FREELANCE HACKS, PART 1: HOW TO MAKE WORKING FREELANCE, WORK BETTER.
As most people who’ve made the leap will tell you, the freelance lifestyle can be amazing. What they might not tell you as quickly is that, at times, it can also be a tremendous pain in the ass.
I’ve been freelancing on and off for the past ten years. Mostly on. Over that time, I’ve been able to earn as much, and some years even more, than I did working full-time as an advertising writer. It took a while to get there, however, and the trade-offs are clear. On the upside: less office politics, more variety and more freedom. On the challenging side: less security, more hustling and way more accounting.
If you’re a freelancer, contract worker or consultant of any kind — or if you’re thinking about going down that road — here are a few things to consider that can significantly reduce your pain (to mild discomfort) and boost your earning potential along the way.
START WITH YOUR MOST IMPORTANT CLIENT. YOU.
Surprisingly, a lot of freelancers don’t have their own marketing materials in good order. A basic website, professional email handle, up-to-date social profiles and business cards are a bare minimum. Yes, plain old paper and ink business cards. Just because the world has gone digital doesn’t mean you won’t be sitting next to someone at your kid’s soccer game who runs a business that needs marketing help. Don’t make them fumble around with their phone or look you up later. They won’t. Even your local plumber/landscaper/drycleaner/dog-walker have business cards. If they didn’t, you’d probably question their professionalism. Get them and carry them. They work.
Your email handle and web URL are even more crucial. It’s remarkable how many high-hourly-rate freelancers have quirky email addresses that don’t instill professional confidence. If you weren’t able to nab anything resembling your actual name from a free email service, try yournamefreelance or yournamecreative. Or spend the money to buy your own domain. It’s worth it to not look amateurish.
The same goes for websites. There are tons of portfolio sites out there that make it easy to share your work. That’s fine if you need a quick solution, but if you’re going to commit to being a freelancer long term, build a site that’s worthy of your work as a professional. If you offer thoughtful, strategic, customized creative services to your clients and meanwhile send them to an off-the-shelf-portfolio-maker site to look at your work, it’s a disconnect.
Look at your own mix of materials with the same scrutiny you would at the start of any client project and give yourself some helpful advice. Then make sure you take it. It’ll show.
PICK WARM FUZZY CONTACTS.
This point may seem like stating the obvious, but I’m a firm believer that recognizing what’s obvious, and making the most of it, is a fundamental advantage in any situation. Like any self-promoting self-employed person, over the past few years, I’ve spent plenty of time networking, reaching out to new contacts and promoting myself beyond my sphere of familiarity. And yet, when I look back at the numbers, it’s unmistakably clear that over 90% of my work has come from people I’ve worked with in the past, either directly or through a recommendation.
If you’re good at what you do and have built a solid reputation for a particular kind of work, or a within a certain sector, even with a small cohort of people, reach out to them first and most frequently. They know you. They are not as likely to view your updates, questions or ‘hey-how-are-you’s as spam. If you’ve done good work for them in the past, they’re by far your most likely source for new work. What’s just as likely is that they’ll refer you to someone else. Of course, you’ll never know when that could actually happen.
Which brings us to another issue. One of the things that tends to happen with freelancers is that many people in their network never quite know for sure if they’re still freelancing or not. People take jobs. People move cities. So, whether you’re available or not, try to stay top-of-mind just enough that your contacts know you’re still for hire. That way, they can reach out or pass along your name with confidence. Emails, posts, articles, connections, recommendations. There are plenty of ways to keep in touch. Keep it varied. And don’t be rude, but don’t be shy.
GET THE @#%! OUT OF THE HOUSE.
One of the myths about freelancing is that you can get a lot more work done at home. Why wouldn’t you? No commute. No distractions from coworkers. No time wasted in unnecessary meetings. And so the theory goes. When I started freelancing, I made this assumption myself. Don’t get me wrong. At first, working from home is great. You get up in the morning, blissfully happy to make your own breakfast and coffee without the whole weekday morning rigmarole. You settle into work with extra-laser-focused concentration. You get a whole day’s work done in half the time it would normally take without anyone else bothering you. All good, right?
The problem is, for most people, after a few days/weeks/months of this, it slowly falls apart. You start to do laundry or dishes when you should be working. Your bright-eyed 8 AM start time turns to 9:15 AM, then around 10-ish, then… whenever, depending on the day. The next thing that typically happens is that other people in your life know you’re at home all day. Somehow, they automatically think you can now fit other things into your schedule. Things that nobody would expect you to fit in if you were at the office. The problem is, you can. So, you do. And soon enough, you’re back to a variety of distractions from entirely new sources.
The best way to solve this is to find an office or studio, no matter how small, to make your place of work. It can even be in your own neighbourhood if you want to limit your commute. Look online for shared office space, industrial space or artist studios and you’ll be surprised what you find. You’ll more than make up for the extra expense in productivity and sanity. Your work space will be for work only. At the end of the day, you can come home to relax like a normal person. And in the meantime, you won’t get interrupted in the middle of an important call or train of thought by: kids carousing, doorbells ringing, dogs barking, noisy partners, mothers calling & etc.
If you can’t find or can’t justify the expense of an office space, local college or university campuses are great free places that have everything you need: internet, food, libraries, stimulation and various rooms you can use to make calls when you need to. Or try the nearest public library. Far better than your local coffee shop where you’ll likely max out after two hours, too many coffees and too many overheard conversations. Plus, coffee shop chairs are designed just uncomfortably enough to keep people like you and me from hanging out there all day. Regardless, whatever you do, don’t stay home all the time. Believe me, you’ll go squirrely.
Ok. That’s it for now. Put those three tips into action and you’ll be off to a good, renewed, professional kick-start. More on the way soon in FREELANCE HACKS PART 2, where we’ll talk about partnering up, getting help with the numbers and the absolute hardest part of all — how to boss yourself.
— Michael Mayes