Bullish: Readers Write In About Freelance Contracts, Co-Op Degrees, And Selling Your Eggs

Today we hear from three readers who are making plans, and trying to transmute those plans into cash – a sort of alchemy that no one really teaches you, despite all that education and all those internships and all the hard work it takes to go from childhood to twentysomething.

Since I started my “career,” I’ve been a newspaper columnist, a web designer, an internet marketer/entrepreneur, a Director of Marketing, a comedian, a teacher, a tutor/entrepreneur, a curriculum designer, an educational author, and, obviously, a business columnist. Somewhere in there, I started giving presentations on punctuation at universities, got my picture taken for cash, wrote questions for quiz shows, and, of course, donated eggs. Does it even make sense to talk about “a career” anymore when our work and personal lives are so blended, and when we are likely to take up a panoply of occupations and gigs over our decades of work? (See Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.)

I’m kind of reminded of Kanye West’s pronouncement, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.”

Here are the questions.

A recent opportunity to do some freelance design work came up and I referenced your blog about marketing oneself as a creative and not being afraid to charge a certain fee for one’s services. It worked. I was just curious as to if you might have any advice for my next step. This is my first freelance gig- I’m apprehensive about being taken advantage of. I feel like I need to put a contract together- clearly stating rates for the work I do? I want to seem professional- and not like some green recent grad asshole. Any bit of advice or templates/websites you can reference would be appreciated.

A written agreement certainly is a good idea, but I’m not sure that you really need to find some boilerplate 3-page sample contract written by a lawyer — it was very eye-opening when I was running a web design company and putting together these fancy 12-page proposals to discover that one of my competitors, a big advertising agency, was faxing (!) proposals that just said “Advertising Campaign: $15,000″ and then had space for signatures — that was it!

I do suggest getting half the money upfront, and then accepting that some people are assholes and sometimes clients just won’t pay you the second half. Charge enough that if you only ever got the first half, you’d still be okay, and then think of the second half as a bonus that you really want to do a good job so you can earn.

I am not, of course, saying that clients shouldn’t pay you what they’ve agreed to pay, but we have to acknowledge that, even with a written agreement, collecting from a recalcitrant client via collections agency or small claims court is hell. Most freelancers just don’t have the wherewithal to follow through on that, and it’ll eat up your time and possibly soul.

Another option is 1/3 upfront, 1/3 midway through, 1/3 at the end — you stand a better chance of getting at least 2/3 that way.

Overall, think of managing the relationship with your client, and leaving the client addicted to your services, as just as big and important a task as actually doing the work. Don’t work in secret and all the sudden show up with something great and expect to be paid on the spot.

The danger of a lot of freelance design is that a very large proportion of people who want your services can’t really afford them – and, in fact, that might be why they sought out someone young, thinking they could get an impossibly good deal, or persuade you to do the work “for your portfolio.”

Your intuition about these things is probably not wrong. See this column for more on the principle that you cannot do business with sleazy people without getting some sleaze on you. If someone sets off your alarm bells, tell them that you always charge upfront for a first project with someone, and “if the relationship works out,” the next project can be paid hourly, or half-upfront, or whatever. That’ll scare off anyone who wasn’t going to pay you anyway, while still leaving an option to work together.

As a young web designer, I can’t tell you how much of my time I wasted on “potential clients” who really couldn’t wrap their heads around paying real dollars for something that’s … on the Internet! Because … the Internet is free? (Hey, random locksmith in Virginia who wasted hours of my time! Do you pay your cable bill? That’s what I thought.)

Hey, I’m a student about to start college, studying computer programming. I’m not going to be getting a 4 year bachelor’s degree, but a 3 year co-op degree, mostly because it’s less expensive. However, most of the places I’d like to work (think Google, IBM, Microsoft) have requirements like a bachelor’s or master’s degree. What can I do now to improve my employment chances later?

This is a great opportunity to talk about how the world is ridiculously not-fair, and we are working against others’ biases all the time. I asked a few of my Dartmouth buddies who are software engineers about this.

Burt writes:

Yeah, she needs to get a real degree, or it’s worthless.

It’s possible to make a name for yourself without a degree. There are even those encouraging kids to avoid college. The truth is that that’s a tough road, and only few will succeed with that strategy. The odds are much better with a college degree. And if it’s not a bachelor’s degree, it’s not worth anything to most employers.

