There’s plenty of information out there on how to get work and be successful, but let’s be honest, they sound like a broken record. Find work on freelance websites, create a buzz on social media, build a website, curate your portfolio, and … pray.
Instead, here are some actions I took that worked. Try implementing these actionable (and free) methods to help you transform your career now, and maximise advertising and marketing efforts in the future.
If you leave with nothing but this point, you will get work.
Take an authentic interest in other people, their business and their struggles. No one wants to be another sale. We want to be understood, to have genuine interactions, and to be treated with value. Too often, we impose our needs on others. We forget to serve people and instead try to sell a service (commonly a logo or identity) without any idea of the business’ problems.
Start with those close to you. Family members, friends, designers you know on social media, the owner of the coffee shop you visit frequently. Become part of a community close to you. If you already work with studios or have clients, double-down on helping them. If you’ve just finished university, get in touch with the entrepreneurial department and see if you can help the start-ups emerging there. Have genuine conversations and interactions, and if you can help them, sit down and work together. If you can’t, send them to someone who can.
Over time, this will lead to more long-term clients, more referrals, more trust and authority, and higher pay. Be in it for the long-term.
The quickest way to affirm your commercial value is to connect with those you already know and help them solve their problems. The next hurdle is how to show it to others.
Luckily, there are many choices available to you. Some are indirect, such as social proofing (worth researching), blogging, and an online portfolio/website. Others more direct, such as teaching, friendly debates among peers, and consulting.
Here are some things that have worked for me:
There are plenty more actions you can take to show value. It takes research and some quality thinking time, but the more you can show it, the more people will trust you and get in contact.
Confusion around what you do is one of the quickest ways to lose business. Try to nail what you do in the most precise way possible.
We are narrative architects, eliciting powerful emotions through strategy fabrication and visual expressionism.
Uhm… what? Stop trying to impress people with fancy fluff. Simplify what you do so anyone can understand. Return to the cornerstone of all questions: who, what, why, when, where, how.
Who: Who are you? Who do you work with?
What: What do you do? What proof do you have?
How: How do you do it? How can I trust you?
Why: Why do you do it? Why should I hire you?
Where: Where are you based?
When: When have you done this?
Those are just a few of the questions you can ask to clarify the essence of you, your business, and the services you offer. If you want to go further, check out your favourite designers/studios website and see how they frame themselves and their services. Then answer all the questions yourself.
People do business with people, and preferably people that they know something about. Allow people the opportunity to learn more about you. Find your balance of authenticity and professionalism, and represent it in everything you do. Have a section on your website that explains why you do what you do and why. If you’re active on social media, share what’s happening in your life. Just have something easy to find that resonates with people.
Here’s what I currently have open on the interwebs:
You don’t need to go to this extent, but I’ve had plenty of praise for my transparency, messages from people who’ve connected to something I’ve said, and I’ve won plenty of work for it. How’s this for a unique selling point (USP) — you. You, your story and experiences, and your opinions are a unique selling point.
I promise you that if you go for the generalist route, studios will box you up as an Artworker and will cap your earning potential. So, you should be a specialist, right? Wrong.
A quality designer and a good friend of mine gave me some top advice during my first year of business. Specialise in two things. Now here’s where things get interesting: it doesn’t need to be in Design.
I bet you can list of a tonne of logo designers, but I bet you can’t name many scientist-designers. This is where the gold is. Exciting combinations of crafts, industries, and fields of study are where true value transcends.
Let’s take a real-life example. Neri Oxman: American-Israeli, a designer, architect, artist, with military experience, who leads a team of biologists and engineers. If you’ve watched her episode on Netflix’s Abstract, you know that combination yields some insane results.
Here’s one final part I want to add to this point of advice. General knowledge is essential to combine specialisms, but sole generalism or specialism will destroy you. It’s all about balance. Have general knowledge of multiple fields, so you have an idea as to what is possible, but ensure a domain of specialisms, talents, and experiences from which you can draw.
If you are struggling for work and the bills are creeping up, it’s pretty safe to assume you have little to no bargaining power. That is a significant problem considering this will dictate how much creative freedom you have, how much you can charge, the level to which a client will trust you, and the likelihood of a client working with you again.
You should give this a real look and do some further research into both bargaining power and negotiation techniques. But for now, here are some areas you can look into to boost your power:
This is not something I've done much at all, and it's also not something I recommend doing if you live in the middle of nowhere like me. However, as I write this [March 2023] I'm preparing to move to a major city in South East Asia and will be doing a lot of this myself when I'm there. For reference, I class a major city as somewhere with a population of 1 mil+.
Okay, so people might be confused as to why I do not recommend networking to those who do not live in, or in close proximity to, a major city. To put it bluntly, there are not enough opportunities for a little freelancer like you when you're competing with the agency gatekeepers in your area. And if you are targeting agencies themselves to work with, chances are they don't work with freelancers or they need you to be cheap. This changes in more populous cities as there are a lot more opportunities and cash flowing, and that means agencies are going to be more open to freelancers and less able to gobble up all the work. And I'm talking about decent projects here, not small low-budget projects.
Here are some opportunity cost questions to ask yourself: Where are you most likely to have the greatest chance of getting work based on your location? How much time will you need to commit? How much does it cost to access those opportunities? How long will it take you to become comfortable in talking to complete strangers about their business problems, or simply about what it is you do and why it's important? How big does the project — the budget — have to be to justify the time and money spent to acquire it? These are questions you will need to answer for yourself.
