The more we work remotely, the more we need to work on new ways to think collaboratively. No more long meetings, no more dreaded brainstorming. This is very good news for freelancers, in my opinion. And offers a competitive edge for those who know their stuff. Need I say ‘go global’?
If you are competing against people who will work for virtually nothing, this is good news
Freelancing (my focus here is on writing and marketing, though I believe this article applies to any creative discipline) has gone through a roller coaster ride over the past ten years as global access to resources, and clients, has exploded. Initially, we saw the influx of ultra cheap ‘talent’ willing to work for a fraction of US/EU pricing (logos for $15!), based on lower cost of living and pay in many countries. Then sites like Upwork spread this to the US with a cadre of desperate new writers willing to take on tasks for virtually nothing to build up experience.
I’ve been on the buying end of these trends and I can only say you get what you pay for. The cheap logos and poorly conceived and written copy ultimately became a waste of time, even if the actual cost was minimal. The work was simply not up to the quality standards for most businesses. With the advent of widespread remote working, the competition for quality has become preferable to simply taking the cheapest option.
The reasons I’m seeing for this are the competitive nature of global markets and the need for more than a basic skill. My clients these days expect me to operate as a member of their team and to share in their business goals. However, the way we interact is much different than in the old face to face model.
I have never spoken with two of my larger clients
It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people, I actually prefer it, eventually. But a lot of the time language barriers and time zones, along with hurry-up deadlines, conspire to make personal contact a ‘nice-to-have-eventually’ situation. This has required a different way of working, one that rewards the experienced self-directed creative. In other words, a skilled freelancer with an open mind.
This becomes important when you start accessing international markets
In the past freelancers have tended to serve the geographical market they are most familiar with. Shared culture and language, time zone adjustments, and a comfort zone are all factors. Perhaps because I stumbled into developing an expertise in translation, localization, and global markets, this changed for me. The realization that my US approach to marketing was viewed as an asset by foreign clients has changed things pretty radically in the last year. But to make it work I had to embrace a much more self-directed way of working.
Two of my clients are six hours earlier than my Eastern Standard Time location. My morning is their end of day. If I branched into the APAC (Asian Pacific) markets this would get even more challenging since not only are times out of sync, days can be out of sync. Not to mention even more challenging language issues.
These considerations require a totally different working model
On a practical basis, when I first started working with a European client, we had to sort all of these time and communication issues out, not to mention things like billing and taxes (another subject, definitely not my expertise!). When my phone beeps at seven in the morning I know I’m probably getting an email from E in Cracow or a Slack message from D, who may be in Hamburg or Macedonia. I’m not actually sure and it doesn’t matter, as long as we are agreed on best times to communicate. So, first, establish your mutual best practices for this.
We have a lot of tools and there will be preferences based on company culture. If one client uses something Slack, or Skype (ugh), that is your go-to with them. Another may do almost everything via the collaboration features in Google Drive. Setting clear working preferences, from day one, for using these apps can really help. For example, I hate Word docs attached to emails. Every time anyone attaches a file to an email it becomes a copy and version control becomes a potential nightmare. A Google Doc retains its version but can contain an entire project dialog via comments and editing. I’ve helped clients get hooked on this tool.
But what about substance?
So, those are practicalities. But what about getting on the same page as to content without a face to face or team meeting? Necessity was the driver behind my first experience with skipping these one-on-one meetings, even via conferencing. It was a language thing. For years there was an assumption that English was the global language of business. A ridiculously self-serving idea for Americans. Yes, you will run into English speakers, especially in the EU, but assuming this is a fundamental mistake that could cost you business.
I realized, without the subject coming up, that the majority of the people I interacted with at my first European client could manage written English but doing a meeting was laborious for both of us. At first, I expected an invite for a meeting, then eventually realized after a few projects that this was not their preferred modality for communicating. This was fine for simple projects like a blog post but when faced with rewriting an entire corporate website I had to adapt. I’m not going into details, because every situation is different, but you should be rethinking your preferences. You may not get the amount of direction you are used to.
This opens the door for a higher value relationship
Because the direction I was getting was minimal, especially compared with the kind of time wasting inherent in many ‘live’ meetings, I decided to be more proactive in my input, bringing my US perspective into play. The reality, for the kind of B2B software and tech companies I typically work with, is that the US is their biggest market, still. My Euro clients tend to take a much more analytical and feature-driven approach to promoting their products. US buyers tend more to look at ‘what’s in it for us/me’; how will this decision affect me personally and my company strategically. A benefit approach.
I’ve found that when I steer messaging into a more personal and casual voice, with notes explaining these choices (I want it clear that there is a reason for what I’m doing), there is an enthusiastic response. In fact after doing this several times, our dialog shifts from me as hired gun to me as a valued resource.
It’s a big world, don’t be afraid of it
My experience with my Euro clients is changing my perception of my freelance business. I’m working to reposition myself as an expert in certain kinds of US business markets. I’m finding that positioning myself like this, with proof, opens doors, often via a simple email or LinkedIn message. 60% of the planet’s population speaks no English. Even here, 50% of the population of major US cities like LA and NY speak a language other than English at home. Borders may get tighter due to politics of fear but digital borders are becoming more open as a result. This represents a big opportunity for freelancers who are flexible and open to a global approach.
A note for Medium readers: Medium is at the forefront of these global changes. If you’re an international freelancer, these observations are equally applicable to doing business in the US. My editors here are not US-based, not all of them. Nor are my readers! If anything, a writer coming from a more global perspective may have a lot to offer to American business people who all too often are clueless about other language markets (more on language markets to come).
Note: I write frequently about the business of freelance writing. You can see a list of the articles here.