232 FS Q&A
- Published on:
- December 15, 2016
1:01 Protecting yourself from “scope-creep” and unending revisions
- Measuring progress and clear communication
10:47 Freelancing without dealing with invoices and collecting payments
- Working with an agency or permanent employer
18:24 First step to launching a career as a freelance web developer
- Positioning yourself in the market and identifying your customer niche
25:58 Choosing programming skills that will be the most valuable as a freelancer
- Skills with broad range and flexibility
34:10 Feeling intimidated by freelance job listings
- Identifying poorly defined projects and not being afraid to ask questions
48:42 Freelancing as an expat
- Tax considerations
Reuven: Hi everyone and welcome to episode 232 of the Freelancers’ Show. This week on our panel we have Jonathan Stark.
Reuven: Philip Morgan.
Rueven: I’m Reuven Lerner we are doing Q&A. We are doing this live on Google Hangouts On Air or for those of you who are not listening to on Google Hangouts On Air wherever you happen to be. Anytime and place of your choosing but without the live part. We actually have a whole lot of questions in the hopper. We’re going to start to go through those that if people have questions they want to add during our online chat here while it’s live, fantastic. If not we have enough questions for two or three shows but that does not mean you should not continue to send in questions. If there’s something we don’t answer that we can help with, please send it to us. We should tell them where to send it to but we’ll figure that out before the end of the show. Jonathan, why don’t you give us the first question?
Jonathan: Sure. There’s some real [00:03:12] in here. For example, how does Donald Trump being the next president affects the freelance market?
Reuven: Did somebody really ask that?
Jonathan: Yeah. But our first response to that health insurance but I suppose we probably don’t need to go into that on, sounds like a landmine. I did see one that caught my eye that I feel like I have a pretty good answer for, which is what are some ways I can protect myself from scope creep? What revisions are generally acceptable during an inflate project?
I’ve got a very specific answer to this one which is, before you start a project, before you even write your proposal we need to have a why conversation with our your prospect to determine why they want you to do the things that they’ve expressed that they want you to do and get down to some sort of goal to the project. From that, you define that goal and define ways to measure it in progress. Once the project is inflate and they come to some sort of request, you’ve got some context to approve or reject the request. Somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, I’d like these buttons to be red instead of blue.” You can say, “Great. How does that get us closer to our stated goal?” If they can make a case for that, then it’s in your best interest to do it for them. If they can’t make a case for it, you say, “That’s an interesting suggestion. Let me put that on a list. I’ll capture that a possible phase 2 but I consider it my responsibility to keep the project on track and since this doesn’t have any reasonable effect on the goal that we’re trying to achieve, we’ll just revisit it later.”
As you’re doing the project and you get closer and closer to the stated goal, you’ll find that the desire to change colors of buttons and make the logo bigger and things like that. They start to seem less important than they did at one time. Having a goal and a way to measure progress toward that goal during the project is the number one way to minimize scope creep.
Philip: Jonathan, how does communication figure into that? I have a theory anyway, that some clients get anxious when there’s not communication and maybe they do stuff like that to just force communication.
Jonathan: Totally agree. I think that there should be a lot of communication during the typical software project if its website or even a copywriting exercises, especially if you’re billing by the hour because that creates a lot of anxiety on the client side. What are you doing? Are you working at all? Are you working so much that I’m going to get huge bill for this week. I think it’s important to have very regular communications with the client. Whether that’s design review or just regular status updates.
Reuven: Let me push back a little bit. Not because [00:07:52] but because I was in a terrible situation about two years ago with a client. It was an hourly work. Basically, we had constant communication with them and they kept saying, “Oh, and this of course is also included and this of course is also included.” The CTO who brought us in to do this and he was also consultant. He basically had to go to the board and say, “Listen, we did 70 things that were beyond the original scope. That’s why the budget was so much higher.” They basically came with a business claim for each and everyone and they said, “Oh, you need to do this.” It was for attorneys. It was like doing online attorney stuff, finding clients and so forth. They were like, “Well, if we don’t do this, then they can’t get the contract.” They had what I would consider to be legitimate business cases to it. The intention was exactly what you often describe which is we would say, “Okay, we’ll do this. We didn’t do it originally because you didn’t tell us about it. Now you’re telling us [00:08:51]. It was a tremendous amount of stress and animosity because they were saying, “Oh, it should have been included because you should have known.” They were crazy. I admit that but…
Jonathan: What you’re saying is very common.
Reuven: They certainly came with a business case. They said, “Well, if you don’t do this [00:09:09].” It’s just not realistic.
Jonathan: Yeah, like, “If you don’t do this one thing that we didn’t tell you to do at the beginning, the whole thing is worthless.”
