Thursday, September 3, 2020

No, I (Probably) Won't Sign Your Non-Compete Agreement

 As a freelance voice talent and podcast producer, I've only been approached once (so far) by a client who wanted me to sign a "non-compete and non-disclosure agreement." Before I signed anything, I sent it back, asking him to remove the non-compete language. "I'm perfectly comfortable with non-disclosure," I told him. "But this is what I do for a living." My client understood, removed the language, and we've had a great working relationship ever since. And he's never had to worry that I would go off creating a similar product or sharing the fruits of his labor with a competitor. 

So, what's the trouble with a Non-Compete, and why won't I sign one? Three reasons:

1. I'm not your employee. 
Let's get that out of the way first thing. You don't pay me an annual salary, and your fees probably don't make up even the majority of my monthly take-home. I don't have a 401-k through you, I'm fully responsible for my income tax and retirement, and you don't help me out with insurance. You've paid me to do a job for which I am qualified, and that job, by definition, has a time limit on it. You pay me for my time and expertise; not for the time I do not spending working for you.

2. This is my living
I earn money, as you do, by working. Because I am self-employed, I do not, and cannot, depend upon a single source of income. The more work I bring in, the more I am able to make, and the better I am able to provide for my family. Since you are paying me to do one job, I would be foolish to shoot myself in the foot, and limit my earning potential, by agreeing to turn away your competitors. I want to do my best for you, and as my client, you have my utmost professional respect. You will always get my best work and customer service. But at the end of the day, when our contract is over, I still have a family to feed, a mortgage to pay, and a business to build. 

3. A Non-Disclosure Agreement will afford you the same protection without limiting my earning potential
Let's be honest: What you're really worried about is not that I, your freelance consultant/writer/voice talent, whatever, may work for your competitor. It's not as if they can't find someone else who does what I do. The real issue is your proprietary information. You are my client, and we need to be able to trust one another. If signing an agreement telling you I won't do what I wouldn't do anyway--that is, disclose that information to another client for any reason--will enable that relationship to move forward smoothly, I'm more than happy to do so!

So, are there situations in which I might sign a Non-Compete?

I'll be honest: I'm pretty wary. You can help make the decision easier by using language that ensures me of my ability to keep doing my job. For example, if you limit the time encompassed in the non-compete to only the duration of our contract. If you limit the scope of the non-compete only to your direct competitors. Not peripheral competitors. Not companies that might occasionally do something that crosses into the same general territory as you. Direct competitors. If you include language that helps me understand the purpose of the agreement is to protect your proprietary information. Under these circumstances, I might be persuaded. If it's that important that your contractors sign, you could also always sweeten the pot: Make it worth our while to sign away our rights to work with certain clients for the duration of the contract. 

More companies, according to the articles I'm reading, are beginning to use Non-Competes in their freelance contracts. But you will find that, as that frequency goes up, so too does the frequency of freelancer advocates and advisers telling their circle of influence to stay away. For us, it's simple math. The potential number of clients we could lose by signing a non-compete is almost incalculable. The number of clients we lose if we can't reach a compromise on a Non-Compete is one. 

As a freelancer, I want your business. I want to make you happy. I want my work to meet and exceed your expectations and to fulfill your needs. But I need to work. A good contract can benefit the both of us--and ensure your company's security and privacy--without limiting my ability to earn a living.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

My Crystal Ball Is Broken

"Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Man, I hate that question. Don't get me wrong. I have an intense dislike of ALL the standard job interview questions: "What are your greatest strengths/weaknesses? Tell me about a time you solved a major conflict or problem at work (because I carry those memories around with me??)?" But looking at the future? Where am I going to be in five years?

I don't know why: maybe it's a generational thing, or maybe just the way I grew up, or some combination of history and neuroses... but I've always had a near-pathological mistrust of long-term planning. 

