Freelance Lessons Via My Family’s Ranch

IMG: Freelance lessons you can learn from ranching.Growing up, my family operated a cattle ranch, which is one of the best places to learn life lessons no matter what career path you chose. While I have no desire to raise cattle (although I do still love that lifestyle!), I think that background has helped make my freelance a career success.

Here are the top four entrepreneurial lessons I learned from my family’s ranch:

When you take something to market, it is a product. Whether it is a cow or a feature article, when you’re ready to sell what you’ve produced, it is quite simply a product. There is no reason to get attached to it if you want to make a profit. Instead, focus on creating the best product you can. Invest your time in it and tend to it every step of the way. But always remember that, ultimately, you’re creating a product that has to meet the needs of your buyers (i.e. clients). You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache.

IMG: The risks of entrepreneurship can be easily managed.

Business ebbs and flows. “Feast or famine” was a common term in my house as I was growing up. Some years were better than others, and I learned an important lesson: The ups and downs of self employment don’t need to be scary, but they do need to be managed. Be prepared. Save for a rainy day. Live on a budget. Most importantly, capitalize on the good times. Work hard and put in extra hours when necessary. But don’t forget that the slow times can be valuable, too. Use any lulls you encounter to recharge your batteries, streamline your operations and seek out new opportunities.

Change isn’t just good. It is necessary. If you plant the same crop of alfalfa (which is cut and baled into hay) year after year, you eventually deplete the soil and get less productive crops. But if you rotate the crop every few years and plant corn (which is also fed to cattle), the corn adds nitrogen back into the soil, making future alfalfa crops stronger. As entrepreneurs, sometimes we need something that adds vitality to our lives. For me, it is a creative writing class or workshop. Even though I mainly write non-fiction news articles, I’ve found that tapping into the creative process fiction writers use gets my creative juices flowing and improves my writing. It also inspires business ideas and gets me planning for future projects.

Some things are out of your control. For ranchers, droughts are scary. They prevent you from growing crops for winter feed and they suck the life out of the grass the cattle grazes on in the summer. Even worse, you can’t do anything about it. Sometimes you find yourself running on faith. You do what you can with what you have and hope for the best. Whether you’re a rancher or a writer, that’s a life lesson you can apply to any situation beyond your control.

Writing for a Living


Writing for a Living

Often times when I tell people I’m a freelance writer, they comment on how great it is that I get to right about whatever I choose. But the truth is, being a writer and writing for a living are two different things.

Whether you’re writing a feature story or a novel, you have to get those pieces published before you can get paid, and publishing on any level is a business. In business, you have to produce a product you can sell or you’ll end up having to close your doors.

When I first became a full-time freelancer, I wrote down every realistic market I planned to pursue. For me realistic meant those publications where I already had a contact. I had been covering transportation issues for a number of years, so it made sense to continue on that path and rely on the expertise I had gained. Given that my freelance income has now surpassed my full-time income, it was a wise choice.

One of the biggest benefits of pursuing an area of expertise is that I don’t spend a lot of time pitching articles that may or may not get picked up. Since a well-crafted pitch letter can sometimes take as long to write as an article, skipping that step is a huge plus. At this point in my career my assignments usually come via a phone call or an email from an editor saying he needs a feature on a certain topic. We’ll email a bit about potential sources and the angle, and then I get right to work.

On a personal level, I would love to spend more time writing essays and pitching parenting magazines, but I know that I will likely spend more time on those projects and see less money. As someone who writes for a living, I choose to focus on getting the most bang for buck. My goal is to create products I can sell, and I think that is the key difference between those who write and those who write professionally. 

The Power of a Thank You Note


Sometimes a thank you note is more than a thank you note, such as when it results in a steady freelance contract that brings in $500 a month.

I don’t make time to do it enough, but I always like to send thank you notes to sources that have been particularly helpful. For the most part, my sources don’t get any personal gain from talking with me, so thanking them for taking time out of their busy days is the least I can do.

A few years ago I sent a source a thank you and was surprised when he called me the day he received it. He told me it was the first time he’d ever been thanked for his time and we spent the next 30 minutes getting to know each other outside of our initial interview. That little thank you note opened the door to a deeper relationship with my source.

Since then, we’ve talked a few times a year for stories. Earlier this year he called to let me know his colleagues in a different division of the company were looking for a writer to work on their internal monthly newsletter. He recommended me and took care of the initial introductions. After a few interviews and written proposal, I secured the project and now write a monthly newsletter for his company.