Jonathan: It happens all the time. The problem is you’re having a conversation at the wrong time. You need to have that conversation before. If you say, what are the goals? You need to define that to your satisfaction. They say, “Okay, here are the goals of the thing.” They will be very high level. It’s not going to be feature that, feature this, feature those. They might discuss those because they just happen to be aware of them. There’s going to be a million things that they’re not aware of. You need to know what the ultimate goal is. It’s, “Okay, here’s the ultimate goal.” While you’re having that conversation with them, they are going to give you the kind of information you need to calculate a value and then you consider the price below the value and that price is going to be way or than the price you would’ve charged hourly. It’s probably what you end up charging them hourly.
A couple of things to keep in mind. Yes, the scope is not going to be perfectly defined on future by future basis at the very beginning but if you have defined an outcome with a very specific benefit or goal. You can probably charge enough money that you don’t care that the scope is not well defined. Everybody makes a buying decision or a financial decision about the relationship at the beginning, before it’s too late. The analogy is you don’t check the doneness of your cookies with the smoke detector which is kind of what you’re describing.
Reuven: That’s a great analogy. Basically what [00:10:46] things is we should have a conversation early on. Describing what’s the value and the business value was literally millions. This was basically a network of attorneys all over country [00:10:58], hundreds of them. This was worth literally millions as I said. At that point, we charged them $100,000, $200,000 dollars. the value would’ve been clear and we would’ve said, “Oh, you want to add these feels, whatever, we don’t care.
Jonathan: Right. We don’t care because our affected value rate is still $200, $300, $400 dollar range.
Philip: Reuven, this sounds like a more waterfall type project. Was it?
Reuven: Emphasis on the fall, yes.
Philip: It sounds like they were developing a product, sort of a B to C product. Is that right?
Reuven: That’s right. It’s a product for people to do all sorts of legal stuff from their phone. [00:11:42] filling out basic stuff for like selling a house or for I think even divorce, was one of the contracts they wanted people to have.
Reuven: Where, instead of going and visiting an attorney, the idea was this would make it faster, easier, better and so forth. They kept discovering along the way, “Oh, we also need this for our attorneys to accept it. We also need that for client to use it.” There was a huge amount of [00:12:06] because they have not thought about it advance. They feared, “This sort of [00:12:10].” Because you know software, it’s malleable and easy to do.
Philip: Does that change anything Jonathan when you have a situation where it’s this kind of green fill thing, they don’t really know the market yet?
Jonathan: I would classify that as start up which is something I would avoid or if I was going to take on for some reason, there’s some compelling reason to do it, I would charge 100% upfront. I would set a fixed fee upfront. That would put a lot of risk on me so I would try and minimize the scope and break it into phases where we do a phase one, minimum buyable product. Prioritize what we do know to create the minimum buyable product first because that’ll decrease the risk for me. I wouldn’t want to go for a project like that and say, “Yes, I made a quarter of a million dollars. I’ll let you know when I’m done.” Obviously, it had made [00:13:05] stuff. The situation you’re describing is like the diners going into the kitchen and telling the chef how to make their meal. It’s idiotic. When you put it like that, the problem is everybody has an opinion and they feel like their opinion is valid. Without goals and metric for measuring progress toward those goals in place, ahead of time, you’re just at the mercy of 25 opinions.
Reuven: That was another [00:13:39] on this project that doomed it also in some ways. There was no shared sense of metrics or goals. There we multiple people theoretically managing it. Each of whom had a different set of goals. We were basically ping ponging around like Joe says this but Kim says that, until everyone was satisfied.
Jonathan: Right. So, “Okay, write me a Facebook clone or in this case a legal zoom clone.” It’s got red flags all over it but there are things you could do to minimize the risk to you.
Philip: Shall we tackle this question about the person who wants to only code and doesn’t want to have to deal with collecting payments and invoicing?
Jonathan: Yeah. Let’s do that.
Philip: I was going to say you could get a job because that’s exactly the job description is. Aside from the stuffs that may feel like BS like meetings, you code. You get to do a lot of coding and you get to do a very minimal amount of the stuff that was called out here. The question said what does a freelancer do to collect payments when they only want to code for a person who would rather program than send invoices or do client “stuff” And having to so that feels like having a tooth extracted? What do you do? You get a job. I was going to say maybe you collect payment upfront but I just don’t know, in my experience a full half of any successful freelance business is stuff other than what you’re selling, your client, it’s marketing, it’s admin stuff, it’s trying to find affordable medical insurance or whatever. It’s stuff like that.
Reuven: I think it’s Brennan Dunn who talks about staff augmentation, where a lot of freelancers say that’s what they think about in terms of contracting, consulting. That was certainly my first thought which is, “Oh, there’s a company. It needs some extra coders. I’ll go in and be an extra set of hands and brains. I’ll help them out and add to what they do. Instead of paying me as an employee, they’ll pay me as a contractor. They’ll pay me more because I don’t have benefits, etc.” There are plenty of people who do that and they earn more than the average full timer. That might be a way to go about it because then, you’re signing a contract for 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, whatever it is. The nature of the computer business is that you’ll probably get a lot of work and then you don’t have to worry about the marketing nearly as much. At the same time, you’re probably not going to be making, in fact I would say almost certainly not going to be making this money that many consultants do make because you’re doing the staff augmentation, you’re not doing that’s super specific expertise that the company is desperate to have, that you can charge them extra for.
