I get asked this question a lot: How do you make a living full-time freelance?
While this post may answer some of your questions, email me at email@example.com, hire me at my hourly consultation rate, and you can ask whatever detailed questions you like! Or show me copy, or queries, or whatever you need…
There are five keystones to a successful freelance career:
1) Get really good at what you do
You might be a writer, artist, musician, hair-stylist. No matter how much you hate your current job, desperate to flee cube-world and commuting, until your skills are sufficient to attract and retain repeat clients in a highly competitive marketplace, you’re not ready for prime time. Do whatever’s necessary to get really good at your skill. If you’re a writer, read smart and helpful how-to books by veteran writers, like this one or this one; attend writers’ conferences, like this one on April 26 and 27th in New York City; take classes, like the online ones offered here.
After your skills are developed and you have multiple clips (samples) to prove it, you’re ready for the next step.
2) Find a network of editors or clients who want your copy
This is a lot of work and requires strategic thinking. If you have a specialty — science, kids, medicine, sports, business, food — it’s easier to target specific markets. Be prepared to be ignored, a lot. Your job, like any salesman, is to pre-qualify your leads; i.e. do they pay enough? Is their contract workable? Are they a PITA to work with? Do your re-con before you pitch to avoid disappointment at best, heartbreak and financial nightmares at worst.
3) Produce great stuff so they want more
Seems pretty obvious. If your work is stellar, (100 percent accurate, properly-sourced, attributed, clean, well-written, intelligently-structured), your odds of repeat business increase. Always under-promise and over-deliver. Never even consider missing a deadline. As you gain confidence and skill, take on some assignments whose scope or prestige or pay rate scare you a little. Don’t risk disappointing your client, but you have to grow!
4) Get to know other writers (or fellow freelancers in your field)
If you’ve done steps 1-3, your name and reputation will begin to precede you, locally, regionally or even nationally. Join as many industry groups as possible, like this one, and this one, for writers, and sign up for as many volunteer positions as possible. Then show up with goods ideas and follow through; too many “volunteers” like to add a nice line to their resume — and don’t do jack.
This way people will get to know you personally, not just as some random photo on a website. I’ve learned far more about who’s really worth knowing through my many years serving on boards of writers’ groups than any conference or quick coffee with someone.
If you’re fortunate, some of your competitors will eventually decide to share some of their own contacts; we all occasionally get overwhelmed with too much work and not enough time, or fall ill, have family emergencies or take vacations and need to refer clients to someone we know will do a kick-ass job on our behalf.
The smartest freelancers who reach out to me for help, advice or a contact include several offers of their own contacts in that initial email. Of course I write them back right away. Who wouldn’t? Just because you need a lot of help doesn’t obligate anyone to give it to you!
The fourth step, referrals to good clients, only comes after people know you are consistently ethical, smart, reliable and generous. That means plenty of number three. People talk; make sure what they have to say about you is what you’re hoping for.
The job of marketing never, ever stops. Your clients’ needs change all the time as gatekeepers and decision-makers get hired, fired, promoted or demoted. Their budgets may bloom, or wither or disappear altogether. Be sure to make nice to some smart, ambitious young ‘uns, even if they’re your kids’ age. They’re probably the ones signing the checks, if not now, in a few years.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s best-selling business guru/author Seth Godin, from his daily blog:
Brand, Permission and Expertise…
In just three words, there’s the huge chasm between the trusted, experienced freelancer, the one you’re happy to hear from when she has a new idea, and the newbie or the short-term maximizer. Those guys have to start from scratch, each and every time.
Think about the individual, the entrepreneur or the small organization that has built up trust with a given market, that has permission to talk to that market and that has the expertise to execute on what it promises… Once you have those three, you call the shots. If, on the other hand, you’re merely a hard-working employee, doing what you’re told, you’re never going to get what your effort ought to produce.
