This past Saturday, I attended Freelance Camp 2012, hosted by The Network Hub. The event was run in an unconference style rather than with a set program: those who wanted to present pitched their talks first thing, attendees voted on what they most wanted to see, and the schedule was defined from there. Topics included overcoming a fear of public speaking, accounting, mobile web design, intellectual property, video marketing, and Google Adwords, among others, and industries from publishing and graphic design to software development and business coaching were represented. Here are some highlights from the talks that I attended:
IP 4 you: Develop an Intellectual Property Portfolio
Chang Han introduced us to various forms of intellectual property and showed us how they can mean real value for your business. Ideas themselves, he noted, have zero commercial value. To harness the value derived from an original creative idea, you have to protect it with trademarks, brands, and other forms of intellectual property.
Intellectual property can be registered (e.g., registered trademarks, patents, copyright, etc.) or unregistered (e.g., passing off, trade secrets, etc.). Han introduced the idea of trade dress, which encapsulates a product’s or business’s distinctive physical appearance and packaging—including its colour palette, typographic treatment, ambiance, and so on—and allows that to be protected. Han suggests that in addition to copyright protection, trade dress may be a way that web designers can protect their or their clients’ websites.
Copyright comes into effect as soon as a work is created, but, Han, said, when push comes to shove, you still have to prove you created it first. “Poor man’s copyright”—where you’d write something you want to protect, stick it in an envelope and mail it to yourself, keeping it unopened until you had to offer proof in court—used to be a not uncommon practice but is not very effective in the digital age. Today, a better approach is to put the material online and archive screen shots. Han also notes that not only are your words and images protected under copyright, but so are any works derived from them.
A registered trademark (®) is stronger than an unregistered trademark (™), although the process of registering the trademark through a government office may demand a lot of your time, if you wish to do it yourself, or perhaps $5,000 to $10,000, if you pay someone to do it for you. The key advantage is that with a registered trademark, you don’t have to prove damages.
Those who work internationally must be aware that in some jurisdictions, such as Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, intellectual property is assigned to whoever created it first (common law); in others, such as most of Europe, China, and most of South America, it is assigned to whoever registered it first (civil law).
So how does a business build an intellectual property portfolio? For starters, the business plan is protected under copyright. If you can show that part of your business involves an innovative process, that process can be patented. Your customer list can be considered intellectual property if it’s part of your confidential trade secrets. If you’re ever in a business relationship with other entities, you can lay out the terms for protecting that information in a confidentiality agreement. Han warns that if you don’t protect your intellectual property, your partners, subcontractors, or even your clients may later take your ideas and become your competitors.
For anyone looking for a good primer on intellectual property, Han recommends Intellectual Property, Patents, Trademarks, and Copyright in a Nutshell.
My two cents: An interesting primer. Intellectual property is such a huge topic that a forty-five-minute talk can only barely scratch the surface. Since a lot of the audience members worked in the creative industries, I would have liked to hear a bit more of a discussion about the distinction between copyright and moral rights (i.e., how do you protect your moral rights if you’ve transferred the copyright to your work to someone else?). What are the effects, if any, of Bill C-11 on this issue? In the book Effective Onscreen Editing, author Geoff Hart says that until you get paid and transfer the copyright to your client, the copyright of the words that you have written as an editor belong to you, and you can use that as a tool to make sure you are paid—an interesting tip that would have fit well with this talk’s topic.
Contracts for people who hate contracts
Martin Ertl, Contractually
Martin Ertl, a lawyer, founded Contractually, which offers web software that allows you to fill in contracts, share them with clients, and get them signed. He noted that a lot of people don’t use written contracts, and in his talk he demystified what contracts are what they should include.
Everyone uses contracts, sometimes without realizing it; even verbal agreements can be legally binding contracts. However, a written contract is a more effective tool for communicating with your clients to make sure that you’re on the same page.
A contract can define, among other issues
- the scope of your work
- a timeline for your work, with major milestones
- who owns the product of your work, in terms of intellectual property
- what the client needs to provide you, and when, perhaps outlining a review process for your work
- how much and how you will be paid
- who can terminate the contract, when the contract can be terminated, and what happens if the contract is terminated
- non-disclosure and confidentiality
Contracts, Ertl emphasized, are not about legal jargon—they’re about clear communication with your clients so that you can develop a solid working relationship. Some people are afraid to use written contracts because they’re concerned they might scare off clients; in fact, a good contract makes you appear more professional and inspires confidence in clients. If you encounter a potential client who’s turned off by the idea of a contract, that’s a red flag.
