Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Setbacks Part One

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Setbacks Part One

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Let’s start this section by being completely honest:Setbacks hurt.And I don’t simply mean that they hurt your business.They hurt personally.They’re embarrassing, difficult, infuriating, and terrifying.They make us feel as if this hasn’t happened to anyone else before ever, and yet they happen to all of us.

They happen in successful businesses as well as unsuccessful ones.They happen in start-ups and they happen in long-term businesses.

The real key with setbacks isn’t preventing them; it’s surviving them when they happen.Over the years, I’ve become a connoisseur of setbacks.I’m not interested in other people’s misfortunes (except as a grist for my own fiction), but I am interested in how other people survive thosemisfortunes.

In other words, I am an inveterate studier of setback recovery.And believe it or not, that’s a hard thing to study, since most people hide their misfortunes, and do so very well. They pretend that nothing has gone wrong, and most of us remain fooled, partly because we can’t see deeply into other people’s lives unless they let us, and partly because we really don’t pay attention to anything outside of our circle, unless we’re forced to.

I spend a lot of my time imagining what would happen if.In fact, that’s my job.I must imagine what would happen if, because that phrase is at the heart of all fiction.So it’s only inevitable that sometimes I turn “what would happen if” from “what would happen if Godzilla suddenly appeared on the Oregon Coast” to “what would happen if I suddenly lost every dime I ever had.”

They’re not just good exercises for fiction writing; they’re good exercises for future planning.Fortunately, Dean has the same bent, so he doesn’t think I’m ghoulish when I start a “what would happen if” conversation.

In my studies of setbacks and recoveries, I’ve deduced this: There are four categories of setbacks and probably a million subcategories.

The four major categories are:

1. Financial

2. Mechanical/technical/production

3. Physical

4. Emotional

I’ve touched on all of them in preceding sections, but haven’t focused on them.This time, I’ll turn a wary eye on them, and see what I can come up with.

1. Financial Setbacks:The name speaks for itself.For some reason, something happens in the financial side of the business that hurts the business.I’ve dealt with this in the money sections, but only in passing.The money sections tended to focus on planning and assessment: Did the business undercapitalize? (What the hell does undercapitalize mean, anyway?) Is the business underperforming?Does it pay its bills? (What the hell does paying the bills mean exactly?)

Those are the practical aspects of finances, things that you and your accountant or you and your bookkeeper, or you and the math expert in your family should be able to figure out with a calculator, the invoices, the checkbooks, the bills, and a stack of receipts.

But I’m not referring to that here.In some ways, figuring out the profitability (or lack of profitability) in your business is the easy part.

The hard part is simpler—and much more terrifying.

Something financial that you planned on went horribly awry.Financial setbacks are always a surprise.Maybe not in hindsight, but as they happen, you’re usually caught flatfooted.This doesn’t mean you can’t plan for them, but you’ll never know when one is going to strike.

If you’ve been paying attention to the business news for the past year, you have heard about setbacks.

Some are extreme. For example, people who invested with Bernie Madoff and the swindlers of his ilk (well, of a lesser ilk, since he seemed to be the master swindler) lost everything.Or the bulk of their savings.Or the money they were going to use to survive their retirement.

In this case, people went from affluent to poverty stricken in the space of an afternoon.Or at least it seemed that way from their perspective.In reality, they went broke themoment they handed Madoff a check.

As an aside: I have little sympathy for people who dealt with Madoff directly. Those people didn’t do their due diligence in hiring an outside investor for their funds. Madoff didn’t respond well to questions, which is a large red flag. But so many people had invested with a marketing fund or an investment group who then put the money into Madoff as part of a package deal.I feel for those people.I know what it’s like to be embezzled from.It’s happened to me twice—once a relatively small amount (the bank; I mentioned that in a earlier piece), and once a larger amount. That larger amount had never been in my pocket, however.The embezzler (a book agent) skimmed the money off the top and I didn’t even know that money existed.So I didn’t miss it when I learned it was gone.

