Category: Advice

Freelancers and the Ransomware Threat

by Mahesh Raj Mohan and Mike Russell

This article is a collaboration between CC:PDX members Mahesh Raj Mohan (Enlighten Writing) and Mike Russell (Pivotal Writing). They created this article to keep clients and freelancers informed about the ransomware threat.

You may have heard the term “ransomware” lately.  Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts your computer or device so you cannot access your data or apps. There will often be a message on your screen demanding money (e.g. Bitcoins) to unlock your system.

Ransomware has become the “attack du jour” of hackers across the world. It is lucrative, catches many victims off-guard, and there are multiple methods of attack. Ransomware can be a virus or Trojan horse in an e-mail link. More worrisome, ransomware can be hidden in an online ad, as this excellent article from Malwarebytes Labs illustrates.

If you don’t have a robust firewall, ransomware can hide in a file that your system doesn’t recognize as a threat until it is downloaded onto your machine. It can cost you hours or lost productivity and income, and it can damage your relationship with your clients if their project data is on your system.

Okay, yes, ransomware is scary, but we don’t want to overdo the “fear” element here. There are steps you can take to defend your system and your clients.  Best practice  for freelancers and businesses dictates  a “layered defense” strategy where you have multiple defenses running on your machine.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss some preventive actions you can take, their level of difficulty to implement, and the cost involved.

Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware

Anti-virus and anti-spyware programs should be as common on your system as an Internet browser. We won’t advocate for particular programs, and we hope that you already have anti-virus of some kind on all of your devices (even Apple products).

Difficulty Level:  Varies by the brand. Generally easy.

Cost: Varies; there are free versions, but we recommend the “fully loaded” types.  Here is a full list for PCs.

External Hard Drive

The one sure-fire method of ransomware prevention.  You buy an external hard drive that houses a copy of your data, as well as your client project data.  You could keep all your client data on this separate hard drive

Difficulty Level: Moderate.  External hard drives are simple to connect to your primary machine so you can copy files quickly and easily.  However, it may be inconvenient if, for extra security, you turned off your Internet connection while working on your client’s project (e.g. you may need to use the Internet for research).

Cost:  Varies.  A 1-terabyte drive usually runs $40-$100 depending on the brand and whether you are buying a hard disk drive or a solid state drive.

Cloud Backups

Dropbox is the most well-known data backup solution that is not housed on your hard drive.  Dropbox has 256-bit AES encryption. Dropbox claims that you can restore data to before the malware took effect, but you’d still lose the most current version of your file(s).

Difficulty Level:  Easy.

Cost:  Dropbox Pro costs $99/year or $9.99/month.

Password Managers

Ah yes, the dreaded discussion of passwords.  Using the same passwords on multiple sites is not recommended, but coming up with dozens (if not hundreds) of passwords can be impossible to track.  Password managers like 1Password and Roboform can help to make this easier.

Difficulty Level:  Easy.  Install them on your machine, and start collecting passwords.  Every time you sign up for a new website, the passwords will be automatically saved.  You can also choose “everywhere” options that reside in the cloud and can be used on more than one machine.

Cost:  $20 and up.

For Advanced Users

If you are really worried about ransomware and want to be on the cutting edge of defense, you can try a couple of solutions.

Turn Off Adobe Flash

Flash is a vulnerable deployment vehicle for ransomware, and turning it off gives more power to consumers. Once disabled, you have the power to activate Flash for in-browser applications that use it.

Firefox

Locate the three vertical bars at the top of your browser, choose “Add-Ons,” the Plugins.  Scroll down to Shockwave Flash and choose, “Ask to Activate.”  If there is any malware hiding as a “malvertisement,” then this should help neutralize the threat.

Chrome

Go to the URL bar and type “about:plugins.” Locate “Adobe Flash Player” and choose “Disable.”

Safari

Choose “Safari” in the menu bar, then “Preferences,” and then “Security.”  Click on the Website Settings” button next to “Allow Plugins,” then select “Adobe Flash Player,” and “Block” for the option, “when visiting other websites” in the menu that appears.

