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Career

How to Drum Up Business as a Freelancer

Counterintuitive? The best time to find new clients and gigs is when you're drowning in them

January 14, 2020

Last summer Aaron James and I started Mt. Freelance, an educational site and community that helps freelancers in the creative industry make more money, get the work they want, and live the freelance life they dream of.

While we’ve attempted to cover every aspect of freelancing from portfolio sites and how much to charge to finding healthcare and hiring a good accountant, hands down the biggest question we’re asked is how to get more work.

We have an entire video class on this, of course, as well as an article about navigating dry spells. But the more we talk with freelancers, the more we realize that they desperately need even more information, ideas, and inspiration for getting more work.

The great paradox of freelancing

I’m going  to share some ideas on this, but first, let’s talk about the great paradox of trying to get work as a freelancer: The easiest time to find more work is when you’re working. Conversely, the hardest time is when you’re not working.

If you’re a freelancer or a small (or even big) business owner, you probably already know this. Feast or famine is one of the most common expressions uttered when freelancers gather, but most of us concentrate on the second part of that adage. We try to get work when the work runs out. Makes sense — that’s when we need it!

But not only is that path more difficult, it often means we forget to take advantage of opportunities to secure more work when we’re already working. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of confidence that there’ll always be work when we have plenty of it. Plus, the last thing we want to do is pile on more commitments when we’re already overwhelmed with client work.

Believe me, I know. As a copywriter, I help brands big and small tell their story. Sometimes I come up with a new tagline or manifesto; other times it’s a simple headline for a banner ad promoting a sale.

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of confidence that there’ll always be work when we have plenty of it.

 

The hardest part isn’t the writing. I like that. The challenge is managing all my clients and balancing briefs, meetings, and on-site presentations with my personal life, especially because I typically have a handful of clients at once. The very thought of additional clients when I already have more than enough can feel suffocating.

Yet if I set aside just fifteen minutes each day to cultivate new business, I know it’ll greatly reduce the chances of having days or weeks without work later.

Lean on your network

The best tactic for drumming up business is the easiest: tapping your web of contacts. Everyone has a network, but it’s surprising how few freelancers organize it in a way that’s completely and immediately accessible.

At Mt. Freelance, we recommend making four lists, starting with these two:

  • Past collaborators. These are the fellow freelancers and full-timers you’ve already worked with and have a good relationship with.
  • Past clients. These are companies, agencies, and so on who’ve hired you and who you’ve done good work for. Definitely include the recruiter, producer, or account or project manager who hired you and oversaw your contract and/or your work.

Be sure to include names, roles, websites, and emails so you don’t have to spend the time digging these up later. Extra credit for listing their Instagram, Linkedin, and other social media profiles they use professionally. That’ll allow you to quickly click to see what they’ve been up to work-wise. This goes for both individuals and companies.

Don’t stop there. Move on to two more lists:

  • Future collaborators. These are other freelancers and even full-time staffers who you’d love to work with down the road.
  • Future clients. These are the companies, agencies, or individuals you aspire to call clients.

With the last lists, it’s okay to think a few years out. You might not be ready to collaborate with your dream agency or top production company yet, but one day you will.

For these two lists in particular, including social media links is crucial. Be sure and follow the accounts of these companies and individuals on all the platforms where they share professional work. That way, when you’re ready to reach out to them, you’ve already been liking their social posts (and you’re up to date on their latest work).

These lists are key for freelancers. When you’re desperate for work, you’re probably already leaning on the first two informally. But being organized allows you to more easily email other freelancers and ask if business is slow for them too or if they have leads they can pass on, as well as to reach out to past clients to let them know you’re available.

It’s all in how you say it

If you can keep conversations going when you’re already knee-deep in work, look at how your communication can evolve:

“Howdy, freelancer friend, how’s it going? I’m slammed right now and am wondering if I can throw work your way?”

Or

“Hey, former client, how are you? Just saw the campaign we worked on together went live. So cool to see out in the world. I’m pretty busy right now with x, y, and z, but I might free up in a few weeks if you’ve got anything bubbling up.”

See what we did there?

Instead of telling another freelancer you need work (which gets old after a while), you reached out to say you might have work for them. Not only is this a great way to spread the freelance wealth, you’ve upped the chances they’ll refer you when they’re overbooked.

And instead of telling the former client you need work, you’ve said they can’t have you because all these other clients are hiring you — and people naturally want what they can’t have. You’ve also complimented and thanked them on a past collaboration, which most of freelancers forget to do because we’re usually onto the next.

Instead of telling another freelancer you need work (which gets old after a while), reach out to say you might have work for them.

 

When you’re busy is also the best time to lean on the second two lists and contact people and clients you daydream about partnering with. When you’re flush with work, you’re also flush with confidence, and that’s exactly the time to take a deep breath and send a LinkedIn message to someone you might not normally have the courage to contact.

