When you're anxious to get work or earn a quick windfall, you're more likely to get burned. That's especially true for people who enter into freelance work for the first time. But even seasoned independent workers wind up getting screwed when the pressure's on. Here's why that happens and how to avoid it.
My coaching client Loren was hanging all her hopes on one opportunity. Recently divorced after years of spending most of her time with family and a little time writing for nonprofits, she was having difficulty reentering the workforce. Her family duties made freelancing the only viable option. She was hungry for gigs.
That also meant she was vulnerable to taking on the wrong ones. Loren’s desperation put her in a weak negotiating position right from the start. Prospective clients could sniff out her lack of confidence and subsequently devalued her credentials. Her blind trust that she could hammer out a good contract or two with them nonetheless was just that—blind.
Still, Loren started off on the right foot. By networking energetically, she met Gretchen, a consultant who'd been itching to pitch a nonprofit. Since Gretchen was neither up to speed on nonprofits nor a writer, Loren struck her as a great fit, and Loren herself agreed. She leapt right into planning and helped Gretchen rewrite her pitch and refine her proposal. Gretchen then drew up the budget and inserted Loren’s fees as a line item.
They presented the proposal together on a conference call and hoped for a positive outcome—which arrived for one of them. Gretchen got the gig but Loren didn’t, despite having provided much of the meat of the proposal. This type of thing happens a lot more often than you might think, and it's usually avoidable. In this case, the client requested a cost reduction, which for Gretchen was as easy as drawing a line through Loren’s name on the budget.
Loren got burned, of course, earning no compensation for all the work she'd put in. In a coaching session soon afterward, she told me that her "disappointment took me right back to tenth grade, when I brought home a C and felt like I’d failed my parents." To help Loren move past that experience, we put together a few steps she or anyone could use to protect themselves the next time around.
As you walk the thin line between blame and responsibility, you can tell you’re still on the blame side because you're still angry—at the other person, but also yourself. To move forward, you need to stop assigning blame and start looking at it in terms of contribution—how you yourself might have contributed to the mishap, emotions notwithstanding.
This wasn't actually that hard for my client. Loren’s biggest contribution to the problem, she realized, was not asking for what she needed most—money. Next came asking for a commitment from Gretchen that they were in this together. Those two actions would have earned her more than money and possible success—they would have earned her respect.
Is it hard to ask for a fee for spec work? You bet. It took me years and many disappointments to make myself do it. But it’s worth it, and so are you. First, you need to show any potential clients or collaborators your enthusiasm: "This is a great opportunity and I’d love to be involved." Then stake your claim: "I charge a fee of ___ [or, if you prefer, "half my usual rate"] to prepare pitches. That covers my services and meeting time. How does that sound?"
How do you talk about a potential partnership with someone you barely know on a project you’re just learning about? Just use the paid-for time working on the pitch together to size them up. You can decide whether they're actually the right person to tackle a big project alongside after you win an offer together.
These were lessons Loren learned the hard way after looking back over her experience. But they also pointed the way ahead. After all, once this opportunity fell through, she was still really in need of new work—even more so now.
When we're in need, we're all vulnerable. And to reverse some of that vulnerability, it's important to always have an alternative. You never want just one iron in the fire. If you don’t have any obvious opportunities, invent some. Stop furiously pitching and instead spend some time building a prospect list or updating your website or LinkedIn page. Volunteer your time with a relevant industry group.
Keep in mind, too, that when someone asks you for something, at that precise moment, they expect to be asked for something in return. It’s called reciprocity. Asked for your services? Ask for money. If not money, ask for work-in-kind. (But really just ask for money.)
In retrospect, it's clear that line item in Gretchen's budget for Loren’s services was screaming "Cut me!"—because it was just a single line item. Writing touches everything in business, though. Loren should've made sure her services were woven throughout the proposal, not dropped in just once.
A final rule for even the most desperate of independent workers to bear in mind: If they’re asking for your smarts, they really need your smarts, and your smarts are worth money. If you have expertise, you have leverage.
That's why there's a difference between seeking out volunteer work for networking purposes, or because it's something you care about, and agreeing to take on work for free. Free work reduces not just the value of your expertise but also the respect that’s necessary for any professional’s work to be successful. When you give something away for free (outside of a charity context that you've already decided has meaning for you personally), people assess it as having little or no value.
It's true that stress and isolation narrow your thinking and make this type of leverage hard to see. When you feel stressed, it can help even to just remind yourself that your thinking isn't at its best. Talk things through with a friend or coach. Someone else can help you get more perspective—so you can see that you're not really as desperate as you may feel.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.