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Navigating Freelance Nightmares

Creating and running your freelance practice can be as stressful as it is rewarding. In this talk, we will cover how to use your networks, borrow techniques from professional services, and how to keep cool when things go wrong.

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Hello. I'm Paul. I run a photography and media business. I've learned a lot of lessons over the years about freelance working and how to cope with some of the things that go horribly, horribly wrong. I've split this into three sections. You may want to scribble some notes because I'm going to go some speed on this and I only use pictures, really.

I'm going first of all talk about resilience -- I don't mean the personal mental health resilience that lots of you will be familiar with, I'm talking about the basics of being the freelancer and being on your own. What is resilience? Well, resilience in a corporate context, and a business context, is often what can I draw on in terms of networks or other people to support me? Because it is just me. And that feeling of standing at the end of the tunnel, gazing at whatever is coming towards you, can be pretty daunting.

So the simple tip I'm going to give you, and each of these sections will have a simple tip, it is about networks. Now, you may hear the word "network" and think cocktail parties, very artificial business event, speed dating for businesses, but I mean network really, really broadly. And you will around you in your professional networks, in your friend networks, a lot of the resources that can help you already. If you haven't, you can find them.

Now, you may find an absolute mayhem and mix-up of people around you that have got skills that can support you, but I'm going to talk to you about one thing here, which is knowing that, when you work as a freelancer, and you bring somebody else into help you, you have to be really clear what terms you're doing that on. There are lots of different models. You can do it as a reciprocal friendly arrangement. "I give you a piece of work, you come and help me with a piece of work." You can do it by charging a premium on their service. Essentially, you're then subcontracting some of your work and you're an agency. You might not think you are, but you're an agency.

So understanding how those networks are working with you for you, instead of you, in your place is really important. So, all I'm going to say is don't try and trip over those things. If someone is working you as a favour and supporting you in your network, that's great; but if you're charging money on it to somebody else, then you need to be very clear with them about those terms. Think about networks, broadly, flexibly, and do not you be on your own.

I'm going to spend a lot of time in this talk on what I call professionalism. I came from a professional services background before I set up on my own. Some of those very basic disciplines are useful to me every single day in being a freelancer. I'm going to talk about something so obvious and so basic that you may all be doing it, or may never have even thought of it, and that is running what we call a pipeline -- a sales pipeline, a sales funnel -- you will sometimes hear these words.

All it is in short is a collection of every damned single thing you ever might hear of that you could work on -- every possible opportunity. You could even extend that to every possible introduction. So that hasn't worked at all! Apologies! So, what I do is an incredibly simple structure where I list a full version of this, just the name, the date, the organisation, the assignment details, source, and what I'm doing about it.

This is the most simple spreadsheet in the world. I've been running this for 12 years, and has about 5,000 entries in it now. Every time someone says, "We should get some pictures done next year" it goes in here. It goes down, and I will have a date where I'm going to follow it up and track it. You would be amazed -- you wouldn't be amazed! -- how many freelancers I talk to, say, yes, I had this phone call a couple of weeks ago, and I sent him some terms. "Did you follow up?" "I'm waiting to hear." Do not do that. Be professional.

A professional pipeline indicates everything that is happening -- doesn't have to be in great detail -- what is the next thing you're going to do about it, and the things like the source. Source is really good for me, because, over time, I can spot if I'm getting more work in through repeats, through referrals, or through Google Search. And, it also helps me with referrals to tell me who referred, so if things go well, thank them, and even if things didn't go well, thank them anyway because it's a lovely thing to happen.

Run yourself some form of pipeline. This changes every day. I put maybe two in and take two in, three out, every single day. When they are completed if either the job is done or lost, I file it in a separate section, and I can look at the graveyard of things that have gone wrong.

It that is great in five years when somebody comes back and think that name rings a bell. You can look back in the bone yard and find out what job went wrong, who you lost it to. Did they ghost you when you put proposals in? So it is really good for stuff like that. Don't overload it with personal information. Be aware that GDPR applies to all information that you hold within an organisational, personally identifying information, but it has got the basics there of this organisation wanted to do this project on this date, and I suggested this much money. So, it is really simple, it doesn't take time as an overhead, and it will make you more professional.

A question that a lot of professional services organisations ask themselves is: what is my product? You might think that my product is photography. I do a lot of photography. But is that really my product? Or am I there to give assurance to people that what I'm delivering is the best service they're going to get and this is not something they need to worry about for the rest of the event, or the conference, or their new website? In that case, I'm not so much selling photography as I am selling assurances, or reassurance.