Beta Testing

BleepingComputer offers some recent anti-ransomware downloads that are in the “beta testing” stage that either stop ransomware scripts from running or export encrypted files.  These options are currently free.

Script Blocking Add-Ons

You can download a free Javascript blocker (such as NoScript on Firefox) that blocks scripts (Javascript and Silverlight) that can be exploited by hackers. The installation of the add-on is seamless, but you’ll find that a lot of sites use Javascript, so you will spend time “white-listing” sites that you trust.  It can also make some websites non-responsive, so only choose this option if you are willing to deal with the hassle of a layered defense.

We hope we allowed you to harden your defenses and think about cybersecurity and your clients’ data in a strategic way. How do you protect yourself against ransomware and other cyber maladies? Please add your suggestions in the comments below.

Freelancing and the Cult of Consistency

(This article on freelancing and the cult of consistency is part of our commitment to promote the works of the Copywriter Conclave of Portland’s writers and editors. It’s a timely topic by founding member Sheila Ashdown.)

I have a confession. I, Sheila Ashdown, have committed a grave sin.

What, you might ask. Did I steal a Snickers bar? Mug a Girl Scout? Murder someone?*

No.

I’ve been—gasp—an inconsistent blogger.

**Law & Order music starts playing**

Cuff me. I’ve been bad.

Everything you read about writing—especially when it comes to blogging—shouts to the heavens about consistency. All the cool kids are publishing new content daily, or at least weekly, so they say.

And for years, I bought into it. I set myself ambitious blogging goals, which I literally never achieved one single time. I followed up these “failures” by feeling bad about myself and vowing to be and do better next time. Rinse and repeat a thousand times over.

Does this experience resonate with anyone else out there? I’m not crazy, am I?

The Trouble with Consistency

Now, I’m not calling for a blanket disavowal of consistency. I’m still going to floss my teeth every day and I hope you do too. What I’m calling for is a disavowal of the way that consistency is used to artificially force creative processes and create a false sense of urgency that results in sloppy work and psychic pain.

Problem #1: Consistency is usually defined in a painfully narrow way.

When business gurus tell us to be consistent, what they mean is to publish consistently. I’m all for showing up every day and working to achieve your writing goals, but there’s a heck of a lot more to the writing process than just hitting that publish button. And as far as I can tell, most people hit “publish” way too soon.

A while ago, I signed up to receive the daily blog feed of a Famous Business Guru (who I shall not name). He’s a bestselling author several times over, and he has a huge following. But when his blogs started rolling into my inbox, I was shocked by how dreadful they were.

Each blog was very short (a couple hundred words, max), and they were basically half-baked ideas and platitudes, delivered in cliched, uninspired language. They left me feeling like the author didn’t genuinely care about delivering a valuable piece of content; rather, he was just ticking the checkbox next to “Send out blog today” on the his to-do list.

Famous Business Guru may very well have some incredible ideas and insights. But maybe he’s a mere mortal, like the rest of us, who needs time to develop them. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather receive a well-developed, thoughtfully crafted post whenever he’s able to put one out, rather than a daily dose of “meh.”

Problem #2: Creativity is an inconsistent process.

Writing is not a linear process. We loop around between aha! moments, incubation, and active engagement with the writing.

We create in short bursts, and then we walk away for a few hours, days, or weeks to get some distance on it. Sometimes we’re not writing at all—we’re researching and taking notes instead. Or we’re out rolling in a field of clover or whatever, since, as much as we malign “laziness,” down time is an indispensable component of the creative process.

If we try to force an unruly process into a rigid timeline, we end up publishing something because it’s Wednesday, not because the piece is genuinely finished.

Problem #3: Consistency can be a mental trap. Just like “having it all” or achieving six-pack abs or flawless work-life balance, relentless consistency is a never-achievable ideal. What else in life is consistent? Everything in nature has cycles and fluctuations, and we as humans are part of nature. We’re not machines.

And so, even if you want to try for consistency—by all means, give it a whirl! Set up a reasonable publication schedule (emphasis on “reasonable”) and go for it. But I beg you to give yourself ample credit for the times you achieve it, and to please go easy on yourself when you fall short.

