Saturday, December 16, 2006

Secrets of Successful Freelancing

Many people ask me about freelancing – how it works, how do I make it work and so on. Most often I duck the question because it is a difficult question. This article is a short guide on how to survive as a freelancer.

It is not easy to be a freelancer. Most freelancers want work, not a job – which makes it tough for them in the long run. They want freedom, they value competency, they think they bring real expertise to the table and want to continue to enjoy the challenge of work.

I always suspect the people who tell me that they enjoy learning. Learning is a painful process, why would anyone want to learn in the first place? We learn best only if we need to. Children learn so fast because it is a question of survival. Psychologists define learning as a permanent change in behavior due to a prior experience. Genetically, we are designed to resist any change – whether it is for good or for worse. Apparently in the same way we have an internal thermostat which controls our temperature – we have another instrument whose function is always bring us back to the original state. This is the reason why changing anything in ourselves is such a massive effort.

Learning is a lot like being in love – and being love is a painful experience. The separation from one’s beloved is a suffering and the lover secretly craves for that rupture involved in that longing. This is a mysterious process – much like the drug addicts cravings for a drug.

In the initial phases of my career as a freelancer, I deluded myself that my clients hire me because of my expertise, knowledge or the skill I possess. I deluded myself that I am expensive because I am very valuable. I deluded myself that doing the best job is the most important thing in the world. I deluded myself that doing the best job on time will get me my payments on time and also bring me fame and respect, and even an extension of the contract.

Well, people value those traits. As freelancers we are respected for our expertise, our knowledge and our skill. Eventually, these qualities might even allows us differentiate ourselves in the market place and allow us to quote a premium for our services. We may be valued for these traits, but we are not hired for these reasons. And, we never retain our contracts for these reasons. We retain a contract only if – as people – we demonstrate very high levels of personal integrity. If we have no personal integrity – then we cannot sustain ourselves as freelancers even for a month.

Clients hire freelancers primarily for business, economic and operational reasons. We are too expensive to be on their employee roles. We are temperamental prima-donnas who are fiercely independent and therefore in the long run we are an expensive maintenance problem that nobody wants to have on their hands. We are addicted to problem solving, and therefore we cannot stay in one organization long enough.

These are the real reasons why we are ‘allowed’ to be freelancers.

It took me a long time to understand this. Most problems between consultants and their clients arise because of ‘expectation’ mismatch. We expect to be valued for our contributions and for our love of work. Organizations value and reward loyalty – not loyalty to work, but loyalty to themselves.

It was a difficult learning. But, after I realized it, it is not too hard to internalize it. The following eleven rules are a direct consequence of this realization. If you practice these rules – you may not become a world class freelancer, but you may be able to survive as one – which is no mean accomplishment in itself.

  1. If you are a Socrates, be prepared for a painful exit. Remember - Socrates did not complain about painful exits.
  2. Do not blame the stimulus for the response. You are the one who seeks problems – so, never blame the client for giving you the problems. How you experience the problem and your (in)ability to solve it belongs only to you.
  3. The estimation of the self must be tempered by the knowledge of the self.
  4. A King will never ask his general whether he is ready to defend the country. The fact that the general is still in his job means that he is ready to do so. Therefore, the King will only give marching orders.
  5. As a consultant, the only right you have is to do your duty. Always remember that it is your right. Fight for it, protect it but never allow anyone/anything to deny this right to you. Most important – don’t deny it yourself.
  6. A freelancer works for cash - not for kind. Therefore, we don’t get paid twice. You can either take a check or receive gratitude. Learn to prefer the check to gratitude.
  7. Always do a thankless job. The only thank-you note you can expect is the payment made on time.
  8. Be thankful if you get some work to do, and you get regular payments. These are the only two objective measures that you can use to assess yourself. The rest are delusions.
  9. The Shareholders control the company, the founders operate the company, the employees are the company, and a consultant is associated with the company. All data modelers know that association is the weakest relationship – it has no integrity constraint imposed on it. It is the easiest and most convenient relationship to terminate. No reason or rationale is required to terminate it – because such a termination does not break down the underlying system.
  10. The success of a consultant is directly proportional to how fast he/she makes himself/herself redundant to the client.
    1. Solve that problem as quickly as you can and get out.
    2. If there is no problem to be solved, get out.
    3. If you cannot solve the problem – get out.
  11. Luxuries that a freelancer cannot afford:
    1. Anger – never walk out of the contract in anger. Don’t leave especially after you have had a fight with your client over some issue.
    2. Resignation – an employee can resign. A freelancer cannot. There are only two ways to exit: either complete the assignment, or get fired. Sometimes getting fired is not as bad as we imagine it to be.
    3. Procrastination – you sell your time, so it does not belong to you.

