Are You Freelancing with an Employee Mindset?

What I’m listening to: Backyard Skulls by Frightened Rabbit

This week will be better. It has to be.

I spent all last week pushing through projects and deadlines and working ahead so that I could take a slower pace this week. And I am. I have work and I will get things done, but I can’t repeat last week.

Physically and mentally, I just can’t.

Last week, a writer I’ve admired for some time now connected with me on LinkedIn. We talked about some of the things that are going wrong in the freelance writing profession. One of those things is the insistence of other writers to aim low.

Really low.

In one LinkedIn group, there was a question from a writer looking to improve their careers by targeting a bidding site.

Seriously. A bidding site.

Which begs the question: if that’s the “improvement,” what does the current state of that freelancer’s career look like?

I think I may have hit on the answer:

That freelancer is thinking like an employee.

Think about it — what’s the typical behavior of an employee?

  • Show up every day
  • Wait for the boss to tell you what to do
  • Do what’s expected of you
  • Collect a paycheck every few weeks
  • Repeat the cycle

Let’s contrast that with the behavior of a successful freelance writer.

  • Show up every day and strategize on how to attract clients
  • Actively seek clients
  • Do what’s expected of you (and then some)
  • Collect the payment
  • Repeat the cycle, changing what isn’t working

Think about the struggling freelancers you’ve seen. How many of them do you see using the Employee behavior?

Probably more than a few, right?

But look at the two lists. What about them is similar?

All but a few things, it turns out.

It takes little for struggling freelancers to stop thinking like employees. Click To Tweet

Show up every day

Yep, both sets of writers do that. But here’s where it differs for successful freelancers; successful freelancers strategize. They think about how to attract clients to them, not how to find people doling out work (and dictating what the writers will be paid).

Actively seek clients

That means no job boards, no Craig’s List ad responses, no paying to get access to job listings… successful freelancers are researching clients, reaching out to them via email, mail, or phone (or even face-to-face), showing up in their social media feeds, and building their own name recognition. Successful freelance writers are crafting letters of introduction that show they’ve done a little homework and understand the client and their business enough to approach them to start a business relationship.

None of that is passive. None of that is anything an employee would do. Why? Because the employee isn’t all that invested in the success of the employer’s business. Freelance writers? We own our businesses. The success of our businesses has direct impact on us. Therefore, we’re going to work damn hard to make things happen.

Do what’s expected (and then some)

Sure, employees have been known to go above and beyond, and their employers have been known to reward them for it. But what if all employees did that? Imagine how strong these companies would be! That’s what successful freelance writers have figured out — if we reach beyond what’s expected and deliver more, the reward comes in referrals, repeat business, and a great reputation.

Change what isn’t working

Right there. That one thing alone could transform freelance writing careers if the writer is committed to changing the status quo. If a writer is trying to break into a bidding site (which is aiming so low they’d have to reach up to touch their shoestrings), what kind of improvement would occur if that same writer instead decided to attend one business trade show? Or decided to send queries to magazines? Or started (and continued) sending letters of introduction and follow-up notes to a targeted list of clients? Hey, just the magazine article itself could raise that writer’s income from say $15 per project to $300 per article. Hello! Not rocket science, and it’s a start in the right direction. Then maybe in a few months, those new magazine clips could help that same writer land a higher-paying magazine assignment or a client whose business is similar to the article topic.

Writers, when did you realize you were thinking too much like an employee? How did you change that?
In what other instances do you see some writers thinking or acting like employees?
Any advice for how they can get beyond that mindset?


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  • Cathy Miller October 3, 2017 at 9:47 am

    I think my Aha moment was when I realized I was still doing projects I hated doing because of the employee mindset that it was your job.Says who? I’m the boss so if I don’t like doing certain types of projects, I don’t have to.

    The other way some freelancers act more like employees is they don’t question or suggest other ways to approach a subject. Smart clients appreciate a writer who brings more than the contracted words.

    • lwidmer October 3, 2017 at 10:53 am

      Amen, Cathy! Exactly the a-ha moment we all need to go through.

      Mine came when I had a particularly belligerent client dictating how I would structure my workday and weekend to accommodate her procrastination. Three weeks after the project was handed in, and three days before her deadline. The weekend my daughter had a graduation party here at the house. And she knew I wasn’t around for that reason. Her last of four messages on my answering machine said “I wish you’d given me your cell phone number.” You, crazy woman, are exactly the reason I don’t give that out.

      That’s when I knew I had to put up my boundaries and defend them.

  • Paula Hendrickson October 3, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    I’d never thought of that as a “think like an employee” approach as much as a lazy one. But you’re right.

    It’s like a friend who boasts about being an independent, self-sufficient woman, yet turns to her mom several times a year to pay for some or all of unexpected costs. Riiiight. That’s the very definition of co-dependency.

    Much like the employee-employer mindset.

    Freelancing should be more symbiotic.

    I’d make a poor employee, not just because I don’t like being bossed around, but also because I wouldn’t want to wait for approval to make necessary changes. Freelancers are, or should be, more proactive than someone waiting for instructions.

    • lwidmer October 4, 2017 at 9:22 am

      It’s a subtle distinction, Paula. There are plenty of lazy people trying their hand at writing. There are plenty of writers not adopting a business-owner mindset.

      Freelancers have to be more proactive, don’t we? My most frustrating moments are when clients have to have conference calls to discuss the last conference call… the loop of Hell. I remember in one case, I offered to “put together a quick draft” just to get the ball rolling in the right direction (I hadn’t budgeted time for four conference calls). It’s easy to keep kicking the can down the road when you’re collecting a paycheck.

      Self-employed writers don’t have (or want) that luxury.

      • Paula Hendrickson October 6, 2017 at 10:59 am

        Time to start charging an additional fee for each extra call?

        Sounds very Devon, doesn’t it? But I bet it cuts down on the amount of requests for time-wasting calls.

        • lwidmer October 6, 2017 at 11:23 am

          It does. She’s the master at cutting down on time-wasters!