Freelancer to Contract work with Guest Zeina Barker

Freelance work vs. Contract work

Show Notes Episode 6


Zeina is a Certified Virtual Assistant and Language Specialist and is based in the UK. When she started her business over 12 years ago, she was a freelancer.  She shares her previous experience  in starting up, the challenges, why did she move from freelancing to contracting, who has been her ideal client – why did she jumped into just the one contract.  She also shares her beginnings and how to find clients, and how she de-stress.


[Music intro]

This podcast is about our experiences with being self-employed, entrepreneurship, and bootstrapping it. Sometimes I have a spectacular guest that join me and share their stories. Also, it’s about connecting to our soul, our inner selves to unwind and chill. My name is Lourdes, and I hope you enjoy this episode!

In today’s episode, I have a guest, and her name is Zeina Barker. Zeina is a certified virtual assistant and language specialist and is based in the UK. She provides a comprehensive range of remote support services, research and translation to business owners, startups, and entrepreneurs. She has 12 years’ experience working globally, and in this episode we talk about the struggles she had when she first started her business, and learned to recognize her own ideal client profile.

Lourdes: And Zeina, thank you so much for joining me today! I’m so happy to have you on my podcast. How are you?

Zeina: I’m okay, thank you. How are you?

Lourdes: Good, good. Oh my gosh, we’ve known each other for quite some time now. And so, in this podcast episode I wanted to ask you a few questions. How did you start your business? What made you start your business?

Zeina: So that was nearly 12 years ago. I took the plunge because I had my son, and I didn’t want to do the commute to London, so I wanted to use my skills and do something from home. And in the UK, it was pretty much unheard of to do remote work as a virtual assistant. So I joined IVAA and I trained with them, joined their webcasts, and that’s how it all started. I initially started doing admin, and then I realized the competition is tough, so I focused on my niche, which was languages and research. That’s the very very beginning as a freelancer.

Lourdes: So, as a freelancer, how were you able back then, to find clients?

Zeina: Initially, it was only through freelancing websites, that was PeoplePerHour and Upwork. So, I was bidding on projects, and securing clients. My objective was to secure repeat work. So,I used to cut my rate, which is a mistake by the way, and then secure the repeat client. My strategy was to secure 5 clients to hit my target. But then throughout the years, everything changes because competition became more and more on those platforms, with countries from India joining, and you cannot compete with the rate, so I had to change my direction. It worked for a while, but then, yeah. Just like everything, you need to quickly adjust to change, and it is tricky.

Lourdes: Yeah, so your priorities have changed from when you started your business. Did you have a different target client or audience then than you do now? Do you have different target markets now?

Zeina: Yes. Initially, as I said I was trying to be everything for everybody, and it didn’t work. You cannot just do admin, so I had to focus on a niche. My niche was languages and research, and I tried to target clients in Europe doing work with the Middle East. So, they need the languages not only as a competitive advantage, but also the cultural awareness so you can add more value. And I did manage to secure a couple of clients in France, Luxembourg, and it worked for a couple of years. It’s really tricky to secure repeat clients remotely. But then again, I had to move myself into contracts to have more stability. Freelancing is great, it’s flexible, but it’s not secure; it’s volatile income. So, I moved into contracts, and that was great for 5 years. Then my priorities shifted again, and now I’m in a different place, technically. Still remote work, I’m flying the remote flag, it’s just a different type of work, what I do now.

Lourdes: Yeah, I totally understand about pivoting our businesses or our work styles and having different target audience. I too have changed, I started as general admin too, and then I found out that I really like doing technical stuff, and I know you do that too. So, when you went into contract work, how did you find clients, or did they find you?

Zeina: This was a combination of either word of mouth, which is getting a client through another client, or applying locally where they really want your expertise, but they don’t want to commit to full-time employment. So, targeting local businesses in the area where I live in Kent, or LinkedIn is a good source as well of securing clients on a contract basis. I did try a couple of platforms for contractors, but for our line of business, it works for architects and for engineers or IT experts, but not for our line of… I wanna say we offer an “invisible” service. It’s really supplements, we make things happen whether it’s project management, or admin, research or translation. So, our type of work is very fluid.

Lourdes: Zeina, you’ve been in business or working for yourself for 12 years, have you ever had any difficult clients? And if you did, how did you handle that?

Zeina: Yes, and who doesn’t have them? [Laughter] It’s okay to have difficult clients if they are the right clients for you. What is not okay is to deal with difficult clients, knowing in advance that they’re not your ideal clients. I learned throughout the years to have my ideal client profile. And I usually know what type of difficulty you’re running through, whether they could be demanding. Demanding is okay because we work for ourselves, so we are sort of control freaks as well, and that I can understand it. But it’s when they micromanage and when they expect more for what they pay, then it’s really not worth it. Because one, you’re draining yourself for earning so little, and I learned that the hard way. You end up cutting your rates to sort of justify your invoice, and they’ve already taken too much of your time. So, how did I learn? Just don’t go into business with these types of people, it’s not worth the hassle. The minute you discover that it’s draining you and you’re not making any money out of it, just let go. That’s why we are contractors and freelancers.

