Operation Freelance

 
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Laura Briggs talks to us about a great way for military spouses and veterans to start their own freelance careers through her nonprofit Operation Freelance.

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Scott DeLuzio:    00:00:03    Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast, where we talk about issues affecting Veterans after they get out of the military. Before we get started, I'd like to ask a favor if you haven't done so already, please rate and review the show on Apple podcast. If you've already done that, thank you. These ratings help the show get discovered so it can reach a wider audience. And while you're there, click the subscribe button so that you get notified of new episodes. As soon as they come out. If you don't use Apple podcasts, you can visit DriveOnPodcast.com/subscribe to find other ways of subscribing, including our email list. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio. And now let's get on with the show. Hey everyone. Thanks for joining us today. My guest is Laura Briggs. Laura teaches others how to build their own businesses from home and is the author of Lunch, your own freelance writing business. Laura also runs, Operation Freelance, which is a nonprofit focused on creating business opportunities for military spouses and Veterans. So, Laura, thank you for joining me. Why don't you go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Laura Briggs:    00:01:11    Sure. I had every plan in the world of becoming a professor. I've done everything for my PhD except my dissertation. Then I met and fell in love with a man in the Navy. So as is often the case with military spouses, our career gets a little bit turned upside down. Through many PCs I realized that I was going to have to have a career that was a little bit more flexible.  Tenure track professor at one university just wasn't going to work with the Navy's needs. And so, I started freelancing as a side hustle and grew that to a full-time business that followed me over the last eight years. And now on both the business and the nonprofit side, I teach other people, not just how to start, but also experienced freelancers, how to scale, how to decide what your business is going to look like for you and have it work for your life and not the other way around.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:02:01    Awesome. Yeah. And that sounds like a common thing with other military spouses, one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the show is because I live near an Air Force base. So, a lot of our neighbors and friends are in the Air Force and through talking with them, getting to know their families and everything, they find it difficult for the spouse. So the one who's not in the Air Force whether it's the husband or the wife and in whichever situation they have, they find it difficult for that spouse to find a good job because they end up moving every couple of years. Employers don't tend to be too keen on hiring someone for a year, a year and a half or whatever the case may be for a professional job.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:02:45    Like in your case, you're saying that that's not exactly something that was in the cards for you with your career path. They want to know that this hire that they're making is in it for the long haul, which totally makes sense. So, what I wanted to talk to you about was Operation Freelance and it seems like it's a great way to help out some of these spouses start businesses that they can do from pretty much anywhere as long as they have a computer and an internet connection, they can probably do it from just about anywhere. So, could you tell us a little bit more about the Operation Freelance and what sparked that and what it is that you do?

Laura Briggs:     00:03:29    Yeah. I've come across so many spouses in this situation where they're either unemployed or they're severely underemployed because they're very highly educated. Lots of them have tons of experience. And if they're lucky, maybe in one move or base where they're at, they have a really great job, but then they find it hard to sustain that when they move somewhere else. And so I coach freelancers one-on-one on the business side and for about a year and a half, once a quarter, I would take on one to two military spouses totally for free to teach them the same things I was teaching my paid students, but just to help them get a jumpstart because I've been there. And my only regret is that I wish I'd started sooner in building something for myself that was really flexible and was freedom-based. And so, I realized quickly at the end of 2019, I opened up applications for my one or two spots in January.

Laura Briggs:    00:04:20    And I had like 52 applications overnight. And I'm like, “yeah, this is bigger than what Laura can just do on an ad hoc basis. And I was really lucky because that same month I had been invited to travel out to Upwork's global headquarters in San Francisco. That's the biggest freelance job board site in the world. I've had a really good relationship with Upwork as a freelancer. And they had invited me to talk about something else. They wanted to hear about my freelance journey, how I've used the site, what has this meant for my life? And at the end, I casually mentioned like freelancing has opened all these doors for me. The latest one is starting a nonprofit, and it was really crazy. I came off stage and someone's like, the new Upwork CEO wants to talk to you. And they pulled me in this room and she's like, we want to give you $20,000 to jumpstart this this year.

