Top 10 Mistakes Freelancers Make (and How To Avoid Them!)
Juleyka Lantigua Williams: But the other part of this is something that a lot of women don't do, which is they don't mentor. Especially the younger women who are in their mid-twenties and even into their early thirties, they think that they don't have enough experience to mentor. That's not true.
Dessa: When you’re in the freelance game, taking yourself seriously when it comes to managing your business is crucial. Juleyka Lantigua Williams is here to share her hard won wisdom about how to identify pitfalls and avoid rookie mistakes in the freelance game and come out on top. I’m Dessa, and this is Werk It: the Podcast, a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event.
Juleyka Lantigua Williams: Hello, Los Angeles! Hi, everybody. Thank you for skipping your 3pm coffee to be with me. I will try and make this entertaining.
Let's start with some honesty. All of the so called mistakes that I'm going to talk to you about, I've made them. As our very gracious host said, my career is old enough to vote and buy cigarettes. And so I have made every single one of these mistakes I have learned from them, but I've also managed scores of freelancers. And so I've been on both sides of the table. And so I feel pretty good about some of the advice that I'm going to share with you. It's not a rule book, it's just things to consider, to apply it as they fit the way that you want to do your business. So NPR, the Atlantic, Random House, a bunch of formal, professional experiences and then the biggest and most consequential one was founding my company. At the height of our production this year, I had about 40 freelancers working across five of our shows. And I am the only person that anyone reports to at my company, that's the way that I've structured it. Everyone goes into a team understanding that they own 25% of the production, and so no one has to report to anyone. And so that's been really part of the key to the success, that everyone knows and understands how vital they are to not just the production, but the quality of our shows.
All right, so the top 10, the 10th mistake in my experience is, you have to have a formal sponsor. A mentor is someone you talk to for advice, a sponsor is someone whose interactions with you end up with you being paid. Okay. That's the key difference. This is the person who can help you get a promotion. They can help you get into another job. They can help you get into a full time job. They can sign you up or align you with freelance opportunities. The sponsor understands that their role is to help you get paid. I am both a mentor and a sponsor, and I am very clear when I enter into these relationships what the person expects from me and what I can deliver for that person. Right? So I cannot say to someone, “Come, I will sponsor you and then in a year, I will bring you on full time,” I'm not there yet. In a couple of years I might be. But I can say to someone, “I will be your mentor and when you're ready to make a move, I will help you by connecting you with people who might interview you for a job.” So when you seek someone out, and you have to seek these people out, no one volunteers to be a mentor, right, because that's a little bit intrusive. So if you want someone to be your mentor, you have to formally ask them.
But the other part of this is something that a lot of women don't do, which is they don't mentor. Especially the younger women who are in their mid-twenties and even into their early thirties, they think that they don't have enough experience to mentor. That's not true. If you are one year into your professional career after college, you now know enough to mentor someone younger. So the other part of the circle of life with mentorship is that if you're not mentoring anyone, please find someone to mentor. It makes all the difference to that person, but it also makes a big difference to you, because what happens is as you are helping them deal with their obstacles and challenges and growth areas, you learn about yourself and your tolerances and whether you're risk adverse or whether you are ready to take on more risk.
This is why I have never in 18 years not mentored. Because I learn in the process as much about myself as I do helping the person discover what they want and what they care about. So how do we fix this? Talk to people who have sponsors. I definitely have sponsors, they are called my advisory board. My company has an advisory board of six members and I have brilliant people like Martina Castro on that board. And they understand that they're on my board both to advise me, but to put me in front of opportunities that could turn into tangible businesses that end with a check. Right? So I have very much formalized my sponsorship relationships by having an advisory board. So you should, after you leave today or during the course of the festival, you should identify three accessible potential sponsors at work, in your industry or in a complementary field.
So there are a lot of you here who are interested in podcasting but are in talent management, or in traditional print journalism or in television, right? So this is your opportunity. Look at the list of attendees. Look at the list of speakers. Make sure you get five minutes with that person and say, “can I follow up with you and have a conversation about mentoring and sponsorship.” Right? It is really important for you to walk out of here holding hands metaphorically with someone who could potentially be a bridge if you want to get into podcasting from a different career. Formerly ask to be sponsored. Also, there are quite a few women-friendly or women-oriented established mentoring programs. So the International Women's Monetary Fund, no, International Women's Media Foundation, oh, they have the same acronym, has a formal mentoring program that lasts about a year.
