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In Search of the Perfect Client

Bad clients are easy to describe. We’ve all had them and in more than twelve years of freelancing I’ve had my fair share. I’ve had clients who paid late or didn’t pay at all; who demanded additions to projects but were surprised to see the days added to the bill; who said they wanted one thing until I delivered it when they realized they actually wanted something completely different; and who imposed impossible deadlines forcing me to work nights and weekends then sat on the finished work until it was out of date. Clients like these turn up in a freelancer’s career but they don’t turn up as often you might expect and they pass quickly. Most clients, like most freelancers, are reliable and professional. They know roughly what they need, they pay for the work and they’re grateful for the skills and talent you can bring to their project. Clients like those are easy to find.

Perfect clients though aren’t just harder to find; they’re also much harder to describe. That they should pay the bills on time and without argument is a given. That they should make your efforts feel appreciated and important would be a part of it. That you can rely on them to deliver work on a regular basis so that you can count on their income to the same degree that they need your deliverables is important too. Freelance life is unstable; a client with regular demands goes a long way towards stabilizing a schedule.

The (Almost) Perfect Client

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The Rules for Telecommuting

When it comes to freelancers carrying their laptops to cafes and turning coffee bars into offices, the rules are relatively clear. They’re a mixture of common sense and consideration with a big tip to the wait staff thrown in. Break the rules and the worst thing that will happen is that you have to find a different café or spend more time working from home. For telecommuters, though, the rules are a great deal tougher. Human resource departments, especially in government organizations, tend to pour out detailed eligibility requirements before they allow employees to set up a cubicle in their bedroom. Their suspicion of this new way of working makes the risks higher even as the practice becomes more popular; get the rules wrong and you could find your telecommuting privileges revoked and your job pulled back into the office.

Here are the rules to follow if you want to retain your opportunity to work in your pajamas:

1.     Don’t Work in Your Pajamas

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Switching to Android Increases Freelance Productivity

I finally did it. In fact, I did it twice. Not only did I trade up to a smartphone at last, but I betrayed Apple and bought an Android device. In terms of productivity, it looks like I made a good choice.

The enhancements from my old dumbphone are clear enough. Texting is easier with a real keyboard; Bluetooth means that I can talk while I drive to the offices of local freelance clients; being able to listen to audiobooks and podcasts in the car, neither of which I could do on my dumbphone, turn time on the road into valuable learning time.

I could have done all that with an iPhone, of course, and sticking with Apple was tempting. When I’m not in front of my PC, I’ve usually got my face stuck in front of my iPad. Part of the reason for buying a smartphone was to replace my first generation iPod Touch, bought as soon as Apple announced it was getting into the touchscreen business. I’ve grown used to carrying it around for the last five years but I haven’t been able to upgrade it since iOS 3.1, the earphone socket doesn’t work (the first generation shipped without a speaker), it’s painfully slow and the irreplaceable battery now dies before the end of the day. Had I swapped it for an iPhone, I would have had access to all of the apps I’ve bought and downloaded since the day the App Store opened. Sharing from my iPad to the iPhone would have been a breeze: all of the documents stored on iCloud would have been instantly accessible on the iPhone. And the OS would have been familiar and supported by the largest selection of apps available in the mobile market. Developers generally develop for iOS first, then think about adapting to Android. If a productivity app is available, it’s available on the iPhone.

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Build Your Relationships Slowly to Grow your Passion-Based Business

Back in July 2012, Rory Cellan-Jones created a Facebook page for “VirtualBagel Ltd.,” a company selling downloadable bagels. The page contained a small amount of  basic information, a picture of a bagel and a description of a dream of delivering virtual bagels across the Internet to a Web full of virtual eaters. He then created a Facebook ad with a budget of $10 targeted to people aged under 45 interested in cookery and consumer electronics, and living in the United States, the UK, Russia, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, an audience of around 112 million customers. Twenty-four hours later, his $10 was gone and his page had picked up 1,600 likes — an instant community.

It’s a story that should show the power of Facebook and its main product. With just ten bucks any business, even one completely new to Facebook, can use Facebook ads to build a big audience in no more than a day.

Except that it didn’t work.

