Dear fellow freelancers: we’re better than this

I love talking to other freelancers. Sharing battle stories, celebrating our successes together, helping out people who are earlier along on their journey. It’s all fantastic.

The one thing I’ve noticed is that as a community, we are comedically bad at giving each other advice sometimes. This was highlighted for me in one incident a few months ago, in which I received an email from a (now ex) client that totally floored me, in which they called me tacky, unprofessional, and told me I had wasted their time, seemingly out of the blue.

Flabbergasted and unsure of how to respond, I posted the story in a local freelancer’s group. Let’s stroll through some of the replies I got…

On awful, terrible, no-good clients: “You can probably still salvage this!”

Every time I’ve asked for help in replying to a terrible email, when I thought it has been clear that my main issue is in composing a break-up reply that doesn’t morph into one long blue streak of swearing, I’ve had people respond, telling me how I can salvage the project and keep working with the client.

And that horrifies me. Nononono. No. I don’t want to salvage this. I don’t want to work with people who think it’s okay to send hateful emails to…well, anyone. I don’t run my business that way. And you shouldn’t, either. Why do you think you have to do that?! Stressful clients are not worth their cost to you in time, money, or health. Dump them and move on.

“You don’t want to burn any bridges…”

In that aforementioned thread, I got more than one response along the lines of: “You probably don’t want to keep working with them, but you also don’t want to burn any bridges. So make sure to email them back and apologize before moving on.”

Um. What? Apologize to who now? For what, exactly?

Another variant: “Make sure to be super polite in your reply, because this is a very small town and word gets around!”

So first off, this amused me, because while Austin isn’t a metropolis on the scale of NYC, it’s certainly not Gary, Indiana. Come on guys. It’s not that small of a town. (I’m from a real small town, where my high school graduating class was 65 people, so yeah.)

My second thought was of someone I worked under at one point. It was like the Devil Wears Prada, but with an actual terrible human being* and substance abuse issues piled on top of the hot mess. I sat in the room with this person (cringing all the while) while they called a client who had fired them and left a voicemail telling him that his wife owns his balls. They work only with local clients. If they’ve been in business some five+ years and still not run out of local clients, I could tell one person that they were being a douchebag and it wouldn’t ruin my career. Did I? No. Could I? Yes. Going out of your way to grovel to people who have treated you like dirt, in fear of some ridiculous nonexistent blacklist retaliation, is absurd. Don’t do it.

Last, but not least: HELLOOOOO *waves arms around wildly at the vast expanse of the internet*

95% of my business comes from the internet. If you’re relying solely on local clients, you’re putting too many eggs in one basket. There is no dearth of people out there who need your services. I promise you. Expand your reach. You don’t need to kowtow to clients who don’t treat you right.

You deserve more than scraps of politeness and you do not deserve to be berated for being human.

This is your new business mantra: “I do not have to put up with jackasses to make a living.” Learn it, live it, love it, stop getting eye twitches from reading client emails. In that order.

“You can’t charge that hourly rate, because…”

This isn’t directly related to that most recent incident, but definitely falls under the category of “bad advice from other freelancers.” A while back, I posted in a forum made up of other business owners and freelancers, asking for input from other marketing/writing professionals on pricing retainer clients for consulting-heavy work. I don’t normally charge hourly, but didn’t want to set a flat monthly rate and wind up with awful profit margins because I didn’t have an accurate time estimate.

One of the replies I got basically said, “Packages are always the way to go. You can’t let business owners know your hourly rates. In this case, it’s likely he’d look at that rate, do the math, realize that’s the same as paying an employee a salary of over $100,000, and decide it’s too expensive.”

Number one, packages and flat fees are great, but they have their downfalls…like when you don’t have a very specific list of what a project will consist of. For example, in this instance. (Also, anyone who tells you a business practice is always the way to go is full of shit, most of the time. Just FYI.)

Number two, OH MY GOD NO. That is some bad math. Bad, bad math. Contractors have to pay for their own health insurance, savings, taxes, rah rah rah, all out of their rates. Employee hourly rates are never a 1:1 conversion to contractor rates. Never. The vast majority of people who have been in business for any amount of time know this. And that tiny leftover minority is either inexperienced or cheapskates. Neither of which typically make for amazing clients.

Here’s the thing: freelancers are actually an amazing deal for business owners.

Smart business owners know this. By using a freelancer, a business owner gets the experience, skills, and deliverables of a much-more-expensive salaried employee, at a fraction of the cost. (Employees are expensive, y’all.) Acting like business owners are doing you a favor by hiring you at fair rates is not only bad business, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation.

A common thread that seems to run through all of these responses is that we should live in fear of our clients because they make or break our business. That we can’t ever stand up for ourselves or charge fair rates because we live and die by the almighty client. That is so much bullshit I cannot even stand it.

In short:

You don’t have to:

  • Put up with awful clients
  • Let yourself get walked all over
  • Undercharge

And you shouldn’t tell other freelancers to, either.

You are in control of your power as a freelancer and a business owner.

Don’t give it away. And don’t tell other people to, either.

We are better than this, as a community. We deserve to be respected by our clients and by each other. So we have got to stop giving each other such shitty advice. I was sharing some of my bafflement about this with Shenee, who is one of my biz besties. Her comment was so good I had to include it: “Freelancers are businesses. You deserve just as much respect as the business you’re freelancing for.

Yeah. That.

*I know I’m not the only one who thought the assistant in that movie was kinda whiny, right? And her boyfriend. Gah!

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