What happened to Madoff’s investors is an extreme case.Most people never suffer through that, but they do go through very tough times.This week’s news reports that more than one million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2009.That’s more than 125,000 per month—all of whom have just been dealt a financial setback.

That setback is worse for some than others.Some had warning.Others planned ahead and had savings.But for each person who lost a job, the setback is severe.Immediately, the calculations begin: How long until I can’t pay my bills?How long before I lose my house?

I’ve gone through several financial setbacks in my life—from the first (and only) job I’ve ever been fired from when I was twenty (seems I had an attitude problem [go figure]) to the crash of our publishing company, Pulphouse Publishing, in the early 1990s to some business setbacks that started around 9/11.I honestly don’t want to count how many financial setbacks I’ve survived; just thinking about them makes my stomach twist.I know just how close I was to falling off some kind of horrible precipice, and how each day was a struggle.

But I’ve never fallen off that precipice.I’ve always found a way to make money, and I’ve always had a home. Which is more than my husband can say.He was homeless for a while in his twenties, and he talks about that with understatement.The difficulty of those days, the moment by moment panic, must have been agonizing.

Financial setbacks hit businesses as well.From the embezzling employee (like I mentioned above) to the loan that doesn’t come through to the big client who goes bankrupt, financial setbacks in a business can be as devastating as the ones in your personal life.In fact, they can lead to financial setbacks in your personal life, if you’re not careful.

And often, the financial setbacks are related to other setbacks, which I’ll talk about later.

How can you protect yourself against financial setbacks?

A. Plan for them.I know.I just said they’re always a surprise.But I also said that they hit every single business—and they hit every single person at one time or another in life.So have a reserve fund.Have a game plan for tough times.Have contingency plans.Try not to overextend credit to one client.Make sure you have more than one client.Know how much you can afford to lose in one year, so that when a problem does hit, you can assess whether that problem is minor, major, or devastating.

B. Assess the damage immediately.When a financial setback occurs, don’t think things will get better.Assess where you are now in the new reality, and then plan for things to get worse.Sometimes one financial setback is a precursor to others.(Think of the banks denying all commercial credit last fall, and cutting credit lines.That destroyed a lot of business that use those lines to order stock and stay afloat in the off-season.)Figure out immediately how bad the loss is and how bad it could become.

C. Cut your losses immediately.If you lose a major client, don’t expect another to take his place.Cut your expenses, cut your salary to the bone, lay off workers if you have to, move to cheaper digs—do whatever you need to in order to compensate for that huge financial loss.The faster you do this, the more likely you are to save your business in the long run.

D. Search for a way to replace that income.This, of course, depends on your business.Get another big client, take out a loan from a different organization, sell off some inventory at lower than usual prices.Do what you can.If you do C & D in conjunction, you might just turn a financial setback into a blip on the balance sheet.

E. Be realistic.If the financial setback damages your business so badly that you are bailing water out of a bottomless boat, then shut the business down.Again, the faster you take action, the better off you’ll be.Too many business owners incur tens of thousands of dollars in needless debt by hanging onto a business that will die anyway.

Financial setbacks are often the easiest setbacks to see. Numbers rarely lie.In that way, they’re the easiest ones to deal with.You know what’s happening—it’s all there in black and white.Doing something, however, is harder.

And add to that the feeling of failure that inevitably comes with being unable to meet your obligations or pay your bills, and that’s a recipe for disaster.

Talk to the people closest to you.Have a plan.And expect the worst.You’ll go through it and come out the other side if you do.

2. Mechanical/Technical/Production Setbacks.These are often product-related setbacks, or setbacks that in some way involve the center of your business.For example, grocery stores went through this a few years ago when the government discovered e-coli in spinach.Thousands of dollars worth of produce got tossed, and even more didn’t get purchased.Even now, spinach sales are down from their peak before the e-coli debacle.

