On fear and hunger: the Born Freelancer’s open letter to employers

I was having coffee recently with a colleague.

Okay, actually, in my case, it was hot chocolate. Hey, it was cold outside and I needed a sugar hit. But we freelancers haven’t yet come up with a better expression than “having coffee” to denote a casual meeting. “Having tea” sounds too lightweight. “Having hot chocolate” sounds too juvenile. “Having coffee” sounds like a much more productive meeting even if it isn’t always. But I digress.

My colleague was explaining that in her recent experience the current economic climate was permitting some employers of freelance talent to be even more brazen in their hiring practices.

Not only is this insulting and infuriating it is also professionally unsound. Allow me to explain…

An Open Letter to a Few Employers of Freelance Talent (You Know Who You Are)

Dear Employer,

At first you were somewhat more diplomatic and kept your derisive employment theories to yourself.

But lately, given the world economy, you’ve taken to openly announcing your attitude towards hiring freelancers.

“Keep ’em scared and keep ’em hungry. That’s the only way to get the best work out of ’em.”

Well, I have news for you. Yours is an outdated philosophy that will completely fail to get you the results you seek. And here’s why…

Scared and hungry workers will never, ever be able to give you their best. They may be able to produce the volume of work you require in the short term, but it will never be what they could have accomplished with more support from you. You will never gain the added unexpected qualitative factors that experienced, professional freelancers can uniquely provide to address your problems and aid in your success.

Freelancers who are continuously scared that your revenue stream will end without notice will be spending more of their time looking for alternative revenue streams rather than focusing on your project. The threat of it ending prematurely is not an incentive to work better or harder—it is an incentive to seek additional work elsewhere, and as quickly as possible.

It may not always be possible to offer freelancers a wholly predictable schedule, but when you can the benefits to you will be greater. A commitment to us will result in a greater commitment to you. Freelancers who can schedule time for your project in advance and build it into our work week are able to better prioritize your needs based upon an assured reward for our efforts. This will mean a much more focused, more time-efficient outcome for you. You will get the results you want, when you want, and at the highest possible level of quality.

I know when I was working on a startup magazine many years ago I went in pitching a dozen ideas for every one I knew could be bought. I wanted the magazine to succeed, and I wanted to be part of its success. The editor saw this and rewarded me with regular work at a reasonable rate and eventually even a title on the masthead. Although I was still a freelancer, it was an incredible vote of confidence in me and my work. It meant I had a regular “place” at the editorial table and I gave the gig a high priority knowing my efforts were being truly appreciated and that little if any would go to waste. My work was better, faster, and more useful as a result and helped define the ultimate direction of the magazine.

But, you argue, keeping freelancers hungry is just common sense. If they get too fat they just won’t want to work.

First of all, nobody ever got fat (metaphorically or literally) by being a freelancer! Our metabolisms are by necessity ticking over way too fast to ever allow us that luxury.

The notion that a hungry freelancer provides you with better work is demonstrably untrue. A hungry employee may be willing to take on jobs that no one else would for inadequate compensation, but that doesn’t mean they will do the best job. A hungry employee will do what you ask—no more—and that will always be less than you really actually require, and in the end that will cost you dearly. Paying a decent wage means getting an experienced professional capable of rising to the challenges you set and surpassing your expectations.

Another startup magazine comes to mind. I went in with all the same determination and enthusiasm as usual but received a very different, very disappointing response. I was asked to work for nothing and next to nothing in order to “invest” in the magazine. I was promised all sorts of future payoffs that never materialized. Of course my work was never valued on any level because I was foolishly offering it too cheaply. I know now that an employer will never value that which has no or little cost. My work was often held back in a pile and then rejected as being “out of date.” Would they have treated it that way if they had paid a reasonable fee for it? I doubt it.

In the end I just gave up and moved on and was willingly replaced by a small army of desperate folk prepared to briefly work under the same unprofessional circumstances before moving on themselves. I felt no regret when it went under. If they had valued any of us experienced freelancers and paid us a realistic wage we could have helped them more than they knew because most of us saw the writing on the wall early on. Being both outsiders and insiders simultaneously often gives professional freelancers a unique perspective. But they preferred to use scared and hungry folk who knew no better and who could consequently produce no better. However, I had learned an important lesson I will never forget: If we do not value our work first and foremost nobody else ever will.

There will always be someone so desperate that they will do the job for less. But you will, in the end, get exactly what you pay for. If you want a creative, inspired touch to get readers or listeners or viewers to increase your audience numbers and (when appropriate) your advertising revenue, you must feed your talent. Give us respect, give us a viable income and a commitment to our services. It takes time and experience to grow into a professional freelancer. But you will be always rewarded with higher quality original content that will address your needs and help you find unexpected solutions to your creative problems.

Those of you who insist upon clinging to the “keep them scared and hungry” philosophy are a dying breed. I have no doubt of that. You may be thriving for a short period of time today but I suspect not for long. Tomorrow’s ever-changing challenges will require the best minds to help tackle, and you will never be able to reap the benefits of employing the best talent available with an attitude like yours. The smart employers, the ones who will take the difficulties ahead and turn them around into success stories, know that in order to hire the best they need to treat them appropriately. And that the best may on occasion get hungry but will never, ever be scared into abandoning their hard-learned principles.

Yours most sincerely,
The Born Freelancer

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

Posted on November 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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