Car Repairs and the Design of Documents

I’m sitting in the waiting room of the local Honda dealership, waiting a few patient hours for the mechanics to fix the alignment on my Accord and replace all four tires. I’m about to launch into a complaint about my current car, so before I do that, I want to explain to the American Honda Motor Co. that I loved my 2000 Accord. Operationally, economically, and ergonomically, it was the best car I ever owned. In fact, if someone hadn’t pulled out in front of me against the light, killing off that car, I’d still be driving it. However, reality set in, and I was told that the car was a complete loss, thus requiring me to get a new car.

Given my satisfaction with the 2000 Accord, I went for another recent-model Accord, same color, a few extra features, muy bien.

However, as I came to learn, all was not muy bien. The ergonomics of the 2009 Accord are not as good as the 2000 model by a long shot. The problem? My lines of sight in for the front, sides, and back of the car are awful. These issues are important when you’re pulling into a tight parking place or backing up. The backing-up part I learned first. The ’09 Accord has a ramp (for lack of a better word) in the back window that slopes upward and prevents me from seeing the rear of the car. Result? I backed into a post. A month later, again unable to judge the view out the back, I backed into someone else’s car. Hello, higher insurance bill. Okay, so I need to be better about using my side mirrors when backing up. But, again, the design of the rear window makes it difficult to see.

The other line-of-sight issue with the ’09 Accord is up front. I have the driver’s seat raised as high as I can, and I still cannot see or judge the sides of the car. This makes it difficult to turn into parking spaces and to ensure that I’m staying in my lane. The left side isn’t much better, as the curve of the hood makes it difficult to see where the line on the pavement is compared to the side of the car. Result? Multiple bumps and scrapes, especially on the right side of the car, and even when I’m traveling slowly, I occasionally bump into the curb on a turn. Do that enough times, and your axle starts to take it personally. So yes, I got a C in driver’s education, but I also never had these problems with the 2000 Accord because I could see the edges of the car at all times and accurately judge the distance between the car and a nearby object. I might’ve gotten one alignment job, not three, because I wasn’t constantly bumping into curbs or scraping up against poles and walls (the estimates today, should I choose to accept them: $700 for the front bumper, $1200 for the back-right quarter panel).

What does this extended gripe about the design of my current car have to do with technical writing? It comes down to one word: usability. This can apply to a paper document, a help menu, or a website. The electronic version of my unfortunate Honda experience has to be Microsoft Word, which I’ve been using since it was first released. It’s the ocean in which I swim. However, every few years, the programmers get bored and decide to redesign and “improve” things. However, I’m convinced that Microsoft beta-tests their improvements with students who are fresh-out of college. Why? A new user doesn’t have nearly the same headaches trying to do things that a long-time user has because I’m used to the way I’ve been doing it for 20 years! Okay, so I’m getting old, fine. But I don’t think I’m off base when I say that designers and technical writers share some blame if they don’t make a design easy, familiar, and “intuitive” to use–not just for new users, but for people who have been using the product for X years.

There are ways to make new versions of an existing product better. For instance, if content has been rearranged, it might be better to use larger fonts or extra callout boxes to help users better “navigate” a page. If a particular piece of content has been moved from one section to another, make a note of it. New users won’t care, but long-time users will appreciate the navigation tip. If you’re going to make the visuals slick, sleek, and groovy, don’t make them all that to the point where you can’t read the font. And if you’re going to make a car bigger, be cognizant of the fact that people still want to be able to drive safely and have a good view of the road.

Regardless of what you’re designing, it’s important to get user feedback and to always have the end user in mind. You’ll save them time and–whether they’re driving a car or trying to get an assignment done on schedule–save them money.

Posted in audience, documentation, documents, engineering, personal | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Freelancing Advice Podcast

Just did this 10-minute interview with Ryan Weber, head of the University of Alabama-Huntsville English department, where I taught business writing for a semester. I hope you find the advice interesting and worthwhile. It’s mostly about the basics of freelance technical writing.

http://podcastmachine.com/podcasts/17390

P.S. I haven’t heard my own voice recorded in a while (as an introvert, I don’t like it), so I apologize for what sounds like a lisp to me. I was talking on a headset for the first time, and it’s possible I was speaking too close to the microphone. That said, the words more or less make sense.

