Bart Leahy on Freelancing

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. I’m the host Ryan Weber and I wanted to welcome our guest today. We have Bart Leahy, he’s a freelance technical communication consultant, who writing proposals, instructional materials, marketing materials, reports, and social media content for multiple clients, for aerospace, political, and health care fields. Previously he’s worked at Zero Point Frontiers, and NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center. Currently he’s based in Florida and he also runs the blog, HeroricTechnicalWriting.com and serves as the event manager for the Science Cheerleaders Group, so go online and check that out.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Alright welcome to the podcast today Bart. What I really want to do is talk to you about your work as a freelancer and get some advice for people who want to be freelancers themselves. Um, so let’s start the conversation with the question, how does a writer know if they’re ready to start freelancing?

[Bart Leahy] I fell into this kind of by accident, like a downsized and uh…

[Weber] …circumstances outside of your control told you you were ready yeah?

[Leahy] Sure well I mean I could have just as easily just have gone after another job, which was the original intent and I was talking with my dad and he’s like, “You know you haven’t got a whole lot of loyalty from the aerospace community in the past, perhaps it’s time you just go off on your own anyway”. Because I had been talking about it for years, I hadn’t done it yet and this it seemed the timing was good for one thing for me.

[Weber] Okay.

[Leahy] As far as ifI were to offer any advice generically it comes down to things like: how comfortable are you with your skills, are you underemployed in your current job? You know like, I know I can do blah blah blah and blah blah blah, and I’m only being asked to do blah.

[Weber] (chuckle)

[Leahy] In the cycle of the jobs-of my jobs has been such that sometimes I have a lot of [key] responsibilities and sometimes I have one thing to do. And I-usually I don’t feel that crunch until I get shoved back into the smaller box and I’ve been in this big box, I get to do all of these cool things, and then all of a sudden, “We just want you to do this one thing again”. “Oh man really?” And I was starting to get unhappy with that and say “You know I really want to do, be able to expand my capabilities and be able to do a lot of things at the same time and be able to do different things for different customers”. The big things, can you manage your quality and deadlines without someone micromanaging you? You have to be self-self-directed, self, you know, self-motivating and self-disciplining. So that’s a big thing and then the only other thing I guess, are you ready to start freelancing? Are you ready you know-do you want to make your own decisions about what kind of work you do or do you want somebody else to make-be making those decisions?

[Weber] Alright, great. So, once you’ve decided that you want to start freelancing, what are some good strategies for generating clients?

[Leahy] Oh, well I can tell you my client-I can tell you I’ve gotten clients from many different sources. And it’s been-I, I like to tell you that I have a strategy, uh no.

[Weber] (chuckle)

[Leahy] Some of my customers found me and other’s I’ve pursued. I can give you some examples of how I’ve gotten customers…

[Weber] Okay.

[Leahy] …so far. One company I had sent them my resume and they ignored it for half a year and then they emailed me out of the blue and said, “Hey, you know we can use technical writer right now.” So, and they-so they had my resume. We did the whole thing online remotely and I’ve never actually been to their office or anything. So that can be done remotely, and it can be done if they have already seen your Linkedin and they can talk to people and refer you. Get referrals, that’s a big thing. Can you get referrals? Then yeah, they were dealing with a NASA customer and obviously I’ve done plenty of work for NASA and so they was like, “Well who can we talk to?” “Well you can talk to A-A, B, and C.” “Okay, great” So they talk to A, B, and C. “Oh yeah we should hire him.” So, referrals are a big thing. Linkedin was good. I got one of my customers came in through Linkedin-this is a broad network of ‘Tm looking for somebody who can write for me. Oh, and he’s in my network because he’s a fellow space advocate”. Okay great. One of those things, my-you talked about my blog, one thing about this, I’ve noticed about the blog that’s really important. I got some great advice from a friend about this is to write about one topic that you really, that you’re really interested and passionate about and focus on that one topic. Because I have a personal blog which is all over the place and it’s movie reviews one day and it’s personal anecdotes the next day. So, it really, it’s not focused. But if you have a focused blog you can be a little bit more concentrated and develop a reputation as a subject matter expert.

[Weber] It gives you more of a professional persona to be focused in that way.

[Leahy] Yeah.

[Weber] Yeah.