Another thing to consider is the accreditation of the school in question. Will the credits in the three-year program be transferable to a state school so that two more years would get a bachelor’s degree? (Yes, two more years, as you lose something in transferring to a different school with different requirements.) If not, then the school is a scam, and you’re better off just buying a degree from a diploma mill.

And Terrence writes:

What Burt said. If your intent is to get a corporate job.

The barriers to entry as a freelance programmer are probably as low as they have been in a long time. If you can write a good, worthwhile for-profit app for smartphones, the various app stores mean that you have no up-front publishing/distribution costs. Apple or the Android Marketplace don’t care if you have a four-year degree.

But, if that doesn’t work out, you’d want a degree to fall back on, and something called a “co-op degree” isn’t going to cut it.

Harsh! Ouch. But guys like this (graduated from an Ivy League school in the ‘90s) are exactly who’s making a lot of hiring decisions in major corporate workplaces.

So, I’m sure that’s not exactly what you wanted to hear, but it’s good to know now, right?

When I read your letter, my first thought was also to suggest that you start developing and releasing smartphone apps, and then to make sure that you have much better communication and people skills than most programmers, and start a professional blog or work portfolio … but then I read that you want to work for a major corporation.

So, I have to say I agree with the advice above.

A co-op degree, for the curious, is a degree that mixes work experience with academic instruction. The Wikipedia page on the topic shows a few well-known universities, but they offer 5-year degrees, since the internship part is in addition to, rather than replacing, academic learning. (I was familiar with Northeastern’s program, probably the most prestigious on the list, because in college I dated a guy who had dropped out of it, reasoning that he hardly needed to pay money to get college credit for working as a programmer; he preferred, not surprisingly, to receive money for working as a programmer.)

Unfortunately, vocational education is not respected in this country. I think if you do this, you will be discriminated against, at least at the start of your career, and the effects of this could very well reverberate across your entire career.

Another computer programmer friend (I spent college living in basically a coed computer science fraternity) told me a story years ago about how her boss explained that you don’t need to go to college at all to learn coding, but that he pays college graduates more anyway because he thinks they’re better employees — they know how to follow instructions, jump through hoops, get the job done.

I teach test prep classes and sometimes have to explain – especially to foreigners – why the SAT, GMAT, and GRE are required in the first place. “Well,” I say, “in America, just about anybody can open a university, so a good GPA from a four-year school doesn’t always mean that much.” And I also say, “The SAT/GMAT/GRE is, in a way, a test of whether you are willing to take a set of fairly arbitrary requirements and do whatever is needed to get the job done. This is almost exactly what bosses want of you.”

So, “cheaper” doesn’t help you if what you get doesn’t get you closer to your goals.

If you do decide to continue with the co-op degree, though, I’d keep in mind the oft-repeated (on career blogs, at least) nugget that women tend to view job requirements as requirements, and men tend to view them more as “suggestions.” So, while a four-year degree would certainly open more doors, make like some cocky dude and apply to jobs with your co-op degree anyway.

You might also want to see Bullish: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18 and Bullish: Personality Qualities Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume in which I talk extensively about the skill of pitching things to strangers. Good luck with everything!

In some of your past columns, you’ve mentioned that you donated eggs. I’m considering the process myself, and have found a few programs to research. I don’t actually know anyone who’s donated eggs before, though, and that’s where (I hope) you wouldn’t mind chiming in.

I have no ethical qualms about my genes being in someone else’s child, and I would be perfectly fine never knowing who ended up with my eggs. Mentally, I’m okay with this; I was wondering if you’d be willing to give me your thoughts on the medical process. I know it’s a long one; how did you handle it?

As for the medical process, I feel like … well, if you’re living the kind of lifestyle that makes you want to donate eggs, then you’re probably accustomed to that amount of suffering. I was.

Now, I would find it intolerable; at the time, it seemed like par for the course. I’m not sure I’d try to mix the egg donation process with a full-time job. (See Bullish: What Egg Donation Taught Me About Being a Dude for more about my experience.)

Personally, I am freakishly sensitive to the hormones in birth control pills, so that was actually the worst part for me. After that, as I remember it, there were the injections that shut off all my lady-hormones, which were AWESOME. I actually talk about this in my one-woman show — it was like a hazy emotion-cloud I’d had my entire life suddenly lifted and I was a dude and I could do anything I wanted. I actually asked the nurse (not totally seriously) if I could keep taking Lupron forever. Since, technically, Lupron is only FDA approved for terminally ill prostate cancer patients, um, no.

