How to Become a Successful Freelancer: Get on Team You

When I started freelancing in 2013, there were fewer resources than there are now. Sure, Upwork was still around, but it was called oDesk. And there was eLance. Those two merged (eventually) and became Upwork. At the time, though, I thought, “Why in the hell would anyone want to hire me, someone with no professional writing experience, when there are all of these experienced professional writers on the platforms?”

Needless to say, it’s 2020. While I do not refer to myself as a freelance writer (because it inevitably leads to someone asking me if I’m unemployed or looking for a “real job” and yet, somehow telling people I’m a “professional nerd” lends an air of authority and no one even questions what I do…when I figure out their reasoning, I’ll be sure to let you all know what the hell that’s about…), that’s basically what I am. I’ve certainly learned several lessons over the last seven years. The most important lesson? To become a successful freelancer, you must get on team you.

Related: 10 Invaluable Freelancing Tips for Beginners

Self-Promotion Is Your Job, But It Doesn’t Have to Be Gross

The truth about becoming a successful freelancer is this: your real job is self-promotion. It doesn’t matter if you’re a web developer, a writer, an editor, a voice actor, a virtual assistant, a graphic designer, or anything else. Your true job is self-promotion because if you do not promote yourself, you will not find clients. There is no such thing as a client fairy. Clients do not just magically show up. If you have a good network, you could start a great freelance business on referrals and grow it, but at some point, you’ll still need to promote yourself to keep the business growing.

I’m as introverted as they come. I am not a huge fan of flagrant self-promotion. My hobbies include sitting at home where it’s (sort of) quiet with my three dogs, cat, and fish while I cross stitch, crochet, work on my loom, build a dollhouse from a kit, read, or listen to podcasts.I need very little socialization. When I taught college, my daily class was all the socialization I ever needed. It was more than enough, honestly. My oldest son takes after me in that regard. He’s also a solitary creature to a large degree. We each have a select circle of friends we do enjoy, but we also enjoy the quiet. So, believe me when I say that I do not like being the center of attention. And I recognize that’s what most people do not like about sales, self-promotion, and marketing. But when we’re talking about freelancers, we’re the product. If the market doesn’t know about us, they’ll choose other products.

The good news is that self-promotion doesn’t have to be gross. Let’s start with something easy. Think about every cover letter you’ve ever written for a job. It’s full of “I” statements. Something tells me that your Upwork profile is full of them, too. And you probably struggled to write it, huh? “How am I supposed to talk about myself? I hate talking about myself!” I feel you. Yet, that’s how we’re all taught to write cover letters. And writing that way sucks just as much for the reader as it does for those of us writing that shit. People scan it and they miss important stuff.

To make it suck less: Rewrite it to remove the “I” statements. Instead, go back and address how what you do actually helps the potential client reading your profile. Do this on your website. Do this where ever you have an online presence. Go look at my Upwork profile. You’ll get a good understanding of what I mean. Hell, just go back and read the title of this article, the subtitle, and the first bolded sentence of this paragraph. I’m addressing all of your pain points. My experience is being used to tell you how to solve your problem of not being a successful freelancer…which is likely being caused because you’re not properly promoting yourself.

If you’re not successful with cold emails, ditch them. Writing email copy that converts is a skill in and of itself. If you’re going to try your luck with cold emails, that’s fine…but keep in mind that you shouldn’t send out that same exact email to everyone whose email address you’ve gleaned off of LinkedIn or wherever you found it and you damn sure shouldn’t add everyone to the same email. Also, don’t violate the CAN SPAM Act (because you are a business). For the rest of you, read this post I wrote about cold emails and why freelancers shouldn’t bother with them.

Let’s say you find an intriguing job to bid on. Again, I know you hate the time and effort it takes to talk about how great you are….and all those “I’ statements. You don’t have to use them. Read the prospective client’s needs carefully. Consider your skills, previous projects (even if they were projects you worked on for a traditional employer), and write your proposal in a way that directly addresses their needs. Think up a question to ask the potential client. No, I don’t care that you don’t think you have a question about the project. Think of something. It can be as generic as turn around time. Just make sure that whatever it is that you ask is specific to their project. Why? Because it shows that you are paying attention and that you aren’t some schmuck who copied and pasted a cover letter or basic proposal and sent it over to them. It shows that you read their job description and that you give a damn…and, most importantly, it gives the potential client a reason to respond to you. You know, so that you can then try to work your successful freelancer mojo and be friendly and showcase your knowledge….

Related: How to Write an Upwork Proposal Clients Can’t Turn Down

Continuing Self-Promotion with Existing Clients

I know what you’re thinking – it seems absurd that you would need to continue to do anything to promote yourself with your existing client base. The thing is that you could have clients who use you for projects here and there and then radio silence. It’s no fault of your own. They just don’t need you right now. You want to make sure that you’re the [insert your professional title here] they think of when they need [insert project here] next or when someone they know needs that or a similar project completed. So, yes, continuing self-promotion is definitely a need.

However, this isn’t an email that begs for work. It’s not an email that includes a Breakfast Club meme.

Full disclaimer: I have a client or two I’ve worked with for years who have asked me to remind them of deadlines and who know the movie…and they’ve received that gif…but it’s not been sent out as a “please, sir, may I have another project for my tofu pot hath run low!”

Some things I do:

  • Sending timely industry news articles via email or tweet (if I follow them on Twitter and they know I follow them…and they aren’t a giant corporation so they’re likely to see that I sent it to them). If I send it via email, I usually include a quick note of how I thought of them after I read it…and I do read it first. This is not a daily activity. This is not something you do to annoy your existing client base. However, you could also find that some clients eventually ask you to begin curating news posts for their social media.
  • Answering questions about how SEO works, current best SEO writing practices, best practices for linking strategies, or any other questions they have about what I do. I know some of you reading that are having a massive coronary so let me explain this fully.

By answering questions or even fully explaining how you do what you do to your clients or even potential clients, you’re not losing money. We are not talking about the Krabby Patty Secret Formula, here.

We live in the internet age. They can eventually find any information they really want to know. If you want them to trust you and have good information, share. It makes you look good. They aren’t going to drop what they’re doing and make their own app or write their own web content most likely. They just want to understand the process. And, frankly, we should want our clients and potential clients to be able to have educated conversations, at least at a basic level, with anyone and for them not be taken advantage of by others. So share the information. You won’t die from sharing it. Again, you’ll look good. You look trustworthy. People seek out freelancers not just to get professional services but because of convenience.

Again, this is the internet age. We can all learn whatever we want. We can learn to code. We can learn to write. We can learn to make logos. We can learn to do whatever…except maybe brain surgery. Something tells me learning that online and then offering that as a freelance service might be a bad plan…but we all like to know things even if we still hire people who actually have experience doing whatever it is we know how to do.

Share the knowledge. You don’t have to go super in-depth if you don’t want to do that. You don’t need to talk for hours. You definitely don’t do this daily. I do this as a way to showcase what I know and to set the stage for future projects. It’s a quiet, less stressful way for me to show others what I know so they know who they can hire when they’re ready to move forward. They feel educated. And it’s self-promotion without being gross.

Those are just a few ways to be a successful freelancer. There are so many others. But self-promotion truly is key.

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