Philip: I think that you make a good point. To me, the tone of the question was almost like, “I can’t be bothered to do that stuff. I’m much more interested in doing my craft.” There will always be some level of that although like you mentioned Reuven, being a contractor is probably as close to this kind of [00:17:08] of this person that’s trying to achieve.
Reuven: What do you think Jonathan?
Jonathan: I would go through an agency. Assuming the person doesn’t want to get a full time job which evidently, they don’t feel like they can’t because that’s the obvious thing to do. The next thing to do is just go through any agency. Back in the day, the last time I ever did something like this, I went through it. They were called the creative group and they we’re basically a combination head hunter, staff aug thing and they just called me up to say, “Hey, we got a gig for you. Do you want to drive up to [00:17:38] everyday?” That was really easy. It had that kind of you just got there, do what you were told and if you are hired as a coder, that’s what you did. But it comes with all the downsides of, if they tell you to do something that you think is not the right way to do it, you don’t really have any leverage to do it the other way, to deal with all the office politics and all the other stuff. Perhaps, it’s some kind of hybrid. When I did that, I ended up hired full time as a W2 employee at that company that I kept on contacting me. It was much better and I don’t even like those kinds of jobs but it was still better than the agency model.
You got to ask yourself. Not everybody is cut out for full time job at an enterprise business and not everybody is cut out to consult or freelance. If you want to freelance and turn yourself into a freelancer consultant and really build a business, you have to think like a business person not like a coder. To do that, on a long term basis, it’s a relationship business, it’s not about the code at all. You want to enjoy to code, that’s great but you need to please the clients. You’re not going to do that by being a code monkey in your basement. It’s just not going to happen. You need to have lots of communication. You need to push back. There are awkward situations that you have to deal with constantly. But if you’re good at that, you are handsomely rewarded. If you’re not cut off for that, that’s totally fine. Maybe you will be later or maybe you just won’t, maybe it’s no big deal so get a job, go through an agency. I wonder if the person asking the question was wondering how to magically outsource some of these things. It’s hard to imagine doing that in a way that made financial sense, guessing at how much someone with that mindset would be making financially. Yes, you can outsource things like your bookkeeping and invoicing and medical and legal and dealing with all that stuff but at that point, why not just get a job. Financially because you’d be paying so many people to do all of the things that you should be doing. It’s tough to make a case for it.
Reuven: By its very law, every corporation needs to have an accountant. I have an accountant because I have a company. That means I have a bookkeeper there. Basically, every month, I bring her a pile of papers and I say, “Here. Enjoy.” She then basically, I would go so far as saying some ways she’s like the CFO of my company because she goes through everything. Certainly, the bookkeeper. She goes through she says, “You forgot to invoice these people.” Or “You forgot to do receipt for these people.” I would say it’s definitely the least fun thing that I do each month. It’s the thing that I put off. It’s the thing that I’m bad at but it’s got to get done. I justify by saying this is the most profitable part of the month because during this hour you’re going to be making all the money that I’ve hopefully been bringing the rest of the month.
I’ll definitely say, I know this is going to sound very quaint, when I moved from paper invoices to doing it online a few years ago, oh my God, it’s so much easier now. I’ll just say this client, this amount of money, click, and it’s emailed off to them. Invoicing should not be a problem anymore for most people or even doing receipts to much, banking is online. For the question, it says [00:21:21] any invoices and doing client stuff is like having a tooth extracted. I’d say that sending invoice is probably not but [00:21:28] its relationship business and the client stuff, that’s also where you’re going to be making money both now and in the future.
I just want to also add, it’s okay not to be a freelancer. I love what I do. I think you guys love what you do and I certainly encourage other people to try it and explore it but if it’s not for you, you shouldn’t feel like you’re a failure in the job market in the slightest. There’s something to be said for having a job you go to 9:00-5:00, come home and don’t have to think about work for the rest of the day.
Jonathan: You could side hustle going, some sort of info prac. There’s a million things you could do to augment your incoming and still have that creative outlet where you’re in complete control. But betting your whole lifestyle or livelihood on your ability to do sales, for example, it’s a risky proposition. It’s not for everyone. I agree with Reuven, it’s just not for everyone so you shouldn’t feel bad about it if it feels like having a tooth extracted.
I’ve got another one if we’re ready to move on. This one looks good. What would you consider to be the most important first step to launching a successful career as a freelance web developer? Philip, what do you think?
Philip: I admire those podcast host where like, “We cover that in show 78.” We have covered that before but let’s recap because we’re not here to dodge the question. Just know that if you search the back catalogue of shows you’ll find some where we spend a lot of time talking about how you get started. I am in the middle of doing a positioning workshop and preparing my lecture for the final meeting of that workshop. This topic came up so it’s for top of mind for me.
