What do you feed your Cowardly Lion?

The Cowardly Lion, Wizard of OzI *do* believe in spooks,
I *do* believe in spooks.
I do, I do, I do,
I *do* believe in spooks,
I *do* believe in spooks,
I do, I do, I do, I *do*!
The Cowardly Lion, The Wizard of Oz

Fear, worry, panic — oh my!

They’re almost every creative’s steadfast companions. Because regardless how good we are, professional writers are expendable. Freelance, full time, part time, no time…there’s a Stop sign at the end of almost every Client Road.

(Gives ya the warm fuzzies, huh? Yeah, me too.)

Yet even though we know this, we’re still rattled when something in our work environment changes. New editor? New director? Someone leaving? Client folding?

What ever shall we do?

Here’s the problem: Evolution has hardwired us to seek more information about what’s scaring us so we can protect ourselves. Our imaginations can go nuts.

Here’s the thing: The Cowardly Lion never got much done by himself and if you’re gripped by fear, neither will you.

Here’s the good news: You decide what to feed your Cowardly Lion — panic-inducing information or empowering information. Continue reading

The Care and Feeding of Your Inner Hamster

Ring, ring! Who’s there? Destiny?
I’ve been expecting your call.
Rhino the Hamster, Bolt (2008)

Hortense, my inner hamster

Hortense, my creative powerhouse

Inside my head, there lives a little hamster. Her name? Hortense. What does she do? She’s the source of my creativity.

When I woke up this morning, Hortense was tearing it up on her hamster wheel. Churning out ideas faster than a rainbow churns out Skittles.

Confident that she had things well in hand, I went about my morning tasks without writing down the creative gems that she was doling out. And when I finally sat down to write, my mind went blank. So I turned to Hortense for help. And she ignored me.

Why? Because instead of taking care of her, I’d been taking her for granted.
I figured that those ideas would be there when I got around to them.

I was wrong.

It doesn’t take much to take the edge off of your creativity. Even if you’re not sold on the idea of having an inner hamster, do any of these sound familiar?

I’ll write it down later.

Actually you’ll probably just get frustrated because you forgot what could have been a brilliant idea. Instead, make a note when inspiration strikes. Even if it’s garbage. It just takes a moment.

I’ll remember it if it’s worth remembering.

Not only will you most likely forget, you’re basically calling the rest of your ideas crap. And if you call enough ideas crap, your hamster will go on strike — just like you do when your internal editor keeps correcting you.

I have to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can.
About everything.
Right now!

If you’re always cramming information down your inner hamster’s throat, it’s going to lose its natural curiosity. Which means you won’t retain as much. And when it’s time for new ideas, your inner hamster won’t know where to start because the poor little thing’s been inundated with so much new data.

Result? A creative funk that’s hard to climb out of.

Instead, take a breather. Learn, absorb, do. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Write! Now!
Be brilliant! Now!

No, that’s not good enough!
What’s wrong with you?!

Who responds well to a taskmaster? Your inner hamster, your creativity, that voice that makes you the writer you are — they’re more delicate than you think. Even the Hoover Dam will break under too much pressure. Ease up a little. Be gentle.

I’m too busy to go outside.
Okay, so I just don’t wanna.

Hortense needs to be walked every day. It clears her head. Gets the blood flowing. Most importantly, it stretches her mental muscles with external stimuli and new experiences— the stuff creativity is made of. You have five or ten minutes. Take ’em.

No apple. More chocolate.
And get me some potato chips while you’re up, would ya?

Last week (planned experiment) I drank nothing but soda. I was cranky and couldn’t focus. This week, I’ve been drinking water. And I think more clearly. And all I changed was my soda to water ratio.

Now, I’m not telling you to morph into a health nut (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But if you’re not getting the nutrition you need, neither is your inner hamster. And your creativity will lose its edge.

Replace some of your guilt-inducing fun food with something the doctor won’t tsk tsk you for. See what happens.

I have to be productive.
Every. Waking. MOMENT!

I call shenanigans on this junk. Shenanigans, I say! You can’t keep going on and on and on and on and on and on and on (even this sentence is exhausting) and on and on and on and on. Neither can your inner hamster.

Yes, some people thrive on a fast feed of constant productivity. But rarely do they focus on one thing all the time. Those who do often burn out. So take five minutes, a day, a week: relax, recharge your batteries.

