April 5, 2010
A few weeks ago, I attended the Digital Entrepreneurs 2.0 event at Fordham University. It was a panel of entrepreneurs moderated by Fordham prof Bill Baker. On the panel were: entertainment attorney Steve Gordon (who’s written about the music industry and new technologies, entrepreneurship, etc.), Ladies Who Launch director Stella Grizont, Trillist Co-Founder Adam Rich, and Huffington Post and BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti.
There was a point raised by the panel’s speakers that must have been somewhat interesting because it’s still in my memory now. Plus, it relates directly to something I blogged about yesterday. So I’ll share it with you. (Whoever you one person who’s reading this might be.)
Yesterday, I mentioned the thing that I hate the most: the idea of “branding.” Speakers on this panel had pretty divergent views when it came to branding. Stella Grizont of Ladies Who Launch said she thought it was the most important way to get your name out there. She thought it was necessary not just for marketing yourself but also for developing an identity in your work. On the other side of this was Adam Rich of Thrillist. He hinted that Thrillist has no interest in working with writers (not sure if he meant freelancers or staffers or both) whose “brands” are extremely well-defined. He said individuals’ “brands” get in the way of Thrillist’s brand. Once again, the tension for freelancers between developing your identity and morphing that identity to fit the client’s wants.
This can be tough because getting your name out there is the only thing that can rake in business. But maybe being loud and proud can drive away business as well. And, in this job market, none of us are in a position to be too pick-and-choosey about what kind of clients we want to take on. Or, at least I’m not. (I’ll take anything I can get as long as it isn’t soul-selling, a conflict of interest, or anything that could raise an ethical dilemma for me as a journalist.)
So what to do? To “brand” or not to “brand”? Anyone want to share their experiences? Has “branding” helped or harmed you in your career?
April 5, 2010
Whenever I talk to entrepreneurs, I always ask them how they attracted users or customers when they first launched. So, I’m going to pose that same question to you. For entrepreneurs: How did you first attract users? For freelancers and/or consultants: How do you attract clients?
And as a follow-up: How do you get good feedback from your customers or clients?
I know no one is actually reading this, but this is my lame attempt at crowd-sourcing anyway.
April 4, 2010
I was thinking the other day about how Laurel Touby’s advice could apply to freelancers, who may not be starting their own companies, but whose lifestyles are very entrepreneurial. Especially her advice about knowing your customer and bending to fit the customer’s needs. For freelancers, the client is the customer. One major challenge can be selling yourself in your work while being at all times aware of what the customer wants. If you’re a seasoned writer, for example, it can be frustrating to have to change your writing style to meet the needs of the client. As another example, many photographers who do editorial work or commercial work also do art photography in their “real lives.” It can be damn near impossible to remove artistic inclinations, even when you’re just shooting a product for an ad. But, often times the client doesn’t want creative. So separating yourself (and your pride) out from a job can be hard.
It’s really important to strike a balance. On the one hand, freelancers have their “brand” (god, I hate that word) to develop. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told, “You need to brand yourself.” (My response is always of course the corny “No! That sounds painful!”) Instead of brand, let’s say identity. That sounds way less horrible. Freelancers have an identity to uphold and to sell. You want to be chosen because your work is unique to you. You want to be chosen because your work is special. But sometimes you have to make your work unspecial to make the client happy.
So yeah, it’s hard. But good advice to always remember.
April 3, 2010
During my conversation with Laurel Touby, she talked a lot about the significance of growing at the same pace as your audience. Both in terms of size and in terms of content.
One great example: When I asked Touby if there’s anything Mediabistro has been behind the times on, she answered, “no more behind the times than our audience.” She then explained that when your audience is media professionals, you actually don’t want to be too ahead of the curve. When it comes to digital journalism, she said, “media people in general are not exactly the most quick adopters.” Most media people are still “old media” people. So, many of Mediabistro’s users are playing catch-up. And they look to Mediabistro to provide them with the tools to do that.
It speaks to the importance of knowing your audience as well as possible. I would have thought, for example, that an online media company like Mediabistro would have to stay current and savvy in every way possible. But if that company’s audience doesn’t want or need that, what would be the point?
April 1, 2010
Mediabistro began as a cocktail party. Back in 1994, founder Laurel Touby was a freelance writer. She and a friend, fellow writer Russ Baker, decided to throw mixers for media professionals. Their thinking was, writers could meet editors, editors could meet writers. There would be alcohol. It would be fun. And maybe it could even get a couple people jobs by the end of the night.
The parties were a hit. Guests began telling Touby she should turn the venture into a website. So, after two years of martinis and positive feedback, Mediabistro.com was born. (Well, actually, HireMinds.com was born. But, a headhunting company trademarked the name “HireMinds” before Touby got around to doing so, leading to a messy and unfortunate legal dispute. But then, after that, Mediabistro.com was born.)