Generally you’ve got to have a couple of things you need to have. I think you need to have a clear definition of who would be a good client for you. If the best you can do is somebody who needs a website, that’s not good enough. It had one level to that which is a market vertical focus, somebody who is a dentist, who needs a website, somebody who is a small manufacturing company who needs a website. Even if you’re connection to that market vertical is tenuous at best, it would be better than saying I’m a web developer. I’m a Rails developer. It’s better if your skill adds this proportionate value so if you focus on some software development language that is good for rapid prototyping, probably don’t focus on the enterprise, focus on people who need rapid prototyping. If you’re software development skill is great for ultra reliable enterprise apps then probably focus on the enterprise anyway. I think you don’t need much in terms of a web present. I think that people overdo it when it comes to web presents. Jonathan, I think, mentioned aboutdotme, that’s probably for a lot of people who are just starting out. Some way to say I do this. I do it for this target market. I know when you’re starting out it’s hard and we’ve talked about it before on this show. It’s hard to get the proof but if you can have a previous supervisor to say that you’re reliable if you can have a college professor to say that you did really well in your CS classes. Whatever it is, find some form of proof, somebody who will vouch for you and put that on your website. I would say build a list but for people who are just starting out, that’s probably not the right thing. Those are some of the things to think about. That’s enough homework for the average person just starting out.
Don’t get seduced by the idea of automating your client on boarding if you’re just starting out. That provides value when you have a ton of leads coming in but not when you’re lucky to get two good leads a month coming in. Those are some thoughts. What do you guys think?
Jonathan: Number one thing for me is some kind of market focus, some kind of positioning. Know what you’re doing and who you do it for. Even though you could a million things because if you’re a full stack developer, there’s so many tasks you could do and so many people you could do it for. It’s ridiculous. Picking one doesn’t change that but it does dramatically help with your marketing which is probably something you’re not really excited about doing. To make it more effective as a great thing, don’t obsess over your website.
As Philip said, it’s a huge time suck. And you know if you think about it, you’re not going to get it perfect and all of a sudden leads are going to start pouring in. You know it, just think about it. It’s not going to happen like that. I wouldn’t even blog, that’s the kind of thing that you do to attract very long tail which is not what you need when you’re starting out.
Define your positioning. Don’t worry about your website but you have to have some kind of web present so people can click through and read about you a little bit. Then do direct outreach, network through your context. Say, “Hey, I do this for these people. Do you know anybody who is this or needs this?” Speak. If you’re the type of person who can get up in front of a room to speak, then do it. Go to meetups and conferences, whatever you can do to get yourself in front of people as an expert at a particular thing for a particular group of people. You’ll find that the word of mouth is just like magic almost. That’s what I would do if somebody was like, “Hey, my son’s graduating college. He doesn’t know what to do. What advice would you give him?” That’s what I would say.
I was just going to add on to that. Let’s say you do web development. You pick cosmetic dentist. If you can find some way to attend a meetup for cosmetic dentist, you just show up and you’re like, “I’m a web developer. I focus on building websites for you people.” They will lift you up on a chair and carry you through the room because they never get that. They never get someone who’s like a technical expert who’s focused like that. At your level, at the solo freelancer level is quite rare. I was going to say, even looking through job boards and stuff, for things that match your focus or signing up for lead servers. I’m just going to add on. Those are also specific things you can do.
Reuven: It’s funny, back when I started to be a freelance web developer in 1995 that was a niche because web was this new weird thing. Now, as you guys said, web is just everywhere. Everyone and their dog have at least two websites. Finding some sort of market where you can sound like you really know them and you understand them, they’re definitely going to love you for it. It doesn’t have to be a huge market. Just ask how many clients can you really service. Some of these people might be able to come up with task that could take you two, three months. If they love you to do a great job then of course you have testimonials of friends and colleagues. The idea of going to some of these meetings for non techies, I think it’s brilliant. But even go to the meetings for techies like the meet ups for these things because there are always people looking for help, looking for jobs. Worst case scenario, you could find a startup that could use some help in one of their web development projects. Get to know their domain. Get to know their technologies and then you come more of an expert. The word spreads. People who are hi-tech switch jobs often. If they know of someone good, they will recommend them and [00:30:10] to all sorts of connections.
I’ve been [00:30:16] for [00:30:17] every month for 20 years. That counts sort of like as a blog. I can count the number of jobs I’ve gotten from that on the fingers of one hand, maybe half a hand. It’s not quite the same as blogging but I was expecting when I started the column, “Oh, I’m going to have so many calls from people.” No. it just doesn’t happen and I think blogging is similar. Blogging can get your name out but don’t plan to get a lot of work that way. Besides, probably the people who pay you the money are not going to reading your blog. It will the people who are going to learn from you and then use your techniques so you don’t have to be hired.
Jonathan: This is a related question here I think. I’m learning frontend web dev on my own and a difficult choice I have to deal with is a programming languages/libraries/frameworks I need to learn. What skills are useful, valuable and important in order to get started with freelancing?
