Freelance Melanie Padgett Powers talks about what exactly it takes to be your own boss, why it's worth striving for, how to get in an empowering mindset, and why she loves going to conferences so much.
“I really believe that we should adopt the mindset that we are all business owners. We're not ‘just’ a freelancer.”
“You should not charge hourly because hourly penalizes you for being faster, and it also doesn’t acknowledge the value that you bring to the client and the talent you have. My clients are paying for 20+ years of experience; they’re not paying for an hour of my time."
“Steer yourself into trying new things and realizing that failure is fine. Failure is lessons.”
Melanie Padgett Powers is the owner of MelEdits. She is a freelance writer and managing editor for health care membership associations in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly writes about public health, COVID-19, hemophilia, optometry, radiology and interventional radiology, and issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion. She has a journalism degree and was previously a newspaper reporter in her home state of Indiana. Melanie is also the creator and host of the Deliberate Freelancer podcast, which focuses on the business side of freelancing.
Katherine Gustafson (00:06):
Hello, and welcome to The Joyful Freelancer, a podcast about mindset and meaning in freelancing, work, and life. Today, I'm speaking with Melanie Padgett Powers, a freelance writer and managing editor for healthcare membership associations, the owner of MelEdits, and the host of the Deliberate Freelancer podcast, which focuses on the business side of freelancing. Thank you for joining me, Melanie.
Melanie Padgett Powers (00:27):
Thanks for having me, Katie. I'm excited to be here.
Katherine Gustafson (00:30):
I think one thing that really appeals to people about freelancing is the idea of being your own boss, otherwise known as being self-employed. And I know that you've been freelancing for almost a decade, so you've been your own boss for quite a while. So I want to get our conversation started by having you tell me what you feel like the phrase "being your own boss" means.
Melanie Padgett Powers (00:50):
To me, it means absolute freedom. Now, I don't have total freedom of my life, but yeah, this is pretty amazing. I tell people all the time, I never want to be an employee ever again. That's my goal. Of course I have to make enough money to pay my bills, and I have to do some things sometimes that I don't like, and you have to deal with taxes. But for the most part, I get to do what I want, when I want, where I want, how I want. If I don't like a client or project, I can get rid of them eventually. It's not like you're stuck in a job that you hate and you're thinking, "Gosh, now what do I do?" I just absolutely love it. And the freedom to earn as much as I can and also set my own schedule and work. Another goal of mine is to make as much money in as little time as possible.
Katherine Gustafson (01:39):
Sounds a good goal.
Melanie Padgett Powers (01:41):
That's what I'm focused on because I like my non-work life as much as I love my work as well.
Katherine Gustafson (01:47):
Can you talk a little more about how you go about doing that? That sounds like it requires some strategic decisionmaking. How do you pursue the goal of making more in less time?
Melanie Padgett Powers (01:58):
Yes, it does take a lot of strategy. So one thing I do is I don't charge hourly. I got out of that pretty quickly. I started freelancing about eight years ago I think. And so I try to charge it by project rate. Now, as a writer, I often still get paid per-word rates as well. Those are usually set, and there's not a lot of negotiation there, but those still come out to be pretty good rates as well. I believe that I work really fast. I write really fast. I used to be a reporter. I was at a daily newspaper for a little bit. So I'm lucky that I can work really fast, but there are ways that you can make your systems and processes more efficient and try to hone in on a process to get things done pretty quickly.
And obviously that comes with experience. After you've been doing a certain type of project for a while, you're bound to get faster, which is why you should not charge hourly because hourly penalizes you for being faster. And it also doesn't acknowledge the value that you bring to the client and the talent you have. You know, my clients are paying for 20-plus years of experience, they're not paying for an hour of my time. And so with project rates, you can increase your rates. I also try to get anchor clients. Those are more reliable. They're kind of like retainer clients. Although mine are usually magazines and not monthly retainers. Just reliable clients. So you're not hustling from month to month, and you know how much money you're going to be making the next month or so. And then as projects come in, you can add to that. So it's a lot about thinking about your rates and pricing and then trying to be really efficient with your time.
Katherine Gustafson (03:47):
I really love this answer. I'm a huge evangelist on the project rate topic. I completely agree. What you want to get at is what does the client value? Does the client value the product or the service you're giving or does the client actually value your time in any way?