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New Forms of Apprenticeships, Internships and Mentoring Build Careers

In December, 2012, more than 14 million people tuned into NBC to watch a show about mentors. Four professional singers competed to attract a team of hopeful stars and train them up to see who would become the best of the bunch. The Voice, based on a Dutch television show, has been a huge success, the format spreading around the world and creating dream careers for winners Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul and Cassadee Pope. But the show hasn’t just been good for the student singers and entertaining for viewers. It’s also delivered a powerful demonstration of the benefits of mentoring — of learning how to perform tasks under the guidance of someone who already who knows how to complete them well.

It’s a method that’s not new, of course, nor is it limited to rising performers. Tennis player Andy Murray’s first Grand Slam title at last year’s US Open has often been put down to his decision to hire former world number one Ivan Lendl as his new coach. And even when he was the best golfer in the world, Tiger Woods worked alongside a trainer and now takes instruction twice a week in the off-season from Sean Foley, a golf coach who places a strong emphasis on biomechanics and physics. If the best in the world can see the benefit of learning from people who haven’t even reached their heights of success, then surely entrepreneurs, freelancers and anyone hoping to achieve a goal should be looking for a mentor.

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The Best Cafés for Working

Image courtesy: Friends Coffee House

I use a couple of cafés for freelance work. Both are within a ten-minute bike ride of where I live. Both have seats, tables, coffee and wifi access… and that’s about where the similarities end. One café is on a busy commercial street. It’s mostly empty when I arrive first thing in the morning so there’s always an electricity outlet available. But it doesn’t sell the filter coffee I like so I’m usually done drinking my double espresso ten minutes into my two-hour stay and have to put up with looks from waitresses wondering when I’m going to leave. The rock music the barista plays is irritatingly loud and the only reason it always falls to me to ask him to turn it down is that most of the other patrons are old enough to have trouble hearing. It’s a convenient place to go when I have chores to run but it’s a terrible place to work.

The other café sits opposite a park at the bottom of large office building that houses law firms, a health services company and a local outlet of RedHat. It sells good coffee but at nearly $4 a cup, it’s not cheap. It only has four electricity outlets against one wall and three more in one socket next to the bathrooms so there’s a good chance I’ll be working on battery power. The layout, with a long bar and glass dividers, feels more like an airport waiting room than a relaxing drinking hole but the music is soft enough not to notice and there’s always plenty of people writing Linux on laptops or holding meetings at tables to make me feel like I’m working not hiding in a coffee joint.

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Solve Problems by Combining the Five Whys with the Drill Down Technique

The Five Whys and the Drill Down Technique are two methods to identify and understand the root causes of problems that hold up a growing business. Both have the advantage of being simple and easy to use. Neither will require you to spend time drawing complex diagrams or remembering counter-intuitive strategies. (You won’t need a stack of folders or a willingness to follow David Allen, for example.) That simplicity though, masks weaknesses. Used alone, the Five Whys can create results that are too disorganized to point usefully to solutions and may suggest false trails. The Drill Down Technique helps to lay out the causes of problems clearly so that issues can be addressed but it doesn’t always help to uncover those causes.

Used together, however, the two methods can both identify the causes of problems and plan a path for their resolution. Here’s how it works:

Principles of the Five Whys

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What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Creativity

You could draw up a long list of all of the lessons for success that Steve Jobs has passed on to the world around him. His talent for public speaking turned product launch press conferences into international shows watched by hundreds of thousands of people online. It’s impossible now to imagine the launch of a major tech product that doesn’t involve a large auditorium, a casually-dressed CEO and a backdrop of giant screens. His attention to detail is legendary. The stories of him tossing an early iPod prototype into a fish tank and pointing out the bubbles to prove that there was still space under the hood that could be squeezed out may or may not be apocryphal (and is still slightly nuts) but it’s an inspiration to other managers wondering just how hard they can push their staff. But there’s one lesson that really stands out and it dominates Steve Jobs’ career, from his early partnership with Steve Wozniak to the launch of the iPad: his creativity.

It was unique in Silicon Valley. It powered Apple’s rise, then Pixar’s rise then Apple’s return as the most valuable company in the world. And it’s the lesson which has most influenced me — and which should most influence you too.

Know Your Talent, Not Stuff

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Geekpreneur’s Complete Guide to Following Your Passion

That old saying about finding a job you love so that you’ll never have to work another day in your life just isn’t true. You will have to work even when you’re doing something you love, and the work you do will be hard and the hours will be long. But for the most part, when you’re following your passion, those hours will be far more enjoyable, far more rewarding and much more satisfying than the sort of labor you do for someone else’s firm or when you’re completing projects that don’t make you excited.

