My Mess Is My Message

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My Mess Is My Message

Getting results doesn’t take much time at all. It’s not getting results that takes up all the time.Dan Sullivan

A while back, after a career in fashion merchandising and alongside my freelance pursuits, I became a partner in a small product design studio. My title was Managing Director. My partners did the design work and I ran the business.

All seemed to be going well until we brought on board a client who, after a few months, stopped paying their bills and started acting weird. Communication came in a tangled web and decisions were stalled, then made, then retracted. At first, we joked about it. We accepted the difficulty.

But the relationship deteriorated—eventually, the client owed us six figures. Not only was this money several months late, the company was unwilling to put forth any plan for paying us what we were owed.

No apology, no good faith, no repayment strategy, no nothing. And yet, the client expected us to keep working.

As a relatively good-natured and non-confrontational person, I did not know how to deal with this situation. There was a lot on the line, because this was a high-revenue job for our studio, and we had already done so much of the work, so it wasn’t easy just to walk away. We were angry but we wanted our money, so we kept working and let our frustration simmer under the surface.

When I spoke to the CEO of the client company on the phone, he’d simply say, “We cannot pay, and quite frankly I’m disappointed that you are being so demanding.”

Payment never came. Explanations never came. Even getting so much as an excuse out of them was like pulling teeth.

As the project went on I had many more uncomfortable conversations with the company’s executives. The tension on our conference calls was so awkward it was almost funny. Almost. I strategized different ways to tactfully say, “Until you get caught up on payment, we’ll need to discontinue the work.” It never came out right. I lost sleep. I called our lawyer.

With a couple of swift and mysterious actions, our lawyer made the payment appear. Hocus pocus.

Then we fired the client.

After all that psychological and financial stress, I audited myself. What message had we sent to this client that made them think it was OK to walk all over us? What could we have done to prevent such a stressful eight months, and more importantly, how could we become a studio with a well-earned reputation for delivering amazing work and receiving timely payment?

Turns out, we could do a lot.

It became clear to me that this wasn’t a unique situation with a demon client—this was a common occurrence (although handled uncommonly poorly by me) that most every creative professional has been through.

I wanted to fix it. For everyone. Why not? I had already lived through the worst case scenario, and had learned something valuable.

This feeling took me back to my days as a pro BMX rider, when I’d be up against a 20-stair handrail, cameras running. Scared and trembling, after a few false starts, I’d give it a first try. Miss the rail, straddle it instead. Straight to my crotch at high speed. Then my shoulder would hit the fifth stair and I’d somersault down the remaining fifteen.

Any BMXer or skateboarder or other such “action sports athlete” will tell you that the feeling of lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of 20 stairs is not the worst feeling in the world. The worst feeling in the world is not having tried. Trying and failing miserably is actually a relief. “OK. That was the thing I was afraid of. Now it’s done. Next try has to be better, because it can’t get worse.” After the first fail, you are more determined. Almost encouraged. It can’t get worse than the first try.

So after my monumental failure with that early client, I decided that I was going to get really, really good at this thing, that I would learn these “business management” skills that seem to be the bane of every creative professional’s existence.

Plus, I had just watched six seasons of Ray Donovan and was very much romanticizing a potential new life as a fixer.

I read books about negotiation and communication. I drilled my lawyer with questions. I asked other successful studios and freelancers about their experiences. I learned correct procedures and put them into practice. I overcame my fear of direct conversations. I got comfortable being uncomfortable. I began creating bulletproof proposals, scopes, and contracts. And most importantly, I developed trusting relationships, eliminating 90% of the miscommunication and awkwardness I had previously thought inevitable.

I studied how to appeal to the good and navigate the bad in each client, so that we could mitigate the bad stuff and spend more of our time on the good stuff.

We restored peace in the studio, and my creative partners returned to being creative. Our rates went up. We began earning a reputation among our peers for getting paid in full and on time.

I was so energized by this turnaround that I began helping other design studios and freelancers who were encountering the same problems I had struggled with. It went well beyond getting paid on schedule—these problems were about creatives not understanding the game, or the value of their work, or the amount of leverage they had. What do you do when your day rate is $500 but should be $1,200? What do you do when you really want the job but are afraid that your price quote will scare away the client? When the client pummels you with requests for extra work that was not agreed upon? When the client wants an endless number of revisions? Or asks you to start work before the contract is signed? Or asks you to cut your quote in half to meet their budget? And then misses the payment deadline anyway?

How can someone prevent all of these problems from occurring in the first place, and how does anyone make a proper living as a freelancer?

My messy experience taught me that the answer boils down to behavior. Talent is great, intelligence is helpful, but behavior is king. No matter what kind of freelancing work you do—design, photography, editing, writing—there are universal principles for creatives trying to make money from their art, and I will detail them for you in this book.

Diving into helping others, I learned that many, many creative people are underpaid, paid late, or otherwise taken advantage of. Sometimes clients really are out to get more for less, but more often, clients want to do what’s right but aren’t given good guidance from the freelancer. Creative freelancers who have the right mindset and learn to control the process will see that these events are not so inevitable as they seem.

This is not going to be about fighting against The Man, or demanding your worth because you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore. It’s about calmly taking control. Learning the rules so you can break them. Understanding the game so you can adjust your approach and let success happen.

Release Your Guilt

You have a right to your labor, but not to the fruits of your labor.Krishna

Making art and commanding high prices for your art are two different things. This book assumes that you’ve already confirmed your identity as an artist. In doing so, you’ve surrendered to Krishna’s statement.

You make art, period. New sentence. You receive money. That’s an art in itself, which we will explore here.

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