My Elevator Pitch – Extended Version

What do I do? It’s a question I’m often asked and had a chance to recently answer

Most business advice guides suggest that you need an “elevator pitch”. This is a short statement that descsribes your job, your business or whatever you are known for in just a couple of minutes. In the online world, this can be the sort of brief description that appears on an “About Me” page or widget but it’s named for the sort of description you can deliver to somene during an elevator ride. It’s short and direct.

Last night I had the privelege of talking about my work as a freelance journalist to students from my daughter’s school as part of their annual career’s fair. I thought I’d share my notes with you so you can get an idea of how I describe my work. It’s a bit longer than an elevator pitch but I was asked to address some specific questions.

What your job involves, what a typical day might be like

  • A typical work day starts at about 9.00 AM. I work from home and have a dedicated home office with all the stuff I need. It’s not part of the house so I can separate work from home (important if you’re self-employed)
  • I have a workflow system so I can track work that I have coming up so that I can prioritise what’s coming up. At any one time I may have up to 20 tasks in the queue. 
  • Depending on the day I might spend the day writing, interviewing people either on phone or in person or putting some time into boring stuff like office admin (accounts, etc)
  • I usually finish working between 5 and 6 but take time out to pick up kids from school or meet with friends to break things up

 Your journey into your career (some take interesting and unusual paths)

  • I got my job sort of by accident – it was never planned
  • A friend was freelancing for APC and was too busy to hit a deadline so I subbed in (I’d been doing some work for free on a couple of websites to build a reputation)
  • Then I started to pitch my own work
  • Made contact with other freelancers and expanded my network 
  • Some of my friends in the business came to the job through traditional university/cadetship paths. That works well and equips you with the skills you need. I had to learn on the job.
  • For the first few years I had a full-time job and freelanced on the side

 What you like about your job, what attracted you to into the area

  • I meet interesting people
  • I write about stuff I’m interested in
  • Because I write about technology I get lots of cool toys to play with
  • I have a lot of freedom
  • I get to travel

 What the challenges are

  • Cash-flow: you don’t always know where your next job is coming from
  • Prioritizing and time management: when you’re on your own schedule you need a lot of self discipline (and that takes time and practice)
  • Loneliness; although that might depend on your personality type
  • In some niches, pay rates are falling (the global economy is a huge factor) 

The types of skills/personal attributes you think are important for you to be effective in your role

  • You have to like writing. There’s no point doing a job where you’re not going to enjoy the main activity
  • Motivation and self-confidence: if you can’t sell yourself you’ll starve
  • Organization so that you don’t miss tasks or deadline
  • As a freelancer, if you can’t solve your editor’s problem then you’re not doing your job

Any advice you would give to someone considering this career

  • It’s not for everyone.
  • It can take a while to establish your reputation 
  • Listen to all that stuff your english teacher tells you about grammar, construction, spelling and language
  • Read a lot so you expand your vocabulary

 Career opportunities available

  •  Lots but go in your eyes open

Five Time Management Basics

Development of time management skills is a key to freelance success.

20110508-223655.jpgI’ve been freelancing full-time for almost a year. Prior to that, I was working in an office job and fitting freelancing in around that work. By necessity, my time was tightly managed. However, when I went 100% freelance, my diary was far more flexible. That meant I had to develop a new level of discipline with time management.

Here are the five things I do to manage my time.

1. Workflow management

I’ve been using a self-developed workflow system using a program called Bento on my Mac. The neat thing is the system can be synchronized to my iPad and iPhone easily so I can record ideas, pitches, commissioned work, work in progress and submitted work.

Without this system, I’d lose track of my work as in a typical week I’d have several deadlines on the go at any one time.

2. My whiteboard

I have a small whiteboard (900 x 450mm) on my wall that lists the week’s deadlines, to do items (such as bills and invoices) and other stuff I need to keep track of. It’s a low-tech solution but it works to keep my focussed each day.

3. Set daily goals

Each work day I set targets. The nature of the targets varies depending on where I am in my work cycle. Sometimes it’s to conduct a certain number of interviews or write a number of words or submit a number of stories.

Daily goals are important. By setting small, achievable targets that are linked to deadlines and budgets it makes the somewhat daunting tasks of hitting monthly or annual earning goals mo achievable.

4. Mix it up

I know my personality pretty well and know that I need to vary my work otherwise I lose focus. So, I try not to fill consecutive days with the same work. If I have a full day of writing, I make sure my next day involves something different.

If it’s not practical because of pending deadlines then I try to introduce some diversity by planning work for different clients. If I have a day of writing about consumer tech, I make the next day about enterprise or management. That gets my brain working in different ways.

5. Schedule some fun

In order to get the most out of my work time I always slow for some social time during the work day. If I was in a 9 to 5 office I’d occasionally grab a coffee with a friend or chat in the lunch room. There’s no reason that has to stop just because I’m self-employed.

Each week, I plan to catch up with a couple of friends on the phone and go out for lunch with my wife. While those activities can cut into work time, they actually help me be more productive by keeping my brain fresh.

So, what do you do to get the most from your time?

Relationships are the key to business expansion

Whether you’re starting out or established, increasing your business involves relationship building.

When I started out freelancing, my first couple of paying jobs came about quite by accident. Although I enjoyed writing, I’d never really thought about making a living from it. I sold my first paying story when a friend referred me. She was busy and needed someone to help out. I then made a point of going to visit the editor of that magazine. Through a Mac user group I met another journalist and he let me know that there was a journalist mailing list running that I’d be interested in. From there I met many other journalists and … well, you get the picture.

