few senior creatives came out. The majority in attendance were young. Juniors and students. I would think that a show celebrating some of the best work in the world would bring the creative teams out in droves.
Somebody made a comment about this to the tune of “If they aren’t in the show, they don’t bother”. I’m hoping there isn’t some truth to this.
Watching a reel of great work (for a very low price) when you are in the industry makes sense to me. Especially when acquiring one of the annuals to peruse is next to impossible.

I had a lot of respect for those that came out. I know I’m going to get some flack for saying this but truthfully, I saw way more enthusiasm in the people I met last night than I did at Portfolio night.
At Portfolio night, I felt I met some students that went through their programs because they thought it was a good idea rather than a lifelong desire to be in this industry.
I’ve met many young wannabes trying to break in over the years. The passion isn’t always there.
Last night, for all those in attendance, I sensed very strongly that the passion IS there. These are kids that want to soak up everything. They want to be in this industry. They want to know what wins, what’s considered great work. They WANT to be inspired.
There was a lot of energy in the room.

I applaud those that came out…and for those hoping to break in, I wish you all the very best of luck.

After some drinks, I hopped a subway home around midnight.
As I analyzed the ads above my head, chuckling at a few, I once again remembered that this industry is supposed to be fun.
And that’s what last night was all about.

Don't let them bend you over.

Recently, I experienced a very ugly work situation.
This post has been written to share my experience and for you to understand not only the steps I took to deal with it but also how I managed to win the battle.

In this business, you will often work on side projects.
Friends, family, whomever, somebody always needs something creative produced and they will ask you. They say that the only thing certain in life are death and taxes but I can assure you, your friend’s engagement party invitations (or whatever) are also on that list when you work in the creative field.

My side projects became so heavy over time that I ended up leaving my full time position to focus on them.
You will have these projects, and sometimes they will end on a sour note. Some people in this world are assholes. It’s as simple as that. This is a story that I hope will give you some food for thought and will make sure that you take all the necessary precautions to keep the ball in your court.

Here’s the quick story. I was hired to produce a logo and business cards for a company.
We agreed to a price, the work was created, and everything went extremely well.
Until my client took the work to his printer for production.
According to my source (an employee of the client), the printing company (also a design firm) asked who created it and for how much?
When my client told them, they said they could have done it much cheaper and proceeded to bastardize my work by creating their own versions. It’s completely wrong and immoral, but it happened.
They showed it to my client, he liked what he saw (and the price), and decided to go with their version.

There was really nothing I could do about it. I wrote the printing company voicing my concern but they basically told me I was making false accusations and they had no idea what I was talking about.

So, I let it go. I sent my invoices to the client and they went ignored. I then got the reply when I pushed that I figured was coming…

“I really feel that you did not do your job fully in this case. I have a lot of family in this business and your pricing (which I don’t believe I agreed on a final price on) is completely absurd. I had the work completely redone and it was done for a fraction of your price”

Now, here’s the thing, in this day and age, you can’t lie when I have a paper trail as long as my arm with emails (and proposals) stating how much I am getting paid, and numerous approvals with “great work” and “we love it”.

This is where things got ugly.

I sent a final invoice (with the approval emails attached) stating that if my bill is not paid, I will have to take legal action.
The client sent an email back to the tune of “my lawyer can beat up your lawyer”.

Step 2, I sent a “cease and desist” letter. The letter claims that the client can’t use anything that resembles my work since I own it and they had not paid me for the privilege.

They wrote back claiming they came up with the logo by instructing me on what they wanted. They considered the whole matter “closed”.

I had enough. It was time for action.

Many are under the impression that the small guy (in this case me) will simply not bother going to court because of all the trouble involved.
In a way they are right.
Here’s how it works (in Ontario)...

To get lawyers involved is a fortune. To go to court (or small claims court...for unsettled disputes up to $10k) is a joke. You have to go to court, pay, and file papers. You have to make copies. You have to serve them. You then get a date (months later) to meet with a moderator BEFORE the case goes to trial to see if you can work it out. If you don’t, it goes to court (months later). Providing you have all the proof, you can usually win. The courts hate it when the small business owner gets screwed out of their money.
Now here’s the thing, even if you win, the client still may not pay you. This means you have to go through the whole court process once again in order to get your money. Many give up and depending on the amount owed, it is simply not worth it.

I wrote back to the client one last time.
The reply they gave is not suitable for print. Clearly, I was not dealing with somebody of sound mind.

Now, here’s how it ended. That night, I made one phone call. To a collection agency.
I like to think of them as “legal mafia”. I basically called in “Luca the collector”.
For 25% of the invoice (which you can actually write off as a loss) they will get your money for you.
Once the bill is in the hands of a collection agency, if the client doesn’t pay, they risk tarnishing their credit rating. Good luck to them if they would like to take out a one dollar loan on a stick of gum.

5 minutes after I got off the phone with the collection agency, the client received a phone call.
A few days later I had the money.

The lessons…

When you start a project, make sure you keep records. Get the client to sign a written proposal (outlining everything you are giving them) before starting. If they don’t sign, don’t begin.

Keep every email they send you during the project. Every one. This way there can be no arguments. No “he said, she said”.

Never let anyone make you believe that the ball isn’t in your court. If you’ve taken the proper steps and kept records, it’s always in your court.

Some people will try anything they can to get out of paying a bill. It has nothing to do with you. You could have given them a masterpiece. You'll still get the same scenario. It's in their nature. These are usually the same people that complain about the bill at a 5-star restaurant stating they didn't like the food.

You deserve to get paid for your work. Period.