Now Mediabistro is one of the leading sites for media job listings, resources, and news on the web.
Touby, who sold her company to Jupitermedia for $23 million in 2007, has been on sabbatical the last few months. Right now, she’s traveling all over Africa. She took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me over Skype from South Africa this week. She spoke about how to gain and maintain success online and how the game has changed since she first launched her site.
Me: When you first launched Mediabistro, [then called HireMinds,] how did you get the word out about the site?
Laurel Touby: Through the cocktail parties and through word of mouth.
Me: Did you already have a base of online users because of the cocktail parties?
Laurel: No. Because, you can go to millions of cocktail parties, but how do you get those people to a website? You can try really hard, but I mean, have you ever sent around a message to all your friends saying, “Go to this website” or “Check out my piece on this website,” and nobody goes? So, it’s really freakin’ hard. I think you really have to pay attention to what will turn them on. And one of the big things that turns people on is job opportunities.
Me: Is it easier to get the word out today, with social media?
Laurel: In some ways it’s easier, and in some ways it’s harder. There’s a lot more noise now, and there’s a lot more spam. When I was starting, there wasn’t spam. People actually read every email they got because it was all from somebody they knew. So when I sent an email saying, “Hey, my website has a new job from Glamor, check it out,” people actually went there. ‘Cause they knew me. Now, you know, they could delete my emails ’cause they’ll be like, “Ugh, I get so much stuff to look at. I can’t deal.” So, it’s really much harder now to kind of get above the fray. But, back then, it was hard because not everybody had email. Not everybody used email. So, you were limiting yourself to just the people who were the most savvy. Now, you have Facebook where you can post events. And yet, I ignore almost 90 percent of all events I get sent on Facebook. (Because I have way too many friends, but maybe not everybody has so many friends.)
Me: How do you get feedback from your users?
Laurel: We do it in many ways. Through the cocktail parties themselves. Through surveys now. Through just talking to people. Through just emails that I get from people. People make suggestions all the time. Every touch-point that I have between the user and Mediabistro is an excuse to get feedback from them.
Me: Over the years, how have the wants and needs of media professionals changed?
Laurel: The big change is that now they’re freaking out about their jobs. A lot of people have been writing me lately saying, “Do you know how I can get digital skills? Do you know of any jobs? I’m worried.”…These are senior level people. We’re talking the cream of the crop — people who’ve been in the business 30 or 40 years.
Me: Are they worried because newcomers are willing to do more for less pay?
Laurel: I don’t think they feel threatened by younger people…They feel threatened by seeing their colleagues get fired, seeing magazines fold, seeing newspapers fold, seeing consolidation going on in the industry. And seeing the writing on the wall that print is no longer a sexy place to be. The sexy place to be now is digital — where in years past, no one wanted to be in digital; digital was for losers!
Me: How do you gauge where your audience is when it comes to digital literacy, interest, etc., and then match products to their level?
Laurel: Well, we throw stuff out to the world…We’ve done this with classes. We’ll put up a seminar and if it fills up then we know we should offer a class. And after that, we know we should offer an online video or online class. Seminars are an easy, quick, dirty way to find out if the audience is there.
So, if we find out that nobody wants to go to a seminar for mobile strategies for marketing — which we did, like, years ago — then we know, people don’t even know what mobile is yet! <laughs> And they have no clue how to market and they don’t care ’cause it’s not important to them! So then we pull back. And we don’t do a mobile conference eight years ago!
Me: Was it difficult to scale the company as Mediabistro’s audience grew?
Laurel: We have a scale that we can never kind of go beyond — and that is the size of the media market. There are only so many millions of media people that are our market.
I think the more important question is about focus. Any business that’s successful has to focus. And that’s something that I’ve found to be challenging since Day One: coming up with the three things that I thought Mediabistro should do and do well — rather than [doing] 12 things poorly. I think we’ve branched out beyond those three things and we’re doing a lot of things really well. But at a certain point, you just can’t go any further without risking losing your brand or making people unhappy because you’re lowering your quality…
And I think you should think about the longevity of [Mediabistro]. What has made it so long-lived? It’s been around since 1996. What other Internet company has been around that long? Not many. And making money, you know what I’m saying. Not like some places that I won’t mention that have been around for years and have never made any money.
Me: How have you achieved such longevity?
Laurel: I think it is because we consider it a living breathing organism and not just some brand…We’re not rigid. We’re moving with the audience…Adding new blogs in areas that are growing, like mobile and social media. Adding social media skills training to our roster. Hiring people on staff who are social media oriented and not just, like, sticks-in-the-mud.
Me: Did the idea to launch blogs on Mediabistro come from the community or from the staff?
