I am now seven months into this freelancing thing. I’m doing well if by “doing well” one means that I’m paying the bills and trying to sock away a little money for the day when I am no longer working out of coffee shops or someone else’s house. This essay will discuss the materials one needs for a home office.
Now I admit I have no idea what your particular working circumstances are. You might live in the city, the suburbs, or a cabin in the woods that has wifi (if that last one, could I visit?). However, I’m just going to have to make a few assumptions about what you can or can’t afford to do. What follows is what I consider a list of “minimums” to function on your own in a home office.
So what does one need to operate a functioning technical writer’s office away from corporate America? Obviously your needs will vary, but here are mine:
- Computer Hardware, Software, and Internet Access. Obviously you need this stuff, or you wouldn’t be able to do your work or read this entertaining blog, right? Notice I didn’t say which type of computer to get. If you want to read about the comparative virtues and vices of the Mac-vs.-PC debate, see my thoughts here. What I will say is that you should try to work with a computer that less than five years old, has the memory and RAM to run and remember all the things you do. To stay in touch with customers, job opportunities, and your favorite websites, you’ll need internet access, preferably some sort of broadband access–dial-up is nearly dead. A printer is a good but not absolutely necessary thing. I’m doing less and less in hard copy and only print things when I want to keep them around, hand them out (such as my marketing flyer), or if I’m tired of looking at a glowing screen. As for software, yes, you Microsoft haters out there are going to need MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to support most technical writing customers. You might get away with using the Open Office products, but you’ll be missing a lot of the functionality. If you want to get fancy and can afford it, you can go with the full Adobe suite, including FrameMaker. You’ll need a reliable email provider and a professional-sounding email address–or even your own domain!
- Backup. I need to do this, and plan to do so when a couple more invoices get paid. I’m not gung-ho to trust “the cloud” to protect everything, but I suppose that’s one option. At the very least, you need to save and back up your work products somewhere other than your hard drive. They have external hard drives that can save one terabyte of information. Unless you’re making or saving digital movies on the scale of Star Wars, you’re probably safe with that. Word documents don’t take up a lot of room. But really, I live in Central Florida, Lightning Capital of the United States. You’d think I’d have a backup by now. Seriously, I just added that to my to-do list (see below).
- A method for organizing your work. This could come in many forms, but if you are supporting multiple clients with overlapping deadlines, you will NEED to be organized. If you think you can rely on your memory for everything, you’re wrong. Something will slip through the cracks, and you’ll miss a deadline or lose something. Trust me on this. I have a good memory (as Bill Cosby once said, “This is the same child my wife sends with me whenever I’m going out somewhere”), but I had organization forced on me after I had to confess to a customer that I’d just plain forgotten something and missed a deadline. Ouch. Don’t be that guy/gal. I harp on this quite a bit now because I developed my own system(s) for tracking my work (read here and here). My good friend Dauna is a Post-It Note user. Her desk makes me crazy, with its random bits of paper everywhere, but she gets things done because she has those pieces of paper there. As it happens, I have several overlapping systems to keep myself on the ball:
- Smart Phone: Calendar, reminder list, business calls.
- Excel spreadsheets: Invoice tracking, hours tracking.
- Filing system: My computer drive is organized by customer, then projects, and there’s a separate folder for invoices and other customer-related paperwork (W-9, Non-disclosure Agreements, etc.).
- Google Drive/DropBox: Depending on the customer, shared documents are posted to one of these “cloud” resources so everyone has the same shared data they need to keep things in line.
Too OCD for you? Well, you don’t have to do ALL of the above, but if you’re going to be a freelance business person, you’re going to have a lot to track, and wouldn’t it be a shame if you missed a deadline (or an invoice!) because you just plain forgot to write it down or file it somewhere?
- Good pens. If you don’t believe in paper and pen anymore, skip this part. However, if you still like writing things down in analog fashion on paper, continue reading. Once I figured I could call myself a legitimate writing professional, I decided that I should do better than the Bic pens I bought by the dozen at the supermarket…or grabbing pens from the office or hotel rooms. I was accidentally introduced to my favorite writing utensil when someone loaned me theirs. Now I am not usually a huge fan of product endorsements, but this one is long overdue. I just love working with the Uni-Ball Vision Elite Medium Point pens. The ink line is bold and consistent and comes in black and blue-black, which I prefer just because it’s different. They cost about $10 for a pack of four, and most likely you’ll have to go to Office Depot or Staples to find them, but they’re worth it. They are costly enough that you’ll keep track of them but not so dear that you’ll freak out if you lose one (“Oh $%&#, where’s my Mont Blanc?!??”). Why do you need good pens? Do you go to meetings? Do you take a lot of notes? Do you want to be able to read what you wrote later? Do you dislike ink clumps on your pages? Yeah, get some good pens.
- Envelopes and stamps. There are still times when you need to use paper envelopes, usually #10 Legal envelopes (the ones that are security-printed on the inside are better) and maybe some 9X12″ Manila envelopes for sending full documents. Your customer might require you to send things via overnight letter, in which case you could charge the expense to them, set up your own account, or just pay out of pocket, the last two options being legitimate business expenses.
- Business cards. Business cards are still a common medium of exchange, especially at conferences or other events. Or, say you’ve been chatting up someone in line at the grocery store. That’d be a great time to provide a reminder for them about your services. Office Depot and other printing companies have good templates online, which allow you to customize your card’s paper type (thick or thin, shiny or matte), shape (squared or rounded), and of course your critical business information and a tagline, if you prefer. I also added a “Notes” feature to the back of mine, which many folks appreciate so they can write down any information that reminds them why they want to contact you. (Piece of useful trivia: a friend pointed out that horizontally oriented/”landscape” cards work better than vertical cards if you’re working with a Japanese client.)
- 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.
Pretty much anything else is optional. For instance, I have my own dry-erase board and markers because I remember things better when they’re staring me down day after day. I have a journal, which is part diary, part business note-taking repository–that item is necessary to ME because I have a habit of writing things down–however I don’t have a Franklin Covey planner because that system doesn’t work for me. I have a stapler to keep together documents and receipts. Somewhere in my storage unit I have a bunch of desk stuff that seemed useful at the time but which I’ve managed to live without for seven months, so I consider that a lesson in simplifying my life.
In future entries, I’ll discuss other aspects of the home office, from business practices to actual office setup. And, of course, if my readers have specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. Meanwhile, best of luck to those of you contemplating, starting, or living the freelance life!