Melanie Padgett Powers (04:04):
And clients don't care how long it takes you. I mean, they don't care. They need this thing done, and you are helping them. And if it takes you three hours or five hours, they don't care. It's that you're helping them solve a problem. And the clients -- I have found, and I've heard this of other freelancers -- who focus on money first and want to know "what's your rate?' or "we pay $50 an hour," those are usually not the best clients because they're thinking money first and not what you can offer them.
Katherine Gustafson (04:33):
Yes. I think it's a lesson that will really, it really is what switches peoples' freelance careers into high year the minute they learn to stop going hourly. I feel like it's this turning point for people. At least for me it was. It was a night-and-day difference once I understood the dynamics of, you know, not having time be equal to money.
Melanie Padgett Powers (04:57):
Yeah. I think that's a great point when you can really make that mindset shift, and if you talk to enough freelancers, you'll see that they did that and were successful, and then you think, "oh, okay, well they're doing something right, so maybe I should do that too."
Katherine Gustafson (05:11):
So I know you listed a lot of benefits to being your own boss, which there are many, many, many. And I'm wondering on the other side, what are some of the challenges that come with having that type of autonomy? And one we just talked about is making strategic decisions. How do you make decisions when you could do anything?
Melanie Padgett Powers (05:31):
Yeah. That's the challenge of being your own boss, right. It's just me. I mean, I definitely have a community that I've built over time, but it is hard when I don't have an IT department when my Mac stops working for ...well, Macs usually work. Okay. But when some software is not working or something is not connecting, it's like, "oh gosh, I really miss that IT department that I used to have." Yeah. And I hate doing my bookkeeping. I do pay my quarterly taxes on time. I do that. But the paperwork that comes with it is just, I'm always falling behind on. And so there's a lot of things that, you know, it's just like the logistics that I don't love that I have to do, or I can outsource. That's a topic we can get into. But the other thing is, as far as making your own decisions, it's really about finding a community.
And we're so lucky nowadays with social media and you know, this virtual world, because there are plenty of freelancers that started before social. And, you know, even before the Internet I had the internet when I started, I had social media when I started, but I remember those days and I don't know what you would do sitting home by yourself, not knowing how to connect with people. Especially imagine the pandemic without our virtual world, we would be so cut off from society. And now you can go online on the platform of your choice, you know, Instagram or Facebook groups or Slack channels or tweet chats and, and organizations you can join and really find the community that you connect with. And I believe that's building a network, but it's also really building relationships with people. That's your community when you're feeling down, or you're not sure about a price or you don't know, you know, this client is sending you red flags but you're not really sure what to do about it. Those are the people you go to cause they understand, and they can help you figure some of those things out. So I think that's critical to helping you. It's like having the best coworkers in the world and they can be from all around the world, and you can just connect online.
Katherine Gustafson (07:40):
Yeah. It's a really neat aspect of this modern digital world. I'm wondering if we could talk about the balance between what you just said, kind of having a community that you can go to to ask for advice or get perspectives, but then how to balance that with really owning your business on your own. Like you are really, the buck stops here. You have to be the one to make the decisions. And I think I see with a lot of early-stage freelancers that they kind of want someone to tell them how to do it. Like just tell me the formula and I'll implement it. And then it'll obviously be a success. And I mean, maybe that's the case with kind of starting anything new, but with freelancing particularly, cause you are your own little business, there is really is no one way. So how do you keep that ownership and sense that you're the one in charge while also bringing in other perspectives and advice?
Melanie Padgett Powers (08:32):
So I'm all about mindset and reframing things that aren't working for you. So I really believe that we should adopt the mindset that we are all business owners. We're not quote-unquote -- I'm using air quotes here -- just a freelancer. You know, you don't tell people, "oh, I think I'm gonna start freelancing." No, that's not how you say it, cause then it sounds like you're doing a hobby or you're still looking for jobs. You're like, "oh I'm starting a freelance business. I'm goingn to be a writer and an editor or a graphic designer or whatever." So you really have to believe it and, you know, fake it till you make it. If you have imposter syndrome or you're struggling with confidence in certain areas, you just have to keep telling yourself, "I own my own business, and I'm in charg, and the buck does stop with me, and that's great." And it's also kind of scary, but you have to really learn how to believe in yourself and make your own decisions and stick with those decisions. And it does get easier over time. That can be very scary in the beginning and you know what you need to work on. Some people really suffer from imposter syndrome in certain areas. Well, you know, I would do some online research about how to start to get over imposter syndrome. I had a podcast episode of my own about that.