P.P.S. Re: loyalty and the aerospace business

Lest I come across as an ungrateful cur in some of my comments, I would like to point out that this was my father’s interpretation of my situation. His definition of loyalty and mine differ a bit. I’m still friends with darn near everyone I’ve met in the industry, but in the end I wasn’t able to land a steady job during my time of employment uncertainty.

Posted in blogging, clients, consulting, personal, technical writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Vertical, Horizontal, and Matrixed Organizations (And Why You Should Care)

First, a few definitions so you understand what I’m talking about.

Vertical Organizations

A “vertical” company is known for having a large staff of middle managers between the CEO and the front line. In a vertical company—which was most the most common business model in organizations for the much of the mid- to late-20th century—lines of authority branch outward from the top down like a tree’s roots. Individual vice-presidents direct the activities of the staff below them according to specific lines of business. Vertical organizations arose in the 1930s and 1940s in order to combat the tendency toward cronyism and nepotism in privately held businesses.

Advantages

The advantages of vertical structures are that they have defined chains of command and areas of responsibility; employees advance through ability and performance on familiar, known tasks; and the career path of someone looking to advance “through the ranks” is clearly understood. Also, the longer one stays in a vertical organization the more in-depth knowledge and expertise they gain over the course of time.

Disadvantages

The disadvantages of vertical structures are that they take longer to make decisions and information does not always filter upward to management or down to front-line personnel. The major problem with vertical organizations is that bureaucracy can become rampant as individual lines of business become isolated from each other, develop separate cultures and procedures, and sometimes seek to justify unprofitable lines of business. Or, one level of an organization can be in contact with another, but the “levels” above or below that contact are unaware of those conversations, resulting in lost communications or duplication of effort if someone else at a different level tries to initiate the same level communication. A final challenge with a vertical organization is that communications with other departments can sometimes be actively discouraged or seen as disloyalty below a “certain level”–the idea being all the information you should need to know to do your job is within your “stovepipe.”

A “vertical” organization chart might look something like this:

Vertical Organization

Horizontal Organizations

In response to the observed and perceived weaknesses of the vertical company, “horizontal” companies started popping up more often–especially in the Dot-com companies of the 1990s, where companies were too small to afford a large “vertical” organization. Horizontally oriented companies have relatively few layers of management between the CEO and front-line personnel. It is thought that with fewer individuals in the chain of command, decisions can be made more quickly. As a result of this new management thinking, middle managers in “vertical” organizations saw more layoffs. Much of this thinking was born out of our nation’s space program (see The Secret of Apollo if you’re really gung-ho to learn about systems management.)

Advantages

The goals of horizontal organizations are to speed up decision making; to allow for more management flexibility and cross-training as individuals work more closely with other areas; to eliminate bureaucracy because more people are talking to each other across vertical lines of business; and to increase a company’s flexibility when it comes to creating new products or reacting to new market conditions.

Disadvantages

The disadvantages of horizontal organization include workforce reductions that create a loss of experienced managers, who often make up the “institutional memory” of a company; the breaking up of specialized lines of business, thus reducing the company’s ability to innovate; and uncertain career paths for aspiring managers. There can also be a perception that an individual who works in a small, flat organization lacks necessary expertise in his or her particular specialty to truly excel because effort is diluted–the operative  example being a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

A “horizontal” organization chart looks something like this:

Horizontal OrganizationMatrixed Organizations

Morpheus-Red-or-Blue-Pill-the-matrix-1957140-500-568Ideally, matrixed organizations attempt to integrate and use the best of both horizontal and vertical structures. The idea is this: a (typically large) company keeps its specific lines of business expertise intact—finance, marketing, engineering, etc.—but brings together specialists from each vertical organization to work on temporary projects that develop new products, services, or even lines of business. A person working in such a structure would thus have vertical lines of accountability to the immediate line-of-business superiors and horizontal accountability to one’s project teammates.

