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5281316785_804d5d9ff1Today I’m going to talk about freelancing and smart management of your money. This information is for anyone who works freelance in the US, whether all the time or on an occasional basis.

I’ve freelanced regularly since 2008, and I’m embarrassed to admit that until recently, my freelance finances were messy. To be more specific, while my personal finances are generally well-managed and I do a good job planning and tracking my spending, I haven’t always been as rigorous with my business finances and lacked a clear delineation between my personal finances and my business earnings. A lot of people working on contract or freelance don’t think of themselves as business owners, but in respect to US tax law, they absolutely are.

Here are some steps that you can take to get your finances straightened out, be a better contractor for your clients and avoid unpleasant surprises at tax time. Keep in mind that I’m not “in” finance and I’m certainly not a tax expert.


Open up business bank account

It’s important that anytime you receive payment for your services, you set that money apart from your personal finances, then pay yourself out if it. This makes filing your taxes easier and will be helpful in the unfortunate event of an IRS audit. You may wish to file for an EIN (employer identification number) with the IRS before opening your account.

This is optional, but it’s another way to show that your business earnings and your personal funds are separate. It’s easy and you can do it online here.

Using an EIN also lets you avoid giving out your SSN on W9 forms. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen shockingly poor information security at startups and small businesses, and I believe anything you can do to protect yourself from identity theft is always worth doing.

You have a lot of options when picking a bank or credit union to use, and I recommend checking out Bankrate.com to find the account that works best for you. Keep in mind that most online bank accounts (Discover, Ally, etc) don’t allow you to use them for business and they will close your account if they suspect that you’re using it to receive your business earnings.

If you have a good relationship with the bank that you do your personal banking with, you may want to evaluate their business banking options. Keep in mind that you probably won’t doing a great deal of in-person banking and that while fees are deductible on your taxes, they still come out upfront and can limit your access to funds. There are many options with other banks and credit unions that may offer you better features, like a higher rate of return on certain types of accounts, a better web banking experience and lower or no fees than your personal bank.

In my case, although I do my personal banking through a local credit union, I went with at Bank of America business account because that was what my then-primary client used and I wanted to make receiving payments from them as easy as possible. However, once I had dealt with Bank of America a few times, I realized why I had always avoided them (poor customer service, aggressive upselling, fees for everything) and switched over to Comerica, who were able to provide me a completely free account that met my specific needs.

Figure out what you’re going to owe and set it aside NOW

When we first start working freelance, we have to adjust to the idea that the money you we’re paid isn’t all ours. If you have always worked as a hired employee, your employer paid a portion of your tax liability for you. When you received a paycheck, the money was (almost) all yours. When you’re paid on a 1099 basis, no taxes are removed from your earnings and it’s your responsibility to set aside this money, and in most cases, send it to the IRS on a quarterly basis.You may qualify for what the IRS calls “Safe Harbor”, so read the conditions before you start sending payments.

For more detailed instructions on how to estimate your tax liability, read this article.

Ideally, you’ll be using your business debit card for all of your business related spending and saving all of your business related receipts as digital scans. You may also want to make a profit and loss statement for every month. It will help you keep track of your earnings and make liability calculations simpler so you can better estimate what you owe.

Be sure to create quarterly calendar reminders for all four estimated tax payment due dates, both State (if applicable) and Federal and remember they change from year to year.

I set aside the money I’ll use to make my estimated tax payments in a separate online savings account to reduce the temptation to spend it.

Set up a money flow and decide your salary

What you pay yourself will be up to you and can vary as needed. For example, sometimes you may need more cash on hand and decide to pay yourself a higher rate temporarily and other times you may wish to make up for being behind on your tax savings by paying yourself less.

Here is my money flow: Incoming payments go into my Comerica Business Checking Account. I pay myself once a month, at the end of the month and I typically somewhat under-pay myself to create a cushion for taxes. I write myself a check for  50-65 percent of my profit and deposit it into my credit union’s checking account. The remainder is transferred to my American Express online savings account, to be sent to the IRS.