Katherine Gustafson (09:46):
Can you talk a little bit about what that is?
Melanie Padgett Powers (09:49):
So, you know, again, it's reframing things. I mean, it sounds silly, but mantras really work. You know, if you get up every morning and say, okay, "I'm a freelance business owner and I'm starting my business today, and my office hours are 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and I'm going to go down to my little workspace now and work on my business." And you work on your business. You don't sit in your bed in your pajamas. And some of this works for all of us, we're all in our pajamas right now, right?
You know, you have a structure and a plan and a focus, and it's all, it's hard to sort of explain, you know, it's not tactical, it's really getting yourself to believe in yourself and that can be difficult. I do think that people that are more successful at this also enjoy or they're willing to do the marketing and the network. And I totally, again, reframing that, I call that relationship-building because networking sounds like something I don't want to do. And I don't want be a marketer, but I do have to promote myself. I do have to go look for new clients, and I've been reframing that into relationship-building. And looking for really exciting projects, I find that that can be fun and it doesn't feel like a hustle. I never want this to feel like a hustle, and I do everything so it doesn't feel like a hustle. And that's like before, what I was saying, trying to find those anchor clients and setting higher rates.
Katherine Gustafson (11:15):
I know you talk about specifically not hustle, especially in the intro to your podcast, and your podcast is called Deliberate Freelancer. And I think you kind of frame it in terms of you're doing the opposite of this hustle. So maybe you could talk a little bit about what you mean by being deliberate. Why is it important to you? How do you get away from hustling? Isn't that kind of just baked into the cake of freelancing?
Melanie Padgett Powers (11:39):
So by deliberate freelancer, I mean with intention. So, create a plan and work the plan. Have goals, have a structure, have processes, have systems. Don't just wake up every day and think, "well, what am I gonna do today? What do I need to do? Should I go after that job? Should I look at job boards? Like what should I do now?" Part of this is my personality. I'm very organized and orderly and deliberate in my life. So there are degrees of this. But I still think everybody needs some goals, a plan that you need to know what you're gonna do every single day. And in the beginning it certainly be a hustle while you're looking for clients. But yeah, in my podcast intro, I say we are not about the hustle, we are not about the feast-or-famine cycle. And my goal with the podcast and the episodes that I do and the guests that I bring on is to teach you how to get away from that hustle. That's the goal. I really hate the word hustle because I think it gives sort of this flying by the seat of my pants idea, and that I'm not really a serious business owner, that I'm just kind of doing this and figuring it out, and maybe I'll go back to being an employee. That's the way I view it and why I don't like the word. But you know, in that getting up every day and just sort of like, who's gonna hire me today. So I think looking at it with intention, how long are you going to do this? I mean, maybe you say, I'm going to try this for six months or a year, and I have a goal to make this much money a month and then let's see what happens. If you don't have any kind of goal or a plan, you're just going to kind of go day to day, and you could flounder very easily that way.
Katherine Gustafson (13:25):
It strikes me that it's fairly difficult to make a plan for freelancing that lays things out -- you know, A's gonna happen then B then C, because a lot of times, one thing leads to another. So when you say having a plan, what does that look like for you? How specific are you getting? What are the elements or factors you're thinking about?
