Episode 51: How to negotiate as a freelancer


All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

If nothing else, Bobby McGill’s career path has been a wild one. In a good way.

From B-Mac the rapper — opening for Run DMC in 1984 — to a freelance writer whose interviewed George W. and Jack Nicklaus, Bobby’s never been shy about going after what
he wants. That includes walking into the New York Times and Wall Street Journal offices and asking for a job, nary a resume.

Flash forward 32 years and this Branding in Asia Magazine founder and Assistant Professor at Dong Seo University, joins Elizabeth Ü to talk the art of freelance negotiation.

Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned vet, you’ll want to tune in for his sage advice on setting your freelance rate and fees, building a strong personal brand, why it’s not always about the money…. on Xero Gravity #51. 

Small Business Resources:

Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü: EÜ

Guest: Bobby McGill: BM

Promo: You’ve just tuned in to Xero Gravity, a podcast for small business leaders and entrepreneurs across the world. Now to your host, Elizabeth Ü

EÜ: Hey everyone, I’m Elizabeth Ü, and you’re listening to Xero Gravity.

Guest soundbite:

“Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Just relax your mind and let your body go onto a galaxy far, far away where the people get down to what I say. The fantasy’s for real, so be sure of what you feel, if you’re ready for the rhythm, and let the sound steer you.”

EÜ: Meet Bobby McGill. Bobby’s the founder of Branding in Asia Magazine and Assistant Professor at Dongseo University in South Korea.

Bobby’s had an incredibly colorful career as a freelancer. He’s interviewed the likes of Al Gore and George W. Bush. And get this — he once opened for Run DMC back in the day. For me — I really loved how Bobby highlights that during negotiation you’re often vying for more than just money.

Guest soundbite:

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be money. Pay could be experience, it could be a piece in your portfolio, so there’s a lot of dimensions to it that you need to consider before you just outright say, “No I’m not going to work without being paid.”


EÜ: So we have all of that and more coming up on Xero Gravity right after this.

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EÜ: Bobby McGill, thanks for joining us on Xero Gravity.

BM: Hey, thanks for having me.

EÜ: So what do you get up to in your free time?

BM: I’ve got a lot going on but when I do I, I really like to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I’m in South Korea right now so it’s actually Spring, finally, after a very long winter. So it’s great that I can get out and walk around and just take in nature. That’s what I pretty much do with my free time these days.

EÜ: I love that. I do the same myself. So I have a confession to make: the first album that I ever bought for myself was Run DMC’s Raising Hell on cassette tape. Did you really open for them once?

BM: Do you know this happened 32 years ago, and this story never seems to stop fascinating people, but yes.

EÜ: [Laughs]

BM: This was 1984. Rap had not gone mainstream. Most people at that time had not even heard of Run DMC. It was part of the Fresh Festival and I just happened to be — I wrote poetry in high school and I turned to rap and met a couple of guys at my university. And they said, our uncle is promoting a Run DMC show up in Stockton, California. And next thing you know I’m up there in front of 5,000 people who I think we're as shocked as I was, you know, when I walked out on stage— because at that time there were really no Caucasian rappers. And so they introduced me and I walked out on stage. And my stage name was B-MAC and the crowd just erupted and yeah, that was my little 15 minutes of fame right there. Actually it was a 20-minute show and yeah, after that I did some local shows and just kind of drifted out of it. It was more of a hobby at the time, really.

EÜ: So is there anything that you want to rap for us right now?

BM: I think that’s something I have to answer yes to, right?

EÜ: [Laughs]

BM: But it’s been so long! Let me think here. All right, here’s – here’s an old rap: Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Just relax your mind and let your body go onto a galaxy far, far away, where the people get down to what I say. The fantasy is for real so be sure of what you feel, if you’re ready for the rhythm and let the sound steer you. Something like that!

EÜ: Wow, oh my gosh, I so wish I had some beatbox skills right now. I would have jumped right in there!