Advantages

As stated above, matrix organizations would keep their vertical lines of business intact to maintain their core competencies while also farming out individuals within those specialties to develop new products and services. The other advantage that this type of organization has is that it has more regular and formal contact across disciplines.

Disadvantages

The primary challenges for individuals working in matrix organizations are accountability, authority, and perceived “loyalty.” If a manager is a project team lead or member, she or he must constantly balance which work takes precedence: project work or daily line-of-business work? Next, matrix structures can also impact employee loyalty: if individuals are more interested in doing project work than in doing the specialty work for which they were hired, they might be perceived as “disloyal” by their vertical line-of-business superior. Also, a line-of-business manager might not see their subordinate’s work if he or she is heavily involved in project work. There can be a corporate problem of being “out of sight, out of mind,” where a project worker misses opportunities for promotion within her/his vertical organization because of a focus on the project. If cooperation does not occur both horizontally and vertically, the company can easily be overrun by politics, as people break into fragmented camps: “Are you a ‘project’ person or are you an ‘institutional’ person?”

A “matrixed” organization chart looks something like this, with both horizontal and vertical accountability:

Matrixed OrganizationWhy All This Should Matter to You

Opportunities

Since 2000, many large organizations have taken on the matrix form of organization. One primary reason is networking: because computers allow us to be connected in more ways than ever before, individual workers expect their companies to behave the same way. More importantly, customers expect that.

Large organizations like Disney spent much of the last 20 years on Customer Relationship Management (though I forget what they call it internally now). CRM is the process of developing information streams that allow multiple parts of an organization to access customer information and use it to better meet the customer’s and the organization’s needs. One example of this CRM-type integration is the Disney Magic Band, which is actually a rather complex piece of hardware (and software). It allows guests to wear one tool on their wrist that serves as their theme park admission, hotel room key, and credit card for making merchandise and food purchases on their hotel account while staying at the resort. On the spooky side, once you’ve stayed at the hotel and visited the parks and made all those purchases, the next marketing letter or email you get from Disney is likely to work like Amazon.com and recommend similar purchases the next time you visit.

None of that could have happened without a matrixed organization to support it.

And of course along the way they needed technical communicators working alongside the Information Technology people and all the other related organizations (Marketing, Attractions, Resorts) to ensure that all their needs were met. I shudder to think of what the requirements document looked like for Magic Band, but I’ve seen it in action, and it does indeed work as advertised. What these tools mean for technical communicators is plenty of opportunity to work in cross-functional projects, which can last weeks, months, or years.

Another reason cross-functional teams are better (and more fun, in my opinion) to work for is that you’re interacting with more customers, more lines of business, and so are learning a lot more about how the whole organization works, which makes your knowledge much more valuable when you’re looking for the next job.

Lastly, project work helps you build your personal network within an organization much better than if you just stayed within one organization. You might know Finance inside and out, for example, but you might have no idea who works in Marketing, how Marketing does its business or how it affects what you do there. If only out of self-defense, I think project work would be beneficial to someone learning to be valuable to an organization, but I’ve been known to be wrong about such things.

Challenges

I’m not going to kid you: matrixed organizations have their challenges. For me, the biggest challenge was the number of meetings I had to attend. As a member of a “vertical” organization (say, the Communications department), you’re beholden to that organization’s schedule, standards, and meetings and are expected to comply with all three while in the project. Just because you’re “off on project work” doesn’t mean that your line-of-business boss doesn’t want to see you. S/he does, which means that your meeting schedule effectively doubles.

Loyalty and Conflicts of Management Interest

The “loyalty” question is always a puzzler to me, because to me accountability is pretty straightforward: I’m supposed to provide a good service as a communicator (representing the line-of-business organization) to a project team, regardless of who they are. My boss is in the communications department; my customer is in the project office.

