From the President's Desk
"Treat It Like A Business!" But What Does That Mean?
by Minda Zetlin, ASJA President
I'm a business and technology writer and it's a creed in the technology world that the more carefully you measure something, the more you learn about it. And the more you learn about it, the more you can make it better. That's the logic behind the iPhone app "The Eatery" which invites users to take pictures of each meal they eat and vote on how healthy or unhealthy it is. After doing this for a couple of weeks, I discovered a pattern: I was likeliest to eat something bad for me when my husband brought it to me as a present. After coming to this realization, I had a talk with him and he's cut back on the fattening love tokens.
I've found the same measure-and-learn approach works for my earnings as a freelance writer. This comes after years of being fairly lackadaisical. Sure, I would keep track of how much I earned each year for tax purposes, and I'd take stock of my earnings and extrapolate my annual income at various points during the year. But a couple of years ago, as family members needed more of my help and I began contemplating the possibility that I might grow old someday, I knew I needed to do better. I had to increase my income, and measurement was the place to start.
I began keeping track of assigned work, submitted work, and invoiced amounts on a weekly basis, measuring against weekly and monthly goals. I used Microsoft OneNote for this, because I use it to keep track of nearly everything and all the info on assignments and fees was already in there, which was handy. A possibly better approach would be to use a spreadsheet, but I have a mental block about using spreadsheets, for some reason. In any case, keeping track of these things made me more aware when my assignments thinned out during a slow period, and quicker to do something about it. My earnings did indeed improve.
Next, I decided to see if I could project my income by considering each of my regular clients in turn and estimating how much I might reasonably expect to earn from each over the course of a year. I did this for the first time about two years ago, and twice more since. Each time, I've learned something interesting.
The first time made it starkly apparent how one very regular but low-paying client was holding me back, because I would never earn enough while I kept working there. I realized it was time to back away, so I stopped pitching new topics there, and began seriously looking for clients to replace them.
I did it again last winter after two websites I was writing for both folded on the same day. This time I learned exactly how much income I would need to replace. And so I did.
The last time I did this exercise was a couple of weeks ago. This time I learned something new: That rather than pitching a lot of new markets, I need to do a better job of working with the markets I'm already in.
Most freelancers would agree that one key to economic survival is having several regular clients. Right now I have six, all of whom pay me decently. All have editors who are pleasant and responsive, appreciate my work, and whose rewrite requests are always logical and fair. I would give each of them at least an 8 in MarketRate (where ASJA members share information about clients, and rate their experience from 1 to 10). When I looked at each in turn and asked myself how much I could reasonably expect to earn over a year, the total was substantially higher than my current income. I wasn't earning as much as I could because I'd gotten lazy about pitching new story ideas to my regular publications.
As a business writer I'm well aware of the marketing principle that it's easier and more cost-effective to make new sales to an old customer than to go out and find new business. I was failing to follow this principle myself, and I never would have known it if I hadn't sat down to try to predict my revenue.
We often hear the admonition to "treat freelance writing like a business." But what would doing so really mean? We all know how to dress appropriately during meetings with editors and other clients and turn in professional-level work on time. We all know what per-hour or per-word rates we want to earn, and what clauses we want to see in a contract before we sign. Some of us have even learned to negotiate effectively to get more of what we want.
But what if we took this treating-freelancing-as-a-business a few steps further, and started thinking the way real business executives do? What if we learned terms like "return on investment" and "target market" and "projected revenues"—and learned to apply them to ourselves? What if we started reading books and magazines and websites about what makes a small business successful, and started using those same tactics? I already read and write a lot of this stuff as a columnist for a small-business website. The hard part is remembering to take these lessons and apply them to myself.
I plan to do another client review in six months to see if my actual income has gotten closer to the projections I came up with last week. And then I'll analyze my stable of clients and make an updated revenue projection once again sometime in the coming year.
How about you? Have you ever done an analysis like this of your own? And if not, should you give it a try? You never know what you might learn. ¢
I welcome responses to these president's letters. Email me at president AT asja.org.
Minda Zetlin is president of ASJA, a columnist for the Inc. magazine website and author of several books, including The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006), co-authored with her husband, Bill Pfleging.