8 First Steps for First-Time Sole Proprietors & Freelancers

Twenty years ago, I started TWP Marketing & Technical Communications (originally called TechWritePlus) as a leap of faith–no business plan, no board, and no idea of the need in the community. I had one client and after a long while I had two. Gradually, I learned what to do and what not to do.

Are you thinking now about starting your own freelance, consulting, or sole-proprietor business? Let me share what I learned:

  • You need a clear idea of what you offer–not a vision or mission statement, but a 1 minute, 2 sentence summary of what you offer and why it is important to other people. If you don’t know, no one else will.
  • You have to commit. Revise your LinkedIn profile so that it features your accomplishments and experience that make you a great freelancer or consultant. Build your website around your business. If you are simply running in place until a full-time offer comes along, people will notice and you will never build loyal clients/customers.
  • Luddite is good. Yes, you need a website and a LinkedIn profile, but you also have to take advantage of off-line, real-life opportunities like speaking before the Chamber of Commerce or joining local networking groups or writing a press release (or even a column) for the local paper and industry magazine. You want to get your name out? Get yourself out.
  • Think about pricing. Pricing can change as your business grows but do not start by undervaluing yourself in relation to everyone else. Think about pricing in terms of your experience and your profit, not your speed or big heart. What do you need to live on? I began by charging by the hour; moved to charging by the project; and now charge by the word, except in the case of very small projects.
  • Consider your customer/client. Always, always, over deliver–for deadlines especially. Always be calm and reasonable but do not deal with unreasonable people. They are the ones who will end up not paying or delaying payment or never referring you and they raise your stress level. Not worth it. But the ones who appreciate you? Do everything for them! You might even consider a “preferred customer discount” once in a while.
  • Ask for referrals and make the most of testimonials. Let customers know their referrals are welcome (I mention that at the bottom of my invoices) and thank them when they come through. If a customer sends you a particularly nice thank you, ask if you can post it on your website or online profile or use it in your marketing material. Do not hesitate to ask for testimonials–or even a case study interview–when a project has gone well but remember to always make sure the customer comes off looking good. They were smart enough to hire you, right?
  • Get help. You are great at what you do but are you also great at bookkeeping, writing, motivating, organizing, publicizing, and so on? All of those tasks are available from other freelancers, consultants, and sole-proprietors and sometimes for free (for example, your local Small Business Association). Consider whose help you need most, and add them one-by-one to your team when you can afford it. Don’t fail for lack of help.
  • Act but not recklessly–and don’t give up too soon. Don’t delay because of your fears. However, make sure you have a year’s income to keep you going. If you or your family cannot risk that one year of income, definitely rethink. Most businesses do not take off in less than 6 months and most need the full year. Once you are past that point, you should re-evaluate–but if you decide to go for it, let yourself reach that point.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

Tolerant and Inclusive Writing

Happy Holidays everyone!

I happen to be Jewish, so my holiday is Chanukah. When casual friends wish me a Merry Christmas, I enjoy the spirit in which the wish was given and thank them.

But when companies focus all their marketing copy on Christmas, I wonder why they refuse to recognize those customers who do not celebrate that particular holiday. No one is asking for twenty ads for twenty different religious observances; but a simple “Happy Holidays” reaches out to everyone. The expression is respectful to your beliefs and mine.

Some organizations are created to provide products and services solely for one group of people (one religion, one gender, one difference) and that’s fine. For the rest, being inclusive and tolerant should be an easy choice.

Some of the women in my family have names that are appropriate for either male or female. If someone hearing their name mistakes their gender, that’s a very excusable mistake.

But when an entire company writes marketing copy as if women (or men) do not exist, I wonder why they exclude at least half their potential customers. Several alternatives exist to a universal “he” (or “she”): the marketing copy can address customers directly as “you”; or alternate “he” and “she” in examples; or use the plural (“customers,” “they”).

I happen to be short; in fact most of my family, including some of the men, stopped growing around 5’1″. Our shortness is a minor challenge, and we are very grateful to all those who are 5’6″ and over, who help us load carry-ons into overhead bins and select the spaghetti sauce we want from the top shelf in the market.

But when an entire company refuses to recognize differences among people in their marketing copy–when all their photos show trim, gorgeous, 6-foot models in luxury settings instead of real people having real interactions–then I wonder who exactly are they appealing to?

When you are inclusive and tolerant, your world expands. When you are exclusive and intolerant–even by accident–your world contracts. As a business owner, you want as many customers in the largest world possible. The choice of inclusion and tolerance falls in the category of enlightened self-interest.

If you are struggling with ways to say and show your message in a welcoming, inclusive manner, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Services.

15 Years of Freelance Writing

This month marks the 15th anniversary of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. So what I have I learned in 15 years of freelancing for large and small companies?

