After 8 years freelancing, I’ve seen many a small business and startup come and go. Not so much as direct clients but as inquiries from potential clients. I keep a file of people that ask about my freelance services. I check where they land in a year or two later. I do this because I want to make sure the ones I pass on aren’t due to my hubris. I also use it as a sign of burn out or general frustration I may be ignoring.
I learned this trick when I worked in product management and at marketing agencies when delivering campaigns. It’s a way of ensuring you’re not becoming blind to possibility by swimming too much in your own pond.
Nobody is perfect and sometimes, I do get it wrong. That is part of the learning within the process. But I also pass on projects that often don’t see the light of day. I am fairly good at judging early warning signs of an idea or business that could stumble.
There’s no value in dwelling on the negative when the warning signs may help. Here’s some 6 things I notice that are common in the ideas, campaigns and indeed small businesses and startups that might be headed for trouble
There’s no budget to speak of
No one understands the challenges of working on a shoestring budget quite like a freelancer. However, that doesn’t mean we owe a small business or startup free labour. When you come to a freelancer without any budget behind you, there’s not a lot a great freelancer can do for you.
A lack of budget in hope of payment later is fool’s gold. It’s also a litmus test about how serious you are about your business.
You see, if you realise marketing, copywriting and strategy are needed for your business but you can’t find the budget for them, you’re sending mixed signals. If it is essential to move forward with strong marketing, find budget for it. Don’t expect a freelancer to work on spec or defer payment.
Show that your business is sustainable by coming to the table with cash. It’s the professional way to conduct business.
PRO TIP: No budget for marketing and related freelance services is a red flag. It usually says that you’re not willing to back your idea financially. It also sends the signal that you don’t understand the reality of failure. It might even point to too much dreaming and not enough practical thinking. If you don’t respect your business enough to back it financially, why should we?
Grabbing feedback from everywhere
Nothing burns through time, budget and your ability to launch ideas than having too many opinions. Design by committee internally is an issue enough. But if you’re dancing around the maypole asking everyone you can find what they think of your business, it’s downright dangerous.
First, it demonstrates a sincere lack of confidence in your business or startup. If you’re fishing for feedback anywhere you can find it, it’s often approval you’re seeking. Your idea needs a solid enough foundation to it that chasing validation isn’t a part of the equation.
Grasping at feedback from all corners usually means you lack focus as well. Clients that lack focus and can’t stick to the task at hand are too much work for a freelancer. When you can’t focus and centralise your relationship with a freelancer, it means fractured ideas, too much communication and time wastage. Too much time spent moving to and fro from your marketing as the next opinion comes in makes for weak work.
Feedback should be limited to your target market. It should come from people within your business that understand the product offering and the business you’re in. It should come from someone that has the skills to enhance your business.
PRO TIP: Know your idea well enough that you don’t need assurance and validation. Be brave enough to listen and then discard unqualified feedback, criticism and opinion. Centralise your point of contact and actively seek to hone in on ideas to make the most of your time with a freelancer instead.
You mistake freelancer for employee
Freelancing means you get great at managing multiple clients and projects. You can only do this if your clients understand how the business to contractor relationship works.
Engaging a freelancer or even paying for freelance services doesn’t mean that you get to monopolise their phone, email inbox and timetable. If you are gaining assistance for a project or a set number of hours per day, recognise the limitations.
If you have someone on salary, you can ask them to work back. You can throw an emergency at them. You can do this because you recognise time in lieu and you pay them benefits such as a regular salary, benefits, taxation, super and so on.
With freelancers, you’re paying for their time and/or for the completion of a project. Ultimately, no matter what model you choose, it’s the work product you are paying for. They are not obliged to attend to your every whim whenever you fancy it.
You cannot ask a freelancer to attend hours of meetings and then produce the same level of product agreed on at the start of the project. Nor can you spring work on them like a ninja laying in wait.
Just because you pay for someone to work with you doesn’t mean you own them and can monopolise their time.
