The Danger of Backup Plans. And Choice. [en]

[fr] Avoir un plan B nous rassure, mais nous empêche aussi souvent de mettre autant d'énergie qu'il le faudrait dans notre plan A. Parfois, ne pas avoir le choix est une bonne chose.

Being rather pessimistic by nature and risk-averse, I love my backup plans. I really like knowing what I’ll do “if something goes wrong”.

The only way to go is forward.
No plan B here!
Photo by Anita Bora, taken on one of our hikes a couple of years ago.

These last ten years as a self-employed professional are no exception. In the back of my mind I’ve always “known” that, if things go awry:

  • I have savings I can dip into
  • I can borrow money
  • I can always “find a job”
  • maybe I’ll shack up with somebody who has a stable situation and there won’t be so much pressure on my income anymore.

I have always had the nagging feeling that these backup plans kept me from giving my fullest to the current one, the one I was actually living. Why struggle and work like crazy when it might not be necessary?

Like our modern western world, I like the idea that we are responsible, that the way we lead our life is through choices. We always have a choice. I’ve been brought up to believe that we always choose, even when we think we don’t. I don’t think it was drilled into me on purpose — it just reflects the ambient beliefs of our time. If you say you don’t have a choice, you’re in some ways painting yourself as a hapless victim with less agency than you actually have.

But reality is more complex than that, as all we women of the 60s and 70s who ended up not having children due to the circumstances of life rather than our desire not to have any very well know. (I hope.) Not everything that happens to you is a choice.

Looking at the future (and present) rather than the past, absence of choice can actually be a good thing. Absence of a plan B. A series of recent discussions brought that to light for me: professionally, there isn’t really a plan B for me. In the long run, I need to stay self-employed (more about this in another post at some point). And so I have to make my business more successful than in the past (not just by wishful thinking, there is a lot of work to be done, actually — more about that in another post).

Saying “I have to do this” is, again, something I’ve been taught to avoid. Because it makes one powerless to have to do something, rather than want, choose, decide. But an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain presents research that points to another phenomenon: if we have a fallback plan, our motivation or drive to make our main plan succeed diminishes.

Not having a choice can actually be an advantage!

This might be one reason I like action/thriller movies, in which characters very often have no choice but to do what they are doing. Trying to stay alive or save the world definitely gives one a sense of purpose, something I sometimes feel I am lacking in my life.

There could also be a link to my love of physical activities like skiing, sailing, judo, kitesurfing, and even cycling and driving: when you’re moving or in action, you have to do what you have to do, or you can hurt or even kill yourself. In that moment, there is no backup plan. Come to think of it, that is true of public speaking too, though there is of course no physical danger there.

Hors du temps [fr]

[en] India, out of time. Not doing much. Some thoughts on where I'm going professionally.

C’est ce qui se passe quand je suis en Inde. Le temps au sens où je le vis en Suisse n’existe plus. C’était le but, d’ailleurs, pour ce voyage — des vacances, de vraies vacances, les premières depuis longtemps, saisissant l’occasion de la fin d’un gros mandat (près de deux ans), décrocher, me déconnecter, avant de voir à quoi va ressembler mon avenir professionnel.

Ça fait dix ans, tout de même. Dix ans que je suis indépendante. J’ai commencé à faire mon trou en tant que “pionnière” d’un domaine qui émergeait tout juste. Aujourd’hui, en 2015, l’industrie des médias sociaux a trouvé une certaine maturité — et moi, là-dedans, je me dis qu’il est peut-être temps de faire le point. Ça semble un peu dramatique, dit comme ça, mais ça ne l’est pas: quand on est indépendant, à plus forte raison dans un domaine qui bouge, on le fait “tout le temps”, le point. Souvent, en tous cas.

Il y a des moments comme maintenant où “tout est possible”. C’est un peu grisant, cette liberté de l’indépendant. Effrayant, aussi. Y a-t-il encore un marché pour mes compétences? Serai-je capable de me positionner comme il faut, pour faire des choses qui me correspondent, et dont les gens ont besoin? L’année à venir sera-t-elle en continuité avec les dernières (blogs, médias sociaux, consulting, formation…) ou bien en rupture totale? Si je m’autorise à tout remettre en question, quelles portes pourraient s’ouvrir?

Alors, vu que je peux me le permettre, je me suis dit qu’un mois en Inde loin de tout, ça me ferait du bien. Il faut des pauses pour être créatif. Il faut l’ennui, aussi, et l’Inde est un endroit merveilleux pour ça.

Steph, Palawi and Kusum

Oui oui, l’ennui. Alors bon, je parle de “mon” Inde, qui n’est peut-être pas la vôtre. L’Inde “vacances chez des amis”, où on intègre gentiment la vie familiale, où acheter des légumes pour deux jours est toute une expédition, et changer les litières des chats nécessite d’abord de se procurer des vieux journaux et de les guillotiner en lanières. Où votre corps vous rappelle douloureusement que vous êtes à la merci d’une mauvaise nuit de sommeil (les pétards incessants de Diwali sous nos fenêtres, jusqu’à bien tard dans la nuit, pendant plus d’une semaine — ou le chat qui commence à émerger de sa narcose de castration à 1h du mat, bonjour la nuit blanche) ou d’un repas qui passe mal. Où le monde se ligue contre vos projets et intentions, vous poussant à l’improvisation, et à une flexibilité qui frise la passivité. On se laisse porter. Moi, en tous cas.

