Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Going Against the Grain

One of my best friends ever is in the process of quitting his day job, and it's reminded me of this blog. It's been a year since I started it, and what was meant to be a chronicle of my freelancing escapades has been reduced to three lousy posts (four, if you count this one). My friend's excitement over entering this new stage in his life pretty much mirrors my own at the time I started, and a year's worth of experiences has taught me the value of one important thing: support.

When my friend told his parents he was quitting his day job and stepping into the wide world of writing, his parents nodded in approval. My parents, on the other hand, did that awkward smirk-thing people tend to do when they think it's a bad idea, but want to save telling you until you hit a situation where they can say, in full smugness, I told you so. My friend is happy. I'm... struggling.

See, I realized in the year that's passed is that not everyone is going to understand how freelancing can be a career. There are traditional-thinking folks who believe the only way to move up in life is to grab the rungs of the corporate ladder and hope no one pushes you off. That's the sort of family I'm in. That's how some of my friends think, too. Heck, the whole goshdarn world thinks this way.

So if you're planning on quitting your day job and going freelance, you've got to understand that you'll be going against the grain. Sure, you may be surrounded by people who understand you, but more often than not, there are going to be less-enthusiastic voices in the crowd. You've got to be prepared for that, if you intend on enjoying life without a day job.

To these people, working outside of the traditional office setting is a rogue act. You're not fitting in. You're a renegade. To most conformists, you're never ever going to be taken as seriously as you would have been had you stayed at your 9-to-5. You work on your own hours? Preposterous! You don't report to an office everyday? Sacrilege! Your client is located somewhere in Russia, and doesn't hold an office in the Philippines? Insanity!

The thing is, these people are bound to be in your life. They're going to talk behind your back, saying you're on the path to failure. They're going to secretly shake their heads in disapproval when you talk about your work with eyes all a-glow. And you'll never ever be able to escape them.

Now, you can be made of sterner stuff and pay them no mind. If you're weak like me, however, the opinions can get to you. You'll eventually make bad decisions trying to please them, and it's all going to blow up in your face.

This is where that all-important support comes in. To deal with those people who look down on you for going against the grain, all you really have to do is make sure you've got more supportive people than unsupportive ones. You've got to surround yourself with folks who know you can make something of yourself with going through someone else's routines. You can find support in friends, family, and even fellow freelancers.

Even more important, however, is that you embrace the fact that you're being non-traditional. You've got to be proud that you've found a different way to make a name for yourself, one that fulfills you more than your day job ever could. If you're going to go rogue, you should think that being a rogue is the coolest thing ever since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In a career where the biggest determinant of your income is your motivation, this is quite possibly the most crucial key to success.

So, to recap, quitting your day job means going against the grain; that's just the way the world thinks. Some people aren't going to like it. What important, however, is that YOU do, and that you've got people standing behind you 24/7.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Things to Consider Before Working at Home

A lot of my friends envy me. While they’re stuck in their day jobs, slaving away in some office for hours that seem almost unbearable, I’m free as a jay bird, working where I want and when I want. I don’t pay any costs for food or transportation, and my income doesn’t get any deductions for absences or tardiness. Heck, I can never be absent or late. I also get to wear whatever I damn want to without my bosses raising a single eyebrow. Best of all, I can take as many breaks as I want, and of any sort too – video gaming, reading, binge-eating, alcohol – I can pretty much do whatever I want.

I understand how this may seem like living the life for sloths like me. It’s pretty much a big reason I shifted to freelancing full-time; super-mega-ultra-overtime until 3am does not a happy Marco make. What I’ve learned, however, is that while freelancing is technically easier than most day jobs in terms of work rules, it's still not as simple as it seems.

One major issue is the incredible amount of comfort I feel within these four walls. I work moments away from my bed; sometimes on it. In fact, working from home has got to be one of the most relaxing situations I’ve ever found myself in. The problem is, it’s too relaxing. I often need to resist the urge to fall asleep on the job (and unfortunately, fail at this at least half the time). It’s pretty damn hard to produce any output when you’re lying in your bed unconscious; and when your income depends solely on your output, well, sleeping on the job tends to financially screw you over.

(Aside – speaking of being financially screwed over, do NOT use a BPI account if you’re going to subsist on PayPal transfers. Not only is the service incredibly slow, but there are always these mystery deductions from the original amount. PayPal already deducts a percentage of what you withdraw, but for some reason or another, an additional Php100.00 or so gets lost in the translation to BPI. I’ve called them about it and they say they don’t make any deductions. I’m being forcibly bent over here, and I’ve probably lost around Php1500.00 as a result.)