When I take care of Hortense, she takes care of me. But even if you don’t subscribe to the theory of having an inner hamster, you have a wellspring of creativity. It’s up to you to maintain it.

How do you take care of your inner hamster? And if you don’t have a hamster, how do you take care of your creativity? Share in the comments.

Photo credit: This drawing of Hortense is a Rubber Ducky original. Powered by Hortense.

How this Little Ducky Went Freelance: Part 3

Azkaban

But now I have a better view

When I was kicked out of Azkaban almost a year ago, I decided to put my career in my own hands and go freelance.

A year can make a big difference, good, bad and unconventionally pretty.

I’ve made major mistakes, especially in my marketing strategies and freelance rates. Result being? I’m back in a cubicle and freelancing on the side.

But I’ve also made some pretty good progress. And I’ve learned a lot.

So let’s wrap up the trilogy by taking a look at where things stand, what I need to fix and what you can learn from my mistakes.

Chapter 3: Now What?

My Freelance Writer’s Website
When I started freelancing, I had to put my freelance writer’s website together pretty quickly.

It was a hurried, uneducated, rush job and I don’t like anything about my website HayesCopywriting.com (now offline and updated/moved to Hayes-Writing.com). I don’t like how it looks, how it reads, how it doesn’t land me clients — pick something, I don’t like it.

I specialize in online content and my own website is more embarrassing than showing up to class naked.

It’s also hosted on GoDaddy. While I could do an entire post on why I don’t like GoDaddy, for now I’ll just call it cumbersome to modify, difficult to navigate and more focused on up-selling than serving its customers.

I’ve found another solution and set my GoDaddy account to close at the end of my subscription.

Dear GoDaddy, it’s not me, it’s you.
I’ve found someone else. And I’m moving on.

Construction on my new website is now underway on WordPress. It won’t be as polished I want, but it’s already better than my GoDaddy site and I can work on it more easily.

Plus, I’ll get more the insight into my web traffic and wiggle room in my budget.

  • Your Takeaway
    You need an online presence that sticks to the ribs. If your website isn’t doing the job, try something else. Evaluate what’s working, what isn’t and problem solve so that any changes you make are strategic. There are solutions out there – just know what you want and find it.

My Marketing Efforts
Ever loaded a blender and pressed the High Speed button without putting the lid on? That’s what my marketing efforts have been like — all over the place.

The problem is that I didn’t put much thought into my business identity, my target audience and how to reach them.

Timidity + no direction = ineffective freelancing

Yes, it’s that simple.

But instead of beating myself up and calling myself a failure — which never gets anyone anywhere — I’m going to:

  1. Define my freelance brand
    – to be done in my business plan
  2. Profile my ideal client
    – done
  3. Build a marketing plan using The Easy Fifteen Minute Marketing Plan from All Freelance Writing
    – a project I’m looking forward to

In creating this marketing plan, I will define where my target audience hangs out and how I can best reach them.

  • Your Takeaway
    Taking the time to plan your marketing before you hit the High Speed button will save you countless hours (and tears) of cleanup later. Know yourself, know your audience and figure out how you’re going to connect the two.

My Business Plan
In researching business plans for freelancers, I found that (as usual) there are two camps: those who don’t think freelancers need a business plan and those who do.

I’m not going speak for all freelancers. But I need to define my business model, what success looks like and how I’m going to reach my goals. A business plan will help.

These are the resources I’m going to use:

I’m going to pull the best from all of the above and sit my tail down to write my business plan.

I can have a cookie when I’m done.

  • Your Takeaway
    Your business plan doesn’t have to be formal, but you do need a roadmap. And you need to answer some hard questions. So even if your business plan isn’t so beautiful it makes Donald Trump weep with envy, you should probably whip one up anyway. Just so you know what you want and where you’re going.

My Freelance Future
I started freelancing with no leads, no clue and no clients. But even though my marketing efforts were less effective than trying to build an Egyptian pyramid out of soggy bread loaves, I eventually caught on and got some clients.

Now that I have a full time, 40-hour onsite contract gig and have started planning my wedding, I’m cutting back on side clients.

There are only so many hours in the day and if I tried to do it all, something would have to give. And that something would be my sanity.

But I’m still building my freelance writing business.

I’m putting together my new freelance writer website, maintaining Rubber Ducky Copywriter, engaging in social media, writing my business plan, formulating marketing strategies and staying active within this wonderful writer’s community I’m lucky enough to have met.

