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PR & Communications opinion

Have you hugged your freelancer today?

Freelancers. They're no longer sketchy characters lurking on the outskirts of the workforce but a global force to be reckoned with.
America's Freelancers Union estimates that one in four Americans is now a freelance worker. In the United Kingdom, the upward trend is similar, with self-employment hitting a 20-year high. 'Working for one's own account' is a trend we're seeing here in South Africa, too, with the ABSA SME Index estimating that self-employed individuals now make up 10% of South Africa's employed population, the highest level since 2009.

Why this growth in the so-called Freelance Economy? Experts put it down to job losses as employers downsize in a difficult economy (I explore more reasons behind this workplace shift in this article for business owl). given that the labour absorption rate for Matrics and graduates from tertiary education institutions in South Africa is low, and that the unemployment rate stands at 25.20% and rising, freelancing will increasingly be seen as a long-term alternative to the traditional permanent employment at a corporation.

Learning to get along

Unfortunately, freelancers often get the short end of the stick when it comes to business relationships. This has something to do with how they're perceived by the companies that use them as hired help there to do the donkey work cheap-cheap and then sling their hook when they're done, and by a sort of learned helplessness on the part of freelancers, who often fail to see and promote themselves - and act - as a professional business.

But given that companies and freelancers will be doing a lot more business with each other, it's high time we all learned to get along and respectfully work together, for mutual benefit. Here's how...


1. Don't moan and groan at freelance fees - freelancers work (hard) to turn a profit, just like you do, and base their rates on the time and skill involved in executing particular tasks. Furthermore, the more experienced and in demand the freelancer, the higher the rates s/he can command. If you can't afford the rates, it's your prerogative to move along and hire someone else. Just remember the old adage, you pay peanuts; you get monkeys!
2. Pay your freelancer on time - freelancers are service providers not credit providers, so if you want credit, speak to your bank. While one-man businesses cannot afford to extend terms in excess of 30 days, you will benefit from lower rates and speedier turn-around time than you would if you were to hire an agency.
3. Brief freelancers properly - changing the goal posts mid-project or once it's done renders projects undeliverable. To avoid confusion, be specific about what you want. If you're not sure, why not ask the freelancer to input suggestions?
4. Don't treat freelancers like lowly employees - would you shove your doctor or attorney around? Probably not. You have too much respect for their credentials and profession. Extend a similar courtesy towards your creative freelancers. At the least, they're your equals and sometimes are even more qualified and experienced than you are.
5. Call once in a while - or answer your friendly freelancer's calls. When you're in a fix and need a job done fast, who do you think the freelancer's going to drop everything to help - the person with whom s/he has a genuine relationship or the ratty, demanding corporate employer who only turns up when they want something?


1. Don't be a flaky freelancer - in short, deliver. When I worked as a book publisher, I had the misfortune of working with a supremely talented designer. I say misfortune because, despite his considerable skill, one day he simply dropped off the face of the earth, leaving his deadlines (and me) high and dry. Never. Do. This.
2. State your terms and conditions upfront - to avoid confusion and to promote a slick, professional image, have a rates card which clearly specifies payment terms and your work process.
3. Don't bite off more than you can chew - Know how much you're capable of outputting in a day/week/month and don't overextend yourself. Taking on too much work will compromise its quality and your health and, if you fail to deliver, your professional reputation. Politely inform your client that you're fully booked and when you're able to take on the work, or recommend an alternative freelancer.
4. Remember that you're a service provider - whilst it's laudable to stay true to your craft, save making art for your spare time. If the client wants it upside down, and blue with pink spots, take a deep breath and smile. Politely point out why this is a poor idea (jot it down in an email so it's on record) but if the client won't swing it, do the best you can to accommodate their desires. Even the great Michelangelo had to set artistic integrity aside at times and pander to the strange whims of his employers. Remember the adage, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
5. Don't harass contacts for work - stay in touch, for sure, but don't overdo the emails and phone calls. It smacks of desperation and is annoying, too. And who wants to work with a desperate, annoying freelancer? Play it cool and (if you deliver the goods, on time, every time) they'll come to you!