Alors je lis. Je traine (un peu) sur Facebook. J’accompagne Aleika dans ses activités quotidiennes. Je joue avec les chats. Je cause en mauvais hindi avec les filles de Purnima (notre domestique), qui ont campé dans notre salon pendant 4-5 jours la semaine dernière. J’attends. J’attends pour manger. J’attends pour prendre mon bain. Je passe des jours à tenter de régler mes problèmes de photos. Le gâteau? On fera ça demain. Je fais la sieste, pour compenser les mauvaises nuits ou attendre que mon système digestif cesse de m’importuner.

Ce n’est pas que ça, bien sûr. Mais comparé au rythme de vie frénétique que je mène en Suisse (même si je sais m’arrêter et me reposer), ici, je ne fais rien.

Life and Trials of a Social Media Consultant [en]

[fr] Le marché et l'industrie des médias sociaux a beaucoup changé depuis que j'en ai fait ma profession (c'était en 2006, pardi!). Petit regard en arrière sur le chemin parcouru et où je me situe par rapport à la pléthore actuelle de services tournant autour des médias sociaux. Un profil de généraliste avec deux domaines de prédilection, les blogs et les indépendants.

Since I went freelance over six years ago, a lot has changed. We weren’t talking of social media back then. I was a “blogging consultant” and what I told people about was “the living web”. At some point what we did was “social software”. Somewhere along the line “social media” showed up (who still speaks of “web 2.0” nowadays?), and it’s become a pretty well-accepted umbrella term for all sorts of stuff from “viral videos” to “facebook marketing” to blogging to digital strategy to online communities… And all the rest.

At some point here in Switzerland, the social media industry matured. I went from being one of the very few people in the French-speaking part of Switzerland who could come and give a talk on “blogs and the living web” (when I started out) to one of the many fish in a larger and larger pond (including, sadly, some sharks). In other words, there are now people who specialize in creating marketing campaigns for facebook pages, others who are experts at Twitter, yet others who are full-time community managers.

I realized a couple of years ago that there was no point in me trying to compete with marketing/advertising agencies. Or community managers. I’m not a marketing expert. Or a community manager. Or many of the specialized roles that have appeared over the last couple of years. Today there are people who have full-time corporate jobs with “social media” in their job title — good luck finding any of those in 2004-2006.

You might remember my specialist/generalist series of articles. In today’s industry, I have a generalist profile (it’s a question of point of view of course, I’ll always be a “social media specialist” to the outside world). That makes me a great person to bring in during early stages of social media adoption/development (one reason I work with lots of freelancers and small organisations) and in situations where a wider view of the field is necessary to break through what are becoming the social media silos. It also makes me a good social media course director, because I have this global overview 🙂

There are, however, areas that I am specialized in — or have specialized in, over the years. I started out being a web standards advocate ( and the associated mailing-list live on). I gave a whole bunch talks (and wrote some code) around the question of languages and multilingualism online. Until recently (and still sometimes, actually!) another area of expertise of mine was teenagers and the internet (I’ve lost track of the number of talks I’ve given in schools, but it’s probably somewhere around 50).

Today, the two areas I “expertise” in are blogging and freelancers/freelancing. I’ve been doing quite a bit of soul-searching as I prepare the much-needed revamped version of my professional website, which I won’t even link to here, it’s so horribly painfully out of date. Maybe once the new version is up I’ll come back here and add all the relevant links 😉

Blogging: I’ve been blogging since July 2000. Blogging is my thing. It’s in my DNA. I’ll probably never stop, even though I am blogging less than I used to, because there are now other channels of communication and self-expression that were not there in the early days of blogging. I’m a blogger. Professionally, that means it’s a tool I love, and that if you need somebody to get you started in the world of blogging, or help you progress along the way, I’m your person.

I’ve been playing around with WordPress since forever (even written a bunch of plugins). I’ve been the editor of the French-language ebookers travel blog for three and a half years. Last year I helped get the community blog off the ground (not even mentioning the countless others amongst my more “modest” clients). I’ve advised and coached companies as varied as Intel (2007), Fleur de Pains (2008) or Solar Impulse (2010) on their blogging, and developed services in blogger relations for Web 2.0 Expo Europe, LeWeb, Solar Impulse, and now Orange. And how could I forget Bloggy Friday Lausanne!

Enough with the list. I’ve been doing this blogging stuff for a long time, and doing quite a lot of it.

Freelancers/freelancing: the freelance ride has not been smooth for me, though I’ve made it. I’m somebody who self-analyzes a lot, and so I have spent a lot of time reflecting on how to manage one’s life and job when one freelances. The first outcome of this trend was the Going Solo conference (now a group on facebook), and then the eclau coworking space in Lausanne. For many years I have also had lots of freelancers amongst my clients: people who have little or no web presence and want to get started, or learn how to blog, or use social media to make themselves more visible. All this ties together nicely, and I appreciate it goes beyond social media: business strategy, productivity, negotiating and dealing with relationships, work-life balance…

So, there we go. I initially wanted to speak about the wisdom (or not) of specializing in “blogging” nowadays, but the introduction of this post took on a life of its own, so there you are! I’ll keep that question for another post.

