What the Car Rental Industry Taught Me About Being a Successful Freelancer

When you go into business for yourself, one of the first lessons you’ll learn is that you will be taking on a lot of responsibility. I talk about this in Beyond the Margins, discussing how you’ll be wearing so many different hats. You may think that you’re becoming a professional graphic designer, but you’ll also be responsible for your marketing, accounting, social media management, office management, customer service and the rest of it. The same is true for consultants, photographers and freelance writers too. As a result, the many lessons that you learn from your previous jobs, even if they are seemingly unrelated, can prove to be quite useful in your freelance career.

In a previous life, I had a job selling expensive popcorn to folks coming to watch movies. Most movie theaters don’t make much (if any) money at all from ticket sales, instead earning their profits through the concession stand. As such, we employees were constantly encouraged to sell our “guests” on the membership program and we’d be constantly pushed into upselling and suggestive selling. That mentality has been helpful in my freelance career, just like the lessons I learned from raising money for charity in another job that I held.

The final job placement that I had as part of the Arts Co-Op Program at UBC was with a car rental company. I didn’t and still don’t have much of an interest in that industry, but I recognized that the business-oriented experience would serve me well in future endeavors. I may only be a company of one today, but the fundamentals of running a car rental business and running a freelance writing business aren’t all that different.

Be Efficient, But Thorough

Anyone who has ever worked in a busy retail or customer service type environment will understand the pressure of having a giant line of customers in front of you. You feel compelled to rifle through the line as quickly as possible. When you’re in a rush, however, you’re far more likely to make mistakes along the way. There are a lot of details to a car rental contract, like ensuring that you have the right name and address, the right car, the right rate, the right insurance policy, and the right rental period. Any slip-up could cause a lot of headache down the line.

I had to find that delicate balance between being fast and being accurate. As a freelance writer, the same paradigm still applies. The sooner I complete a project for one client, the sooner I get paid and the sooner I can move on to another project. Speed is valued, but the work should also be as error-free as possible too.

Return Customers Are the Best

During my time with the rental car company, I encountered more than a few regular customers. There was one fellow that would rent a car almost every weekend; this was before car sharing programs really hit Vancouver. These kinds of contracts were really easy to do, because I already knew what kind of car he preferred and I already had all of his information on file. By the time he popped into the office, I could already have the contract completely filled out and waiting for him. The transaction was incredibly efficient.

As a freelance writer, it’s much the same. When I already know the type and style of article that a client wants, when we’ve already worked out the rates and payment details, the process of completing the work is far easier. Your existing clients are probably your best clients, especially when you know they’ll come back on a regular basis.

Track All Your Numbers

It sounds simple enough, but it’s something that so many small business owners overlook. Another important point that I bring up in Beyond the Margins is why you need to keep accurate and up-to-date records of everything. At the car rental company, we kept ongoing tallies for how well we were doing with selling the damage waiver (insurance), how well we were doing with upselling, and so on. This gave us a quantitative measure of your performance, so we could see if we were getting better or worse.

When keeping track of your numbers as a freelancer, you should be keeping a close eye on the money coming in, as well as the money going out. Early on, I also took a close look at how I was spending my time, as this gave me a better idea of how long it takes me to complete each project. In turn, this gives me a better grasp on how much I should be charging for my work.

Get Ready to Change Your Plans

Before we wrapped up for the day each night at the rental car place, we’d print out the reservation list for the following day. We’d look over the vehicles that we’d need to have on hand, particularly any special requests, to make sure that the car would be available by the time the customer came to pick it up. For instance, if someone needed a pickup truck at 2pm and we saw that someone was returning a suitable truck at noon, then we’d assume we were in good shape.

But what if that return comes late? What if the pickup truck is returned with significant damage and should not be re-rented? We had made plans, but now we would have to change them. There was a lot of flying by the seat of our pants, frantically calling other branches to see if they had a vehicle that could accommodate our needs.

Planning is a good thing, whether you’re renting cars or writing blog posts, but you also need to recognize that those plans might have to change on a moment’s notice. Be flexible, be versatile, and be quick on your feet. Indeed, be prepared to do whatever needs to be done. Working at the car rental place, I washed more than a few cars, made more than a few sales calls, and dove head first into all sorts of logistics. It’s about rising to the occasion and getting the job done no matter what.