I regularly emphasise that the best thing you can do for your freelance business (or any business, really) is to regularly connect with relevant people.
The more of this you do, the more you are ‘front of mind’ and in the thoughts of your prospects and people important to you. This is where a lot of your opportunities for work and projects will come from.
These people can include prospective clients, but they can, and should, include other people in your field, potential collaborators, mentors, and anyone else you consider valuable, or potentially valuable to your career.
Now what do I mean by ‘connecting’?
Connecting is a little more than simply ‘contacting’, which you could well do by spamming 1000 people at a time. ‘Connecting’ for me, means reaching out to individuals rather than groups with the intent to develop a positive relationship with that person.
If you want to generate paying client jobs, you could sit back and wait for people to contact you. This can work, but unless you have an agent or are very well known, you will need to do a lot of the work in reaching out to the right people yourself.
This applies to the early stages of your career, but will also apply if you are further along and don’t plan on seeing your network – and the variety of options that that brings – stagnate.
A very common sticking point for a lot of you is in not knowing what to say to people – people who don’t know you, as well as even those already familiar with you when it comes to connecting with them.
It feels awkward to email or call people up to pitch your services. All you really want is to land new paid work. You don’t want to make it any more complicated.
You’re worried that people won’t respond to your email, or outright reject your work, and that’s scary.
Either this, or you’re concerned that putting so much energy into reaching out to one person at a time is an inefficient and unproductive use of your time. The rewards just aren’t immediate enough.
The fact is, those of us who are getting ahead are bolder than others in engaging with the people that matter. They show their work where they can even if they feel worried about what others say. They do it anyway.
Look to the early careers of any current success who came from nothing. They found success by knocking on doors. They took courage and asked, and they did this repeatedly.
Your connections with real people are where your biggest opportunities lie. Every big success in my record can be attributed to the individuals I’ve built solid connections with. When you can connect with people regularly, old and new, you will see rewards.
The first thing you need to do is to make a commitment to actually take action in talking to more people.
You need to take the plunge and connect.
So how do you do it? How do you take action and communicate with someone without coming across as ‘pushy’ or ‘annoying’?
It’s partly about shifting your mindset; your frame; your perspective (how ever you want to label it). You need to actually believe in your product and your work, rather than worrying that you are useless or imperfect. That’s key.
Find the confidence that already exists in yourself, and the value that lies in your work. You don’t need a massive ego to do this well, but you need to believe that your contribution holds some value.
To be confident in your work requires two things:
1. To know with clarity why your work is useful to people. Ask yourself the question: Why is my work valuable to certain types of people?
2. To work more and build your own value so that you are genuinely in the belief that what you do is high quality; that it matters and is useful to people.
With this sense of confidence, you will be more motivated to actually go out and talk to people and you will be in the right frame of mind to communicate with them.
But what do you actually say to people?
I hate rules, but in this case I will give you a few guiding points to help define what it is you can say to people:
1. Find commonalities with the recipient (not vital, but ideal)
2. Adopt the mindset of understanding your value
3. Be honest about your intention
It does not need to be more complicated than this.
Finding common ground, even at a personal level is great to build rapport with people. It’s not vital, but will build trust in a budding professional relationship.
If you identify anything that links the two of you, in any way, bring it up. For example, a shared interest in a particular organisation, sports team, or conference you both recently attended, or merely the fact that you are both on LinkedIn, do it.
Referring to what I said earlier about confidence, it will help you massively that you approach someone in this mindset. You need to see the value in what you do, and you ideally want to position yourself in a way that demonstrates that you have options.
Of course, if you truly have a valuable product, and are doing these reach outs this will be genuinely true: you are valuable and you do have options.
Use this mindset to guide how you communicate and the questions you ask, if you ask them.
Thirdly, and – frankly – the only one of the three you really need, honesty is important for coming across as an authentic human being; to send the message that you don’t dish out or deal with bullshit, to stay true to yourself and stay sane, and ultimately to build trust with people.
It takes away the temptation to be deviant or manipulative or indirect and, probably more importantly, it will ensure that the amount of manipulation you might receive in return, is reduced.
So tell them why you are reaching out to them. People like to be clear on your motives and they don’t want their time wasted.
If you tell them that you are looking for work and are desperately short on funds, tell them.
Of course, what you really want is to have a few options and thus less desperate, but that will come with time if you are not there yet.
If you are desperate, tell them you are desperate. I mean it.
If you are looking to make new connections for the potential of being hired down the line, tell them exactly that.
If you know you can provide a useful service to someone, tell them that (demonstrate your belief in yourself).
If you heard of someone through a friend and you wanted to find out whether they’d like your style of illustration, tell them that.
That’s honesty. It’s refreshing. And you might be surprised to see that people will hire you then and there.
Compare these two versions of the same person:
John needs to drum up business for the month ahead fast. John emails Mark – someone who’s never heard of him – with a link to an article about baseball, because he saw on Mark’s Twitter feed that he likes baseball.
John knows he wants to be hired by Mark, but he wants to manipulate Mark into thinking John just cares about sharing ‘value’ with people and wanting nothing in return.
Mark will either know John’s intention or think he’s plain weird. Mark probably knows John wants work from him. So now Mark knows John is a little devious or a little crazy.
Neither is good for John.
John needs to drum up business for the month ahead fast. He emails Mark, someone he identified as being an ideal client according to his own prior research and criteria, that he found through LinkedIn.
He tells Mark how he found him through LinkedIn and how Mark is an ideal client for John. He asks Mark whether he would be interested in a quick Skype call to discuss John’s proposal for how he could help.
John is straight up in this message and demonstrates his interest in using his value to help Mark.
Now, calling someone as a follow up may scare a lot of you like it does me. It’s not vital, but it certainly would help. Or you could continue the discussion via email. It’s up to you. Stay honest and true to your word and keep the conversation going.
Maintain that positive perspective of knowing your own value as you keep the discussion going.
I’m personally tired of feeling that one needs to be clever or manipulative in order to get work from new people.
Straight up honesty from a position of real value is how to do this efficiently.
Honesty is stress-free. It is real, and it will grow your reputation so that more and more people will want to work with you, not to mention your own belief in yourself.
To land clients with honesty is important, but so is following up and keeping that person in the loop over time.
This is how marketing works at the very core.
I show you in more detail how to identify and find clients, create a marketing strategy, win new projects and market your work in a myriad of other ways, in my guides:
How to Get Illustration Clients (for illustrators)
How to Win Creative Clients (same guide, aimed at creative freelancers in general)
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