Melanie Padgett Powers (13:46):
So when I started freelancing, it was, "okay, today, I'm going to email 20 people and tell them that I started this business, and I'm gonna have this email template set up, and I have a website with my portfolio, and I'm going to send them to the link to my portfolio." I was lucky that I had a portfolio from my previous jobs, but whatever, it is like I'm gonna set daily tasks for myself. I don't do five-year plans. I don't do one-year plans, but I have this idea that I know what I'm going to do. You know, when I get up that morning, I know that I'm going to start my day by ...maybe I dig into email, maybe I go on social media and connect with people for half an hour, maybe I look at some job boards, maybe I go into the Facebook groups and see what people are talking about in the freelance world. I think it's really just having a little bit of structure and always having some sort of marketing networking plan. Because even if you get lucky and you have this amazing huge client, and maybe that's why you went into freelance, or you got this six-month contract, if that client goes away tomorrow, which we all saw during the pandemic, when that hit, what are you going to do? Do you have connections? Do you have an idea of how to replace that income? So, for me, my plan every day is, well, I live and die by my calendar, by my Google calendar. And of course, now that I have plenty of clients, you know, I have meetings throughout the week, and I have deadlines. I know tomorrow I have to write this article that I've been putting off since yesterday because it's really wonky and writers procrastinate like crazy.
And I know I have to do that tomorrow and today. I knew I had to catch up on a couple of other clients' emails and I had to email a bunch of people for an article. So, you know, I have this, it's just a to do list for the week, but I also know that I need to do a little bit of social media outreach. And it helps me to have that on my calendar when I can. So you might -- and this is so different for everyone -- maybe you're someone who can say, "you know what, every morning I'm gonna take half an hour and do this kind of social media outreach." Or maybe you say, "every Friday, I'm gonna spend three hours working on my business." Or, you know, maybe, "I'm only gonna do my client work in the mornings, and then I'm gonna say the afternoons for working on my business."
I mean, you were mentioning, people sometimes want the template of how to do this. Everybody's different. I try to give as much advice and to share my experience. It's also why I have guests on, because my guests can talk about very different ways of doing it. And you just to try a bunch of different things, do what works for you. If you hear something, if someone tells me that I should get up at 5:00 AM and go for a run, and there were times where I thought, "oh, that sounds amazing to start your day." That's never gonna happen. I am never going to get up at 5:00 AM and go for a run and do all that stuff you're supposed to do for a healthy life early in the morning before I start my day. I just recognize it's not going to happen. It's not going to happen. I start my workday in the mornings because I'm in an early bird. Some people can work at night. That's great for them. So you just have to try a bunch of things and see what works for you.
Katherine Gustafson (17:09):
That's part of being your own boss.
Melanie Padgett Powers (17:11):
Exactly. Figuring it out, you know, in trial and error. It takes a while to figure some of that stuff out.
Katherine Gustafson (17:19):
I'd love to see if you can reflect back on your journey to where you are now and what effect has being your own boss or having this autonomy and freedom has had on you as a person, either emotionally or psychologically. Like how different are you today, eight years after starting, in maybe surprising ways you wouldn't have expected?
Melanie Padgett Powers (17:41):
I think I consider myself and call myself now an entrepreneur who would never have told you that nine years ago, never in a million years. Because as I said, I'm very deliberate. I'm very organized. I think this is part of being Gen X and part of being from the Midwest. I'm a rule-follower. I'm not a rebel. You know, I had all these jobs where frankly, they were idiots telling me what to do, but they were my boss. So, you know, they or another department had control over of my life. And I just did what I was told and kept my head down and did my work. And I cannot imagine doing that now. I had confidence before, but now I'm willing to do what I want. Break the rules, be more of entrepreneurial in my mindset, which means trying new things that I might be scared to do and might not have tried before.
And I have more confidence that I can figure things out. I think I was more afraid of failure in the past. I don't think I would've said that then, but now looking back, I think there were probably some times I just didn't take risks, where I didn't speak up when I just, again, followed the rules. I'm still a rule follower, people who know me are like "you're such a rule follower," but in my business, I feel like there aren't a lot of rules. Like I'm making up the rules, And I can change the rules on any given day. I don't have to stick with whatever I'm doing for the rest of my life. That's really where the fun, the entrepreneurial part comes in. If I try something new and I don't like it, or it doesn't work out, I can just try something else and do something that scares me. And I don't think I would've ever, I didn't strive for that. I didn't expect that. You know, that's not why I started a business. I didn't think that would happen. I was never like that before when it came to work. So that's been, it's been kind of fun to see that journey and see myself still continue. I'm someone who loves to continue to learn as I get older. And you know, you can still learn and grow throughout your entire life.