In reality, “Loyalty” doesn’t become an issue until your line-of-business manager wants you to support something besides the project you’re working on at the moment while the project manager needs you for project work. In such situations, the best thing to do is bring the matter into the open, contact both managers, and let them sort it out between themselves. If necessary, higher managers get involved, and then someone comes back to you and wants to know how you can serve both masters anyway in a way that makes everyone happy. It’s a challenge, but to me the best way to demonstrate “loyalty” to the organization is not to show favorites–just let the chain of command sort it out once they realize the conflict.

If you’re a project manager in a matrixed organization, you might face the challenge of authority. That is, you might be a “Project Manager” on your project, but one of your attached line-of-business team members might be a subject matter expert who outranks you in the vertical chain of command (this is especially problematic in military or civilian government agencies, where “rank” is taken seriously). It’s usually good, when setting up a project charter, to lay out clear lines of authority, with a clear understanding that the line-of-business higher-ups will back up with words and deeds. For example, of the higher-ranking subject matter expert decides to do a line-of-business task rather than focus on his project work, the Project Manager needs to have the authority to keep him in line…or take it to his superiors if he refuses to cooperate. Not saying it always happens, just that it can.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve already noted, I preferred project work in a corporate setting. That suited my somewhat broad (someone once called them flighty) interests. If you’re a steady person who likes to become an expert on one topic and appreciates traditions and always understanding how and why things are done a particular way, there is always necessary work to be had in “vertical” or institutional organizations. Bills always need to get paid, operations always have to run smoothly, and products always need to come out working properly.  Within those ongoing processes, there is always a need for technical communicators to maintain the institutional memory of How Things Should Be Done and what it means when someone says a task must be done “the company way.” Regardless of your preferred type of work, it’s good to know what types are available and what structures exist to support them.

The point of this little essay is to help you understand a little bit more about how corporate entities are structured, how they can affect your work, and how you can best serve them. As always, the answer to the last item is, “Do good work, and someone will want to hire you.”

Posted in meetings, Office Politics, philosophy | Leave a comment

Why Do You Need a Marketing Plan?

A while back, I wrote a blog on creating a strategic business plan as a way for the freelancer to help him/herself go forth and get established as a going concern. However, in the last month or so it’s become clear to me that I needed a marketing plan. There are several of them out there, and quite frankly I just looked up “marketing plan template” in my search engine. The model I chose came from Forbes (it’s here if you want to use it yourself).

Here are the primary differences between a business plan and a marketing plan:

  • A business plan is for helping you identify what your business does, who your customers are, and how you fit within the marketplace.
  • A marketing plan is for helping you identify how you’ll make your business known in the marketplace so that your self-selected customers can find you.

Creating a marketing plan is a great exercise for helping you identify the specific, concrete steps you need to take to advance the marketing activities you need to do to get your message “out there.”

However, using the Forbes model as a example, a marketing plan has seemed insufficient. Somewhere in your business plan and marketing plan, you need to know what you’re going to say about your services when reaching out to your customers. In the Forbes marketing plan, Section 3 is titled Unique Selling Proposition. That’s as good a place as any to answer some of the following questions:

  • What are your unique value propositions?
  • Why should customers in your specific market want to hire you?
  • How do you talk about your products/services?
  • What language will you use in your various marketing outlets (web, business cards, brochures) to fascinate your audience?

The trick is to avoid a ready-fire-aim methodology where you start developing marketing materials, elevator pitches, and contact lists without first asking, “Wait, what do I plan to say?” you’d be surprised how often it happens. Take the time to know your answers.

Quote | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Self-Portrait of an “Anchor”

Following my reading of How the World Sees You, I found the opportunity to get a little free professional coaching. Both the book and my coaching activities have focused on how best to “market myself.” This can be a challenge to me because while I did name this blog Heroic Technical Writing (as a way to convey that I like to develop clear prose that “wins the day”), I’m aware that my actual writing style is not always very flashy. I write from the brain rather than the heart, and many of my most useful skills involve organizing things, setting up systems, or even designing forms.

