Robert Vlach is the founder of Na volné noze, one of the largest national freelance communities in Europe. He wrote a bestseller of the same name about freelancing and regularly posts book reviews on his blog RViews.
There is a part close to the end of your book, where you share an experience of yours with burnout. What significance does this still have for you?
I experienced what it meant to be burnt-out when I was still very young. Thanks to that, I know how much pressure I can take. It was a very valuable lesson.
Do you try to maintain a healthy work-life balance?
To be honest, I don’t use this term. I guess it’s used by people who feel they are missing something in one or another part of their life. I am a satisfied and happy person with a great family.
How do you manage to be a sought-after professional and yet not to be overworked?
I try to avoid being overloaded with work in the long run. It is not wise to sell (and bill) all of your available time since you also need to take care of self-study, strategy, and marketing. An entrepreneur needs to know the value of their time and should allocate it to their advantage. A top expert is not a messenger boy. It is a person who negotiates each contract they agree to and who has the possibility of influencing it.
What about freelancers who work from morning until evening?
First of all, they should think about their rates. If they are too busy doing paid work (which is the better scenario), then it is obvious that people like to commission them and that their rate might be too low. This means that they have room to raise their prices — a rise in proportion to the amount of work, their level of expertise, productivity, reputation etc.
Couldn’t they lose customers?
Many freelancers are afraid that once they raise their prices, they will suddenly lose all their customers. However, such binary thinking is flawed. A regular rise in price or even a well-prepared price hike (accompanied by a persuasive argument and support for retaining important customers) shouldn’t result in losing them. Okay, some super price-sensitive ones might leave but you’ll probably be better off in the end.
The rest of your clients will start perceiving the value of your work differently. They will have a somewhat higher set of expectations and start commissioning more demanding work that corresponds to the higher price. This gives the freelancer an incentive and motivation to grow. Raising one’s prices is more common among freelancers than among companies. It is a consequence of their limited capacity and professional growth. A freelancer’s prices should be set in such a way that it leaves space for other activities and projects.
Speaking of money, what do you think about speculative work (i.e. working for free)?
I personally refuse to do it, but I don’t want it to sound like I am somehow above this. Spec work is risky because it’s often a scam that takes advantage of the naivety of beginners. Freelancing literature also considers it a bad practice. It degrades a professional by giving them the humiliating role of a supplicant. When closing a deal with someone, I need to be on the same level as them. Just imagine yourself in a situation where you would go into a new bakery at the corner and tell them, “I want the bread for free and only if it is good am I going to write about you on Twitter.” Doesn’t that just sound absurd?
What would you do if someone asked you to do spec work?
If I was a beginner and didn’t have any other option than to deal with such a client, I would most probably try to offer a discounted work sample or suggest a flexible satisfaction fee. Think about it, if the counterparty doesn’t agree with an offer for some sample work for half or lower price, what kind of a partner is that? Believe me, you wouldn’t like to work with or for such people. When we hire new copywriters, we pay them less because they make more mistakes in the beginning, but their work is still always paid.
Unfortunately, people often don’t have money and so they agree to make a deal.
Yes, if a freelancer doesn’t have sufficient savings to act as a buffer, they might agree to this kind of offer out of despair.
Is having a good savings buffer enough to ensure that one feels at ease?
It is not that easy, but a savings buffer is important, since it gives freelancers the freedom to decide which contracts to sign and which ones not to. It is an interconnected system which includes pricing, a negotiation process, and boosting one’s personal productivity. In general, professionals should have just the right amount of work, meaning there is enough space for personal development along with enough freedom not to have to agree to every deal. Speaking of finance, self-discipline, learning how to save and invest money, these are all extremely important skills.
Finding customers abroad can also be attractive. Do you have any advice on how to do this?
It all depends on your field. In general, I recommend creating a website in English, updating your LinkedIn profile, and registering on professional networking sites that are connecting professionals in your field internationally (e.g. Behance for graphic designers or ProZ for language professionals). The requirements are, however, the same everywhere – expertise, quality, reliability, and communication skills.
Is it better to focus on one field or have multiple areas of interests?
What generally works well for freelancers is strengthening and developing one main area of expertise, or exceptionally two if they are less demanding. However, in the first two to three years, it is quite common for freelancers to change fields and later focus on their main area of expertise.
You already seem to be settled in your field. What do you want to achieve in your career?
You might be surprised to hear this, but I don’t have any far reaching career goals. I am an intellectual by default. I like to explore the world around me and my mid-term goals stem from my observations. I do have a family which is, of course, a priority. I don’t believe people who say that to achieve mastery it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice. That’s bullshit.
Why is that bullshit?
We live in a world which keeps changing so fast that we can’t say for certain where we will be in the next ten to twenty years. Coincidence and the readiness to take advantage of it are also important factors for having a successful business. Having a strong vision is fine but it is us who need to adapt to the world, not the world to us.
This sounds logical enough, however, many authors have kept selling this idea. I find it striking how many people are hungry for personal development literature.
It depends on how you define the genre. I believe that books which are based on scientific arguments and preferably are evidence-based can greatly help readers to get better. In my view, this type of literature is a form of self-education.
I find that too many books exaggerate their claims and promise the moon.
Sure, I also don’t read Godin nor Ferris. I like their writing style, but their argumentation doesn’t work with me at all. In my case, a good argumentation is the most important factor, the style is secondary. That’s why I prefer to read Kahneman or Newport who are not so much fun to read but their value is more objective than subjective or emotional. The best self-help literature, to me, comes out of the popular science genre, I guess.
Honestly, I am starting to get lost in the midst of all the books and lectures. It is hard to tell which are good and bad.
Well, it’s true that there are more resources, but I don’t see this as a problem. After all, there are great book reviewers who read tons of books and are able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Many people also share book recommendations on their social media pages. I like to see online communities talking about such topics.
Many trends including coaching are coming from the U.S. What is freelancing like there?
Most freelancing trends obviously started there earlier and the whole market is more dynamic. You can find freelancers whose customer base and charges would be unthinkable in other countries. But the core of the EU is almost as developed as the US freelancer market. For instance, the very successful social media presence of Prague City Tourism which serves millions of visitors is presently managed by one freelancer, Michelle Losekoot. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been feasible and a hired agency would be running the project for sure.
Thank you for the interview. And by the way, what are you up to in 2018?
I’ll be working along with my publishers on the English edition of my book for freelancers. That will take a few months of my time, I guess. I’ll be also scaling up Procesoid, the world’s simplest process management software and blogging about it on Straight Process.
Robert Vlach (*1978) is an entrepreneur and an experienced business consultant who has done more than 300 consulting projects. He was the first Czech publicist, consultant, and lecturer to systematically support the freelancing community via www.navolnenoze.cz platform since 2005. He published a bestselling book about freelancing, founded the first European think-tank for independent professionals and holds a number of regional entrepreneurial awards.