Laurel: It was one of our staff members who woke us up to. We had this guy who was a friend of mine come in who was ranting about blogs and he was saying, “Blogs are the next big thing, you guys should do it!” and we were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah whatever.” And then, like a year later, we woke up and said, okay, we need to do this. So that’s when we bought the first blog…which was TVNewser. That’s still one of our most successful blogs. But then, amazingly, we’ve launched blogs out of thin air and they’ve worked. Like AgencySpy, which I came up with, and it’s worked. I hired somebody who was an absolute no-name. She wasn’t even a writer. She just had attitude. And [we] turned her into a blogger, and she started it, and it did really well…It says a lot to start something from scratch like that.
Me: Even though you try and focus on just a few products, Mediabistro as a website has grown tremendously. Now that you have a large staff of specialized people, is it easier to manage the site? Or is it hard not being involved at every step in the process like you were in the early days?
Laurel: It’s harder in the sense that I can’t be “The Decider,” as Bush used to say. <laughs>…I can’t say, “We have to do this, I don’t care what you say! Get on it, work on it.” I can’t push people around anymore. I have to step back and let them and let my boss decide what direction we’re taking what we’re doing. Of course, if i totally disagree, I’ll say it to them. Then again, I don’t have to worry anymore as much as I used to worry. I used to be so scared and worried all the time.
Me: Any last words of advice for new entrepreneurs?
Laurel: I would say, test the concept like I did for a while and gain users and figure out ways to gain users before you try to get money and launch something that’s bigger. Work on your concept with your users. Focus group them. Take them for a coffee, take them for pizza, whatever. Find your users offline and bring them together online. And just listen to what they have to say and keep listening and do it for a while before you try and get big. Because once you get money…there are huge stakes, and it’s scarier and it’s realer, and you can make big mistakes that way and lose everything. Whereas, if you do it as a side business, moonlighting while you’re making money some other way, that’s really to me the best way to start a solid, long-term business.
…And don’t worry about making money from it in the beginning at all. Just worry about growing your audience and getting knowledge and becoming as useful as possible. Because once it’s useful, everyone talks about it. Everyone shares something that’s useful.
March 30, 2010
I chatted yesterday with Laurel Touby, founder of Media Bistro. We talked over Skype since Touby’s currently in South Africa — one of the several countries she’s hit on her tour of the continent. (You can follow her adventures here on Twitter.)
Touby was great to talk to because she’s candid, funny, and has thoughtful advice for aspiring entrepreneurs — (and for entrepreneurs at various stages in the game). The biggest takeaway point I gained from the interview was: always listen to your customers. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. It means continually asking your customers for their criticism, thoughts, and feedback. It means staying aware of their needs and always asking them what they want to see, what they want to do, and what could make their experience better.
She also reinforced something I keep hearing from many entrepreneurs: Find out what you love doing, what you’re passionate about, and build your business around that. For Touby, her business grew organically out of something she was already doing just for fun. (More on that in the next post.) Once she realized that she was enjoying what she was already doing and that there was a market for it, she started a website. That’s how Media Bistro was born.
March 28, 2010
Not being on staff often means lacking access to standard resources. Freelance photographers I’ve spoken with complain about not having access to free equipment, software, and computers. Plus, if a lens, camera, or any other accessory breaks, they have to pay for repairs. If equipment gets lost or stolen, they have to replace it. Insurance covers some things, but that’s yet another expense to worry about.
Then there are advancements in technology to worry about. Newer, better digital cameras, lenses, accessories, and editing programs are always coming out. When they do, do you wait for prices to come down before buying? Or by the time that happens, will something even better come out? And will it be worth it to spend more money on that? Forced frugality and constant concerns about your competition can take the fun out of gadget shopping.
There are also the added costs to branching out on your own. Self-promotion and marketing takes time and sometimes money. The Internet has in some cases made it easier to get the word out about your business, but, in order for social media and networking to be effective, you have to put in a lot of time and effort.
Yet another concern is being at the whim of unreliable clients. Whether you’re a photographer, writer, editor, designer, videographer, or anything else, you’ve probably encountered a client who asked for something extra at the last minute or moved up the project’s deadline and still expected to pay the original agreed upon price. Or clients who say they want one thing but change their mind upon delivery. Or vague clients who have no idea what they really want to begin with. And, of course, you have to always keep in mind your relationship with each client. Because each job could potentially lead to future jobs.
The upside is being able to do the kind of work you want to do. There’s a lot to be said for getting to pitch the stories you want to write and choose the kind of shoots you want to do.
But it goes to show that there aren’t a whole lot of resources out there for media entrepreneurs who fall into this special category of freelancing.
March 25, 2010
Well, speak of the devil. Got questions about how new health care legislation will affect the self-employed? The NYT has some answers.