The Weinberg touch to Rule No: 11:

I had some difficulty and even used to get angry with the last rule. I felt that there was something wrong with it – it did not sound right. But, I kept it – because, it served me very well in my initial years as a freelancer. My discomfort also meant that there is something deeper lurking inside that rule. I was confident that I will eventually discover what it is.

Recently I posted these rules to Gerald Weinberg’s Shape Forum. Jerry disagreed with this rule and suggested a very subtle shift to this rule. The nudge he provided suddenly threw light in the dark corners of the rule and the full beauty of the rule suddenly became evident to me. So, I dedicated the Rule Eleven to Gerald Weinberg.

I call it the Weinberg Touch:

11a. never leave anything behind – especially your anger.

11b. An employee has an option to resign – a freelancer has an option to renegotiate.

11c. Your non billing time is more valuable than you’re billing time.

11d. Getting fired is never as bad we imagine it to be and it is more often than not a blessing.

Effective application of these rules however requires some tact. Here are two Nasruddin stories that capture the essence of these rules and how to practice them:


Whose Servant Am I?
Mulla Nasruddin had become a favorite at Court. He used his position to show up the methods of courtiers.

One day the King was exceptionally hungry. Some aubergines had been so deliciously cooked that he told the palace chief to serve them everyday.

‘Are they not the best vegetables in the world, Mulla?’ he asked Nasruddin.
‘The very best, Majesty’

Five days later, when the aubergines had been served for the tenth meal in succession, the King roared: ‘Take these things away. I HATE them!’

‘They are the worst vegetables in the world, Majesty’ agreed Nasruddin

‘But, Mulla, less than a week ago you said that they are were the very best’

‘I did. But, I am a servant of the King, not of the vegetable’

The Gold, the cloak and the horse

‘I cannot get a job’ said the Mulla, ‘because I am already in the service of the All-Highest’
‘In that case’, said his wife ‘ask for your wages, because every employer must pay’
Quite right, thought Nasruddin
‘I have not been paid simply because I have never asked’, he said aloud
‘Then you had better go and ask’

Nasruddin went into the garden, knelt and cried out: ‘O Allah, send me a hundred pieces of gold, for all my past services are worth at least that much in back pay’

His neighbor, a moneylender, thought he would play a joke on Nasruddin. Taking a bag of hundred gold pieces he threw it down from a window.

Nasruddin stood up with dignity and took the money to his wife. ‘I am one of the saints,’ he told her. ‘Here are my arrears’

She was very impressed.

Presently, made suspicious of by the succession of delivery men carrying food, clothing and furniture into Nasruddin’s house, the neighbor went to get his money back.

‘You heard me calling for it, and now you are pretending it is yours’ said Nasruddin. ‘You shall never have it’.

The neighbor said that he would take Nasruddin to the court of summary jurisdiction.

‘I cannot go like this’, said Nasruddin. ‘I have no suitable clothes, not have I a horse. If we appear together the judge will be prejudiced in your favor by my mean appearance.’

The neighbor took off his own cloak and gave it to Nasruddin, then he mounted him on his own horse, and they went before the judge.

The plaintiff was heard first.

‘What is your defense?’ the magistrate asked Nasruddin.

‘That my neighbor is insane’.

‘What evidence have you, Mulla?’

‘What better than from his own mouth? He thinks that everything belongs to him. If you ask him about my horse, or even my cloak, he will claim them, let alone my gold’

‘But they are mine!’ roared the neighbor.

Case dismissed.

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