Thursday, October 27, 2011

6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Working For Free

What should you do if someone requests your services for free?  I recently followed a heated debate in the Resume Writers and Career Coaches LinkedIn group, where a majority of the 30 respondents thought it depended on the person asking.  What I’ve surmised from this discussion is that it’s best to set a policy about free services early on to spare yourself some strained relationships. 

© Hajime Nakano
There are two things to consider here: discounts and pro-bono work.  A flat discount for friends and family is one way small businesses address the issue.  If you are unsure about this, then use a decision-making framework to evaluate the risks and benefits of accepting or not accepting pro-bono work on a case-by-case basis.  Ask yourself the following questions: 

1.  How much can this person afford?
There may be people who simply can’t afford your services, but could really benefit from them.  They may be turning to you as a last resort and will most likely be really appreciative of your help.  Others are just looking for a deal or price break.  Those who truly understand how much of your time and effort will go into your “free” services, will gladly pay you what your services are worth.   

2.  How well do you know each other?
Are you really friends or merely acquaintances?  It seems like everyone is looking to save a buck anywhere they can.  We’re living in a world fueled by discounts where we’ve been trained that “it doesn’t hurt to ask.”  Keep in mind that there are risks to discounting your services.  Firstly, discounts may become an expectation by the person who has received it.  If you don’t offer the discount the next time, they may walk away wondering what they’ve done to offend you, feel hurt, and/or not return for future business.  Secondly, they may refer others to you by saying “they’re so cheap!”; consequently, promoting your business at fees that aren’t sustainable and not in line with product/service quality.  Lastly, once you do it for one friend or family member, how can you deny another?  How would others feel if they found out they didn’t receive a discount but someone else did? 

It’s best practice to share your regular rates with everyone before you decide to discount.   It’s even better practice to charge your regular rates to everyone, but provide exceptional value to your family and friends by putting in some extra effort on their projects or adding in something special.  If you choose to discount, don’t discount your rate, rather charge less hours to get the appropriate revenue.  That way you will never negotiate rate and you’ll appear very efficient at product delivery.

3.  Do I have the time?
Your time is precious.  Reality is that you can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.  Although offering products for free eats away at your bottom line, offering your services for free eats away at your free time, time that you may normally spend with your family, friends, or other priorities.  If you decide to provide free services during working hours it takes away from your availability to make an income.  Although some may get great joy from volunteering for worthy causes, it will not provide for the people who are counting on them for daily survival or cover their overhead business costs.  Some consultants work this out by setting aside a certain number of hours for volunteer work each month.  When your services are requested for free, consider how much time you have left in your schedule for pro-bono work. If you’ve used up all your time this month you can refer them to another professional with some availability, or tell them the realistic timeline of when you could get it done. 

4.  Do I owe them one?
We’ve all been there; helping a friend move or assisting them with some other daunting task, leaving you feeling that they “owe you one.”  Bartering or trading products/services with others is a great way for both individuals to get what they’re looking for.  It doesn’t have to be business-related, it could be much simpler like housesitting while you’re on vacation, babysitting, or dinner.  Go with your instincts; if you feel like you are both getting a good deal, then go with it.  If you feel you’re being taken advantage of then the deal is not worth the resentment that could eat away at your relationship.

5.  Do I really want this project?
Whenever a project is requested, you do have the right to decline it - especially if it is something you wouldn’t particularly enjoy doing or one that may give you a great big headache!  In that case, it may be best to respectfully decline the project and refer to another professional that may be better suited.

6.  Will this lead to other business?
Let’s face it, not all remuneration is monetary.  Many volunteer projects lead to amazing career opportunities.  When considering a project think about the extra benefits such as a great recommendation from a respected individual, referrals for new paying clients/customers, experience in a new area, an “I owe you”, etc.