  1. People are trustworthy. I’ve completed more handshake deals that I care to mention and enjoyed every relationship.
  2. Working for yourself is fun. I highly recommend it. (Even the rough times at least have entertainment value.)
  3. People have the most interesting careers in the most interesting industries and businesses and every one has a story behind it that’s worth telling. Every one.
  4. Writing is still the way people communicate with each other. They may call it blogging or Tweeting or friending or texting, but it is writing.

Thank you to all of my wonderful clients for 15 years of doing what I love and the opportunity to keep on doing it.

Free one-on-one, one-hour review of your marketing communications at Hannah Grimes in Keene, NH (one consultation offered each month).

Health Insurance Wish List

I’ve seen health insurance from all sides now: as an employee and as a self-insured sole proprietor; fully insured, underinsured and briefly uninsured. Believe me, uninsured is not something I wanted. At the time, a quarter of my income or more went out to health insurance even though I was healthy by any definition.

Our health system is evolving and maybe someday no one will need to be uninsured or underinsured again. In the meantime, if I could wave a magic wand and have anything I wanted in my health insurance, I would have:

  • More preventative care
  • Dental and vision coverage
  • Mental health coverage
  • Visiting nurse visits for children, those with handicaps or older people who have trouble getting to the doctor’s office

Yes, they’re expensive programs but that’s my wish list. What’s on your wish list? Share your ideas here or on LinkedIn at Let’s Talk Health Care.

Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Harvard Pilgrim on this sponsored post. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. You can find more ways to be well at HarvardPilgrim.org/CountUsIn and Let’s Talk Health Care.


The Right to Say “No” in Your Career

We are gradually emerging from a period of high unemployment and back into a season of turmoil, where neither employers nor employees expect to stay in one job for their entire life. In fact, some hiring managers view one-job candidates with skepticism, believing they lack flexibility and are too wedded to a single culture and practice.

And all that urging to push the envelope, develop one’s brand, move with the times, exceed expectations creates stress. Have we lost the right to say NO?

No, we do not want that promotion into a job that requires more of our time and energy. No, we do not want to take on yet another special project that interferes with our main tasks. No, we do not want to shift into another department where we lack expertise. No, we are not interested in more education, another company “initiative” that goes nowhere or becoming either a mentor or mentee.

The downside for companies who insist on a YES is an employee who is not only working below (or against) potential but is very likely to quit to escape an unwelcome situation; and replacing employees is costly. Yet, the situation might work for both parties with the proper support and training–with steps similar to those we suggested in a previous post.

Has NO become an impossible word in your work life?

What do you recommend to address or avoid the resulting stress?

Tell your story here or on LinkedIn at Let’s Talk Health Care.

Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Harvard Pilgrim on this sponsored post. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. You can find more ways to be well at HarvardPilgrim.org/CountUsIn and Let’s Talk Health Care.

Reducing Workplace Stress: Practical Steps Employers Can Take

When people discuss workplace stress, they often focus on bad managers (a leading reason for quitting a job), harassing environments and uncertainty about their future. Employers may throw up their hands in defeat: managers are harder to find than staff, they can’t be everywhere to stop harassment and the economy is out of their control. What to do?

First, take a look at your training. Have you trained your managers in leadership skills or trained staff in the skills they need for their current job or to move on to more responsible positions? Training builds confidence and efficiency. An internal mentorship program may help if professional training is impossible.

Second, review your employee handbook. Is it clear in defining responsibilities and in the procedures for complaining about abuse or harassment? Are you applying policies uniformly? Inconsistent policies are not only stressful for staff, they are stressful for managers who have to improvise in every situation and then deal with the resulting frustration.

Third, consider opening up about the company’s financial status, plans, failures and successes. I’ve worked in companies where the C-level leadership made an art out of deluging employees with empty words rather than share one iota of real information. Other executives are so silent about their efforts on behalf of employees and the company that they might as well do nothing; their staff has no opportunity to share in successes or contribute to improvements. Employees who work in the dark are working under stress.

The cost of stress in turnover, not to mention its effect on health, is huge. In the effort to reduce stress, the three practical steps above are a good start.

I’d like to hear your advice for reducing stress. Leave your comments here or on LinkedIn at Let’s Talk Health Care.

Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Harvard Pilgrim on this sponsored post. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. You can find more ways to be well at HarvardPilgrim.org/CountUsIn and Let’s Talk Health Care.


Workplace Health: What Makes the Biggest Difference?

The government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest a planned approach to building a healthier workplace, including an assessment of workplace health risks and employee concerns; a planning process for health programs; implementation; and evaluation. They suggest that the workplace health and wellness approach should embrace health-related programs, worksite policies and employee benefits, as well as environmental studies.