And I still take smaller side assignments here and there. Right now, I’m working on product labels for a local chili startup.

My first freelance efforts were a false start, a rumble strip on the road of life. It happens. I’m not the first freelancer to make a false start and I won’t be the last.

I can tell you this, however: I’m not quitting.

My goal is the same. My drive is the same. My freelancing smarts have leveled up. That counts for a lot.

  • Your Takeaway
    If you aren’t where you want to be, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It only means that you need to reevaluate what you’re doing and maybe make some changes. Do what you have to do to keep the lights on, but a false start does not mean the end.

I’m not where I planned when I started, but the next time I’m released back into the wild, I’ll hit the freelance ground running.

What about you? Are you where you want to be and if not, what can you do to get there? Share your story in the comments.

How this Little Ducky Went Freelance: Part 2

Azkaban

I’m free! I’m free!
Oh crap — now what?

In my last post I shared why I went rogue and how I set up shop as a freelance writer. Now it’s time to cover the scary parts: setting rates and getting clients.

Once you’ve got your shop set up (or at least finished the heavy lifting), you have to price your product and get the word out. And at first, I didn’t know how to do either. So I looked it up and discovered:

  • There’s no one way to freelance
  • There’s no one way to set your rates
  • Your rate depends on several factors that no one will tell you about
  • Too many pros are so focused on innovative new ways to find clients, they tend to avoid going into the basics
  • No matter how much you research, you’ll still have to figure it out yourself

Tons of information, no straight answer? Perfect. Here we go.

Chapter 2: Hanging Out My Shingle

Setting My Freelance Rates

Fresh from the corporate pond, I had no idea what to charge as a freelancer. In my research, I found the FreelanceSwitch Hourly Rate Calculator.

So I plugged in what I thought were the right numbers. And it said I should charge $1,294 an hour.

No way I could charge that with a straight face. I don’t blame FreelanceSwitch — I screwed up somewhere.

I was still confused. I didn’t want to misrepresent myself. I’d been writing professionally for almost ten years. But I’d had the copywriter title for only two years. And I was new to freelancing. I wasn’t sure which pulled more weight.

So like most new freelancers, I used my corporate rate as my baseline and raised it just enough to account for paying my own taxes. But that’s not enough when you’re no longer on a steady diet of 40 hours a week.

Result? My savings ran out. I had to find another cubicle.

On the bright side, the people here are much nicer than in my last cube. No dementors.

WellFednewcov

Not a paid link, just an award-winning, handy book

Solution
I picked up the newest copy of Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer. In it, he offers a simple formula for setting your rates:

  • How much do you want to make a year?
  • To reach that goal, how much should you make each month, week and day?
  • Write down that daily amount.
  • Refer to it every morning and ask “How will I make $[X] today?”

The key here is “How much do you want to make?” Not “How much do I need to make to scrape by on microwavable noodle dinners?”

New projects are now based on my new, higher, more professional freelance rate. I’d share, but I have a strict policy of not publishing it where clients can see.

As for what lies behind your rates, read the blog post The Deadly Math Mistake That Will Make Make Your Freelance Business Fail by Carol Tice of Make a Living Writing. She goes into detail about what you need to consider when setting your freelancing rates. Clear and straightforward.

  • Your Takeaway
    Read Carol’s post. And if you can get FreelanceSwitch calculator to work, go for it. If not, try Peter Bowerman’s formula. But charge more than your corporate rate. Especially if you like to eat.

Disclaimer: The Peter Bowerman link is not a paid link. I just wholeheartedly believe that every copywriter, freelance and corporate, should buy and read that book.

Finding Clients

Image courtesy of powerlisting.wikia.com

There are clients in there somewhere

Like most freelancers, I feel safer pondering the dark abyss of a black hole (up close) than asking people to hire me.

But sometimes, you just have to dive in anyway.

Route #1: Creative staffing agencies
Unlike advertising or marketing agencies, these are staffing agencies that specialize in placing creative talent in full time, contract or freelance gigs.

These agencies had always worked for me in the past. I already had solid relationships with several of the biggest and knew that they were always trying to fill freelance gigs.

But when you act like a job seeker, you get treated like one. And creative staffing agencies are used to primarily dealing with job seekers.

