Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Patience
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Full disclosure time: I have no patience. Or very little patience. I do a good imitation of a person with patience in public, but in my everyday life, I have no idea why everything I want isn’t here the moment I want it.
I do understand the irony of me writing a section of the guide on patience, but as someone who lacks something but still desires it, I have made a study of patience.
Patience is essential to building a business, any business. You must do things methodically. You must do them in a particular order, and even then, you might not get an immediate response.
This last bit is a particularly difficult part of owning your own business. We believe that when we put our ads out there, launch our websites, mail our stories or open our shop’s door, people will flock in. We’ll get an immediate response.
Often we get no response at all—at least initially. And sometimes, the only response we get is negative.
All of which we should expect—and plan for. But that doesn’t make it easy. Nor does it become any easier with time.
Every year, my alma mater, Beloit College, puts out its freshman survey. Someone polls the incoming class about various things—mostly trends—and Beloit publishes the results. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32453204
This year’s class, born in 1991, is internet savvy, educated, and informed but the one thing they lack, according to a former professor of mine, Tom McBride, is patience. This group of kids always got what they wanted when they wanted it. Not just things, but television programs, music, text—all at the touch of a finger.
They haven’t learned how to delay gratification—and delayed gratification is what building a business is all about.
I can handle some forms of delayed gratification. I learned way back when that the process is the important thing, not the result. So with that lesson came another: I learned that I had to enjoy the actual work. If I didn’t enjoy the work, then I couldn’t wait for the result.
This is where my lack of patience works against me. I can wait two weeks or a month or even three months for check if I enjoyed the work I did to get that check. If I loathe the job, then I want the money immediately. If I don’t get the money immediately, I don’t do any more work. See why I’m unemployable on the corporate level?
A business—any business—has good and bad days, fun and difficult work. Early in the life of the business, very little positive happens. You set up systems, establish an office or a storefront, hire a few employees (or not), take out ads (or not), make products and hope they’ll sell. You need to get the word out that you are there, wherever there is, and you’re ready to do some work for someone.
Then when you do work for a few someones, you hope they like it enough to recommend you to someone else. In addition to building your office (or your store or your craft), you’re building your reputation, good and bad.
You’re also building your bank account. In the early days of the business, you’re depleting the money you had saved to start the business. If you hadn’t saved any money, you’re depleting the loan someone (a friend or a financial institution) gave you. As I mentioned before, money goes out the door every single day, but early on, money rarely comes back in.
The early years of a business are all about patience, the early years of a freelance business even more so. You have to be patient as you learn your craft. You have to be patient as you save money to finance the start-up. You have to be patient as you work that day job while you’re trying to build a nest egg. You have to be patient as you line up clients, expertise, product.
You have to be so patient that at times it feels like you are doing nothing but being patient.
It’s tough, especially in our have-it-now society.
Personally—and this is a bit of an aside—I think one of the good things about the current recession is that people are relearning (or in the case of the 20-somethings learning) how to wait for something they want. Credit has become tougher to get, so you can’t just charge whatever you want even if you can’t afford it. Layaway is back. (I hadn’t realized it had gone away.) Layaway teaches the value of paying for something without having that something until the money is all in.
In some ways, layaway is what happens as you start a business. You’re laying away bits of money, bits of expertise, bits of knowledge, as you prepare for the entire product—which is the ultimate dream.
But patience isn’t just essential as you start a business. It’s essential to maintaining one.
I’m watching a friend do something fascinating. He has completely abandoned the regular publishing model because its difficulties and slowness drive him crazy and is beginning to self-publish his work electronically. Unfortunately, he hasn’t planned for the transition. He doesn’t have money saved so that he can contribute to the household, nor does he know how much money he’ll actually make on the self-published items.
It’s a bold experiment, but he’s doing it as a reaction to the things he doesn’t like about the existing business he has chosen to participate in, not as a studied, planned expansion of the business he has freelanced in for decades.
If he’s lucky, this experiment will work for him. But if the experiment goes as I think it will, he would have been better off working the system he already knew.
Part of the problem is that he’s impatient to join the brave new world of electronic publishing. He’s jumping in with both feet, without doing any of the due diligence that a wise business owner would do.
The world of electronic publishing is new, and it does require a certain amount of faith. But so does all small business, and there are ways to mitigate potential problems that come from the unknown. I’ve discussed some of that in previous posts, and I’ll discuss more in future posts.
But for the moment, let’s stay focused on the issue of patience. How do I, a person with no patience, thrive in a business that requires extreme patience?
I gave you a hint, above.
First, I enjoy the process. I love the work itself. If we got zapped back to the dark ages tomorrow and publishing as we know it disappeared, I’d still write stories on any scrap of paper I could find. I love to write, and that won’t change.
