You need to watch your own tail

Like this post? Please share it!

watch your tail freelanceOn Halloween night a few years back, a young girl dressed as a lion marched up to my wife on our front patio and said, “My mom says that you shouldn’t have candles in your pumpkin, because my tail is flammable.”

My wife replied, “Well, I guess you’re going to have to watch your own tail.”

This post isn’t about safety around open flames or teaching kids about manners. It is, however, about personal responsibility in freelancing.

There’s No Such Thing as Risk-Free Freelancing

I’ve had my philosophical differences with Freelancers Union over the years, and their new #FreelanceIsntFree campaign strikes me as quixotic. (Disclosure: I am not a member of the organization.) I don’t need to be “empowered” to demand “fair treatment” from my clients. Watching the video at their advocacy page, I can only shake my head in disbelief that freelancers allow themselves to get tens of thousands of dollars in the hole to a client. Talk about not watching your tail while walking right into an open flame.

In principle, sure, you should get paid for the work you do—but that’s your responsibility as a business owner. Freelancing is not a risk-free enterprise. Call me cold-hearted, but I would argue that no one is a victim of nonpayment or working for free—and that calling nonpayment wage theft is a deceptive use of language when discussing independent contractors. You’re not a wage employee, and should not expect to be treated as such. Running your own business requires an extra measure of vigilance.

I say all this as a freelancer who’s been burned a few times over the years by nonpayers. Were the clients unscrupulous? Yes. Can I point to weaknesses in my own processes in every single case? Absolutely. And guess what, I fixed the processes so it wouldn’t happen again.

Most important, I believe that the mindset of a hashtag initiative such as #FreelanceIsntFree positions us in an adversarial relationship with our clients and potential clients. If it were focused on educating freelancers how to protect themselves, that would be one thing—but instead, it seems to be more about kvetching that evil clients have dangerous candles in their pumpkins, and lobbying government to Do Something. Which brings me to…

No One Can Build Your Safety Net But You

On Facebook, a number of my colleagues noted that the union’s new “Freelancing in America 2015 Report” was conducted in partnership with Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk). That’s right: a freelance bidding site that is notorious for driving down freelance rates! Discussing the survey results in “This Is What the State of Freelancing in the U.S. Means for the Future of Work,” Freelancers Union founder Sara Horowitz pleads the case that freelancers face enormous challenges and that we have no “reasonable safety net.”

They don’t have access to unemployment insurance, so during fallow periods they usually have to cannibalize their own savings. They can’t take advantage of tax withholding, employer-sponsored health care, or retirement savings programs.

I couldn’t disagree more. If you run your freelance enterprise like a real business, you most certainly have constructed a safety net. That’s the tradeoff: In exchange for the freedom and flexibility of being self-employed, you are responsible for the so-called benefits package that you’d get from corporate employment.

Let’s examine her position point by point…

  • I would not want to have to pay into an unemployment insurance fund, even if such a beast were available. Instead, I have a go-to-hell fund that costs me nothing but the effort to save. (I also have a disability insurance policy, which gives me peace of mind—but that’s about being incapacitated, not about bridging through slow work periods.)
  • I don’t want to have taxes withheld. I see no advantage in that.
  • I have a solo 401(k) through which I have the ability to set aside far larger percentage of my income, and shelter more from taxes, than I did in my corporate days.
  • As far as healthcare, almost everyone in the country is experiencing higher costs. For freelancers, it’s notable that the Affordable Care Act all but eliminated inexpensive catastrophic policies like my self-employed dad had throughout his career. That’s a shame. At the same time, I don’t expect someone else to pay for my insurance just because I have chosen to be self-employed.

Stuff happens. Sometimes awful stuff. Don’t misunderstand what I’ve written here: I have empathy for the people who have genuinely gotten screwed by unethical clients. No one should expect to be entitled to a risk-free freelance enterprise, however, and there is no way to legislate away or adjudicate every single bad thing that occurs.