Another issue with working from home is the suddenly-wide world of temptation that’s open to you. I’ve lost more than a few work hours to food, television, and NBA 2K9/Final Fantasy XII/Zombie Hunters 2. I’ve found myself cutting my work short to hop into a taxi and have a few beers. I can even do leisure surfing of the Vivid Video sort (and believe me, I have). Add to this the fact that my girlfriend is a freelancer too, and you’ve got a recipe for delinquency.

Being a freelancer, for all its liberties, demands a lot of discipline out of you. Yes, it’s a relatively easy job that pays fairly well, but it can get too easy, to the point where you find yourself doing anything but work. This is probably why some freelancers prefer to work at coffee shops and such; it restricts your freedoms by the slightest of degrees and helps you focus on the task at hand. I’ve found this to be particularly true, and if I weren’t consistently being screwed over by my bank, I’d happily invest 200-300 pesos a week in working at a nearby ztarvuckz.

Of course, the discipline issues aren’t the only difficulties in working as a freelancer. There’s also the matter of employee benefits; or, in the freelancer’s position, the lack thereof. You don’t get any overtime pay, or health benefits, or severance packages. It’s simply a matter of producing the required output by the deadline, and getting paid for it. That’s it. Sure, there may be the occasional bonus or two, but those are pretty rare (I’ve never gotten one myself).

There’s also the complete and utter dependence on the internet to think about. I have never found myself spending this much time in front of a computer in my life, and considering I’m a ginormous geek, that’s saying a lot. The internet is your lifeline – if your connection goes out, you’re screwed. If the connection is going at a snail’s pace, you’re screwed. If a virus enters your system registry and causes an endless loop of restarts at startup, forcing you to reformat your hard drive without being able to first back your data up, you’re screwed beyond any realm of understanding (yes, this happened to me).

Perhaps the biggest issue (and I’m sure my girlfriend will agree with this) is the insane cabin fever you can get. You may have all the free time you can possibly want, and your schedule may be as flexible as a circus contortionist, but all your friends are stuck in their day jobs. They can’t hang out during work hours, and often skip out on night-time activities because they have work the next day. It’s incredibly frustrating when you know you want to go out, but nobody’s there to join you. Weekday friends are a lot rarer than you think.

If you’re thinking of going freelance, take some time to think about this. Do you have the discipline to stay at your desk and work, knowing full well that you’ve got all the time in the world to enjoy everything else? Can you stand to work without getting any benefits, from simple birthday cakes to *sigh* Christmas bonuses? Are you prepared to become a semi-cyborg, seemingly attached to your computer in a desperate attempt to survive in this money-driven world? Can you withstand cabin fever, and do you have enough weekday friends to bail you out?

Most importantly – are you free for beers on weekdays? If so, when and where can we have those beers??? I need to get the fuck out of this house.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Getting a Gig (in the Philippines, at Least)

It’s funny how Facebook can reconnect you with old friends. I was discovered a couple of months ago by one of my better high school buddies, one I haven’t since seen my early college years. Like most manly men, we never really caught up much. Neither of us really said how much we missed each other. And, as if to support a certain theory I have, we didn’t really meet up again “just because”. It took a Magic: the Gathering tournament to get us to see each other again.

It’s also funny how reconnecting with said old friend can be incredibly relevant to what you’ve got planned for your next blog post. Since I want this to be a sort of chronicle to my experiences as a freelancer, I had always wanted to start at the beginning – scoring a gig. I’ve been putting it off for one reason or another (mostly because I lack sleep), but meeting up with Mr. Old Friend today gave me more motivation to finally write shit down. He actually asked me how I got started, and how I got gigs as a freelancer. Rather than exert any of the few brain cells I had running this morning, I decided to spare my friend from my incoherent rambling and told him, “That’s actually going to be the next entry of my freelancing blog.”

And so here we are.

Getting started as a freelancer was actually a really simple thing for me; I got referred to a local company that hired writers for part-time work doing how-to articles. However, I soon learned that this wasn’t the best set-up, and had I known then what I know now, I probably would’ve been a few thousand pesos richer.

See, the company was one of those freelancer-gatherers (I’m sure there’s a better term, but I’m lazy to Google it) – companies that book bulk-order gigs from foreign clients, and then distribute the work to a team of writers. While this system can be more convenient for the writers, in the sense that getting work isn’t much of a hassle, it also pays a lot less. The company often takes a substantial cut of the client’s per-article rate, and so you earn much less than you would have by directly dealing with the client.