Otherwise, if consistency is held up as the most important metric for success, you’re going to feel like a failure next time you’re down with the flu for a week or you take a well-deserved vacation.

Let’s Redefine What It Means to Be Consistent  

Now, let me be clear—you’re not off the hook with your writing. 🙂 Giving up membership in the Cult of Consistency doesn’t mean we give ourselves a free pass for procrastination or perfectionism.

But here’s what I see: Writers who feel they “should” post daily or weekly are the ones who give up on their work. They’re demoralized by their inability to stick to a rigid and rigorous publishing schedule; this takes the joy out of writing, and they don’t want to do it anymore. That’s what happens when we set goals that are not realistic, and that are driven by outside values instead of inner values.

The solution? Ask yourself what a sustainable publication schedule looks like for you

Does it allow you ample time to research, incubate your ideas, draft, edit, roll in the clover, proofread, and then hit “publish”? Does it honor the priorities in your life and the natural rhythms and cycles of your personal creative process? Do you have a plan for how you’ll get back on track when you need to take a break?

Get clear on this, and you’ll create a writing schedule that supports your agenda, not the agenda of the leaders of the Cult of Consistency. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Let go of those outside constructs and instead self-direct a sustainable and flexible way to create and share the work you’re so passionate about.

 

*For the record, I would absolutely not do any of those things.

What A Freelance Bid Letter Looks Like

Early in my career I communicated scope of work, deliverables, payment terms, and timelines as a bulleted list in an email. There’s nothing wrong with this approach…necessarily. It’s just not as professional as it could be. When my colleague Mike Russell introduced me to the bid letter, I finally realized, after years of using the list-in-an-email method, that there was a better, cleaner, more professional way to send bids: The Bid Letter! Let’s talk about what a freelance bid letter looks like.

What’s in a Bid Letter?

First, let’s define this bid letter thing. It’s not a legal document like a contract. Generally, you and the client don’t sign it the way you would a contract because the content of the bid letter should be included in your contract. The purpose of the bid letter is to clearly communicate the key logistical elements of the project, as you understand them, to the prospective client:

  • Point of Contact: to whom you’ll be sending work for review; the primary decision-maker
  • Deliverables: the work you’ll do and relevant details
  • Schedule/Timeline: when you’ll do the work
  • Payment terms: when and what you’ll get paid
  • Process: how you’ll go about completing the work
  • Project summary/understanding: brief recap of project motivations, goals

My sample bid letters below (adapted from actual bid letters I’ve sent), include these elements variously depending on specific relevance. The first one doesn’t include a timeline, for example, because the prospect just wanted to know my rates and what was included with the pieces. The second one was more fully baked, and a timeline was known in advance of the letter. They’re very simple and clear. I made these in a Word doc and saved them as PDFs.

What a Freelance Bid Letter Looks Like

Freelance bid letter exampleFreelance Bid Letter Example

When to Send the Bid Letter

The bid letter is basically a piece of communication you use to set clear project guidelines. If there are any miscommunications, the bid letter is an early opportunity to weed them out, and prevent you from wasting your precious time pursuing a path that may not be the right one.

Here’s the process of using a bid letter:

  1. Conversation with prospect about the project
  2. Create and send bid letter
  3. Make changes to bid letter per prospect feedback
  4. Roll info from bid letter into contract
  5. Send contract to prospect (consider going over, or calling out, key elements of the contract to make sure there are no surprises for the client)
  6. Get a signature
  7. Send your first invoice (find info about the magical invoice over here)
  8. Get to work

And that’s what a freelance bid letter looks like. If can look different than these, of course, but these layouts have worked great for me. I know many copywriters who use the bid letter, or the list-in-an-email method, to communicate this important information to prospects. Regardless of the method you use, don’t ever skip the step of getting clear direction and buy-in from your prospects BEFORE you start working. Ever.

