Research Gets Harder

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Research Gets Harder

As we build our freelance careers, we and our clients find each other through a myriad of ways: referrals, seeing work and wanting to work with the creator, putting out an ad, LOIs (Letters of Introduction).

One of the most important (and time-consuming) portions of the finding-clients process is researching and vetting them. This is getting more and more difficult, because of all the disinformation out there. Is what you’re hearing/reading about a potential client true? How do you vet?

If it’s a referral, then the person making the referral matters. If I’m referred by someone with whom I’ve had a bad experience (such as late payment or change of direction without renegotiating a contract or multiple points of contact trying to be heard instead of the single point in the contract), then I do extra research.  Because if a problematic client refers me, the person to which I’m being referred may also be problematic.

Freelancers talking to each other is important, especially when there’s a sense of trust between them. If you talk to a fellow freelancer and trust them to tell you the truth of their experience, rather than worried they will try to sabotage you, everyone wins. If another freelancer, especially one I know well and respect, has a bad experience with a company, that’s a red flag on the company for me.

I keep a list of companies that have asked me for free labor as a part of the interview process. This includes any sort of “test” or expecting me to create something specific to their company, especially before any conversation has happened. “Oh, it’s just a headline” or “it’s just 300 words, it should take ten minutes” means they don’t understand what I do, and they don’t respect it.

Big Red Flag.

I have a specific contract for tests and samples. When the demand is made, I send the contract. Nine times out of ten, the company ghosts me. The tenth time, someone argues with me and says, “But I had to do it. It’s not a big deal.”

And my response is, “I’m sorry your self-esteem is so low. This company and I are not compatible.”

If someone asks me about a company and they’re on my list, I let them know the company expects free labor as part of the interview process, and the individual can decide from there.

I research the company online, see what kind of “giving to the community” they involve themselves in, check out Salary.com and Glassdoor’s reviews about companies, interview experiences, etc. Although, for the latter, if I don’t know the individual, I am less likely to take it at face value without digging deeper.

It gets even more complicated if you want to know the ethics and political positioning of the company. I don’t want to work for a company that funds politicians working to strip me of my rights and promoting authoritarianism. For me, there is no middle ground. Others will say, “Oh, politics doesn’t matter when you’re a professional. Just do the work.”

Fine for you. Not fine for me. Why would I give my time, energy, and creativity to a company actively working to cause harm? For a little cash? In the short run, it might help me as an individual. In the long run, it hurts the collective community.

Saying no up front is a better choice for me.

If I’m vetting a non-profit, I start here: Charity Navigator. Then, I take the information, and look for at least two independent, trustworthy confirmation sources (the way I did as a journalist).

When I want to know which candidates companies or executives donate to, I see if I can locate the politician’s public donor list. I check Followthemoney.org and Open Secrets. I use the FEC’s database of individual contributors. I also keep an eye on Marc Elias’s Democracy Docket, which fights to protect voting rights. With Citizens United, there’s plenty of dark money that’s harder to track, but these are places to start, and then, again, get independent, trustworthy confirmation sources.

Decisions are made from there.

This takes time.

But instead of saying “I don’t have time” I believe that choosing to place my time in this research serves my overall vision for my work and my career better.

How do you research companies in which you are interested?

Research Time IS Work Time

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A potential client discovered me via LinkedIn, and contacted me about a project. They wanted me to write a white paper-ish document. I use “ish” because it didn’t truly fit the definition of white paper, but was similar. It was in a field out of my usual wheelhouse, but a topic in which I was interested and could get up to speed quickly.

They had no interest in a per-project rate for this; they wanted to pay per word.

I rarely do a per-word rate anymore; per project makes much more sense for both the customer and for me. When they quoted me the per word rate, it was considerably lower than what I use.

I told them that the per-word rate was below my usual rate.

Them: It’s non-negotiable.

I already figured out I wasn’t going to do this gig, but I wanted to get more information, just to either prove or disprove my growing suspicions.

I asked them how much of the research they would provide, how much I would provide, and what sources or references they would point me toward. Some of the information/sites I knew were behind pay walls. What was the budget for that? From the creative brief, it would take somewhere between 12-20 hours of research, along with interviews and fact-checking, to complete the project, if I had to start from scratch.

The answer: None. I was expected to handle all the research.

I then explained that it made more sense to use a project rate quote than a per word quote.

The response: “We don’t pay for research time. We only pay by the word.”

Me: I’m not paid for research?

Them: We don’t pay for research.

Me: Are you willing to provide the research?

Them: No. You’re responsible for the research and fact-checking.

Me: But you don’t pay for research?

Them: That’s correct. We only pay for the words written.

Me: I’m not the right fit for the project.

Them: We don’t negotiate rates.