After that, there were the mega-estrogen injections, which create mega-PMS. Eh. I’m sure you’re familiar with the sensation. Wear sweatpants, cry, etc. I had to get flown to LA for the retrieval (laws about surrogacy/donation/etc. are better there), and I wept uncontrollably on the plane and at the hotel front desk (wrong kind of peanuts, early check-in not ready, other minor slights, etc.) But not that big a deal, and soon over.

Also, injections in your stomach fat are a lot less painful than they sound. Towards the end, the one injection into your ass muscle is a little more difficult.

You’re knocked out for the actual retrieval, so also, not that big a deal. I mean, I guess. Until you realize that you’re being wheeled into a surgical room for something that was totally avoidable. I was in a hospital bed, chatting away with the anesthesiologist, while I looked away, as he suggested; although I was mostly numb, I felt that my arm was … wet. I looked down – he was hoping I wouldn’t – and saw that blood was spurting out of a vein, everywhere.

This is not the very best way to make money.

The $8,000 I received definitely gave me a leg up in my career. There were about eight things I needed that all cost about $50 that I bought right away. Then I got some real headshots (I was doing standup at the time.) I bought a laptop. I bought a few months in which I turned down stupid little underpaying jobs so I could focus on long-term goals. I was able to relax, knowing my bills were paid and that, if I got sick, I could take a cab home. (See Bullish Life: How to Be Broke Without Going Crazy.)

I also wondered why it had come to this. Many young people are in the same boat – how can you be so fucking smart and accomplished and have no way to turn that into actual dollars? How can all your hard work have basically zero economic value? How was it that my smarty-smart brain and accomplishments weren’t making me any money except in advertising my goddamn ovaries? (See Bullish Life: When “Achievements” Just Leave You Feeling Empty.)

It was as though my achievements hadn’t really panned out for me, and all the universe was willing to grant me was that my genes were good enough that someone else could use them to … try again.

Underemployment can make you feel fucking terrible. (See last week’s Bullish: To Give Up or Not to Give Up? A Column About Bankruptcy.) The combination of selling my eggs and also doing some rather low-rent modeling meant that I had been poked at and jerked around enough that I became very motivated to develop a career in which no one ever fucking touched me again. I stopped pursuing modeling gigs. My little inner mantra was that I was “transitioning to a brain-based economy.”

Obviously, I’m ambivalent. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t donate eggs.

I have often written that we become paralyzed in our decisionmaking when we hold out for a perfect option even though one does not exist. When someone points out how weird Nicole Kidman looks, I always say, “Well, she doesn’t have the option of looking like she did fifteen years ago. Her choices are looking fake or looking old. She picked fake.” Maybe that’s a trivial example, but I mention it because, across the board, we always have to make decisions in which there is no perfect option, and we beat ourselves up about it more than we should.

I wrote about this in a column on TheGloss about breakups, and I’m saying it again here:

Think like a military general: if there are two options and both have casualties, pick the better option based on the information available at the time and press forward. Accept that even the optimal decision at the time will have unavoidably negative ramifications. There is no ideal option.

One more thing – you may think differently about this as you get older. Having had years to reflect:

1) In some kind of primal way, I’m glad my genes got out there just in case I get struck by lightning tomorrow. That said, somehow it actually hadn’t occurred to me prior to egg donation that – obviously – there might be a little baby girl out there who looks just like I look in my pictures. I once passed a children’s clothing store and saw something cute and cried. Fair warning.

2) I’m really hoping the kids look me up when they hit 18. (I donated twice and the agency confirmed that at least one donation “worked.”) I checked the box on the paperwork saying that the kids can have my information, although the agency may not be in business at that time. You can choose anonymity, but I don’t consider that ironclad. You never know.

And, 3) I hope they’re not mad at me. Which they might be. There are blogs all over the Internet written by children of sperm donors who are angry that their biological fathers weren’t there for them, or “sold” them, or only conceived them for money. Of course, I did donate eggs for money, but I was also helping the gay community, no? And making a child who otherwise would not exist at all.

Anyway, it’s complicated. It’s one of those things – much like jumping into a new relationship – where you never know if it’s a good idea until you find out how it all works out, months or years later.

As in any choice, for your career or otherwise, make the best decision you can with the information available. It’s all anyone can do. And then, of course – as I’m sure you were planning to do all along – get bullish about a line of work that is not ovary-dependent.

originally published on The Grindstone