Over and over again, I did the song-and-dance routine instead of negotiating on equal ground like a freelancer. After a couple months, the need to change hit me. Literally.

I’d just finished an interview for which I had to drive an hour, pay $25 in parking and change into my interview clothes in the parking garage (long story) so I could spend an hour hearing about how I “hadn’t engineered my career and had done “too much contract work.”

When I emerged bleary eyed and a little shell shocked, I twisted my ankle and did a face plant on a downtown Seattle sidewalk. As I sat bawling and gathering up the spilled contents of my purse, I decided I was fed up with the whole thing.

New tactics were in order.

  • Your Takeaway
    Don’t make creative staffing agencies 100% of your marketing strategy. This is not the route for everyone but it can help fill in the gaps when you need some extra work. If you do use them, approach them as an independent freelancer from the start. Communicate clearly and be selective in what you will and will not accept.

I’ll go into more detail about working with these agencies in a future post.

Route #2: Networking
Networking scares the bejeezus out of most people. Fortunately, my career has survived enough embarrassment for me to not worry much about making a fool of myself anymore.

If I can survive the CEO catching me brushing cookie crumbs off my chin like a hyperactive squirrel, I can say “hi” to perfect strangers. (Yay me!)

Three particular kinds of networking have paid off for me: person-to-person, online and referrals.

My person-to-person networking primarily consists of contacting former employers and former colleagues. Since much of my background is in marketing, most of my former colleagues are either marketing managers or can put my name in front of their marketing manager.

This landed me my first three clients and still drives most of my business, even now that I’m back in a cube.

Also handy? Random conversations with random strangers. Connect with someone and then hand them your business card — with your title, website and contact information.

“Sorry it’s all I have, but please send me that recipe. It sounds yummy.”

My most successful online networking has been my participation on a local professional email list run by my target audience: SMB tech companies.

I don’t blatantly advertising on this list. Instead, I chime in on their email threads when appropriate. And just like my business card, my email signature has my title, website and contact information. I’ve gotten several gigs from this list because when they have writing needs, they’re already familiar with me and know that I speak their language.

Now that I’ve put myself out there more, I’m getting referrals from:

  • Former colleagues
  • Current colleagues who don’t freelance on the side
  • Current clients
  • Prospects who passed on me before
    A big reason why it’s important to take “no” gracefully

Referrals are just plain awesome. For one, the person doing the referring can tell you what the client’s like to work with. Second,  the ice is already broken which means you don’t have to worry about your initial sales pitch. And third, it’s business that came your way while you were off doing something else.

I love the smell of efficiency in the morning. Goes great with bacon.

  • Your Takeaway
    Whatever your background or experience, you already have a network of people that like you, trust you and want you to succeed. Taking advantage of it is not the same as asking for a handout. Just remember, you’ll get the best results when you’re not looking for the immediate sale.

Coming Up

The trilogy concludes with Chapter 3: Now What? I’ll take an honest appraisal of where things stand and what’s next. Stay tuned.

How this Little Ducky Went Freelance: Part 1

Welcome to the first installment of a three-part series on how I went freelance. I’m going to share why and how I set up shop, where I find clients and where I’d like to go from here.

Spoiler alert: This is not a “how to be an overnight success” story. This is my real story. And the overnight part is turning out to be longer than I thought.

Each post is going to be longer than usual, so feel free to grab a snack and get comfy.

Introduction

Azkaban

I was on the 8th floor.

Last year, I was a corporate copywriter in the professional equivalent of Azkaban. Then one sunny afternoon, the dementors laid me off.

For a week afterwards, I channeled my anger into scrubbing every nook and cranny of my home.

And I thought. Hard. I decided that I wasn’t going to let those dementors beat me. They’d spent a year calling me mediocre, telling me that I wasn’t going to be anything more than what I already was.

But I was done letting them decide how far I could go. I was done working my tail off and believing in “If we like you, we might hire you.” I was done. And not just with the dementors. I wasn’t going to buy that line ever again.

I was going freelance.

Chapter One: Setting up Shop

When I ran out of things to clean, I put on my PJs, sat on my living room floor and made a list of what I needed to set up shop as a freelance writer.

  • Website
  • Online portfolio
  • Blog
  • Business license
  • Business bank accounts
  • Invoicing system
  • Piddly stuff I don’t know about yet

Even now, I realize that it’s small potatoes compared to what many consider overwhelming. But I was so far out of my comfort zone I needed a compass to find the floor under my butt.