Philip: Talking to clients.
Jonathan: I feel this person’s pain though because they have to pick something and it feels like a big deal but really it’s not. We’re talking about a web developer and if you’re really just starting out and you don’t know what to choose, I would usually recommend to people just pick the things that are most flexible, the tools that are most flexible and probably applicable in preparation for narrowing your focus down to a particular target market for whom you can do pretty much everything with the tools that you have.
Like Rails, I know this is a Frontend web dev but Rails, if I was starting over today, Rails is the first thing I learn, not Node, not Django. Not to take people off, those are good things. Those are great things actually but if I was just starting out, I would pick the de facto standard which in my opinion is Rails. From a Frontend standpoint, if you’re super, super Frontend, I would say React or Angular or Ember. Personal favourite is React but I don’t think it matters. I think if you’re going to build things that need to be built with tools like that, I think any one of those three is perfectly fine. It doesn’t really matter that much as what I’m saying. Just pick a de facto standard and go to town with marketing to a particular audience as we’ve already started discussing. Don’t get hung up on it. Don’t try to learn all of them. That’s a mistake too. It’s just a waste of time. Just pick one that feels like it’s got the longest life span and stick with it whether it’s Rails or bootstrap or whatever. Don’t get too hung up on it because it’s constantly changing.
Reuven: Especially, at Frontend it’s crazy. The speed with which these things change and go in and out of style, the sort of [00:33:33] it would seem to me as someone who doesn’t do that much Frontend stuff, right now it’s Angular. I have this friend and colleague who does Ember. I’m always asking him is there really that much work for Ember because Angular is just everywhere. He’s like, “Of course, there’s plenty of work.” It might be a smaller number of clients but it doesn’t mean zero. On the contrary, they’re plenty. There are proportionally fewer people using it which means you can still get work.
The other thing is just as when you learn about one foreign language, it helps you learn another foreign language it helps you learn another foreign language. If you learn one of these development libraries, you will want to learn another one. It will be easier because you’ll get the analogies and there will be plenty of blog post saying Amber for Angular people or React for Angular people and so on and so forth.
Philip: I feel like implied in the question is the person is going to advertise themselves as an expert with this thing or familiar with this thing. I don’t think that’s important. It’s much more important to say that you can achieve some outcome for particular type of market and if you happen to use, Ember or Angular or React, no one cares. Not no one, some people do care but they’re mostly your peers. Your customers or your prospects don’t care. Okay I’m going to make my own exceptions.
Ember, Angular, React, you really can’t go wrong with those. There’s going to be plenty of people looking, start up type looking for staff augmentation with these sorts of things. Turning out, staff aug is a fine way to keep the lights on, get some casual going but beyond that when you start going directly to clients who are actual businesses not startups which I don’t consider actual businesses yet. They’re like fledgling possible businesses. No one’s going to care about what tools you used to achieve their goals. They’re just going to want their goals achieved. If you had someone who put in an addition on your house, you don’t care what brand of table saw they used, it’s irrelevant.
Reuven: Although they will sometimes, in my experience they’ll ask you what you’re doing, not necessarily they control it but they were sort of down the line. Are they going to be able to easily find people to maintain it.
Jonathan: That’s why I said pick broadly general.
Reuven: There you go. Right.
Jonathan: If you can’t find a Rails developer there’s been a nuclear war.
Philip: From a marketing perspective how you differentiate yourself is kind of what this question is getting at. Differentiating yourself based on the text tac you used is usually a bad choice unless you’re hooking into an ecosystem that’s very strong on its own. I’m going to be a sales force consultant or like one of the big ERP systems like SAP then you’re hooking into an ecosystem and you may differentiate yourself based on depths of knowledge about that ecosystem. But that’s not so much true for stuff like, “I’m PostgreSQL expert. “ Or “I’m a Rails expert.”
I think part of this unfortunately comes from the way that HR department advertise job positions. I think they are looking for give me something binary. Yes or no, do you have the 10 years experience? Yes or no, do you have experience with programming language acts? The closer you get to that into the spectrum like Jonathan was saying, staff aug or contract work, they’re absolutely going to be thinking in those terms because that’s driven by HR. when you get closer to a business decision maker, it’s usually not HR is influencing the hiring process then you need to be speaking more in terms of outcome. And results you can create or problems you can solve. The choice of technology, it is consequential. As technicians, you’re very concerned about the intricate details but the business people are just like what’s the ROI? Can I call somebody if you get hit by a bus? That kind of stuff. Rails has really established kind of a big player, fully passed and test well.
Reuven: Okay. We’re onto another question?
Jonathan: Yes sir.
Philip: Yeah. What about that question about projects looking intimidating on freelancing websites?
Jonathan: That’s a good one. What do you think it means, before we get into the question, how did you take that?
Philip: I take this as someone who’s new to freelancing, who has less experience looking at these.