With that all said, networking is a solid strategy if you live in a populous area. There's an insane amount of opportunity if you can get yourself to all manner of events. I'm not sure going to strictly business meet-ups is a good choice, as folks are usually there to sell. Just try to sell a salesperson when they're trying to sell to you. Instead, industry-specific events are much better. Your aim is not to sell at these events, many have restrictions on this. Instead, you are there to listen and learn, to ask questions and involve yourself in a completely different business ecosystem. Taking this route of investigation will allow problems to sell themselves. If you find that the sectors you're looking into bore the living hell out of you, find a different one. To add to that, explore sectors that appear void of excitement, and you may find a trend of specific problems that genuinely interest you in solving.
One last note on this method: it usually takes more time than you think and is very difficult to measure its effectiveness.
Okay, I used to hate on freelance work websites. It always seemed to me the place where businesses with very low and incredibly unrealistic budgets go to get work done. A place where they would abuse their bargaining power and would use freelance designers more as Macbook monkeys. We want it this way, we want 20 changes, and we never want to be questioned — oh, and our budget is $10. I'm sure you know what my eloquent, profanity-laden response would be.
However, I've come around to it and actually wish I had started using it when I started my freelance career — I would have starved and suffered a lot less. I've been really surprised to get some nice-sized projects with good clients and not hate every minute of it. Of course, the way I've positioned and presented myself certainly is to be attributed to that too, but it's not as bad as I had thought. Don't get me wrong, you still get cretins asking for a fully designed e-commerce website for $30, but there are still plenty of 4-5 figure budget projects with serious clients who are enjoyable to work with.
You should eventually move the clients from Upwork, so the platform doesn't steal 20% of your earnings, and build stronger relations so when you need referrals you can get them. It'll build up your portfolio if you're a newbie, and if you're experiencing a dry patch there's always the option to reach out to project-ready clients via Upwork. This shouldn't be where you build your business — reliance on any 3rd party platform, especially one that takes a share of your earnings, is an incredibly dangerous flaw — but it is a good place to go when you're starting out or you need to pull in more work and make new connections.
If they don't know you, they can't buy from you. You need to be fostering genuine relationships and conversations with people, most especially if it is not feasible for you to network in a major city. I think the best way of doing this is to build up a mailing list and send out a monthly newsletter — but it needs to be planned out and not take you a stupid amount of time to put together every month.
Everyone rages on about social media marketing, but it's incredibly unreliable and terrible at making sales. It can be a good long-term marketing tool, but it's not where you want to focus the majority of your marketing efforts unless you're an e-commerce or volume-based business. If you've done even the smallest amount of reading about marketing, you'll know email lists are consistently more reliable and sell more than the majority of marketing tools — so start where you are most powerful.
So, what should the content be? That all depends on your positioning and offering. It shouldn't be a direct sell, but more of a reminder that you exist.
We want to: show the work you've done; new clients you have worked with or have signed contracts with; show off articles you've read that are genuinely helpful or insightful; show work you have admired this month; share ideas, thoughts and potential industry-specific opportunities. It doesn't always have to be directly connected with what you do, so long as there is always something relevant to the audience.
This does the following: Let's people learn more about you and potentially connect; it inspires conversations between you and the recipient; it consistently ingrains your existence in the minds of the reader and makes you one of the first they go to for work; it establishes you more as an authority, expert or an information aggregator; it influences how the recipient perceives you — so if you constantly share high-quality work or thoughts, even if they are not yours, it will create influence by association — be careful not to abuse this last point though, it's a balancing act and you need to make sure you state who the work / article came from.
The best way to prove you're not full of rubbish is to build a business, a sales system, to build something innovative and then show it off. This is not for newbies to the industry, you will really struggle to pull this off. However, if you're an experienced designer who has decided to move into the world of freelancing, this is a good route for the long-term.
For example, in 1-week I built a volume-based agency complete with branding, a website, a tone-of-voice, a positioning / sales strategy and finished it up with an automated register and design process — in other words, a scalable business model that completely ignored meetings and phone calls. Was it successful? If we define that by "Did it make money?" then yes, I acquired a $1k client within 2-weeks of its release with minimal marketing. But I built it at a time I was desperate for work, and so was spending all my time marketing my freelancing and barely anytime marketing the agency model.
The funny thing is, I ended up getting 5-figures worth of projects from that 1-week of work. And not because of the agency model directly, but because people were interested and impressed with what I had done. I built a scaleable business that was functional in 1-week and profitable in 2-weeks.
Ignoring this, if you've ever talked to me, you know I'm always rattling on about my type foundry ProtoType Labs. Is it even mildly functional? Hell no. It has no website, it hasn't sent out a piece of marketing in months and has only one typeface. Has it made me money? Yes. Have I been offered more projects simply because of ProtoType Labs? Yes.
The crux of this is the business or system you create doesn't even have to be super successful. You only need: 1) the perception of success, as perception always sells over reality; and 2) to show you are more than a pixel-pusher and can actually build the things you say you do — and be so bold as to put your money where your mouth is and take on risk. The agency model I built wasn't impressive in and of itself, there are tonnes of agencies more or less just like it. It's the fact that I did what takes the average person months to build in 1-week. The ProtoType Labs foundry isn't impressive on its own, it's the fact that I'm daring to be more.
While all the above is not full-proof, I do hope it helps you in finding more freelance work. There will be plenty of ups and downs, and different times of the year and global events can effect where you find work and how much you can acquire. There's so much to learn as a freelancer, even if you've been working at an agency for years — it's a steep learning curve. But I wish you all the best in your endeavour. Don't hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions, I'm always happy to help. The future is bright.