That said, I suggest that those looking to start out in the wild world of freelancing do so by getting their own contracts. Working directly with clients brings you much better gigs. In order to do that, however, you’ll need a few things:

• A reliable internet connection
Once you go freelance, the internet will become your lifeline. All your work will be coursed through email or through Skype, and so you can’t have a connection that’s finicky about when it wants to let you go online.

• A bank account
And not just any bank account; you’ll need a bank account that’s proven to be reliable with your preferred method of payment.

Let me elaborate on this for a bit. There are several ways to get paid for you gigs, the two most common methods being PayPal and Xoom. I’m one of those guys who feels uneasy about handing over any bank information to people I don’t know, and so PayPal is my payment method of choice. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that my bank, BPI, doesn’t deal directly with PayPal. All the money is coursed through the Bank of America first, and so it takes longer than the usual 3-4 days to have my money transferred. As a result, I’ve found myself broke over certain periods of time, just because BPI hasn’t given me my money yet.

If you’re looking to go freelance, I suggest you get an account with BDO or Unionbank; I have yet to hear of any complaints about the two.

• Writing samples
Employers will always ask to see samples of your writing, so always have a few handy. Your clients won’t be interested in any lengthy philosophical discourses, so save the school papers for someone else. All they want is to see how capable you are as a writer, so two or three 500-word articles should suffice. They can be on just about anything, from how-to articles to reviews on your favourite cookies. It also helps to start a blog (if you don’t have one already). A blog will provide clients with an easy-to-access stream to your writing style, and you don’t have to bother sending them clunky attachments. Just include the link in your email, and you’re good to go.

You’re now ready to get your first gig. Two of the best places to look for jobs are Elance and Craigslist. Elance offers some of the best rates for writing projects, as well as many security measures to protect the interests of both the client and the writer. All you have to do is sign up for an Elance account, select the type of job you want, and start bidding against other freelancers for the projects you’re interested in. If you’re anything like me, however, you won’t be getting many jobs from the website.

See, I’m a bit of a cheapskate, and it’s almost impossible to get jobs from Elance using a free account. The problem lies with Elance’s Connect system. In order to contact a client, you’ll need to use Connects. Connects are markers used by Elance to help control against low-quality workers who get jobs via the hit-or-miss method – spam enough clients, and you’ll eventually get a gig. Unfortunately, the number of Connects you have is limited by the type of account you own. A free account, for example, gets you just three Connects a month. To make things worse, any unused Connects don’t get carried over to the next month. What’s more, the number of Connects it takes to contact a client or bid for a project is relative to the size of the project; the more the project pays, the more Connects you’ll need.

This can get incredibly frustrating for those who don’t have the capital to invest on premium accounts or buying Connects. For instance, a prospective client once invited me to bid for a well-paying project (I think it was worth around $500). Even better, it was an invitation-only bidding, and I only had around 5 other freelancers to compete against. Unfortunately, Elance determined that the number of Connects needed to bid for such a job was four, and I didn’t have any disposable income to gamble on a few extra Connects. I wanted to graciously turn down the invitation (and hopefully get in good with the client), but Elance wouldn’t even let me do that! I needed four Connects just to email the guy. I contacted Elance Customer Service for some help, but all I got was a reply telling me “Nope, we can’t let you email the client. ” Fail.

Craigslist, on the other hand, has no such frivolities. The site is a ginormous classifieds board. You’ll find a bunch of postings under Writing/Editing Jobs and Writing Gigs. All you have to do is email the posters and wait for their replies. Most of them will reply to your emails within three days. If it takes any longer than that, the position’s probably been filled. If you’re looking to get a job fast, though, I suggest you respond to as many ads as you can.

You can also post your own ad in Resumes/Jobs Wanted. After two to three days, the responses will start coming in. You’ll get most of your offers within the first two weeks of your posting, but you’ll get the occasional inquiry a month or two afterwards. Craigslist ads are good for three months, and if you haven’t gotten an offer you like, it’s a simple matter of reposting your ad before it expires.

The one problem with Craigslist is that it doesn’t offer the protection that Elance does, and so you’re more vulnerable to scams. You may be asked to write 50 500-word articles, only to get cheated out of the payment for your hard work. You can try to alleviate some of that worry by drafting a contract, but it’s still no guarantee that you won’t get scammed. In my experience, though, none of the clients who contacted me via my own ad have stiffed me on the payments. While it doesn’t give you much control over the types of projects offered to you, I suggest posting an ad rather than responding to others.

