No matter your background, your industry, or your long-term goals, the most important aspect of freelancing success comes down to one key element — networking.
Before you come back at me with something like, ‘No! Sales and marketing is priority number one!’ or ‘Client satisfaction is the most important part of any business!’, let’s pull everything back.
Sales is critical to cashflow. Marketing is critical to sales. And a happy client leads to repeat business and referrals. But successful networking can — and should — encompass all of these.
Networking is your best friend because it combines all aspects of self-employment and lets you convert contacts into clients. Your network is essentially a repetitive lead generator that’s powered by a continued willingness to put yourself out there.
Networking means having relationships with people in your field. These relationships should be casual and easy to manage, unlike the relationships with your professional coworkers.
Your sell is soft, not hard — when networking, there’s no reason to offer a full pitch to someone unless they directly ask for it. That comes the following week with the follow-up email. All you have to do to be a good networker is to listen.
If you’ve done any freelancing at all, you’re already a networker
Think back to your first client. How did you meet them? I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that it wasn’t someone filling out your contact form online. In most cases, your first client is someone you know — someone who trusts you enough to fulfill the need that they are willing to pay for.
There’s a wide world of business owners who have problems that you can solve. This is the key to successful freelancing — meeting someone, identifying what their problem is, and figuring out if you have the tools to solve it.
To take this to the next level, get out of the house.
The first step is to identify what a potential client’s problem is, how you may be able to help them, and the best way to proceed.
Next, listen. Everyone loves to talk about themselves, and all you need to do is get a person to expand on what they need. When the time is right, note your expertise and ability to help them. If that moment doesn’t materialize, the old “Let’s grab a coffee and talk” line is always a strong fallback.
When chatting with a potential client, ask yourself this: what problem do they have that I can solve?
I went to a conference in Austin last year and listened to a talk from Ray Blakney, the founder of online language school Live Lingua.
During his talk, he was asked about the next steps for his business and expressed a desire to grow and launch a new blog and update the content on his website. After his session, I approached him and introduced myself. After chatting for a few minutes, we ended up having dinner that night.
Take one opportunity into the next one
Marketing and selling yourself is a lot of work. There’s no getting around that–building a roster of clients, getting the word out, and replacing old contracts with new ones is a never-ending battle. Relationship building is the key to making this process happen smoothly.
The perk of one successful networking session, like the one I described above, is that you can typically employ a “rinse and repeat” strategy. Note what works as it happens, and employ those strategies in future situations.
If something was awkward or you found a long email chain didn’t go anywhere, try to identify where it went sour and re-approach the next time.
As freelancers, we’re lucky to have the ability to incorporate our passions and talents into our work. There are outlets for just about any niche, and the truth is that they need people to come in and fill voids.
The goal of networking is to leverage your past experience or expertise into a bigger and better gig, filling that void and giving yourself a new opportunity. Once this becomes natural, the looming prospect of an ending contract becomes much less terrifying.
Join a coworking space
One of the best places to meet potential clients is in a coworking space. For those unfamiliar, coworking spaces are essentially offices for entrepreneurs and freelancers — a space to work for those who have nowhere else to go beyond the spare bedroom they’ve thrown a desk into and labeled an office.
The beauty of coworking spaces is that every single person there is doing the same thing you are — working to grow their self-powered career — and they all need the help of each other to get where they want to be.
Coworking spaces typically host networking events, business seminars, lunch talks, and other regular activities to get members to meet each other and connect. Many of these events are open to the public, meaning other members of the business community may be there too.
The entrepreneurs and freelancers that work in coworking spaces are far more likely to hire someone they know, someone that works around them and that they’ve shared a coffee with in the kitchen, than some random person who sends them a cold pitch via email.
Introduce yourself to those working around you. Shake their hand and introduce yourself as you would in an interview (here are some excellent tips on best practices), exchange cards, grab lunch together to talk about common struggles. You might be surprised at how high your client conversion rate can be in these situations.
Networking perk — being in the right place at the right time.
Find (and attend) local meetup groups and happy hour get-togethers
Beyond coworking, you can extend your networking into the evening hours by looking for meetup groups and happy hour events that bridge the line between your personal passions and your freelance business.
This is one of the coolest perks of freelancing — being able to blend those passions with your work, and organized meetups put you in with others who you already have at least something in common with.
Expect a higher conversion rate if you can find events targeted to freelancers and/or entrepreneurs. Consider how you’re coming off to people. You don’t want to appear sales-y or desperate. Remain calm, like you’re catching up with a relative or friend you haven’t seen in a while.
Not to advocate over-indulgence, but I personally find myself much looser and free-flowing with conversation after a trip or two to the bar. The public location of meetup groups and happy hour events allows you to take advantage of the social aspect of these situations
Networking perk — turning your social life into a potentially lucrative endeavor
Embrace modern technology to widen your cast
Today’s freelance marketplace allows you to extend this practice beyond your local community. Just because someone doesn’t live near you doesn’t mean they won’t contract with you. The growth of remote work has birthed a number of freelancer-oriented networking events, giving you a great chance to identify and pursue local opportunities to get out and network.
For every physical networking opp, there’s an equal online opportunity that is similar. Check out LinkedIn groups, for example, where you can not only find people with similar professional profiles to your current clients but can actually join the same groups as them based on any mutual interests or hobbies you may have.
Maintain your contacts
If your relationship with someone ends after the initial conversation, you’ve wasted their time and yours. Follow up with an email and ask the person to grab a coffee, or touch base on the points of your original discussion. This isn’t a post on email etiquette, but I’ve found it useful to employ a “professionally friendly” demeanor in these situations.
Keep the emails quick and to the point, and emphasize your ability to be on the same level as the contact. You’re trying to land a client, not a job–you want the person to view you as professional to work with, but also don’t want to come across as “sales-y” or desperate. Whenever applicable, include links to your work.
Keep in touch. Connect with people you meet on social media and don’t be shy about engaging with them. This can help smooth any sales pitch you end up sending their way because you’re still at the top of their mind.
The beautiful thing about networking is that there doesn’t have to be only one benefit. With time and consistent effort, you’ll start to see opportunities arise that otherwise wouldn’t have — simply because you took the initiative to put yourself out there just a little bit.
Each contact is another peg in your growing wall of prospects. In our line of work, that’s the best form of security we have.
Networking perk — turning contacts into casual friends, and eventually into clients