(I seriously do not understand writers who say they hate to write but love to have written. That makes my brain hurt every time. If you don’t like what you do, then why do it? There are easier ways to make a living than writing.)
In fact, for me, the process is why I’m in the writing business. I like everything about writing: I like telling stories. I like playing with words. I like research. I like being alone. I like spending my time in made-up worlds.
I also like the process of freelancing. As I’ve said before, I’m a bad employee. I hate rules and strictures. I prefer to do things my way in my time, which makes me the quintessential freelancer.
I like being in control of my own destiny. I like the fact that if I don’t produce, I don’t get paid. I actually hate the idea of going to a job, sitting at a desk, and twiddling my thumbs while I waited for someone to tell me what to do—all for the sake of a paycheck. If you look at my history, you’ll realize that I lasted a grand total of three months in every job like that I took. (And I only made it three months because that’s about as long as it took me to read every scrap of paper in a normal office.)
But there are many aspects of being my own boss that I don’t like. Unfortunately, most of those aspects are essential to the business’s survival. I have to mail my work. I have to pay the bills. I have to dun the occasional client for payment. I have to troll for new work. And I have to learn new methods of making money in new mediums or new venues.
How do I handle those things?
I plan. That sounds both silly and essential. Of course, I plan. Every business owner should plan. But as I pointed out above, with the example of my friend, most freelancers don’t plan at all. They run after the newest, hottest, shiniest thing. Or they get rid of what’s already working because it makes them uncomfortable to try something new because it looks easier.
I research heavily, and then I lay out a potential schedule. I make educated guesses about how long it will take me to learn something or incorporate something or change something.
Then I wrote that plan down step by step in my calendar. As I complete each step, I check it off. If the step is particularly difficult, I reward myself with an afternoon off or an ice cream cone or a very noticeable pat on the back. After I’ve checked that step off, I make sure I’m still on track. If I’ve learned something that changes the schedule, I then make the changes before I move to the next step.
Again, I’m elevating the process into its own little returns and reward system. Dean does the same thing, only using his white boards. He makes his lists (charts, actually for him) in erasable ink. Then as he completes a step, he either marks down the date or erases the step. He can monitor his progress in that way.
Rather than seeing the task—whatever it is—as one big, difficult, long torturous thing to complete, I make it a series of smaller tasks, all of them easy to complete. That helps with my impatience because I don’t have to wait six months for results. I get results every week or sometimes every single day.
I only schedule things that I control. For example, when you open a store, you can’t say with any certainty when the first customer will walk through the door. All you can do is plan for the moment the store is ready for business.
In publishing, I can’t control when someone will buy something. I can only write to the best of my ability and have a lot of product in the mail to people who might buy it. There are three factors at work here: the product has to be good, there has to be a lot of it, and it has to be in front of someone who will consider it for publication. I can control all three of those things.
So I don’t plan to have sold something by January 1, 2010. Instead, I plan to have five short stories done and mailed by that date. And then I move to the next date, and the date after that.
If I work on the things I can control, things that I know will improve my business, then the goodness will follow.
A note here: I have noticed that good things come in waves. In publishing, sales come in waves. As do good reviews or award nominations. This also happens in retail. A store will have several good days in a row, with a lot of customers and sales, followed by weeks of slow days or days with no customers at all. And the irritating thing about this is that the ups and downs are impossible to predict.
So if you’re always waiting for someone else to do something, then you’ll run out of patience quickly. But if you do the things that you can control, then you’re going to be too busy to notice what that someone else is doing—and when they finally get to it, you’ll be taken by surprise.
In this way, my friend’s plan to self publish is a good one. He’s taking control of his backlist and his front list.
What he’s missing—at least from the outside—is this next thing.
I maintain my base. By this I mean I continue to do the things that allow my business to thrive. I write short stories in part because I love them and in part because I have an audience for them. I resell things I’ve already published because that’s income for very little work on my part. I am constantly looking for new markets so that when the old ones disappear, I still have work.
As I add in new things (such as slowly adding mystery writing to my science fiction writing), I don’t abandon what has already worked for me. I research the new markets and slowly put a toe into the water, instead of jumping into the deep end, abandoning my safe spot on the shore.
In other businesses, that’s keeping the regular clients while bringing in new clients. Just because one new client promises to give you more work than you can handle doesn’t mean you should take on that client. Research first, see if the money is what is promised, see if the client will actually be someone you want to work with (or for), and then slowly bring that client into your business.
Don’t let the untested new thing take over because you’re impatient for results.
If you’re anything like me, telling you to be patient is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. That’s guaranteed to make me impatient. But if I have a plan, I can take all the time I need to get where I’m going.
Because I enjoy the journey.
And, ultimately, that’s what freelancing is all about. Enjoying the process—and celebrating each positive result.