I worked through my Junior and Senior years of High School. In fact, by the time I started college, I'd had at least five different jobs in three different industries. It wasn't flakiness--in two of those cases, I'd worked myself up to new, higher-paying roles from smaller jobs and had stayed on in two of my jobs through the summers and into the school year. During the Summer between my Junior and Senior years, in fact, I was working two part-time jobs. 

By the time I got to college, I had two jobs through the work-study program, and would go on to have an additional three college jobs related to my fields of study. In my Freshman year, I was a business major, minoring in Communication. By my Sophomore year, I dropped the pretense and changed my major to Communication with a Writing minor. By my Junior year, I'd become even more enamored with filmmaking and, along with three other students and two Professors, pioneered what would become the Film Major at my college. 

Then I got married to a wonderful girl who had it a lot more together than I did. She actually was a business major and graduated the year we got married. We went to LA, so I could continue my education in film, then moved to Michigan to start our life together. After a few years in Michigan, we and our two small children moved to New York, and seven years after that, now with FOUR children in tow, to Wisconsin. 

In the interim, we'd lived in seven different homes and I'd had another seven jobs.

Our marriage began in travel, and we stayed somewhat transient for a long period of time since then. Our last home in upstate New York was, up until then, the longest we'd stayed in a single place. We made it six years. I think.

Then, in 2012, I was invited to interview for a Morning Host position at a Christian radio station in NE Wisconsin. It was, to my mind, the job I really wanted. THE Job. Finally, my career position. During the interview, they asked me the fateful question: "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Back then, even if they'd said, "Where do you see yourself in 2020," my answer would have been the same: "Right Here."

Eight years ago today, I started my new job. I'd lost some of my mistrust of permanence. I was willing to put my faith in A Plan. To put down roots. To start being an Adult the way I'd always understood the concept: A career at a workplace I thought I'd retire from, a happy family, a house we weren't paying rent on, two cars, cats. I looked at the future and thought I liked what I saw. 

Right up until I was unceremoniously kicked out of my Perfect Job and my Perfect Employers asked me to never return. 

I had put my faith in long-term planning. Had banked on permanence. And before I even knew what happened, Permanence had shown me the door. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying it's bad to have a plan. Obviously, it's smart to have a plan. But we're in world in which your contingencies had better have contingencies, which themselves are bolstered by Plans B, C, and D. 

But don't get mad at me if, in the current year, in which everyone is literally nowhere near where they'd imagined they'd be, and plenty of folks are still wondering if they'll even have a job tomorrow, I can't help feeling a little vindicated in my seeing long-term planning as the Daily Life version of the Lottery. Maybe it'll pan out. And maybe you shouldn't drop your life savings on buying tickets. 

So, now I'm freelancing as a voice talent and podcast producer. I'm looking into other new avenues of communication and wealth creation. I'm constantly learning, constantly shifting, constantly looking forward and watching the sky in every direction for oncoming storms. 

So where do I see myself in five years? Still loving my wife and kids. Still moving. Still learning. Still growing. 

Beyond that? 

I guess we'll find out together.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Life as Improv

There are no instructions for life. Not really. 

Now, I'm a Christian, and I happen to believe in the truth of the Bible. And certainly, there is wisdom in there on how to live well. How to serve God and others, how to love dangerously. But just living? Paying the bills, and being an adult and raising headstrong teenagers? Building a business, dealing with people when you don't want to, knowing when to stop going to the laundromat and just buy a new dryer, creating a workable schedule to fit everything you need to do, everything you want to do, and everything you really ought to do into the finite time we actually have?

I'm just making this up as I go along. And the scary thing is, I think we all are. 

There's an element of chaos in this life of ours, a world that doesn't always behave the way we'd like it to, things that happen that destroy our best-laid plans. I heard someone say once that no strategy survives the battlefield. And if we're being honest with ourselves, every single day is a new battle, and every single day we're adapting, reshaping our plans, rerouting. 

I'm trying my best just to be a good husband, good father, live a life of kindness and gratitude, show mercy and charity and humility. And most days, I don't even know how to do that perfectly. 