BM: And a beatbox would work just perfect because it’s that old-style rap from way back — 32 years ago.

EÜ: So you transitioned into a writer and you’re not a rapper anymore. So tell us how you fell into journalism.

BM: Well actually, when I was about 27 I kind of got a late start. It was always something that I wanted to do, you know? I really enjoy writing. It was kind of part of the long-term plan. Journalism was going to be one of those things that I wanted to get into and I kind of went really ballsy with it, and called all the major newspapers and said, “Hello, can I have a job?” And they kind of laughed me off and said, “Well, you know, who are you?” And so I ended up just applying for a local newspaper and I had this great idea for a story: downtown San Jose there’s still actually a salmon run in Silicon Valley where the salmon come up, and I was down there one day and I saw the homeless people were netting salmon with shopping carts.

EÜ: Wow.

BM: And I said, now that’s a great story. And so I started pitching that story, and that was the first thing I ever got published, and ended up writing for a small newspaper there and then through, a really, absolutely lucky circumstance. I got interviewed for a job by a guy who asked me if I had my J school degree and I said, “I’m actually in school now working on my J school degree.” And he hired me to be a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner as a stringer. And I’d come to find out after I’d gotten the job and gone through most of the process that J school degree – he meant journalism. And I thought he meant junior college! I was still in junior college at the time.

EÜ: [Laughs] So tell us about some of your famous interviews from those first years as a journalist.

BM: Well, when I started off, I was really lucky at the time, also because the dot com boom was taking place and so the newspaper was really short-handed. So they gave me a staff position and it gave me a chance to cover all these rising stars in the dot com boom. And a lot of these companies were growing so fast that they were looking for a lot of freelance work and I ended up going to work for one of the airline magazines as well, and they ended up sending me off to all sorts of places covering, because they were flush with money at the time. So there was a lot of work in the industry and I got a chance to interview George Bush and Al Gore during the election.

EÜ: Wow!

BM: And I got a chance to interview Jack NIcklaus. So it was really a great time to start being a journalist because the industry was so flush with money, which is something, you know, kind of the opposite of where we are now that they were sending freelancers all over the place to do all sorts of stories. It was a great time.

EÜ: So now it’s time to dig a little deeper into this episode’s theme which is, of course, how to negotiate as a freelancer. So first up, what is it about working as a freelancer that appeals to you?

BM: Well I think the most appealing thing is you get to do a variety of work. Right now I’m working with a number of different publications and I get to cover a number of different topics. For example, I’m doing the branding magazine which I actually started on my own which is a little, not really a freelance gig so much as something that I’m building myself. And I’m also freelancing for a diabetes magazine. And getting into that has been really very, very fascinating. I didn’t realize the full extent of the diabetes problem out there in the world. So I’m getting a chance to put together useful information for people. Also I get to do travel articles. So I guess more than anything it gives me a chance to do a variety of different jobs and I really like that.

EÜ: And what about some of the challenges that you’ve faced as a lifelong freelancer?

BM: So I would say that is the most difficult thing, is, you know, staying with it, staying the course. It takes time to really build up a stable of jobs so you’ve always got something to do to keep you busy.

EÜ: So negotiating is obviously a really important part of freelancing. How has that negotiation landscape shifted recently?

BM: I’d say the biggest difference now is really just the competition. The publishers have a lot more options out there of people who are willing to write, and so as an experienced freelancer you’ve really got to come in strong with the fact that you’re going to be consistent, that you’re going to be professional, and that you’re going to give them what they’re looking for without a lot of back and forth.

EÜ: Right, right. And that’s obviously part of the value that you’re bringing.

BM: Right.

EÜ: And how do cultural differences affect the negotiation process? You’ve been living in Asia for several years, and there’s obviously differences in body language if you’re in person, or taboos and mores — how direct you can communicate. How do you manage those challenges?