Whichever way you choose, you’ll eventually get your first gig. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it can happen, too – it doesn’t take me any longer than a week or two to get a job I want. If you plan on going freelance full-time, make sure you have a steady source of income. Try to get multiple long-term gigs if you can, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to make a substantial amount of money.

Good luck, and happy gig-hunting!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Somewhere Out There, Five-Year-Old Me is Nodding in Approval

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Maybe it was the sight of my brother churning out composition after composition, each one making my parents proud, that got me interested. Maybe it was because I read too many comics as a kid. That would probably explain the yellowed “comics” lying somewhere around this house, the ones I made as a five-year-old.

Whatever it was, it helped me create worlds in my head – elaborate settings where gods roamed the earth, and where sleeper agents were sent back in time to prevent superheroes from going apeshit and conquering the world, among others. I created hundreds of characters, each with an amateurish backstory and concept sketch to boot. I gave these guys names and scripted their encounters before I slept. I was a kid with an imagination that knew no bounds.

Except, of course, for the ones my mother set for me. I had no idea why, but I let her scare me away from pursuing a life in words. She’d see my comics, appreciate the art, but then warn me of the forlorn life of the “starving artist”. Since I decided I wanted to be happy in my future, I stopped writing. After all, “writers don’t make money”.

Sure, I never really quit writing completely. There was the occasional creative writing project, or the high-school buddy geek-boy world-building escapade that would let me flex my creative muscles from time to time, but I didn’t really take it all too seriously. I was meant to become a doctor (so I was told), even though I’d have these fanciful thoughts of becoming an animator floating in my thoughts. Doctors live cushy, happy lives, and don't starve like artists do. A career in medicine was the right way to go.

And so I took up a pre-med course at college. While one of my reasons for majoring in Psychology was that it was “pre-everything” and I wanted to keep my options flexible, most of the adults in my family took that to mean “I’m taking this so that I can enroll in med school like you’ve always wanted me to and be the first doctor in the family.” It was at college, though, that I rediscovered my life-long passions.

It happened in my Comics and the Graphic Novel class, aptly enough. I took it primarily because I felt that with my fanboy-dom, it’d be an easy A class. What I never expected was that the class had a heavy portion on comics production, and I soon found myself writing and drawing again. This time, however, I did it with purpose rather than just some random scribbling. With every push of the keyboard, I found my love for writing returning. It was like recapturing the feelings of some long-lost boyhood love, sweet and nostalgic and ultimately gratifying. Five-year-old me was back.

I decided that I wanted to write for a living. A lot of significant people in my life were dismayed at my decision. For one thing, my mother and both of my grandmothers had always hoped I would become a doctor. For another, my then-girlfriend who was actually planning on becoming a doctor was worried that the differences in our life paths would mean the end of our relationship (and yes, it was one of the reasons she dumped me). But there comes a time in a person’s life where he’s provided the tiniest window to pursue his dreams, and if he doesn’t take it, fate will shut that window without any regard for human life. I had to take a leap. I had to chase my dream.

I knew that I wasn’t the best writer out there. I knew that I had tons more room to improve. They say, to become a better writer, you should keep writing; and so I got a day job writing for an events/media company. They also say, to become a better writer, you’ve got to have significant life experiences; and so I quit my day job.

I figured that I wasn’t going to have many significant life experiences sitting at a desk all day waiting for the clock to strike six. I may have been working for an events company, but the job itself was pretty uneventful. I was chained to a makeshift cubicle within a red-curtained prison, facing the drudgery of the same old shit happening every day (“same old shit” meaning “absolutely nothing”). I was in significant life experience hell.

I needed to get out of there. But what I needed more was the money that the job paid. Life isn’t all that easy, especially in my particular situation. After tons of consideration, I realized that no other day job would pay me as much, so I resigned myself to the fact that I’d forever be imprisoned in an office job I hated. That’s when two people came and rescued me – Lauren, by introducing me to the wonderful world of freelancing, and John Parr, by methods better elaborated here.

Freelance writing offered potentially more income at a much more flexible schedule. Not only would I be making more money, I’d have a heck of a lot more time to garner as many significant life experiences as I could. It felt like a perfect fit (and one of my oldest friends just happened to agree). If I was ever to take a life-defining risk, this had to be it.

Needless to say, I took that risk, which brings us to this blog. Since I’m much too introspective for my own good, I thought I’d be sharing my thoughts and experiences as a freelancer here. I’ll be ranting and raving and offering a few helpful tips along the way. The blog might not be as useful or as relevant as I think it could be, but what the heck – I’m writing, goddammit, and it feels like home.