About Marie Rocher

I help brands create engaging content to share with their communities - through their websites, social media channels and custom magazines.
Bradley Stilwell
Bradley Stilwell
Great article! Couldn't agree more!
Posted on 8 May 2014 14:37
Barbara Lellyett
Barbara Lellyett
Loved this article Marie - nice to see someone putting in a good word for us freelancers.
Posted on 8 May 2014 15:12
Edward Chamberlain-Bell
Edward Chamberlain-Bell
Great article that I'm discreetly sharing with all my clients :)

I've stopped referring to myself as a freelancer because people assume it means I work for free or am unemployed. I am now self-employed.
Posted on 8 May 2014 15:20
Barbara Lellyett
Barbara Lellyett
Loved this article Marie - great to see someone giving freelancers a boost!
Posted on 8 May 2014 15:34
Marie Rocher
Marie Rocher
Thanks for the feedback. Keep on freelancing!
Posted on 8 May 2014 16:22
Gwen Watkins
Gwen Watkins
Excellently balanced article pointing out the shortcomings and needs of both sides - particularly liked the emphasis on payment and payment terms - often a bone of contention
Posted on 8 May 2014 17:12
Cole Rautenbach
Cole Rautenbach
Becoming a sole proprietor means running a business. If freelancers continue to bemoan "how companies treat them", then perhaps they aren't cut out to be sole proprietors. I'm going to play devil's advocate and say that companies don't need advice on how to treat freelancers - freelancers can determine how they are treated based on their own CRM skills:

If you want to be taken seriously, don't give your clients/potential clients room to "moan and groan at your fees". Show your value before you show them your costs and they'll be all to happy to pay up without even thinking "Isn't that too expensive?"

As a freelancer, you need to manage your clients instead of letting them walk all over you. The first thing is: Pick your clients well. You are not obligated to work with clients who treat you badly or don't pay you or who question your value. The freelance market is booming because there is a HUGE need for our services. There's enough work out there for you to be picky about the types of clients you want to work WITH (not for). There are other reasons to consume fermented grapes... "bad clients" don't need to be one of those reasons.

Position yourself as a solutions driver (not just a "writer" or "designer" or "developer") and you'll have no problem not only finding new clients, but having them constantly send work your way.

Instead of letting your clients brief you (inadequately), why not do a requirements spec? Have a list of all the questions you need answered that will ultimately provide you with the brief you need in order to do the job properly. Be proactive about your own scoping - this will solve the briefing problem AND it will provide you with an inventory of exactly what you're charging your clients for (which will prevent them from questioning your costs and how you spend your time).

Bad client? No such thing. Badly managed client? Definitely.
Posted on 8 May 2014 18:00
Madi Hanekom
Madi Hanekom
From one freelancer to another: Thanks for the 'virtual hug', Marie! You've captured both sides of the story (companies and freelancers) very well indeed. It is also interesting to learn about the strong growth in the numbers of freelancers. I strongly support your point about us having to see and promote ourselves as being business owners. Let us also not forget about the value of networking with other freelancers, as freelancing can be a very lonely line of work to be in - this is where networks such as Safrea (Southern African Freelancers' Association) play a great supportive role.
Posted on 8 May 2014 18:17
Melanie Oliver
Melanie Oliver
Any tips on getting into the freelance market in SA? I moved to a small coastal town two years after qualifying, but I still have all the skill and natural ability. In addition, I have run my own business the last decade in another creative field, so have no recent references apart from my clients. I am a P.R.O. who was trained to write as a journalist, but learnt to write "marketese" as a Promotions Assistant. Employers have such long lists of requirements that I often see hundreds viewing a job, but not one application! Surely one cannot expect to find one person with every single item on your 'must-have' list? There are plenty of jobs I know full well that I can do, but due to these detailed requirements, cannot apply for. Hence, my decision to try the freelance writing route, or start another business!! So far I have been paid two chickens and a smoked ham, so knowing the going rate would be great...
Posted on 8 May 2014 18:37
Pat Pughe-Parry
Pat Pughe-Parry
Lots of good and common sense advice here. Thank you.
Posted on 8 May 2014 19:11
Marie Rocher
Marie Rocher
Cole - I quite agree. Freelancers are businesses, and should act as such. Incorporating oneself, instead of operating as a sole prop, adds extra gravitas. Occasionally, there is a poor fit between client and freelancer which no amount of managing can contain - in which case, both parties should diplomatically move on with no hard feelings. As for the briefing spec sheet - excellent advice! I implement this myself, as well as a commissioning document.
Posted on 8 May 2014 19:49
Marie Rocher
Marie Rocher
Madi - I quite agree freelancers should network amongst themselves, share knowledge and support each other. A group I know gets together periodically to 'pretend they're a corporate' - they use these opportunities to discuss anything from business strategies, marketing tactics and the state of the economy to managing employees and work-life balance...these get-togethers include an end-of-year function - something the (sometimes lonely) career freelancers miss out on!
Posted on 8 May 2014 19:55
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