BM: I’m working in an English language market and I think the mores in that segment are pretty much standard across the board. I think we’re dealing with mostly globalized people who are producing most of these publications. They’ve lived in different countries, they’ve traveled around the world. So I think there’s kind of a globalized accepted culture of business that’s being done.

For example when doing business in Korea there’s certain things I have to do when I’m dealing with somebody older than me. I have to be you know, very mindful to pay respect to them. For the most part I’d say it’s pretty much a standard way of doing business at least in my field, in the field of content. And in the field of media that’s pretty much the same across the board.

EÜ: So negotiating as a freelancer involves more than just persuasive language. What are other skills that are involved in securing income in this way?

BM: Having good quality work. Building up your reputation and being willing to work very closely with the client and making sure that you’re giving them exactly what they want. You really need to know who you are as a freelancer and what you have to offer and what the market will bear.

When you’re going into the negotiation, first of all you need to know how much can you actually charge. When I first started out, my very first gig as a freelancer was doing marketing writing for a company back in Silicon Valley, and they asked me to do some case studies for them. They said, “Well hey, how much do you charge?” And you know, it was one of those moments where I was like, actually what do I charge? And I so I gave them the standard line, “Well I’ll have to research your project and I’ll get back to you and let you know.” And literally I hit the internet and saw that they were charging anywhere from $20 an hour up to $500 an hour. So I decided to go somewhere in the middle actually. I called them back up and said, “Yeah, that’ll be $150 an hour.” And they said, “Oh that’s great, much cheaper than we thought.”

EÜ: Oh no!

BM: Oh no! And so it was at that time that I realized the importance of finding out what the market will bear, what you’re worth in terms of your experience. And just being very conscious of what the current market situation is, what other people are charging and what you’re up against.

I try not to turn down jobs. When a great job comes along with the wealth of information that’s out there, you can do the job and you can do the job well. And don’t be afraid to go into new territory and feel like maybe you don’t know enough about a topic because there’s always time to do homework. There’s so much great information out there and you can come through and do a good job.

EÜ: That’s great, I love that. And what about not caring about rejection?

BM: I think I mentioned this earlier when I first started off. I went straight for the big ones. I was calling the New York Times. I called the Wall Street Journal and I said, “Hello my name’s Bobby McGill and I’d like to write for your paper” and they’re like, you know, “Who the heck are you?” So I really got hit with the rejection right from the beginning. But I figured start at the top and work my way down. So if you can’t handle rejection then this is definitely not the industry to get into. But after a time of rejection then people start saying yes, and more and more people say yes and then the next thing you know, nobody is rejecting you, you hope.

EÜ: I imagine that when it comes to building up your portfolio or even just doing jobs that are more and more interesting to you, it does mean that sometimes you’re going to have to take jobs that don’t pay the amount that you know you can demand.

BM: Well yeah, that’s a big debate and I see a lot of articles about, you know, people saying, you’ve got to get paid, artists must get paid, you must get paid. And I notice that most of those articles always start off with a disclaimer. Now for a person like myself who has a long reputation, a good reputation and a lot of experience, I don’t really worry about this. And then they tell people, you know, make sure you get paid.

I’m of the philosophy that, if you can build your resume up, you can get your name out there working for smaller publications who maybe don’t have the budgets to pay you. I think it’s something you should jump on. Because a lot of this is really building your clip file. You write for the small publication and then you take it up to the bigger one. And so I think doing work for free is not such a bad thing but it really depends on how well we should probably examine the word ‘free’. And what pay is. It doesn’t necessarily have to be money. Pay could be experience, it could be a piece in your portfolio. There’s a lot of dimensions to it that you need to consider before you just outright say, “No, I’m not going to work without being paid.”

EÜ: So you’re talking about getting paid in means other than money. So whether it’s through experience or an interesting job that will help you learn something that you’re interested in, is that something you build into the negotiation process? Like how does that relate to negotiation?

BM: Well it depends on which end of the negotiating table I’m sitting at. As a publisher with my small publications, when I start off, my pitch is that this is a chance for you to get your name out there. I feel like my job is to help you get your name out there, and I sincerely believe that. From the other end it really depends. It depends on where you’re at and what you feel your worth is.