When you receive a request to provide free services, your initial response could be something like, “I’ll have to take a look at my schedule and let you know if I have room for pro-bono work right now.” This gives you an opportunity to think about the implications of accepting the work or not and/or whether to offer a discount.

If you’re sure this project isn’t for you, Leslie Ayres of the Resume Writers and Career Coaches LinkedIn Group suggests, “I wish I could but my schedule is too busy to let me take on any more pro bono work right now, sorry!”  It would be helpful to then give them the number of another trusted professional.  Another response could be, “I wish I could, but considering my overhead business costs I am unable to do this for free.  I can gladly extend you my ‘friends and family discount’.” 

How do you feel about this topic?  What do you charge (or would you charge) your family and friends for your consulting services?  What other questions should be added to this framework?

Miranda Vande Kuyt is a self-employed project and communications consultant. She is the facilitator of the “Look Before You Leap: Self-Employment Survival Strategies” 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

8 Time-Management Tips For Working From Home

© Andrew Finegan
Working from home can feel like a juggling act at the best of times.  It’s not easy to balance the kids, dishes, and laundry with a never-ending stream of emails, conference calls, and project assignments.  How do people that work from home do it?  After four years working from home myself, I can say with certainty that it is a dynamic juggling act that changes all the time. 
One of the first things I had to learn was time-management skills.  Making a to do list everyday just didn’t cut it.  I found I would work like crazy and still have a number of things left on the list, leaving me feeling incredibly frustrated.  I have since learned that every part of my day needs to be purposeful and I need to work smarter, not harder.  Here are some time management tips to consider if you’re currently working or planning to work form home:

1.     Set Priorities
This may seem like a given, but I found it very easy to loose sight of my priorities while working from home.  Many people choose to work from home because it is one way to stay home with their kids and still make an income.  Sometimes I feel my priorities of work and family are at war with each other.  What helped me was physically writing down all my responsibilities (e.g., home, family, work projects, volunteer commitments) and then organizing them numerically in order of importance.  This is also very helpful when juggling multiple projects.  I keep the list on a sticky note above my desk and rearrange it frequently when my priorities change.  It’s a constant reminder of what comes first.  This way I devote adequate time to my priorities.

2.     Write Down Routines
Setting routines for regular responsibilities is essential; it allows you to save your mental energy for more important tasks.  It may seem a little daunting at first, but once you actually write down your daily and weekly routines it takes the guesswork out of accomplishing them.  I got started with routines a couple years ago by following FlyLady for a couple of months.  Now I have routines set up for getting up in the morning, housework, afterschool, after supper, getting ready for bed, etc.  I have even created simple routines for my young kids using pictures to help them remember what they need to do at different times of the day, encouraging their independence.  Scheduling when these routines are going to happen allows time for undistracted office hours.  

3.     Maintain To-Do Lists
I imagine the to-do list is probably the oldest time-management technique available.  I’ve read lots of ways to write such lists and accomplish them.  I like Penelope Trunk's approach to doing daily tasks while still accomplishing long term goals.  Lately I’ve been using a free online tool called Wunderlist to organize to-do lists for several different projects.  I sit down at the beginning of the week and write down everything I can think of that needs to get accomplished.  I group like tasks and then schedule a day and time to get it done.  I track all of this through Wunderlist.  It’s also handy when I need to figure out all the tasks I’ve accomplished in the last month for invoicing purposes. 

4.     Minimize Distractions
When I first started working from home I found it very difficult to get anything done.  I would sit down at the computer and would get called away by a crying baby, a load of laundry, or phone calls.  It took me a while to figure out the best time of day to work without external interruptions.  Then I had to set consistent daily office hours, alleviating the pressure to be on the computer 24/7 checking for emails and replying immediately while trying to juggle my home and kids.  I could also confidently tell others, “Sorry I have to work at that time.”  If you take your work seriously enough to have office hours, others will begin to respect your time.