[Leahy] One of my customers found me through the blog. So, we started communicating because I reviewed a book of hers and I’ve written another blog actually because the book interested me so much that I wanted to write-expand on oneof the ideas. So, she was like, “Oh you can do this, perhaps you would be interested in writing for us?” She’s got a consultant company. Like, well okay twist my arm. And the last one is just sometimes be willing to take a chance. I emailed a company out of the blue, they’d just started. It’s a company out of Seattle and it’s focused on aerospace new technologies and they-it’s some smart people, some people with, well people with money but they’re not hiring, paying for a technical writer at the moment. But they were working on a-you know advancing high technology in aerospace which is something obviously I’m passionate about and I emailed them out of the blue and said, “Look you know I saw you just started this company,” said, “you’re going to need help with technical documentation at some point and I’m going to be your guy.” So that was taking a chance, that was a cold call that’s not my usually thing but I’m mostly doing social media for them so, and eventually it might lead to more paying work, we’ll see.

[Weber] Good, good, and then you had chosen them because you shared a passion and then you could get in on the ground floor.

[Leahy] Exactly.

[Weber] So it was strategic cold call in that sense.

[Leahy] Yes, you got it.

[Weber] Okay, great.

[Leahy] Those are some things, there are multiple strategies, it really-, the, the environment of freelancing you can try different things and see what works. A lot of it is throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks.

[Weber] Once you get a client that’s a paying client, how do you decide what to charge them?

[Leahy] Oh yeah. Well I can tell you this is uh, I’m still winging it, still learning, but I started with the last salary that I had.

[Weber] Okay.

[Leahy] And then adding like 30 to 50% to the hourly rate because basically a lot of our benefits are invisible. We don’t see them, we don’t-we get taxed on them, but we don’t necessarily see them.

[Weber] Right.

[Leahy] They don’t-they show up in the paycheck and we don’t see the money, but things like health insurance or social security, things that we pay into.

[Weber] Right, retirement and things like that.

[Leahy] Retirement, right, right. 401K, all that kind of stuff. You have to be able to have that kind of money over and above. You got to set money aside for taxes.

[Weber] Right. (chuckle)

[Leahy] Last June I wrote my first check to the government on a quarterly basis, so that’s another thing you have to be aware of is you got to be paying estimated taxes quarterly.

[Weber] Okay, okay. So, you take-you divided your salary up into an hourly rate…

[Leahy] Right.

[Weber] …and added 30% to 50% for that? So, you usually charge clients by the hour rather than by the project.

[Leahy] Absolutely. Yeah hourly work is best for the type of work I do because I write a lot of things like reports and proposals and things that are pretty standardized, pretty commoditized products, so it’s sort of how long is it going to take you to do this? Well that might take me eight hours, whatever, and I could do a flat fee, but really hourly rate works best for me.

[Weber] Great.

[Leahy] And if you’re looking, you know salary.com is a great thing especially if you’re like me shopping¬≠ working in multiple markets. You can charge more in Washington, D.C. or Huntsville if you’re a technical writer because there’s a higher demand for the service.

[Weber] Got it, okay.

[Leahy] And a little more respect for the service, I would say that.

[Weber] Sure, yeah.

[Leahy] Orlando, Florida I can’t charge nearly as much because they go, “What’s the heck a technical writer?” And they’re like, “We’re not going to pay that.” So, it really has been-it’s been diverse a lot. Sometimes it’s based on the customer’s ability to pay, but I think, you know, I’d say, “Look,” I’d ask somebody up front, “Look, you know this is my hourly pay. Can you pay this? Can you afford that?” Well, so sometimes negotiation occurs.

[Weber] Sure, sure. And then lastly do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement for struggling freelancers or people who are just getting started?

[Leahy] Sure. Keep pushing yourself. Just be-also be business smart, make sure you’re minding your income and outgo. You got to eat. I think the big thing for me, when I was putting-to get this-my thoughts together on this was understand that there’s a carrot and a stick involved with being a freelancer and that is the carrot being what kind of life do you want to lead? What do you want to do? What kind of person, customer, technical, sorry technical writer do you want to be? That’s the carrot, that’s the way you achieve and say I want to do great things, and these are the kinds of things that I want to do. And then now the stick is, “Okay what happens ifI quit this freelance position, go back and take a steady job?” Well okay you’re going to get security but you’re also going to get all those things that hemmed you in in the first place and made you want to go, “Okay I need to get out of here because I want freedom.” So, you lose your-you lose a lot more freedom, you lose your freedom a bit by taking a steady job. So, if you realize that I really like freedom and I really want to pursue the things that I want to do then, you know, that’s what you go to do. This is new to me. I mean I was-up until January I was an employee and I was quite comfortable in that role. This has been a learning and growing experience. I’m glad I did it and now I realize, “Yeah I don’t want to go back to a straight job.” But it took me several months of struggling to-before I got to that point.

[Weber] Great, well thanks so much for sharing your insight with us. Make sure to visit Bart’s blog at herorictechnicalwriting.com and thanks again Bart for all your insight.

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