Why you should define your offering as a freelancer or consultant

In these challenging times with regard to the state of the economy there are a lot more people without full-time employment who find themselves looking for freelance work and who are seeking to offer one form or another of business consultancy. In my world I meet quite a lot of such people, many of whom are new to the fold of the independent worker, having run a business or been in a settled job for many years.

One of the expressions I do not want to hear when a freelancer introduces himself or herself is “I am a generalist”. Why? Because it is important to take into account what the singular or multiple audience hears, and what they hear is “I am not really good at any one thing”. The corollary of “Jack or Jill of all trades” is “Master of none”.

If someone has been the owner of a business or a senior director or partner or whatever, that person tends to think they know all about business because they think they have seen and done everything. That may be true in terms of having a grasp of a business, but it really will not impress a potential buyer of services, who wants to hear what the freelance consultant can do to satisfy their immediate business need.

Everyone is good at something and can offer a special knowledge. If you have been an owner of a business or an employee, that business specialised in something, whether it was engineering, manufacturing, food processing, importing toys, plastic moulding or accountancy. There must be an area the freelancer is most comfortable in. That is going to be the way to get in to sign a decent contract to help. Once in, you can offer your other skills on the back of your perceived competence in what you have achieved so far. However it is important to get in, so do not ever call yourself a generalist, and concentrate on what makes you happiest and is most financially rewarding.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Scammers and traps for start ups

Starting your own business is a big step and one that often isn’t thought through. “Business plan? Goodness me, no I haven’t got one.” However, other difficulties that arise in the first couple of years arise from being too trusting and assuming that everyone with whom you deal is acting in good faith.

I freely admit I was caught out once or twice in the early years. Working for someone else, we are often insulated from outsiders trying to screw us out of a couple of bob or quarters or whatever currency we deal in. When we own the business we are in the front line. So it is that when someone telephones and asks to speak to the person who looks after the marketing and advertising, we will often say quite proudly “you are speaking to that person”. We will then take what the caller has to say at face value.

In my first year or so on my own, I had a call from someone who said he was selling advertising in a magazine which would be in all the local doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, and which was sent out on a quarterly basis. Would I like an ad? When you start out you are often a bit short of business, so I said I would like to try an advert. They sent me a proof of the ad after we had agreed its content over the telephone, I had an invoice and I paid it by cheque. Guess what? The magazine was fictitious. I don’t mean it was an anthology of stories. I mean that it didn’t exist, and I had been taken for £100 I could ill afford, and of course by the time I realised that the fraudsters were long gone.

I learned a serious lesson from that, and it has stood me in good stead.

Another favourite in the UK and I am sure it has its equivalent in other countries is the Data Protection Agency Fraud. If in the course of your business you hold personal data for your customers or clients you must register with the Information Commissioners and pay an annual renewable license fee of currently £35. However, there are scammers who will write to you and offer to register your business for a much higher sum. They send official looking and quite threatening letters in brown envelopes, and there is an example here.

When I received the first of many such letters, fortunately my alarm bells rang and I checked on the internet where there is a great deal of information about this scam. I am pleased to say that people have been jailed over this racket but usually when the raids take place the criminals are long gone. They use PO Boxes and mail forwarding services and are very clever. If you need to register under the Data Protection Act do it directly to the Information Commissioners after downloading their form online.

Then again there is a charity scam which is quite common. I expect it is intended to be targeted at businesses just larger than micro-businesses, but even if there is just you and you are busy with other things you might get caught out. Anyway, someone calls, and the ploy is clever. They tell you that someone in your office, perhaps you, agreed some months ago when they called before that your business would either make a donation to a charity, or you would take an advert in a charity magazine. They will say something along the lines of “the money will go to a charity to help the disabled children” of your town, which they will name. Now, when they name my village, it is transparently obvious that they are blagging, because I would have heard of any special charity, and our village probably is not large enough to have such a charity of its own. However, if you are in a larger town, say Bradford or Canterbury, it is quite possible that there might be such a charity and a busy person or someone in a larger office could fall for it and give the company credit card number to the caller.

The scam works on credibility. If the caller says someone in your office was called and agreed to the payment some weeks ago your instinct might be not to go against this. Of course no one called before, but the lie is simply to suck you in.

It is stating the obvious, but never, never give a credit card number to someone you don’t know who has made contact with you by telephone. You would not if you had such a call on your private line, but if you get a call on your business line from someone purporting to represent another business or a charity it really would be all to easy to be drawn in. I haven’t done it myself, but have been led to the water from which I refused to drink. I think I know better, but people fall for these and the very credible online phishing scams. The crooks are out to get us. Be careful out there!

Being lucky!

As I have been telling everyone, notably on Twitter, I have had a lot of problems with IT over the last three weeks. I am pretty dependent on the technology working to keep my business running smoothly. I use many on-line services, paid-for and otherwise. In fact, the way I work as a quite small business would not have been possible fifteen years ago, and not too easy a decade ago. I started seven years ago as a fairly early adopter originally being on-line with 24-7 dial-up before broadband reached our area. Without the technology I would be a lone voice crying in the wilderness and never heard, and whilst the recent problems bring headaches, I have to be thankful that when the technology works (which is usually) it is magic. I am genuinely lucky that my business is facilitated (made easier – but the thesaurus isn’t that helpful) this way as a while back I would have been one of the unemployed with little prospect of getting work in a downturn.

Lots of people have similarly been unshackled by the technology and have genuinely a much greater chance of getting businesses off the ground to earn some money in hard times. I am not talking about dodgy MLM and “network marketing”; I mean real B2B and B2C business. Of course there may be a difficult market but there are opportunities to make a difference, to help struggling businesses and to be innovative too. For those who are computer-literate and can be flexible there should be a viable business (even if only providing a subsidiary income) using their talents or exploiting their knowledge in a hobby to go in a different direction. If you have experience in a market as a buyer, you can probably be a seller.

Today we have through technology the potential to gain knowledge my parents could never have dreamt of, and a much greater insight into what is going on in the world. Political and economics intelligence is available to us all and at little or no cost, so in a way there is no excuse for ignorance, though we should never be afraid to ask for help where it is needed.

I could get into trouble for this kind of article because many do not like the optimistic perceived coach-type pieces we see published so often. Some of my best friends are coaches. Chuck what you wish in terms of virtual brickbats. We ARE lucky in that we do not have to do as we are told and can go our own way, and all because of technology.

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