A List Apart

Laura Kalbag on Freelance Design

Open for Business

I work from home. Mostly remotely, mostly by myself. My clients all come to me by word of mouth, through my website, or through Twitter. How I appear on the web is of utmost importance to my business.

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I also tell the truth without prompting, and sometimes I just over-share.

Most of what I share online probably seems trivial, but I also discuss subjects that other people might consider off limits. I’ll happily talk about money, politics, beliefs, and my physical and mental wellbeing.

It wasn’t deliberate, but I meant it

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a blog post about burnout. It detailed how I was struggling with work and felt mentally exhausted. It wasn’t a breakdown, but I could see how further unhealthy behavior could lead to that point.

People asked me why I felt comfortable sharing those feelings, and questioned how it might affect my relationships with clients. My only answer at that point was, “I don’t know, it just feels right.”

I try to be transparent in everything I do. It wasn’t a conscious decision. But trying to answer that question led me to examine why being so transparent didn’t have more of a detrimental effect on my business. In fact, my openness seems to help.

Open-door policy

Being open as an individual isn’t just saying everything you think without caring—that’s called being a sociopath! If you want to be transparent, you still need some kind of filter. It’s like how we might not swear in front of our grandmothers; it’s not good manners. Or how we don’t use Twitter to broadcast every meal we eat, because we’d bore our followers. Diplomacy is necessary too. Very few of us want to be honest to the point that we hurt other people.

The most conscious decision I made about openness was to not put up a front and not always try to make myself look better. We all do things that make us look stupid from time to time (I do it a lot!). But what’s really wrong with looking stupid? Why would I want to pretend to be superhuman? That would just set unrealistic expectations for my clients and everybody else around me.

Working from home, my openness mostly comes out online. The web is a permanent record of my occasional successes and frequent failings. Openness also affects my projects, where I speak honestly about my opinions and decisions with my colleagues. And of course, openness is important face-to-face. When those online contacts turn into real life meetings, it’s vital that there’s consistency between my online and IRL selves.

Getting to know you

Clients should feel they can trust me to be honest, reliable, and hardworking. These highly valued characteristics are hard to communicate early on in the relationship, and through the limited amount of meetings and interactions we might have over the duration of a project. Being open means that clients feel they know what they’re getting. It makes it less of a risk hiring me.

I wouldn’t want to work with someone who didn’t like me. This isn’t being precious, and it isn’t just a luxury. Bad client relationships kill the enthusiasm for the career you love. When your enthusiasm dies, the quality of your work tends to die with it. With a career that you spend at least seven hours a day, five days a week working on, losing love for your work can ruin your enjoyment of life.

Of course, my sharing of everything online has affected my relationships with past, current, and potential clients. Maybe it’s put off more clients that I’ll ever know! Perhaps it’s not showing my “professional side.” But I’m not so sure I want to fit in with this “professional” ideal.

Being professional shouldn’t need to be anything other than being respectful and polite. We shouldn’t have to dress formally or speak business jargon in order to be taken seriously. Transparency and trust helps build good relationships, because you can empathize with each other more easily.

Open to learning

Being able to admit you’re not perfect is incredibly freeing. Reminding yourself that nobody is perfect allows you to learn from your mistakes, rather than letting them get you down. As a freelancer, it can be hard to show any weaknesses. But if we can’t admit that we don’t know everything, we’ll never learn anything. If I’m willing to ask questions and allow others to see that I don’t know or understand something, then I’m opening myself up to learning more.

We’re only human

Inevitably, openness will backfire on you at some point. We all make mistakes. This could be broadcasting something inaccurate, overreacting, or being overemotional. It could be being unkind or rude to others. It’s unlikely that you mean it; very few people set out to be malicious.

If you want to keep up the transparency, it’s important to keep telling the truth. If you’ve made a mistake, you should admit it. Apologize to somebody if you upset them. Don’t worry about looking like you were right, worry about doing the right thing.

Remember that you are human, and the people worth knowing will forgive your mistakes. Use the mistakes you’ve made to do better next time.

Is it worth it?

Some people might say the reason I tend toward openness is because I am naïve. I assume the best in people because I believe the majority have good intentions, and I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know I wouldn’t be considered the best judge of character, but people very rarely take advantage of me through the information that I share.

Overall, I find sharing a lot is worthwhile. When I’ve had problems, people have offered to help me, even if I’m just moaning about jQuery on Twitter. When I’ve been suffering, people have sympathized and made me feel less alone.

Most importantly, it’s made me feel as though people understand me as a person. They understand my personality, my motivations, and the way I work. I’ve made connections to colleagues and clients who treat me as they’d want to be treated themselves.

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