Obviously I had to prove I was qualified to do the job and my pricing had to be right, but I am certain that my thank you note helped build the relationship that led to the contract. When I wrote the thank you, my only goal was to show my appreciation, but you can never underestimate the power of saying thank you. 

*Photo by Anna Mailie Design via Flickr


Be a Partner

When it comes to landing and keeping clients, the key is to position yourself as their partner. Yes, you are a writer, editor or [insert profession of choice here], but moreover, you are someone your clients can turn to when they need an extra hand. It is important to be flexible and easy to work with, and I’ve always said my job is to make my clients’ jobs easier. 

My motto was tested this week when I reached out to an editor about a story he assigned me a few months ago only to learn he had forgotten to list me on his editorial calendar and assigned the story to someone else. He apologized (several times, actually), and promised to touch base with the other writer to determine who was further along on the piece.

I took a few deep breaths and thought about what losing the assignment would mean to me. For this paper, I get paid by the word and typically earn $1,200 or more for a feature. This is a heck of a lot of money. I also love the front-page byline this piece will have. Plus, I had several hours in on the project. 

Then, I thought about my editor, the sources who had already shared time and information with me and all of the leg work I’d done on the piece. As a partner, there was no reason to let that work go to waste. I’ve been writing for this paper since I started freelancing three years ago and value the long-term relationship we have.

I emailed my editor and let him know that if he went with the other writer, I’d share my notes and the dates and times of pending interviews in addition to an overall status update.

Minutes later, my phone rang. My editor was confirming that I’d just offered to share my info, apologized again and thanked me for being so willing to help. He also offered to pay me for the work I’d done so far, give me credit on the story as a contributing writer and put me on the editorial calendar for an upcoming feature.

Was it the right move? Part of me wonders if I shared my info a little too easily. But overall, I think I showed my dedication to my client. My editor knows that I put the story first and he rewarded me with compensation for the time I’d spent and, more importantly for a soul proprietor, future work. I'm still a firm believer that putting the client first is the first step in building trust and securing repeat business. 

Kid-Friendly Office Space

This corner desk for my little guy is one of the best features in my home office. As much as I try to avoid working with my kids in the room, there are times when it is unavoidable. This desk and the Fisher Price Cool School Computer were gifts from my in laws, and now Evan has his own place to work. We spruced up his "office" with his original artwork that we can rotate out as new creations come home from preschool. Now he gets right to work when "we" have important projects we’re trying to wrap up.

Madelyn’s workstation is her Jumperoo, which is positioned between my desk and Evan’s. Now I can get a solid 30 minutes of screen time in when necessary. Phone calls, however, are out. Between the music from the computer and the Jumperoo, it sounds like you’re in the middle of a Chuck E Cheese. But for sending e-mails or proofreading a final draft of a story, it’s perfect! 


Six Tips for Freelance Success

1. Meet your deadlines: Yes, I know this is obvious, but it is a biggie. I put each of my deadlines on my calendar and then jot down the milestones I need to accomplish to finish the projects on time. I also like to work ahead when I can. You never know when a client will call with a last-minute project and staying current on my to-do list gives me the flexibility to lend a hand when needed.

2. See yourself as part of your client’s team: As a freelancer, my job is to help my clients meet their goals. That applies to the project at hand, of course, but it is also much broader. I like to be flexible with them and step up to the plate when they have last-minute needs. I read articles with specific clients in mind and try to develop ideas that can help them overall. Moreover, I know that I am often an extension of my clients’ brand. For example, I typically reach out to ten or more sources for one feature article. With each phone call I make, I am representing the client, even if it is indirectly.

3. Make financial goals: Freelancing is a business and as such you need to create a business plan with income projections. If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know how to get there. More importantly, if you aren’t profitable, you won’t be in business very long. I know the minimum amount I’d like to make each month and having that figure in mind keeps me working toward it. I pitch more stories on months that look like they might fall short and feel great about my work on months that exceed my projections. Either way, my financial goals keep me on track.

4. Meet new people: When you work at home, it is important to keep up your network. Attend alumni events, go to writing conferences and connect online with other freelancers. One of my top clients last year came from a chance meeting at an alumni event. You never know where your next assignment or your next great idea will come from.