Laura Briggs:   00:05:04    Would you be able to take on more people this year, if we did that? And I was like, Oh, I was going to take a full year just to file all the paperwork, build the board of directors. So, we have moved at warp speed. We are almost done with our first cohort of 10 freelancers. We have some incredible people in the program who are getting new opportunities for themselves. They're building confidence, they're bringing home extra money. A lot of them are spouses that are reentering the workforce after just doing jobs to make ends meet or not being employed at all. And so, we're opening up applications right now. We're accepting applications for our fall cohort of members. And it's just been a real joy to be able to do this and to give back in a bigger way, rather than just helping one or two people.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:05:51    Yeah, absolutely. And that seems like a great trajectory that you're on and being able to get that benefit of helping out more people than you originally started off thinking that you'd be able to do.  It is amazing. So, I think that that's really great. And I know the people who are looking for this type of work to be able to do some sort of work from home, especially on a military salary, which, I don't care what rank you are, you're not raking in the big bucks with a career in the military. And that type of thing sometimes it is necessary to have a second income in order to afford the housing.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:06:39    Especially if you're off base or something like that, you may not be able to afford it with the cost of living with all the food and utilities and everything like that. I know there's pay that the military gives for housing and things like that but there's expenses. You have kids and you have all this other stuff that goes into it. And when you're not making a ton of money in the military, one salary sometimes it's just not going to cut it, especially in certain areas. So, this is really a great opportunity for a lot of these military families to be able to branch off on their own and start something that they can take with them and not have to leave behind.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:07:23    Because a lot of these transitions where they're moving from one place to another is hard enough as it is, they have to leave friends behind or things like that, but also to leave behind a career that you're working on and building is even harder, I can imagine. So, now there's all sorts of things that people can do while they are working from home. What does the process look like? I'm not talking about like, if you're going to be a writer or a bookkeeper or whatever, I'm not talking about specifics on that. What is the process to get started with a freelance business for someone who maybe never really thought of this as a potential avenue for them? What are some of the steps that they're going to have to think about?

Laura Briggs:     00:08:08    Yeah, I think the first one is what do you already have experience in? And if that answer is something where you're like, I have experience, but I don't want to do that anymore, then that's also helpful to know as well. And then also, what are you interested in learning? Because one of the things that's unique about freelancing is you don't have to go back and get a four-year degree to feel qualified enough to do the thing. We have access to so many different online courses, free podcasts books, and things that can teach you how to do the actual service area. So, it comes down to what are you interested in? What would light you up to learn about? And so that's usually where we start and then we match that by looking at people's past resumes to start pulling out skills that they have from other jobs or other volunteer positions that will also translate really well over to being a freelancer.

Laura Briggs:     00:08:58    So anything, project management, all your soft skills, like communication and prioritization, meeting deadlines, collaborating with diverse teams. A lot of times people don't think of these as well. Yeah, but I did that like in a dentist office. So, what the heck does that have to do with graphic design? It actually has a lot to do with graphic design. Because you're used to working in fast paced environments with a variety of different type of people, achieving goals and deadlines that does really transfer over to a freelance business. So, once you know what you're interested in, we encourage our participants to go out there and take a look at market demand and see what your competition is doing. Is there enough of a demand for you to step into the marketplace? Is there some way for you to be unique and not just a generic provider of services?