Many of these traits are emblematic of what Sally Hogshead calls “The Anchor,” an individual whose primary qualities are Trust (someone who garners respect and maintains loyalty through their dependability and consistency in chaotic environments) and Mystique (someone who has an innate ability to listen and to edit their ideas and opinions).

I know what some of you might be thinking: “Woo, gosh, stand back! Dependability? Consistency? Listens a lot? Doesn’t say much? Sign me up for some of that!” Okay, so those traits might not always jump out at you and scream excitement. But really, so what? I’m not wired for a lot of excitement, and that can be a good thing at times. Note earlier where I mentioned organization and system design? Those traits have their place.

Here’s an example of how I operate in a new workplace: for the first six months, I don’t talk much. Instead, I go into “sponge mode.” I listen. I take notes. I try to diagram how an organization handles people, products, and procedures. I get to know the nomenclature (I’m a relentless acronym collector). I try to understand the underlying politics of an organization–how do things really work? Who has the authority and the ability to make things happen? Those aren’t always the same person. I figure out an organization’s tics, “hot buttons,” and in-jokes.

After six months, I’m usually ready to start talking. At that point, I start making suggestions. I identify where there is disorganization and suggest ways to put information into a useful order. I’ll write documents that incorporate information from the entire organization. I establish reference documents and share the information so everyone knows what I know.

If I have a “hot button,” it’s unexpected changes to established procedures–especially if they’re procedures I created with very specific reasons/benefits in mind. Restless change agents make me crazy because if someone suggests a change, I can identify how that change will affect other people in the organization and will often push back if I believe a change is counterproductive. I don’t resist change on general principle but I often need to understand the “why” behind decisions because I understand the cascading effects “one little change” can make. I’m a thorn in the side of innovative leaders who enjoy or thrive on change for change’s sake, but in the end, I like to believe that I make change agents think through their latest brainstorm more thoroughly before they pull the trigger.

Yet in the end, people go through three phases with me:

  1. This guy’s a little odd. Doesn’t he ever talk?
  2. He’s not so bad.
  3. How did we ever live without him?

Because I serve as part of an organization’s “institutional memory,” people count on me to become a local expert on whatever operation I’m in and because I’m loyal to the organization’s goals and stated purposes as I’ve observed them. So again, maybe that’s not terribly exciting to some, but there are usually customers who value what I do…in time.

Not sure how you add value? Here’s the “How to Fascinate” assessment (fair warning: you either need to buy the book to get a code for the assessment or pay $37 for the assessment without getting the book): http://www.howtofascinate.com/our-research/Fascination-Advantage-Assessment/.

Posted in marketing, personal, philosophy | 1 Comment

Business Development from the Home Office

I’ve been hesitant to write about this part of the freelance experience, mostly because I’m not yet bringing in enough to pay a lot of rent and other bills on a consistent basis. So consider this a work in progress, or advice from where I am right now. If and when I learn more, I’ll keep you posted.

Starting

As with any business, I think, you start with “friends and family.” Lacking family contacts with potential work in Orlando, Florida, I quickly reached out to friends, several of whom did have a need for tech writers. With three good leads, I figured I could get off to a sputtering start. Two leads didn’t work out–one because there was no work, one because I was unable to work with the customer (that’s a story for another day). The third lead continues to send work my way. Not full-time, and not at the volume I’d hoped (yet), but it’s still there, and it’s opened the door to other potential work in the future.

Sustaining

Realizing pretty quickly that my original plans weren’t going to work, I reached out to other friends and even some strangers. Again, the work has been sporadic because not everyone needs my services at the time I need work. If this business has taught me anything, it’s patience in the presence of situations beyond my control. However, it is within my control to continue pursuing work that might lead to other things. This is how I ended up doing volunteer work for the Space Frontier Foundation and Powering Imagination, both of which are organizations advocating activities I’m passionate about–particularly aerospace and high technology.