Katherine Gustafson (19:46):
I love your answer. I feel similarly that it really is a process, that you grow into the role. You kind of know it, you want it to start out with, but it seems intimidating and you're kind of looking for the right way, and doing things step by step. But over time you get this sense of just, I don't know, empowerment is the word that's coming to mind. What are some of the ways being your own boss has shaped your lifestyle? Like, are there things you've been able to do in your life that you wouldn't have been able to do if you were not your own boss?
Melanie Padgett Powers (20:25):
Yeah, absolutely. I make more money. It's money and time. You know, I like to make money. I like to live a comfortable lifestyle. I'm not working to make a million dollars. I'm not going to kill myself to make a certain amount of money, but I want to live a comfortable lifestyle where I don't have to think about money that much. That's sort of the goal, and the jobs that I had because I was at membership associations and I loved being a managing editor of magazines. You know, the ladder for me would be director of communications and then, you know, content chief of content. I didn't want to do that. And so I was going to be stuck at this one salary and management level because I still wanted to do the hands-on work. And so I would've just been stuck. I would've hit a ceiling financially, and now kind of the sky is the limit, depending on how much I want to work and how much I can charge.
But also even more than that is that I control my time and my energy. I've been able to do things, Like a couple of years ago.... I studied Spanish in school, but I was never fluent cause I grew up in Indiana and we never spoke Spanish to anybody there when I was growing up. And so, you know, you just learn it in class and then you don't really study it or practice it. And so I'd always wanted to be fluent, and I'm still not fluent. But three years ago I went to Guatemala for three weeks to do a Spanish immersion, one-on-one, and I lived in Antigua, Guatemala, for three weeks. I did absolutely no work. I didn't take my laptop. I didn't check my email. That's it. I just focused on studying Spanish and didn't think about work. And that was amazing.
And then on top of that, I take vacations. I'm probably taking off Christmas Eve through New Year's day. Not even going to think about work. I'm a big believer in taking vacations when it's safe, you know, post-pandemic. But whenever that happens, when it's safe, and I also did a lot of professional development. I really love traveling even to conferences. So like writing conferences and editing conferences. I love everything about travel. I love airports. I love staying in a hotel. I love seeing a new city or exploring a city that I know. And those conferences and those trips really invigorated me. So I was willing to spend the money to stay in the conference hotel, which is more, and to fly there nonstop and to pay for this conference because I got so much out of it emotionally and mentally, and also work-wise, I got a lot of creativity and rejuvenation out of those conferences. But before the pandemic between trips to visit family and vacation and conferences, I was flying somewhere once a month. And I loved it. I miss it terribly. But you know, that was really important to me. And I would never in a million years have been able to do that if I was an employee.
Katherine Gustafson (23:25):
Do you find conferences so helpful because of being with other people or does it go beyond that? I know sometimes for freelancers being solo is tough. So you want to find ways to connect, but is there something about conferences specifically that's inspiring in a different way?
Melanie Padgett Powers (23:41):
I think it's that when I'm at conferences, I found my people. So even though we're connecting, even pre-pandemic, there were online organizations and Facebook groups and things like that. But when I'm there in person I'm going to sessions that I completely can nerd out on. Everybody else in the session is nerding out on the same thing that I am. Then we all go to lunch together and talk about semicolons or writing a lead or, you know, something that nobody in our normal life would ever want to talk about. And it just is really invigorating. So it's the community that I'm building, but it's also the education that I'm getting. I just really like learning. And then again, the whole aspect of staying in a hotel room and ordering room service and walking around the city and getting out in a different place is just the whole thing.
I love it. And I will say too, I go to conferences, I've been to podcast conferences, writing conferences, editing conferences, digital marketing conferences. I also go to conferences where my clients are. So for me, association conferences, those are different. I still get a lot of creativity and rejuvenation out of those. And some of those people there have become my friends, but that's where I actually get work. And that's where I really am more focused on. Okay. I need to talk to people as an introvert. I need to talk to these people. I need to walk up to strangers and say hello. Like that's where I'm more "on." And I'm more intentional about what I'm going to get out of those conferences. And I think both conferences are really helpful.