I'm a mentor in that program. AIR Media has a mentoring program, and there are people who are participating during the conference on that. There's the Spotify bootcamp, and then Third Coast also has a residency. So there are lots of mentoring programs where you can apply, and if you don't get in the first year, apply again. And if you didn't get in the second year, apply again. Right? Because they're very competitive because they are really cradles of creativity and support, especially for women in digital media. ONA right now, the Online News Association, has open applications for the women leadership accelerator. I'm also a product of that. The deadline is the 31st. Come and talk to me about that one. It's very intensive. They get 450 applications for 25 spots, but it will change your life. Literally. It will change your life. That week, and then the year that you spend on the tutelage of the organization.
All right, last thing about mentorship, you have to manage the logistics. You set up the meeting, you don't miss the meeting. You come in with an agenda, you send the agenda at least a day before the conversation, and then you, at the bottom say, “these are the things I need from you during the conversation.” Really, really important for you to understand what you need to get from your mentor and your sponsor.
The ninth biggest mistake that we make is we don't raise our hands enough, right? And that's because we're used to being compartmentalized as freelancers. So you get hired to mix, you get hired to do field recordings, you get hired to help with scripting, and you feel like you need to stay in that lane. Not true. As someone who works with dozens of freelancers, the best thing that you can do is tell me at the beginning, “Hey, I know that you're hiring me to do field work, but I'm really interested in editing. So if you have a small assignment, like a trailer, I would love to work on editing the trailer for you guys. Let me know, I'm available.” I love it when people do that, because then I say to myself and I say to my editor and my mixer, “Hey guys, so-and-so who I know is going to be doing this, really wants to grow in editing. Let's find opportunities for her.” Okay, this happens over and over and over. I'm starting to realize that because I do that, a lot of the freelancers that I work with end up getting full time jobs, because they end up developing a bunch of complementary skills to whatever their core competencies are. So now I got gotta rethink that strategy. So, raise your hand when you come into any assignment, look around at whose on your team, look around at what the product is going to be, and ask, formally ask to be included in an area of growth that's important to you.
You have to ask, no one's gonna guess. No one's going to ask you to do more, right? Because now we're very aware of the fact that we can't overtax especially women and women of color. But if you come in with the intention of growing through the process, instead of just contributing your 15% of the project, you will go through it. And then someone like me, who is then putting teams together for other projects is going to remember, “Oh, she wants to grow through this. So maybe put her in this team for this other project where she can really thrive in that area.”
So sometimes, we don't raise our hand because we don't think that we have the skills. So I have a fix for that. And this is not just in professional life. This applies really well in my life because I have high anxiety sometimes in some relationships and I'm always feeling paranoid.
So I've learned to ask myself in my head, where's the evidence? Right? Where's the evidence that I'm not making a good impression? Where's the evidence that my work is not good enough? Where's the evidence that I won't be able to produce that show? Where's the evidence that she doesn't like me? Constantly looking for data, right? From my interactions. So when you're feeling like you can’t raise your hand, ask yourself, where's the evidence that she's going to say no? Where's the evidence that I can't do it? Where's the evidence that I don't have the competencies to actually get this done? Alright. So once you're on a team to work on something as a freelancer, offer to support one particular person, right, in the task that you want to grow into, right? So if you are a mixer who really wants to learn about engineering, sound engineering, right, then align yourself with the engineer. First ask to shadow, then ask to help, right?
Ask for practice materials. Ask them to give you a two minute sample to clean up and then have them listen to it and give you pointers on how you did on that. People love sharing their knowledge, and if you ask in a time where it's not deadline, it's not a time crunch, it doesn't impose on them, they are more than likely to say yes and to help you grow in that process. The other thing you can do is offer to do a draft. So I typically hire an editor, an associate producer, full producer, mixer, and then some other people. I typically have a conversation with our associate producers who are coming on the projects and I say, anytime we're asking for volunteers, I want you to raise your hand because I will figure out how to pay you because I see that you are volunteering to do something that is going to push your growth.
