This is a review of the new e-book The Unlimited Freelancer by Mason Hipp and James Chartrand.
If you’re a freelancer feeling overwhelmed by your workload (or even worse, your lack of workload), this e-book offers solid advice to help you reduce your working hours and stress levels, and increase your income and job satisfaction.
I first came across James Chartrand’s writing via his excellent articles on Copyblogger, and was pleased to discover more stylish and practical advice on his Men with Pens site. He’s known as one of the foremost voices on the Internet on the subject of sales copywriting, and has built a successful business on the back of his expertise. I’ve also been getting to know him via Twitter and e-mail and have found him a thoroughly decent chap. So when he asked if I’d be interested in reviewing his new e-book and acting as an affiliate partner, I said I’d love to see it.
Having now read the book, I’d say it’s an excellent introduction to essential business skills for the 21st-century freelancer. If you’re in the same position as many other freelancers — being ‘really good at what you do’ but struggling to make a living without working seven days a week — it’s well worth the investment of time (an afternoon’s reading) and money ($29).
James and Mason haven’t written the e-book explicitly for creative professionals, but I believe the advice they offer is particularly relevant to freelancers working in creative or artistic fields. Here’s why.
The Problem with Freelancing
You probably didn’t start freelancing because you wanted to run a business. You did it because you love your creative work and want to make a living doing what you love. You hate being ordered about by a boss and want the freedom and control of running your own show.
But for many freelancers, the reality falls short of the dream. As a one-person operation, not only do you have to do all of the ‘real work’ of your business (e.g. designing, coding, copywriting) but you also have to do all the support work as well — marketing, sales, client management, accounts, IT etc. You can find yourself working late into the night seven days a week, and still falling behind. Your social life and holidays become a distant memory. You can’t turn away work for fear of missing out next time, but it’s hard to find the time and space to do things to your usual standards. And you can’t get sick or have an emergency, because there’s no one to replace you.
This scenario is so common it has been described countless times — most memorably by Michael Gerber in his classic book The E-Myth. According to Gerber, most small business owners get into trouble because they fail to make the transition from the role of a Technician (an employee whose job is to get things done) into a fully fledged Entrepreneur (a businessperson who builds systems for generating profit). This means freelancers can end up working too hard for too little money, under the watchful eye of the boss from hell — themselves.
And you don’t need me to tell you the current economic climate isn’t making things any easier.
How Creative Freelancers Can Be Their Own Worst Enemy
A few months ago I wrote an article on Lateral Action explaining why the typical Artist (any kind of creative professional) is several stages worse than the average Technician. While all Technicians enjoy their work and take pride in doing a good job, creatives are notorious for taking the joy of work to extremes, burning themselves out with obsessive perfectionism.
Plus many creatives are deeply suspicious of the world of business — we associate it with corporate characters like Lou, and want to run a mile. In fact, many creatives set up as freelancers in order to escape the corporate world — so the last thing we want to do is sit down with spreadsheets and business plans.
Unfortunately, these two tendencies can combine to turn the freelancer’s dream into a nightmare — working incredibly hard for very little financial return or creative fulfilment, with no idea how to dig yourself out of the hole. And if you’re working completely on your own, it’s hard to know where to go for support.
Ironically, the solution to the problem lies in the one place most creatives are reluctant to look — business skills.
The Solution — Build a Business, Not a Job
In The E-Myth, Michael Gerber did an excellent job of describing the problem. He also described the essence of the solution: instead of working in your business as a Technician/Artist, you need to work on it, as an Entrepreneur, building systems and assets to generate income (almost) automatically. Unfortunately, the business model he proposed — creating a franchise like McDonald’s — probably won’t appeal to the typical creative freelancer.
This is where Mason and James step in, picking up where Gerber left off and updating his advice with an approach to business that is much more relevant to 21st-century creatives. Their basic advice is the same as Gerber – build a business for yourself, not just another job:
all you need is to change your mindset. Freelancing isn’t your job; it’s a business. Your business should be working for you to help you reach your goals. It should have systems and processes that make life easier. It should make money even when you aren’t around.
But how do you do this? Mason and James answer this question with detailed advice based on three fundamental principles: set up systems (instead of doing everything yourself); build a team (instead of going it alone); and create valuable assets (that generate income and free you from being paid by the hour).
1. Set up Systems
In this section the authors invite you to sit down and have a good look at how you’re using your time — and how you could devise systems use it it more efficiently. I took a similar approach with my Time Management Training ebook Time Management for Creative People — I had to force myself to sit down and take a good look at my working habits, but found the investment in time paid for itself many times over, saving me hundreds of hours per year.
James and Mason do the same for areas of your business such as accounting, project management, managing sales leads and customer relationships — even marketing. As well as devising workflow systems, they recommend using software to automate as much repetitive or tedious work as possible.
For each of the areas they cover, they provide a selection of recommended software and websites that can help you, many for little or no cost. To me, this is one of the most valuable parts of the e-book — I’ve looked into automated solutions for most of these areas, but I still came away with plenty of new tools and services to explore.
2. Build a Team
Here Mason and James tackle one of the biggest problems for freelancers — the ‘lone wolf’ mentality that causes us to strike out on our own, and which can leave us feeling stranded and with no one to turn to when things go wrong. They point out that being freelance does not mean you have to do everything on your own, and suggest a range of practical options for getting all the benefits of working as part of a team (greater capacity, complementary skills, support and encouragement) without having to employ someone or compromise your independence.
