According to a study conducted by MBO Partners, freelancers, consultants, and other independent workers will grow to 45% of the private, non-farm workforce—that’s some 54 million independent workers—by 2020 based on existing trends. People choose freelance careers for a variety of reasons. Some were forced into it because of the recession, some are displaced workers such as retirees or stay-at-home moms, and some are realizing how much the field has grown and are taking advantage of new opportunities.
In the past, freelancers mostly consisted of creative types, such as graphic designers, writers, and social media experts, but today’s freelancers are much more diversified. Freelancers now sell themselves as marketing experts, insurance inspectors, accountants, business project managers, and web designers. And it’s not just the freelancers who are driving the movement. In order to stay competitive, many business owners use independent workers to get expert help while keeping their operating costs down.
To grow a successful freelance career, you will have to do more than be an expert in your field. Just like any other business, you’ll need to build a reputation and put your name in front of the people who need your services. Let’s take a look at some unconventional ways to build your freelance career.
1. Own Your Business
Sure you’re the owner of your business, but do you really own it? Because many freelancers worked for other companies before going out on their own, they tend to carry the “employee” mentality with them into their new career. But the truth is, if you’re a freelancer, you are the boss.
As long as you continue to think of yourself as an employee, you won’t be able to take charge of your business and grow it. For instance, if you think of your clients as your boss, you may hesitate to speak up when they do something you know isn’t in their best interest. That’s why it’s important to remember that your clients hire you because you are the expert, and they need your expertise. Selling yourself short won’t benefit your clients—and it certainly won’t allow you to grow your freelance career.
In addition to not underestimating your skills and knowledge, you should also give priority to other aspects of your business in order to realize growth. In other words, instead of just designing client websites, you also have to stay on top of client communications, invoicing, collections, project management, taxes, and everything else involved in running a successful freelance business.
2. Learn to Say No
Many freelancers say yes to every project that comes their way, but that’s not the best way to grow your career. Sure, when starting out and trying to build a portfolio you might take on jobs that don’t pay as well, or more of them to get some experience under your belt. If you’re still operating like that after a couple of years, you probably need to reevaluate your strategy.
The key to successfully growing your freelance career is learning to strategically choose your clients and the projects you work on. That can be scary because it may mean cutting ties with some clients. For example, if you run a freelance marketing business and spend 20 hours a week on one client’s project and 10 hours on another, but make the same amount of profit from each, it would be wise to renegotiate your price with the more time-consuming client. But if they’re not willing to pay for your extra time, you will have to make a choice. Will you continue to spend so many hours for half of what your time is worth, or will you cut ties with the client and seek to replace them with two other clients for double the profit? It’s a difficult choice, but your response could mean the difference in your business remaining stagnant or experiencing a growth spurt. If you’re unsure of what the going rate is for your industry, check out the Freelancers Union for guidance.
3. Become an Expert in Your Field
When a potential client has a problem, they will seek out an expert to help them solve it. And that’s where you come in. For instance, if you’re a freelance accountant who specializes in solving tax issues for small business owners, how do your clients find you? You can’t rely on word of mouth because your area of expertise is too narrow, and advertising is great, but it won’t establish you as an expert in the minds of your target customers.
Instead of using traditional marketing methods, you should focus on creating content for those potential clients who are seeking expertise in your area of knowledge. These days, you have all kinds of options when it comes to forging a way for yourself in a crowded space. For instance, our freelance accountant could create a blog that specifically addresses the tax issues many small business owners face and then extend that content to YouTube, podcasts, or an e-book. The key is to focus on solving client problems rather than trying to sell your skills.
Another way to gain credibility is to use Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which is a platform writers use to find expert interview subjects for their articles. It’s a great way to get your name mentioned in the press as an expert, and you should utilize it as often as you can. Writers are always looking for interview subjects and being featured in an article is a great way for you to get your name in front of potential clients.
4. Find a Freelancing Partner
Chances are, even though you’re an expert in your field, clients ask you to do things you don’t have the skill set for. Instead of letting those opportunities pass by, why not make the most of them? One way to do that is to find an expert on the subject and refer the business to them in exchange for the promise that they will refer you to their clients. For example, most freelance writers can’t build websites or provide graphic art, although the services are complementary. If a freelance writer formed relationships with a graphic artist and website developer, they could each reap more business via referrals from each other. For instance, the website designer could refer the graphic artist and writer to their clients, and the others could do the same.
The partnerships you form can be informal, or you might consider formalizing the deal by using online contracts and signing them with digital signatures. This way, everyone in the referral circle will understand what’s expected of them and what their role is in the process.
5. Don’t Stop Marketing in the Good Times
Finally, one of the biggest mistakes freelancers make is to stop their marketing efforts when times are good. They will sell like crazy to get a job, and once they have it, stop their marketing efforts to concentrate on the project. But that’s a mistake. Unless you market your services continuously, you will have to “start over” every time you finish a project or a client moves on. When your marketing efforts frequently come to a halt, it becomes harder to grow your business.
Instead, build in some time every day to market yourself. Whether that’s writing a blog, communicating with a prospect, or touching base with a former client who might need more work, you should do something every day to keep your name in front of potential clients. Remember, just because you’re swamped this month, that doesn’t mean next month will be the same. As the owner of a freelance business, you should know how to work on this month’s projects while selling next month’s.
If you’ve made the leap to a freelance career, the freedom it brings is probably the reason behind your decision. Keep in mind that the only way you’ll ever see that freedom is by growing your business to a point where you, and only you, call the shots. That kind of growth won’t come unless you take deliberate steps to accomplish it. If you do the five actions listed above, you’ll be well on your way to finding that freelancer freedom.