Jonathan: At what, a job posting?
Philip: I’m thinking like Upwork.
Reuven: There I see like if it’s something that’s intimidating, it’s either because it’s like laughably large. Build me an eBay, you have one week. We’re intimidating because it has so many pieces to it. I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything there that seemed intimidating. If it was actually sort of spec down in a real way. It seems to tune in more business wise than technical wise.
Jonathan: You just said spec at a particular way. I was going to say it feels intimidating when you look at requests that’s very poorly defined but written in a way that implies that you should understand what it means.
Philip: That’s a risk mitigation strategy. That someone who’s either been burned by freelancers in the past or is overly cautious, they’re going to try and put all the risk for you on the freelancer.
Jonathan: That’s exactly [00:40:51]. I don’t go to sites like that. I never really did. I do get these things sometimes where people call me up and they’ll express some desire and I have no idea what they’re talking about. And then they’re like, “How long do you think that might take in and that’s a ballpark price?” There’s some human thing, especially when you’re newer that makes you not want to say I don’t know what you’re talking about. You now turn a bit that you don’t have all the answers. No one would have the answers because what they just said was nonsense.
A lot of times I think is the way that it happens is the customer thinks they understand our jargon and they use it in a way that’s convincing enough that they know what they’re talking about but they don’t use it well enough to actually communicate meaningful information. You’re like, “I don’t want to look like an idiot here and ask what they’re talking about. I understand all the terms but they jumble them together in a way that doesn’t make sense. My initial reaction to that question was ask more questions. If you see something that’s intimidating, ask more questions until it’s not intimidating or you’re positive that you can’t do it. That’s a long preamble to that. I think a lot of times it’s the question about uncertainty. I think Philip mentioned risk mitigation and it’s like you’re uncertain about whether or not you can do it. It could be because you’re uncertain about what they have done. If you say okay, what exactly do you want on? And add some probing questions about why they want it on and get at the root cause, the root cause for them to have made that posting in the first place. Instead of having that sense of anxiety, you’ll either know if you can do it or you can’t. At least you’ll increase the likelihood of being at one side of the other of that question and move away from that uncertain pinnacle at the center where it seems like a good gig but I’m not really sure. I guess my suggestion would be to ask some probing questions.
Philip: I agree. In realize that the deck is a little bit stacked against you, meaning there will be plenty of people who will say I can do that. The cause to you is $27 an hour. I can begin next week. For a lot of clients who show up on places like Upwork, they’re going to respond to that. It’s a honey pot. It’s terrible. It all ends up terribly when that’s how the relationship begins. Some clients will respond to that. You don’t want those clients anyway but it can be dispiriting to feel that you’re losing out because you’re doing it the right way which is you have to do what Jonathan said and ask the right kind of questions.
Reuven: I did use Upwork back when it was [00:44:17] a number of years ago. It took me a long time to realize first of all, the amount of time I was spending because I kept saying, “Oh, I’ve got a few clients from them.” Yes, I did. I got two very long term clients from there but I think that was an exception. The amount of time I spent there looking for clients, looking for work and trying to figure out was huge. In a similar point, it became very frustrating to me that I was indeed being underbid by people who knew nothing and we’re charging nothing. I couldn’t get myself in so I said I‘m going to look like the smart, useful, great and so I would put in a [00:45:03], something like that. Whatever they call it. I‘d say I’d love to talk to you about this. Let me learn more about your business and what you’re interested in doing. What I discovered was that 90% of them were totally not interested in this. It feels that’s 100% right which is if they don’t see a single digit dollar figure per hour, then they’re not interested.
The few I would actually talk to, we had a great conversation and then they’d say, “Yeah, but you’re way too expensive.” I would say the intimidating part on the sort of job side is just like, there’s a lot of junk there. It’s maybe not a bad place to start very, very early but I think you’ll be better off looking elsewhere, even at some higher quality jobs sites where they tend to spec things out more, where it’s acceptable to charge more. Try and by the way, even nowadays I’ll teach courses and in some cases it’s intimidating. I’m not 100% sure I know what I’m doing. The way I get better is by jumping in and I prepare a lot and I hope it goes well and the next time I have to do it better. If it’s intimidating, that’s natural, that’s normal. That will hopefully never change but your confidence in being able to handle this has made things well.
Jonathan: It’s funny that you bring up the intimidation of the training scenario because before I give a workshop or even a talk, if I’m feeling intimidated, well I do this every time, I send out a questionnaire for the attendees in advance. It’s usually a known set of people. My anxiety level goes down dramatically once I start getting answers back. If no one answers any of the questions then my anxiety is at maximum, which is funny because that’s the same answer I gave for the job board posting which is, you need to ask more questions. In the case of a training or workshop, I need to get a sense of where everyone’s at because until I know that, they could be global experts in my field, in which case I’d be very nervous. I would go over everywhere with a fine tooth comb but if it turns out that it’s a bunch of technophobes who are trying to get their heads around mobile and they don’t even have smart phones. I know exactly how to talk to those people but I don’t know that until I get some questionnaires back. Look we’re talking about communication again.