So if I have an opportunity to pay someone who's already on the team to do something that pushes their growth and their professional boundaries, I do it. But if they don't step up and raise their hand, how am I supposed to know? So you have to do that continually. Alright, the last one is do some additional research and work to bring new ideas and methods to the team without being asked, right? This does not mean think about how to restructure the entire show and the entire season. That's not what that means. Start small. Think about what a teaser might sound like, you know, a 20-second, 30-second teaser for a show. Do the teaser, if you're a mixer, if you're a producer, and show it to the team and get feedback on that, right? So sometimes, these small pieces of initiative really go a long way to showcase your talents and also to give you a way to get feedback from people in a way that is not going to cost you the job.
Right? Alright. So the eighth biggest mistake that we make is not checking in regularly, right? You have a lot on your plate, you're juggling a lot of clients. You're not sure how to prioritize, you know, checking in with someone. You're not sure that it's not going to be imposing on someone. You procrastinate, like me, I'm definitely an 11th hour kind of person. So you wait until the last minute you get done when you need to get done. But then that leaves you no room to have an actual conversation about what you've made. You've over-committed, right? But you've underdelivered. That's usually what happens. So when you are on a team, figure out who the editor is, well you'll know very quickly, or who the EP is and say to them, “Hey, is it okay for me to set up a monthly 20-minute conversation with you just so that you and I can talk about how I'm doing with my work,” right?
So do that with the editor. Do that with whomever the lead person is for that team, and when you have that 20-minute conversation set on the calendar and it should be, if the project is six months, then do it six times. If the project is three months, then do it maybe four times, figure out what the best intervals are. You want to do that because you don't want feedback at the end of the project, where the person's going to say, well actually we need to talk about your time management. Actually, you didn't follow the spec sheet. Every single time we had to go back and make changes. Actually...You don't want that at the very end, right? Because by that time, those people have decided that they're not going to work with you again. So you want to ask for feedback consistently throughout the project.
Those exchanges are also an opportunity for you to say, “I want to level up. I want to raise my degree of difficulty with the work that I'm doing for you. How can I do that?” Or here's a way that I'm thinking I can do that, right? Because you're also trying to set yourself up for bigger roles with these folks or with other folks. All right, so make the calendar, prepare a quick little three bullet point agenda to talk to the person about, set your growth goals. This is really important and I set growth goals for all of my mentee's basically on a quarterly basis. So every three months, we look at our growth goals and we see how far we've gotten into them.
The seventh, this was an easy one to fix, not digitizing transactions. Last year I sent an email to everyone who feel answers for me, “I will no longer take PDF invoices. You have to send me an email. I just don't anymore. It's too much. You have to send me an email from a third party provider, right? That has good encryption because I don't want to be responsible for having your bank information. I have insurance, but I don't have like encryption level insurance so I don't want to put your information at risk. There are lots of other places that are far more secure. Now, all of my freelancers send me an invoice that says pay invoice. I click on the button, and I pay the invoice sometimes within the hour, because you want to not be burdensome. So digitize everything. Please make sure you know how to do a W9 that's not handwritten. You need to update your W9 every calendar year. Please make sure that if you move, you send that information to everyone you've worked for because otherwise, in January when I'm doing 1099s, it's a nightmare. 10% of my 1099s get returned because you guys have moved. So now, I've had my accountant switch, we don't send paper 1099s anymore. They all go on email, right? Because again, I'm you know, I'm a one woman company right now with a ton of people who are working with me. So the less time that I spend doing administrative stuff, the better. And if you're one of those people who makes my life easy, I remember that. I have a smile when I go pay you and I'm like, “I got to put that person on another project because look how easy my life is with her.” Right? Have an invoice template that is professional. Your name, your address, right? Give me directions. Payment due, almost always net 30. Read your contracts.
We're going to get to that. Put the date on when it's due, put the address where you want me to send it. If you want me to pay you in a different way, then tell me that. But most of the time when you send your invoices electronically, all of that information will be there. Save your W9 as a PDF, always.
This is really important. So you are not up on rates and you don't have a rate card. Big problem. A rate card is basically a list of your prices, right? And you should have multiple types of prices for multiple types of skills for multiple types and size of projects, right? So you should not just be like, well, my rate is $45 an hour. That's a deadend in a negotiation, right? You have to have a rate, especially if you're someone who does multi-things.