Ertl said to use plain English in your contracts; this is better than using legal-sounding language, which may not say what you intended. If something changes, make sure to spell out as early as possible what the changes are and how they affect payment and scheduling, and be sure the client indicates agreement. This can be done via email or, more formally, through a change order form.
Contractually is offering Freelance Camp attendees a discount on its services. Get more information here.
My two cents: This talk gave an excellent overview of the function of a contract and the importance of having one. Editors can start with the Editors’ Association of Canada’s Standard Freelance Editorial Agreement and modify it to suit their clients and projects.
Learn your client development priorities
Francis Waller, Steady Contractor
Francis Waller, a specialist in business marketing and communications, led us through a self-assessment checklist to determine our client development priorities. A lot of people talk about branding for small businesses, he said, but the focus should be different for service versus product marketing. When you are the product, it’s trust, not brand, that you must build. Once you’ve established trust, pricing becomes less of an issue for clients.
He divided his checklist into ten modules and asked us three questions per module. He told us to score ourselves based on our answers to those questions and determine which areas were our weaknesses. The modules were as follows (with one sample question from each):
- Core message/value proposition: Can you describe the results of your offerings in simple, memorable, and conversational terms?
- Target markets: Can you describe the ideal customers for each segment, using factors like location, age, business size, business type, needs, or other criteria?
- Library of documents: Does your website clearly communicate to each target market?
- Referral sources: Do you have a plan to train potential referral sources over time about your business?
- Contact management: Do you have a way to organize all of your potential clients, past clients, suppliers, and referral sources, with a calendar of whom to contact and when?
- Graphics/logo: Are your logo and graphic standards quickly recognizable and memorable?
- Active selling: Can you list at least three ways you contact people or business in your target market who are not aware of you?
- Networking: Do you record your networking interactions with people, so that you can prioritize them?
- Buying cycle and information needs: Do you understand what customers do or discuss before contacting you?
- Scoring and sorting: Do you have ways of prioritizing each potential client or referral source based on objective measurements?
The entire checklist is too long to reproduce here, but Waller did generously send it out to his talk’s audience members, for many of whom the exercise was clearly eye-opening. He polled the audience and discovered that, as a group, our weakest areas were in contact management, active selling, library of documents, and scoring and sorting.
For contact management, he suggests establishing some sort of a system—it could be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet—to track conversations and their dates, as well as the date of the next contact or next action. Create templates that can merge with your contact management system.
As for active selling, Waller suggests defining your probable buying cycle and to name two or three ways that you can approach new relationships and build them over time. Describe the different decision makers among your potential clients and how you will answer their needs.
Regarding the library of documents, he suggests using template documents for each step in the buying cycle and to learn your clients’ language and jargon. Because of your expertise, you are a teacher to your clients. If you have a set of business documents that you can readily pull out (and repurpose as needed), you’ll look organized and will be able to build trust.
Finally, for scoring and sorting, Waller suggests choosing two or three metrics for each target market; these can be objective (e.g., how much they’re willing to pay) or subjective (e.g., how you feel about them). Periodically sort your contacts to fine-tune your near-term priorities, and manage similar contacts together for more efficiency.
My two cents: Again, it’s too bad we had only forty-five minutes to go through this exercise, and I’m grateful to have a copy of the handout to repeat it at my own pace. Waller called his talk “Learn your client development priorities,” but to me, this process is so much broader than that. I’ve evangelized before that having well-thought-out systems, including templates, checklists, and records of recurring communications, allows you to streamline your work so that you can focus on what you do best. One question that particularly struck a chord was, under “active selling,” “Do you have an agenda and objective for each meeting or conversation?” Although the term “agenda” may sound formal, it drives home the point that you should go into every conversation with a goal and come out of it having accomplished something specific that will help move you forward. (Incidentally, my weakest area? Networking. Somehow, I came away from this event having given out exactly zero business cards.)
Supply Chain/Value Chain: It’s Your Business
Anthony Taylor, SME Strategy
Anthony Taylor works with small businesses to refine their business practices. He wanted audience members to look at all aspects of their value offering, from the beginning to end, to better understand their businesses. He also encouraged us to understand our clients’ businesses, which will ultimately help us sell more.
The foundation for your freelancing business is your core competencies, he said. Understand what you do well. Next, identify your competitive advantage: what do you do better than all of your competitors, and how do you harness that to your advantage? If your offering is valuable, that in itself can get your business started, but you need more to maintain it. If your offering is valuable and rare, you may have a short-term advantage, but ultimately competitors would be able to learn it to compete with you. However, an offering that is valuable, rare, and hard to imitate will result in a long-term advantage. Anyone, Taylor noted, can compete on price alone.