Invoice efficiently

Try to always send invoices at the same time, whether that’s every week, every other week or monthly. Use the same format every time. Clients like it when you’re consistent. Create a positive experience for your clients by being consistent, but flexible, always willing to do what works best for them.

One way to do this is accepting multiple payment methods, like checks, Square, bank transfers or sending invoices through PayPal. I consider myself fee-averse and will always prefer cash or a check over anything that costs me and my client extra money such as Square or PayPal, even though it means waiting a longer time for a payment.

Know your worth

It’s important to know the market rate for the services that you offer, taking into account any regional variances that factor into what your client expects to pay for your work. As you become more experienced, I recommend regularly evaluating the marketplace to make sure that you are billing at a fair and reasonable rate.

When setting your rate, keep in mind that since you’re liable for more taxes, you need to build this into your billable rate, or you may end up working for far too little and hurting yourself in the long run. W2 earnings shouldn’t be used to set your 1099 rate, as your tax liability is at least 15.3% higher.

That said, it’s good to be flexible and sometimes you may want to work for less than market rate to develop a relationship with trusted or valuable client. Always be accurate and transparent about the amount of time that you work, and never, ever bill for things you didn’t do.

There’s a lot more to small business finance, and everyone’s situation will be unique, but these are the things that I’ve learned in my years as a freelancer. I hope they help you and let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed or inaccurate information

If you need financial help, consider using a fee-only financial planner. They are required by law to only give you advice that is in your best financial interest. Other financial planners and consultants may advise you in ways that are designed to benefit them at your expense.

Note: I’m not affiliated with any of the sites or institutions I recommended in this article.

Photo Credit: frankieleon via Compfight cc

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Okay, now before we begin, I want to make it explicitly clear that I’m going to talk about the Twitter account of a banana. Heady intellectualism this ain’t. But something sort of unseemly happened on our fair internet 5 years ago and since it doesn’t seem that anyone else has noticed, I’m going to go ahead and talk about it.

First, a little personal back story. I’ve been vaguely aware of Nannerpuss, aka the Final Boss of the Internet (debatable) for a few years now. However, I was unaware of the origins of this googly-eyed cephalopod until a few days ago. I was reading the Know Your Meme article where I learned that Nannerpuss was part of a Superbowl ad campaign for American restaurant chain Denny’s. I haven’t ever actually watched the Superbowl but in American broadcast advertising, the commercial spots are kind of a big deal.

30 seconds can make or break your brand, leading to massive spikes in sales or nation-wide ridicule of the money wasted on high-profile advertising agencies. 2009 was one of the first years that a successful ad campaign would require a matching social media presence, and with a mascot as absurd and endearing as Nannerpuss, Twitter was the natural place for Denny’s to connect with the bemused public.

And connect they did, with viewers tweeting their admiration and Nannerpuss making strange, breakfast related comments like this one:

Weird, but inoffensive. I’m not sure it would have gotten me in the doors of a Denny’s (only desperation and fatigue will do that these days, I have too much respect for food) but things quickly take a turn that has me scratching my head.

Yeah….no. Wildly inappropriate in this context. Perhaps a standup-comic could make this funny but here it’s not.

Wow, okay, now we have definitely crossed way out of brand-appropriate tweeting. I really don’t have anything to says about this one.

I’ll skip over the drug refereneces since they are neither witty nor funny but cocaine, PCP, LSD and oxycodone are all included. Then shit really goes off the rails with a tone-deaf attempt at political humor: 

And finally, the last tweet from @nannerpuss, which I hope got this person sacked from ever attempting humor ever again: a facile, grade-school gay “joke”:

All of this leaves me terribly confused. What the fuck happened here? Is/was this what Denny’s had in mind? Now, I’m no prude – I love “fuck” as much as the next guy, even in a professional context, but these jokes are just so not funny and borderline offensive I think mostly I am just angry that someone got paid to make them – hopefully 5 years later either their humor has matured or they’ve given up jokes altogether.