You have to have a rate for editing, you have to have a rate for mixing, you have to have a rate for field production. You have to have a rate for scripting, for host-coaching. You have to have a rate for all kinds of things, right? Because then you come to the table prepared to negotiate based on what the potential client has the ability to pay you. So Werk It did something great last year. They did that survey, and I have it on a tab almost always because that's where I go to refer to when I'm negotiating with people to make sure that I'm being fair to them and to make sure that the work that I'm asking them to do is commensurate with the industry standard. AIR Media also has a great directory on rates and standard practices based on payment.
So that's another resource that I use. You should know those web addresses by heart. You should reference those, you should apply some of those. Don't limit yourself to having one rate that is across everything you do. You're definitely pigeonholing yourself if you do that.
Fifth biggest mistake that we make is we come into an assignment not really knowing the client's work. I don't mean the frequency of the show, the name of the show, and having listened to the last five podcasts, that's not what I mean. I mean, really looking at their entire portfolio and looking at what themes are present throughout the work. I mean, I've had people pitch me shows about, you know, professional gamblers and just like really? Professional gamblers? What in the repertoire of work that I've done clued you into the fact that you could even come to me and talk to me about professional gamblers. There's nothing there, right? And so really, really understand the work that people are doing and make sure that you're up to date, obviously on the latest five episodes or at least the last season. That would be really good. If you're sending a blank query, you have to talk specifically about what role you would like to play. That's really, really important. And then, we don't set fees appropriately, which goes back to not having a rate card. So browse the client's social media for the last month at least, identify the specific role that you would like to play and then match your skills based on the experience that you have to what they've been doing.
Okay, this is a really big one. Not taking time management seriously. Some of us are missing deadlines, some of us under-deliver on the work, by this I mean sending things in that haven't been fact-checked, and things in that aren't formatted properly. Sending things in that have misspellings of common things, right? These are all big, big no-nos, or sending tape in with instructions that say, “Okay, so I left a full 50 seconds in at this and this time because I know that that's where we are going to put this ad,” when you already have the ad. That is not a good show. That's not a good showing. So how do you fix this? Do not take on more work than you can handle. I know that's a difficult one because we're all hustling. So what you’ve gotta do is figure out which days of the week you're going to dedicate to each project. So instead of just being like, I'm in the mood to work on project B today, so I'm going to spend my morning working on this one because that's what I'm feeling like. And then eventually I'll get to plot, you know, projects F and H. Don't do that. That is really gonna spell trouble for you.
So what you want to do is think about your week in quadrants and think about, okay, so for the first day and a half every week I'm going to do this project because I know that it's due on Wednesday. And then the thing that's due on Friday, I'm going to work on from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday midday. And then the thing that's due the following Monday, I'm going to work on from Thursday afternoon to Friday and somewhere in there obviously put personal time to work, you know, to go take a walk, take your dog out, whatever you need to do to keep your sanity. I cannot, cannot overemphasize that.
Also, at my company we have a universal deadline. It's noon Eastern standard time. So when on the production calendar, you see a date, whatever it is that you're supposed to deliver on that day, it's due at noon, p.m. E T. and I did that. I learned that the hard way, because when you see someone at 70 Million, we would have a deadline and so people would get things in at 9:00 AM, others would get in at 11:00 PM, others would get in at three in the morning, right? Not going to work when other people are waiting for you to deliver something that they have to work on. So set your own universal deadline. It can be noon wherever you are, but you set it for yourself so that your work always comes in on time or early.
Ask for help early, not after. If you are three days away from a deadline and you’re starting to stress about it, that's when you ask for help, not after you've missed it. Okay? So the minute that you start feeling like the tingly feeling about, “Oh my God, I'm really not going to make this.” That's when you send an email and you say, “Hey, I need help on this.” People will come in and help you three days before, they're probably not going to be as generous after you've missed a deadline. Okay, so block time in your calendar each day, break everything into smaller bites and set calendar alarms. I have, I mean my Google calendar is color coded now to a ridiculous level because I literally put alarms on myself for things like, you have to download the bank statement and send it to the accountant, right? So on the first of every month, there's a green label that says download bank statements, send to the accountant, right? Because I don't want to keep track of when I have to do that. I put it in my calendar and I forgot about it, until the day that I have to do it. But as soon as that alarm comes up, I diligently go, I do it, off the to-do lists. So those kinds of things can seem tedious and ridiculous at the beginning, but they work. All right.