The goal, Taylor said, is not to get more customers—it’s to make more money. To define or refine your business plan, he suggested starting with the business model canvas. It compartmentalizes your plan into important areas of consideration, including key partners, key activities, key resources, value propositions, customer relationships, channels (how people find out about you), and customer segments. Finally, it asks you to look at your cost structure and revenue streams. Taylor emphasized that your competitors can’t copy your relationships, so those can serve as a competitive advantage if you handle them well. Understanding your business’s cost structure is also extremely important—know where the money is coming out of your business, since reducing costs is as important as increasing revenue. Taylor also pointed out that revenue streams were key: revenue should be constantly flowing in, not coming in sporadically.
Taylor encouraged audience members to go through this business model canvas and write down their ideas: “It’s not a plan until it’s written down!” He closed by noting that something is valuable only if it’s value to your customer. When you’ve clearly defined your offering, make it as easy as possible for people to buy from you. A confusing website or hidden contact information are barriers that could hurt your business.
The slides from Taylor’s presentation can be found here.
My two cents: “Understand what costs you money.” That makes complete sense, of course. But hearing that made me realize that I need to do a better job of tracking my time. I’ve been rather lazy about doing that on jobs where I’m paid a project fee rather than an hourly rate, but it’s the only way I can see whether they’re genuinely worth my while.
Top five mistakes freelancers make
Felicia Lee, Candeo Business Coaching
Felicia Lee is a business coach who helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses in a predictable way to reach their sales and revenue goals. She identified the top mistakes that freelancers make, within the five stages of business.
1. Lack of visibility
If people don’t know who you are, they can’t buy from you, which is why marketing and networking are so vital. Aim to always build visibility, regardless of how busy you are; you can dial it down, but never discontinue your efforts, because the visibility you establish today translates into your future business.
2. Lack of credibility
Visibility alone won’t increase your business; “sales vomit”—indiscriminate pitches to an ill-defined audience—isn’t effective. People have to trust that you are good at what you do before they’ll buy from you. Leverage your past clients’ experiences with you to build credibility. At the end of a project, have a standard survey or feedback form that solicits testimonials. Make sure the testimonials are individually specific but collectively address many facets of your offering (e.g., the quality of your work, your collegiality, your ability to meet deadlines, etc.). You may find that writing testimonials on your clients’ behalf and asking them to approve it is an effective approach.
3. Lack of profitability
Implement a system in which you can measure exactly what your costs look like. Consider different models: can you bill by results rather than by the hour? How can you become more efficient and lower your costs? Start tracking your time and tasks to find the answers to these questions and to make sure you have a business, not just a hobby.
4. Lack of sustainability
Being a business owner, says Lee, is a marathon, not a sprint. Proactively plan for rest periods when you can recharge. Rather than trying to achieve that mystical work–life balance, try to find a sustainable rhythm—a cycle in which you can rest, gently ramp up your work, work intensively, then cool down to another period of rest. Working full-tilt and then crashing for a day is akin to sprinting hard and suddenly stopping: your mind and body don’t have the opportunity to slow down enough to regenerate.
5. Lack of scalability
Is your goal, through self-employment, to simply have a job or to build a business? Identify your strengths—what you’re good at should be what you should focus on. Build yourself a support structure to take care of the other aspects of running your business so that you can scale what you do.
To figure out what to focus on, assess your performance in each of these five areas. Every business, said Lee, must master visibility and credibility. Next, think about what your sales goal is, and figure out how much business you’d have to bring in to meet your goal. Track and measure your progress.
Lee left us with one last bit of wisdom: it’s not your responsibility to pre-emptively filter your clients; show people what you have to offer and let them decide whether to buy from you.
My two cents: A succinct presentation, packed with sound advice, and once again we heard about the importance of ongoing objective tracking and self-assessment. Lee’s take on sustainability was particularly interesting; we hear so much about the concept of work–life balance that to see the issue from a different perspective was refreshing.
The sessions have given me a lot to consider. As a freelance publishing specialist, I know that my professional development so far has been heavily skewed towards the publishing aspect of my work, so I appreciated the opportunity to brush up on the freelance bit. I was impressed with how organized the unconference format turned out to be, and I’m amazed tickets were only $15, with all proceeds going to charity. Kudos to the event organizers and volunteers.