In internet years, 2009 was ages ago – Twitter wasn’t even a “thing” yet for most of middle America, so I have to chalk some of this inanity up to  the novelty of the platform and perhaps Denny’s not taking social media marketing for an octopus-shaped banana particularly seriously – and who could blame them? I mean, even I feel a little ridiculous expanding this much energy into talking about it. Still, I’m left with more questions than answers.

Who was @nannerpuss? Why couldn’t Denny’s hire someone funny and not tacky/borderline offensive? Does anyone give a fuck about this besides me? I only know the answer to the last one…

If you’re reading this it’s likely you’ve come across me through my work in community management – although that’s not to make light of my excellent Tumblr curation skillz or my ability to rant at length about Instagram!

With that in mind, let it be known that I am currently at 100% availability for work. I’d like to keep working with online communities, writing and research projects, especially those with an emphasis on social good and/or user-generated content.

If you’re looking for a freelance community manager, think you can make use of my skill set or you want to bounce some ideas off me, shoot me an email! Contact details are on this page. I’m looking for remote work anywhere in the world or local jobs in Amsterdam, NL or Berlin, DE.

WARNING: Bitching and moaning ahead!

When I got my first Apple computer one of the programs I was most excited to use was iTunes. I’d had my heart set on an iPod since the device first debuted and as a huge music fan with a growing collection of mp3 files, I was anxious to use Apple’s media player to organize and explore my music.

It was 2003 – OS X “Jaguar”‚ iTunes 4.0 and the 3rd iteration of the iPod (15GB – somewhat surprisingly, over a decade later my iPhone 5s is only 1GB larger). Back then‚ the iTunes icon was a CD underneath a pair of green‚ 3D beamed 8th notes. Logical‚ right? Music was on CDs and music is written with notes. The icon looked like any other Apple icon from the early 2000s. The real-life products were all translucent plastics and rounded edges and OS X’s icons mirrored this aesthetic.

iTunes 7.0‚ released in 2006, was a visual overhaul in many ways (including the totally useless Cover Flow) and the icon changed for the first time in 3 years. The quarter notes turned blue and their beam fattened up but the shape and layout of the icon remained the same.

When it was finally time to ditch the fake CD in 2010‚ the icon stayed round and blue. For 8 years‚ iTunes has been two things‚ visually speaking: Round and blue.

It’s been a week since the release of OS X 11 and iTunes 12 and I’ve mostly adapted to every change except for one: iTunes now has a red icon. No change to an Apple product has broken my brain the way this one has.

Now‚ I’ve used Apple products long enough to know that the faster you can adjust to a change the better. And generally the transition period is short. “Natural scrolling” that everyone hated? 2 hours‚ tops. Terminal commands that change every version? Annoying but just Google it.

This red iTunes icon though? It’s seriously tripping me up. I’m almost certain that the blame for this jarring chromatic shift can be placed equally on the App Store and Safari. Both have an ironed-out white on blue look that’s incredibly similar to a blue version of the iTunes 12 logo.

For now I’m using this totally awesome, if totally incongruous, retro version of the icon by reddit user nazgulhunter:

Retrolicious!

PS: At least they killed off Cover Flow!

Be it.

As the web matures, readers are beginning to expect a greater level of quality in the content that they find online. Search engines are adapting to this shift too: Google’s latest “Hummingbird” algorithm places priority on the “why” of a search and not the “what”. Gone are the un-glory days of  “articles” (I use that term loosely) stuffed to the brim with keywords and SEO “optimization”. On the new web, successful content is personal, engaging and real.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with three tips that you can use to improve your work and shake the bad habits of inauthentic, generic writing.

1. Be and write like yourself

When you’re writing, it’s very easy to inadvertently copy the tone and style of other writers. I am especially guilty of this  – the subconscious mind has a powerful ability to shape and alter the way you use language and I find that many of us are natural mimics. When you’re writing your very first drafts, try to let your thoughts flow naturally. I find that dictation lets me be more spontaneous and creative than typing or writing with a pen or pencil. You can record using a smartphone’s “Notes” features, software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, a hand-held tape recorder or if you are using OS X “Mavericks”, the built-in dictation feature.

