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Archive for the ‘layoffs’ Category

For a freelancer, complacency can mean loss of income. This is a lesson that freelancers can never hear too many times – and one that I apparently need repeated more than most. A few weeks after I blogged about how I had managed to replace the income I lost with the closing of Linux.com with other assignments, I found some of those assignments failing, and suddenly found myself scrambling to replace them.

Fortunately, the job-hunting skills I’d learned as a communications and marketing consultant soon paid off.

As before, basic survival wasn’t an issue. We had income for basic survival, and, since we own our townhouse and have never lived beyond our means, we had no worries about debt. All the same, the situation was disconcerting. I thought I’d solved the income problem.

The problem arose because of two clients. In the first case, the client had at first seemed willing to commit to two stories per week from me. However, after a few weeks, they confessed what I had already concluded from their actions: That they were unable or unwilling to take more than one story per week.

In the second cases, the editor forgot that they had agreed to take two stories from me in February, and budgeted the money instead for articles from other people. Since this was a short term arrangement, it wasn’t as important as the first one, but it was still the first time that an editor had reneged on me for any reason, so it came as a shock. For one thing, I rather liked the editor, and preferred to think well of them. For another, I had counted on having a month to figure out a replacement for that income. Coming on top of the other case and some personal bad news that I choose to keep private, it felt like one damned thing after another.

For a day or so, the situation got to me. I even went so far as to consider revising my resumes and looking for straight work. Despite the recession, the work for writers, editors, and instructors of my experience were plentiful in the Vancouver area, but it all seemed dull and routine compared to what I have accustomed to in the last four years.

Then common sense took me by the scruff of the neck. There were still plenty of outlets for free and open source software articles that I hadn’t got around to trying. I spent an afternoon on the Internet learning about the potential clients (something no freelancer or job-hunter should ever neglect), and prioritizing them according to how their needs compared with my areas of knowledge, the size of their audience (which is often found on pages for advertisers), and, where possible, how much they pay per article.

The next morning, I started phoning. I could have emailed, and my queries easier on my nerves, but, for serious business conversations, there’s still nothing as direct as a phone call. Hearing a voice is personal in a way that email or even chat isn’t, which makes a phone call a way to distinguish yourself from anyone else and have yourself remembered.

To my surprise, I appear to have been lucky the first time out. Details are still being worked out, but I expect to be doing an online blog and a print column, as well as contributing other articles.

You’ll have to imagine me dancing around my living room and pumping my fist in the air (or maybe you shouldn’t; it isn’t a pretty site).
But, while I’m glad of the respite, I hope I’ve learned my lesson. I can’t say that I don’t make the same mistake twice, but I hope to say that I won’t make it three times. I still have other a prioritized list of markets (something I should have readied a long time ago), and, if any other client disappears on me, I’m ready to find replacements.

Given the current economic conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll have a use for that list again in the next few months. But, so far, I can still repeat what I said in my earlier post: Freelancers are better equipped to survive the recession than most – and should generally survive better.

Now, though, I would add: A few job-hunting skills don’t hurt, either.

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Six weeks ago, I wrote that freelancers were better equipped than full-timers to survive a recession, because they were more accustomed to looking for work. At the time, I had only the vaguest suspicions that I would be putting my confident words to the test less than ten days later. Linux.com, which was buying most of my articles, was going along much the same as usual, and, and, because SourceForge, its parent company, is publicly traded, I knew it had money in the bank. If anyone were recession-proof, then surely I was. And, in the end, I was right, although not in the way that I had expected.

By freelancing standards, I had grown complacent. Ordinarily, I try to diversify my sources of income. But I was already writing the maximum number of stories that I could write per month without increasing my work hours, so I hadn’t done so as much as I might. Instead, I had allowed myself to become heavily dependent on a single buyer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my main buyer suddenly stopped buying stories – just in time for Christmas.

After I picked myself up out of the bomb crater, my first reaction was relief that I had at least diversified enough that I could cover my monthly expenses. But I wouldn’t have much left over, and I didn’t feel like giving up my newly acquired art habit, even if it is a luxury.

As I exchanged a flurry of emails and IRC conversations with my fellow writers, I realized that I had to move at once. Quickly putting together a mental list of the most likely buyers for articles on free and open source software, I sent out some queries – not detailing what was happening, but simply saying that some slots in my writing schedule had opened up.

The results, to say the least, were gratifying. Five hours later, I had replaced 85% of the income I had obtained each month from my main buyer. Within three days, I had not only replaced it all, but had done so with a reduced work load. I didn’t even have to go through half my list of potential buyers, although I still might.

Of course, for the past month, I’ve been kept busy getting to know new editors and their ways of doing things. Also, there was paper work — all the more so because I’m a Canadian writing for American-based sites. But all that’s a small price to pay for self-preservation.

