Thinking Freelance? Melissa’s Getting Started Tips
Or are you just finally ready to follow that dream of writing while getting paid for it?
Although it’s always helpful to have worked in the communications field before branching out as a freelancer, it’s not a must. Would-be freelance writers without oodles of existing magazine clips, newsletter samples or blogging experience can get a foot in the door by following the same steps as experienced writers.
As you begin to build a client base, perhaps you’ll benefit from some of the lessons I learned along the way:
Don’t burn bridges:
When I started my freelance writing business in 2001, the first thing I learned was just how important it was to leave previous employers on good terms. Why? Because they will almost always be your first source of income on the freelance side of your career. In my case – working for an educational institution – I stopped being a full-time employee on Friday and began as a freelance/contract writer the following Monday.
It doesn’t always happen that quickly, though. With one of my corporate employers, I continued to cultivate the relationship for a full two years before being hired back as a contractor on retainer. I worked in this capacity for four years.
The key here is to make yourself valuable to the organization while you’re an employee, and on your way out, to remind them just how skilled you are.
Plant a seed about your availability and familiarity with the company’s culture, its products, and even its clients.
Build a portfolio:
If you don’t already have a portfolio to showcase your writing skills, don’t panic. You can develop one.
- Volunteer to write newsletters for your church, volunteer organizations, local health store, professional organizations, spa, library or specialty supermarket.
- You should also consider contacting the editor of your local newspaper. Ask if he has any particular needs or stories. Let him know that you’re willing to do the work gratis so that you can show him your skill set.
- Or consider offering your skills – free of charge – to your freelancer friends. It’s a great way to build your portfolio and show colleagues in the freelance world what you’re capable of (which may lead to a future collaborative project).
- Alternatively, start a blog. All of these vehicles will help you build your portfolio.
Develop your website:
The single most important marketing tool for a freelancer is her website.
- With various content management software (CMS) systems, you can develop a professional presence, which – when placed on your business cards – becomes your official marketing collateral.
- My Website is designed in WordPress, a free publishing platform for blogs and Websites, which includes a wide array of professional site templates with endless theme possibilities.
- Other free opensource, user-friendly Web design software products include Drupal, bitweaver and Campsite to name a few (To see a full list or to demo some of the programs, visit opensourceCMS.)
- Even Mac users can take advantage of free iWeb software, which includes multiple themes.
My Website, by the way, was the vehicle solely responsible for landing my first not-an-ex-employer client. She was able to make an assessment of my skills by perusing my electronic portfolio of at her own convenience.
P.S. Make sure you have professional business cards on hand as well – preferably that match your Website logo/color/theme (remember, you are building your own brand, and you want it to be consistent everywhere it appears).
Talk, talk, talk.
Even in this day of technology and social media, face-to-face networking cannot be replaced. When I first started my business, I asked a friend if he could introduce me to the community relations director at a local television station. She agreed to meet with me and was more than happy to share her connections in the community. I simply let her know that I was branching out on my own and that I didn’t know many local businesses or individuals who might need my services.
I walked away from that meeting with 15 contacts, one of whom, after reading my e-mail introduction and taking a look at my Website, hired me the next week for a yearlong project.
Under Promise, Over Deliver:
Word-of-mouth advertising is the most important marketing vehicle for freelancers. And the key to building your freelance business is superior customer service.
- Meet your deadlines! Exceed expectations. Listen to what your client needs. And, yes, go the extra mile for difficult clients.
- Ask for/build in a few extra days on your deadlines, as well – with the intent of getting the product to your client ahead of schedule. Clients will remember this, and you’ll gain repeat business if your work is solid.
Staying in touch with your colleagues, people you’ve met at conferences, past clients and even friends is paramount; you never know when they will have a special need or know someone else who does.
And the fact that your e-mail message/note/postcard/marketing flyer – or even your social networking post – just landed on a colleague/potential client’s desk or inbox may just land you a new job.
Schedule regular, friendly lunch meetings to network with your contacts and develop a “contact” calendar that maps out the ways you’ll stay in touch with them at least three times a year.
Join Professional Organizations:
For freelance writers, organizations like PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) and IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) have local chapters in most major cities. Not only do they offer great seminars and how-to events, they are also excellent networking events and potential hot spots for collaboration with companies, nonprofits and other freelancers.
So, what are you waiting for?
You can get started today. But don’t pull on those sweat pants too soon. As you’ve learned – at least in the early stages of building your freelance business – you’ll need to get out there and physically network.
Your efforts in the long run will reward you with the flexibility you’re hoping for from a freelance career … including ‘Casual Fridays’ any day of the week.
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