There was a time I thought I had it figured out. I had a career I loved in an industry I knew I wanted to retire from. My wife had a great job. We had bought a house. We weren't out of the woods financially, but we had a solid plan. We were adulting, and Had It Together. 

And then I lost my job. There I was, doing my part, playing the role... and then someone came in and stepped over my lines with dialogue that just wasn't in the script. And that's when I realized: That's Life. We're all players in this ridiculous improv comedy and the best thing we can do is to look at what's in front of us and say, "yes, and..."

And then Covid came along and changed our economy, our relationships, our travel plans, our daily interactions. Yes. And. 

I'm in my forties and I really have no idea what the hell I'm doing. We're all just riffing here, waiting on the Chaos to say its lines so we can pick up the act from there and decide where to lead the story next. 

If anyone tells you differently, that they have it Figured Out, that they know the secret key to unlock life and live it just exactly how you want it, they are either liars or fools and either way not someone worth listening to. 

The secret is, there is no secret. At best, what we have is acceptance. An understanding that reality doesn't care whether you want to go camping or buy a car or sleep in. Maybe you'll get to do it, and maybe not. But at least, we can understand that truth and learn to live with it as best we can. To take what life gives us and choose not to give up, but to accept what is and determine to make the best of it. To say, "Yes, this is what life is. And this is what I'm going to do about it. "

Shakespeare famously said, "all the world's a stage." He just didn't get around to mentioning that the script is trash before we even read the first line. The world may be a stage, but life isn't a play: it's improv. Performance Art. And no matter in what role you've been cast, you're eventually going to have to dump the script and do your best to build your story up from whatever happens next. Just remember: Yes. And. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Freelance Life: :Beginning a New Chapter

It's been some time since I've written. The truth behind this is twofold, actually. First, I really just have to own up to it: I'm terrible at keeping a regimented schedule. Now that I work for myself, my day is generally tied up in Deadline Triage, making sure the day's work is done and clients are happy. Posting on this blog becomes something less than secondary. I'm working on it.

Second, to be honest, there really hasn't been much to report. I've been in something of a Limbo of starting my business, making contacts, getting some podcasts and other projects going. Sure, I could have made mention of some of this, but it just didn't seem like to right outlet for it.

But, it's been nearly two years since I lost my job and began this new adventure, so I suppose it's time for something of a State-of-the-Union. A progress report, if you will.

A little background, in case you haven't been keeping track. I re-started my radio career back in 2007 or so, working for a small country station in Northern New York. It was a career move, but not a career maker. It was a stepping stone--and I knew it at the time. I had a plan in place, and that little station was my Way Back In. After a couple years there, I made the next major move in my career: I took over hosting the morning show at the biggest country station in the county--and, simply put, number One station in the area. It was a big jump, and a good one. But it was still a stepping stone. It was close to where I wanted to be, but I wasn't there yet.

I realized, at some point in my journey, that what I wanted, what I felt called to, was to be back in Christian Radio. I had some experience there, and loved it. I loved the ministry, the people... just about everything, and I wanted it again. The Family, a Christian Radio network in NE and Central Wisconsin and I found one another seven years ago. After much prayer and consideration, my wife and I decided it was the right move, the right time, and suddenly, I was exactly where I wanted to be. The Family was my career choice. It was where I wanted to stay, and when I said goodbye to radio forever, I wanted to retire from The Family.

I say this so you'll understand: When I lost my job, it wasn't simply losing a job. It was losing what I had literally spent years of my life working toward. It turned out, I was half-right about The Family being the ultimate place from which I would end my career in radio. It was indeed the end of my radio career as I had known it. It has taken me some time to come to terms with this fact. After over a decade in the industry I loved, after seven years as a morning radio host and five years working in a ministry I felt passionately called to, my career was over. Yes, I made an attempt here and there to kick it back into gear... but nothing was right. Nothing was that foot back I so desperately wanted. I had begun a new chapter in my life--and I knew I had done so--but that chapter wasn't even close to what I thought it was. The reality was, and is, I am done with radio as I know it. Or, perhaps more to the point, it is finished with me.