And I hadn’t even started looking for clients yet.

Item #1: Website
I started building my website HayesCopywriting.com  (now moved and updated to Hayes-Writing.com) less than two weeks after I’d been laid off. My actions were rooted in panic and desperation. I just wanted someone—anyone—to hire me.

I was too emotional and unfocused to produce solid content. And it turns out I know just enough HTML to meddle and make my site look like something Picasso coughed up.

In reality, I just needed some basic pages. So I went with a predesigned GoDaddy theme and straightforward copy. Much to my surprise, it was well-received. Prospects were less concerned with the design than with seeing my portfolio.

  • Your Takeaway
    Don’t be too hard on yourself when you’re just getting started. And you don’t have to get too fancy. Straight and simple is hardly ever as bad as you think.

Item #2: Online portfolio
My years as a corporate copywriter gave me a solid portfolio ready to show. And thanks to my background in technology, it was already specialized.

However, most of my work was done for just a couple of companies. I could show variety of deliverables but not style or voice. And I worried that my work looked old.

I organized my online portfolio by type to highlight what I can do instead of the companies. And I built a blog to showcase my own voice with updated content.

  • Your Takeaway
    You have valuable skills. Focus on showcasing why you’re worth hiring. There’s a workaround for everything else.

Item #3: Blog
Before winding up in Azkaban, I blogged for a SEO company. Which gave me a decent understanding of how blogging works.

Then I ran into my biggest obstacle—me.

When I started, I tried to sound like an expert freelancer so people would hire me. But how smart can you sound if you’re trying to be an expert on something you just started? Even I didn’t want to read what I was cranking out. It was that bad.

After building and deleting three blogs, I gave up writing about what I thought I was supposed to write about. Instead, I started writing about what I knew. Fear. Doubt. Learning  to freelance. The craft of writing.

Now my blog fits like bunny slippers. And prospects appreciate that I have one in the first place.

  • Your Takeaway
    Be authentic. If you start a blog, make sure it’s about something you love. You’re far more likely to keep up with it and put your best into it.

Item #4: Business license
My first client is a company that requires its independent contractors to have a business license. I thought getting a business license was going to be expensive and complicated.

Nope. Fifteen minutes and $20 later, I was a walking, talking business.

  • Your Takeaway
    Even little steps can be scary. And that’s okay. But they’re still just steps to a bigger goal. And they’re rarely as bad as you imagine.

Item #5: Business bank accounts
My friend (a certified accountant) told me to set up business bank accounts immediately. And she was right. Setting aside part of my earnings in my business savings account kept it out of sight, out of mind and less likely to be spent on books.

This year, I can answer the tax man with confidence: Here take the money just please don’t hurt me.

  • Your Takeaway
    Sometimes the best advice you’ll get comes from people outside your profession. Pay attention.

Item #6: Invoicing system
When I started, I didn’t know about the multitude of invoicing options for freelancers. Instead, I set up an Excel spreadsheet to track my billing and I emailed my clients PDF invoices.

Simple but effective. And unlike the professional-grade options, my spreadsheet was free. When my billing outgrows my spreadsheet, then I’ll upgrade.

  • Your Takeaway
    Go with what works for you. Even if it isn’t what you think “real” professionals use.

Item #7: Piddly stuff I don’t know about yet
Going freelance requires little overhead. But there still seems an endless list of miscellaneous stuff. Filing supplies, postage, business mailbox, business cards, thank you notes, professional development books, style guides and the occasional Happy Meal. (Don’t judge. I like the toys.)

Fortunately, I already had pens, paper, printer, computer, comfy chair and yoga pants.

  • Your Takeaway
    You’re never really starting from scratch. And, there will never be an end to the piddly stuff. Just do the best you can to budget for surprises.

Notice what’s missing from the list?
Contracts. It was six months before I started on my freelancing contracts. I’ve been lucky. Most of my clients had their own contracts, and prospects for which I would’ve needed my own contract went kaput before the subject came up.

But really, contracts need to be at the top of any freelancer’s list.

  • Your Takeaway
    No matter how much you prepare, you’ll always miss something important. Kinda like packing for an overseas vacation. Just deal with it as best you can as fast you as can.

Coming Up

Next, I’ll delve into how I set my rates and found work. Stay tuned for Chapter Two: Hanging out My Shingle.