The Freelancer and The Open-Ended Projects [en]

[fr] Les projets à long terme et assez ouverts peuvent être un piège pour l'indépendant, quand la charge de travail augmente soudainement pour plusieurs projets menés en parallèle.

Business has been good this year. 2007-2008 was pretty disastrous, 2009 saw me get back on my feet, and 2010 is really taking off. I’m happy.

With business taking off come more challenges for the freelancer. One of them is open-ended projects, which are especially tricky for the time-management-challenged soloist.

Often, these projects are exciting in nature, having a wider scope than more time-limited projects like “give a talk” or “a day of training”. They’re also interesting financially because they allow the freelancer to secure larger sums of money with a single client, or offer a monthly retainer (something anybody with monthly bills can appreciate).

But they can contain a trap — trap I’ve found myself caught in. The trap is double.

They go on and on

By definition, open-ended projects are open. They might have an end, but if it’s many months in the future, they might as well not have one. This means there is always something to do. They don’t have the comforting “after date X in the near future (next week), this is over”. It’s not a bad thing as such, but it can be stress-inducing.

They have variable workload

The workload for open-ended projects is spread over weeks or months, but it is not always constant. It might be light for a few weeks, and then suddenly require 30 hours of work in a week. This can easily conflict with other work engagements, especially if they are also open-ended, unless the freelancer plans very carefully.

A third trap?

I almost want to add a third trap to these projects: they are often ill-defined and subject to scope creep. Again, careful planning can limit those problems, but is your typical freelancer in love with careful planning?

I’ve discovered that having one or two open-ended projects going on at the same time is roughly as much as I can handle. Maybe three, depending on the degree of open-endedness. At one point this year, I had five in parallel, and that was just impossible.

So, with more work opportunities comes the obligation to start choosing better, and managing a balance between regular gigs, which give some financial security, and short-term ones, which are usually more interesting from a return-on-time-invested perspective.

Les trois équilibres de l'indépendant [fr]

Je pense que l’indépendant (créatif) a besoin de trouver un équilibre sur trois plans différents, histoire de ne pas se dessécher ni péter les plombs:

  • une “hygiène de vie” laissant suffisamment de place pour respirer semaine après semaine (avoir et respecter des plages de non-travail, prendre du temps pour soi, faire du sport, manger correctement, dormir, voir des amis, passer du temps avec sa famille…)
  • des coupures pour décrocher, week-ends prolongés mais aussi vraies vacances (on m’a dit que pour vraiment se ressourcer, il fallait compter minimum trois semaines!)
  • durant le temps de travail, assez de temps pour explorer, s’amuser, rechercher, bricoler — et ne pas passer tout son temps le nez plongé dans des mandats.

Pour ma part, le côté “hygiène de vie” fonctionne assez bien, pour les coupures, je suis en train de prendre des mesures, et concernant le temps de jeu/bricolage/recherche professionnel… ces temps, ce n’est pas du tout ça.

Saint-Prex 09

Hygiène de vie

  • Je défends jalousement mes soirées et mes week-ends, même quand le boulot s’empile, sauf quelques rares situations d’exception.
  • Je fais du sport, je vois des gens, je prends des moments pour moi, je ne mange pas trop mal. J’ai en fait pas mal d’activités “non-professionnelles” dans ma vie.
  • J’ai un lieu de travail séparé de mon lieu de vie.
  • Ça n’a pas été simple d’en arriver là, j’ai déjà écrit pas mal d’articles sur mon parcours, mais je n’ai pas le courage de les déterrer juste là.


  • En 2008, j’ai commencé à prendre des week-ends prolongés à la montagne pour me ressourcer, et c’était une bonne chose. 2010, ça a passé à la trappe pour diverses raisons, mais il est temps de reprendre les choses en main.
  • Suite à des discussions que j’ai eues avec mes amis Laurent et Nicole, et sur leurs sages conseils, j’ai décidé de m’imposer au minimum un week-end prolongé (3 jours) par mois et une grosse bonne coupure (disons un mois, hop) par an.
  • Résultat des courses, j’ai établi un calendrier annuel de mes coupures. Ça ressemble à ça: je fais un break d’un mois en janvier (déjà un voyage prévu en Inde en 2011), en été, je pars une semaine en France comme ces deux dernières années, et en automne, je prévois une dizaine de jours en Angleterre pour voir amis et famille. En plus de ça, un mois sur deux je prends un simple week-end prolongé (lundi ou vendredi congé), et un mois sur deux en alternance, un plus long week-end prolongé (4-5 jours) avec option de partir quelque part.
  • J’ai posé toutes ces dates dans mon calendrier, jusqu’à début 2012.

Travail ludique

  • Je bloque un peu sur cette question: je dois prendre moins de mandats (clairement) mais du coup je crains pour le côté financier de l’affaire.
  • En fait, en regardant réalistement mes revenus (j’ai une grille sur la dernière année qui me les montre semaine par semaine) je me rends compte que je n’ai pas besoin d’avoir si peur que ça.
  • Une solution: moins de mandats qui paient relativement peu par rapport au temps/stress investi, plus de mandats mieux payés (je dis des choses logiques mais c’est pas si simple à mettre en pratique). Surtout, moins de mandats “open-ended” en parallèle, qui s’étalent sur la durée avec une charge de travail variable. (J’ai un billet en gestation là-dessus.)
  • Aussi, avoir confiance dans la dynamique qui me permet de vivre de ma passion: donner plus de priorité à sa passion attire les mandats.
  • Bref, avec mes petits calculs, je me suis rendu compte qu’en plus de mes mandats “réguliers” (annuels/mensuels), si j’avais une journée de “travail payé” (consulting, formation, coaching, conférence) par semaine je m’en tirais largement. Ça me laisse donc 3-4 jours, suivant la longueur de ma semaine, pour mes mandats courants, la gestion des clients, et ces fameuses “autres activités professionnelles pas payées” (dont ce blog fait partie).

Et vous, voyez-vous d’autres équilibres à maintenir? Avez-vous des solutions à partager pour ceux que j’ai identifiés?

Some Advice on Being Your Own Boss (My SWITCH Conference Talk) [en]

[fr] Une conférence que je viens de donner à Coimbra. Quelques conseils (de survie ;-)) pour indépendants.

I just gave a talk this morning on some advice on being a freelancer (dearly learned along the 4 years of my solo career), at the SWITCH conference here in Coimbra. Here’s the presentation:

This presentation is really aimed at people who are already working freelance, and are doing so as a result of turning a passion into a job. “How to become a freelancer” is a completely different talk (which I might give some day!)

Also, there was a misunderstanding about what I mean when I say “be expensive”. I mean “ask for what you’re worth” — no way do I mean “overcharge”. Most people who are freelancers by passion are a bit like hippies when it comes to money, and most people undercharge and feel they are being horrendously expensive when they ask for the right price.

This talk is not either advice for people who want to become freelancers out of nothing. Start out with a passion, something you’re good at. Maybe you might be able to turn it into a job. Only then will this advice come in handy.

If you’re interested in seeing more on this topic, you should check out the videos of the talks given at Going Solo, a conference on freelancing I organized in 2008. I also have a series of posts about procrastination that might come in handy to some (but don’t read them now, do it tomorrow ;-)).

Oh, and here’s Why the 15-minute timer dash works, and Let’s buddy work. My office and coworking space (in Lausanne, Switzerland) is eclau. I’ll add related posts here as I think of them.

*Here’s a crappy video of the talk (SWITCH will provide a better one) which I shot so I could make it available quicker ;-)*

Client Phone Calls: House Rules [en]

I have recently become aware that I am developing a certain number of “house rules” for my phone calls with clients (particularly first-contact phone calls). I thought I’d share them here with you in case they could come in handy to other freelancers:

  1. I don’t give rates on the phone
  2. I don’t agree to new things
  3. I don’t talk about what I’m doing with a contact to a third party within the same company unless my contact introduced me to them.

I’ll detail the whys and the hows of these below, but first of all…

Me and phone calls

I often describe myself as a phonephobic. There are situations where I’m perfectly comfortable on the phone (with friends, for example), but anything that hints of administrivia or relationship tension just makes me go ballistic if it needs to be dealt with by phone.

There was a time when I would walk into town to the offices so I could deal with admin stuff face-to-face, rather than pick up the call and get it done in five minues.

To be fair, I’ve had my share of traumatizing phone experiences (when I was a scout leader as a teenager, and all through my adult years). I also worked as a phone interviewer (surveys) for a couple of years when I was a student — so I’m not completely incompetent either. I’m not exactly sure why I am so scared of phone calls, but I am.

If you’ve had me on the phone you probably have no idea of this, because I cover it up, but it translates in me procrastinating a lot when I need to call people back, and agonizing for days — weeks — when I decide I need to cold-call somebody.

Still. I don’t like it, but I’m functional — however, I need to take into account that I feel under pressure on the phone and take steps to make things easier for me. (Less blunders = happier clients, in the end.)

Not giving rates on the phone

First of all, let me say that as a freelancer in a pioneering industry, determining how much to ask for the services I offer has always been a bit of a headache. From undercharging (way too often) to overcharging (a few times), I’ve done it all. Convincing people they need me is not too much of an issue, but actually asking for money is where I more often than not start sliding down into the pit of self-deprecation.

I’ve been doing this for four years now, and I’m much better at it than I was. I’m actually even starting to consider myself pretty competent, to say the truth. But even with the worst of the pricing-angst behind me, offering services for which there is no real fixed market-price to a wide variety of clients means that pricing is not simple. (Think Oracle and Intel on one end of the spectrum, and struggling artists and newbie freelancers on the other.)

Recently, I realized that I was much less likely to undercharge (or overcharge) if I had a little time to calmly think about my pricing, without the client breathing down my neck on the other end of the line. (Well, my clients aren’t actually that bad, quite the contrary, but given my phone anxiety, that’s quickly what it feels like.) I asked around a bit, and discovered that quite a few of my colleagues had a “no money on the phone” policy. By e-mail is fine, face-to-face is fine, but not on the phone. If your client is going to go green (or speechless) when he hears your price, chances are you’d rather it not happen on the phone. And if your prices are right, then that’s what’s going to happen.

So, unless you’re going to systematically undercharge, keep the money talk off the phone.

I make exceptions when the service is very well-defined and there is no hesitation about the price. For example, if a freelancer calls me up because he wants to spend half a day with me to make his website, I’ll give the price on the phone.

But even that is not without danger: I have given freelancer prices to small companies in this kind of situation, because I didn’t have enough information at that moment to realize what kind of client I was dealing with. And it’s always very unpleasant to have to send a follow-up e-mail saying “actually, it’s more expensive than I told you”. And it’s even more unpleasant to be stuck with work you’re undercharging for.

Not agreeing to new things on the phone

I’m easily enthusiastic about new projects, and that does give me a tendency to bite off more than I can chew. Again, as there are few things more unpleasant than saying “Oh yes, great, let’s do that!” and having to follow up with an e-mail the next day (or worse the next week or the next month) explaining that you overcommited and have to back out.

This can also help manage scope creep for existing projects.

When I was a teenager, my dad showed me these cards they were distributing students at his school. They were guidelines to help them decide when to say “no” to something. One of the guidelines was something like “If you feel under pressure to say yes, then that alone is a reason for saying no.” Taking a little bit of time to think about something on your own or by talking to a trusted friend cannot hurt. Don’t fall for the “now or never” ploy.

Third-party calls from the same company

I am not a fan of triangulation. I know from first-hand experience that it does not make for happy relationships, and do my best to not fall into that kind of trap with my clients.

If my client is a company, I usually have a single point of contact. If my contact puts me in touch with other people from the company so that I can do my job, that is fine. But if I receive a cold call from a third party from inside the same company, asking for information about an ongoing project, I will not discuss it without checking first with my contact.

In practice

These three guidelines I have are actually there to allow me to make decisions or deal with situations without being under the pressure of having to give an immediate response to something. I think the phone is particularly pressure-inducing because silence is less acceptable than if you’re face-to-face.

I think if you’re somebody who tends to be anxious in this kind of situation or agree too quickly to things, it helps to have these predefined guidelines for what to do in certain set situations — particularly with first-time calls with clients (and, I would tend to argue, for subsequent calls as well; can you tell I don’t like the phone?)

If you have other guidelines for your phone calls with clients, do share them in the comments.

Here are a few useful lines I try to keep handy. Do you have others?

  • That sounds really interesting! I’d like to sleep on it a bit and get back to you in a few days.
  • I’m afraid I don’t give my rates on the phone. I’ll send you an e-mail with my rates by tomorrow.
  • That sounds reasonable. Let me think about it and give you an answer by the end of the week.

And as a final note, yes, I know that my clients are reading this too. I don’t mind being comfortable about my shortcomings. And I’m not interested in entering professional relationships (or any, for that matter) based on power-play. Which is, let’s face it, the only kind of situation where talking about this kind of stuff in the open could be harmful for me.

Huit conseils de survie pour indépendants [fr]

J’écris beaucoup en anglais sur des sujets qui touchent les indépendants, dans la catégorie Being the Boss et aussi, dans une moindre mesure, Life Improvement. Aujourd’hui, j’ai envie d’offrir à mes lecteurs francophones indépendants quelques conseils de survie. J’aurais bien fait de les suivre à mes débuts, et je suis bien consciente qu’on n’apprend jamais mieux qu’à travers ses propres erreurs, mais parfois, parfois, les expériences d’autrui peuvent être précieuses.

Sans plus attendre, lançons-nous donc.

1. Barricader votre temps personnel

Surtout en début de carrière indépendante, à plus forte raison si l’on a transformé en métier une passion, il est facile de se laisser griser par la liberté des horaires et l’impression que “le travail n’est plus du travail”. Le problème de la plupart des indépendants, c’est qu’ils travaillent trop. Fatigue, stress, ou même burn-out les attendent au contour.

Préservez jalousement votre temps personnel: pour dormir, manger, vous détendre, et fréquenter famille et amis. Même si c’est frustrant au départ, fixez-vous des règles: pas de travail le week-end, ou le dimanche, ou après 19h. Ou pas de travail le matin si vous avez travaillé le soir. Plus tard, avec l’expérience, vous apprendrez quand vous pourrez faire des exceptions sans trop en souffrir. Mais pour commencer, soyez stricts.

2. L’agenda de votre client n’est pas plus important que le vôtre

La liberté d’horaire qui va avec beaucoup de métiers indépendants est très agréable et pratique, mais cela ne signifie pas que vous devez à tout prix offrir la flexibilité maximale à vos clients. Si vous avez l’habitude de concentrer vos rendez-vous sur certaines journées (une pratique que je recommande) et que vous y tenir nécessite de ne voir le client que dans deux semaines, ce n’est pas votre entière responsabilité. Si votre client annule un rendez-vous et veut du coup vous voir sur une de vos plages de temps personnel, apprenez à être ferme.

En donnant la priorité à l’agenda de votre client, vous cédez à son urgence, et mettez le petit doigt dans l’engrenage d’une forme d’esclavage.

Cela ne veut pas dire qu’il ne faut jamais faire d’exceptions. Mais faites d’abord l’expérience d’être intransigeant, pour être ensuite libre dans vos exceptions.

3. Etre plus cher, quitte à perdre quelques clients

La plupart des indépendants que je connais travaillent trop et ne gagnent pas assez d’argent. Souvent, simplement parce qu’ils ne sont pas assez chers. Il vaut mieux perdre des mandats parce qu’on est trop cher (et croyez-moi, si vos prix sont justes vous serez régulièrement “trop cher” pour quelqu’un) que d’accepter des mandats trop gros pour des tarifs trop bas et travailler à perte ou pour 20.- de l’heure, à ne plus s’en voir les mains.

“Gérer” un client (du premier contact, voire des efforts marketing engagés pour l’attirer, jusqu’au paiement final) c’est aussi du travail, et même si vous ne pouvez pas le facturer, vous devez en tenir compte lorsque vous calculez vos tarifs pour rentrer dans vos frais. Ce sont vos frais fixes, si on veut — le “coût d’acquisition” du client.

4. Faire payer des acomptes

Face au client qui est souvent une entreprise, l’indépendant est en position de faiblesse. Si quelque chose va de travers, c’est en général l’indépendant qui casque (comprenez: il ne se fait pas payer, ou cède à la pression de faire du travail supplémentaire pour le même montant). Le client court très peu de risques de payer pour du travail qui n’est pas fait, comme le travail est généralement facturé après-coup. Bien sûr, l’indépendant peut engager des poursuites si son client ne paie pas, mais il n’a pas à disposition l’appareil judiciaire ou les ressources financières (ou le temps!) pour mener ce genre d’opération jusqu’au bout. Sans compter que les sommes à investir dépassent souvent largement celles qui sont dûes.

Afin de partager un peu les risques, il faut faire payer un acompte au client avant de démarrer le travail. 50%, c’est bien — au minimum 30%. L’intérêt de l’acompte est double: d’une part, il vous donne de quoi payer une facture ou deux pendant que vous travaillez sur le mandat (que le premier indépendant n’ayant jamais connu de problèmes de liquidités s’annonce!), et d’autre part, il permet de trier les clients. Un client qui refuse de payer un tel acompte n’est probablement pas un client avec lequel vous désirez travailler — ce qui nous amène au point suivant.

5. Repérer au plus tôt les “clients difficiles” et ne pas travailler avec

Un client qui commence par mettre en question vos tarifs ou vos compétences, refuse de régler un acompte, annule un rendez-vous ne va pas magiquement se transformer en client modèle pour la suite de votre relation. Si ça démarre mal, il y a de fortes chances pour que ça continue mal et que ça finisse également mal, et que vous ayez eu avantage, en fin de compte, à ne pas travailler pour le client en question. Un client qui commence par être difficile continuera généralement à l’être.

Ayez donc l’oeil vif et alerte lors de vos premiers contacts avec un nouveau client, pour les signes avant-coureurs de problèmes à venir. S’il fait des problèmes pour payer votre acompte, par exemple, il y a fort à parier qu’il fera des problèmes ailleurs aussi.

Le cadre de travail, c’est nous, en tant qu’indépendants, qui le posons. Ce n’est pas au client de dicter les termes — mais si vous le laissez faire, il le fera, parce que quelqu’un doit bien diriger les opérations. Ayez donc un cadre de travail, un processus, que vous expliquez au client et auquel vous vous tiendrez. C’est rassurant aussi bien pour lui que pour vous.

Et renoncez sans regrets aux clients qui s’annoncent trop difficiles.

6. Avoir des traces écrites

En parlant de cadre de travail, ayez des traces écrites de vos accords avec vos clients (on dira que l’e-mail, c’est suffisant dans la plupart des cas). Les discussions se font souvent par téléphone ou en face-à-face, et dans ce cas, dites au client que vous allez lui envoyer un petit mail récapitulatif de votre accord. Terminez celui-ci par quelque chose comme “merci de bien vouloir me confirmer par retour de mail que tout ceci est en ordre pour vous”.

Il n’est pas inutile non plus d’avoir un document “générique” détaillant vos conditions, que vous pouvez joindre à un tel envoi. Versement d’acompte, conditions de paiement, d’annulation, ce qui est inclus ou non dans la prestation, et même, si c’est pertinent pour votre situation, la petite phrase “je décline toute responsabilité en cas de XYZ”.

La plupart de vos clients ne vous causeront jamais de problème. Mais pour celui qui le fera, ce serait quand même dommage de ne pas s’être couvert un minimum. Et le faire par écrit dans un document “générique” me paraît une bonne solution pour ne pas froisser le client normal, bien-pensant, et honnête.

7. Engager un comptable

A moins d’être un pro de la compta vous-même, engagez un comptable. Oui, ça fait des frais, mais que de soucis en moins! Les comptes de votre entreprise seront en ordre, votre déclaration d’impôts aussi, et en cas de contrôle fiscal, c’est un professionnel qui s’en sera occupé, ce qui ne peut que faire bonne impression.

Si votre comptable est trop cher pour que vous lui confiez la tâche de faire toutes les écritures, regardez si vous pouvez trouver quelqu’un d’autre à qui déléguer cette tâche (y compris le classement ordré de vos quittances).

Et si vous le faites vous-même, faites-le à mesure! (Oui je sais, c’est pénible et en général on n’arrive pas à tenir, c’est pour ça que je recommande de confier cette tâche à quelqu’un d’autre.)

8. Facturer à mesure

Entre le moment où l’on facture et le moment où l’argent arrive sur votre compte en banque, il peut s’écouler du temps. Il est donc impératif de ne pas attendre d’avoir besoin d’argent pour envoyer vos factures! (Rigolez, ça paraît stupide, mais je l’ai fait longtemps et j’en connais d’autres dans ce cas.) Dès que le mandat est terminé, la facture part.

Un autre avantage à faire payer des acomptes: j’envoie personnellement souvent mes factures avant d’avoir effectué le travail, précisant les conditions de paiement (acompte de 50% dès réception de la présente, solde à payer x jours après la fin du mandat ou la date de la conférence ou de la formation). Comme ça ma part est faite.

Comme vous le voyez, ces conseils concernent l’hygiène de vie de l’indépendant (et sa santé mentale sur le long terme!) plutôt que des questions pratiques sur le réseautage, la négociation, l’établissement des tarifs, ou l’organisation du travail. Ces derniers points sont importants également, mais les compétences dans ces domaines sont complètement inutiles si on ne tient pas le rythme. (C’est tout lié, c’est sûr, mais il faut bien hierarchiser un peu.)

J’espère qu’ils pourront être utiles à certains!

Income Map Template [en]

[fr] J'ai préparé un tableau pour m'aider à avoir une meilleure visibilité de quand je gagne de l'argent, par semaine et par mois. Il est à disposition si jamais quelqu'un d'autre le trouve utile.

One of the things I want to start doing in 2010 (now that my accounting is in order for 2009, thanks to Buxfer and my brother) is start tracking when I spend time doing “paid work”. Accounting helps me track when I get paid, but not when I am actually spending time doing the work — and in the light of my weekly planning experiments, I want to gain more visibility about how my weeks and months are structured.

After torturing my brain quite a bit, I’ve come up with this Income Map Template for 2010. I’ve made it publicly available as a Google Spreadsheet so you may copy it and use it if you wish (feel free to adapt it and let us know what works for you in the comments).

Income Map Template 2010

The challenge here is that some of my income arrives monthly (retainers), some of it is a project package (one price for a certain amount of work spread over a certain time) and some of it is one-off (giving a talk, or half a day of WordPress training). What I’m really interested in is seeing when I’m doing work that I get paid for, weekly.

This is not about cash flow, although it deals with money (Buxfer takes care of the cash flow), but about time management.

With the help of this spreadsheet, I hope to be able to easily answer the following kinds of questions in 2010:

  • how much paid work do I do in a given month?
  • how much of my income is one-off gigs, compared to regular clients (retainers or long-term projects)?
  • does my weekly income (one-off gigs, aside from retainers and long-term projects) vary a lot from week to week?
  • where should I set the limit to the number of engagements I take in a given week/month?

So, to freelancers out there, who are not clocking time all week: are these questions also interesting to you? Does this make sense? Do you do this kind of “money-earning time-tracking”?

Weekly Planning: Third Week (Learning Steps) [en]

Here we are — I’ve completed my third “planned” week since I started looking a bit further ahead than the current day (first week, second week, passing thoughts). Gosh, it was a busy week. I had only two office days, and I realize that it is not quite enough.

Around me, I’m faced either with people who are used to planning their weeks and find it normal, or people who could never dream of doing it, so busy are they putting out fires day after day.

I was like that for a long time. How did I get where I am now? I’ve been thinking a lot about which were the “first steps” on the road from chaos to “planning”.

Oh, before I forget: when I say I plan my week, I mean that I have a rough outline of what I am going to accomplish during the week, and on what day. It doesn’t go any further than that. Like when I “plan” my day, I don’t decide “I’m going to spend between 9 and 9.30 doing this, then do that for 20 minutes”. I know what I want to accomplish in the day, and go from there.

So, back to what brought me here, let me mention a few landmarks or “important steps” you might want to meditate upon if you are currently too busy putting out fires to even dream of planning your week. They’re in no particular order, because I think I haven’t quite finished figuring this out yet. If you spot one that seems doable, then start with that one.

  • Protect yourself. Set a very high priority on keeping “downtime” aside for yourself. Of course there are very busy periods where you won’t get much, but this shouldn’t be your “normal” week. Don’t answer the phone during lunch break, for example. Book an evening a week for yourself, and tell people who want to see you then that you “already have something planned”. Learn to become more comfortable about making people wait. If you always put others first you’ll just burn in the fire.
  • Set maker days and manager days. Yesterday evening, Claude pointed out to me that this was one of my first obvious steps towards weekly planning, back in April. It’s obvious: once you start having a clearer plan of how much actual time you’re going to have in the office to work on projects, it helps you not overcommit.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it stuck with me. It helps me fight against my natural tendancy to underestimate the amount of time I need to deliver something. So I figure out a reasonable estimate, and then add a lot of security padding to give myself space for bad planning and other emergencies.
  • Everything takes more time than you think. I think David Allen says this somewhere in Getting Things Done, but I could be misquoting. It could be Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan, too. Or Merlin Mann. Anyway: the unexpected almost always adds time to things. And in the cases where it doesn’t and actually reduces the time you need for something, it’s no big disaster (OMG! I have too much time to do this! I’m going to die!). So, add a lot of padding to any estimation of how much time something is going to take you. It’s always more than you think. Try doubling your initial estimate, for starters, and see if that improves things.
  • End your day by looking at tomorrow. This is something I got from FlyLady when I realised it was important for me to have a “getting started” (=morning) and a “winding down” (=evening) routine. She recommends including 10 minutes in your evening routine to prepare the next day: check the train timetable, know what appointments you have, etc. It’s easy to do, and it means you’re not diving blind into tomorrow anymore.
  • Learn to say no. This is the really hard one for most people. I’ve become pretty good at saying no, but I’ve come a long way: initially, I was somebody who said yes to almost everything. I was both enthusiastic about all sorts of things and terrified of hurting people by refusing their requests. So I didn’t say no. I’ll probably blog about this more extensively at some point (I already did in French), but the important thing to remember is that as long as you have trouble saying no, you will not escape fire fighting. One thing that really helped me learn to say no was to start by never immediately accepting anything. Say you’ll answer in 24 hours. Then I used that time to have a long hard think about how I keep saying yes to stuff I want to do to help out, and then end up procrastinating, not doing it, feeling horrible because deadlines slip, etc. That usually gave me enough courage to say no.
  • Have a list. You can go all GTD or only part-way, like I have, but you need some kind of system or list to capture the things you need to take care of. Learn the difference between a project and a next action, and list only the latter. To start your list, just write/type down all the stuff that’s bubbling at the top of your brain and stressing you out. If you think of something you need to do while you’re working, add it to the list. Ask a friend to hold your hand (it can be through IM) if your list gets too scary. Trust me, it’ll be better when it’s written down — anything is better than being an ostrich.
  • Learn to prioritize. I have huge problems with this (in other areas of my life too). When it comes to work-related stuff, here are a few rules of thumb I use. Invoicing is high priority, because it’s what brings in the money and it’s not very long to do. Anything really time-sensitive is also high priority (if I don’t announce tomorrow’s meetup today, it won’t be any use, will it?) Responding to potential clients. Paid work for clients with deadlines, of course. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t do this today?” or “on this list, is there any item which is going to cause somebody to die if I don’t do it?” (start with “to die” and then work down on the ladder of bad things — thanks Delphine for that tip) also helps. This doesn’t mean you need to order your lists. It’s just to help you figure out where to start.
  • Admit when you’re in over your head. If you over-promised, said yes when you really should have said no, and basically find yourself incapable of keeping up with your commitments, tell the people involved. And use that safety padding again. If you told the client it would be done by Wednesday, and on Monday you already have that sinking feeling that it won’t be possible, tell the client. Apologize. Say you messed up if you have. If you’re pretty certain you can get it done by Friday, tell them that it’ll be done Monday. See? Safety padding. Under-promising. Of course this doesn’t work in all situations, but you might simply not have a choice — and it’s better to be upfront about a deadline slipping than keeping it silent. Not just for the relationship with the client, but for your learning and growing process. Same with money: if you need invoices paid earlier than you initially asked because you have cashflow issues, ask. If you can’t pay the bill, ask for a payment plan. Somebody might say yes.
  • You can only do so much in a day. At some point, you reach the end of the day. Either it’s time, or you’re tired, but at some point, the day is done. Pack up and go home. Watch TV. Eat. (Maybe not in that order.) Do something nice. Take a bath. First of all, it’s no use working yourself silly until ungodly hours, you just won’t get up the next morning, or if you do, you won’t be productive. Second, doing this will help you “grow” a feel for what can be done in a day.
  • Plan your day. At the beginning of the day, look at your list, and think about the 2-3 important things that you want to accomplish today. Rocks and pebbles might help. Forget all the rest and get cracking on those. You’ll be interrupted, you’ll have emergencies, of course. That’s why it’s important not to plan to do too much — or you’re setting yourself up for failure. I started doing this regularly this spring, first with index cards, then with a list in Evernote. At the beginning you’ll be crap at it, but after months of practice, you get better. And this is one of the building stones you’ll need to be able to plan your weeks at some point.
  • Save time for the unexpected. When I was teaching, I did quite a bit of time planning — I knew when I was in class and when I had “downtime” to prepare courses and mark tests. Doing that, I realized that I could not perfectly plan my time. There was always “unexpected” stuff coming up. So I started making sure I had empty time slots of “surprises”. At some point during the last year, I calculated that roughly half my time was taken up by “unexpected” things and “emergencies”. Now, it’s less, because I’m better at planning. So, depending on how deep in chaos you are, you want to make sure you leave enough “free time” in whatever planning you’re doing to accomodate everything you didn’t know about or hadn’t thought about. As organisation increases and stress goes down, the “things to do” will get more under control and there will be less and less emergencies — but it’s still important to leave “breathing space”.

This is more or less all I can think of for the moment. Is it useful to anybody? I like to think it would have been useful to me, but one can never know… would I have listened?