This is my definitive guide to how to deal with IT problems, the bane of the freelance. This may not be all you need to know – but it is all that I know.
So here goes:
1. Check that everything is plugged in. I had terrible trouble with the landline recently, and it turns out my partner had knocked the connection and it was no longer plugged in.
2. Turn it off and turn it on again. We are all told this but it is easy to forget how often it works – for your computer, for your phone etc. I recently received an upgraded iphone. I thought one thing that would mean was an end to having to turn it off and on again if it stopped receiving email. What a fool. Of course it doesn’t.
3. If you have a problem, see if a friend knows the answer or if you can find the solution online (unless of course you have no online connectivity – and do for goodness sake keep the telephone number of your internet service provider somewhere you can get hold of it. If you lose your connectivity you won’t be able to email them and you won’t be able to look up the number online). Try the solution for about 10 minutes. If you can’t work it out by then, give up.
4. See if there is a supplier that you think could or should help – Virgin, Belkin, BT, Orange or whoever your providers are. Expect them to say that they are very busy. Expect them to send you to one of the others. Prepare for step 5.
5. Kick the cat/ dog/ your partner/ wall. Scream a bit.
6. If the problem is not absolutely vital, and if you are not on a deadline, wait overnight. Things often get better on their own. If it is urgent, proceed immediately to step 7. if it does not solve itself overnight, then proceed to step 7.
7. GAMI. This stands for ‘get a man in’. I know that in non-sexist times it should be ‘get a man or woman in’ but GAM/WI is not as catchy. And certainly the preponderance of people who fix computers (ie everyone I have met) are male. No comment. But you need an expert. You mean you don’t have one? Find somebody quickly through personal recommendation/ internet recommendations. Ideally somebody who lives near you but can also put something on your computer that allows them remote access.
With luck they will either:
* Solve your problem immediately, in which case you will feel a fool but be grateful and it will be relatively cheap (ask them what they did and you may be able to do it yourself next time), or
* Take a long time, in which case it will cost you more money but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that it was not idiocy that meant you couldn’t do it yourself.
The worst case of course is if they can’t solve it. If they tell you you need to buy new software/ new kit they are probably right and you will have to bite the bullet. Get them to install it. Expensive maybe but they will get it right.
If they tell you there is nothing to be done:
8. Repeat step 5 at greater intensity.
9. Get ANOTHER man in.
10. Repeat 8 and 9 until:
* It is solved
* You are bankrupt
* You burst
* You decide to switch career.
And that is everything I know about IT. Oh, and do back things up somewhere – but you knew that didn’t you?
I had an agent before I became freelance, because I had been asked to write books, and a good friend advised that I should have one. Book contracts are complex, and you need to be careful that you don’t unwittingly sign up to something that you shouldn’t have done. And, I was told, an agent could help ‘if something went wrong’. I always imagined that the going wrong would involve things like me delivering late, and was smugly confident that it could not happen.
So far it hasn’t.
But I continued to work with my agent on large projects and it has paid dividends. If you are commissioned to write a feature for a few hundred pounds, and the company cannot or will not pay up, all you have lost is a few hundred pounds. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I am sure it will.
But longer projects involve more money – even if on a pro rata base they are not all that great. So you have more to lose. Imagine delivering a whole book and then not being paid. I know at least one person that it has happened to.
My adventures have been less dramatic. But one of my first freelance jobs was to help a company write a book. It was in one of the dramatic parts of the recession, and they were in turmoil. My agency negotiated a monthly payment for me. I went to a couple of meetings, but the projected copy for me to edit never materialised. And the person who had commissioned me was made redundant. The project died in the end, but not until I had had six monthly payments – not a fortune but worth having in the first year of freelance. I didn’t feel guilty about them because I had undertaken the work in good faith, and had been pushing for progress. But I wouldn’t have had that money without my agent.
More recently I wrote a book for a company that started having cash flow problems at the time my final invoice was due (final invoice because my agent had negotiated staged payments). If she hadn’t pushed and nagged, I am not sure that the money would have come through.
An agent of course takes a commission. But just think of it as a fee for peace of mind and it becomes far less daunting.
When you work in an office, however skeletal there is likely to be some admin support – somebody to do at least some of the jobs at which you are no good or that you don’t like doing. Working on your own, you may well feel that you have to do everything yourself. It isn’t true.