And imagine what that did to farmers who produced the spinach and the processing plants that packaged the wash-and-eat spinach. Some of those businesses got wiped out, just because some spinach somewhere (and I can’t remember where) got contaminated as it grew, and so the e-coli was entwined in the actual plant, and not on its surface.Who could have planned for that?

A writer I know got a million dollar book contract, paid out over years and several books.One editor bought those books, then left the company. By the time the writer turned in the first book in the contract (on time, mind you), she had been orphaned three times (meaning three other editors had presided over the project).The new editor who got the book wasn’t even familiar with the genre the book was in.My friend rewrote that book to the editor’s specifications for another year plus, before the editor decided the book was unacceptable, and asked my friend to repay every dime paid out in the contract thus far.

Think on this:the advance had been paid, the author had done the work—in fact, she’d done three times the normal amount of work—and she still had to repay the money.(She eventually negotiated this down to repayment when she resold the book, which she did—the original version, not the thrice-rewritten thing.)

For two and a half years, this writer made no money and at the end of that period of time, she was told she had to repay money she’d spent three years before.That’s a setback.

Sometimes mechanical/technical setbacks are the fault of the business owner.My friend could have written a bad book.(In this case, she hadn’t, but if she had, then the fault would have been hers.)Some of the e-coli cases in the news lately have been the product of filthy processing plants and uncaring business owners.They’re criminally negligent, and deserve the punishment they’ll be getting.

In some cases, though, setbacks are part of the business.Contractors who remodel houses, for example, never know what they’ll find behind ancient walls or underneath a rotted floorboard.And some businesses—like oil drilling—are by nature speculative, with many more failures than successes.Setbacks are planned things in those businesses.

How do you survive a technical/mechanical/production setback?

A. Have insurance.Most businesses have insurance for just this sort of thing.If something goes wrong in the manufacture of clothing, for example, then insurance should cover the losses.

A business rider on your insurance policy will help with some of the smaller problems. But not every business can be insured.Writers can’t, for example.We have to cope with the occasional failed manuscript, bad agent, or new editor.So the next best thing is—

B. Make sure you have more than one client or more than one product.Buggy whip manufacturers never recovered from the switch over to the automobile a century ago, but bicycle repairmen suddenly had a whole new business if they wanted it, because no one knew where to take their car to be repaired, so they went to the bicycle guy, whom they saw as the next best thing to a car repairman.Writers should work for more than one publisher (and in more than one form or genre); stores should carry more than one product.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.The more you diversify your business, the better off you are.

C. Have a contingency plan.Nothing ever goes entirely as planned.Assess what’ll happen to your business if the main product line has serious problems before those serious problems occur. You might be able to turn what could be a setback into a minor problem.

D. Cut your losses.Sometimes you try a new product and it doesn’t work, for whatever reason.Pull out of that area as soon as possible, and reassess.Make sure you haven’t overextended or jumped into an area you didn’t fully understand.

E. Be realistic: If something went wrong with your machine, or your product, or your timetable, it was probably your fault.Find out where the mistakes were and change that behavior immediately.If the problem wasn’t yours, note that. It still had an impact on you, however, and you need to be realistic about whether or not that impact was minor, bad, or severe.

If you’re not realistic, you won’t be able to solve the problem.Worse, you won’t be able to prevent future, similar problems.

F. Take responsibility.If you’re at fault, say so.Offer the client some kind of recompense for the problem.Act swiftly, and the client will usually respond well. (This works except in cases where the problem caused some kind of legal hassle. Then talk to a lawyer [preferably more than one lawyer] and take his advice.)The faster you own up to a mistake, the more the client is likely to trust you in the future.Especially if you do good work from that point forward.

Clearly, there’s a lot more to discuss on setbacks. Next week, I’ll discuss personal and emotional setbacks which are, I think, even tougher to deal with than the first two types of setbacks.

