Man About Town

Notice that more ad people have decided to strike out on their own? Are you one of them? Eager for your own Independence Day? The roller coaster of 2001 inspired (or forced) many to rethink their career trajectories, so they’re out there peddling their pedigrees.

Last time we saw such a race to independence was quite different. Boomers just ahead of me in the food chain were giving birth to a host of hot shops. Everyone I knew was hammering up their own shingle. Who in their right mind would do that now? Any of you shopping for real estate with a minimalist Dutch designer in tow? I didn’t think so.

And yet my Rolodex reveals a huge talent pool of people who are ready, willing and able to apply their extensive skills strictly independently. I know a thing or two about this; I’ve done it for most of my career. Now the people I once worked for are calling me for leads! Yikes!

It can be a great life. You’re the master of your universe and can, to a large degree, shape the success you want. (There’s no one else to blame things on, either, by the way.) But there are things you should know.

First of all, terminology is important. I get really annoyed with the term “freelancer.” One definition is “a person who sells services to employers without a long-term commitment to any of them.” I hate that. Who says you’re not committed? Like I’m a Kelly Girl in to do a little extra typing? Another definition is “medieval mercenary.” Ew.

“Permalancer”? It’s not even a word. “Contractor”? That’s the guy working on my house. A “consultant” is “one who gives expert or professional advice,” and it has a nice ring to it. But thanks to Enron, consultants are a target of scorn and derision.

Don’t get stuck on the label. The hell with it. Present your abilities and get crackin’. The folks that matter won’t care as long as you deliver.

Some people create pretend companies. Now, having a clever name that really indicates what you do can be good. But please! Don’t appoint yourself president if you’re the only employee. That’s just silly. If I were to do that, I’d call myself “king.”

Next, you’ll need evidence of your successes. You’d be surprised how many people try to land big gigs without a shred of evidence (a portfolio or even a résumé) to back them up. That’s just crazy. Not everyone is aware of all your triumphs—even if they read Adweek religiously. You don’t need a résumé like the one you had right out of school, but you should have something in hand to help the uninitiated understand why you’re so fabulous.

You’ll also need to (take a breath) figure out how much to charge. The first time I had to do it, I almost lost my mind. After a while, though, you learn what the market will bear. A reasonably appropriate salary figure from your last job is a good number to start with. But be honest. If you were grossly overpaid (you know who you are), you’ll need to adjust it.

Then it’s a matter of math. Divide annual salary by work days to get a day rate, and add a bit to cover overhead costs like insurance, etc. Compare your rate to others’. Then figure out project fees based on length of time, scope of work, etc. By the way, you don’t get to add zeros to cover Herman Miller chairs, flat screens or construction costs for a state-of-the-art office. Sorry. All you really need, anyway, is a computer with the software you actually use, a decent Internet connection and a phone.

But be prepared for unexpected expenses. Portfolios or boxes of pens that used to materialize out of thin air? That’s all over. And it’s funny how you question the need for color copies every time when you’re paying for the ink cartridges.

Setting up a home office presents issues too numerous to tackle here. The best thing you can do is hire someone to help you. It’s worth every dollar. Face it, you’ll need help. I’ve relied on New York-based personal coach Jane Umanoff for several years now, and it’s been phenomenal. Good coaches are a treasure because they’ve built their own businesses already. There’s also much to be found online at, the Home Office Association of America (, Webgrrls, Fast Company, and (a Canadian mentoring site), etc.

There are other Web resources, but I’ll give you a warning. Is a deal for $19.95 the first thing you see on the home page? Stay away. The most unfortunate site I encountered touts the joys of running a business alone. The columnist, however, no longer updates it regularly. The recession forced him to go back to a regular job. That definitely gave me pause.

It’s just one more reminder that the independent life can be wonderful, but you never know…