Laura Briggs:     00:09:41    And you also want to think about your goals too. For some people, you know, I did this full time for eight years, that was the right fit for our family at that time for other people, what makes freelancing such a good fit is because it's so flexible. You can do it five hours a week. You can do it 50 hours a week and anything in between, but you have to know what that looks like for you so that you can adjust your schedule accordingly to do enough time on the marketing end to actually have clients and work on client projects.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:10:08    Yeah, for sure and that's something that I think people who are getting into a freelance type job don't really foresee as being the situation where they're going to have to deal with the marketing and the accounting and all the other things that go into running a business but that's not always going to be the case. There are situations, you know, I own my business that I have outside of doing this podcast. I started off doing website design, type stuff. And it was just me, building websites for mostly small businesses around the area that I lived in. Then it started to grow and it got out to businesses in other states and all over the place.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:11:00    And what I started to learn is that I can't do all of the things on my own. So, it required me to outsource some of the work to other people, other developers, some of the marketing type work and all that kind of stuff. For someone who is in this position where they're looking at starting a freelance business but they might feel like it's overwhelming. I can't do this all on my own. What kind of advice would you have for someone like that?

Laura Briggs: 2    00:11:32    Yeah, it is owning your own business, which when you think of it, from that perspective, it can be kind of overwhelming because everything is on you. You have to create your own paycheck. You also have to pay your own taxes. You have to figure out what tools and materials and software you already have versus which ones you need to invest in. And so, what I always tell new freelancers is don't overthink it. You do not need to act like you've been in business for five years when you're just getting started. So, you don't need a huge fancy website. If you really can't afford that, then build an amazing LinkedIn profile, establish a profile on Upwork. I didn't have a website for three years, so you don't need one. And I was telling people to just start small, and then once you have the revenue coming in and your confidence is growing from doing that, that's when you can start thinking about how do I invest in different tools that are going to help me get to where I want to go? But the most important thing as a new freelancer is that drive a really good pitch and work samples. Or if you're in a category like virtual assistant or project manager where you wouldn't really have work samples, how can you get some early experience to have some really amazing testimonials to bolster you into those first couple of jobs?

Scott DeLuzio:    00:12:41    Yeah, that's great advice. Whenever I'm looking for someone to help me on a project or whatever, I like to see some of their prior work, if it's maybe a graphic designer or a marketing company or something along those lines, I want to see, get a feel for the type of work that they do, what kind of quality they have. So having some sort of a portfolio, if you will, to put out there, even in, like you said, even if it is on a LinkedIn profile or Upwork or whatever the profile may be is fine, as long as you give the people an opportunity to take a look at what it is that you do and are capable of.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:13:21    So that's really good advice. When these people start off, freelance businesses, and this could be anyone, not just a military spouse or a Veteran or anything like that, but when people start off a freelance business, a lot of times they think small, I feel they think like, well, it's just me. So, it's not going to grow to be this big company where I now have employees, and that might be the case where they don't want it to grow. They want it to stay small because they don't want to deal with the hassle of payroll and taxes and all this other stuff that they have to deal with if they have employees and benefits and all that kind of stuff. But there's going to be the other side to where there's going to be some people who get to a point where they're doing more and they can do more than they have the capacity for it, and they want to grow it, and they want to keep servicing more people. Like in the situation where you found yourself, where you were only planning on helping one or two people, and then now you're helping dozens of people.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:14:29    How can someone scale and grow their business, especially when they may not be in the same location for long periods of time. So, they're not going to set up a brick and mortar store off base or anything like that. What kind of things can people do to help grow and scale that business?

Laura Briggs:    00:14:49    Yeah, there's a really important mindset that happens when you go from being a beginner to being what I call a more intermediate freelancer. And that's when you really have to start thinking of yourself as a CEO and questioning all of the things that you do on a daily basis that were necessary for you to do when you got started, when you have enough revenue. Some of them are keeping you from bringing in more money, right? So, if I'm spending time managing my calendar or answering emails that could really have a canned response, or that my virtual assistant could respond to, that's not a good use of my time. So, start thinking about what things you could pull off your plate after you've been at it for a while and make your process as fast as possible. And I often hear from freelancers, “well, I don't want to subcontract to other freelancers to do my client's work.”