Call me cynical (you won’t be the first), but I believe this type of mentality actually holds freelancers back: Thinking that there’s some sort of hashtag that’ll make all the bad clients go away, start behaving ethically, or pay in less than 30 days. Thinking that setting a minimum hourly or project price will protect you from lowball clients. Thinking a union or the government will enforce The Rules to protect you, without any unintended consequences.

Nope, if you’re looking for treats and want to avoid the tricks, you need to watch your own tail.

Like this post? Please share it!

Like What You've Read? Subscribe to Dr. Freelance

* indicates required


  1. says

    Excellent points (of course). Personal responsibility is one of the most important characteristics of a successful freelancer, no matter what kind of work we do. It’s both the benefit and the curse of freelancing – we make our own decisions and set our own paths, and deal with the results or consequences.

    • says

      Geez, I hope it’s not a curse, Ruth! I actually thrive on having the responsibility of running my own ship–and much easier mentally than doing a job for an employer because of the food pellets they delivered every two weeks…

  2. says

    Touche! Perhaps this issue is an offshoot of the sense of Deserving that many people (not just freelancers) have nowadays. I think you’ve addressed this with consideration, especially the part about being responsible for your own safety net. Isn’t the first consideration in getting into freelancing that one may get screwed on occasion? And as you say, you learn from it and put fixes in place. Freelancing is different from salaried work for an employer, but an adage from my husband’s friend applies across the board: “It’s called work for a reason!”

    • says

      Vanessa, I think you’re right that there’s a connection to the Deserving mentality.

      As far as getting screwed on occasion, sure, I believe you have to be ready for that. But fixing that is definitely about prevention, not trying to get people to pay you after the fact, which is the approach that chafes me about the #FreelanceIsntFree campaign. How the heck did all those people put themselves into that position? Asking the government or legal system to figure that out is silly. And quite honestly, anyone that’s complaining about being paid in 60 or 90 days instead of 30 is just being a baby. Did you get paid? Get over yourself. Anyway, that’s enough of today’s rant! 🙂

      Thank you for the shares on Twitter–much appreciated!

  3. says

    Great post Jake. I get so sick of seeing freelancers complain that they don’t get retirement savings, paid sick time, paid vacation time, and all sorts of other things they’re used to as employees. The truth is, we do get those things — at least if we’re doing our jobs we do.

    Too many freelancers expect others to hand things to them or fight their battles these days. They forget they’re business owners. And if they have any hope of succeeding in the long run, they need to learn how to act as such as early as possible.

    Freelancers are essentially both employer and employee. So if they feel like they’re missing out on anything on the employee side, they have only themselves to blame. Clients are customers; not their employers. And those clients are not responsible for making sure freelancers get everything they want to get out of their businesses.

    • says

      Thanks, Jenn. Right on the money about the fact we serve a dual role as employer-employee, and therefore the responsibility falls on us to create the business and environment we want. (I often joke that I have a jerk for a boss, but at least he pays me well.) If you’re expecting a lawyer, government, or a hashtag to save you from yourself and poor business practices, I suspect you’re going to wait a long time.

  4. says

    You’re the first one I’ve found who’s verbalized the unease I’ve felt as I watched the #freelanceisntfree campaign grow. All the points you’ve made here are well-reasoned, but I think my main problem with it was not a reasonable one. It was just a gut instinct.

    The campaign had a “join us” feeling that goes entirely against my freelance spirit. As an individual entity, I don’t belong to a group. Joining that one would mean handing control of my own freelance voice to someone else. I treasure the control of my life and reputation that freelancing gives me more than anything else. So this “movement” just didn’t jibe, but this is the first I’ve been able to express that. Thank you.

    • says

      Thank you for commenting, Shakirah. As you can probably guess, I felt the same unease–and I have the same aversion to having someone claim to speak for me. I doubt they’ll get anywhere with it, honestly, but if they manage to get any laws passed that restrict my business freedoms (such as withholding taxes or forced contributions to some ridiculous unemployment fund), I will fight them tooth and nail!