You can get help to do the things you don’t want to do.
They may be the tasks that you dislike, or at which you are rubbish – and the two often coincide. Most of us dislike the things we are bad at, and are bad at the things we dislike doing.
In my case the weakness is keeping track of invoices and assembling accounts information. So I employ a bookkeeper – freelance of course. There are very few freelances who could justify taking on somebody full time.
Not only do many people pay slowly, but when they pay it is not clear which invoices they have paid, and sometimes money goes into your account with no indication at all who it has come from.
If you don’t know how much you are owed, it is impossible to chase it.
When I first started working with my bookkeeper (she is called Sally – we work with people not functions) I was working flat out and not on top of things at all. I would be embarrassed to admit just how much outstanding money she magicked into my account in the first few months. Now things are on a more even keel, but I am still very grateful for the work she does.
Of course it is easy to farm out admin tasks if you are over-worked and earning well. But even if work is scarce it may be worth considering if you can afford it. Will you be better employed chasing invoices or chasing work?
The other advantage of having somebody chase my invoices for me, is that it is Sally who gets on people’s cases, not me. Of course they know she works for me. But that little distance means that I can be the friendly one, and the one who says, ‘Yes I would like to do this’, without having to say ‘and can we discuss my unpaid invoice please’. I think that is really valuable.
I can’t remember where I picked up this mantra, but it is certainly a useful one. I am not suggesting that you sit with a stopwatch on your desk, and tell your potential clients when their time is up. Instead I think of it as a general mantra.
Be happy to give a little of your time away, and it may reap dividends.
Of course, it is really flattering to be consulted, so having a conversation, or looking things up, is a pleasurable way to pass time (and what freelance isn’t addicted to wasting time? I’m doing it now). If you are prepared to be helpful, people will remember that, and come back to you in the future. Not all of them, and probably not the ones you expect.
On the other hand you shouldn’t be taken for a ride. Have a mental limit on what you will do. One client who paid me fairly but not excessively for the work I actually did, started asking so many detailed questions that eventually I suggested going to their office for a day’s consultancy work. I would have been willing to do it, but not surprisingly that was never followed up.
Be generous but don’t be a mug.
There may however be times when you want to work for nothing. I’ll tackle that in another post.
There are always depressing pieces penned by freelances about spending all day in their pyjamas. I am happy to say that that is not a vice to which I have yet succumbed – I wash and I dress every day, whatever the pressure of work. But my outfits at home are certainly not ‘business appropriate’ if I am not going out.
And why should they be? My two most important items are my ‘freelance cardigan’ and my ‘freelance slippers’. The cardigan is great because I can put my home phone in one pocket and my mobile in the other, as I wander round the flat (remember to remove before going to the loo – accidents that can happen will happen). And the slippers are warm lined and good for winter, because somehow homes are never warm enough, and sitting at a desk is, by definition, a sedentary activity.
I still have smart clothes. I even buy smart clothes. And I need them or at least I like to wear them. But what disappear are those smartish clothes that used to do for a day in the office when you felt a bit miserable and wanted to dress appropriately. The ‘I don’t like anything so I’ll wear this old rag’ clothes. Now going out is always a bit of an event, so I want to look good and enjoy putting on proper clothes.
When i was first freelancing I wouldn’t go into the centre of London on a weekday in anything I wouldn’t wear to work, because I thought I might meet work people. A friend, even if she was working at home, always wore work clothes to drop off the children at school,so that everyone knew she was working and couldn’t be inveigled into cups of coffee. Now I am more relaxed, but not ridiculously so. I think the fashion rule is:
You are selling yourself, so always wear clothes that make you look like yourself.
Of course, if you are fortunate enough to live very centrally you may bump into potential clients even when dashing out for a pint of milk with uncombed hair. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Even I, on the outer edge of zone two, have bumped into a work colleague when returning sweaty from a run. I don’t look like that when I go to meetings, though.
The other issue with clothes is, if you are going out in the evening, do you slob around in something comfortable all day, and then dress up for the evening out? Or do you put on your smart clothes first thing? (I am talking informal reception, not fancy dinner – nobody would work all day in the female equivalent of black tie.)
The upside is that dressing up makes you feel a bit special when you do it. The downside is that if it is cold and dark and raining outside, having to get changed may be a further disincentive if you are already wondering if you REALLY want to go or not.