For example, Space Frontier needs grant-writing help supporting its various projects, one of which teaches would-be entrepreneurs how to develop business plans and presentations that get money from venture capitalists–think there might be a use for that in my future? Meanwhile, Powering Imagination is working on a crowdsourced project to fund a quiet powered aircraft capable of flying over the Grand Canyon without environmental disturbances. The school that would develop the aircraft is Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in nearby Daytona Beach. At the very least, I might get out to the campus and meet some interesting people.

But do you see what I just did there? I’m taking the time to stay in touch with the work I love to do even if it doesn’t result in direct benefit because it’s something I love to do. (And, as an extra side-effect, I put in a plug for my customers in a forum they wouldn’t reach otherwise.) I cannot guarantee a positive outcome with either exercise, but I get to stay in touch with people who have similar interests and maybe, somewhere along the line, someone will pick up some bit of my writing for one of those groups and find a use for my talents elsewhere. I would argue that that is akin the actor who waits tables in a restaurant where agents or directors hang out in the hope of being “discovered,” but with a more satisfying return on investment.

And yes, I’m aware there are professional writers who have a very low opinion of “giving it away.” To which I would say this:

  • My experience in the volunteering/advocacy community helped boost my credibility when I was applying for other jobs.
  • My advocacy work has helped me build a network and has put me in contact with people who have had paying work for me.
  • I am helping to advance causes in which I believe. How much advocacy is paid? Why do people advocate for one cause or another, anyway? Because they believe in the intrinsic value of the effort.

This is not to say I will do a whole lot of writing for free. I have, in fact, cut back on the amount of non-paying (not to be confused with nonprofit) work I do. However, if I start supporting a cause, it’s because I see some personal satisfaction or value in it.

Succeeding

I won’t kid you: at least two customers found me. How did that happen? In one occasion I’d put in a resume with the organization months ago and then one day I was called out of the blue, interviewed, and asked to submit samples, all sight unseen; in another case, a small businessman and fellow space advocate found me via LinkedIn and hired me–again, remotely. So it can be done. Success might not always happen the way I want or on the timeline I expect, but I keep trying new things.

The big thing I’m learning through a combination of reading and coaching is that it’s important to specialize rather than generalize my potential customer base. I know, that sounds counterintuitive. However, as Sally Hogshead points out in How the World Sees You, it’s better to be different than “better.” If you can identify your own specialized skills, interests, and value-added clearly, you also can clearly target your potential clients/audiences and most satisfying work. That’s a lot better than trying to be all things to all people.

I’ve got a few months before this house-sitting gig ends. Hopefully by that time I’ll have more steady work in fields that I like. However, as I’ve heard it said, “Hope is not a strategy.” As usual, I have work to do. Best of luck to those of you pursuing the freelance life as well!

Posted in careers, consulting, freelancing, marketing, personal, volunteering | 1 Comment

The Mechanics of the Home Office

In this follow-up to my piece on the tools for working in a home office, I’ll talk a bit about businesses processes, which I’ve had to work out as I go, sometimes on my own, sometimes with input from others. At some point, I’ll discuss business development and acquiring clients, so bear with me as I continue to learn.

Tracking Your Finances

First, I’ll plagiarize myself and reiterate my last bullet point from the previous entry on things you need to run your business:

  • A business checking account and a method/place for storing receipts. The more business matters you handle with a dedicated business account, the easier you’ll have things come tax time…which, for the independent consultant, is once a quarter, when you file your estimated taxes. And you’ll want to save the receipts for the types of office supplies I mentioned above. Good luck with that.

As a one-person show, you’ve got to keep an eye on the business of your work, not just the work that is your business, if that makes sense. Remember Economics or Accounting 101? Income – expenses = profit. How are you to know if you’re making a profit if you don’t know how much you’ve taken in or how much you’re spending? The government will certainly want to know. If you’re not making a profit after three years, you don’t have a business, you’re practicing a hobby. At least that’s how the IRS sees it.

Now I’m a bit of an organization freak, but not to the point of organizing my receipts by date or keeping little note cards to accompany every little piece of paper. I do, however, keep all my business-related receipts in a single large envelope so I know where to find them.