Number three is not setting goals with every project and asking for feedback. So even though you’re a freelancer and you are technically contributing to someone else's work, you yourself have to set at least one goal, one growth goal for yourself that you're going to achieve in the process of doing this work. Whatever that might be. For you it might be scripting a full episode. For some of us, it might be composing the music for an episode. For some other ones of us, it might be doing a full interview in the field with guests. Whatever that growth goal for you, you've got to have them for every single one of your projects, because that's really how you're going to measure whether or not that time was well spent for you. The client will get what they needed from you. You've got the skills, but what are you walking away with out of that particular assignment? So taking a mix of work that challenges you, that you always have to be raising your level of difficulty. So, you want to think about that. Share your growth goals with your clients and your teammates. Ask for feedback regularly. Set measurable outcomes based on both the client's needs and your growth goals, and seek out work that is commensurate with achieved growth goals. So once you've mastered, you know, drafting a full episode, the next few assignments that you go out for should include drafting episodes, right? If you're trying to become a better sound engineer, once you feel good about that and you've gotten feedback from a couple of sound engineers, seek out work that demands that you do some sound engineering right? Because you are acquiring the skills as you go.
All right, second one is not setting in quarterly or annual goals. I'm going to skip through the why we do this. How to fix it? Get a mentor, set goals, and make them measurable, right? So you can do this by saying, “I'm going to earn X amount of dollars in quarter one, quarter two, quarter three,” or “I'm going to gain these four skills in by quarter three,” or “I'm going to have worked on a nonfiction show because I've been doing fiction my entire career,” or “I'm going to challenge myself to go work on a documentary journalism show because I've been doing interview shows this whole time,” right? So set those goals for yourself because it will make job searching far, far more interesting.
And finally, drum roll please. The biggest mistake that we make is we do not act like businesses. I know this from experience. Ladies, we are independent contractors, according to the law. As an independent contractor, you are essentially a service provider, an entity that is in a business exchange, quite often with an actual business that's registered. So, how do we alleviate this? We register our company. I registered my company on legalzoom.com, cost me $200. Best $200 I've ever spent. All of the trademarks that I have for my shows, I've done them on Legal Zoom. $400 each trademark. Best $400 I've ever spent. Why? Let me tell you. Because you are not making a podcast. Sorry to disappoint. You are not making a TV show. You are not writing a movie. You are not making a documentary. You are creating intellectual property from which you are going to build multiple income streams. Let me repeat that. I'm not making podcasts, I'm not making films, I'm not writing grants so that I can make, I mean I do want to make really dope documentaries, but everything that I am doing is because I want to amass a collection of intellectual property that in the next decade I'm going to turn into multiple income streams.
This is why you have to incorporate your business because when you incorporate your business, guess what? You start thinking like a business and people start treating you like a business. I don't work without a contract with anyone. I don't work without a statement, what’s it called, statement of work. An SOW. I don't work without the formalities that anyone else dealing with another business would work without. I just don't. And if someone is insisting that we don't need the contract, that the emails are fine. Bye. Go find someone else to work with. It's not the way I roll. Right? So you've got to be way more formal about the way that you do this. The other important part of it is that you need to pass on any liability to a business, right? Not saying that anything is going to happen, but you know, life will surprise you sometimes. You've got to have a way to defer any potential liability to an entity that is not you personally, because that can be very, very costly. Okay? So, if you think of yourself as a business, all of the other mistakes, the more you practice being a business, will go away. I guarantee you. I guarantee you that they will go away if you fix this one. Because then you will be thinking about yourself as an entity of growth via the intellectual property that you are creating that will what? Result in multiple income streams. Thank you.
Dessa: That was Juleyka Lantigua Williams, speaking at the 2019 Werk It festival.
Both the festival and the podcast are produced by WNYC Studios and are made possible by major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional support from the Annenberg Foundation.
Event sponsors include Luminary, Spotify, Spreaker, Acast, Himalaya, and the Women’s Foundation of California.