Katherine Gustafson (25:12):
Interesting to hear that perspective. I don't know when the last time I was at a conference was, but maybe I'll have to look again. You mentioned the idea of spending money on things. And one question I had was, what is your take on the financial side of being your own boss? So, for instance, the expenses, you have to handle such as health insurance and self-employment taxes, those can be extra burdens. Do you feel like those burdens or do you feel like they give you less autonomy or does the fact that you're kind of handling all your affairs yourself kind of enhance your feeling of autonomy?
Melanie Padgett Powers (25:51):
I feel like I have more autonomy even though I hate paying for those things, but I also recognize my privilege there. You know, I'm a white woman, I'm married. I live in a very liberal, progressive county in a liberal, progressive state, despite our governor. I'm in Maryland, outside of Washington, DC.
Katherine Gustafson (26:15):
Oh, that's where I grew up.
Melanie Padgett Powers (26:17):
And so I think that in the US, we really don't have a safety net, especially for, you know, middle class people. We all see what happened in the middle class, an upper middle class. And you know, I live in a very expensive area and I don't necessarily love this, but I've learned that I have to create my own safety net. And I recognize that not everybody can do that immediately in their freelance journey. I'm extremely lucky. I don't have student loans. I don't have children. I'm not going to put that in the luck category. I chose not to have children, but you know, I don't have to worry about those extra costs. And so you have to create your own safety net. So I got to the point where, you know, even if you can't do it right away, start thinking about that.
You have to put away a rainy day fund. You need to save for your taxes every month so you can pay your quarterly taxes on time. Like just really get into that good financial mindset. As far as health insurance, I will say, you know, I am, despite being very lucky and being able to have a good freelance business, I am the primary breadwinner. I am responsible for all of the bills. That can get to be a pretty heavy burden sometimes. And really scary like when the pandemic hits. That was really frightening. We are very lucky that my husband works. He's got a couple different jobs, but one of them is he's a part-time schoolteacher. And even though he is part-time, after a few years of us buying health insurance on our own, which got really expensive, they allowed us to buy into their healthcare plan. So I have to pay for it, but it doesn't increase by a thousand dollars every year, which is what was happening before. So I'm getting health insurance through his school. So it sucks in the US that if you have a spouse or a partner that can have health insurance, that makes it easier to be a freelancer. That's not fair. It's not fair for single people. It's not fair for people that aren't in that situation, but that is the reality. So I just think that we really have to do whatever we can to think about creating our own safety net because unfortunately for the most part, the government is not going to help us out.
Katherine Gustafson (28:29):
No, it is a sad reality.
Melanie Padgett Powers (28:31):
Especially when it comes to health insurance.
Katherine Gustafson (28:33):
Yeah. Health insurance is like this massive kind of third rail in the self-employment space. Absolutely. But I really like what you're saying about including those type of considerations into your larger picture of your business and what it needs to do for you.
Melanie Padgett Powers (28:46):
Yeah. Because it's a reality. I mean, it's awful in some instances, but you just have to, you know, I have so many more benefits by owning my own freelance business and the joys that I get out of my life that, you know, if I have to deal with taxes and health insurance, I'll do that.
Katherine Gustafson (29:04):
Well we're pretty much out of time. Ii the last minute or two, I was wondering if you had any advice. What's your top advice for freelancers who are interested in becoming their own boss or already are and want to be better at it?
Melanie Padgett Powers (29:16):
Well, I'm going cheat and say two things, which I've kind of already talked about. One, I just tell people "be bold," and that's really easy to say, I recognize that. But if you could really start to steer yourself into trying new things and realizing that failure is fine. Failure is lessons. You can always start over. You can always try new things. You know, you really just have to push yourself into being bold and really hanging on to this. If you want to be a freelance business owner, then make it happen. I recognize that isn't possible for every single person. People have challenges out there that they have to deal with. But really, That mindset is really helpful for people. And then, what I said earlier about finding your community, because it really is difficult to do this in a vacuum. Yes, you can make all your decisions. Yes, the buck stops with you. But it really is helpful to find that community when you're having rough days and you're having questions to ask other people for their advice and just, you know, virtual hugs and pats on the back.
Katherine Gustafson (30:22):
Well, thank you so much for sharing all your advice and wisdom with us.
Melanie Padgett Powers (30:25):
Thank you, Katie. This has been fun. I really appreciate you inviting me on the show.
Katherine Gustafson (30:30):
Well thank you for being here.