Recently, a friend and I were chatting about a work problem that nearly anyone who has ever worked for themselves, in any capacity, has experienced — shitty clients. Whether you are a full-time freelancer, or you just pick up one side project a month in your chosen field to pad your income, being your own boss means being your own account manager. It means that if a client chooses to be shady with money, time, project details, or any other aspect of the contractor experience, it’s up to you to navigate.
The friend in question wasn’t talking about work in freelance writing or other creative work, which is obviously where my personal expertise lies, but she was talking about a work situation that I (and nearly every other) self-employed person has run into. Essentially, a project is set and agreed to, and the goalposts of the project change as time goes on. To protect her privacy, I won’t go into the details of the shadiness, but suffice it to say, she initially agreed to (and was compensated for) something that did not end up being the full scope of the project. And worse, she felt that she had no real recourse within the existing structure to make the situation better.
In her case, the reality is that she’ll just have to make a note not to work with these people again, and accept that not going to town on their inbox with a list of (valid) complaints is the best choice, if only because of self-preservation and not wanting to burn a bridge. But the bigger question, and one that must be asked before any of these projects start, is “How do I set the tone of the work being done, so that I am not being jerked around like a ragdoll through the duration of the project?”
It turns out that, at the outset of her individual project, she didn’t negotiate her rate — which is something that, unfortunately, sets a distinct tone. I’ve said it before and will always stand by it: even when you don’t think there’s a real chance of raising your rate or price, you must raise the issue of money and attempt to negotiate, if only because it shows from the get-go that you are a professional, experienced contractor who is here to advocate for themselves and secure what they believe is fair. To start a project with absolutely no pushback on the price sets a tone of “amateur who is just excited to help out and build their résumé.” To negotiate is to make a big distinction that leads to a perception of professionalism throughout the project.
But I have learned, particularly over the past two years, that there is a very simple, affordable way to further this perception of professionalism when you are doing any work as a freelancer or contractor: Setting up a mini-business. Essentially, whether you are operating a dog-walking/sitting side hustle, or doing long-term consulting projects for big clients, you need to set up the perception of a business — because you are doing the work that that entails, and are entitled to that perception. The more you are seen as an individual, the more disposably and exploitatively you will be treated. If you walk in as some person off the street with a Gmail account and a social security number, you will not be taken as seriously as a business, even if that is what you are effectively operating: a business of one.
So take $300. Go on LegalZoom and set up an LLC for yourself, ideally with something other than your name (the LLC should, if possible, reflect the work you do, which will further emphasize the business and distance it from yourself as an individual). Then, go to any number of cheap, quality domain-hosting sites and secure the website name of your LLC, or a reasonable approximation of it. Set up a very basic website with a free, clean template on that domain using WordPress, Tumblr, or some other super-easy platform, with just your company, your name, a brief bio, a PDF of your resume/portfolio, and contact info. Then, finally, pay the couple dollars to get two emails attached to that website (you can do this through Gmail, it hosts other websites’ emails very easily). Have admin@yourwebsite, and yourname@yourwebsite. Direct the slush pile and inquiries to admin, interact with people through yours. If you often interact with people in-person for your work, go the extra last step and get business cards — with corresponding title — based on this LLC, site, and email.
Voilà. With about $300, you have given yourself a business, a concise public profile of that business, and the impression of a streamlined, structured little company. (For all your clients know, you have a remote assistant or intern going through the admin email — and maybe you do!) The point is, people have to go through a step to reach you, and they have to interact with you through the prism of your business (not through some random Gmail address you’ve had since high school).
Now, obviously there is never going to be a way to perfectly quantify the difference in compensation, or even the jobs you get right away. But it is absolutely felt in terms of difference of interaction and perception. It also creates a very clean way of further separation your “work self” and “business self,” which is a very important distinction for your own mental health. If you are taking the time to do any kind of freelance work, you owe it to yourself to do it right, and to treat it like a business. If you give it the structure of a hobby, it will be perceived as a hobby. And it’s easy to shy away from things like negotiation, or setting strict terms on the structure of the work, when it doesn’t feel like it’s a “real business,” and it’s just “you as a person.”
Ultimately, in business, as in every element of your life, it is up to you to advocate for yourself, and to establish your worth. While it would be an exaggeration to say that all potential clients or employers are out to get you, it’s fair to say that they are always looking out for their best interest and bottom line, and that often may come, like it or not, at the expense of your own. You have to go in prepared to set your own terms, and to present yourself as the professional you would like to be treated as. Sometimes this means taking a little extra time to set up some basic business infrastructure even if you’re just starting out, but just like when it comes to creating a professional wardrobe, sometimes you have to dress for the job you want, not the one you have.
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