How to Find Work When It Doesn’t Find You
Freelancing for a living is flat out nuts. Some days you’ll be so buried in work that you never think you’ll see the sun again. Other days will make you wonder how in the world you’re going to make rent this month.
This article will focus on the latter situation. You’ve reached the end, you’re finished. There’s no more work, the economy sucks, no one’s calling, now what?
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Freelancing Like a Boss
I haven’t had a “real job” in nearly a decade. Pretty much all of my professional career has been spent as a freelancer of some kind, working from my home office, making my own hours, living the dream.
Amazingly enough, for the vast majority of this time, I’ve had steady design/writing work to keep me busy and paying the bills. That makes me a real freelancing pro, right?
My Little Secret
I have a little secret though: freelancing scares me to death. Until you’ve been in this position, it’s difficult to understand. Freelancers don’t often have the luxury of knowing where their income will be coming from in three months, three weeks, heck, even three days.
This creates a kind of stress that often feels like it takes on physical mass and sits right on top of your chest. As you reach the end of a project or long term agreement, the question arises. That horrible, amazing, terrifying, exhilarating question that freelancers both live for and fear above all else: what’s next?
The Well Runs Dry
It’s amazing how often you’ll find that new opportunities present themselves just in time. The job fairy seems to swoop in just as you’re starting to wonder what the heck you’ll do after wrapping up your current projects.
Then, one day, it happens. You wake up, crack open the laptop, and realize that you have nothing to do. Client work is done, invoices have been sent and paid, you find yourself floating in space, suddenly quite aware of that oxygen meter and how quickly it will run down.
Lights, water, the roof over your family’s head, all of these things cost money and today, you’re not going to make any. That’s when the chest weight nestles up and finds its resting place. Like a dog lying down for a nap, it circles, stomping its feet and making you aware of its presence before dropping its full weight onto one spot, reminding you that it’s going to be here for a while.
No Such Thing as Down Time
There are two possible responses to this scenario. You can either freak out and shut down completely or freak out and get to work. In case you’re wondering, the latter is the proper response.
The thing that you have to get into your head is that the thought that assaulted your mind earlier is a lie: “I have nothing to do.” The reality is that you’re in luck, you have tons to do.
If you’re a freelancer, there’s no such thing as down time. Hold onto that idea very closely. You don’t get a few days to kick back and play around on Facebook or finally figure out how to get that dang QWOP guy to run without falling on his face. You have two modes: client work and self-promotion.
As the former begins to dry up, it’s time to switch into the latter (if you’re really smart, you’ll do both all the time). This is key: never stop being productive. If you stop long enough to over think your circumstances, fear and self doubt will rear their ugly heads and before you know it you’ll be sitting in your PJs all day, eating Froot Loops and watching Phineas and Ferb, stopping only to cash your unemployment checks.
Step 1: Portfolio Building
As you enter self promotion mode, the first thing that you want to do is beef up your image. If you don’t have a professional website that markets your services to the world, slap yourself in the face, then go make one.
Yes, websites cost money and take a lot of time to make. Get over it. This is an absolutely necessary step. If you already have one, then you should spend your newfound “free time” updating it.
Start small and you’ll find that you quickly get sucked in. Fix that typo that you’ve been meaning to address or update your copyright info.
This is the key to getting past mental blocks. If you’re a typical freelancer, you’ll plan to spend the whole day on your portfolio, then find that you just can’t force yourself to start. Baby steps Bob, baby steps.
Trust me, as soon as you achieve a few tiny victories, you’ll get the productivity bug and will jump headfirst into the larger tasks ahead.
Once you get in a groove, it’s time for big updates. Priority one is adding in your most recent work. Your website isn’t a graveyard of projects from the glory days, it’s a constantly updating, evolving showcase of your body of work.
If you find that you have lots of time and energy, work up a new design, go responsive, change everything. Revitalize your creativity with some real work and make changes that genuinely make you more attractive to potential clients.
Step 2: Visit Some Old Haunts
Eventually, you’ll find that it’s pretty fun to work on your portfolio. This little pet project keeps you going and gives you a sense of purpose.