And it’s possible.

Internet marketing, supportive online communities, fundraising ventures and long-distance payment systems now mean that anyone with a creative spirit, a sense of entrepreneurialism, a willingness to learn, the determination to succeed and an activity they love doing can turn their passion into a business.

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Unusual Ways to Fund Your New Business

For many entrepreneurs, a new business starts with a trip to the bank. They either present their business plan to the loan manager at their local branch and hope for a line of credit or they head to the Bank of Mom and Dad to ask for an advance on their inheritance. But banks these days are holding onto their cash and not all parents are able to write a check to finance all of their children’s business ideas. If venture capitalists and angel investors aren’t willing to fill the gap, you still have options.

Here are five you’ve never considered.

Talk to a Pawnbroker

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The Limits of Outsourcing

From its website, Stormy Studio looks every part a professional digital production company. The website is beautifully designed, the portfolio is impressive and the announcement of a prestigious award run by the company’s founder, Jon Draper, is enough to give any potential client the confidence to pick up the phone and discuss a project. But a clue to the way the company actually works lies in its description of a “local and world wide team” who can assure “quality, speed and competitive costs.” The business is part-time and run from Draper’s home as he works a full-time job at an animation studio. His employees are himself and his wife and that “local and world wide team”? A freelance graphic designer, music composer, photographer, 3D modeler/animator, and a mobile developer scattered around the world and ready to take on work as it comes in. Stormy Studio is a company based on outsourcing. But while outsourcing is helping Jon Draper achieve his goal of running his own full-time production company, it’s not a solution for everyone at every time.

One problem, although perhaps not the biggest, is the cost. Sharing the work also means sharing the revenue so that winning a job worth, say $5,000, may result in less than a thousand flowing to the company if most of the work is outsourced. When that revenue minus outsourcing fees is earned without effort, outsourcing looks like a good deal, an opportunity to make a profit while allowing others to do the work.

From a Specialist to a Manager

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The Easiest Ways to Sell Your Passion (and How to Make Them Easier)

There’s no easy way to make money doing the things you love. Whether you’re into photography or painting, ball games or biking, you’re going to find plenty of competition for the money that people are willing to spend on that activity. But earning money from a passion isn’t a zero-sum game, and not all competition is equal. Only a small number of the people who enjoy taking pictures, for example, take pictures that are sellable. Only a small number of those people  will even try to sell them — and an even smaller number will know how to sell them.

Combine your talent and expertise with knowledge of the right sales channels for your works and you can make money doing something you currently do for fun. It might not be anything like as hard as you think.


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Work in All the Right Cafes

Working in cafes might be one of the biggest advantages of freelancing but your choice of “coffice” will have a dramatic effect on your ability to get work done. Even Starbucks varies from site to site with different locations attracting different types of people, building a different atmosphere and influencing your mood and the speed with which you work. When companies like Google and Apple put so much thought into designing office space that enhances creativity and maximizes productivity, it pays not just to know your local coffee places but to understand which work you should be doing in which Java bar workspace.

The first thing you should be considering is the simplest: electrical outlets. Older cafes especially can have relatively few of these but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should give them a wide berth. It just means that you’re going to have to get your work done before the battery in your laptop calls it a day.

If you know that a café is short on electricity, you’re going to be sprinting. Depending on your machine and its age, you could have as little as two or three hours before your computer shuts itself down. That might be only as long as you wanted to stay anyway but knowing that lingering could shut your computer down in mid-flow will help to keep you focused on the job and your eyes on the screen.

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Productivity Improvements That Actually Work

The problems with all of the productivity systems that friends recommend, experts sell and self-help guides suggest is that they take so long to understand and implement that by the time you’ve finished putting them all in place, you could have shot a viral video, redesigned your website and written The Great American Novel. They take more time than they save. There are, though, a few little tweaks that you can make to your workday that will save you bags of time and massively boost your productivity.