Lourdes: Have you ever let go of a client without finishing the project because it was just impossibly crazy, or that person drove you nuts?

Zeina: No, I haven’t had that. I’ve been lucky. I did find myself working for the same person for 5 years. And after 5 years you feel like it’s not healthy for both, because they need another type of support as well. So, you’re sort of stuck because it’s meeting the needs. It’s cheaper for them, it’s good for you, the repeat business, and then you stick with it. But then when you actually go, you realize it wasn’t really a loss, it’s time for another opportunity.

Lourdes: With some clients, they can cause us a lot of mental stress, they drain us. How do you relax?

Zeina: It’s difficult to switch off, isn’t it? You have it on your mobile, you have it on your iPad… So yeah, how do I relax? I did learn, working remotely, to have my own space. So, I shut the door, and that’s it. It’s so important to have a room in your place where it’s just for work, and you shut the door, and that’s it, you leave it there. If you start working from everywhere in the house, then it’s not your own space, and you won’t relax. It’s always there. Whether on the dining room table, on your lounge table, in the kitchen. You should never get into the habit of carrying your laptop or phone everywhere in your place. It has to be shut; in one room, and then shut it away and that’s it.

Lourdes: And when clients are causing stress, or too much mental stress, where does someone go? Do you have a business mentor or somebody you talk to about how to deal with some clients? Because we were not taught in school about being a business owner or being self-employed and dealing with all types of people. Everywhere, especially as clients, they expect a lot from us. So how do you find any solutions that could be causing you so much stress? Do you have a mentor?

Zeina: No, I don’t have a mentor, I taught myself. It’s all about self-control. If you let it interfere with your own life, it’s hard to control it. But if you shut it away, whether in the room, you just have to let go of it. Like, just go out for a brisk walk. If something is causing you mental stress, it’s really not worth it. It’s not worth the hassle, it’s better to let go of it, and then you’ll feel such a relief. Even if it means losing your income, it’s only temporary till you pick up again. I think my own strategy has been, when something becomes too much, I shut the door and get out for a brisk walk. Out in the fresh air, it really helps put things into perspective. And at the end of the day, whether you’re in full-time employment or you’re working in a contract or freelancing, it’s all technically the same thing. You’re providing a service; you’re getting paid for it. So, you have to control the fact that work is work, and life is life. It’s just a mean to an end. I mean, everybody says that, but it really is mental control more than anything else. Did I answer your question?

Lourdes: Yeah, you did. And so, invoicing. When you invoice a client, do you ask for the payment up front, or how do you recommend a new business owner should set up their payment plan for a new business?

Zeina: Yes, a lot of people ask in advance. I’ve never done that, and throughout my years working for myself, only one time I lost an invoice. My strategy is, I offer 5 hours trial, I test them more than they test me. So, when they pay for that 5 hour on time, then it’s just a matter of incremental work or there’s also packages. Like, for 10 hours a month, you pay that much, 20 hours that much, so the hourly rate sort of goes down as an incentive, and then you’re sort of securing your income ahead. They don’t pay ahead, but they sort of put the deposit, and then at the end of the month, you invoice with the time sheet. That’s how I’ve been doing it.

Lourdes: Oh, that’s a good tip for new people too! That’s awesome!

Zeina: Time sheet is so important because you’re showing transparency. There’s a breakdown of where the time went, and what they got for their money. So, I’ve never had a problem with that because they cannot ask, it’s there. And it’s quantifiable, so yeah, it works.

Lourdes: Yeah, I like the idea of 5 hours. Because like you said, you get to test the waters with them and find out their personality too, and vice versa, and see if you guys are a great fit.

Zeina: The dynamics as well. Sometimes they could be perfect, but the dynamics of relations between you remotely, because you don’t have the visual clues, sometimes there are barriers to communications that you don’t know until you start working together.

Lourdes: Lemme ask you this. Do you have three people who has been most influential to you when you began your business journey, at all?