Laura Briggs:    00:15:35    And I always tell them, you don't have to, I don't work with other writers. I write all the work for my clients’ projects, but do I choose all the keywords? Do I pick all the titles? Do I pull all the resource links and proofread them? No, I do the part that I do, which is the writing, and I can outsource some of those other things to make it faster or more effective for me to write. And I think that really helps you as you scale. And for me, it was focusing in on a niche. If I tried to do four or five different freelance services, it's really hard to schedule your day. So, when you can pick one type of client or one type of project that you'd like to stay focused on, you can get that one streamlined and optimized as much as possible.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:16:16    Yeah. And that brings up actually an interesting point that I wasn't thinking about, until you just mentioned it. Focusing on a niche, a specific type of client that you're looking for can be tremendously beneficial to your business. You could become known as the writer, in a writer's case, the writer for law firms or something like that, whatever the case may be. And you're narrowing down to a very specific market, and there's not as big of a pool of customers in that market, but your marketing message is going to be on point to cover those people and you're going to be talking their language when they come to your website, they're going to be like, okay, this person knows what I need, and they're going to go most likely go with you, as opposed to someone who's just more broad in general and can fill a Jack of all trades kind of category where they can handle and any type of customer and some people shy away from niching down to a specific audience because they're afraid that they're just not going to get any customers.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:17:37    Have you seen that to be the case with any of the freelancers that you work with or what have people tended to be drawn towards, as far as their businesses?

Laura Briggs:   00:17:50    You can definitely go too narrow if there's not enough of a demand for what you offer. But what I like to do is start by being a generalist, see how you feel though, projects and people that you work on or work with that you go, “I don't ever care to do that again. That's not my niche, or that company was way too big. And so, there was too much red tape to get through to effectively communicate.” File that away mentally. And it'll help you whittle down what your niche is, and you can always expand your niche back out, right? So, if you go too narrow, when you realize there's not enough, you can always go one level up. So, there's really two ways to niche by project type or by client type. And then you can also niche by both of those, right? So, for years I wrote blogs for law firms. So, I was very niche, but just like you said, that made the clients who landed on my LinkedIn profile, my Upwork profile, getting cold pitched from me. They were like, “Oh, this is the person to go to for this service in my industry. I can really trust this person.” So, it is a careful balance, but I like to start general and then start to narrow down. And that way you can find your sweet spot in there.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:18:57    Yeah, absolutely. And another guest that I had on the show a few months ago, her business started off as a SEO consultant, search engine optimization consultant. And she narrowed her focus down to just the wedding industry. Things that, revolve around the wedding industry are the types of clients that she takes. And so, it's very narrowly focused, but it's still broad enough. There's a good number of clients out there. There's the florist and the caterers and the photographers and the wedding venues and all the other things that go into it. So, there's still a good number out there but she's getting her foot in the door, being known as the wedding SEO kind of specialists. So, it’s a good way to think about it too.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:19:52    And I like how you described it as starting off more general and then getting an idea for the types of clients that you want to work with, types and probably even more importantly, the types that you don't want to work with. So, you don't make that mistake and go down that road again. You have talked in the past about some of the issues that some freelancers face and more on after they've been established a little longer in business. What are some of the issues that people might be able to expect to see in the future? And then, what can they do about these types of issues?

Laura Briggs:    00:20:32    Yeah, the big one is overwhelmed. So, I like to tell the freelancers that are in the like $60 to $80,000 a year revenue mark, what got you here isn't going to get you there. So, a lot of them are looking to scale past six, they're looking to give themselves a little bit of a cushion to accommodate for taxes. And some of the things that we pay as self-employed individuals, and we don't have health insurance unless it's through our spouse or something like that. So, I'm doing all the things in your business doesn't work. So usually it is almost always coming to terms with the idea of hiring at least one virtual assistant. If you're not going to hire subcontractors, I think another one is saying no to clients, because the way that you grew your business was probably just, I'm so grateful to have anybody say yes to working with me, especially when you're a beginner.

