Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface for Freelancers

Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface are out and they might prove to be both useful and challenging for freelancers.

Whenever a new operating system, like Windows 8, is announced, there are a bunch of people who jump in early and try the latest and, hopefully, greatest. Often, the changes are smooth but experienced journalist Bill Bennett as found that Windows 8 upgrade fast, not foolproof. It’s woth a short look.

With the release of the Microsoft Surface tablet and other, similar products from other vendors it’s worth understanding that not all the new tablets hitting the market are the same. Windows now comes in two versions; Windows 8 and Windows RT. Trying to work out the difference is tricky as they look the same but under the covers they are quite different. I recently wrote Windows RT vs Windows 8: Which Surface for work? for Business IT (www.bit.com.au) covering some of the differences.

One of the big advantages of the new Microsoft Surface over the iPad is that it includes a proper version of Microsoft Office and an external keyboard that is integrated into the case. There are plenty of alternatives that are iPad-friendly but getting those extras in the box is quite handy.

Should you upgrade to Windows 8?

I’d suggest that if your current computer is working well that there’s no compelling reason to upgrade. When you buy your next computer it will come with Windows 8 (assuming you’re not a Mac user). Until then, I wouldn’t bother.

However, if you picked up a laptop recently that has a touchscreen – many computer makers have been shipping touchscreens on selected models for the last couple of years – then Windows 8 might be useful. If you decide to move up, be prepared for some significant change. David Pogue, from the New York Times, published a Windows 8 Cheat Sheet and summary of what to expect.

Microsoft Surface, iPad or Android tablet?

This is an interesting question. I like my Nexus 7 tablet as an eBook reader, email reader and calendar. I don’t use it for writing more than the occasional email or note as the 7-inch screen is great for reading but doesn’t work for me for input. I believe that that the new iPad mini will be similar.

Larger tablets, with screens between 9-inches and 10-inches are much better for data input as the onscreen keyboards are more finger-friendly.

Functionally, all three platforms are very similar. Many of the differences between the three are cosmetic but I like the way Android and Windows 8 make your data more visible than the iPad.

Windows 8 or Windows RT?

Microsoft has released two new, different operating systems. The confusion comes from them both looking the same.It’s not unlike car makers who release similar looking models but one is two-wheel drive and the other is four-wheel drive.

Windows RT will only come pre-installed on tablets like the Microsoft Surface. You can’t buy it in a store and install it to your existing computer.

Windows 8 can be purchased from a store, in a box, and you can install it to your own computer. There’s a regular version and Pro version.

Lifehacker Australia has a useful guide to all the different versions of Windows 8 that’s worth a look.

Productivity Tips for Freelancers

Your productivity is constantly under threat. There are distractions like email, phone calls, social media, friends and family dropping in (who equate working from home with always being free to drop what you’re doing and go out). How do you stay productive?

Your productivity is constantly under threat. There are distractions like email, phone calls, social media, friends and family dropping in (who equate working from home with always being free to drop what you’re doing and go out). How do you stay productive?

1. Make it clear that work hours are work hours.

Friends and family mean well but they are often your biggest productivity suckers. Tell your friends and family that although you work for yourself that you still work. Although you have more freedom to step out for an extended lunch you still need to plan. Ask friends to call or email before scheduling some socialising so that you can organise your time appropriately.

2. Manage your phones

Random phone calls while you’re in “the zone” are a massive productivity killer. Just because a phone rings there’s no reason to answer it. You have voicemail – use it! Set aside part of your day to review voicemail messages and to answer calls. The tool is a tool that you use to support your business – it’s not your master.

3. Tame your email

Email has simultaneously made it easier for us to communicate and become a noose. It’s common for people to receive hundreds of email per day. So how do you stay on top of your inbox? Start by learning how to create folders and use rules to automatically file messages. For example, I have rules in place that move all press releases out of my inbox into a specific folder. That makes them easier to find later and reduces the clutter. And like your phone, set aside time to deal with email each day – resist the urge to read and deal with each email as it arrives.

4. (Anti)Social Media

Social media can be a a very useful tool but also a vampire that can suck the productivity out of your working day. If you use tools like Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook for research and contacts make sure you quarantine the times you use it and stay task focussed.

5. Breaks, not Broken

When you plan your day out, allow for breaks. Short rest breaks aid productivity by keeping your brain fresh. Systems like the Pomodoro Technique suggest working for 20 minutes and then taking five minutes. Every four of five intervals, take a longer break of 10-15 minutes. There are plenty of programs you can run on your computer that sound an alarm or show an alert at a fixed interview. And don’t forget to take a proper lunch break. I also like a coffee break mid morning and usually head out in the afternoon for the school run.

Targeting Niches is Critical for Success

You can’t do everything. Many freelancers start out thinking that the free in freelance means that they can try whatever they like. But that’s not true. Successful freelancers focus on specific niches that deliver the best bang for buck.

You can’t do everything. Many freelancers start out thinking that the free in freelance means that they can try whatever they like. But that’s not true. Successful freelancers focus on specific niches that deliver the best bang for buck.

