There’s a great scene in Netflix’s new “House of Cards” series that illustrates an important lesson for freelancers. Kevin Spacey’s character, a US congressman named Frank Underwood, is meeting with a Warren Buffet-like billionaire. Frank is asking this business tycoon for a large favor and, after a bit of back-and-forth, the billionaire insists that he be owed a favor in return. However, he is not willing to reveal the nature of this reciprocal favor, preferring that Frank simply remain indebted to him:
Frank: And what exactly would you want me to do?
Raymond: Well, that part I don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait and see how things play out.
Frank: I’ve already told you I will not do a blank check.
Raymond: I must say I’m surprised, Frank. You have a reputation for pragmatism.
Frank: And I also have avoided a reputation for indentured servitude.
Raymond: I never make an offer more than twice, Frank. Tell me now if I can count on your cooperation.
Frank: You’re not offering cooperation; you’re demanding tutelage. So let me make you a proposal: I am absolutely willing to work together as equals. I will take your opinions seriously, just as the President does, but I will not bind myself to them in advance. If that doesn’t interest you, fair enough. Good luck finding someone as pragmatic as me [to help you]. You can’t purchase loyalty, Raymond; not the sort I have in mind. If you want to earn my loyalty then you have to offer yours in return.
This is an interesting exchange. Despite how badly Frank wants this favor, from a very powerful man, he is unwilling to kowtow to him. He understands the importance of mutual respect and establishing a balance of power in a business relationship, even if that means risking the relationship itself.
I recall my days as a freelance developer and I see this axiom in action. I think back to how often I pulled all-nighters because the client screwed up or allowed myself to be intimidated when negotiating payment. I was miserable and resentful and yet still always broke. This wasn’t the freedom that I was expecting since I found myself working for multiple unreasonable people, rather than just one unreasonable boss.
I no longer even negotiate on our hourly or weekly rates and I don’t get squeamish asking about budget early in the conversation. I engage each client and prospective client from the perspective of a business-to-business relationship–I’m not their employee. I don’t really know how or why this changed. It could be because I finally settled into my position as a business owner with employees of my own that need to get a paycheck twice a month. Or it might be because I’ve just gotten older and I now have a family to support. But I really wish I had figured this out 10 years ago. I still deal with challenges every day, but disrespectful and deadbeat clients aren’t among them. I choose who I work with now; it feels good and actually allows me to do better work because I care about these people more.