Laura Briggs:     00:21:21    And then what you come to find out is you can't afford to work with everybody and you have to be selective. I tell freelancers all the time, the only things you control are your time and your energy. And if you give both of those to the wrong people, you will feel drained, exhausted, not want to be part of your business at all anymore. So, knowing when and how to say no to people, ideally you want to say no to them before you're under contract with them. But I also work with a lot of six-figure freelancers who are navigating challenges with communication, with enforcing contracts, with scope creep and people who are pushing the boundaries with what's being asked. And so, there's a big role that advanced freelancers have to pay and play when they jump into these teams as an outside party. But you might be stepping into a team that's totally dysfunctional with project management skills. And so, you're not just there to deliver the thing. You almost have to be like, “okay, guys, we're using a project management tool and this is the flow that we're going to turn things in.” And I think that catches some advanced freelancers by surprise, because it's like, “well, you are just hiring me to write blogs or create social media images or whatever it might be,” but you often have to play that blended role of service provider and strategist all the time.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:22:34    Sure, absolutely. And you talked about that overwhelming feeling where you can't do all of the things in your business and you mentioned a little bit about outsourcing some of that work to a VA. How would you go about doing that if you don't have anybody?  VA being a virtual assistant, not the Veterans affairs, in this particular episode is what we're talking about. So what would you do to find somebody, if you don't know someone who is capable of doing that type of job? Where did you go and find somebody and what are some of the things that you should be looking for in a VA?

Laura Briggs:  00:23:15    The first step is figuring out what it is you want to offload, because that will determine that second step of who are you going to hire? One of the biggest mistakes that people make is thinking there's this magic unicorn virtual assistant that does all the things and does all of them extremely well and can take them off your plate tomorrow. And it just doesn't work like that. So, bucketing your tasks together. My online business manager, Melissa, who's also a military spouse is really good at setting up systems, keeping things organized and streamlined. And so, she manages all of my podcasts. She manages all of my email newsletter. She manages posting things in my Facebook group. Those are different tasks and software, but they're all very related because they're a consistent process of the same thing that happens every week with different content.

Laura Briggs:    00:24:01    And so you're looking for a person who has the skill set to think about somewhat related things together and be able to claim ownership over it. There's my favorite way to find new VAs is always going to be through referrals. So if you know of somebody else who is an online business owner who leverages VA's, I would ask them first and say, if you don't know someone personally, do you have a recommendation of a place I can look, there are a couple of places that for free will allow you to post a job. And it's a qualified pool of virtual assistants that are paying to be in that leads community. And I've had really good luck there.  I always go first to our military spouse, remote working groups on Facebook, because I'm always going to try to give the edge to someone in the military community before I open it up to the rest of the world. And so that's another nice way to give back to recognize there might be somebody who has these skills and maybe isn't formally calling themselves a VA yet, but could with some training step in.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:25:01    Sure, absolutely. Yeah. And in the intro, I briefly mentioned that you wrote a book and what prompted you to write that book so that the Launch, your own freelance writing business is, the name of the book, what prompted you to write that and, and get that out there.

Laura Briggs:    00:25:25    I used to be a teacher as I think I mentioned at the beginning of this episode. And so, I was also a graduate student.  I had a lot of colleagues from those worlds who saw my freelance journey go from one or two clients to I have to leave my day job because I'm fully booked. They were all very curious about what that process looked like. And I couldn't do any more coffee chats. Like everyone I knew was like, Hey Laura, can I pick your brain? I was like, okay, guys, I got to put this together in a thing. I'm going to make it affordable for you to get a lot of my advice.  I went out and got a literary agent. We were actually trying to sell another book, which is my second book that's coming out in October of 2020.

Laura Briggs:    00:26:07    And my agent was pitching this book everywhere. I was a debut author. It's a really hard time to break in as a debut author. And one publisher came back and said, we really like Laura, but we have this other book that needs to be written first in our catalog, a beginner's book on a freelance writing business. Would she like to do that? And my agent was like, let's do this. You knock them out of the water, blow their socks off with how good you can market this thing. And I bet we can sell the second one. And so that's exactly what we did. And I'm really glad I wrote the beginner one first, because there's been a lot of people who have been able to leverage that resource who are at more beginner point. And I really just wanted people to have access to a resource that was less than $20. That with a little bit of DIY work on their own, they'd have a guidebook of the mistakes I wish I'd avoided. And some of the things you can do to supercharge your success when you get started.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:27:01    So what are some of those mistakes that you wish you avoided?