5. Know your strengths: While it can be tempting to be a jack-of-all-trades, you’ll do better if you play to your strengths. There are reasons journalists cover beats. Getting knee-deep into an industry gives you insight you don’t get from just covering it now and then. Since I’ve been writing, I’ve covered criminal court, Capitol Hill and commerce. Right now in my career I write primarily about the transportation industry, which means I stay up on trends, monitor news stories and have extensive industry contacts. Covering this niche market has served me well as a freelancer. I have six transportation publications I write for regularly, and the editors know they can trust me to provide in-depth copy on deadline.

6. Don’t be afraid to turn down projects: This relates to #5. Yes, there are financial goals to meet (per #3), but it isn’t always about the money. Taking on a project that isn’t the right fit will hurt you in the long run. You’ll likely produce a less-than-stellar product, which can ding your reputation, and you might get down from doing work you don’t love. 



One of my accomplishments in 2010 was forming an LLC. I need to give my husband a big pat on the back because this was his accomplishment, too. He did all the paperwork and helped me draft the articles of organization. Thank you, Bryan! We formed the LLC as a partnership and now in business, as in life, we are a team. 

I spent quite a bit of time coming up with the LLC’s name and settled on something unique. Are you ready? Wait for it…wait for it… Mindy Long Freelance LLC. Creative, isn’t it? Okay, maybe not, but it was intentional. Here is why.

Brand Recognition: I am my brand. I have name recognition among the editors I write for, and when they refer me to their colleagues, it is by name. My byline appears on my articles, which further supports my name recognition among my readers, sources and employers. I bring years of experience and institutional knowledge to the table, so I want to be sure my clients know I am the person they are entrusting with their project.

Ease of Transition: For years my clients have been writing checks to Mindy Long. I’ve contacted my clients’ accounting departments and provided my LLC name, EIN and updated W-9s, but there is a chance payments could be made out to Mindy Long and not Mindy Long Freelance LLC. If this happens, it should be fairly easy to deposit it into my business account despite the name variations.

Web Presence: I already own my domain and I don’t want to redirect clients to a new site, so I knew I wanted my name somewhere in the business name.

Minimal Cheesy-ness: Every time I came up with a company name that was creative, it bordered on cheesy. I needed to stick with something that was professional and self-explanatory.

In the end, I am happy with my choice. As I was drafting letters to clients and filling out a stack of W-9s, I was glad I wasn’t writing something that could be seen as silly or that meant something only to me. It felt good to be filling out those W-9s with a business name that includes my name and reflecting on the business I’ve built. I’m excited to have the paperwork done and have an official reminder that freelancing was the right path for me.  

Home Office Revamp

The days have been flying by lately. Between a slew of work projects, a hubby who has been burning the midnight oil and my two little ones, time is passing quickly. 

I’ve been so fortunate to have a steady stream of freelance projects since hanging my own shingle about two years ago. The past few months have been especially busy. It has reinforced the need to dedicate a set workspace to my work. As a write-at-home mama, it is easy to pack my laptop from room to room, but I find I am more efficient and focused when I sit at my desk. 

So, I’m in the midst of a re-vamp of my home office. I’m on a budget, but I am going to splurge on a few tools that I think will help boost my productivity. Today I ordered a new wireless keyboard and mouse and a laptop stand. Tomorrow I’m heading out to pick up a fancy-schmancy desk chair. Whoo hoo. 

As part of the re-vamp, I’m in the market for a desk for my little guy. There was a time when he was happy to play on the floor while I worked, but now we have a power struggle over the desktop (and laptop, but that is another story). I’m hitting a few consignment sales this weekend in hopes of finding the perfect new-to-us addition to the office.  

We’ll be moving some furniture around, re-purposing items from other rooms and pulling a few things down from the attic. There has also been a steady hum coming from my shredder as I purge the filing cabinets and clean house. 

I share our office space with my hubby, so we keep the space pretty gender neutral and our first priority is the functionality of the room. Luckily we both have our own desks. 

I have been online looking for inspiration for our space. I found an amazing home office while blog hopping this week, but I can’t for the life of me remember the blog! I hate when that happens. I love this corner workstation on Oh Happy Day. I hope we can add an armoire for storage at some point—but that is probably pretty far down the line. 

So tell me— what are your must-haves for your home office? How have you arranged your space? Do you have any inspiration rooms or home offices you covet?