While the tough economy continues to challenge businesses, and employers take a “wait and see” approach to hiring, there appears to be a silver lining for freelance workers. According to CareerBuilder.com’s “2009 Job Forecast” survey which tracks projected hiring trends, this year will show an increase in the employment of freelance or contract workers. The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, surveyed 3,259 private sector hiring managers and human resource professionals. Twenty-eight percent of these employers expect to hire freelancers or contractors in 2009.
Freelancers should be breathing a sign of relief at the good news, right? Then why do we seem just as stressed about present and future job prospects as anyone else? Until the economy bounces back, it appears that feeling territorial about work will be an equal-opportunity employer for full-time and contingent workers alike.
Case in point: I recently received an email from a writer I met at a workshop some weeks ago. He was newer to the business of freelance writing than I was, and he asked for suggestions for finding new clients (we’ll get to the suggestions in a moment). He also mentioned his availability if I happened to have any extra writing work to pass along, with an offer to reciprocate if and when the situation becomes reversed. If you were a freelance writer trying to make her way in this struggling economy, how would you react?
Some people might reflexively think, "Go find your own clients!" while huddling protectively around their small client base. Because the biggest challenge for freelancers is finding clients, it can be hard to see the opportunity in sharing them with competitors. But it is in fact viable to establish a relationship of reciprocity with other freelancers, even those in one’s specific field. Pooling resources, which can include clients, may be a boon if your current situation stops working for you. When you are flush with work, it may not seem like a big deal to turn down other jobs, but in doing so you risk alienating clients (and believe me, they'll go elsewhere—they need that work Now!). Consider keeping clients close to you by referring them to a colleague, even though this means risking the possibility that they might like his or her work better. (This is the freelancer’s secret fear.)
Take the risk. Be gracious. Sure, there might be that one opportunistic person out there who is fishing for your clients, but more often than not, there are people who will help shore up your business by providing the work that you are too busy to do. And their good work—if it is good—may well reflect on you, because you referred your clients to them. More importantly, you will be building a network, and you can be sure that the grateful freelancer you assisted will do the same for you one day. This is kind of community that many of us on social networking sites are trying to build, anyway. It’s true that some people may be competing for the same limited pool of jobs or contracts (for example, a friend of mine and I discovered we just applied for the same writing gig the other day), but these happen to be the same people who know what we ourselves are going through, and what we're trying to achieve. We have the freelance life in common, and it’s a kind of life that requires support.
In the spirit of that support, here are five suggestions for succeeding as a freelancer:
- Make sure you've acquired a substantial list of clients or potential clients in your field of work before you leap into a full-on freelance career. For freelancers whose client pool has dried up, consider returning to full-time or part-time work for a while, if possible, because it's much easier to build a client base for future freelance work when the clients are currently coming to you.
- For new freelancers, make sure you’ve got a portfolio or body of work to show prospective clients. This might mean doing pro bono work—but working for free is still career building. You are creating a portfolio that may pave the way for future work, and the small businesses and non-profits that you are helping out may refer you to new (and paying) clients.
- Create a niche for yourself. My niche, for example, has been writing for outdoor sports markets. Yours might be reproductive health acupuncture. Or writing satirical greeting cards. Or usability design. Positioning yourself as an expert in your industry will help differentiate your service from others and make you the memorable, go-to person for existing and potential clients. Be sure that your portfolio or resume is presented in a way that tells a coherent story of your business.
- At the risk of sounding contradictory… consider expanding your niche, both in terms of the type of work you do and the field in which you usually work. In the case of freelance writing, you might branch out from magazine articles to product catalogs to marketing content and SEO writing. At a time when people are making big career changes across the country, it is not unwarranted for freelancers to shift their focus to new or related markets.
- Get involved. Meet people, both online and offline. Most importantly, make sure people know what you do. I once got work from my hairdresser because we had a chance to chat while she did my hair. After I told her I was a copywriter, I walked out with a fresh haircut and a writing gig. Being a freelancer never looked so good.