Laura Briggs: 2    00:27:05    Yeah. Taking on the wrong clients, huge one. I mean, we've all done it. And every freelancer will bring on some of the wrong clients. I think another one for me was believing that, especially as a writer that I needed to have been published somewhere else before selling work to clients and the three work samples that I used to land my first several dozen jobs were never published anywhere. I just made blogs like; this is my writing style. It's never been published anywhere, but if you like what you see, and that was a big wake up call for me. I didn't actually need to hold myself to this much higher standard of, I've got to go back and get an MFA. And I've got to be published in a magazine before I can ask other people to pay me for my work. So those are two and the third one, which sounds so silly, but it is the number one thing that holds people back.

Laura Briggs:     00:27:52    They just don't start. There's always a reason, well, maybe in three months or maybe when this thing happens. And I think one of the things that's interesting about the pandemic is don't you wish you started sooner, right? If your job was in question before the pandemic, you gotta really think about, I think more people are aware of that now, how do you build multiple sources of income so that if you take a big hit on one, you get laid off, you have a family business that struggles for several months or goes under. That's the way I like to think of online business. And so, don't wait to get started. You'll never regret getting started, but you will regret not getting started.  I actually bought that book or that course two years before. And there was no good reason for me to sit around and write my pitch that would have taken me two hours over the course of that two years. So just take the forward action step. You can always decide with very little money or time invested; this isn't for me. That is not true of a brick and mortar business. After you've taken out a loan, signed the lease, done all these things.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:28:56    Bought the inventory and all that stuff. And that's one of the reasons why I liked the idea of going into business for myself and doing the type of work that I do is because I can work from home, as long as I have a computer and an internet connection pretty much good to go. It makes it easier, like you were saying earlier, that you can just pick up and go, if you want, you don't have to work 80 hours a week. You can work 10 hours this week or take a vacation and not work this week. It's really up to you. It's not to say that it's easy and that you can just not work and money continues to flow in. You still need to do the work

Scott DeLuzio:    00:29:47    but you have that flexibility and that freedom; there's no boss that you need to report to that's going to tell you no or whatever. You can have a little more flexibility in your life which, for my family and our lives, just makes more sense. I would imagine, for military spouses who are looking for some type of employment where they need to be sort of flexible where the military dictates where you're going to be when you need to be there and that type of thing. Having a freelance job in your back pocket that you can rely on for some income sounds to me like a great way to go. And it's primarily why I wanted you to be on the podcast to talk about that type of thing. I really do appreciate everything that you've talked about with us today. It's really been a pleasure speaking with you. Where can people go to find out more about Operation Freelance, see if they can get involved with that and your book and everything else that you do.

Laura Briggs:    00:30:55    So, the website URL that will take you directly to the Amazon page for the book is freelance writing101.com and then Operation Freelance [email protected] And you should be able to subscribe, you can also usually find our application form for our next cohort. If you are interested in applying, we just ask that you're military affiliated caregiver, Veteran, military spouse, it's open to all, it's a completely virtual training and it's 90 days. And it's been really cool to do so. I hope that more people will apply and we'll have more in the program.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:31:30    And so we'll have links to all of this in the show notes to get people in touch with you, for applying for the cohorts and to hopefully grab your book too, and read that in the meantime. If they miss the cutoff for a cohort or whatever, they can jump in and get started, but we'll have all that in the show notes, so you can check that out there and definitely check out both of those and get in touch because it seems like a great way to make a little extra money, and potentially a lot of extra money depending on how much time and effort you want to put it in. So, thank you again, Laura, for joining us on the show today.

Laura Briggs:  Yeah. Thank you.

Scott DeLuzio:  Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website DriveOnPodcast.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @DriveOnPodcast