  5. says

    Amen, amen, AMEN! I’m up to here with the victim mentality in this profession.

    It’s up to every freelancer to take control of their own business, run it properly, and stop whining about how those big, bad clients are being rough on the poor, poor freelancer. We can’t get benefits. Costs go up, down,flat, whatever. That’s life. We can’t make them pay. Then you’re not trying hard enough. We can’t get no satisfaction…. Boo friggin’ hoo.

    We are not owed anything by anyone other than the people we send invoices to and ourselves. Demanding in bulk our respect is kind of a horseshit move. Instead, build a respectable business that you defend mightily.

    The only cure for low-paying clients or late-paying clients is a freelance writer who won’t accept it. Lose the clients who don’t respect you enough to pay a decent wage and build protections into your contracts and negotiations to make damn sure that money you’re owed comes to you.

  6. says

    Oh… Please don’t get the government involved. No respectable company has these types of problems. They all have systems in place to deal with these types of things. Reposession, you don’t get the product until you pay, or service stops when someone stop paying. Contracts…

    Unfortunately, I don’t think this will go away. I just hope the government doesn’t interfere with those that are already being successful.

  7. Laura says

    Hi Jake,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful article on the #FreelanceIsntFree Campaign. While you bring up excellent points on the importance of personal responsibility in freelancing – it’s definitely not for everyone! Unfortunately, our economy is evolving in such a way that not everyone has a choice – almost 54 million Americans freelance today.

    While many people are gladly making the leap to freelancing, still more find they’re freelancing by necessity. At Freelancers Union, we aim to give any and all freelancers to tools to make successful and fulfilling freelance careers. We also believe that this growing workforce remains vulnerable – safety nets might be easy to come by for those who’ve had time to amass the money and experience required to weave a good one, but for many freelancers (it’s a very diverse group of people), that’s just not the reality.

    Our solutions for safety nets might not be perfect, but we believe it’s important to have this conversation now – especially as the income disparity gap grows and pay rates seems to be engaging in a race to the bottom for many workers.

    You’re lucky that through your experience, practices and privelage you’ve been able to resolve the issue of nonpayment on your own, but the strategies that you use to avoid nonpayment are not available to everyone in every industry. Furthermore, personal responsibility is great – but no one should have to work that hard to get paid! The #FreelanceIsntFree campaign simply aims to regulate a simple and accepted concept: people getting paid for their work.

    Will it solve the problem of unethical clients? No – but it will make the repercussions for said clients more severe and, in spreading awareness about the nonpayment issue (which, by the way, affects 7 out of 10 freelancers at some point in the career) it becomes more difficult for erring clients to get away with it.

    We applaud freelancers like yourself who have achieved truly meaningful independence through your freelance career. In fact, we invite you to join our community and share your wisdom and knowledge with freelancers who may be just starting out. We’re sure many of our members would be interested in your services.

    The #FreelanceIsntFree Campaign does not portend to rob freelancers of their independence or their personal responsibility – it simply exists on the same foundation from which most freelancers build their careers: You’re only as strong as your network.

    In empowering ALL freelancers, freelancers become more empowered. Fewer clients low-ball, fewer clients fail to pay, fewer clients exploit workers… because it becomes culturally unacceptable to do so.

    – Laura, Blog & Communications Manager, Freelancers Union

    • says

      I appreciate the thoughtful comment, Laura. I agree that it’s an important conversation to have; my concern, from what I’ve seen, is simply the tenor of that conversation trending toward victimhood and blame-shifting rather than taking responsibility.

      I’m not sure what “privilege” you’re talking about, as far as my ability to resolve nonpayment. If you happen to read this comment, I’d be curious to know what you mean.

      Finally, thank you for the invitation to share my knowledge with your group, which I’ll certainly consider!