Enter the distributed team:
Imagine a team made up of outsourced help, virtual assistants, and other freelancers — distributed around the globe. With the right combination of these groups, you can create a team that works completely on demand, cost nothing when you aren’t using it, and is scalable to accept as much or as little work as you need.
This is an area I can certainly relate to. Having spent several years working completely solo, last year I started work on Lateral Action in partnership with Brian Clark and Tony Clark. With Brian in Dallas, Tony in North Carolina and me in London, we certainly count as a distributed team! And all of us have other projects on the go, which means we retain a certain independence. But working with Brian and Tony has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. Not only is it fun and stimulating to be working with like-minded creative partners, but pooling our talents means that we can achieve much more together than we could as individuals. The Lateral Action website is only five months old, but already I’m reaching more readers than I do at Wishful Thinking, and we can do things — like animated cartoon adventures — that I’d never even have dreamt of while working on my own.
Mason and James look at different ways of assembling your distributed team, including outsourcing and partnerships. The also offer advice on collaboration, managing others and when and how to terminate business relationships that aren’t working out.
3. Create Income-Generating Assets
This section of the book focuses on building business assets that can generate income and free you from the tyranny of ‘time = money’. If you’re a freelancer getting paid by the hour, the day or the project, there will always be a ceiling on your income because there are only so many hours in the day and days in the year when you can work. The solution? Build business assets that are separate from you, and which can generate income independently of you — the entrepreneur’s dream of ‘earning money while you sleep’.
Types of assets covered include blogs, websites and information products, design, photography and software.
Again, I can relate to this from my own experience. Three years ago I had nothing but a freshly-awarded Masters degree, 10 years’ experience as a coach, and plenty of enthusiasm for relaunching my business with a sharper focus on the creative sector. In addition to looking for clients, I devoted a lot of time and effort to building my Wishful Thinking website into a valuable resource and new business magnet. It hasn’t been easy — particularly at first, I had to fight the temptation to spend all my time chasing new clients — but now this website, and spin-off projects such as my e-books and Lateral Action, are valuable assets in their own right and my main source of new business. Even as I write these words, hundreds of people out there are reading my other writings, recommending them to others — and potentially bringing me new business.
As with the other two main sections, the e-book contains advice on selecting the right kind of assets for your business, and practical tips and resources for creating your assets.
Is The Unlimited Freelancer for You?
You’ll have noticed by now that James and Mason focus on principles that help you multiply your talents and effectiveness: systems to make you more efficient; teamwork to achieve more than you can alone; and assets that can multiply your income exponentially. Combining these principles can help you achieve the freelancer’s dream: more freedom, more cash and more time is spent doing the things you love — in your personal life as well as at work.
The Unlimited Freelancer contains a wealth of information to help you achieve your dream, but it’s not a magic wand or an encyclopaedia. It will give you principles and solid advice to get started, and plenty of resources to use in your ‘next steps’. But its value will depend on your willingness to roll up your sleeves and take action.
The book is 200 fairly short pages in length — 2 pages fitted comfortably on a sheet of A4 when I printed it. Personally I think it’s about the right length — it offers plenty of information to help you understand the principles and start taking action without feeling overwhelmed.
Some topics — such as personal productivity and sales — are touched on rather than explored in depth. E.g. the section on ‘Sale Closing Method’ is very brief, and the claim that ‘once you find the right fit, it should be an instant sale’ may be true in some contexts, but from my experience of selling complex services to organisations, it sounds a little optimistic.
Given James’s well-known expertise in sales and marketing, I was slightly surprised that the book did not cover these topics in more depth. So if generating instant sales leads and closing the deal is your primary concern, you’ll probably need to supplement this book with specialist advice elsewhere. (Copyblogger and Men with Pens are excellent places to start.) Even if you do this, I would still recommend The Unlimited Freelancer, since without the systems it describes, it will be difficult for you to handle a large volume of work if your marketing succeeds.
The book is targeted squarely at freelancers with strong technical skills but little understanding of business principles. So if you are already confident in using systems and software for project management, accounting, customer relationship marketing; using outsourcing and partnering to supplement your own efforts; and leveraging assets such as websites and information products, then it may be a bit basic for you.
But if you’re a novice or even a relatively experienced freelancer struggling with ‘the business side of things’ The Unlimited Freelancer is an excellent guide. Reading it is like sitting down in a coffee shop with an experienced mentor, who was in your shoes a few years ago and is prepared to give you the benefit of his experience. It shows you the fundamental areas you need to focus on to build a successful business. I wish someone had sat me down 13 years ago and told me this stuff — it would have saved me a lot of time and trouble.
As well as the practical advice it offers, a book like this can help to take the sting out of the freelancing predicament. When you’re on your own and things are going badly, it’s easy to give yourself a hard time. But reading this book, it’s blatantly obvious that many of the problems you encounter are simply a normal part of the learning cycle for freelancers. The chances are there’s nothing wrong with you, your work or your work ethic — but like many freelancers you simply don’t have the business skills and knowledge you need. Mason and James will fill you in on the fundamentals without patronising you. And although they’re not writing explicitly for creatives, the writing is resolutely ‘non-corporate’ in tone.
At $29 with a 100% money back guarantee, it’s not exactly a large financial risk. If The Unlimited Freelancer sounds like it could solve a few problems for you, you can get your copy from Freelance Folder.
N.b. as a member of The Unlimited Freelancer affiliate program, I earn a commission on copies sold via my website. Other than that, I have no affiliation with either Mason or James’s businesses.
And if you want help putting things into practice…
Don’t forget I offer a specialist coaching service for creative freelancers. James and Mason give you plenty of information and tools — I can help you make decisions and put things into practice in a way that fits your unique situation.