D.Y.O. and the Freelancer

Today I came across a video of a talk by Sharon Ann Lee on D.Y.O. (Design Your Own) Success. Lee talks about the models of success she grew up with, as defined by the world around her: MTV Cribs, the notion of the American Dream, and the goals her immigrant parents had for her. Ultimately, these notions were not realized, so she decided to redefine success on her terms, and she offers some tips so that others can try to replicate her process. Those would like to enter the world of freelancing should definitely watch the video. Her advice will help you start off on the right foot, and get you back on the patch to success if you stray.

Lee offers three main steps: 1) write a poetic statement, 2) know your numbers, and 3) work in your power zone. Yes, I had the same eye-rolling reaction to these terms that I’m sure you are having right now. But bear with me/her. There is some value here, despite the terms.

Use the poetic statement to think big. Couch it in terms of your dream of success. Make it your personalized benchmark against which you will measure your freelancing success. This is the step at which you should drop all of the external notions of success and really think about what your wants and goals. Don’t worry about your parents or society for a moment. What would you really like to be doing? What have you always secretly wanted to do, but were too scared to try?

I found the next two steps to be the most useful for freelancers. Know your numbers. There are only three of them, so anyone can do it. First, know your burn rate. What are you total monthly and annual expenses? Use mint.com, Quicken, your bank’s software, a pen and pad, whatever. But create a budget. Know how much money you’re spending, so you’ll know how much you will need to take in. Second, know your close rate. How many pitches do you make? How many do you close? Lee says this is useful because if, for example, you want to take in $100,000, but your close rate is only 10%, you will need to pitch $1,000,000 worth of ideas. But if you were to increase your close rate to 25%, you would need to only pitch $400,000 worth of ideas. Third, know the profit and loss of each job. As you will see later, a not-for-profit job is not necessarily a bad thing, but you must be aware that it’s a not-for-profit job.

Finally, work in your power zone. By this Lee means a couple of things. First, she introduces Pareto’s Law. Basically, 20% of your work will produce 80% of your revenue. By focusing on your numbers, you can learn which clients are in that 80% revenue zone, and which are the clients that take up 80% of your time, but only generate 20% of your revenue. By focusing on the first group, and cutting down on the second group, you can increase your free time. Free time is useful, if you put it to good use–to play.

Lee divides your professional life into four quadrants. In one corner, you make no money, and do terrible work–obviously, this is a bad place. In the next quadrant, you make a ton of money, but still hate your work. She thinks this is an equally bad place to be, but it’s seductive because of the money. In the third quadrant, you make a ton of money and do work that makes you dance for joy. This is the ideal spot to be. In that last quadrant–joyful work but no money–is where you play. It’s where you experiment. You can act out here, try new things, and stretch yourself without fear of losing money (so long as you know those numbers!). Lee notes that not only will such play tend to generate very high levels of happiness, but this happiness will also likley spill over, making your profitable work better. And heck, if your novel becomes a best-seller, suddenly it jumps from play to the ideal quadrant. Therefore, Lee suggests straddling those last two quadrants to some degree.

Yes, there is a lot of pie-in-the-sky, touchy-feely lingo in Lee’s talk. And she doesn’t offer concrete directions on “how to become the next big success,” but if you’re nervous about starting off on your own, her advice will nevertheless be useful. If you take the time to seriously work through her tips, you will be able to more accurately gauge whether your freelancing is headed in the right direction. What’s more is that these steps will also help you get it back on track if the answer is no. Have you deviated from your goal of success? Has your close rate dropped? Have you shifted to a worse quadrant? Once you know the answer, you will know how to fix it.

What do you think of Lee’s talk? Was it useful? Is there other advice you’d give fledgling freelancers?