Gouri Dange: The cut-rate client & the new age freelancer

22 Feb,2012

By Gouri Dange


If I had a rupee for every person who has asked me to do work for free, I would be seriously rich. Earlier it was the print media and book publishers; to that lot has been added players in the virtual space asking you to do them work for free because it will give you ‘reach and exposure’ and your name will ricochet around the internet, and surely that is something better than silly old money, and so on and so unconvincingly forth. I suppose this kind of a thing comes with the territory of being a freelancer.


The freelancer’s position, is at best of times, precarious. A tightrope walk that involves balance, judgement, timing, practice, risk. No safety nets of gratuities, pensions, tenure, medical allowances, and a hundred other perks for the freelancer.


The word freelancer means many things to many people. To the nine-to-fiver stuck in an office rut, it conjures up images of ultimate bliss – working at your own time and own pace. No buses to catch, no ferocious traffic to negotiate, no irritating colleagues. It has the delicious hint of serial monogamy: work at a project, and once it’s over, skip along, on to the next interesting piece of work. And if you come up against a really unpleasant client, you know you only have to stick it out till the project’s over. After that, you never need to see his/her face again.


In fact, some freelancers say that almost as satisfying as getting your cheque on time, is the satisfaction of quietly erasing the client’s name from your phone book: either with a neat line passed over the name and number if you use a phone book; or by that terse command: delete.


Whether you’re a street performer with a monkey, or a consultant to the financial sector, as a free lancer, you’ve got your worries cut out for you. Your monkey could get old, your audience could get bored, and your monkey unable to learn new tricks; the stockmarket could become unpredictable; smarter, younger, better people/computer programs could edge you out.


There are many other little things too. The freelancer’s work space, initially at least, is usually a tiny desk or even just the dining table and a phone. In the days before the cell phone, the answering machine was the freelancer’s most reliable message taker. If you left the task of message taking to children and other family members or the domestic help, you could be out of business very fast. Messages could be completely forgotten, reported to you as ‘one uncle called’, or as ‘koi Gwazkapnya’ ka phone tha. You would spend the day trying to decipher the code, and an irritated potential client would call three days later asking why you hadn’t returned the call. His name would contain none of the alphabets or phonetic sounds involved in the word Gwazkapnya.


One great thing is that what was earlier was considered ‘unprofessional’ – if a client heard background sounds of cooking or a baby crying or a dog barking – is now seen as multitasking. Today I routinely talk business on the phone while pottering in the kitchen or messing with a pair of garden shears (handsfree, speakerphone, zindabad). If your client asks you what that sound is, you just come right out and tell him/her – you’re making dog biscuits. Or you’re chopping back the madhumalati creeper. And since the need of the hour today is to ‘create an illusion’ – you could cheat a little and give it your own spin: “I’m making Lobster Thermidor” or “I’m working on my Japanese garden.”


Which is the other precarious point. Creating an illusion. A freelancer must today appear to be busy and on high demand, and yet communicate that he/she can take on work. It’s a fine balance. No point appearing over-eager for work, and no point overdoing the busy bit and fobbing off potential work either.


The other hazard for the freelancer is friends, family and neighbours who could roll in and out of your working day with a “You’re free only, na?” For this it is strongly recommended that you don’t wander around in track pants and t-shirt, even if your work involves meeting no one. Dress moderately well, like you would to go into office, and put out the message that you keep working hours. Disabuse them of the notion that freelancing means that you make a few phone calls and emails, and cheques land up at your doorstep by courier. Make it subtly (or amply) clear that you are your own CEO, marketing exec, peon, receptionist, tea-maker and bill collector – all rolled into one. So no, you’re not free only, na.


As for bill collecting. You know you have become a seasoned freelancer when you announce to your client that you take a 50 percent advance – and you get it. Moreover, when your work is done, you don’t have to ‘muster up the courage’ to ask for the remaining fee. You simply expect it. And it comes to you. Here’s a real rite of passage: learn not to be awkward about asking for money. Many clients kind of hope you’ll go away, once it’s time to pay up. Or initially, when you quote fees, they may give you a shocked look and tell you: a) they themselves are making no profit, and it is for a good cause b) they don’t think the work is ‘that much’ – and actually anyone in their office could do it c) if you do this at a lower fee now, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And so on and so forth.


The seasoned freelancer learns that these are all signs of a non-payer-up client. At which point you have the option to smile and say “Sorry, I can’t afford to do this for any less, because my work puts food on my table.” Because this is the actual truth. And it cuts through the elaborate dance of pretending that you’re working solely for the love of books/kids/environment/technology… whatever.


A young tabla player in Pune recently told me that when a show organiser asks him to half his fees, he says: “I would you know, if you would introduce me to your grocer and tell him to give me tuvar dal at half price too.” Sounds crude? Maybe. But works.


One last tool in the freelancer’s tool-kit. Maintain contacts with unreliable inefficient people in your field. Someone who’s been pestering you to give him/her any ‘overflow work’ that you may get. Someone who only likes the idea of freelancing, but won’t really make any efforts. He/she should be bad at his work and undependable. Let’s call him JD (this is a random name – resemblance to any persons dead or alive, etc, etc). The next time someone tells you to lower your fees or to work free for them because they’re giving you ‘reach and exposure’ by ‘letting you’ work for their shiny organization, or a client gives you a runaround for your hard-earned, stick JD on to them. They deserve each other.


Naming no Names is the mid-week column where novelist, columnist and counsellor Gouri Dange presents her tongue-in-cheek view of our world.


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One response to “Gouri Dange: The cut-rate client & the new age freelancer”

  1. JayDee says:

    That tabla player could also have responded with, “Okay, for half the money I’ll leave the dugga at home.

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