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Is There Such a Thing as a Recession-Proof Client or Industry?

I do these group dinner gatherings to little ethnic holes-in-the-wall every month or so. Always fun. I put a menu together with the restaurant and anywhere from 15 to 50 people show up, pay a flat fee, and enjoy. Nice way to enjoy good food, community and conversation.

This one couple comes to most of them. At the last one I did a few weeks back, as they were leaving, he says, “Oh, make sure you tune into the news at 11 tonight. They’re doing a little piece on Judy!”

Ah yes, that would make sense. After all, Judy is an estate liquidator. If ever there was a recession-proof business, that would be it. And she knows it. The worse things get, the busier and more profitable she becomes. Got me thinking. Are there such things are recession-proof businesses that are good prospects for commercial freelancers? Businesses that are doing well right now because of the economy and as a result, have the money and the inclination to spend it on getting the word out about what they do?

I’m working with a commercial writing client right now who’s awfully close to fitting the bill. She’s a consultant to small colleges, helping them increase enrollment – whether in times of upheaval (internally or externally generated) or not. And she’s got such a great track record that she stays as busy as she wants to be. And some of these colleges are so small (300-400 students) that adding just 20-30 students a year is huge for their bottom line.

I started out doing marketing materials for her own business, but pretty soon, she realized that I wasn’t half-bad at this writing thing (and yes, I’m getting my rate), and she started introducing me to her clients. Sweet. I’ll be talking to her later today to go over a whole list of projects one client wants done over the next few months and to give her an estimate.

There will always be a market for her particular skills among schools looking to bump up their enrollment, and everyone wants that – in bad times and good. And as long as I keep doing good work for her and those clients, the prospects for continued referrals are pretty bright.

Have you worked with any clients in recession-proof businesses or industries?

What might be some recession-proof businesses commercial freelancers could pursue? I can think of funeral homes, the alcohol industry, pawn shops and yes, estate liquidation and other bankruptcy-related businesses. Some more promising than others for sure. Any other thoughts?

THIS Is What Clients Want. Are You Delivering It?

Just got off the phone with one of my regular commercial writing clients after a semi-lovefest of good feelings. The Background: She calls me late one Friday and tells me she needs a sales sheet (8 ½ x 11, front and back) for a new program they’re promoting. She apologized for waiting to the last minute (hey, that’s what clients do), but wondered if I could turn around a finished product by early Tuesday. Which meant, of course, that the first draft would have to be pretty much done by EOD Monday. I said I’d be happy to help them out, but that I’d have to charge a rush fee. NO problem at all. In fact, we never discussed money at all. I’ve done enough commercial projects with her that she knows I’ll be fair.

So she sends me all the background info, and there was a good bit. She wasn’t able to send the last (and arguably most important piece) till Monday am. Once I had it all, and had looked it over on Monday am, I had a few questions, left her a voice mail, but got to work. As it was, she wasn’t able to get back to me till around 5:00. By then, I’d proceeded with the project, assuming x, y, and z until I heard differently. She filled in a few blanks for me in that 5:00 call, but it was 95% done by that point.

I sent it off the following morning and we had a call set up for that afternoon to discuss. She says, “The copy is awesome. I really don’t see anything that needs to be changed.” Music to any copywriter’s ear, of course. She went on to say how big a burden I lifted off of her shoulders. I mentioned that the piece had pretty much been done by the time the time we spoke, and she said, “That’s why I love working with you. You ‘get it’ fast, work with virtually no supervision, and make my life really easy.”

Incidentally, one part of the project entailed creating bios on three distinct entities who were part of the service offering being promoted on the sales sheet. Typically, a copywriter might expect to get the source material for such a set of bios from the client, but I knew this client had no time, wanted me to take ownership of the project, and trusted me implicitly to get it done. So, I simply looked up each entity on the Web, and put together the bios myself. Remember: clients routinely look to us to decide how something’s going to unfold. Want to move into the top earning echelons of this craft? Then, become one of those copywriters that takes ownership of projects.