Legitimate Business Expenses

This is as good a place as any to discuss the difference between legitimate vs. non-legitimate business expenses.

Legit:

  • Computer/peripherals.
  • Office supplies – and by office supplies I mean things that you normally use as office supplies. If you can make your accountant believe that you “need” a 72-inch flat-screen TV “to do research,” well, that’s your business.
  • Utilities (cable, phone, power) – It’s easier to do this if you have an actual office, separate from your home. However, the way it was explained to me is that you need to do some calculations of how much time/space you actually dedicate to your work activities and treat those as a percentage of your overall bills.
  • Parking and mileage for business meetings. And yes, you need to track your mileage. The current government rate for mileage (July 2014) is 56 cents per mile.
  • Business travel you pay out of your own pocket (as opposed to business travel picked up by a customer who has requested it and is paying–no double-dipping!).
  • Memberships/professional associations.
  • Wifi charges at remote locations/airports/hotels if you’re working.
  • Books/research materials that are work related.
  • Gifts for clients – I’m on the fence with this one. Gifts to clients aren’t necessary, just nice. However, while you can probably make a case for such things as marketing expenses, you’ll need to have room in the budget for them. And just a reminder: actual bribes are beyond the pale, no matter how carefully you itemize. Al Capone got put in jail for tax evasion and because his bookkeeper was just a little too good about keeping the records.

Not Legit

  • Vacations.
  • Leisure dining.
  • Clothes/dry cleaning – my finance person might disagree on this one, especially if you are required to wear a particular wardrobe to work with particular clients and you only wear that wardrobe on business.
  • Child care – this might be a deduction for your taxes. I’m the wrong guy to ask (SINK).
  • Groceries, toys, yard tools, etc…

Your smell test for legitimate vs. non-legitimate expenses should be, “Would I buy this for myself if I wasn’t working?” If the answer is no, it’s a business expense. If the answer is “maybe,” ask a tax accountant.

Tracking Invoices

First of all, you’ll need to create an invoice or receipt form. Or buy or download one. I use the invoice template from Microsoft Word, and I’ve modified it to meet my needs and the needs of particular clients. If you want to get fancy and make your own, here are some of the things your invoice will need to include:

  • Your name or your company’s name.
  • Invoice number.
  • Your business contact information (address, phone, email, fax).
  • The customer’s name.
  • The name of the job you worked on or the name of the product/service you provided.
  • If you’re tracking hours, include the number of hours and your hourly rate.
  • Sales tax, if applicable.
  • Date(s) when charges were incurred.
  • Payment terms – I use “NET 30,” which means that full payment is due within 30 days of the invoice date. You might choose other terms, but those should be stated up front so there aren’t any surprises for your customer/client.

I also maintain a spreadsheet of all my invoices, in numerical order. Aside from the invoice number, I track the customer name, invoice amount, whether it’s been sent or not, and whether the client has paid or not. This will help you with the income side of your tax equation.

Tracking Hours

Because I charge by the hour for most of my services (I’ll cover rates some other time, if I remember), I have to keep close tabs on my hours worked and for whom.

I’m certain there are programs you can buy that do all this for you. I’ve heard good things about Quick Books, for example, and I might purchase it at some point because it’s built for small businesses. However, if you’re a relatively organized person, you can create your own spreadsheets in a format that makes sense to you.

Finding a Business/Tax Advisor and Filing Your Taxes

I’m fortunate to have a friend who does both. If you don’t, talk to H&R Block or someone who’s a professional–unless you enjoy the prospect of filing estimated quarterly taxes on your own. However, it’s good to know someone who speaks business/taxes because they’re a much better resource than just referring to your friendly neighborhood English major who’s learning as he goes.

