When faced with losing her job in the 1990s due to the national recession, Rhonda Rees found the opportune time to launch her firm, Rhonda Rees Public Relations Company, and start her 25-year freelance path. “I had always wanted to be on my own and to start my business, so this seemed like the perfect time to do so,” she explains. Overall, the biggest challenge she faced during her foray into freelance success was building her company from the ground up in the midst of a recession. But she succeeded through patience and perseverance, and never looked back.
Prior to making the move to freelancing, Rees had already built a strong reputation in the public relations field. Throughout her career, she won awards for both her public relations work and her 2012 book, Profit and Prosper with Public Relations: Insider Secrets to Make You a Success. Her success continues today, and she was recently featured in a new book, an Amazon best-seller named Elite Entrepreneurs. With decades of experience under her belt, Rees has a lot of lessons to share with fellow freelancers:
Build Your Reputation Before Going Freelance
You can certainly succeed without a resume of awards and authorship, but having an established professional reputation through prior leadership and jobs before you even start freelancing doesn’t hurt. Most importantly, it’ll let you benefit from the mentorship and experience of your previous managers and coworkers. “I worked 10 years at a small PR agency, and felt that I had gained quite a lot of experience — enough to be able to branch out on my own,” shares Rees.
While she was still a full-time employee, Rees also took a class on entrepreneurship to learn the basics. And she received training from the late Alfred E. F. Stern, known for his presidency of the Public Relations Society of America and his management of the promotion for the original release of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
As president of the former Publicity Club of Los Angeles, Rees made strong connections in the industry and even gave speeches about public relations tools, techniques, technology and profitability. These networking initiatives set Rees up to succeed out on her own. Take a page out of her book by making an effort to build your personal brand to support your freelance success.
Always Look for New Freelance Work
Stay on the hunt for new clients and projects, even when your plate is full. Having a steady pipeline of clients and work will ensure you don’t come across any dry spells that stretch your finances thin. Rees experienced this first-hand, stating: “There have certainly been ups and downs along the way, and I find that it’s important for a freelancer to never ‘rest on your laurels.’ In other words, it’s always a good idea to continue to look for work, even when you have plenty to do.”
Diversify Your Networking and Scope of Work
Try new tactics to bring in new work. Rees recommends experimenting to find the ideal combination of networking and volunteering for your personality and freelance focus. “It’s smart to diversify. Never rely on a single method to bring in the business,” she says. “Some suggestions include cold-calling, attending in-person networking meetings and industry functions, volunteering your time by serving on boards, word-of-mouth referrals, using social media and doing your own PR to help build your name and brand.”
Make Time for Some Pro Bono Work
Find a cause or organization that can benefit from your volunteered professional talents and services. Over the years, Rees has been involved in pro bono work for military veterans, those with special needs and terminally ill children. She also developed a PSA campaign on behalf of online book piracy awareness. Rees advocates for pro bono work, noting that “it’s always very worthwhile, and you’ll be contributing to a good charity, cause or service. An added bonus is in making connections that can often lead to additional future work.”
Start With Small Clients, Then Expand
When you’re easing into the freelance lifestyle, it helps to begin with small-scale projects and clients. That way, you can work out any kinks in your workflow, rates and processes before the stakes get high. You don’t need to turn down high-profile clients if they approach you, but be realistic about your experience level. Rees followed this approach: “I began taking on small PR projects, and things evolved from there. Eventually, I worked into bigger retainer clients and kept on going. One of my best accounts was a fire and safety firm, which lasted for 15-plus years.”
Whether you turn to freelancing voluntarily or out of necessity, you can use your bank of experiences and personal brand to kick off your career. By following Rees’s advice about networking, diversifying and volunteering, you can enrich your freelance success. If she could persevere and succeed in the midst of a recession and job loss, you can, too.