Zeina: Right… I like you Lourdes, you know that! Three people… I honestly taught myself. I go on YouTube, and I listen to TED Talks, podcasts, various tips, but I don’t have a mentor. I’ve never had one person who helped me see through it. Just learnt the hard ways. Sometimes, it’s amazing how much a lot of it is your own attitude to finding work. If you think a mental security like, if you’re stuck in a place where you’re holding onto two clients because they’re repeat business, and I did that in the past, you’re never gonna progress. You have to have the mentality that temporarily you deliver, you get paid, you move on. Deliver, you get paid, you move on, and so on and so forth. Until you find yourself in a place, where you’re actually want to secure slack.Recently over the last year, I wanted to move into experiencing again being part of a bigger team, working for a cause, rather than just on a small scale. And then you realize actually maybe it’s time for me to do something else. So work is really constant change, and it’s you adapting to that change. If you adapt quickly, you move quicker. If you hold yourself back, then you’re never gonna progress, really. Especially with technology, it’s moving so fast. You really need to learn tools very quickly. I mean, look what’s happening recently, they moved platform on a system that we both know, so you really need to pick it up, otherwise you’re driven out.

Lourdes: I agree. With business, it always is changing. So, for anyone that wants to be working for themselves, be prepared for changes. I mean, you may pivot your business, or whatever you’re working with or a client, they might change a platform or an application on you, and you have to be prepared for change. And I kinda heard something in this answer earlier about, it sounded like confidence. Have you ever lost your confidence, or had doubts about your abilities, being self-employed?

Zeina: Yup, at the very beginning I was very insecure. So, I was cutting my rates so low just to secure work, and I did that for at least 2 years where I was doing hardly money. And when you are in that situation, it’s really insecurity, you don’t know how good you are. And also, it’s hard to put a price tag on the kind of work we do. So, I was sort of working for nothing, and then I realized it’s not really worth it. Confidence is a matter you build with time. And the more you deal with clients on an individual basis, the more that you realize “actually, wait a minute, yeah I am good.” And they keep coming back, and then you get referrals. So just like any job, yeah, it starts in your own mindset, rather than anything else. It starts with you. Any kind of work, not just self-employment.

Lourdes: Yeah. So, how did you build trust with your new prospects, and then win them as a client?

Zeina: I learned to have an ideal client profile. Like, my success stories, the clients I worked really well with that I held onto for at least 2 years, and I had a category of where clients from whom I got really good money. High net-worth individuals, you know? So, I tried to duplicate that profile as well. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. How do I build trust? It’s when you are reliable, and you are efficient, then the work speaks for itself. You don’t have to do much except deliver. And by thinking on each project is, break it down to tasks, it’s project management. You have your project, deliver tasks, and then close it. Then it’s a success, you move on. So, when the client sees the deliveries, and knows they can rely on you, that you’re gonna deliver on time, then that’s it, it works. That’s how you build trust.

Lourdes: Anyone who wants to start a business, especially because of the pandemic people are staying home, or they have health issues, what advice can you give new people interested in starting to work for themselves and where can they find their first client?

Zeina: Persevere is a good tip. I have moved myself from freelancing. I used to say start on PeoplePerHour, on Upwork, go and bid on projects as a freelancer, and then when you secure your clients you build your network, and you move on. But I moved from that, it’s not really a business model, it’s a way of working. I moved myself into contracts. Contracts can be found on so many platforms for employment contracts or independent contractors. I would say LinkedIn is a good source. Be specific with your niche. What do you do best? What is your competitive advantage? For me, it was languages, so I could offer that and add the value, the cultural awareness. So, whoever is in England trading with the Middle East, they would need someone who knows the culture, whether translating or bridging the communication. So that was my competitive advantage. So, know what your strength is, what can you offer to charge for it, and go for it. Perhaps do research on the type of work you like. Like if you are into e-marketing, you can even approach digital marketing agencies who are limited on budget who don’t want to do full-time employees or offer full-time employment, they will be interested to have your services at a reduced rate. Not reduced rate, I mean cheaper for them than full-time employment, that’s what I mean. Don’t cut your rates, that’s the tip. Know your worth. It took a long time, you know?

Lourdes: Yeah, it’s tough, especially in the beginning. So, I’m gonna ask you one surprise question. And that question is, if you had to be an inanimate object for a whole year, what object would you choose to be, and why?

Zeina: Yeah, that’s a good one. So, I can’t be a fly on a wall?

Lourdes: No, you cannot!

Zeina: Right? I probably would like to be a Christmas tree, because it brings joy and it’s there for a specific period of time, so you don’t get bored. And it’s Christmas sort of, there you go.

Lourdes: But that’s for a whole year!

Zeina: For a whole year, that’s right!

Lourdes: You’d be Christmas for a whole year? That’s cool

Zeina: No, probably a portrait of some sort. I don’t know, you cannot stay still for a year. It kills you.

Lourdes: Well, Zeina, thank you so much for taking the time to be my special guest today. I know our listeners will enjoy listening to your advice, and your tips. Thank you so much!

Zeina: Thank you Lourdes, have a good day.

Lourdes: You too, take care.

[Music Outro]

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