When it’s time to check your first draft, look at the writing with a critical eye. Are you copying something you’ve read before? Does your writing sound like the copy from a print advertisement or the voiceover on a TV commercial? If it does, rewrite it as if you are speaking to a friend or family member. Readers are looking for intimacy and authenticity, not fluff and spin.

2. Ask for help and critique from others

It’s very difficult to judge the impressions our writing gives. Our perception of the quality and clarity of our writing will always be colored by our own expectations and beliefs about our abilities. As I mentioned in the introduction we want to write content that’s written from a real, honest place. One of the best ways to judge the genuineness of your content is the critique and commentary of others – it’s not important that the person know you in real life and you may find it valuable to source critiques from people who don’t know you.  Be sure to ask them what impression they get from what you’ve written – does it sound like the work of a real person or a team of copyeditors?

3. Tell me how you really feel

As far as I know, search engines are not yet at the level of being able to gauge the emotional content of a piece of writing, but people are very sensitive to these aspects of the written word. It’s always a good idea to choose subjects that bring you real, honest joy, excitement or even frustration. Choosing topics that really grab you will result writing that’s dynamic, passionate and exciting to read.

Your readers will be looking for clues that help them assess your authority and knowledge but  they will also be able to pick up on your emotional response to the topic that you’ve chosen.

When we write with authenticity, we share our feelings both directly through the words that we choose and indirectly through our phrasing, sentence structure and grammatical quirks. Many of us default to writing in a formal style that deliberately conceals the author’s thoughts and feelings. I urge you to shake this habit, after all, if your readers wanted Wikipedia, that’s where they’d be.

If you feel your content lacks in authenticity or isn’t as genuine as it could be, try revising it to share more of your feelings and thoughts about the topic. Don’t pack your writing full of idle musing; think of the emotional content as a rich spice and insert it sparingly.

I hope these three tips help you to create more authentic, genuine and “real” content. You can use these concepts in new writing as well as old  – revise your work often as your skills improve and you will see your audience grow and your body of work will better show your abilities as a content creator.

In closing, I’ll leave you with my latest mantra: “If Content is King, Authenticity is Queen.” 

Photo Credit: poshdee via Compfight cc

Imagine this: You’re working on a creative project. It’s not exactly easy going, but something is special is happening – you’re losing track of time, focusing and trying new things with the confidence of a seasoned pro. Good news – this creative state of mind is actually a learned skill that you can use and improve whenever you want. It’s what blogger Steve Pavlina calls a “flow state” – when creativity just happens. 

Here are a few simple rules that you can apply to your creative process to improve your confidence and do more and better work, whatever you try.

1. Set goals that make sense to you

We often look to what’s come before us when we set our goals. Instead, ask yourself “What do I want to achieve?” By setting goals that reflect who you are, you’ll be able to stop comparing your progress and start simply creating. Don’t feel like to succeed there is a right or a wrong way to do something. Art, writing and other forms of creativity are highly personal. When you’re truly interested in your goal, reaching it will be easier and more enjoyable.

2. Consider changing your setting

When you imagined yourself working effortlessly on a project earlier, did you see yourself in a quiet library, or a private office? Consider the space you work in, but be open-minded – This paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that exposing subjects to “a moderate…level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks” when compared to a quiet environment. You don’t have to leave the house, but try adjusting your environment when you’re sitting down to be creative. Light a candle or two, put on some music or let your favorite movie play in the background.

3. Use tools that suit you

If you loved to paint with a roller, why would you use a brush? If you wanted to enjoy yourself, you would choose the tool you liked and being efficient wouldn’t be as large a consideration.

An effortless creative process is unique to you, so try a few things and stick with what feels the most natural. You’ll work better and faster if you allow yourself to feel confident, not uncomfortable.

4. Dedicate your time to being creative

If you don’t start, you won’t ever finish. Even if you’re not a planning person, you’ll find that defining how you use the time allotted to you each day makes getting into a “groove” much easier. You don’t have to rush either. Remember, an hour of creativity could be one sitting or 4 short bursts of 15 minutes each. What matters is that you dedicate the time to being creative.