4 Reasons to Consider Creative Staffing Agencies

There are many reasons to consider creative staffing agencies. (We previously covered the pros and cons in a blog post last year.) As you may know, being a temp has a bad rap. It implies you are wet behind the ears, not ready for prime-time, not worthy of a real negotiated contract between equal partners. As copywriters and business owners, we value our autonomy and ability to negotiate top pay for years of hard-won expertise and entrepreneurial can-do spirit that any employer would love to access.  Copywriters are high achievers; temping is for lazy wage slaves who can’t wait to clock out, right?

So, why do I work a temp job? Well, after having held this job a year, I have to say the experience has been positive overall, and not only because of the steady income. Here’s why:

  1. Quick pay and benefits. Being a contractor means you can negotiate a higher hourly rate, but often there is a lag time between invoicing and actually receiving the check. Depending on your clients, you can wait anywhere from 15 to 120 days (if not more). Temping gives you a weekly paycheck. And although the benefits aren’t as good as full-time employee benefits, they are reasonable especially if you have a family to support. Many temp agencies in Portland offer health, dental, vision, and long-term disability insurance; 401(k) plans; and ongoing professional development.
  2. Job bank. Most companies prefer to advertise and list open positions with temp agencies, jobs that often aren’t listed anywhere, else even though it costs them a lot. Companies find it’s worth paying for the convenience and no-strings-attached flexibility of getting a pool of vetted candidates. This flexibility goes both ways, too. If a new assignment comes along that’s better for you, you can ask your recruiter to switch.
  3. Yet another way to network. Temp jobs introduce you to companies and people you might have never known about otherwise. And they allow you to prove your skills to strangers who wouldn’t bother to read your email or return your calls.
  4. The benefits of collaboration. Although calling all the shots as your own boss can be great, it can also be a dead end creatively. I find collaborating with other writers, graphic designers, creative directors, marketing staff, and administrators to be valuable not only for inspiration and feedback, but also improve my ability to communicate ideas and work face to face with people from different backgrounds.

Freelancing while temping through a creative staffing agency can easily create more work than you’re comfortable with! You may find yourself trading the old feast-or-famine dilemma for a feast-or-feast more problem, which is not a bad problem to have. I often need to adjust, but I have found a 60-40 temp/freelance workload that gives me the best of both worlds: I have financial stability and opportunities to expand my skill set via temping, but I also have the freedom to continue building my business and pursue the projects that I want, not that I need.

Define and Write Useful You-You Content

When you’re writing copy, remember it is about you (the businessperson) and “the other” you (the client). Useful you-you content helps grow solid professional and personal relationships that form your client base.

To create your “you-you” message, demonstrate that you’re able to fill a person’s need or desire with your specific service or product (Talk about benefits that are pertinent to clients!) Also, provide additional free useful tips that improve their lives.

 Try these helpful steps for defining and writing your message.

Brainstorm and think like your client. Write everything that comes to mind.

  • What need do you fill? (Think basics, like saving time, reducing stress, creating beauty, etc.)
  • How do you meet that need? (Think method of filling those basics, like offering professional cleaning services to save time and reduce stress.)
  • Why should he/she buy your product or service? (Think what sets your product/service apart.)
  • Why should he/she work with you? (Think professional business bio, including your background, training, etc., which supports your credibility.

Define your message with the client’s point of view in mind.

  • Review and use your brainstorming notes to write a focused message that demonstrates how your product/service meets a client’s needs.
  • Include clear directions (aka, a call to action). Use verbs—like “call, read, click”—that invite people to learn more and interact with you.

Use this client-focused message as the foundation for your consistent brand.

Remember that your clients are busy! They’re filtering content in about eight seconds. A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada showed people’s attention span dropping from 12 to eight seconds. While the report acknowledged that, “digital lifestyles affect the ability to remain focused for extended periods of time,” it highlighted helpful insight for marketers and business owners. “When consumers are looking for something to care about at every moment, rapid fire tactics like branded content, native advertising and generally useful, entertaining, and shareable content are best.”

While your message might grow and evolve, don’t confuse clients with a constantly shifting brand. If your clients need to work hard to recognize your company, they might stop interacting with you. Stick to the message that addresses their needs—and maintains your business relationship.

Good luck and happy writing!