Am I lucky? I am painfully aware that I am, especially when I had let myself become so comfortable. But, to some extent, I made my own luck. I still had enough of a freelancer’s instinct to know what I had to do, and that I had to do it fast before anyone else did. And, apparently, despite the vocal minority that like to badmouth me, I seem to have developed a reasonably good reputation – in fact, some of that reputation seems founded on the grounds that anyone badmouthed by certain people must be all right.

Still, my escape was far too close for me to be self-congratulatory. To some extent, I’m still in panic mode.

I don’t know if Linux.com will still be a market for me when the dust clears. But, just now, I doubt that I will return to becoming so dependent on it – or any other single outlet. More than anything else, I am coming out of the last month with my belief intact: As a freelancer, I really was equipped to handle recession.

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Considering the number of jobs I’ve worked at, I’m surprised that I’ve only been fired once. I use the word “fired” deliberately, since I dislike euphemisms like “laid off” or “made redundant”and consider them inaccurate. It was experience that I found humiliating and unfair, and my wish not to repeat it helps to explain the fact that I’ve usually worked freelance or as a consultant ever since.

At the time, I was working as a technical writer. I had a job at one company that bored me to tears, so I hired a sub-contractor to do that, taking a modest hourly cut from her salary and showing up there one day a week. The other four, I worked at another company that wanted my services.

My four day a week job was everything that the other was not. It was new, and I was learning Unix, and I shared an office with two other people who were intelligent and shared a cynical sense of humor. Best of all, I was laying the groundwork for the company’s documentation, recording for the first time much of the information on which the company ran, which was a creative challenge as I struggled to understand the software system and to pry information out of the brains of uncooperative developers (this was before my knowledge of free and open source software made me tolerated in the world of programmers).

All seemed to be going well. The manager to whom I reported wanted me to turn full-time after my first week, and we had a mutual interest in birds (in fact, most of my initial job interview was spent talking about parrots). Elsewhere in the company, people were talking of me as someone who was dong the impossible, since I was the third person to try to give the company some documentation, and I seemed to be succeeding.

Then, one day after I had been working at the company for several months, I heard that the company had lost a major customer. I made the expected solemn noises when I heard, but didn’t think too much about the news, even when rumors of staff cuts started circulating about mid-morning. After all, I thought myself a star employee, so they couldn’t be about to fire me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had forgotten what passes for wisdom among executives – the idea that the last hired or those on contract should go first, regardless of how irreplaceable they might be.

Early in the afternoon, the manager of my section called me in and told me I was being laid off. My first reaction was a wordless sound of disbelief. In my naivety and self-conceit, I had been taking the praise I had received as an indication of how the company regarded my work.

My second was to find a reason for the event. After a moment, I remembered an incident in which part of a printing job needed redoing because of a mistake in the address. Hesitantly, I asked if that was the reason for me being fired.

“Let’s just say that it made the decision easier,” the manager said, suddenly stern.

I pointed out that, while the final responsibility was mine, both he and the president of the company had proofread the job, and so had some of the blame for that mistake. The manager sputtered for a bit, and I realized that all I had done was give him an excuse where he hadn’t had one before.

I could recall far more costly mistakes, including a couple by the manager.
But the excuse didn’t matter. The manager told my office mates to make themselves scarce, and stood over me while I cleaned out my workstation.

To give him credit, he did say that he thought me unlikely to steal or sabotage anything. But he treated me like a potential troublemaker anyway, and I had one of my first direct insights into how expectations and policy could make a basically decent but courage-deficient person act like a stranger to someone who was a friend.

Full of resentment, I packed my things and left, so quickly that I forgot a little plaque with a Northwest Coast design on it. The office manager left a phone message about the plaque, but I never did retrieve it. I didn’t want to return to the place where I had been treated that way, or to face my office mates after what I considered a public humiliation. Never mind that three of the other recent hires were also fired; I took the action personally.

A couple of years later, I met one of my office mates on the Skytrain, and he said that they had all been hurt that I hadn’t kept in touch. A touch icily, I observed that they had never tried to contact me, either.

In the end, I wasn’t largely unaffected financially by the incident. The other company had enough work that needed doing that I could return full time there, while still receiving the stipend for supervising the sub-contractor. But the incident left me more cynical and less trusting, and at some level I promised myself never to endure the situation again.

The next time it looked like financial troubles meant that a company at which I was a long-term consultant was about to lay off people, I bailed a week before the staff was nine-times decimated. The company’s president had promised me a job as long as I wanted one, but I decided not to put his character to the test; instinct told me that he would have failed.

Very quickly, too, I decided that I would not worry about full-time employment and stay freelance. To this day, I dislike people have the power of judgment over me, especially when they are under no restraints to use that power responsibly or fairly.

Even now, I avoid situations where someone might exercise that power over me. Some people might say that shows a bad attitude, but, in the end, I’m glad to have it. If I hadn’t learned to feel that way, I might not be doing almost exactly what I want for a living.

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