The first thing I ever got published, I wrote an editorial to George Magazine. That was JFK Jr’s magazine. I wrote a letter to the editor, and that was the first thing I ever got published. And I took that letter to the editor and I went to the next magazine and I said, “Hey here’s my letter to editor in George Magazine, can I write for you too?” The first magazine I wrote for, they paid 10 cents a word, which I thought I was worth much more at that time, but I took it because it was a chance for me to get my name out there. So, getting back to the question of value, you know, where are you at in your career and what do you need to do to advance yourself to that position you want to be in. Are you looking to write for the biggest magazines? Then you’ve got to spend some time writing for the smaller ones and maybe not making the money that you’re hoping to make.

EÜ: So what does the freelance and small business market look like for foreigners in Korea? Are there are a lot of opportunities available?

BM: Well I think, I’d like to speak to Asia in general. You know for what I’m doing, it’s a borderless job. You know, I’m writing for publications in Australia, I’m writing for publications in America, for publications in Japan. So to say whether there’s opportunities, it really depends on if you’ve got an internet connection. There’s opportunities just about everywhere.

EÜ: Mm’ hm. Okay, so I was travelling in Vietnam last year and did notice quite a few foreigners working from their laptops in internet cafes. Why do you think Asia has become so popular for small businesses and startups?

BM: I think a lot of people like the lifestyle. You know, it’s great. Obviously you mentioned Vietnam. Vietnam is one of my favorite places. I’d love to live there someday. But I think a lot of it really just has to do with the huge economic shift that’s taken place in the world. The economic growth engine of the world is happening now in Asia. So I think it’s just natural that all these opportunities are going to start to pop up over here.

EÜ: So Bobby, when I’m listening to you talk I think one of the things that is really striking me is how flexible a freelancer’s life can be, and how much power a freelancer has over the types of jobs that they might not only look for but the different ways that they could get reimbursed for producing the work that they’re doing for their clients.

BM: There’s so much work to do out there. There’s so much opportunity and it’s just a matter of sitting down and finding what you think your niche might be and just inserting yourself into the equation.

EÜ: So that’s some great advice, Bobby. Now we’re going to finish up with our question countdown: five quick questions and five quick answers. Are you ready?

BM: Shoot.

EÜ: What business book or idea made the biggest impact on your life and why?

BM: I’d have to say Michael Gerber’s the E Myth Revisited. Really opened my eyes to things that I need to pay attention to. And that book really helped a lot as far as, you know, giving me a vision of how I should proceed from the business perspective.

EÜ: What’s the one thing you can’t live without?

BM: In this line of work? Coffee.

EÜ: What’s the most useful app on your phone right now?

BM: Actually I’ve really been finally coming around to Evernote. I think one of the hardest things for me is keeping everything organized and so I find myself referring to Evernote more and more.

EÜ: In one sentence, what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned throughout your small business journey.

BM: I think it’s building really strong relationships with the people you work with. The clients, the people that work for you, the people you work for. I think that is the most important thing. Don’t make it all about business, you know, mix some play into your work with the people who you’re working with.

EÜ: Yeah, I love that. And finally, what skill do you want to enhance this year?

BM: I would like to become better at organizing myself.

EÜ: Oh I love that. I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to as well. So, that’s all we have time for today, Bobby. Thanks so much for joining us on the show.

BM: Hey it was great. I had a good time.

Promo: Enjoying today's show? Then why not join the conversation! Just use the hashtag #XeroGravity.

EÜ: That was Bobby McGill, founder of Branding in Asia Magazine. Thanks for listening to Xero Gravity. Don’t miss our show next Wednesday, with Dr. Ebony Utley, Associate Professor of California State University Long Beach.

Dr Utley is whip smart and has a lot of insight to share about effective communication, not just in small business, but in life. Take care and catch you next time.

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