I don’t have the answer. I do know that I don’t get to as many things as I should. Time to start dressing up in the morning?
It is great when you have completed a piece of work, it has been published, it looks good, there aren’t too many typos – and maybe even somebody says something nice about it.
Enjoying that feeling is perfectly reasonable – just don’t expect it to happen all the time. Because (next rule):
You have to get used to your projects just trailing away.
Damn editors, I bet you think. But actually, most editors have such a hand-to-mouth existence that they can’t afford to kill your work unless it is truly dire (and yours won’t be, will it?).
It is true that few editors send out copies of their magazines, so you have to either buy a subscription or keep checking online (if there is no subscription barrier) to see your work actually appear. I’ve certainly written things and never seen them in print or on screen. But they are usually there.
Commercial clients can be much worse. Sometimes the project is in several stages, and you deliver the first stage and never hear again. Maybe they have massacred your work and re-used it, or quietly dropped it, or gone to someone else. This happens with brochures, company magazines, proposals for TV series, websites. While you are working on it, you are their best friend. Then you cease to exist.
There is no point in getting bitter about it.
Don’t be bitter, just get paid.
It may well be that you have got something out of the project after all. You may have made new contacts (not necessarily the people you are working for), you may have learnt something, you may even have acquired some information that you can use elsewhere.
It comes as a surprise if you have worked in magazines where deadlines are tight and money is short, to realise that often having more time does not improve the job.
The more time and money the client has, the more they can afford to change their mind.
Commercial projects are often far more frustrating than editorial ones. Ideally you should work with a single contact, but they may be answerable to whole committees full of people.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t do this work. But if you want the satisfaction of a job well done, of a projects that it is signed, sealed, delivered and produced, then you may wish, if you have the luxury, to choose your clients carefully.
Almost everything I have written so far has been very positive about freelancing, and has looked at the advantages. But it would be idiotic to say that there are no downsides and I think one of them is to do with technology.
People in jobs in large organisations commonly curse the IT department for their slowness, obtuseness and pettifogging rules. But freelance for a while and you realise how lovely it would be to have an IT department to cuss.
You are your own IT department and a more incompetent and bad tempered one it would be hard to meet.
There are people who find computers fascinating, and then there are the rest of us, who just want to use them to get the job done. If you are in the second category you will, like me, not be delighted when your computer runs slow and then dies, when your internet service provider loses the ability to send email for several days, when your print drivers de-install themselves or when your phone will no longer send email.
You just have to accept that you will curse, you will weep – and somehow or other, you still will deliver your work on time.
If you are making widgets and your aim is to sell them, it is probably easy to track the effects of your marketing directly, especially if you can discover the route by which each customer came to you.
But as a freelance journalist, it is much harder. And like most journalists, I have had no training in marketing and certainly don’t employ a professional to help me. So this is just my trial and error approach. I would say:
Market yourself in every way that does not require an unfeasible amount of effort or money.
So make sure you have some decent-ish business cards. Put yourself on all the social media sites that you can – at least on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Be active-ish on them. List yourself on free journalist directories. Cross-promote – so these blog posts will automatically go up on Twitter.
As a journalist, your main aim is for people to know you are there. If you are freelance you no longer have the prestige (or otherwise) of a big organisation behind you. Try to find ways to market yourself that you will enjoy, as you will do better at them. Again, if you are a miserable misanthrope who hates both face to face meetings and social media I don’t know what to suggest apart from getting another career.
One advantage that makes marketing easier if you are freelance is that:
You are the brand
Nobody knows better than you what you are selling, because you are selling yourself.
You may think that going into freelance journalism rather than say getting a job as a PR means that you are avoiding the dreaded world of marketing. But not so. Here comes what I think is rule 7:
You need to market yourself like mad.
I was really fortunate in that I had had a staff job for 15 years,and so I already knew a lot of people when I was made redundant. And though I felt that I could be really grumpy (and was a little taken aback that almost every comment on my leaving card attested to my prowess at swearing) there seemed to be a lot with whom I got on well, and who liked my work. It must be much harder if you are trying to break into a field from scratch.