Office hours do not have to be the traditional 9 – 5.  You may find your best office hours could be early in the morning, during nap time (if you have kids), or in the evening after everyone else is in bed.  Figuring out the best time with the least external distractions is only half the problem, eliminating the internal distracting thoughts is harder.  I finally found a great time-management system called the Pomodoro Technique.  It helps me organize my time to minimize internal distractions and accomplish tasks one chunk at a time.

5.     Create a Schedule
Take your daily and weekly routines, your office hours, and other regular tasks, and put them onto a schedule.  Many self-employed people like to chunk their time.  “Chunking” is the opposite of multi-tasking; focusing on one task at a time so you can finish it faster and better.  Be sure to chunk in time to maintain your work life balance, including adequate sleep, healthy eating, exercise, relaxing activities, and time with family and friends.  Going hard on a project may seem heroic, but you’ll regret it when you feel burnt out with no energy to give to other projects or people.    Some find it handy to keep their schedule on them in a day planner or personal electronic device.  I spend most of my time at home, so I use a large magnetic fridge calendar and a pencil to organize everyone’s activities, appointments, and commitments.  The weekly schedule is also printed and hanging next to it.

6.     Schedule White Space
Leave margins in your schedule!  If you fill up every space with a task there is no time to deal with the unexpected, such as doctors appointments, pressing phone calls, and other opportunities.  Don’t leave yourself boxed in with no room for choices.  Be sure to leave some white space in your day for when “life” happens.  Remember you cannot add to an already full life.  When something new comes up you may have to let go of other responsibilities to make room. 

7.     Be Realistic
When you see everything you expect of yourself in black and white then you can determine if your expectations are realistic.  Try out your new schedule for a couple of weeks and see if it works.  A few things may require some creative solutions.  You’ll find as the seasons change your schedule will need updating as well as you add in new activities and projects and take away old ones.

8.     Try Outsourcing
If you realize you are not a superhero after all and you can’t do it all, then outsourcing may be for you.  It’s very difficult to juggle every task and responsibility while working from home.  It’s very important that every person in your family be on board with your plan to get everything done.  Take a look at some of your responsibilities and see if you can relieve the pressure by having family members assume some of the household chores or by outsourcing some tasks.     

As my life and responsibilities change so does the time management techniques that I employ.  I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and tools to help me accomplish more.  What tips help you juggle working from home?
Miranda Vande Kuyt is a self-employed project and communications consultant. She is the facilitator of the “Look Before You Leap: Self-Employment Survival Strategies” online course through

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Marketing on a Shoestring Budget

If you’re self-employed, like many small enterprises, you are unlikely to have an endless marketing budget. No one can down play the importance of marketing; however, it’s important to get the best value for the dollars you invest. Consider how you can market on a shoestring budget?

First off, implement some sort of system to track how new customers/clients are hearing about you (e.g., new client intake form). This will help you to calculate the return-on-investment for your marketing activities. Although a general increase is great, if you can’t track that back to a marketing initiative, you won’t have any way to know what’s working and what’s not.

Don’t continue with the same old marketing activities just because they’ve worked before. Instead, constantly evaluate what marketing activities are generating results. Revisit your marketing strategy on a regular basis (e.g., quarterly) and ask yourself what is the real benefit of what I’m doing.

Get creative with what you do have. Engage in marketing activities that have no “fees.” Gene Fairbrother, ShopTalk 800 Business Consultant, suggests joining social/networking groups, volunteering to speak to local groups, and writing articles and/or blogs; however, keep in mind that your time is money. If it takes 5 hours to write an article for free, this does actually cost the business. It’s 5 hours that you won’t have available to move other billable projects forward.

Create an attractive and clear online presence using social media, share tips and tricks with your customers/clients, and offer unique discounts or sales. Create a buzz and build your local presence by sponsoring a community event.

And lastly, be focused on maintaining the customers/clients you have already. Offer a referral program to encourage your existing customers/clients to spread the word about your company. Word-of-month is still a great way to grow your business.