Now. The point of this post is not some self-canonization. It’s to underscore what it is that clients want from writers: receptive to ultra-tight deadlines, a quick study, excellent work, minimal time invested on their end beyond emailing you background/source material, fast turnaround, being easy to work with, yes, taking ownership, etc. And when you give them all this, within reason, money ceases to be an issue. And when that happens, this business gets really fun. You become an incredibly valuable strategic partner to them and they will pay handsomely for your services. All of which is one pretty good answer to the question of how you weather a tough economy. Become invaluable.

Have you had a similar experience lately? If so, care you share?

What value do you bring to your clients that makes money a non-issue?

What have you heard from clients about other writers who don’t deliver?

Who’s Got the Right to Say What a Creative Practitioner Charges?

Got the following note from Twin Cities, MN commercial freelancer Megan Tsai (www.RedWagonWriting.com), who thought it might make a good blog post. At first, I didn’t think so, as it wasn’t about commercial writing, but the idea grew on me, and I starting seeing the potential for a good discussion. She wrote:

I sometimes take on assignments for a low-paying national magazine with high production value because I enjoy the work and the clips look great in my portfolio. Typically I take the photos myself or allow the publisher to select stock photos, but because I know the value of these clips and have no use for national photo credits myself, I thought I’d offer the opportunity to a local freelance photographer. As you discuss in your book, many freelancers get their start by doing non-paying work.

I posted a quick ad on Craigslist, explaining this would not be a paid assignment, but would result in some high-quality clips for a freelancer just getting started. I asked that anyone interested shoot me an email with a link to their portfolio. Within minutes, my post had been flagged and removed, and several angry responses posted (the site is self-policing, so it was the freelancers who had it removed, not Craigslist itself). At the same time, I received three emails from interested photographers and dozens of hits on my Web site. So the question becomes, is it fair to deprive fellow freelancers of the opportunity to complete non-paying work, or should this decision be left to the individual?

My take? Megan, you’re right. They’re wrong. I’m a libertarian at heart, believing that people should be free to take or not take work, and no one should dictate the conditions under which that happens. You offered a “free market transaction”: people were free to respond or not, and for others to attack you and move to remove your post note, was wrong.

Those applauding the freelancers’ decision to silence you think they’re “standing up for the rights of creative practitioners to be paid what they’re worth” as if you were forcing them to work for nothing. Instead, as you pointed out, what they were doing was indeed depriving freelancers who wanted to exercise their right to do non-paying work (to build their book and reputation) to do so. And in this case, even more so, because it wasn’t as if the publication was going to pay a photographer “market” rates for the gig.

That decision should be no one’s to make but a given freelancer. Yes, I understand the philosophy that says, “If you encourage the idea of working for free, you cheapen the value of what any practitioner in that field does.” Arguably true, but still not your decision to make for someone else. And not compelling enough in my books to make that decision “for the good of the industry” under the guise of protecting rights. Obviously, those people who responded positively to your ad didn’t feel they needed anyone else’s protection.

As I see it, is there any substantive difference between what they did and, say, removing an ad for a TV you had offered for $50 that they thought should have been worth $200? For those who’d say, “That’s different,” I’d ask “How so?” Whether a TV or someone’s time, you’re still deciding for someone else what the value of that thing is, and that’s not your decision to make. And, yes, the same would go for commercial freelancers willing to work for free or for far less than their competitors. I don’t like to see it, but it’s their right to decide, not mine. And until this economy improves, we’re likely to see more and more of this.

Granted, for most established commercial writing practitioners, we’re not likely to find too many newbies beating us out on sophisticated commercial writing projects (e.g., brochures, ad copy, direct mail, case studies, etc.) by working for free or for $25 an hour (they’re more likely to operate on online writing job sites and in the online article writing realm), but I’m still interested in hearing people’s take on this.

Your thoughts on this subject?

Have you had any similar experience of being on either side of a situation like this?

Where do you draw the line between individual’s rights and the “greater good of the industry”?

Should We Be “Fee-Flexible” in These Times?

So, a few weeks ago, I offered up a competitive bid on a project for a commercial writing client I’d done some good work for some time back. The graphic designer on the project (we’d submitted a “turnkey” project bid) had actually worked for the client for 10 years a while back, had the inside track, and knew all the players. They did tell us they’d be looking at several bids, but we figured that was just a formality (after all, they were a government entity, so they had to go through a “competitive bidding process”). Yeah, buddy, we were in like flint.

