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”.

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