At every step of my journey, it’s been relationships with other people that have led to me getting work. I’m now at the point where I rarely have to pitch stories to editors. As I’ve worked with enough people and made a point of delivering what my editors want on time I’ve established a reputation as someone they can rely on.

But as well as delivering the best work I could, I made a point of meeting with people. That’s meant investing in some travel and setting time aside to meet with people. In some cases, that meant drinking a lot of coffee during casual meetings that weren’t about specific work but focussed on simply establishing a professional friendship.

I’ve gone on several conferences where there have been other journalists and editors.While those events have often been hard to justify on a pure dollars per day basis, they have all paid me back many times over. I’ve made contacts at those events that have lead to lots of new work.

More recently, it’s been the use of social media that’s been useful. The challenge of tools like Twitter is that the breadth of relationships is substantial but the connections are usually quite shallow. However, by engaging in dialog with contacts you can get leads for stories, fresh ideas and other valuable information.

Three steps to avoiding the freelancing trap

Freelancing? Not rich yet? Want to know why?

One of the traps of freelancing – really it’s going into small business by another name – is “the books”. No, this isn’t a lesson on book-keeping or reading balance sheets or even a master class on the dreaded BAS [Business Activity Statement], but instead a small piece on a common freelancing trap.

We know we need to make a profit. That’s what pays the rent or mortgage, buys food, takes care of insurance, rates, electricity bills etc. And of course profit is equivalent to sales minus costs. And therein lies the trap.

We all know how much we “sell”, that’s the easy bit. Costs are a different thing again. Who truly knows what their monthly costs are? Go on – be honest.

Step 1 – Catalog Your Expenses

Excerpt from one of the sheets of my spreadsheet

The only way to find out is to get a receipt for everything you buy and catalogue it. Even better, to get a more accurate average, do it for three months. And I do mean everything – as well as the obvious mortgage/rent, fuel, weekly grocery shop, include all those little things you normally wouldn’t consider such as the daily and weekend newspaper, your lunch from the sandwich bar, that Friday night beer at the pub, entry fee to the zoo with the kids.

Everything.

Don’t cheat at this either. Even throw your credit card payments in there for example and any money you set aside for holidays etc. These should also be entered in step 2 (below) that is later creating a meaningful budget from these numbers.

I use a purpose built Excel spreadsheet I made to catalogue this stuff, work out budgets, variances and summarise them all into monthly running totals. If you want a copy, let me know at david@auscamonline.com.

At the end of the first month you’ll be very surprised at how much you are spending. This is a good thing as it will allow you to create a realistic budget and find ways of cutting costs. Which means of course that the profit gets bigger! And that is the end game.

2 – Cut Unnecessary Costs

Cutting costs can be as simple as making a sandwich rather than buying one, using the bus or train on occasion rather than taking the car to appointments, making sure all unnecessary electrical appliances are off and not just on standby, making your own home brew (which is bloody good fun and a huge cost saver over packaged beer), washing the dog yourself as against a weekly hydrobath and so on.

3 – The Reading List

There a number of very good books I have read recently on these sorts of topics I can heartily recommend. I bought them through the Kindle bookshop via Amazon, but they are available in paperback too (although I do recommend the Kindle option!) [Affiliate Links]

The eagle-eyed among you will notice a common thread here (mostly). All except Alan Sugar are members of the Dragon’s Den team from the BBC TV show. They are all self-made multi-millionaires (as is Alan Sugar) and tell it as it is.

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This is a guest post by David Hague, editor of AusCam Online. You can follow David on Twitter  – he’s @vbthedog

Business plans, setting goals and getting things done

Setting a business plan sounds smart. Perhaps it’s not.

When you’re planning to make the change to being your own boss it’s tempting to spend a lot of time working out how to make the shift without actually making the shift. There’s a name for that – paralysis by analysis. I thought long and hard about making the change last year. I was coming off a 10 year stint at the same company and really needed to find something new to do. After close to 20 years working for other people I figured that I could either try going solo or die wondering.

A post at Freelance Folder talks about how freelancers don’t need Business Plans. I’ve never seen a business plan that bore any resemblance to reality. It’s typically a mix between guesswork and telling someone (usually a bank manager) what they want to hear. I prefer a different approach.

1. Set some financial goals

I suggest that you need to set three different types of goals; a break even goal (what you need to survive), a comfort goal (what you need to have some fun) and the BHAG – a big hairy audacious goal. This is the one that lets you take an overseas holiday with the family or buy a nice car or indulge in some other luxury item.

Set the goals and write them somewhere you can see them. I have them on my whiteboard.

2. Work out how much you need to earn per day to hit the financial goal

If you need to earn $104,000 per year to reach a goal you might think that’s $2000 per week or $400 per day. You’d be wrong. In Australia, full time employees are entitled to 10 paid sick days per year and four weeks of annual leave. So, instead of having 52 weeks to make your money, you have 46.

That means you need $2260 per week or $450 per day.

3. Try not to start out with no money or clients

This is the tough one. If you’ve been working full-time, there’s not much chance that you’ll have  full client roster that can pay all your bills on day one. That means you’ll either need a partner who can cover the bills or some money in the bank. While you might not be able to plan what will happen to your business in the first few months, you should at least plan to be able to eat.

4. Don’t blindly accept every job that comes your way

This is one of the tough ones. It might be tempting to accept every job that comes your way no matter how much it pays. Remember your daily earning goals and work to them. If a $200 job comes in and it’s going to take three days – you’ll want to consider whether it really worth accepting. By accepting low value jobs you’ll establish yourself as a low value product. However, if the $200 job comes in and you can do it in a couple of hours then that might be a good option.

Remember – while your clients will measure your value in words or images, you need to charge yourself out by your time.

How do you plan? Let me know in your comments.