It occurs to me, I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was. Like all good stories, there was indeed some foreshadowing. Burgeoning interests in the creative aspects of voice work and writing that my career simply couldn't support. I had begun taking on side gigs, looking for something else to fill what was a slowly-growing void in my plans. If I should have been surprised by anything, it should have been this: that this position I had worked so hard to attain was not, could not be, enough.

I had studied film production. Was and am a writer. A creator. I have always been in love with storytelling. There was a time that the standard radio format had a place for storytellers. This is no longer the case. As I was coming into my own on a path I couldn't understand was slowly being overgrown with the underbrush of expediency, Radio as a format was leaving people like me behind. My last conversation with my General Manager and HR Director was merely the final nail in a coffin that was being built around my without my noticing it.

And so, a new chapter began. If you've been keeping up, you know something about that new chapter. The decision to go into business for myself as a freelance Voice Actor. The support of my amazing and ever-loving wife. What you couldn't know--because I didn't--was that even this hasn't been a destination itself, but a wandering in the wilderness. More steps to a future that is still uncertain.

But it--neither this chapter nor the last--hasn't been without its signposts. That growing desire to become the storyteller I wanted to be. A budding interest in telling these stories through audio. A fascination with, and love of, audio drama. Of writing. Even of acting. Of using my words and my voice to tell weave stories.

And so, just over two years after losing what I had thought of as my life's work, I see the end of yet another chapter--or rather, the beginning of another. Yes, I am still a freelance Voice Actor, and will remain so for the forseeable future. But is this my career? I don't know. I've recently begun branching out into podcasting and, even more recently, into podcast editing and consultation.

Thanks to my agent, I have even begun branching out into onscreen work. Acting, after a fashion, and have been advised to grow my skills in this area as well. Yet another signpost that nearly went by unnoticed.

Since losing my job in radio, I have acted in a short film, as well as multiple audio dramas (indeed, I had worked in several while still hosting my morning show). I have done voice work for multiple clients, including everything from commercial announcing to video narration, to voice acting animated characters.

All of which is a foreshadowing of this next chapter.

This Tuesday, I am driving out to Chicago to record my first paid, professional audio drama. A story written and produced by a man who has amazing credits in this field (co-writer of the Left Behind: The Kids audio series, a writer on the G.A. Henty audio drama adaptations, and others), it is called The Jake Muller Adventures. Not only am I blessed to work with someone with so much experience in this field, but my fellow actors and other crew on this project are amazing in their own right. I've been geeking out a bit for the last month with the knowledge that, among the actors in this new series is Adventures In Odyssey co-creator Phil Lollar(!). And there are others, too, who are amazingly credentialed, and among whom I am a neophyte in a room of masters. It is our hope that these episodes we're recording next week will be just the start of a phenomenal series, and I am overjoyed to be a part of it now, in its early stages.

Then, in early December, I am taking a supporting role in an upcoming independent feature film. I'll be detailing more about this as we move forward, but suffice to say, I am equally excited about this new venture.

The point is, I have made a discovery, and have rediscovered some old truths. First, a lesson relearned over and over again: God is good. I don't always know where I'm going or, as a favorite song says, what He's doing. But I know who He is. Sometimes I just need a reminder that I'm walking blind with a Guide who already knows the destination.

Second, a discovery: It's never too late to dream something new. The death of an old dream isn't the end if you're willing to keep dreaming. It's the end of the year, over two years after my dream died. I am forty years old. Yet, with my wife and children standing with me, with a God who loves me, I am starting over. I'm doing something new. I am beginning a new chapter. I don't know what it's about yet, but I can't wait to find out.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Freelance Life: The Life of the Subcontractor

As a freelance voice talent, I most often work in the capacity of subcontractor. That is, though I do some work directly with end clients (phone answering systems, audiobooks, the occasional web video), most of my work comes either through an agency or production company.

