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.