Streamline Your Gmail

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What Felix Baumgartner Taught Me About Taking the Plunge

What Felix Baumgartner Taught Me About Taking the Plunge

Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s leap from a balloon 128,000 feet above the Earth was pretty unique. He broke records that had stood for more than fifty years, fell faster than the speed of sound and dropped further than anyone had fallen before. None of us is likely to come close to his achievement. But the way he reached his goal, the discipline and determination with which he accomplished a dream big enough for him to tell the world afterwards that he’s “done,” has much to teach freelancers and entrepreneurs about reaching their targets.

Preparation Counts and So Does Patience

The YouTube webcast of the event (which itself broke a record by streaming to 8 million people) showed everything. We saw footage of Baumgartner walking down the runway before dawn, watched the balloon inflate, saw the crane chase the capsule down the tarmac then sat through two-and-a-half hours of spacesuit and mission control as the balloon rose slowly to the stratosphere.

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The Myth of the 80-20 Rule in Freelancing

The Pareto Principle states that “for many events” 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. Also known as the 80-20 Rule, it’s used by business owners, freelancers and entrepreneurs as a reminder that 80 percent of their income derives from just 20 percent of their efforts. If they could just identify the areas in which their effort pays off the most, focus their energy on those activities and outsource, improve or kill off the rest, they’d be able to boost their income. In practice, though, the “rule” is rarely helpful, especially for freelancers.

The principle is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who noticed in 1906 that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. He developed the idea after counting the 80 percent of the peas in his garden that came from 20 percent of the pods. Since then, the principle has also been seen in global wealth distribution where the richest 20 percent of the population is said to earn around 80 percent of the income, and even among the world’s top ten earners, Carlos Slim, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett together own as much as the next seven billionaires combined.

But can that same principle be applied to a business environment? Does 80 percent of your income derive from 20 percent of your clients? Does 80 percent of your website traffic come from 20 percent of your traffic sources? Are 80 percent of your freelance bookings made for 20 percent of your services? And can you focus your business on the 20 percent of it that’s worth the most?

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The Weakness of Social Media Based Market Research

Open Twitter’s advanced search page, and beneath the options  for words, people and places, you’ll find a section marked “other” that contains four checkboxes. Those checkboxes allow users to filter their search results to focus on retweets but also on posts that include question marks, “positive” smilies, or “negative” frowns. It’s the closest Twitter has come to fulfilling its promise as a market research tool for businesses looking to keep track of user conversations. And like much of that promise, it’s unreliable, inaccurate, and actually requires a very different set of strategies to produce real, usable market intelligence.

The biggest challenge with using social media for market research is apparent in those search options. Social media users have multiple ways of marking their like of a product or a company beyond a simple smiley; unhappy faces aren’t used to mark dislike as often as a clear expression of hate or a negative hashmark; not all questions on social media, especially on a character-limited site like Twitter, are grammatical enough to carry question marks; and not everyone who uses the product or company is on social media. Any business that relied on Twitter’s search page to track comments would only be picking up a fraction of a picture generated by the small number of people who happened to use those emoticons or are grammatical enough to always mark their questions. For a more accurate picture, the companies would need to look beyond Twitter’s quick suggestions and test their own search terms.

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Find a Freelance Job Without the Scam

In January 2012, a woman in Kauai answered an ad on Craigslist for what looked like a dream job. The advertiser was an energy firm called DSL Oil and the opening was for a work-at-home position. She applied, won the job, and the company sent her a check for $3,958, instructing her to keep $200 and wire the rest immediately back to their account. The request was strange enough for the woman to grow suspicious and she refused to send the money. She then received an email apparently from the FBI demanding that she send the cash within twenty four hours or face arrest and certain jail. The jobseeker contacted her local FBI office which informed her that she had been the victim of a “work at home” scam. The check was fake; her wire, which needed to be sent before the check bounced, would have been real.

The story, told on the FBI’s website, isn’t unusual. A search for “work at home jobs” on Google produces more than two billion results but it’s estimated that for every legitimate telecommuting job advertised online, as many as seventy are scams. Nor are those scams new. Back in 2007, when Sara Sutton Fell started looking for a flexible job that would fit her life as  new mom, she too found she herself sorting through a series of suspicious offers and ads that looked too good to be true. Fell, though, had been the co-founder of JobDirect, a job site that was later sold to Korn Ferry International. She knew that flextime and telecommuting jobs do exist and that companies were increasingly willing to advertise them. Still working from home, she launched FlexJobs.com, a jobs site specializing in telecommuting and part-time work but which would check all offers and the companies that make them before posting them on the site.

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