Shutting down the shutdown: Protecting your business from the unexpected

Dragonfly_government shutdownThis piece first appeared in the September/October issue of The Freelancer, the bimonthly newsletter of the Editorial Freelancers Association.
So, there was that little thing recently called the government shutdown. Hit our government workers for 10 days, but they get back pay. Hit those big defense contractors, but they can absorb it, right? Hit a bunch of freelance editors around the country? No way.
Actually, yes way. If you work in book publishing or newspapers, you may be surprised to know that there’s a whole swath of writers and editors out there whose work is directly tied to government. We’re the people who edit DOI’s environmental impact state­ments. Research published by NIH or CDC. Reports on post-traumatic stress published by DOD. And more.
We’re not necessarily government employees. Many freelance writers, editors, proofreaders, graphic design­ers, etc., work for the myriad small and large contractors that support the government. We write, edit, design, and proofread proposals, trade show ma­terials, reports, and deliverables (that’s jargon for any document that’s, well, “delivered” to a customer).
And for the 16 days this fall the government was at least partially closed, the government part of our business was completely closed. And we ain’t getting no back pay.
Reflecting on how the shutdown affected my company—it effectively lost us two full weeks of income—re­minds me how dangerous it is to tie a large portion of your business to one industry or one customer. That’s true whether you’re an agency like Dragon­fly or a sole practitioner.
There are a few ways to protect yourself.

  • Don’t be complacent. Have a solid set of customers? Positive relationships with your contacts? Don’t fool yourself. That could change any minute. That great company that outsources all its work to you? They could hire a full-time editor tomorrow. They could be acquired by a larger firm with an in-house marketing group. Or they could decide that you’re just too expensive after all. The first step in not getting screwed by your customers is to be prepared for the potential screwing. And that leads us to step number two.
  • Be hungry. Instead of being complacent, be hungry. That means every week, every day, you gotta be looking for new custom­ers. That could mean trolling the EFA, ACES, or Copyediting.com job boards. Regularly attending IABC, SPJ, STC, or Chamber of Commerce meetings. Making sure that you have an attractive, mod­ern website. Working the heck out of LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google Plus. Even if you don’t get a new client today, you’ll be in a much better position if you lose a client tomorrow, because you won’t be starting from scratch. You’ll have a solid foundation of networking, self-marketing, and job-searching to work from.
  • Diversify. Niche editing (or writ­ing, proofreading, etc.) can be great. After all, who knows how to edit molecular neurobiology arti­cles better than you? Unfortunate­ly, the guys who just outsourced production of molecular neuro­biology to India don’t care about your expertise. They just care about cost. That’s why I encourage people to diversify their skills. If you’ve always been a medical edi­tor and used AMA, learn Chicago. Die-hard AP Stylebook follower? Get way out of your comfort zone and learn Blue Book. You may have to struggle to get that first assign­ment in a new area, but it’ll pay off when you can look for work in more than just one sector.

My advice may make me sound like a doomsdayer: Brimstone, layoffs and outsourcing lurk around every corner! Beware! But I prefer to think of myself as a realist.
I’ve learned the hard way that even the strongest professional relationships can be cut short unexpectedly. That the most solid-seeming assignment can evaporate through no fault of my own.
If I’m always looking to the future and searching for that next assignment, it softens the sting of the one I just lost. And, just as importantly, protects my pocketbook.
 
Samantha Enslen owns Dragonfly Editorial.

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