Freelance income is variable. Even if employers/customers are taking taxes out of your 1099s, you’re going to need to track your taxes and, if you have other, non-1099 income, file estimated taxes quarterly. Part of that also means you have to set aside money from your income to write that check to Uncle Sam, come the day. Your best bet is to take out whatever tax bracket you think you’ll be in, then double whatever you might have paid for FICA if you previously worked for an employer did that for you. Say you think you’ll be in the 28% tax bracket and got 3% taken out for FICA at your last employer. That means you’ll need to set aside 34% of your income to pay those taxes so you have the money on hand when the end of the quarter arrives (March 31, June 30, September 30, December 31). Lucky me, I live in a state without income tax; if you don’t, you get to do some additional math and file a state return as well.

Operations

Maintaining Office Hours

Now maybe you’re a seat-of-the-pants person who likes to work whenever the mood strikes her–staying up with the coyotes until 3 a.m. That’s great. However, odds are, your clients might be used to more traditional business hours. It’s important, then, to set some office hours. And, if possible, stick to them. As an entrepreneur, you’re really in business development mode all the time, you just don’t realize it. If a client calls you to consult about a project for more than a few minutes and it’s outside your regular business hours, log the time and charge for the time, especially if you’re being paid by the hour. You’re not in the business of doing favors. People are paying you for your brain.

Maintaining an Office Space

Having a dedicated office space in your home is important for a couple of different reasons. First, just like a regular office, it’s nice to know where all your stuff is and to have it all in once place. Second, as I noted above, if a particular room is being used as your home office space, that needs to be consistent so you can carve out a consistent percentage of your utilities for office use.

Plus, and maybe this is just me–it’s good not to work in the same place where you do everything else–sleep, cook, socialize, whatever. This can help put you into your work “head space” vs. your domestic mind. Just as you would with a regular office job, it’s important to try to put reasonable restrictions on what constitutes a reasonable interruption. If you have little people in the house, this can be especially difficult. Not being a parent, I can’t provide a lot of constructive advice; however, my brother-in-law has a home office, and my niece and nephew have learned not to bug him when he’s in the office with the door closed because “Daddy’s working,” so it can be done.

Depending on the sensitivity of your work and the potential for visitors, you also might need an office with an actual door. Just throwing it out there.

Miscellaneous

Notice I haven’t said anything here about dress code or office culture or security procedures? Those things are up to you. I happen to favor Hawaiian shirts and shorts if I’m not expected to be anywhere. However, if I’m going to visit with a client, I dig out the khakis and might or might not replace the Hawaiian shirt with a golf shirt (this is Florida, after all). The point being, you can be comfortable in whatever way that suits you. That’s one of the advantages of working from home. However, if you’re going to be face-to-face with a client, you’ll need to put in a little more effort–bed-head isn’t a good idea, even on video teleconferences. Of course if it’s voice-only, you could be in bathroom and fuzzy bunny slippers. I know of people who work from home but still put on a jacket and tie when doing a  business call to put them in the right frame of mind. Do what works for you, but remember that there are other people out there.

Being a morning person, I happen to believe that it’s important to get up at a regular time, shower, make myself breakfast, and get to work on a regular schedule–notice that I have regular “awake” time, if not exactly business hours listed on this site. Keeping yourself groomed and healthy helps with your attitude, so you need to take care of yourself so you have the energy and drive to keep yourself motivated.

And if you’re tired from working from home because all that quiet time (or loud time with the kids) is getting to you, you might try coworking. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the last decade, but basically it’s an environment where you pay by the day, week, or month to have an off-site work space. This gives you the opportunity to talk to people without the burden of actually working for anyone but yourself. Of course if a social space doesn’t work when you need to concentrate, don’t go that day. That’s one advantage of the freelancing lifestyle.

Self-Discipline

One last thought: if you’re working from home, you no doubt believe you can do so reliably. If you need the motivation of someone standing over you, perhaps working from home isn’t for you. But if you’re self-propelled, this means you can continue to deliver your work on time and with a quality that others are willing to pay you to do it regardless of where you work. The trick is to keep yourself motivated and organized for success.

Posted in clients, consulting, freelancing, meetings, personal, technical writing, travel, workplace | Tagged , , | 1 Comment