- Sonderman: Is freelancing dead? (szuminsky.com)
- Want to Be a Freelance Writer? Tips for Success (blogher.com)
- How to Submit a Winning Proposal for a Freelancing Job (writersportfolioltd.wordpress.com)
- My take on freelancing (mymindrunsfree.wordpress.com)
- Freelance job (freelanceorganization.wordpress.com)
- Can a Freelancers’ Union really help us? (broadsideblog.wordpress.com)
- Do Freelancers Have to Blog To Get Clients? (freelanceswitch.com)
- How to Earn 30k And Above From Freelancer From Next Month (freelancerkenya.com)
- Facing the Freelance Factor for the Novice Writer (expertscolumn.com)
- The Truth About Freelance Writing (anjalienjeti.com)
I have a book that someone gave me, by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, with the fateful and inaccurate (if deeply optimistic) inscription: “All it takes is talent.”
A recent op-ed by New York Times writer Tom Friedman makes the point even more strongly:
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
Unless you have amazing skills or a white-hot degree (engineering or computer science, to name two), you might be.
I work in a field — journalism/publishing/online media — changing at warp speed. In one year, 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs. That’s a lot of people shoved hard out of work they had done well and enjoyed for decades into….who the hell knows.
I took a retail job in 2007, seeing how crummy things were getting, and it brought in gas-and-grocery money, for which I was damn grateful, for 27 months. I’d never had a low-wage job and it was often hard and exhausting, physically and emotionally.
Fortunately, it led to a book that’s been well-reviewed, television rights option (additional income) and paid speaking engagements — none of which were a guarantee and all of which might never have happened. It’s a life, like that of a polar bear in the melting ice cap, of leaping from one moving slab of income to another.
Talent, i.e. being really good at what you do, is the least of it!
A way with words. Can you write a compelling and persuasive pitch letter or email? Can you describe what you do best in two or three sentences, tops?
Charm. No kidding. You can call it “people skills” but if you’re witty, fun, funny and simply an interesting person to engage with, your odds quickly improve of finding paid work. People hire those they find companionable and sympathetic, not just grunts with a resume. I got my retail job with zero experience because I was able, easily, to engage the two men doing the hiring in lively conversation focused on their needs. That’s what salespeople do.
Stamina. I’ve been an athlete since childhood, and competed in sailing, swimming and even fencing at the national level. If you’re going to work for yourself, or compete for a good job, you need stamina — physically and emotionally. There is a tremendous amount of rejection in many endeavors and those able to best withstand pain will move past those who easily crumple, then whine in the corner.
Learn something new all the time. If your technical skills are weak, you’re falling behind. If you can pick up a new skill every few months, or yearly at least, you’ve got something added to offer beyond the basics. I speak fluent French, decent Spanish and can take excellent photos that have been nationally published. On a few occasions, that combination has been more than my nearest competitor…
Hustle! I grew up in Toronto and was out on my own at 19. I learned to hustle hard, often and relentlessly to earn a living freelance. I wasn’t scared, even then, to offer my skills and services to top editors and my confidence grew with my portfolio. One of my photos was published in Time when I was an undergrad. I never ever take a contact, job or assignment for granted. Too many people are chasing the same dreams.
Know your industry and what matters within it right now. Read trade magazines and websites and blogs and know who’s who and what they need. Go to conferences and attend meetings and read the smart thought leaders in your field so you know what they’re saying. Join as many professional groups as you can and be as generous with your time, talent and skills as possible. People refer people they know, like and trust to their colleagues — not some random needy person on Facebook or LinkedIn.
Go to the places you can meet some of the players face to face. Not a job fair! Think like a reporter and find out where you might run into a few of the decision-makers you need to meet: conferences, public events, a political rally, a school sports match.
Travel. Even if it’s an hour or two outside your usual routines. Fresh ideas and insights are harder to acquire if you keep treading familiar ground.
Meta matters. If you’re blogging or maintaining a social media presence, make sure every post, tweet, message, photo and idea you leave permanently out there conveys the underlying meta message you intend.
Apple products are cool not just because they’re Apple, per se…they’re very deliberately hyper-designed to feel good, sound good, look good. And we like to show them off as metaphors for how cool and put-together we are.
What meta messages are your clients and audience picking up about you? Are they consistent, memorable and compelling? Every single aspect of your presentation, from your handshake to your tone of voice to the shoes you choose to the colors on your website is sending (unspoken, immediate and indelible) messages about you!