Selecting your target niches is a matter of finding the intersection between your strengths, interests and the market’s needs. A post at Good Business Consulting discussed the importance of identifying niches and the benefits it can deliver.

When I started freelancing I knew that my strengths were in writing about technology, having the knack of being able to take complex topics and make them clear and engaging and solid technical and business experience. I was interested in mobility and gadgets. At the time – this was before the iPhone era – Personal Digital Assistants like the Palm Pilot were all the rage so I specialised in writing about those devices.

So, my niche was personal digital devices and how they fitted the needs of consumers and business people.

What are your strengths? What are your interests? Make a list of your strengths and interests and then look at where they intersect with the market. That will provide you with a short list of potential niches you can work in.

Next, look at the market and realistically appraise whether there’s a real opportunity for those niches to be profitable. Don’t just jump into the first thing that you find interesting. You might spend a lot of time and effort on a niche isn’t going to keep you fed.

The other benefit of this is that it helps highlight your most important skill. Your most important skill may not be your strongest one. For me, I thought writing would be my most important attribute but it turns out that business experience is my key attribute. I can apply it in each of my niches and it sets me aside from many of my competitors.

Finding what makes you different from your competitors can be the difference between making ends meet and profligate success.

Over time, markets change and your own interests can shift. As a freelancer you can change tack from time to time. In my case, I started as a journalist but now do media training and corporate presentations on the use of technology.

Be prepared to re-evaluate your strengths and interests from time to time as you might find new opportunities that build on the skills you have developed.

The Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is a short description of what you do that can be delivered to a stranger who knows nothing about you or what you do in in the time you share an elevator ride.

A while ago I described my elevator pitch – short description of what I do that can be delivered to a stranger. It assumes that they know nothing about me or what I do and can be shared in the time we share an elevator ride.

The folks over at Freelance Switch have developed a useful guide on creating an elevator pitch that’s worth a look.

They offer several tips but this is the big one in our view.

Once you’ve put something together, practice it. The trick with an elevator pitch is that while it’s planned, it needs to sound spontaneous; not robotic. Practice this by saying your pitch while your in the car or shower, making sure the words are natural and it’s easy to remember.

We’d also suggest trying it out loud in front of a mirror and then running it past a family member or friend who doesn’t understand exactly what you do.

Having a couple of different versions is also handy. I think a long version that lasts about a minute and a one or two sentence “highlights” version work well. For example, my short version says that I am a professional communicator that helps people tell their story. If that piques the listener’s interest (it usually does – who doesn’t like a story teller?) I can go with the longer version.

A solid elevator pitch needs to be memorable without being ridiculous. You want potential customers to remember you for what you do and stand for, not just because you were funny. And make sure you back up the pitch with a business card that tells people what you do and not just who you are. Consider it your paper-based elevator pitch.

How’s your client mix?

In a superficial way, there are really only two types of clients; good and bad. But the reality is that you need a client mix. If all your clients are the same you might as well have one boss and go back to working for someone else.

In a superficial way, there are really only two types of clients; good and bad. But the reality is that you need a client mix. If all your clients are the same you might as well have one boss and go back to working for someone else.

There are lots of different ways to categorise your client mix. Here’s one way.

Meal tickets

Meal tickets are a critical part of your client mix. They are regular clients you can reasonably rely on to commission work and pay reliably every month.

They may not offer the most exciting or enjoyable work on your ticket but it’s regular, pays your required rate and keeps things ticking over. You have a good relationship with these clients and you rely on each other. These clients are as close to a regular job as you can get.

One thing to watch out for are your local tax rules. In some jurisdictions, if you get too much of your income from a single source then you may be deemed to be an actual employee – the very thing you’re trying to avoid as a freelancer. If you’re in Australia, the ATO provides information for contractors.

Specials and one-offs

There will be times when clients come out of the blue. They commission you for one-off jobs, never to be seen from again. Can also be clients that commission you once, seem like they’ll be good but aren’t worth the hassle as they keep changing the brief, are slow payers or get started on a project only to try and milk you for extra services for no charge.

In other words, they’ll be one-offs either because they only need you once or because they haven’t been great clients.

If a one-off client proves to be a good client then make sure you keep in regular contact. Even though their need might have only been short term, add them to your newsletter list and stay in regular contact. It’s always good to stay in touch as you never know when they’ll need some help again.

Pro-bono

As a general rule you should never work for free. If you don’t value your work why should anyone else. However, when you start out, doing a small number of freebies can be a good way to build a CV, references and portfolio of work. Include clients that pay low rates but are great for your profile.

Also, doing local community work or helping out a preferred charity can be a great way to network as well as providing assistance to someone in need.

Profile Builders

There are some clients that look great on your client list as they are well known, high profile, prestigious or could direct you towards other clients. You should make an effort to pursue some of these as they give your business a great credibility boost. Also, if these clients are large companies they’re likely to have great budgets.

Make a list of profile builders and make a plan to contact them regularly. Do your research and find out where the best contact points into those companies are – and there may be more than one.

With the right client mix you can be assured that you’ll have enough variety in your workload so that you don;t get bored.