Beyond Freelancing 101


  • Living
  • Saturday, 30 Nov 2013

Our columnist, who has been freelancing for the last seven years, shares some of the painful (but ultimately useful) lessons she has learnt along her journey.

A RECENT interview with a businessman reminded me of my own start in freelancing writing.

When I asked him why he chose to model the university he was building after a ship, he said, “We want to do things differently.”

“Think different”, too, sums up the approach I took to design my first business card.

It had a winsome photo of me in a spaghetti-strapped top, hair cascading down my bare shoulders, taken from the notorious fatgirl angle (for the uninitiated, that means the camera with the angle pointing down), and the words “A former sales manager who left a high-flying corporate job to smell the roses and drink bru coffee.”

Eager to show off my baby, I handed it out to my editor friend Jolene, fully expecting glowing praise.

She said nothing for one full minute.

“Do you like it?” I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. 

“Alex, I don’t think it’d work.”

I was stunned. Was she kidding? Didn’t a few of my friends (non-writers) say it was the bee’s knees? Didn’t all my years in sales teach me that to succeed, you need to stand out? And the way to stand out was to have your own distinctive brand?

It was one of the many painful (but ultimately useful) lessons I had to learn as a newbie writer. Here are a few others:

Rule No.1 – Don’t hit the pause button on life just because your customer says it’s urgent.

If I got a dollar for every single time I bent backwards for a customer, only to regret it, I’d be a very rich woman by now.

Some real life examples: I rode an overnight bus from Penang to KL only to be informed at 11.30pm on the eve of our meeting that my client had a cold. I blocked five days for a client, only to be told at the last
minute that they decided to do it in-house to save moolah.

I could recite another two dozen examples, but that’d just be kissing and telling.

I’m not advocating that you stop going the extra mile for your clients, but before you give away that huge discount or sacrifice your weekend to save somebody’s butt, ask yourself:

1) Is this client paying you premium?

2) Is it for a strategic reason?

3) Does your client value your work, professionalism and time?

Nobody is worth endangering your health and sanity for. If you’re going to last the distance, learn to guard your heart.

Rule No.2 – It takes time to build professional relationships.

In one of my earliest gigs, a wealthy consultant commissioned me to write a how-to book about getting your first million. At our first meeting, he claimed that the gig could open doors for me, so I was very anxious to please him. At every step of the way, I checked whether the work was OK.

When I finally handed in the last job and sent in my invoice, he had the nerve to say that it didn’t look like I’d done enough.

I had written proof that his team had approved my submitted work, but to my astonishment, he responded: “Do you normally ask for payment when the client is not satisfied with the work?” 

Was this how he made his first million? I seethed. By fleecing gullible young writers?

After that experience, I’ve come to be wary of people who promise you the sky and the moon. Some of my best customers, in fact, started off with just curt one-liners in their email, and we built rapport, then trust, over a period of time – just like any relationship.

Rule No.3 – Follow your instincts even if it means breaking conventional rules.

I frequently hear fellow writers saying that you should never submit full articles. Why do all the work without knowing if you’d get paid, or worse, what if the editor steals your ideas?

Perhaps this rule is true for former journalists who already have a network they can tap into. But what if the editor doesn’t know you from Joe next door, he or she will have no way to gauge whether you can write or not?

That was the situation I faced when I decided to freelance in 2006. From the start of my career – even as a teenager contributing to the youth pages – I always submitted fullywritten articles. No one has stolen my ideas so far; at least I think not.

After all these years, I’ve concluded that there is only one rule in this game: there are certain “golden rules” you never flout in any industry, but ultimately, it’s all about context and fit. What works for other people may not work for you. To emphasise what I mean, let me bring you back to the story of my business card.

After Jolene’s less-than-enthusiastic response, I took a second look at my card. She was right. The vainglorious copy, the cleavingbaring top, the whole trying-to-be-artsy-butfailing-miserably – she had just saved me from prematurely blowing my own career.

Still, I needed something to show my prospect the next day. I made a temporary blackand-white one. Boring but safe would do for now while I thought more deeply about how I wanted my card to look.

Seven years in a sales department had taught me a thing or two about branding. Like a website, a writer’s business card is the most important tool in her arsenal. It’s got to look and feel and sound like me.

And, say what you will, I liked my quirky image. Was there really no way to make quirky professional?

I decided to hire a professional designer. I couldn’t believe my eyes when he came up with a hot pink card with a rabbit as a logo that somehow managed to look professional ... I loved it! (Thank you, Khairil!)

Of course, it still elicits a raised eyebrow occasionally – you know, from straightjacketed fogeys who can’t handle too much pink flamboyance. I toyed with the idea of getting a more conservative/conventional version for formal occasions. One client kindly saved me the trouble by making one for me, for occasions
when I represented his company.

But on days that I feel extra daring, I still whip out that unapologetically-me card, like at one recent press event.

There was a lucky draw where five winners would be selected to get a coveted pass to a global summit that Malaysia was hosting for the first time. Immediately after tossing my pink bunny card into the goblet, I headed straight for the buffet table. I NEVER get lucky at these things.

I almost choked on my salmon tartlet when they called out my name. At the FIRST draw. When I went up to thank the person who pulled out my card, I had to ask: “So what made you pick me?”

“Your card was different from the rest.”

Sometimes, it’s not your instincts that suck. It’s the execution, which only, and always, improves with experience.

> Alexandra Wong (www.bunnysprints.com) thinks the freelance world is a jungle, but still wouldn’t trade it for anything else.


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