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Your first year out: Five tips for new freelancers (and the folks who work with them)

March 23, 2012


By Jonathan Everitt – originally presented during “20 Minutes & A Beer,” 3/20/12

As life decisions go, making the jump to self-employment is a biggie. There are so many risks and rewards to weigh. And lots of things you’ll learn as you go.

In January 2011, I flipped the switch and went from a senior copywriter at an ad agency to a full-time freelance writer. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process—about the creative community, about the business, and about myself.

Plan ahead. Decide who you are.

Before you make the jump, think about what you really want to do as an indie.
As you put your portfolio together, look at the clients and industries you’ve worked on. Think about the ones you love. Not just award winners. Not just those you worked on with your favorite people.

· What were the projects that left you with a warm sense of satisfaction in your gut?
· Are you passionate about a certain medium? TV? Web?
· Are you moved by working on non-profits? Health care?
· What’s going to make you different from everybody else?

Then do some homework. Follow industries that interest you. Set up an an RSS feed and follow news about companies you admire—and the agencies that do business with them.

It’s as important to know who they are as it is to know who you are.

Introduce yourself. And be findable.

Be direct and open about making professional contacts. I was always a reluctant networker. In college, career counselors always urged us to network like crazy. But it felt phony and self-serving. I see it differently now.
You share common interests with a big group of people, so it’s safe to assume we all want to get acquainted—from students to seasoned pros. Meet people.

· Show up at professional functions. Keep your cards handy.
· Research professionals at potential clients and ad agencies. Connect with them online.
· Send people a straightforward email and ask for a meeting to introduce yourself.
· Before you approach them, know a thing or two about their business. If you’re going to call a creative director at a local agency, first find out what they’re working on. Let them know you took the time.
There are lots of ways to be findable. Social media is an obvious route. Some others:
· Set up a website, or use a creative portfolio site such as behance.net where you can showcase your best work. Keep it simple. Make it easy for people to get in touch.
· Join the RAF and get listed in their directory.
· Another good local resource is AdHub, which features listings of freelancers and agencies from all over New York. It offers tiered pricing, and the basic plan is a bargain considering the profile page it includes.

And for those of you who hire freelancers, the RAF directory and the AdHub directory are good resources when you’re looking for a freelance creative partner. Bookmark ’em.

Ask for help. You’re bigger than you.

There’s a great community of independent creatives in Rochester. Some have been doing this for many years, and they’re really, really smart. Buy them coffee. Ask for advice. When they tell you their life story, be a good listener. Most people are happy to offer advice. And someday, you’ll return the favor with somebody in the same boat.

You’ve got more than yourself to lean on—and more to offer. That’s important to share with your prospective clients. Let them know that you’re connected to people in many creative fields, and that you can easily bring them in on projects.
And if you work with freelancers, consider us when it’s pitch time if you haven’t before. Rochester freelance creatives bring centuries of experience in hundreds of industries to the table. Get to know us and we could help you win your next client (and help you serve them, too!).

So go ahead. Stalk me.

Be the toughest boss you’ve ever had.
We are creatures of routine. Now you get to make one for yourself. But you are more than a graphic designer or photographer or copywriter or producer. You’re the boss.

· Keep good records. Track what you charge for projects and be consistent about it. Put a system in place for estimates and invoices, and stick to it.
· Set goals for your week, month, and quarter and pay attention to how you’re doing. If you’re in this to earn a living and you’re not making money, it doesn’t matter how great your work is.

I hate alarm clocks. So I do everything in my power not to use one. But there’s a dark side to that. Especially if you procrastinate. In a word: don’t. Break that habit immediately. Get up in the morning. Create routine for yourself and stick to it. If you have two weeks to get a project done and you know you only need one day, DO IT TODAY.

Time spent procrastinating isn’t free. It costs you. So don’t let things hang over your head just because they aren’t due yet.

Be tough on yourself. Tougher than any boss you’ve ever had.

Last thoughts. Stay hungry. Stay humble.

Even if you’re slammed right now, remember to have an eye on the horizon. Don’t get so caught up in the day-to-day madness that you forget to look ahead to your prospects in the months ahead. Leave yourself time to keep new leads coming in.
Speaking of staying hungry, be fair to yourself in pricing, too. When you’re slow, you might be tempted to underprice a project just to make sure you grab it. Be careful. Once you set certain precedents on the value of your work, that’s where clients will expect the bar to stay. You’re helping set the bar for fellow freelancers, too. Keep it at a fair height for you and your community.

Now for the humble part. You’re going to find out that some of the things you resented about your old job are exactly the same. You’ll have a new appreciation for the folks in account service, the folks in accounts payable, and the partners who owned your agency. You’ll have a new respect for your own clients, too.

Didn’t like their decisions? Good news: now those decisions are all yours.
So stay humble, boss.