Independent Authors SIG, winter 2006

Lost work

Two clients offered Jean Rollinson (www.authoring-services.co.uk) work for the same three-week period. One offer was from a local company, the other was through an agency. She told both clients the position, and accepted the work offered by the local company, because it was an ongoing contract with the possibility of future work. Later, they told her that although they liked her proposal, the budget was exhausted and there was no work available. She felt let down because in addition to losing money, she had possibly lost the good will of the agency.

The problem arises because, when buying, organizations apply a set of steps that are to their advantage, according to Ellis Pratt. If you play by their rules, you might be at a disadvantage. Do they want free consultancy? Some do, if they can get it. Do they want to hire and fire at short notice? Some do, if they can. Do some buyers lie? Some do, unfortunately. When you sell your services, have the courage occasionally to say, 'no'. Set some ground rules, obtain a commitment from clients, and don't give away all your expertise before they buy.

Other people described similar and worse situations, and many people suggested strategies to overcome them:

This type of experience demonstrates a degree of risk as an independent consultant, and Jane Funnell records failed deals in case the Inland Revenue challenge her over IR35.

A new way of working

Related to the previous discussion is Debbie Stevens' new type of contracting company (www.hire-a-temp.co.uk). Clients pay in advance to register and purchase a refundable £100 membership and a bar-type tab. The minimum amount is one hour in advance, so it is an affordable sub-contracting model. There is no requirement to comply with UK or EU employment law, pay UK employers' NI, or provide desk space and other resources.

Over 200 employees are ready to do things such as data entry, graphic design, research, programming and technical writing. A client specifies the work and one or more hire-a-temp employees work to that specification.

Is this new service doing freelancers out of work? Debbie thinks not, because the demand is for us as specialists and project managers. This type of working elevates our position and enables us to manage more than one person or role, and our CVs look better for it. Debbie suggests that if we have the opportunity to work on two simultaneous projects, we should accept both, outsource part of the work and take a commission on the parts we outsource.

Estimating development time

Kim Schrantz-Berquist wanted simple metrics with only a few figures for estimating the development time of online help. I replied that I base my estimates on the number of unique screens in the software application (my clients supply the number initially). As a first cut, I estimate five hours to document a screen. I don't consider the complexity of individual screens but I do count every screen that will be mentioned in the documentation, even if it is simple. The complexity of the software, its stability, the subject matter, the mix of procedural and reference information and the skill level of the users affect the documentation. I don't have metrics for those factors, although I do adjust the estimate depending on them (it becomes a guesstimate, but most of my projects are for a fixed price so that's not an issue for the client). For more information, see www.techscribe.co.uk/techw/documentation-project-metrics.htm.

David Nixon covered metrics in his 2006 Conference presentation, 'A process approach to small-scale software technical publications'. Peter Meherne gave useful advice in 'Estimating documentation projects' in Communicator, autumn 2004. The documents are on www.istc.org.uk [editor's note: ISTC members only].

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