How to Be A Better Freelancer

A primer for the self-unemployed: A successful freelance career is equal parts talent, diplomacy, and common sense. 

A Primer for the Self-Unemployed

Who Should Read This?
If you are one of my long time freelance colleagues, then chances are you are one of the elite professionals that already work with the best of the best (or should). If you want more work or a better class of buyers, read on. If you hire freelancers, then read on. I will talk about you and your idiosyncrasies. Hopefully, you can learn how to work better with the freelance community.

You Are Just A Piece of Gear (at first)
Dear Freelancer, in business terms you are a resource with a cost attached. Sorry, The Employer.

Generally, when a production rental company hires you they are probably going to lose money. Some of them kind of resent you for that even though it is not your fault. What bugs them even more is when you think you are doing them a favor by charging $50/day less than they are charging (it doesn’t even cover their overhead much less their risk). The bottom line is that you may not be right for every job they have. But there are some projects that need your special skills and your day rate will not be a factor. Eventually the buyer will learn to charge more when they need better talent, but that is an article for another day.

My point to this is: know what you are worth and stick to it. Other companies can afford you; it is not your fault that this one can’t. Negotiating your fee just lowers your value on the next gig and prompts them to call you for sub-par jobs. Having said that, you still need to be flexible. Read on.

National Vs Regional
I have not met a production rental company that doesn’t aspire to being a national player. Often, small regional players think they already compete with the big boys (even if they can’t name them) but take their staff with them wherever they go. To these folks, freelancers are the guys that do the leftover jobs back home. However there is a growing number of regional stagers with national accounts that take them all across the continent and beyond. These jobs have travel budgets and land in all the old familiar places. Too often I see national freelancers turn their noses up at these regional companies – without realizing that they have top notch gear, great clients, and appreciate talent like you.

The Day Rate Thing
I have hired hundreds of freelancers over the years. My pet peeve has typically been unrealistic day rates with all sorts of conditions. When I hear, “My rate is $400 for projection, but I get $500 if I switch…” Here’s my standard reply: I am an employer with the power to hire you for dozens of gigs a year or none. When I hire you, I do not want a call in the middle of the gig because you had to use some of your high-end skills that day. What I want is YOUR day rate – your off-the-couch price – that buys 100% of your brain 100% of the time. If I hire you to run house lights I expect you to be just a smart, just as talented, and just as professional as you would be as the Video Director. If your rate is too high, I won’t call you that often but in any case you can decide whether or not to take the gig and I won’t ask you to negotiate your price.

I know that some hiring companies don’t share my views, but I feel my approach is best for everyone. None the less, many employers call and negotiate rates on each job. That doesn’t mean you have to. The same speech above works in reverse too.

Don’t Be “That” Guy
The average regional stager has a couple of good all-around techs. They may have a top notch person in one discipline or another, but that tech probably has more responsibilities than you can count. If you are a specialist in video/data switching and have certificates from Vista, Barco, and Grass Valley – then you are potentially very threatening to the house guy’s career or at least his/her ego. Coming in and showing how smart you are is a sure fire way to be blacklisted. If you know that there are many “right” ways to do something, then you know that you may not know them all. Take the time (and use your patience) to learn how your employer does things. When you have achieved mutual respect, then perhaps you will be asked to help improve their product.

Demonstrate Your Value
Regional companies need national level talent on local jobs – just not all the time. And when they do, there is no travel budget. If you want their national work, then you need to figure out how to help with the “local” jobs when it makes sense to bring you in. Consider packaging your services with some travel expenses. If the customer has a tight local budget, offer to buy your own airline ticket if they will cover hotel and per diem. Chances are you have enough miles to make the flight free if you want to. The lesson here is to learn to treat the event as a project, rather than a line item cost recovery exercise.

The other kind of value you can show is how you can help the project. Get involved in pre-planning, review equipment packs, help specify the system, or offer your Playback Pro (you were bringing it anyway, right?). Help the buyer see that hiring you was worth every penny.

Be Easy To Hire
Employers and freelancers need to work together on this one. I recommend that freelancers send their schedule to their best clients to show open days (why not share an Outlook calendar?). In turn I suggest that employers track freelancers’ schedules just like employees. If both sides do this, it should all but eliminate useless calls and emails to check availability. How much time do we waste calling our favorite freelancer over and over again for the same dates when they are already booked elsewhere?

Freelancers, if you have established your rate and made your availability transparent then you all need to do is confirm the request and get a purchase order. You can do this by email or text without losing any time on your current gig.

Find More Work
Are you a quality national freelancer that needs more work? Let me assure you that there are hundreds of companies that could use your services. You won’t get more jobs by advertising your availability on Facebook or Linkedin, but you will find companies that do the kinds of gigs you are qualified for by scouting these sites. When you do spot a likely employer, don’t just shoot out a resume – do some more research. Many companies have a person that books freelancers, but doesn’t necessarily decide whom to hire. That decision may belong to a Department Head, Project Manager, Salesperson, or even the owner. Present your credentials to the decision-maker, but develop a good relationship with everyone in the company you encounter.

What are good credentials? It’s all about who you know, isn’t it? When approaching a regional player – it is OK to cite the national firms you work with and the kind of positions you are hired for. You can also be gracious when the contact says “We don’t do a lot of jobs like that.” The point is – they at least do some. Explain why you are interested in this company: “I understand you use Digico, and that is my favorite console.” And finally – and this is important – don’t ask for a gig. Your are not trying to fill a gap in your calendar, rather you are looking for good client. Ask to meet the department head for your discipline or visit the sales people. Being friendly, forthcoming, and looking like a class act is not too much to expect from a prospective freelancer. And never forget that referrals and introductions from other freelancers are GOLDEN.

In Closing…

Who Won’t Get Hired?
I am amazed that in 2013 I still have to coach freelancers that appearance, helpfulness, and professionalism really do matter. No matter how good you THINK you are, you might be left behind if…

  • You go by your touring nickname
  • You have to press down on your invoice to make copies
  • You choose your t-shirt based on your mood
  • Your hair, tattoos, piercings, or general appearance would scare anyone’s mother
  • Your email address is anything other than a variation of your real name
  • You can’t get a credit card
  • You skipped breakfast to get to the gig on time or,
  • You arrived late so you could stop for breakfast

Thanks for reading…

Leave a comment: