Three Security Tips for Freelancers

This is a guest post written by Cassie Phillips, a blogger with Secure Thoughts, an Internet security company.

Maintaining a successful freelance career can be difficult. Oftentimes, the biggest difficulty is finding clients who are in need of your services and willing to pay a reasonable price. There’s another difficulty that is sometimes overlooked: staying secure on the Internet.

With money being moved between multiple accounts and contact with numerous clients, continual daily access to the Internet can be dangerous if certain security procedures are not put in place. To protect yourself against hackers, identity thieves, and other online threats, here are a few security tips for freelancers that can help protect you and your money.

1. Protecting Private Data (and Money) with a VPN

Woman working on LaptopUnlike traditional jobs, freelancers cannot expect to earn a steady income. There is no single employer who is going to regularly deposit money into your bank account. On the contrary, freelancers are likely to earn money from a myriad number of sources, processed through a variety of accounts. From private bank accounts to PayPal to Google Wallet, a freelancer’s money is always flowing from one account into another. Protecting the flow of your money and any associated data is of utmost importance.

Remember that securing your finances on the Internet is not as easy as making a few clicks. If this is all you do, then you remain in an unsafe position where a hacker could see your financial information, hack into your computer or accounts, and steal your identity or just simply empty whatever accounts he can get his hands on. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is the key to preventing this from happening.

A VPN creates a tunnel between your computer and a third-party server elsewhere. When you access the Internet using a VPN, your data is encrypted and your IP address is hidden. When it comes out of the third-party server, it will appear as if your computer is accessing the Internet from that origin point.

In other words, your server and your connection point remain invisible so you can remain anonymous. However, not all VPNs are created equally. Some have different price tags; others offer different speeds, and others still host various numbers of third-party servers. Do your research to ensure you’re selected the best of the best.

2. Using Trusted and Secure Freelance Contracting Services

In addition to securing your Internet connection, you need to ensure that you are working with trustworthy individuals and companies and secure websites. There are many freelance contracting services available on the Internet serving different types of freelancers. No matter which one you choose, however, you should always make sure that is a reputable service that has not been hacked. There are several ways to do this:

Use Trustworthy Services: If you’ve been freelancing for even a short while, you may be familiar with some of the larger and more trustworthy freelancing services on the Internet, such as Upwork, Elance, Guru and Freelancer. If you stick with the large and trusted services, you will be safer than looking for fringe sites that are unknown and possibly dangerous.

Check for HTTPS: Because freelancing services are responsible for collecting personal data for freelancer’s profiles, facilitating private communications, and shipping money, you need to make sure that the site is secure. One simple way to do this is to look at the URL and make sure that it begins with “HTTPS” rather than “HTTP.” The “S” stands for secure and means that there are layers of encryption being used to protect users on the site compared to the unsecure alternative. Take a look at the address bar in the screenshot for UpWork’s home page and notice the “https” in green:

UpWork's Home Page https

Note the https in the address bar. That means this site is secure. (credit: UpWork’s front page screenshot)

Use Google: If a freelance site is using “HTTP” rather than “HTTPS,” double check its trustworthiness and reputability. You can do this with a simple Google search. Simply type in the name of the service followed by words like “review,” “spam,” “scam” or “hack” to see if anything alarming pops up. For example, if there are numerous reviewers claiming that the site has been hacked or is vulnerable to a hack, avoid that service.

3. Maintaining a Secure Virtual Workspace

There are a few more things you can do to maintain security as a freelancer such as adding a few more layers of protection to your virtual workspace. A firewall will alert you when intruders are trying to access your computer or when your computer is trying to do things without being asked. Anti-spyware or anti-virus software will scan your computer regularly to watch for malware. And a password vault, like 1Password can let you create complex passwords, but store them so you don’t have to remember them all.

These are only a few of things that you need to do to ensure you remain safe and secure as a freelancer. There are certainly other ways to protect yourself. What do you do to keep yourself safe as a freelancer?

As a freelancer, Cassie learned quickly that internet security is a must. She enjoys sharing her knowledge with others because, let’s face it, freelancers don’t make much money and they need to protect their equipment as much as possible!

Photo credit: Moleshko (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Tax Deductions You May Miss as a Freelancer or Entrepreneur

If you’re a freelancer or small business owner, and you’re only using the 1040 form to do your taxes, you’re doing it all wrong.

You’re missing out on some very valuable deductions and expenses you could take, and if you’re not using a professional, you’re leaving money on the table. If you find you owe taxes each year, you’re definitely not doing it right.

My advice: find a tax professional you can trust and talk to them about using a Schedule C with your 1040.

Income Tax Monopoly SquareThe general rule of thumb is, if an activity costs you money to do the thing you make money at, you can deduct it. For example, I make a few bucks as a travel writer for the state of Indiana. This means I can deduct any expenses related to my travel-writing trips, such as mileage and hotels. A writer friend makes money from, and is taxed for, his book sales. This means he can take deductions for any readings and book signings he drives to, especially if they’re overnighters.

You’re going to be taxed on your income already, so you might as well reduce the amount the government takes by declaring each and every expense related to it.

Here are four important deductions you may be missing as a freelancer, independent professional, entrepreneur, or small business owner.

1. Mileage Related to Work

If you drive to client meetings, conferences, or other work-related events, you can deduct the mileage. However, this doesn’t include mileage driving to and from your regular work; you can only count special trips. Keep track of all your meetings in a calendar, and then list all the meetings and mileage in a spreadsheet. Turn all that in to your accountant and they can take care of the rest.

Erik, how exactly do you think I do this? —Cary, your accountant

Cary, I don’t know. Voodoo or physics or something? I’m a writer, I don’t pay attention to this stuff. This is why I depend on you. —Erik

I use Google Calendar and Google Drive, and I use Zapier to export all my appointments to a Google Drive spreadsheet. From there, I can clean it up, delete all personal/non-paying appointments, and then pop in the mileage for each appointment. This saves me roughly three hours from trying to do it all by hand.

Note: You can also take the mileage out of the company as non-taxable expenses. But once you do that, you can’t take it as a deduction on your personal return because it will be deducted on the business return. If you drive 400 miles to and from a conference, that’s roughly $200 in expenses. You can take the $200 in cash, or you can deduct it on your taxes. Ask your accountant which would work better in your favor. And if you pay for your gas with the company card, you can’t deduct your mileage either.

2. Cable and Mobile Phone

If you work from home, and you rely on the Internet to do your work (and who doesn’t?), you can deduct your cable/Internet costs. The same is true for your mobile phone. If you have a mobile number for clients to call, that’s another business-related expense, which means you can declare it. And if you keep a work-only landline, that’s also tax deductible.

(However, you can also keep your phone costs down if you use Skype as your primary means of communication. This also lets you keep a personal-only phone, and not have to worry about that second phone, or trying to total up the number of work minutes versus personal minutes.)

Remember, you’re not allowed to deduct costs if you’re reimbursed for them in any way. For example, if you work as a remote employee, and your employer pays your cable bill, you can’t turn around and declare it yourself.

3. Office Space

I found a low-cost office to rent, and it’s something I recommend, if it’s available where you live. In Indianapolis, we also have the Speakeasy, which is a shared co-working space. Other cities like Fort Wayne and Evansville also have co-working spaces. If you pay a membership fee or rent to be able to use that facility, that’s considered a deductible business expense. (Working every day from a coffee shop is not considered a business expense, however.)

If you work from home, it is possible to declare your home workspace on your taxes, but it can be rather tricky. There are formulas, and if you use part of a room to work, you need to measure the workspace, and there’s a formula to apply and more of that voodoo physics stuff Cary knows about.

It’s a bit easier if you dedicate one room, like a basement office, to your workspace. But if it’s the desk in a corner of the family room, that’s a bit more problematic. Talk to your accountant, but be prepared to justify it to the IRS, because this often raises flags with them.

4. Food and Entertainment

This is a tricky one. It’s not like the old days when you worked for a company, and you could expense big fancy meals with important clients. Deducting food costs on your taxes can be a problem if you’re not careful.

For one thing, says Cary, you shouldn’t buy food for “working lunches” on the company account. (My wife says the same thing, so this may not be a tax rule so much as a Toni-and-Cary-are-conspiring-against-me ploy.)

One reason is that you can’t deduct the whole meal, only your half. You can’t just take people out to lunch and deduct the entire meal on your taxes. It can also raise red flags at the IRS if they see a lot of entertainment expense deductions on your taxes. So keep this kind of spending to a minimum, lest you feel the cold, probing fingers of an audit.

The problem with doing your taxes yourself is that you may not know the latest rules about deductions and expenses. Basically, if you find that you owe money when you file your taxes, you need to speak with a professional. While you’ll have to pay the accountant, if you’re making a full-time living as a freelancer or entrepreneur, you could find your tax return is much bigger than what you could get doing it on your own.

Special thanks to my own accountant, Cary Hudson of Ashworth Accounting Services for helping with this blog post (and my business!). Cary is a CPA who lives and works in Carmel, IN. He specializes in working with small businesses for their tax and bookkeeping needs, and he’s saved me from hours of headaches for the last six years.

Photo credit: Alan Cleaver (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Paying For the Unicorn’s Food: Content Marketers Should Not Accept Minimum Wage

When it comes to writers working for cheap, or feeling guilty about what they charge, I always tell this joke. I’ve told it before, but it’s worth repeating:

A business owner is horrified one day to discover that her business server is completely broken. Kaput. Shot. Frazzled. Stick a fork in it, it’s done. Problem is, all her company files are on there, and she’s dead in the water without it.

In a panic, she calls a computer repair expert. He shows up, and examines the server. Runs his hands over it, listens to it, even sniffs it. Then he pulls out a tiny hammer, and taps the computer. It starts right up.

The business owner is overjoyed, but that joy turns to annoyance when she receives the bill a few days later: Computer repair, $500.

She calls the repair expert in a huff, and demands to see an itemized bill. “You just tapped the thing with a tiny hammer. That was so simple What makes you think that was worth $500?”

A few days later, she receives the itemized bill: Tapping the computer with a tiny hammer: $1. Knowing where to tap it: $499.

I get this a lot in my work.

Unicorn running

Surprisingly, unicorns only eat cheeseburgers and drink bourbon. At least that’s what Jason Falls tells me. I’ve been paying him to feed my unicorn.

I’m a writer. I do the thing that we all learned to do in middle school and high school. As a result, people think that what I do is easy, and that they’re also good at it, which means they’re not willing to pay for it. (We also took shop class and art, yet there aren’t more professional woodworkers and artists.)

It also means a lot of new writers are afraid to charge what they’re worth, and they accept lower prices out of guilt, and the belief that everyone can do what they do.

Recently one potential client told me my rates were way too high — higher than anyone else he had encountered — and that he had been quoted $100 per month for similar content marketing services.

My first thought was “I’ll take it! I can use the money to pay for my unicorn’s food.”

But rather than say that, or explain how he would be getting a professional writer with nearly a quarter century’s experience under his fingers, I gave him some advice instead. I told him I’ve seen similar “writers” charging similar amounts, and that he should watch out for a couple things when he received his content:

  • Blog posts written in such poor English, they need so much editing and repair that it’s just easier to delete them and start over.
  • The content is syndicated and shared among many so different clients, which means Google won’t accept it as original content, which means he’ll never get the SEO benefit.

Writing may be one skill that was taught in school, but it’s not one we all do equally. If that were the case, we would have all been professional athletes. We would all be musicians. We would all speak German, Spanish, or French fluently. We would all know chemistry. We would all be experimental physicists. We could balance our checkbook and solve for X. We would be equally awesome at everything we learned in school, and would never have the need for accountants, chemists, or landscape architects.

The fact that we don’t should be a clue that not everyone is a good writer either. Just because people write emails doesn’t make them writers. Just because people write reports doesn’t make them writers. Just because I can make a vinegar and baking soda volcano does not mean I’ll develop the next cure for baldness.

Writers are those talented individuals who can write a press release in 20 minutes, can write a blog post that ranks high on Google and is shared and read by thousands of people, and write a book on their chosen subject in a matter of months.

We know where to tap the hammer.

Writing is not a talent that everyone can do well, no matter how many emails you write. Writing is a skill that we spend years and years developing and improving. If everyone could do it, we would all write books.

In every other endeavor, we know true craftsman will charge according to his or her skills. The master carpenter charges more than the new apprentice, because he knows he has more and better skills. The master chef makes more money than the kid chopping vegetables, because she has worked and studied for years.

So when you compare two writers who are charging vastly different amounts for the same work, look closely at the background of the writers. Who has been doing it for 25 years, and who just got out of college? Who has written 2,000 articles, and who has written 2,000 words?

Freelancers, if you’re good at your job, and you know you’re worth your price, stick to it. Don’t be offended by those who want a lower price, but don’t lower your skills and standards either. Just keep doing what you’re doing and prove you’re worth every penny.

The clients who value good writing are the relationships you’ll value more and do better work for anyway. The clients who buy your services based on price will be quickly wooed away by someone else who bats their eyes and waves a 5% discount at them.

 

Photo credit: Rob Boudon (Flickr, Creative Commons)

How to Make a Living as a Writer

A lot of people dream of making a living as a writer, or at least making money from it, but it’s getting harder, thanks to the Internet.

Stupid Internet.

The irony is that the thing that’s made it easier for people to get published has also made it harder for people to get paid for doing it. And yet, it has also created new ways for people to get paid for writing.

But here’s the sad, scary irony — you will almost never make a decent, full-time, support-a-family living as a professional writer.

Paul Lorinczi, president of Professional Blog Service

Okay, we’re NOT really ghosts. I mean, you can actually see us.

Every other novelist I know, and I know a few good ones, makes their living doing something other than writing novels. Most of them make their living as teachers, and they write novels as their nights/weekends job. (Even William Faulkner was a postmaster. One of our country’s greatest novelists, and he sold stamps!) The few magazine writers I know only write articles as a sideline. And I have yet to meet a blogger who writes for himself or herself as their only source of income. (There may be a few in existence, but I haven’t met them yet.)

Here’s why:

  • Novelists get paid advances, and then receive royalties on book sales. Advances and royalty checks are getting smaller as publishers’ margins get smaller. So unless your last name is Grisham or Patterson, you’re not going to make a living this way, unless you work it at constantly. There are a few novelists who write 10 – 12 hours per day and produce a novel a month which they sell as ebooks, but they’re few and far between.
  • Magazine writers get paid a few hundred dollars. Let’s pick $500 as a nice round, almost-attainable number. If you wanted to make $60,000 per year, you would have to write 10 magazine articles per month. That’s doable, but you’re working constantly, more than you would at a corporate job. Also, you’ll take quite a while to reach that level, so be prepared for a few years of that constant work at little to no pay.
  • Nonfiction book writers (me included) make squat from our book sales. I own my own business. My friend, Kate, is a freelance book editor. Other authors support their book sales with public speaking gigs, or use it to promote their actual business.

The sad truth is that it’s very difficult to make a full-time salary solely from writing, unless you’re a journalist, and even those people are facing uncertain futures.

The Secret to Making Money as a Writer

There’s really only one way you’re going to make money by sitting down at a computer and churning out words by the bushel: write for someone else.

Seriously, that’s it. That’s all there is to it.

The people who make money writing are the people who don’t get to put their name on their work. They give up the credit and recognition in exchange for a paycheck.

Political speechwriters get paid to write speeches for people who will never give them public credit. They don’t get to put their name above, and the speaker will never say, “I’d like to publicly thank my speechwriter who crafted these words.”

Marketing copywriters write copy that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars for their employer, but they never get to put their byline on a brochure. (They also rarely get any bonuses for their work, even if their work directly led to a 30% spike in sales.)

In my own company, we ghostwrite for other people, not ourselves. This blog post right here? I’m publishing it under my own name, but I won’t get a dime for it. I’m hoping it will attract the attention of a client who’s willing to hire us though. Instead, we write blog posts for clients under their name, help them win search, and convince clients they know what they’re talking about. But because we’re ghosts, we don’t tell anyone who our clients are.

For people who want to make money by, as Hemingway put it, sitting at a typewriter, opening a vein, and bleeding, be prepared to do it for other people. Farm out your talents as a hired gun and craftsman. An ink slinger and a wordsmith. The pro from Dover who does what no one else can.

Ultimately you have a choice: be well-known and struggle, or be hidden and satisfied.

My suggestion is to do both. Write for other people during the day, and write for yourself at night. Ultimately, you’ll get the best of both worlds.

Ten Commandments of Hiring Freelancers

1. You may not pay less than a living wage. What’s the living wage? Figure out what a professional supporting a family of four in your part of the country needs to make per year. Divide that number by 1,000. That’s the freelancer’s hourly rate. If that number is your budget for the entire project, don’t call them until you can afford them.

Moses and the Ten Commandments

2. Always set — and have — clear expectations. Make sure you know up front what the freelancer is going to do and not do. If you’re hiring a website designer, make sure you know who’s going to provide the written content. If you’re hiring a printer, make sure you know who’s proofreading everything first.

3. You may not ask a freelancer to do project work on spec to see if you like it, and then pay her if you accept it. You wouldn’t do it with your dentist, a plumber, or a mechanic. You hire them based on their past work and their vision. You work with them to make sure they give you what they want. But you pay them for it.

4. You may not refuse to pay a freelancer just because you decide not to use their work. If you decide to go in a different direction, or abandon the project, tough. He did the work, you have to pay him. You wouldn’t do that to an employee whose project you canceled. (Exception: If their work just downright sucks, you can cancel payment, but you cannot salvage their work and use it anyway.)

5. Pay for “feature creep.” If you hire a company to write copy for a marketing brochure, and you want them to lay it out too, be prepared to pay for that. If you’re getting a new logo created, and you decide you want your business cards to have a new look, that’s going to cost extra.

7. You may not compare the work they do to your nephew’s and expect the same fee scale. Don’t say, “but my nephew who just graduated from college can do the same thing for $500.” If he really can, hire your damn nephew. The fact that you’re having this conversation with a professional means you don’t actually think your nephew can do the work. Otherwise, you’d have called him. You’re talking to a professional because you want pro level work, so be prepared to pay pro level prices. Don’t expect a pro to compete with your inexperienced family members.

7. Trust your freelancers’ understanding of their technology. If you’re hiring an SEO specialist, don’t make him follow the SEO rules you learned in 2005. If you’re hiring a web designer, and they say “no Flash,” don’t make them use Flash. In most cases, your freelancers know more about the technology they’re working with than you do (e.g. There is no “clean up button” like you see on Law & Order). If you’re asking for something they say can’t be done, it can’t be done.

8. You may not dismiss what freelancers do as a commodity. Freelancers have devoted years of their life to honing their skill so they excel at it. Writers do nothing but write, designers do nothing but design. They don’t go to weekly staff meetings and committee meetings, and they don’t file TPS reports. If you think this is something that any schlub can do, hire your nephew. You leave your home’s plumbing and electrical work to trained professionals, rather than hiring your nephew, right? Treat your outsourced work with the same seriousness.

9. Always pay on time. You wouldn’t delay paying your employees or withhold their paycheck because you’re worried about cash flow. Don’t delay payment for your freelancers. You — hopefully — pay all of your other bills on time, pay freelancers on time. Believe me, freelancers give drop-everything service to their best clients. Clients who think payment is optional get when-I-have-time service.

10. Always approve the final product. Make sure you read and okay everything. Test it out. Make sure it works. Freelancers will always send you the final product, but that doesn’t mean it’s done. You have to pay careful attention to all the details, because you know more about the subject than anyone else.

Photo credit: Functoruser (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Suggested Freelance Writing Rates – Midwest Edition

What are some different freelance writing rates that freelancers ought to be charging? It depends on where you live. If you live in America’s Heartland, where the cost of living is lower, you’ll charge less. If you live on one of the three coasts (that includes Chicago), your rates will be much, much higher.

It always makes me laugh when clients from Out East or Out West think that we aren’t charging enough here in Indiana, because our rates are often 50 – 100% less than what they’re being charged by hometown writers. We’re able to charge so much because our cost of living is so much lower. Rent is anywhere from $600 – $1,200 here in Central Indiana, but in New York, that’s the the cost of a gallon of milk.

But things aren’t as good if they’re not as expensive, so the smart freelancer raises his or her rates to meet expense expectations when the client is from Away. [Read more…]

Writing for “Exposure” Is Not Payment

I’m still surprised at the number of writers who will write for the promise of exposure by websites, blogs, magazines, and newspapers. I was offered that a lot when I was a budding writer. It was fine when I was first starting out, but after a year, I didn’t want exposure, I wanted money.

That’s what any writer wants.

Flasher teddy bear flashes a squirrerl

Not that kind of exposure

We don’t write for fame, we don’t write for glory, we don’t write because it’s a cool thing to do. We write because it’s our job, and it’s how we feed our family.

Our families can’t eat exposure, and our mortgage holders don’t accept, “but my article was seen by 2,000 people last month.” Our grocery stores and our banks want money, not readers.

Dorm Room Logic

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, when Napster was all the rage, you had plenty of people engaging in late-night dorm room logic, thinking the only thing musicians ever really wanted was fame. By downloading and stealing their music, they were giving the musicians exactly what they had wanted all along: to be recognized and revered for making good music.

What the downloaders failed to realize was that the only reason the musicians were able to feed themselves and pay for shelter to keep themselves healthy so they could play music was because people were buying their albums, and not ripping them off.

So it goes with the editors who want writers to write for the “exposure.”

“Exposure” is publisher talk for “we want to put you in front of all of our readers who will be so impressed by your work that they will soon become your slobbering fans and put their hard-earned money into your pocket in a desperate grab for anything you produce and sell.”

Oftentimes, what it really means is “we don’t have very much money.

I hear the “exposure” excuse now that I’ve moved most of my written content online. Sometimes it’s a money thing.

I respect when the editor says they don’t have the money. I understand the problem, and appreciate the honesty. I’m more likely to say yes when they’re honest with me, even if it’s a one-off project for them.

But when the magazine has fewer readers than I have Facebook friends, and they’re promising me exposure? I’m not interested. I can get that level of exposure in 30 minutes. In cases like that, I think the better deal is that they pay me money, and I’ll tell my social networks about them.

If you’re still at the stage in your writing career where you need more readers, use some of the social profile building techniques I’ve discussed on this blog and PersonalBrandBlog.com. Build your readership up to the point that you don’t need the exposure, but rather that you’re doing the publication a favor by telling people that your stuff is available there.

I Write for Free When I Choose

There are times I will write for free, because I know that I am getting in front of a brand new audience. And these are people I would have a hard time reaching on my own. At the same time, the editor or publisher actually knows how to help me convert those readers into my own readers and fans, and will share that with me. A lot of editors aren’t able to do that.

At the same time, guest blogging is one of those things you should be willing to do for free. It does give you traffic, and it introduces you to another, hopefully more successful, blogger’s audience. They’re not only willing to share their limelight with you, but they’re going to tell their audience all about you. If they’re a successful blogger, they’ll have a readership of least a few thousand people.

But more importantly, that person you guest wrote for will do the same for you. So while money doesn’t change hands, there is a quid pro quo agreement between you both — you’re exchanging a post for a post. If they paid you, then you need to turn around and pay them the same amount.

So while you shouldn’t have to take any and every freebie offer that comes your way, check out the publication’s target audience and market size and see if that’s a group you want to reach. If it is, see if you have the time to do a good job. If it isn’t, ask for money. If they say no, you say no.

What Harlan Ellison Has to Say About Writing for Exposure

Photo credit: kthypryn (Flickr)