Reuven: Right. The question I saw, I’ve sometimes done that now with my courses where I’ll send out a questionnaire because the advance courses in my experience are fraught with danger. Everyone has a different description of what advanced means. To my advance Python class, I will get people who use it everyday for three years and are really experts. The people who took my interclass five years ago, how to touch them since. That can be frustrating. By setting up a set of questionnaire I get a better sense of who’s coming. I’m doing actually another advanced class next week. It’s the sort of previous version I just did two months ago. I was really nervous because I’m sure these people know their stuff. I got these questionnaires back and I was like, “Oh, it’s not going to be a problem.” It’s an advanced class but it doesn’t mean they’re all advanced.” I calmed down a lot. I taught what I was hoping to be able to teach. They were happy so I agree that having that information is very useful and it puts me at ease more.
Jonathan: Sure. For me, it’s like I get the questionnaires back and I’m like, “Oh, I can definitely help these people.” As opposed to getting a bunch of questionnaires back where I’m like, “I don’t know if I can help these people. I’m not going to tell anything they don’t already know. I’m not sure if I can help them.” That creates anxiety because I’m like, “They sent me a lot of money already. I don’t want them to be like, “This guy just told us what we already read on his website.” I was just making a subtle, additional distinction or nuance about the thing that makes me feel confident is that I can help them. The answers to the questions make me confident that I can definitely help these people. At conference I get much more excited and energized and it makes it more efficient because you can focus the content at a level that is appropriate. Not be going over people’s heads or telling things they already know.
This is the same with the project. Sometimes you’ll get people that are super opinionated about what stack they want to use for some reason. I can think of one client who fancy themselves as being very up to date on the nuances of HTML 5.0, all the changes it was enabling and all of these things. Every time we talk, he always wanted to have a little sidebar conversation about what’s new in HTML 5.0? This is a pure business person. He emailed me with random questions like how’s support for Web RTC across [00:50:18]? I’d always have to be prepared for some random question about like the latest news that made it into business. Publications like Financial Times and New York Times are talking about Apple’s new approval policy for iOS apps or something.
Philip: I can just echo that. Especially when you’re newer, I think that there’s this weird cognitive distortion that happens where you feel like you need to conceal your newness and the way to do that is by saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sounds good.” And you just rush through the discovery process for the, in medical term, it would be the diagnosis process. That’s just so fatal in every way. That’s one kind of meta soft skill that I think is directly correlated to revenue or at least reduce pain as a new freelancer is being willing to really dig in and then ask questions. Even if it feels uncomfortable, it did for me at first, I can see so clearly how that helped me back. I just want to add on. I think it’s not uncommon, I’m not exactly sure why but it’s kind of embarrassing to ask these questions at first or you feel like you’re intruding or imposing or something and you’re not. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing to make the project successful.
Jonathan: It’s that same feeling you get when a client uses a vocabulary word that you don’t understand. You really need to ask them. You’re like, “Wait, what does that mean?” I’m going to embarrass myself now. I remember I was in a conversation one time with a client and the person was very for lack of a better Itj description, just very professional, very sort of Harvard educated, like really clear. ust felt really smart and a little bit impatient. He used the word fungible and I did not know what that meant. I’ve heard the word before and I know it means really either what it means or its opposite. I wasn’t sure which one it was. What’s important, kind of like flammable [00:52:45]. I was like, “Sorry, what does fungible mean?” I was petrified to ask that question but I just blurted it out. I know I’ve been in a situations like that in the past and I have literally never regretted blurting out the question and I have always regretted when I didn’t ask the question. It’s the exact same thing.
If you are not sure what the person is trying to communicate to you, you owe it to them and to the success of the project or whatever the undertaking is to stop them and say, “I did not understand what you just communicated to me. Can you clarify?” You have to. If you don’t do it, you’re going to find out eventually. And by the time you find out it’s going to be bad.
Reuven: I think [00:53:37] on my experiences. First of all, I think they respect you way more for showing in an interest and asking questions. Someone will say, “Look, I need to ask this basic question.” But and it’s often about their business. Their happy that I want to learn about their processes on their business. The other thing is, my style is to ask a lot of questions. If they really hate that, then we should get it out of the way real fast because they’re going to hate working with me.
Jonathan: Yeah, plus one there. There was a movie. I think it was Philadelphia [00:54:12] is a lawyer. He has this verbal tick kind of thing. [00:54:18] that he uses when somebody comes and he says, “Explain it to me like I’m a six-year old.” I think that’s the actor but one thing I know for sure is the line, “Explain it to me like a six-year old.” I’ve used that so many times because the thing is they don’t want to talk down to you either but the stuff is so obvious to them that they feel like they are talking down to you when they’re explaining basic things about their business. I feel like you remove that it’s sort of uncomfortable mess by saying, “Just explain it to me like I’m a six-year old because this is brand new to me. I don’t know anything about this. I need to understand these things at a fundamental level. Not maybe so much detail but just the big picture stuff.” They can do it every time. I think the point I’m bringing up there is I think certainly you should do it. It’s critical that you do. It can help cut down some slack too because it’s uncomfortable on their end as well.