PRO TIP: If you look disorganised and prone to random demands and requests, freelancers run a mile. Or we incorporate PITA fees (pain in the ass fees) into our quotes so we can deal with your diva ways. Be reasonable in your requests and enjoy better work product and (probably) lower costs.
You’re too demanding
When looking to engage a freelancer for your business or startup, your best approach is to deal with the person as an equal.
Freelancers have overheads, manage clients and responsibilities, look after cashflow and run our businesses. We do all our own project management while also producing your work. We’re not green in the business stakes by any stretch of the imagination.
We also know to have portfolios, terms and conditions, packages, booking systems and workflow operations.
You can’t expect to send 6 or 7 emails demanding information, case studies, proof and DNA samples. Especially when it’s clearly outlined on our websites and in our quotes and proposals.
We understand that you want to know the money you are about to spend is a wise investment. But if you allow your nerves and concerns to dictate the terms of the initial engagement, we won’t work with you. Any project is shared risk for both parties.
PRO TIP: Remember the reason why you’re hiring a freelancer is for their skill and expertise. Respect that. Don’t give us a whiff of a difficult, micromanager that is driven by panic and fear at working with us. Encourage us to work with you. Don’t demand that we must.
You have a knack for over-complicating things
Sometimes businesses and startups come to freelancers when they’re not ready. This is usually shown in over-complicating things. The tough issue is when you start working through what might happen on a project and the goal posts keep shifting. Most cluey freelancers know that if we’ve hit the third proposal or brief, you’re not ready to start work.
One of the ways I’ve managed to provide the missing bridge of clarity is by offering a strategic marketing plan. Coming from a product development background, I can help you with audience definition and build the plan you need in the initial stages.
This is a unique skill that most freelancers don’t have. You shouldn’t expect a freelancer to be able to read through your shifting plans and pull a rabbit out of the hat.
Over-complicating things is usually about having too many things to do, too many ideas, a lack of focus, micro-management traits and more mixed in.
If you can listen to your freelancer and start working on something together as a test (and to lower your jittering levels), this too can help.
But if you look like a lot of disorganised, scattered work attached to a bunch of contradictions and hand-holding, stop. Don’t bite off more than you can chew and then expect a freelancer to understand what to do. It’d unfair to ask a freelancer to captain your business in this way.
PRO TIP: Even the nicest person with the coolest idea is a turn off if you’re asking the freelancer to plan your business. Get your ducks in a row first. Get a plan in place or find a business coach. Get some clarity first. You must start somewhere and work through with priorities in place and a focus clearly defined.
Failing to recognise failure is an option
We all love to live in a world where everything we do is a winner. But someone, somewhere must come last. It’s the nature of life itself. We must understand our limitations and that failure is a feature of our world.
That’s not to say you should dwell on it. But recognise failure has a place in the business landscape. Don’t come to a freelancer with the belief you are destined to be Zuckerberg in denial of failure.
In the early stages of freelancer engagement, this lack of foresight and ability to recognise failure comes out in requests for sweat equity, working for free and assuming we have time to make your side project fly.
That’s eye-opening because it rarely means you’re in touch with your business well enough to see the weaknesses, threats and limitations. Nobody wants to fly with someone that is that blind. We want to be with the confident person, but not Icarus.
PRO TIP: Come with budget and be honest about your project’s limitations. Let us know you’ve thought deeply about your ideas and business model. Inspire us to work with someone that is honest and brave enough to face failure.
Make magic while the sun shines
Much of the issues startups and small businesses face in the initial engagement of freelancers’ stem from misconception. Misconceptions like the assumption freelancers lack business acumen and understanding can hamper your goals. It can also colour your thinking and welcome issues you probably aren’t even aware of.
Perhaps the biggest tip I can offer is come to your freelancer inspired, welcoming and able to lift them up. That way, they can be energised by your project, welcomed by your team and focussed on your goals.
Foster autonomy, reality and treat it like a proper business relationship between peers. Recognise your limitations and ask for help. And be willing to accept that help when it comes without having to micro-manage it.