In Free Agent Nation, work may be personal, authentic, fun, and rewarding. But it's not without its problems. Below are six of the most common problems faced by free agents — along with suggestions from travelers familiar with the terrain.
Problem: "I'm not getting paid! What can I do about it?"
Solution: The best way to solve this problem is to prevent it in the first place. Before embarking on a new project, ask about the pay procedure — who in the organization must sign off on the contract, how long it will take to cut the check. If you're skeptical about getting paid, ask for half your fee up front. You'd be surprised how many clients are willing to oblige.
When you're trying to get paid for something you've already done, don't rely on the person who brought you in on the project. "You don't want your interaction with your client to revolve around 'When am I getting paid?' " advises Jennie Schacht, a free-agent health care consultant based in Oakland, California. Instead, establish contact with someone in the organization's accounts-payable department. Talk with that person early and often — don't wait for a problem to develop. And if you do have a problem, don't be shy about raising the issue: accounts people are used to hearing from vendors, and the only way to get their attention is to be your own best, most aggressive representative.
Problem: "I'm so busy doing a project that I never have time to market myself to potential clients."
Solution: Break out of the old mind-set! You're thinking about "marketing" as if you were still in the world of the big company. In Free Agent Nation, marketing is rarely about buying newspaper ads or making television commercials. But it's about almost everything else, including the quality of your work — as well as your business cards, your Web site, the articles you write, the associations you join, and the conversation you have with the person beside you on an airplane.
Roger Shepard, a free agent based in San Francisco, says, "Marketing is meeting as many people as you can as fast as you can in as many disciplines as you can."
Problem: "I'm out of the loop. I miss that watercooler. I don't know what's going on."
Solution: Wake up. The loop doesn't come to you anymore. You go to the loop. So call your former colleagues. Then call some new ones. Email a new acquaintance. Read magazines outside of your area of expertise. Check out Web sites that cover topics you want to learn about. Reawaken your intellectual curiosity and open yourself to new learning. The next time you're at Kinko's, ask people what they're working on. Who knows? You might find your next client — or a new friend.
Problem: "My client is driving me crazy. He's worse than my boss ever was!"
Solution: Again, think prevention, and you can avoid worrying about the cure. "Saying no to a bad client is key to your survival," says Philip Cooper, a free-agent sales trainer based in San Francisco. The warning signs of a potentially infuriating client: giving you a hard time over your fee, demanding an extensive written proposal, asking you to do a lot of preliminary work for free. When in doubt, go with your gut feelings. You'll find that saying no to a job that has you worried will give you an immediate feeling of relief. If you're already trapped in a nightmare contract, finish the project, do a great job — and when you're done, fire your client.
Problem: "I'm never off work."
Solution: It's true. If you are the business, then your business is open 24 hours a day. Which means you have to set some boundaries. So make sure that you schedule days off (and since you're a free agent, they don't have to be on a weekend). Or set a daily quitting time and stick to it: no work after 8 PM, for example. Sometimes the best thing for your psyche and your wallet is to reverse the Nike slogan: Just don't do it.
Problem: "I'm off-balance all the time. I can't get in a rhythm."
Solution: If you've listened only to Johann Sebastian Bach your whole life, then when you first hear John Coltrane, the music will sound rhythmless and out of tune. The same goes for free agency. So recalibrate your expectations and listen for a different kind of beat. Pretty soon you'll pick it up — a new kind of music, more jazz than classical.
Sue Burish, a free agent based in Oakland, spends three days each week doing her work, one day marketing herself, and one day learning. But what makes her successful is what enables great jazz musicians to stir the soul: she knows how to improvise.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.