Well, guess what? They went with a lower bid. Hmmm. Just an anomaly or a “bad economic sign”? Depends on what you decide, I suppose.

Fast forward to last week. It hit me as I was putting together a quote on a project for a prospect who’d called me out of the blue. I knew what I’d normally charge (and get) for a project like this, but found myself wondering if taking the business-as-usual approach was wise in a time when things weren’t quite usual. With the prospect’s admission that he’d be talking to several other writers echoing in my head, I shot a bit lower than I would have, say, a year ago. Still a healthy fee – we’re only talking maybe 10% lower than normal – but the fact that I was playing the game at all pissed me off.

Okay, so I’m a bit torn. Part of me hears my voice admonishing commercial writers: “Don’t play the price game! You’ll lose because there will always be someone willing to do it for less.” Absolutely true. And, “Stick to your guns; the good clients will always pay for quality.” Also true, and I’m working for several of them who haven’t made a peep about wanting me to charge less (and this new guy has no direct experience working with me, so he hasn’t yet gotten to the point where my competence trumps any price sensitivity). And the new year is off to a bit slower start than usual, so maybe that’s part of it.

But then the other side ponders, “Should I be a bit flexible these days? Are clients getting more budget-sensitive?”

So. Am I making a mountain out of molehill? Am I losing my nerve? Or just being realistic? In case all of you think that us seasoned folks always have it all figured out, think again… 😉 Love to hear from you guys about what you’re finding out there…

Are you finding price is becoming a bigger issue these days with your existing clients?

If so, are you becoming more fee-sensitive these days, making adjustments for changing times?

Or, even if it is, are you refusing to play the game at all, charging what you’ve always charged, because, by George, you’re worth every penny?

Job’s Done, But Client Can’t Pay. Now What?

Okay, maybe not quite that definitive, but close. Suffice to say, a sticky situation the likes of which I rarely find myself in. After all, one of the best things about commercial freelancing is that payment issues are rare. 30 days or less has absolutely always been the norm for me in 95% of cases.

Was contacted a few months back by a commercial writing client I’d done work for in the past. Successful businessman starting a new venture and needing a marketing brochure for it. He’s a hands-on guy (translation: major micro-manager), but not obnoxious about it. And willing to pay for someone’s attention.

In addition to the brochure (just a four-pager), I ended up crafting a name and tag line for the venture as well. Settled for $1000 for the both, which though a lot lower than I should have gotten (good blog topic in that …), they took me, probably, a total of a 2-3 hours to do – I actually came up with the name during a meeting – so I won’t gripe too much.

Anyway, because I’d done plenty of work with this client in the past and never had a problem getting paid, I didn’t get an upfront deposit. I’d say, “Mistake!” but given the track record, it really wasn’t. And hindsight’s always 20/20. That said, it may not be a bad move, given the climate we’re in, to go with upfront deposits from all clients until things get less dicey.

Well, my guy calls me after I’d sent an invoice for the total (we’d discussed it before I’d billed him) with some disturbing news: His credit line with the bank (to cover operational expenses of getting this new venture up and running) had been revoked. It’s one of the more common by-products of the economic slide we’re in the midst of. Banks just aren’t willing to get any more extended.

Add to that that revenues from his main business are off. So, suddenly, he can’t pay my invoice – at least not right away. So, we set up a schedule, with roughly 30% due on X date, about 40% due two weeks later, and the final 30% due about three weeks after that. Deadline One (a Monday) comes and goes. No check. But, that Friday, he calls me. And that’s key. As long as people are communicating with me, I’ll cut them a world of slack. Shows good faith, accountability, and integrity.

We’re going to have to rework the timetable, he says. I tell him I’m happy to work on a schedule of $500 here and $500 there. He says great, that he’ll be get back to me. It’s been about seven days (and a holiday in there) and I haven’t heard from him, and if I don’t in a few more days, I’ll be in touch. Bottom line, while I’m not terribly pleased, I’m not worried either. I know he’s good for it.

Ever had a situation like this or similar? What did you do?

What are some of the valuable lessons you’ve learned from your experiences?

Do you get upfront deposits from all clients?