I did two things almost immediately. I emailed everybody I knew, told them I was going and gave them contact details. And I organised a party. It was in a pub, I invited a mix of personal friends, people I had worked with and professional contacts. I paid for some of the wine and all of the food. It was all the opposite of fading away politely.
So having contacts is a great start. But you cannot rely just on those initial contacts as gradually they will decrease. They will change jobs, be promoted, retire or just go off you. So you have to get to know new people (and some of them at least should be fairly young if you are going to safeguard your future).
People always talk about targeted marketing, but it seems to me it is really hard to know exactly who will give you jobs. Sometimes they come from people directly, at other times by recommendation from other journalists or clients. I recently wrote a big report for Building Design on ‘How to win work’ and as part of that interviewed Peter Murray, who is Mr Architecture Marketing. He said that when architects go out to events, they have wasted their time if they just talk to other architects. They need to get to know potential clients, and also members of other professions with whom they could collaborate. For journalists, you need to meet both people within your industry and other journalists – the first may provide work, but are more likely to give you leads. The work itself is most likely to come from fellow journalists.
So what do you do when you go out? Be interested, be friendly, talk a little about what you do and more about what the person you are talking to does. Be old-fashioned and hand out business cards to new contacts. Occasionally I have said to somebody ‘I could write a report for you’ or ‘I could write a feature for you’. And it has worked. But mostly you want people just to be aware of you.
Oh, and remember to enjoy yourself. You are no longer there on behalf of an organisation that employs you. You are there on behalf of yourself. Let people see who you are, and if they like you, they will follow up. It may not be the people you expect who will do so, and it may not be for some time. But the more people who know you, and the more recently they have seen you, the more likely they are to give you work.
Evidently not all marketing has to be done face to face. But I will deal with other approaches in another post.
Judy Heminsley, a dedicated home worker, writes a blog called How to Work from Home (and is very active on twitter). Part of her blog is dedicated to showcasing lovely home offices. And they are lovely and inspiring. Very nice to have if you can manage it. But if you are freelancing:
You don’t need a home office.
Some people of course don’t have an office at all. I knew two people who had free membership of a club for a year and no office. So they spent every day at the club, hooking up to the wifi with their laptops and fielding calls on their mobile phones.
That requires a certain skill of organisation, and the ability to operate in a paperless manner. (And I think it made them hate the club after a while). Most of us I think do need a workspace, but it doesn’t need to be anything special. I still work at a desktop computer, partly because I was so indoctrinated with ergonomic information that I firmly believe a laptop screen is at the wrong level, and partly through inertia. And so I have a desk. It is in my bedroom, jammed between my bed and the wall. I had written a couple of books at it and done some ‘distance working’ before I went freelance. So I knew it was feasible.
Because I am an untidy person, my desk is untidy. I usually have a pile of papers that lives on my chair at night and on the bed during the day. When I left The Architects’ Journal I was given a lamp as a leaving present. It does sterling duty. By day, it is a desk lamp but turn it round at night and, hey presto, it is a bedside light.
I need a tolerant partner, who doesn’t mind if I do early morning interviews to far-flung places while he is sleeping – and I have to trust him not to snore.
Is this ideal? No. Would I like a lovely home office like the ones Judy Heminsley shows? Yes I would, although it would rapidly become far less tidy. But does not having a home office hamper me? No it doesn’t. It made be far from ideal but it allows me to do everything I need to do.
It is not of course the kind of office in which I can hold meetings. But on the rare occasions when I need to meet someone locally, I have the ideal ‘office’. It is a coffee shop just across the road, which makes far better coffee than I can, and also sells tempting pastries.
If you live near a city centre property will be expensive. If you don’t have a rich partner or a trust fund you may well be unable to afford the space to install a home office. You could of course move out to get extra space. But, here comes my next rule:
You need to be as near as possible to the centre of activity.
Of course I do a lot of my work by phone and email. But face-to-face meetings are valuable. I am about 45 minutes from central London by tube. I reckon it takes me an hour to get to most meetings – I am usually early, occasionally late. My life would be more efficient if I lived more centrally. However hard you try to put meetings back to back, it never works. If for instance you have a late morning meeting, one in the afternoon and an early evening event, it is a fair bet that the middle one will be cancelled. You can of course sit in a cafe and do some work, try to arrange another meeting, or rush home and rush out again. But never forget another lesson of freelance life:
You can go to the cinema in the afternoon.