5. Gather your resources in advance

Having everything you expect you’ll need on hand before you begin will reduce friction and make creativity easier. If you’ll need books or articles, gather them up before you start. If you’re planning on using images, gather them up and put them in one place. Save all your links in one text document. If all you’ll use is your imagination, gather up the tools ahead of time, whether it’s a pencil and paper or just a cup of tea.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Squidoo HQ.

authenticity-in-branding (1)

“For a society in which art no longer has a place and which is pathological in all its reactions to it, art fragments on one hand into a reified, hardened cultural possession and on the other into a source of pleasure that the customer pockets and that for the most part has little to do with the object itself.” – Theodor Adorno – “Aesthetic Theory”

I began to experience uncomfortable feelings about the social photo sharing application Instagram after roughly 2 years of using the service. Observing my behavior, I felt like I was selecting images to share with ever-increasing care and scrutiny. At the same time, I found myself going back and deleting older photos for somewhat arbitrary reasons – either they did not meet my “aesthetic standards” or I felt that they revealed too much of me, or perhaps just the wrong parts of me.

I also spend an inordinate amount of time just looking at the more than 250 photos I had shared during my time on the service. It felt a bit like looking at a picture of myself; the glass of whiskey after a difficult day, the photos explicitly in “other” places, they all seemed like signposts that said something about me – a way to tell people who I was.

With time and habituation, I believe we begin to believe we can see ourselves in the images we share. Yet our mirror lies to us, our artifice, once conceived and created for the consumption of others becomes an affectation that blurs the lines between the real self and the contrived self.

In August of 2012 I deleted my Facebook account for reasons too detailed to go into here, suffice it to say I felt uncomfortable with they way I (and others) use these services: under the false pretense that we are sharing ourselves, willingly facilitating observation of the minutia of each other’s lives, we fabricate a pernicious, inescapable alter ego that governs what’s deemed worthy of broadcast.

Transposed from plain, ordinary reality into a kind of detached “theater of reality”, the voyeur becomes simply a viewer. Removing the voyeur’s veil of secrecy and placing them directly in front of the subject to be consumed alters the behavior of the subject – the exhibitionist no longer walks nude in their living room waiting for an audience not guaranteed, instead they man the peep show booth, waiting for the curtain to rise.

This is a different intangible audience from the one that censors our words when we write in a diary, for fear that someday our journal entries be discovered and our skeletons and secrets be revealed. This audience is implicit, present in the very nature of the medium. This implicit audience bothered me – the constant imposition prevented me from any kind of authentic use of the service.

Within the larger aesthetic framework of society, I would argue that the message here is not the image itself, but the subtext that comes with it. When we consider the real role of these images and their place in our increasingly visual culture, what at first blush appears to be self-expression is really more an aspirational outline drawn by the user.

The image’s ability to convey information is the same as in documentary photographs of the horrors of war as in selfies and Sunday brunches; that is to say in order for these images to convey any information, they would need to be separated from the platform that provides their context, externalized from the voyeuristic juxtaposition of viewer and creator.

In reference to images of American soldiers torturing Iraqis, Baudrillard said the images in question offered us “Truth but not veracity: it does not help to know whether the images are true or false. From now on and forever we will be uncertain about these images.”

The experience of selecting and displaying an image in an act of calculated artifice (disguised as a kind of self portraiture or sharing of the self) inevitably leads us to a place where we doubt the veracity of all the images we see on Instagram and services like it. This is what happened to me. The more I realized how inauthentic, calculated and artificial my use of the image had become, the less I was able to consume the images shared by others with any sense of pleasure.

Out of context, an Instagram image becomes void of any explicit meaning – it cannot be parsed into the larger framework of consumerist exhibitionism without having the user’s name attached. But, when we place the same image into a user’s “stream”, the duplicitous intent behind the genesis of the image’s existence is revealed; it exists not only to convey aesthetic information but rather to offer the markers with which the implicit audience can categorize and understand the creator’s rank, place and status, aspirational or otherwise within a capitalist, consumerist society.

Lotringer says in The Piracy of Art that “Now, duplicity is transparent. Who today could boast having any integrity?”

Certainly not I.