So have a think about your product is. You may think you're an incredible developer, but are you actually a problem-solver? Are you actually a calming influence on a team that is in strife? So the core product that you have, whatever's inside your little fragile box, may not be what you think it is. And so it is worth some examination. I get asked a lot of the time, you know, to come and do some head shots. Is that a product, though? Probably not. Is going in there reassuring people, understanding their needs, understanding their branding, and bringing a solution together out of all of that, that's probably my product. Have a really good think, whatever it is you do, don't just stay on the surface whatever a recruiter may say, or what is on the top line of your CV for that piece of experience. Think a bit deeper as to what your product is.

Okay. When Kevin first talked to me about this, we were looking at some of the things like what happens if somebody steals your work? In my case, I'm a photographer and it happens quite a lot. But anybody can have their intellectual property stolen; anybody can have, let's say, work taken without attribution or payment. What do you do? I'm putting this under realism. Because sometimes you need just to give yourself a massive squirt in the face with a hose. Because what you think has happened, and I will give you -- let's go with the example of somebody takes one of my photos -- isn't necessarily the same as the way the law and the structures that help me put the situation right, actually work.

When somebody takes something of mine and I see it on a website, my first reaction is emotional -- it is anger, pain, it's, "What do I do!" "Where did I go wrong!" None of this is going to help me rectify the situation. So what I actually do, and what I have to do, is take a very calm distant look at the situation U-this has happened, so this, so this, and step through the process. Let's go with the example. If I find one of my pictures somewhere, what I do not do is belt off an email saying, "Ah, how could you do this to me? This is terrible. Do you know how it feels to be a freelancer and have your work stolen?" These are emotional rhetorical questions. They do not help.

I say, "You used this picture. Do you have a licence for this picture? If so, can you send me the details." That's the first one. They will come back and say, "No." I will then say, "I will -- I will not then say, "I'm really angry and I want you to give me a load of money to make me feel better." I will say, "The law says you can't do that. If you do do that, I'm entitled to ask you for a payment in lieu of compensation for anything I might lose by you having taken the picture. Let's assume it's got a value. If you haven't paid me that value, then other clients may not me that value. If they see the picture somewhere and they had an exclusive, then it could cause other problems.

If it involves client-commissioned work, it could cause other problems. I use the information I have to put down a number. I say this is bad, you've done a bad thing, but for this number we will not need to proceed to a legal remedy to do that. And almost always that results in success. There is a lot more detail involved than that, but the point being is you can't get upset about stuff. You need a dose of realism. You need to know your laws, and who not to pursue. If I see something on a website somewhere east of Moscow, I'm probably not going to bother. I'm not going to bother chasing it, because there's no realistic prospect of me recovering anything. So be realistic. Take some of the emotion out of it. Look at the landscape. Work through step by step. As ever, draw on your network for people that may be able to help you, and people who have been there before.

So, I'm going to recap what you went through there. First, I was saying if you're on your own, that's a bad place to be a lot of the time, and it is good to have networks, informal, help, advice, mentorship, or more formal, working together, collaborating, working for you. Build those networks. I used a matrix structure where I said here are all the different types of work that I do -- photography, videography, motion graphics, script-writing, project management -- and here's all the different sectors in which I might do that -- so I do a lot in the venture capital industry, a lot in politics, a lot in media -- and I say on that matrix who do I know that presses button on that grid? Who is really good at project-managing stuff with a government client? So I do know people who do that, and that means that, when I'm faced with a challenge, which I'm going to need some back-up, I try to triangulate not just in terms of their sector, their industry sector, but also their service line, what they're good at.

This is exactly the thinking that professional services organisations use to try and understand who can do what well where. Don't be ashamed to use a technique like that for your own network. Plan it, map it. If you think I need some video, but actually I need video that's really going to work in a very high end professional services banking environment, you probably don't want somebody who is going to be a great videographer in a piece you're making about a football game, but maybe the same person, but it may not. You may want to look for some specialism in there. So draw up a grid for yourself.

Think what are the different service lines and skills that I want from my network? And what are the different areas? It could be industry areas, as I said, types of expertise. It could be something else. Think about who you could slot in there, even if there is someone very, very far away that you don't know yet, get to know them. Build yourself a full network. And then the last thing was to say that, when things go astray in terms of your IP, the emotional response isn't the one that's going to save you. It is going to be a structured process, and it's going to be something that you probably want to look at what others have done on it, and take it step by step.

I'm going to stop chatting on 14 minutes there, and I would welcome a chat maybe about some of the nightmares that you have experienced, or whether anything that I've brought up today has made you think, or indeed, you want to argue with, or it's just resonated.