Philip: That’s great. There’s one about can we talk what it’s like to be a next page [00:55:52] because I think someone is freaking out about the change in [00:55:59] in the states. I think that will be good to bring a guest on.
Reuven: I can speak from experience. I assume this person is American and they are looking to work outside of the US, potentially with US companies. First of all, the first thing to realize is as a US citizen and I am a US citizen. I was born and raised in the US. I moved to [00:56:28] when I was 25. As a US citizen, you owe taxes to the US every year. At least I should say you have to fill up an IRS form. File your income taxes with US every year. The fact that you’re not living in the US, by the way the US is probably unique among countries in this way. If you’re not living in England, you don’t owe taxes to England and you don’t have to tell them anything which apparently [00:56:53] for tax evasion. You won’t need to do that. Every country that has its own way of dealing with it with the US, Israel for example has a tax trading with the US where any tax I pay to Israel counts as tax I pay to the US. Meaning that when I fill up the form for the IRS, I’ll say I payed x to Israel. They were like, “Oh, well that’s more than we would have charged have charged you.” Which is true. You don’t owe us anything.
It’s very important then to find out where you are going. What the rules are for where you are for dealing with that sort if tax stuff, also for incorporating. Other than that though, it’s pretty smooth except for one thing. You’re saying here that Canada has an entrepreneur visa so Canada to the US is not as big of a deal. I have definitely found that when speaking to potential clients and I say to them I’m American, fluent English, US citizenship all its business. The fact that I’m outside the borders of the US has definitely been a turnoff to some people. You should recognize that there will definitely be some people who just don’t want to work with you because you’re not local. By local, if you are in New York and they’re in California they would not care. The fact that you’re in Toronto and they’re in California, oh my God, let alone in London, that’s a deal breaker. You should just recognize that. Doing a show in that might be very useful actually.
Jonathan: Sure. I’m actually curious about, not actually curious, not for my business per se but about how exchange rates work and how you take payment. A US citizen, living in Israel, working in China, how does that work?
Reuven: First of all, Israel had very bad inflation for many years. When I moved in 1995, pretty standard for people prices in dollars for all sorts of things. You would pay at the shekel rate. shekel is the Israeli currency for that day. If you’re going to pay rent, your rent would be like $200 a month the shekel rate that day. A lot of professionals did it too. At some point, probably 15 years ago, people realized, “Wait, the Israeli economy is actually okay. The shekel is pretty stable.” This is stupid. I think there was a legislation as well. Now, everyone basically just bills in shekel which means that I have to have invoicing software that handles both currencies so sometimes, I bill my American clients with dollars, I bill my Israeli clients in shekel. The exchange rate is often terrible so like if I get paid by PayPal, PayPal charge me a terrible exchange rate. My bank, they check me a less terrible exchange rate. You sort of play games on who’s going to do it and where the fees are bad and less bad.
When I go to China, I actually negotiate my prices with them in either dollars or shekel. They deal with the conversion on their end. When I go to Europe, I actually charge them with dollars even though I probably could or should charge them in Euros. But I’m dealing there with a multinational corporation. They could not care less. I could charge them in basically any currency I want and they could deal with it.
Everyone in the US has a checking account and a savings account. I have a checking account and a dollar account. You just have to keep track of those. There are people who have play game with it and say, “Well, I bet it’s going to go up, I bet it’s going to go down.” The word bet there is important in that sentence because half the time, you make something and half the time you’ll lose something. Typically people like us are dealing with such small quantities that you’ll make few tens of dollars or lose a few tens of dollars. It’s not worth getting worried about.
Philip: That sounds like a nightmare for that person who is saying he wanted to code all the time and not have to invoice that says like triple the overhead.
Jonathan: Invoicing stuff actually, you don’t have to use something that’s been approved by the justice ministry because then, it’s doing legal invoices and so forth. The software that I use when I invoice someone in dollars, it actually records how many shekels that would be. When I get the deposit from them in dollars, it’s sort of this, “Oh, well we’ll understand. You billed it this day and you got it that day and the difference is okay. Truth be told, some of that, I realized [01:01:23] and that’s okay because that’s why I have an accountant. I’m just doing what they told me to do.
Philip: If I was going to recommend outsourcing anything to anyone, it would be an accountant. Any part of your business that you don’t want to do even if you do want to do it, you should probably outsource that piece.
Reuven: Yeah, absolutely. We’re going to wrap up. Thanks everyone for listening. Philip, Jonathan, thanks as always and we will see folks next week on the Freelancers’ Show and next month on the Q&A. Send us questions and we’ll be happy to answer them either live or recording.