The hard truth here though is that you’re not doing yourself a dang bit of good if no one is seeing that fancy site you’re building. Give yourself a deadline and a hard stop, then move on to actually finding work.
But how? Where do you even start?
Like a bachelor dusting off his little black book, it’s time for you to dig deep and come up with some names from the past. As before, this is a baby step that’s a lot easier than what comes next.
Past clients are well within your comfort zone. You know them, how they work, how they expect you to work, etc. Calling some of them up should be like contacting an old friend. What have you been up to? How’s business?
Then it’s time for the kill. Keep the conversation focused on the other person and how you can help them. You’re not some chump begging for money, you’re a dedicated waitress returning to her favorite table: Can I get you anything? How about a business card refill? Would you like a brochure with that?
Clients can smell desperation, so don’t bring any of it into the conversation. Keep it friendly and casual, you’re just checking in. If they don’t bite, say your thanks and move along. You’ve at least reminded them that you exist, now if they go out to lunch with someone looking for a designer, you’ll be the first person on their list of referrals.
Step 3: Expand into Familiar Territory
After exhausting your contact list, it’s time to get your name out to a new crowd. This is scary, uncomfortable, and disheartening; do it anyway.
The best way to start here involves a great little trick that’ll take you far as a freelancer: leverage your past work.
A close friend of mine is a perfect example of this. He just moved to a new city and returned to freelancing after a long stint of a nine to five gig. Looking over his portfolio throughout the course of his career, he had a lot of work that was done for churches: logos, websites, bulletins; the works.
Given this information, how do you think he went about building a list of people to contact? Obviously, he began with churches. It’s easy enough to hit up Google and pull of a list of churches in a twenty mile radius, from there it’s a quick visit to a website for an email address and before long you’ve got yourself a nice list of potential clients.
He did this very thing, heavily pushing the church portion of his portfolio. Before he knew it, the phone was ringing, emails were coming in and his calendar began to fill up.
What type of work have you done in the past? How can you use this experience to earn new clients in the same industry? Maybe you built a website for a dentist recently, it’s time to start contacting dentists!
Call or Email?
If you’re the kind of person who can pick up a phone and win a client, good for you, use that skill to your advantage. To many though, this is a terrifying prospect.
Honestly, I don’t see this as a significant hurdle. Emailing potential clients is not only easier, it’s more efficient. You can work up a basic template that you can customize for different scenarios and email fifty people in an afternoon.
Phone calls are much more time/work intensive. Save this effort for interested parties who call you up after getting your email.
Step 4: Offer Your Services to Other Designers
If you live in a fairly populated place, people need design work. If they’re not getting it from you, they’re getting it from someone else.
This means that somewhere, as you worry about starving, some designer is pulling his/her hair out because the work load has become too intense. You can choose to either see this person as a competitor or an opportunity. I choose the latter every time.
Once you’ve exhausted your past client list and contacted random businesses by leveraging your past work, it’s time to hit up the other designers in your area.
Again, these are listed on Google Maps and typically very easy to find. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one man operation or a big office full of creatives, there may just be a need that you can fill. Contact some of both types if you can.
What Do I Say?
The etiquette here is simple. Introduce yourself, be friendly, let them know what you do and that you would love to help them out if they ever need an extra pair of hands.
With professional networking, personal relationships are everything. Stop by a few offices to introduce yourself, have a few lunches out if you can pull together the cash, make sure these people put a face to your request and you’ll be blown away by how often they’ll think of you when they come across a project that they either don’t have time for or isn’t right for their business.
There you have it, my secrets to finding work when it’s not finding you. These four steps aren’t a magic formula that will make you rich and successful, they represent a very labor intensive task list that you can follow to earn yourself work.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when the work stops pouring in, but active freelancers don’t go hungry. It’s when you stop that you reach the proverbial career death. It’s all right to freak out, but don’t freeze up. Channel the panic into productive energy and move through the stages above.
Take a breath. Crack the old neck. You’ll be fine. Baby steps Bob, baby steps.
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