Consume a wide array of media and information. If you’re politically liberal, read what the right-wingers have to say, and vice versa. Read media in your language from far beyond your region — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and Scotland (and South Africa) will offer ideas and points of view that your local, regional or national press may well be ignoring. Trends bubble up worldwide in a global economy.
Underpromise and overdeliver. Once you find some clients who value you, treasure them and give them your very best. I frequently turn in material ahead of my deadlines. In 30 years I think I’ve missed two.
Read smart business publications/websites/blogs consistently. If you really want to understand where jobs are going (or coming from) and why you’ve got to understand the movement of capital, investment trends and global markets. It’s not terribly complicated and might help you see what’s happening before it hits you personally. ( If you’re got a secure government or academic job, lucky you!)
What advice would you offer?
Can we get anything done without it?
Yet, and yet and yet, I have entire days I think I just can’t: make that call, send that email, ask that favor, knock on that door or send that resume.
People have told me for decades how confident I appear, and the operative word might be appear, for there are too many days I feel like some medieval warrior girding her loins before even picking up the phone or sending out an email.
As someone with no steady income, salary or pension down the line, I’m in lioness mode: I eat only what I catch and kill. That means having to hustle for clients every day, whether reaching out to former or current ones or finding and cultivating new ones.
Either way, it means a lot of people contact and no guarantee of the outcome.
Which, if I fail, means — I’m broke!
I can blame my reticence on a few things:
— I’ve been canned from a few jobs, which has permanently dented my sense of likability, no matter how businesslike a layoff can be
— I was badly bullied in high school for three years by a small gang of boys
— I spent ages 5 to 30 in Canada, a country that has no tolerance for self-promotion or boasting then moved to the U.S., a place with a population 10 times larger, competing with some mighty sharp elbows. Time to man up!
— I faced a tough crowd in my own family, people who often found much to criticize and little to praise
But without a cheery demeanor and the conviction you have something worthwhile to offer, it’s tough to get out there and ask for what you want, whether a job referral, grant recommendation or help with a new project.
I had recently reached out to two people, one an old friend who didn’t call back for weeks and one a new contact whose initial voicemail sounded fairly frosty. So it was with a heavy heart I called both of them back.
Both were delighted to hear from me. Both had lost my phone number and wanted to hear my ideas.
If I hadn’t had the confidence to reach out again, I would have lost out on some cool opportunities.
Do you ever feel lily-livered?
How do you get past it?
Here’s one way to spend your vacation — checking out a career. A new amusement park in Sunrise, Florida, Wannado University, offers kids ages two to 14 the chance to live out their work fantasies:
Step 1. Start young. How about two years old? That’s exactly what the creators of Wannado City in Sunrise, Fla., (just 25 kilometres west from Fort Lauderdale) have in mind. This unplugged theme park-cum-job training centre for squirts is an antidote to Florida’s pricier, flashy, family-thrill-ride hot spots. At Wannado City, kids from two to 14 years old can try on grown-up professions for size (and the costumes that go with them) from detective to doctor, firefighter to fashion designer.
Wannado – the size of three football fields – is laid out to look like a town, albeit a town that is blessed with only attractive businesses. There are no dry cleaners, notary offices or accounting firms. Among the 60 storefronts, there is a circus, flight-training centre, high-end fashion house and movie studio. For $40 (U.S.), kids can come in search of any one of more than 250 different jobs (and they go door to door on their own, but parents can watch over them in the “Eagles Nest” lounge). Once they settle in at the hospital, fire station or airport, they slip into uniforms and get some on-the-job training before they embark on removing a kidney stone, fighting a fire or flying a 747. Yes, there is an actual flight simulator.
A company called VocationVacations has been doing this for adults for years now. It’s an interesting idea, this, of trying on a new job or industry before the drama of actually doing it. In a recession where millions can’t find work they know how to do, and wonder what on earth — if anything — they’ll do next or instead, it’s a question many of us are facing.
About 15 years ago, I planned to move into interior design and went to study it full-time, but only after interviewing three highly successful women who had been working in various segments of the industry for a while. I learned a lot, and some of which really surprised me — one designer told me that being nice (!) was key to her success as so many of her competitors were hand-flapping divas who terrified their clients. Who knew?
What other job or career would you like to try and why? Have you made major career changes along the way? How did they work out?