Once a week I’ll field an email from a recruiter or have a conversation with a friend where they’ll remind me that the freelance life bears an expiration date, and thus: when will you go back to full-time? To which I respond, I’d rather gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch. Over my twenty years in the workplace (from intern to middle management to executive to consultant) I’ve learned that chaining yourself to a desk in a company merely gives one the illusion of job security, however, the only secure fact is that for a period of time you will get paychecks every two weeks. I’ve been through enough corporate restructurings, failed dot.coms and agency right-sizing to know that people are disposable. No one is truly indispensable–one can be always be replaced. Because at the end of the day most companies are focused on profit rather than people. This is a cold truth, admittedly, but a real one. Many have failed to understand that when you place people over profit you incur more revenue and satisfaction. So when a recruiter (or friend) prattles on about the perfect job and compensation package, I ask three simple questions:
1. How do you practice flexible work schedules? (Notice how I didn’t phrase the question as “Do you…” because the latter gives employers an escape clause to prattle on about how employees can work from home one day a week but those employees tend to overwork out of guilt, and the only flexibility they truly have is the ability to wear sweatpants)
2. Do you create an environment where employees are encouraged to pursue side projects?
3. If so, tell me about the side hustles of your employees (junior to senior).
Radio silence. Crickets. Tumbleweeds, etc.
Until an employer can answer those questions to my satisfaction, I’ll play in this sandbox over here, pursuing my own projects and passions. Creating my own rules.
Two years ago I resigned from a job that was slowly killing me. I left a place where I no longer believed in the integrity of leadership for something other. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t what I’d left behind. But I was frightened, lost. My generation was taught to stick it out; we believed in the promise of a corporate ladder, even if the ladder was poorly assembled. I didn’t know how to price myself or get clients or build a pipeline. I only knew my value.
After I left to pursue consulting, my mentor gave me the best piece of advice I’d ever received: surround yourself with smart people. These people need not be in your industry, nor are they steps to get you to your next project–these are people who are inspired by what they do, can offer you information about their industry and adjacent industries, and surround you with good energy and light, because if you asked me two years ago what I would be doing today I would never have conceived that I would have had two large projects relating to organizational workflow and process design (a fancy way of saying I put my Type A organization + financial skills to use).
One thing I did notice is that people are funny about money. No one wants to talk about it. This baffles me because it isn’t as if we were working in the same company (although learning about disparity in previous roles has helped me negotiate aggressively come annual review) or bidding on the same project. In an age where people share the most intimate details of their personal life online (I used to know an executive who regaled the details of her sex life on Twitter), money is still taboo. What if I make more? What if I make less? These are the reasons people SHOULD talk about money. Talking about money has helped me create alternative pricing based on my skillsets (my strategy work rate differs from my copywriting rate), and has helped me determine my day rate vs. project rate and how to account for all the outliers in my contract.
Believe me when I say finding consultants who are open about their finances was akin to finding a thimble of water in the Sahara.
Luckily, there are resources that give clarity: rate calculators, generating alternative revenue streams, smart tips on project pricing, and overall survival guidelines. Frankly, this isn’t enough. We can read countless articles written by freelancers, but that can never replace speaking openly and honestly with our peers. I know of two women who have at least ten years experience in online marketing and they were pricing themselves out for under $100/hr in New York. Granted, the pay scale varies by industry, but that’s why it’s so important to supplement online research with real conversations. I’m transparent about all my rates (standard rate, day rate, agency rate, copywriting rate, discounted rate for non-profits, start-ups and passion brands) and I talk about the things that are not in standard calculators (is the client that sort that requires a lot of education and hand-holding, which amps up the billable hours–ruin if you’ve signed on for a project rate since you’ll likely burn through your allocated hours without the ability to tack on an hourly rate on top of your project fee if you’ve exceeded an hourly count OR building in all of this from the onset). I learn a lot about a client through the pitch phase–initial calls to communication preferences to proposal review–which helps me deliver project and hourly rates that ensure they get the best work while I make a profit.
See what I mean? All the online research doesn’t compare to real-life scenarios from people who have been there. When I determined my rates, I used a calculator, considered what will keep me sustained every month–but I also considered the market, industry size and sector, so I tend to customize my rate but I have a threshold below which I won’t fall and the client is satisfied.
This is not to say that I won’t get emails from people expecting that I will take on projects for $50/hr when I’ve nearly 20 years of work experience. This is not to say that people will ask me to work for free or relay that they can get my services cheaper from some kid down the block. And then I have to remind everyone that I don’t compete on price.
If I’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s this: be open. Talk to everyone–from seasoned executives to junior talent just starting out. Talk to smart people and hear what they have to say. Ask them questions about money and be willing to share your own experiences because in the end we all want fair compensation for the work we do.