Notes Off the Napkin: Some random thoughts on being self-employed. Your mileage may vary.

Notes-Off-the-Napkin-logo1By Andrew Frame

Self-employment rocks. But, you have to have self-discipline. Your family has to be supportive. You have to be willing to work twenty hours for many consecutive days when there is work, and be willing to sleep in and catch down-time when it’s slow. Hopefully, slow won’t happen too often. You’re not going to have insurance, so you have to learn to live ahead of the calendar. It doesn’t come quickly or easily, but when the machine starts to generate income and the taxes get paid and you’re paying talent and twenty agencies have you on their speed-dial, it makes the long days and acid-reflux worth it.

I want to pick up on something there. “Live ahead of the calendar.”

That’s a nice way of saying, “put a lot of cash under the mattress”.

When you have one income – your business – then you have to think differently if you have two incomes – your business and a spouse who works outside the home. They may have insurance that you can be covered under. They may get paid weekly or on a predictable schedule. This allows you to pay your bills on a predictable schedule. When you work for yourself, predictability is a word in the dictionary. You have to think way ahead, 60, 90, 120 days ahead.

When you bill at the end of the month, you really don’t know if your customer will pay the bill. You develop a trust relationship that they will remit within a certain time frame. In broadcast we’re used to agencies going 120 days plus. It’s the same in the freelance world. You must build yourself a cushion of cash so if your customers are late – that is, fall out of their normal pay time frame – you won’t have to worry that the couch and HDTV are going to get repossessed. It takes time to build this cushion, and incredible self-discipline not to buy a boat with it once you see many digits to the left of the decimal.

Get a tax preparer. Not necessarily a CPA. You won’t need a CPA if you can balance a checkbook. If you can’t – well, then you might want to reconsider self-employment. A tax preparer who is also a CPA is the best. A good tax preparer is worth their once-a-year fee. Keep your paperwork as they tell you, save relevant receipts, and file your documents with them in a timely manner. A good tax preparer can go a long way in keeping government Revenue officers out of your hair by making sure all of your paperwork is as “they” want it, but also takes advantage of every break possible in your favor.

Also on the subject of money, something overlooked in “modern” society is a pillar of human weakness and despair. That is debt. Avoid it at all cost. You do not need a loan to start a business like voiceover and production. You need a microphone, editor, telephone, internet, a network of friends, a quiet place to work – and time. None of which require a loan. Banks and credit cards are not your friends. Save your funds, buy gear as you need it outright. Pawn shops are a great resource. Software is free. Build your client list part-time while you work your full-time job. Then go full-time freelance.

When we started, we made phone calls from our car at lunchtime. Made sales, took orders and did the production in the evening and uploaded for the customer. Eventually, it ran parallel during the day with the radio station. We did our work as needed during the day along with station assignments, and equitably, did station work at night and on weekends along with our work. The station profitably benefited from free access to our incredible talent pool. Stop sets featured dozens of new voices. To their credit, local management recognized the value of this and it worked well for seven years.

Selling is part of the job. You may be a bumbling clown at first, but you will get better if you stick to it. Make a sales script to read to a prospect and another for their voice mail. There is no shame in using a script to open a conversation. Eventually you won’t need them. Actually talk to 20 prospects a week. That will get you one new customer a month.

Don’t go hyperbolic on your “famous client” work or your “mad skillz”.

Your experience does have value, but what you do for a prospect right now is where the money is made. A good reputation will solidify deals better than a good rate card. Ask for referrals.

Keeping prospects in the loop is important. When I have several customers in queue for telephone on-hold work, I will forward them copy or audio from the current job – provided it’s not a conflict-of-interest. The customers that we have contracted with can hear what we’re doing as a preview, and prospects that we’re pitching can hear the quality of the work as an added comfort that they’re going to get good value for their money. It also gives opportunity to put our name and contact information in front of them along with real work, not just samples and bloviation of sales e-mail.

Self-employment doesn’t happen overnight. Every full-time freelancer I know was a radio or television flunkie that started doing side work until the side work started paying the bills. It took me six years before I had enough cash coming in, and minimal debt going out to make the jump. You must be patient, and you must be committed or you will not succeed in either the short- or long-term. Self-employment isn’t for everyone. Discuss it with someone you trust for impartial, honest answers. They may be able to help you see parts of yourself that would be a help or a hindrance to success.

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