Freelancing Tips for My First-Year Freelance Self

By Josh Hoffman, Contributor, on December 15, 2016

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When I started my freelance business in 2012, I didn’t know anything about lifetime customer value, marketing, lead generation, personal branding and self-awareness. I thought word-of-mouth marketing was the Holy Grail, that new business would magically appear so long as I did a good job for existing clients. I thought honing my craft was enough to build a brand. I thought doing anything and everything related to my craft would drive additional revenue and, thus, happiness.

Now, here we are, years later, and almost none of those freelancing tips were right. Here are some of the most important freelancing tips I’ve acquired along the way.

1. Word-Of-Mouth Isn’t Marketing

Don’t get me wrong: Word-of-mouth is great, but when the word-of-mouth pipeline closed up for no apparent reason, I quickly realized it isn’t a viable marketing strategy. Word-of-mouth is not a controllable or scalable method to expose oneself to potential clients, generate leads and ultimately close deals. It can be one form of attracting new clients, but most freelancers plateau when it becomes the only form.

So, what is marketing? The ability to establish and maintain relevance in people’s lives, for starters, but good marketing makes this possible before they are ready, willing and able to hire you. To get to this point with potential clients, you should enact a process I call the Cycle of Relevance, which encompasses:

  • Awareness
  • Recognition
  • Interest
  • Belief and trust
  • Timing
  • The customer

The most time- and cost-efficient way to enact this process at scale is through digital marketing: blogging, social media marketing, email marketing and webinars, specifically.

2. Find Time to Work on Your Business, Not Just in It

Completing daily tasks to ensure your business stays afloat is a given. But working on your business goes further and involves prioritizing its growth and scheduling time to nurture it, rather than creating more time as an afterthought (see: borrowing from your own free time).

These tasks can include anything from digital marketing to hosting seminars and workshops for lead generation and even networking with peers and potential new clients.

3. “Your Brand Is Not What You Sell”

These are the words of Jon Iwata, senior vice president of marketing and communications at IBM. In terms of freelancers, your brand is not your services, because your services are a means to the client’s end. Your brand is what your services represent.

Graphic design, marketing, web development, photography and multimedia, copywriting … clients don’t intrinsically care about these and other services. They care about how these services will improve their business. As you develop your digital brand (your website, blog, social media accounts, etc.) and engage in conversations with potential clients, focus on the end instead of the means.

Also, don’t be shy about interjecting the personal aspect of your personal brand. Make it representative of who you are as a person, not just as a freelance service provider.

4. It’s Okay to Say No

In the early days of my freelance journey, I would say “yes” to any potential client who was willing to hire me. I would also say “yes” to any complementary service in the ballpark of my core services. I was hungry for money and opportunities, if we’re being honest.

Eventually, I learned that saying “yes” (both to every potential client and to requests for related services of which I’m not passionate or more than basically skilled) leads to burnout, since I started to accept projects just to make more money instead of working on projects that are exciting and challenging. Money is an important aspect of running a successful business, but it’s difficult to sustain peak performance when it’s the only aspect.

5. Don’t Let People Waste Your Time

When you really think about it, what freelancers really sell is time, because services take time to provide. When someone wants your time, even if they offer to buy you coffee just to “pick your brain,” a four-dollar latte will not grow your freelance business. That’s why I started charging for meetings with potential clients who approach me. I deduct this amount from their first invoice if they become a paying client, and I can’t recommend enough that you adopt the same process.

As far as freelancing tips go, these five would have been extremely beneficial to have from the start, but some things you must learn through experience. What have you learned in your time as an independent contractor that you’d be sure to tell someone new on this path?

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