For Melanie Lambert, Getting Laid Off Was the Best Thing to Happen to Her Career
Melanie Lambert started dabbling with freelance work in 2013 while still working a full-time job. But in May 2017 she was laid off as the executive director of development for a local college. She had spent 11 years building a career she was proud of only to suffer the consequences of downsizing.
Her husband, usually her voice of reason, reminded her of her desire to stay with her son (a year old at the time) while still making a difference in the world with her writing and fundraising skills.
"The door that was slammed in my face with my full-time job left a crack open for freelance consulting," says Melanie. "I’ve been working very hard ever since to keep that door wide open!"
Melanie launched TurnKey Writing Solutions, a full-service grant writing company based in Cartersville, Georgia.
"We provide research, grant request composition, cultivation, and stewardship, and post-grant reporting services for nonprofit organizations across the country of various sizes and missions," says Melanie.
Sit back, grab a cup of coffee and learn how Melanie turned her love for causes into a profitable freelance gig.
giggs: Please share 5 tips for freelancers who are just starting out.
1. Get comfortable managing your time. I was so used to the 9-to-5 time expectation that it took awhile for me to learn how to manage myself. It’s not going to happen overnight. It took me several months to become self-aware.
I’ve never been an early bird, but as a work-from-home mom with two children now, I get so much more work done between 6 am and 8 am than I ever do through the rest of the day when they’re awake. Before freelance work, I’d have never gotten up that early to work.
I also had to allow myself the flexibility to do a load of laundry if I needed to and not feel guilty that I was walking away from my computer for a few minutes. I am so grateful that I can do those things because of this job and this lifestyle. Otherwise, I think we’d drown in dirty clothes with two little boys!
2. Own your calendar! If you don’t want to work on Fridays, block it off. I think it is so easy in freelance work to end up in a situation where you’re working around the clock every single
day. And while you can feel like that’s necessary, it isn’t healthy. Part of why I do this is so I can spend more time with my children and husband. If I’m at the computer all day and night, 7 days a week, I might as well go get a full-time job with set hours because I’d see them more often.
3. Set your rate and be confident. When I first started out, I was all over the place with what I charged clients. I’d hear stories of how little money a nonprofit had to spend, feel bad, and charge ¼ of what I started out wanting to charge. Or I’d lose my confidence during a conversation and sound as if I was seeking the client's approval for my rate. Do your homework, know your value, and be confident.
4. Feel comfortable saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It has taken me two years to get there, but I’ve been through some bad clients. As an inexperienced freelancer, I’d talk to nonprofit organizations that just weren’t ready to submit grant requests. But, I needed the income and they were ready to hire me. Now, looking back, I didn’t do either of us any service. It is a freeing day in the life of a consultant when you can say, “You know, I just don’t think we’re going to be a good fit for each other right now. But here are some other resources you could explore,” and move along to other opportunities.
5. Provide value even before you’ve secured the client. This one took me a long time as well because I felt as though I was giving the cow away for free. But, when you provide value to a potential client before they sign a contract with you, they see you in a different light. It’s less of a transactional relationship and more of a partnership with the same goals of success on both sides.
For example, we provide free grant research to potential clients after a brief phone call. It’s mutually beneficial because I get to make a connection with a potential new client and they get some resources they can use to hopefully secure grants. But, now that they know about my company, if they can’t manage the actual grant writing and submission process, they know where to find us.
It also helps me know whether or not that potential client could be competitive with grant requests based on current trends and opportunities. Win-win. Lastly, it positions you as an expert and adds real-time credibility to your resume.
giggs: What's the worst business advice someone has given you as a freelancer?
Melanie: I guess I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors along the way. I think one of the most common misconceptions for successful freelance work or entrepreneurship is the hustle mentality. I don’t want to hustle all the time. I did it and it’s exhausting, stressful, and borderline miserable. That’s why I’m doing this in the first place. I don’t even want a work-life balance. I want life to outweigh work every day. I strive to align the elements of my work with my life. It’s a work-in-progress, for sure. But, it’s my goal every day. That’s the dream, right?
giggs: How do you keep your business afloat?
Melanie: Organization! I’ve had a lot of people recommend countless online tracking tools, organizing strategies, task flow platforms, you name it. It took me a long time to figure out what worked best for me and, in some cases, to simply design those things for myself.
Although my company is growing and there have been times that we’ve had other staff people, it all comes down to me at the end of the day. As with most freelancers, I’m CEO, human resources, project manager, sales, data, accounting…that’s a lot to manage. I’ve got to stay organized.
Also, networking. While we do some regional and national marketing, most of my clients have come through referrals. The connections I’ve made with other freelance consultants are invaluable resources for brainstorming, venting frustrations, and providing an outside perspective from a trusted colleague when I need assistance.
giggs: Do you have streams of passive income?
Melanie: Not yet. We’re considering adding some on-demand web-based courses. We’ve been in the planning phase for about a year now, and hope to launch in early 2020.
giggs: How did you come up with your pricing structure?
Melanie: My pricing structure is unique. We don’t charge by the hour or by the project, like most grant writing consultants. We have 4 different monthly subscriptions with prices based on the quantity of grant applications we submit over a 12-month contract. This structure was the brainchild of a friend who hired me to help submit a grant request for a nonprofit with which he volunteers.
This pricing structure gives the client the clear expectation of what they will be charged each month and what they should expect as deliverable services in return. If we start creeping past those expectations, then we have a conversation about shifting up to another subscription level.
giggs: How do you market your services?
Melanie: We’ve done some national marketing that has been somewhat successful, as well as local sponsorships and social media. However, for us, word-of-mouth has been the key.
What we offer comes across in a compelling way when we actually speak to a potential client. That’s why those free grant research calls work so well for us. People are happy to listen to the details of our company because they’re getting some value. In a lot of cases, they’re intrigued enough to continue the conversation after we provide the results of the research. We get those calls through promotion in our e-newsletter and social media.
giggs: How do you deal with unhappy clients?
Melanie: This is a challenge for me. I’m very Type A. I put a lot myself into my work and have very high standards for what goes out to my clients and to a grant-maker on behalf of our clients. However, it has taken two years for me to grasp the fact that there are just some clients who I’m never going to satisfy.
Sometimes clients have “champagne dreams on a beer budget” or way higher expectations than I will ever be able to meet. I have to set clear expectations from the beginning and regularly check in with clients to make sure we’re both still on the same page. Even in those situations where they are still not happy, I work hard to provide extra value, look for reasonable ways that I can meet their expectations, or simply let the engagement run its course and move on.
giggs: What does a typical work day look like?
Melanie: For me, there is no such thing as a typical day. I try to start working as early as I can before my children wake up. Neither of them are in school or daycare, so I have the full-time care of them from 6:45 am to 6:15 pm while my husband is at work. While they play and do learning activities (my son likes to call his time on his Kindle his “work”), I work on projects.
In the afternoons while they are napping, I take advantage of the quiet time and schedule calls or continue working on projects. It’s been a juggling act and will change as they grow and their schedules change. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
giggs: What does your dream project look like?
Melanie: I don’t know if I have a dream project. I have a dream for my company. I’d love to be in a position where my company can employ grant writers with specialties in all nonprofit sectors. I want to help nonprofits around the country take advantage of the more than $60 billion in grants awarded every year and be better positioned to better serve their clients. I love nonprofit work and partnering with many organizations that work hard to change the world.
giggs: Anything you’d like to add?
Melanie: Hmmm… I think I’ve covered it!
Thank you for your insights, Melanie. Make sure to connect with Melanie on LinkedIn.
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