This actually works well for me. As I have a background in video production as well, I find this helps me in my client relations. We speak the same language, as it were. I understand their needs from a production standpoint, and they know what they want -- and what's possible -- from me. Very often, they are also small businesses or freelancers themselves, so we understand one another when it comes to time spent on a project and, generally, payment.

The limitations of a subcontractor, however, are worth taking note of. For one, my client is generally not the end user. This can sometimes mean waiting for feedback longer than you normally would working one-on-one with the end user. Occasionally, this can also mean waiting to get paid until the project is finalized -- which means holding my breath until whatever back and forth takes place between the initial contractor and the client.

Being a subcontractor brings with it an element of uncertainty. I only rarely get direct feedback from the end user. I rarely know whether they're truly happy with my work, or even what the end product will look like when it's all said and done (sometimes, if I ask nicely, I can get a link or a copy of the finished product for self-evaluation and portfolio purposes -- but not always).

So, these are things you get used to. That said, if you're new to subcontracting, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind.

1. The initial contractor is your client. 
Your only concern is in doing the job the contractor asked you to do. You don't need to concern yourself with their relationship with their client, with the scope of their work, or with any part of the project outside those pieces for which you are responsible.

2. The initial contractor is your client.
Unless the end user decides he or she needs to open communication with you, your job communication begins and ends with the initial contractor. The end client probably doesn't know who you are, and honestly probably doesn't care. His or her connection to the project is with the person they contracted to get the work done.

3. The initial contractor is your client
Whatever happens to the project after you've done your part and have been paid is not really your concern. As long as your client is happy with the work you've provided for them, you've done your job.

4. The initial contractor is your client
The end client may or may not decide to use the work you did in the final project. This is entirely up to them. I had one contractor for whom I did a job, and then the end client decided they wanted to go with a stand-up presenter rather than a voice over. It happens. MY client, to their credit, paid me anyway.

Which brings up the final point:

5. The initial contractor is your client
You are hired by the contractor to do a job. Your completion of your end means you get paid, regardless of what happens on their end. If you do your job to your client's specifications, they owe you for that work. If the end client doesn't like the finished product, doesn't pay, or goes belly up, these things are not your problem. You bill the contractor; the contractor bills the client. You are hired to perform a service for their project, not to guarantee success of that project.

Obviously, your mileage may vary. For example, if in the case of points 4 and 5 the client for whatever reason decides not to pay the contractor for whom you worked, you may well decide -- entirely at your discretion -- to cut them a break. Making small sacrifices in order to save a solid and lucrative working relationship may well be something you're comfortable with. Particularly if they, like you, are a small operation. Sometimes, freelancers decide to help one another out, and a little bit of goodwill goes a long way.

But do not write such concessions into your contract, and do not agree to them if the contractor puts them in.

I did a job once, after which, for whatever reason, the client decided to use a different voice talent for the final product. Presumably, they wanted a younger-sounding, higher-pitched voice, since that's who they ended up getting. It's not a big deal, and it doesn't reflect on your work -- it just happens. But again -- and I can't stress this enough -- you did the work. If the contractor's client decided to go in a different direction, that really isn't your problem. Your contract was with the contractor, and you completed the work assigned.

Fortunately, I have yet to run into a situation where I've needed to enforce this rule -- again, since most of my clients are small businesses themselves, they understand how it works, and mostly likely have the same rules when they are subcontracted.

The most important thing is to understand where your clients are coming from. In fact, let's make that point #6.

6. The initial contractor is your client.
If they are doing contracted work, be willing to have some patience where communication and timing are concerned. If their demands start to seem unreasonable (for example, if, after approving your work, they suddenly need a revision, and need it an hour ago), keep in mind that they are probably dealing with a similar situation on their end. If they could have given you notice, probably, they would have. After all, they have just as much a vested interest in getting the project finished and getting paid as you do. Shrug it off, do the job, and commiserate with the contractor over beers later on.