Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I am trying to learn a new business skill: saying "No."

According to my husband, I have been saying "No" quite well for years, but in this case I'm talking about business.

It started becoming apparent to me that I was unpracticed in this job skill while I was juggling things on the road. Working a fair can be taxing, as you must be there every day, sometimes up to 14 hours, drawing people and doing other odds n' ends a booth requires. Not a great time to take on extra work, right? Ha! I already had some extra work lined up before leaving. And as I stayed out there, thanks to the marvels of smartphones, my workload just seemed to increase. I agreed to design two logos. I took on seven or eight digital caricatures. I drew up contracts and sent emails to contacts and went over my schedule a zillion times. I downloaded a book I had arranged to proofread for my old publisher. The wonders of having an iPad!

One of my coworkers told me I was like "one of those crabs." It was a muddled metaphor at first, but he described what it meant. You know those crabs that, by instinct, grab bits of gravel, seaweed, and refuse, and stick it all on their backs, to create camouflage? Well, he told me, you're like one of those crabs, except you are sticking jobs to yourself constantly, it's like instinctual for you.
Oh, sure, I can add that to my schedule. No prob.

Dammit, I don't want to be a crab. Not forever. Earlier on it was necessary. Freelance jobs weren't easy to find, income is never a guarantee in this business, and by golly, I wanted to get a good stable of regular clients so that work kept coming in! Now my stable is full, and more are banging on the door. I slowly started saying "No." Especially last month. With a website revamp, our traffic is up and folks are calling in more often than before. And I'm grateful! But I need to learn that new skill or else I will be burning my candle at both ends while also submerging it in hot lava. Screw that. I'm forty years old. As one gets older, and more skilled, the idea is to work less and earn more for the time you work, right? Right.

So why is it so bloody hard for me to turn down projects??? Lord knows I have a list of my own stuff that I've "been meaning to get to" for ages, when I have a "spare moment" or "time between projects" to sit and develop them.

Does anyone else have this crabby little problem? No one wants to come off as desperate for work--and I don't think I do--but it just feels wrong to turn down clients outright. Unless the potential client is a complete jerk . . . and although folks like that make for great stories, it really is (luckily) a rare thing to encounter a complete asshole. Usually it's just nice folks wanting my help, and I feel guilty not being able to accommodate them (and take their money).

Some decisions had to be made, and a process had to be put in place. Organization is key. My first job out of college was as an administrative assistant, and my main job on Tuesdays was typing up "the Edsum." This was short for "editorial summary," an updated list of every single book project in production, with notes on what had been completed and when. Nowadays, I have a similar thing on my phone documents: a summary of all calls that come in asking for freelance work, what I quoted (if I quoted a price) and what stage things are in. This at least allows me to prioritize, and to see at a glance what I've got on my plate and when various things are due.

I made the decision that I didn't want to book out other artists and take a fee off the top. Believe it or not, that feels like more work to me, and more stress, than I want. I will continue using a few select folks when Robert and I need more that just us two for a particular gig. But being a booking agent was never on my life's list of goals, no matter what the profit margin. Happily, I was able to tell a few people that we were booked on the day they were inquiring about, and here's a few phone numbers of colleagues that might be interested in the job. And that was that, problem solved.

Likewise, there are a few folks who contacted me regarding freelance side projects that I will have to turn down. That book I need to proofread sits on my table now, and I need to--no, I want to--get to it. That's another swell thing about having some experience and being "semi-retired"(in that field, at least). I can choose proofreading jobs based on my interest. This one is about the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson. I would probably read it for free, but please do not tell the managing editor that.

This should feel like a great time, a crossroads, a marker that the business Rob and I have worked hard at for a decade now is really hitting a nice stretch. It goes against my better nature to sit back and "relax" though. Maybe it'll last, maybe it won't. We'll see. The waters out there are fickle, and tides change.

I may be sticking things onto my shell frantically by next year. But for now, I'm practicing "No."

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