The Prescriptions blog took reader questions this week on HCR. One of the questions asked about freelancers:
Q: What are the implications of the overhaul for freelance workers or the self-employed? I’m curious about what I, as a student with university health insurance, will face, thanks to the bill, once I complete my studies.
A: Your best bet may be to get coverage through your parents. If they have insurance themselves, the new bill would require their insurer to also cover dependent children up to age 26. Currently, the insurer can decline to cover you when you’re younger, Although some states mandate that coverage extend a bit beyond traditional college age.
As of 2014, you will probably be required to have health insurance, which you’ll be able to buy through a state exchange, or face a financial penalty if you elect not to purchase coverage. Depending on your income at that point, you may be eligible for a subsidy to help with the premiums. In the meantime, an organization called Freelancers Union offers insurance that might fit your needs.
For more info from the Freelancers Union: http://www.freelancersunion.org/insurance/explore/
Anyone out there a member of the Freelancers Union?
March 25, 2010
A lot of freelancers right now (myself included) are thinking about how the new health care bill will affect them. This piece about health care reform in a “freelance economy” caught my eye.
“More and more Americans,” writes Drew Magary, “are being forced to eke out a career this way now: doing contract work in bits and pieces wherever and whenever they can, paying their own self-employment tax and buying health care on their own…We are now a freelance economy.”
In the article, Magary discusses the vast challenges in supporting a family with an unstable and uncertain freelance career. Health care is the icing on the…cow pie. Employers see benefits in replacing full-time staffers with freelancers who they don’t have to provide with, well, benefits. Freelancers and independent contractors often either buy their own health insurance or remain uninsured.
So, this week’s news that the U.S. will finally make a big step toward health care for all, meant a lot to self-employed workers.
All I know is this: Yesterday, when this bill passed, I exhaled just ever so slightly. As one of the millions of Americans working without a net, the idea that A) Insurers can’t turn my family down, and B) Insurers can’t drop me if I get cancer or something horrible like that… Well, that’s very nice.
March 11, 2010
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing freelancers in different places around the world. So far, I’ve talked to folks who’ve freelanced in New York, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Poland, Slovakia, Germany, and Indonesia. Some of these media entrepreneurs are journalists and photojournalists; some are photographers and videographers who do a mix of journalism and commercial work; some are graphic designers; some work in print media, online media, TV, and/or radio.
Nearly all shared the frustrations one might expect. Media outlets have significantly reduced their freelance budgets, resulting in two outcomes: fewer jobs and lower pay. In other words, the recession has not been kind to this particular subset of the self-employed. In addition, freelancers in all different countries regularly experience problems with clients not delivering payment on time. Another frustration — this one specific to the Americans I spoke with — was the lack of health insurance benefits that would be granted by staff positions.
What I found to be especially interesting, though, were the areas in which freelancers’ experiences diverged. In some cases, one freelancer’s problem was another’s relief. For instance, some folks complained about the lack of a set schedule; but, for others, that was the best part of the job. Some were fine without a set schedule but complained about the irregularity in workflow; others said the peaks and valleys allow them to focus on creative or personal endeavors when things are slow. The latter group tended toward compartmentalizing — oscillating between work binges and the ability to truly value free time. Some said the best part about setting their own hours was the opportunity to travel at the drop of a hat — whether for work or play. Others said the best part was not being expected to have to take any and every assignment thrown their way.
Some complained about not getting paid for extra work and not getting reimbursed for expenses; others said they’ve come to expect such things, so they just roll with the punches.
And then there was the notion of team. Some freelancers faced challenges not being part of the kind of team that exists when you’re on staff. Others didn’t want to be team players at all. Some actually encountered obstacles in their work because they didn’t have the company behind them 100 percent. For instance, there were instances of clients or editors changing their minds about stories after those stories were filed — and then not delivering kill fees. There were also problems with clients not being clear about (or even sure of) what they wanted, and then balking when they didn’t get what they expected.
Perhaps the most interesting part of all of this is that very few differences arose due to geographic location or culture. Of course there are the obvious bits. Some countries have universal health care, others don’t. In some cities, independent contractors pay less in the way of taxes. In some places, there are legal requirements when it comes to a living wage.
But, when it came to preferences and perceptions, people fell into different categories based on personality more than anything else.
This is pure speculation, but I think there are a few different kinds of personalities that the freelance lifestyle attracts: entrepreneurial types who want to be their own bosses, wanderlusting free spirits, people who just can’t stand the notion of a 9-5 office job, the “damn the man”/ “down with corporate enslavement” types, and people who truly value their free time or personal life. Most people are some combination of the above. And I’m probably leaving one or more personality traits out of this list. I’ll add more as they come to me.
This post is getting pretty long, so it’s time to come up with an ending. I’ll close on a positive note. The one thing everyone said was The Reason to freelance? Freedom.