While physical health may be the first aspect that comes to mind in defining a healthier workplace, emotional health is also important. For emotional health, it is vital to feel appreciated, secure in one’s job and satisfied in a job well done; friendship and support from co-workers are also essential.

If you would like to express your opinion on what makes the biggest difference in workplace health and wellness, take the poll on LinkedIn at Let’s Talk Health Care or leave your comments here.

Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Harvard Pilgrim on this sponsored post. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. You can find more ways to be well at HarvardPilgrim.org/CountUsIn and Let’s Talk Health Care.



Mentors and Health

Although I’ve never had a workplace mentor myself, I’ve seen how valuable they can be in directing a career. But a mentor can also make a vital difference in establishing a life/work balance and promoting healthy choices. A mentor is in an excellent position to catch problems with stress, conflicts, overwork or personal decisions that interfere with a healthy lifestyle.

A mentor is also a “been there/done that” resource for suggesting alternatives. Often friends and family are too affected by work-related issues to be able to offer rational solutions, or they may not have enough familiarity with the business culture. A mentor has both the objectivity and the knowledge to help diffuse work-related issues that create health problems–and confront health problems that create issues.

Do you feel that the health of a mentoree is a legitimate concern for a mentor? Leave your comments here or join the discussion on LinkedIn at Let’s Talk Health Care.

Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Harvard Pilgrim on this sponsored post. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. You can find more ways to be well at HarvardPilgrim.org/CountUsIn and Let’s Talk Health Care



Workplace Stress: Where It Comes From/Where It’s Going

Cartoonist Matt Groening’s book Work Is Hell dates from 1985; but his list of what makes a job really really bad resonates today, nearly 30 years later. His sources of stress include work overload or underload, time pressures, insecurity about the job, malicious or unfriendly co-workers, boredom, unpleasant bosses, hopelessness, cynicism and physical problems (like back ache). The Work Is Hell philosophy is that we keep in these situations either because misery loves company or because companies love misery.

Companies are trying to prove they don’t love misery. Many of them are emphasizing employee engagement, sending managers to leadership training, investigating flex-time, trying to address work/life balance and watching out for bullying, as well as providing employees with more information about health and more access to gyms and healthy snacks.

Is any of that helping? Is the problem even capable of solution? Does the amount of stress you feel on the job depend on where your job falls in the corporate pyramid, on outside factors like the overall economy or on your own day-by-day state of mind?

Leave your comments here or join the discussion on LinkedIn at Let’s Talk Health Care.

Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Harvard Pilgrim on this sponsored post. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. You can find more ways to be well at HarvardPilgrim.org/CountUsIn and Let’s Talk Health Care.


Twelve Ways to Hire a Really Bad Employee

The following guest blog comes from Paula Mathews of HR Compliance 101. You can receive more great advice by signing up for her newsletter. Thank you, Paula!

Every time you hire someone you don’t know or haven’t checked out, you put your company at risk. Bad hires drain morale and resources. Some of them even make a profession out of suing employers for harassment, discrimination or bad working conditions.

Here are twelve ways to guarantee that sooner or later you’ll hire someone you wish you’d never seen:

1. Take it for granted that the candidate’s resume was written by the candidate.

2. Let candidates take applications home to fill out, where their friends can help with the reading and writing.

3. Don’t check resumes for unexplained gaps or job switches.

4. Don’t conduct phone or onsite interviews.

5. Don’t worry about what you ask or don’t ask during the interviews.

6. Don’t show candidates where they’ll work and don’t mention the skills they’ll need. Let everyone be surprised when they show up for work and can’t do the job.

7. Don’t involve your current employees in the hiring process.

8. Don’t get references.

9. Don’t worry if a candidate doesn’t remember the names or contact information of past employers.

10. Don’t check references.

11. Don’t verify dates of hire and termination at previous jobs. Let the candidate hide work gaps by changing the start and end dates of jobs.

12. Don’t bother to send out letters to people you reject. You’ll never see them again, so be as rude as you like.

HR Compliance 101 has helped many companies set up interview processes that avoid bad hires, keep companies safe from lawsuits, and also save time and money. For example, phone interviews are a good way to quickly reduce the number of candidates; they take about 15 minutes. The few candidates who remain can then be invited to lengthier onsite interviews.

A phone or onsite interview lets you eliminate candidates who clearly don’t have the correct skills, don’t fit your company culture, or have expectations (for pay, vacation, shifts) that you can’t meet. If you wait until after the interviews to check references, you’ll have far fewer references to check.

Another way to save yourself needless effort is to ask your current employees whether they know any of the candidates on your final list. People build reputations in their field; your current employees can steer you away from those who have built bad reputations.