An “I’ve always been a huge admirer of your work, and I’d love the chance to help you with a, b, or c if you’re ever looking to hire some help” might be just enough to get on their radar and lead to a future partnership. End your note with a simple call to action: “Here’s a link to some of my recent work on Instagram,” or “Take a peek at my site and see if my skills might benefit your work.”

Warming up a lead

This tactic dovetails with a question we’ve been hearing a lot at Mt. Freelance: how to write a cold message a recruiter. This is a huge challenge, because recruiters have emails upon emails from job applicants to shift through before they get to queries from freelancers. It can be hard to get their full attention, but it’s also a crucial email.

When you do finally send a note, have something interesting to share.

 

Moira Losch, the director of recruiting at creative consultancy Instrument, suggests “email is always best if you can get it because the user interface on LinkedIn doesn't support high volume.”

Also, don’t be presumptive. “Sometimes people will say ‘I’m really interested in Instrument. I can talk next week. When are you available for coffee?’” As Moira explains. “My calendar is generally booked out three weeks.” It’s best to leave it more open, like, “I’d love to chat if an opportunity to work together comes up.”

She also recommends being “really specific as to why you're reaching out about the organization or why you want to connect with that particular recruiter. I say this to my team when they're writing cold emails to candidates: Be personable, be specific, be thoughtful.”

Recruiters can and do discover someone they want to learn more about through a cold email, but they’re also looking for compelling people who are too busy to cold-call recruiters. They want to connect with the people creative directors are buzzing about or who other recruiters recommend. They want to build a relationship with creatives they might hire regularly.

So put in the time: Follow them online if they share publicly, occasionally compliment them on something awesome they or their company did, or show up at an industry event that they’re attending or speaking at. Ideally, you’re seeding a relationship so that, when you do reach out, your email won’t be cold.

And when you do finally send a note, have something interesting to share. Saying “I’m available for work” is compelling if — and only if — you’re a sought-after star the recruiter has tried to hire in the past and failed. Otherwise, “I’m available” comes across as needy, if not desperate.

But sharing a big, new project you worked on that just launched is attention-getting, especially if you’re working at a higher level than you did in the past. This is good information for a recruiter, especially if they’ve seen your portfolio already and aren’t sold on it quite yet.

So, when the best client work you’ve ever done in your career goes live and you have permission to share it, shout it from the mountaintops. But before you go emailing every recruiter you know, post it on your website and whatever social media channels you use for your professional life.

Get SHIFT for free

If you’ve been cultivating a relationship with the people want to work with, they might come across that project on other channels first and then again on your Instagram or Linkedin. You’ll already be top of mind when you reach out because they’ve seen your new work out in the wild and understand your role in creating it. Or better yet they’ll reach first.

The silver bullet

You may be saying, “Great — this would be helpful if I were working or had a great career-defining project cooking, but I’m not working and I don’t have anything new to share because I haven’t been working. Help!”

Here’s my last piece of advice, and it’s something you really only have time for when you’re not working:

If you’re a filmmaker, shoot a short film.

If you’re a writer, draft that ‘zine you’ve been meaning to tackle.

If you’re a designer, make a website or series of posters.

Stop refreshing your email. Resist the urge to email the recruiter you messaged just last week. Instead, be creative. Make something. You might hear it called a personal or passion project, which sounds quaint and unimportant, but the projects you make because you have the chance to make whatever you want are the easiest way to get more work.

For starters, there’s no brief. You don’t have to sell a product or promote a brand. You don’t have to answer to a client, work with a difficult collaborator, or make the logo bigger. When I look at freelance advertising portfolios, more often than not I see lots and lots of client work. I can’t help but think, “What’s this copywriter’s voice when she doesn’t have to write banners ads for a cell phone carrier? What does this designer’s work look like when he’s not making pharma ads?”

You can do whatever you want, which means you can fully and truly express your voice and vision. And you know what the best and most creative companies and agencies are looking for in a new hire, especially a freelance creative?

A unique and compelling voice and vision.

So get started. When you’ve got an irresistible project or work you’re proud of, share it. We honestly can’t wait to see it.

Andrew Dickson is a freelance copywriter who works for clients like Apple, Ikea, and Adidas. He likes freelancing so much he co-created Mt. Freelance, an online course and community designed to help creative freelancers freelance better. Before going out on his own, he spent seven years at Wieden+Kennedy Portland writing ads for brands like Old Spice and running the WK12 ad school. Before that, he was a freelance set dresser, performer, and eBay PowerSeller. Besides freelancing and writing about freelancing, he also performs regularly, hosting storytelling events for The Moth and auctioneering events for schools and nonprofits.
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