If you’re in a tough spot in your business (or in your life) at the moment, realize that you can survive a rough patch.It takes ingenuity and a willingness to slog through the difficult days.The biggest problem I face in tough times is that it seems to me like each day is a week long.(And I don’t sleep well, so the nights are long as well.)

Sometimes the best thing you can do is talk to your friends and family. They may not be able to give you financial help or fix whatever broke in your business, but they will give you an opportunity to vent, to let out the negative emotions, and maybe even give you a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.

With the advent of social networking and the internet, you might also find the solutions to many of your problems online.If nothing else, you can probably find an online support group to get you through the long days.Remember not to give out too much personal information, because scam artists do troll those sites looking for victims.Stay general, and never ever give someone you don’t know access to your accounts or toomuch information about your day-to-day existence.If you follow those rules, you should be able to find some comfort from folks far away.

And sometimes a bit of comfort is all you need to keep getting out of bed every morning so that you can repair the damage from the latest setback.

If you believe you can survive, you will.And one day, you’ll look back in astonishment at all you’ve been through.My own personal philosophy is that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all the setbacks in my life.They’re as valuable to me as the successes—even if they are a lot more painful.

“Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Setbacks Part One,” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

For those of you who’d like to buy an ebook, here’s the Amazon link as well as the Barnes & Noble link. The e-book will also be available on all the other e-book sites. If you want it in your favorite format, and the book hasn’t yet been uploaded to your favorite site, try Smashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.

6 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Setbacks Part One

  1. As a freelancer, I’ve ridden the economic tide for a long time, and stayed afloat precisely because I’ve learned some lessons the hard way and put into practice much of the advice you’ve given here. Even so, I’ve found the current economy to be a test of everything I’ve learned/experienced in the past. I haven’t failed the test (yet), but it’s certainly pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. My stomach knots as I watch my bank accounts steadily decline. I’ve long-since diversified, and have multiple clients, large and small, but have heard “we’re not doing much/anything this year” (or variations thereof) from all of them, even my long-term “bread-and-butter” clients, one after another for months. I could go on, but won’t. Bottom line: I’d based my “setback preparation” on previous financial setback experiences — I now know to increase those preparations in the future in anticipation of even worse droughts.

    Work is slowly starting to pick back up now (finally!), and some of my clients are putting feelers out or actively talking about new projects, but it’s been a very unsettling ride this time around — to the point where I was actually beginning to wonder if it was really the economy, and not something I’d done that had somehow sabotaged my own business. Lots of introspection there, believe me, and discovery of things I could have/should have done better (practices that will be modified as business picks up again), but no real “setback-causing fault” on my part that I could actually put my finger on.

    Then, in the last few days, other freelancers in our professional group email list started talking about their experience over the past several months. I discovered, through their comments, that it wasn’t just me. My colleagues all across the country are/were going through their own versions of my experience. I’m sure I knew (logically) that I wasn’t the only one who had been seriously underemployed over the last few months — freelancers in my profession are typically among the first cut when money is tight and the last brought back on when budget crises settle — but when you’re working all by yourself, and used to putting in lots of hours every week, and then find your workload reduced to a mere trickle of its former levels, it can sure start to feel like you’re the only one feeling the pinch!

    I think that’s where that “online support group” concept fits in. Few of the consultants in our professional organization talked about their lack of work when they were in the high-stress period of un/underemployment, but now that the projects are starting to trickle back in, there are several who are publicly breathing a sigh of relief, and that’s helped me start breathing easier, too. Friends and family can be a wonderful source of strength and support, but they don’t always fully understand the ins/outs/ups/downs of being a freelancer and all the ways that can tie you up in knots. So when your peers tell you you’re not crazy (or that they’re just as crazy as you for being in this business, but that it’s worthwhile anyway!), it really resonates.

    Thanks, again, Kris, for sharing your wisdom and experience with the rest of us!


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