Me: I understand. And I am not the right fit for this project. Thank you for thinking of me. Goodbye.

Had I accepted this project, I would have worked for less than half of my per-word rate AND put in 12-20 hours of unpaid research. AND paid for anything that was behind pay walls.

In other words, it would cost me money to work for them.

Research time is work time. Finding trustworthy sources, hunting through archives, taking notes, making sure one has the references correct, fact-checking. All of that takes time, and that time is worth money.

Even if a client provides research, one still has to read it and, in some cases, fact-check.

That takes time.

That time consists of billable hours.

Project quotes make more sense for a piece such as this. You can look at the creative brief, figure out how long any research/reading/fact-checking is likely to take, figure in a decent rate for writing the article, and come up with something that works for both of you.

If the potential client’s budget can’t encompass your project quote, you can negotiate scaling down the scope to fit into the budget, or you can refuse the project.

“We don’t pay for research time” is a huge red flag. It means the potential client expects free labor as part of the contract, and is a good indication of future scope creep without compensation.

Value your time. Charge appropriately.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Winter Work

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Depending where you live, January means winter. In a place with seasons, winter work is often different from summer work.

I live in an area that relies heavily — too heavily, in my opinion — on tourism. January, February, and part of March are the fallow seasons. The snowbirds fled to Florida. The seasonal businesses are closed.

Although this winter hasn’t yet been too bad, weather-wise (it’s been WEIRD weather-wise), there have been winters when the power’s been out quite a bit due to storms, we’ve been snowed in, and it’s been about keeping the fire in the fireplace going and staying warm. Of course, as I write this, several days before it’s scheduled to post, we’re in record high temperatures, the little bit of snow we had is gone, and my yard is Very Confused.

I don’t do well in hot and humid weather, so I love winter — as long as I can stay warm and cozy at home and not have to drive much in bad weather. It’s a great time to buckle down and work on the novels and the plays. It’s a great time to curl up with my books and research the novels and plays in my pipeline. I read contest entries and the books I’m hired to review. If the power is out, I can always take notes or write in longhand by candlelight (and yes, I do).

It’s a time to prep the quarterly postcards, sent to current and potential clients, following up after the holiday greetings. It’s a time to shift the focus to the type of project and client I feel will be the most fulfilling on both creative and financial levels.

It’s a time to clean up old files and set up new files. To decide what kind of skills I want to learn in the new year, where to find the teachers and make the time to fit them in, and how to add them to my information so clients know my skills and range keep expanding.

For print publications, it’s a time to look about eight months ahead to editorial calendars. What do editors want in August, September, October? Time to think about next autumn, polish those pitches, read the editorial calendars, and send them off.

It’s time to assess memberships in professional organizations. I have an assessment formula I use. I measure the financial obligations (dues, dinners, events, materials, conferences, etc.) versus financial gains (new clients, new contacts, new projects, how many books sold after an event, etc.) versus the emotional benefits (did I enjoy myself at events? Did I meet terrific people, even if they didn’t become clients? How often did I have to challenge racist or misogynist remarks?) versus time and energy needed for all of the above.  If it’s expensive and doesn’t result in financial or emotional gain and is full of people making inappropriate remarks about others, I’m outta there. Done. It’s time that could be spent creating rather than having the life sucked out of me. That’s how I decide if I will renew membership. That’s how I decide if I will go to an organization’s open house as they try to expand their membership. Too many organizations around here expect one-way support. 

It’s time to look at the markets I’ve for which I’ve always wanted to write, but thought were out of my league. There are magazines I thoroughly enjoy, and for whom I don’t want to write. I’d rather just enjoy them. There are other magazines where I’ve often thought, “I’d love to write for them.”

Now is the time to sit down and take a hard look at what I do. Do I write what they publish? If it’s out of my wheelhouse, is it a stretch in a direction I want to take? Do I have the skills to do what they need?

If the answer is yes, then I sit down and do it.

It’s time to catch up on trade news in the various industries with which I work (I often get behind during the holidays, I admit it). Are there new start-ups that are interesting? New trends? Is something I’ve been doing and touting for the last few months becoming a “trend” I can use in my pitches? Who has moved where? Who is new to a position? 

Who has achieved something interesting and exciting in a field that interests me? I don’t have to have anything to pitch to them. I can just be happy for them, and send them a congratulatory note or email.

Who is feeling a bit down and could use a bit of encouragement? I know when I’ve gone through rough patches, sometimes an expected email or note has made a huge difference.

It’s time to look behind to see what’s achieved, what had to be let go, and look ahead to plan. Make the roadmap for the coming months. Know you may have to take a few unexpected exits along the way.

Commit to enjoying the process of the work, not just the results.

How does your work life change in winter?