Freelancing can be a lonely business. You’re often working at home, by yourself, getting little interaction with the outside world. Freelance relationships are hard to come by. Which is a problem, because relationships drive freelancing.
You need all kinds of connections to make your living—you need clients to hire you, collaborators to work with and specialists to do what you don’t do. You need freelance relationships to succeed.
What about companionship and self-improvement? Even the introverts need to connect with other people from time to time. And you need to interact with others to get better—iron sharpens iron. You need freelance relationships to survive.
Why Freelance Relationships Matter
Why are people so important to your freelance business? Three reasons:
- Getting work.
- Getting help.
- Getting better.
1. Getting Work
You get freelance work through relationships. That’s simply how it works.
According to the Freelancers Union, the top source of work for freelancers is word of mouth (53%) followed closely by personal contacts (51%). People talk. You get work. It’s as simple as that.
So you need to cultivate those relationships. Your happy clients talk to potential clients. They recommend you. Word spreads. Or someone needs a job done and rather than Google it, they ask their friends. They’d rather find a professional through their trusted network.
This is the web of freelance relationships and it’s how you’re going to make money.
And it’s not just clients who talk. Freelancers do too. Another study from the Freelancers Union found that 81% of freelancers refer work to other freelancers.
When it comes to finding work, it’s all about freelance relationships.
2. Getting Help
One thing you’re going to learn pretty quickly as a freelancer is that you can’t do it all. You don’t know everything and you don’t have time for everything. At some point you’re going to need some help.
This happens in several ways:
- Pro Services – You’re a web developer. You’re not a writer or an accountant or a plumber. The best freelance advice I’ve ever received is to hire experts to do whatever I’m not good at. The hours you would spend doing your taxes might be better spent doing the web work you’re good at. Yes, it might be cheaper dollar-wise to do your own plumbing, but the stress and time might make hiring a plumber a brilliant investment.
- Sub-Contracting – If you’re a successful freelancer, you’re going to get busy. There may come a time when you’re way too busy. You need to bring in some help to get the job done. You hire a few other freelancers to tackle parts of the job (the parts you like least).
- Referrals – Freelancing is becoming a pretty niche business, as it should be. Specialized freelancers are highly successful. There are very few generalists these days. The end result is you’re going to have clients who aren’t a good fit. Their project might be too big or too small for you. Maybe they want a platform you don’t know very well. A good freelancer will recognize when a client isn’t a good fit and refer them to someone else. This is why 81% of freelancers refer work to other freelancers. Not only are you helping out your freelance friend, you’re providing good service to a potential client. They’re not a good fit as a client today, but who knows when that will change or who else they’ll talk to. But you’ve made a good impression.
Hiring professional services, sub-contracting work and giving referrals all require relationships. You need to know other freelancers to recommend when a client isn’t a good fit. You need to know an accountant to hire. You need to know other coders you can hire to sub-contract. So you better build up those freelance relationships.
3. Getting Better
Finally, freelance relationships matter because you need them to get better. It’s by interacting and connecting with others that we’re challenged and forced to improve. Our suppositions are questioned and we have to defend ourselves or reconsider our position.
Friends can help us improve our skills and point to new ideas we hadn’t considered. How many times has a friend turned you on to the latest and greatest new thing?
Sometimes you need that gentle push from someone you trust to make your work that much better.
Iron sharpens iron.
Your livelihood and sanity depend on freelance relationships. So let’s find you some friends.
How to Develop Freelance Relationships
Is this going to devolve into some kind of How to Make Friends weirdness? No, we’ll spare you from that. But there are a few simple things you can do to build freelance relationships.
You need the right attitude to make freelance friends. The end product clearly matters, but what process do your clients have to go through to get there? Nobody wants to work with a jerk. Is working with you a chore? Are you always negative? Nobody wants to listen to complaints all the time.
Do you know those people who light up a room? They always have something good to say. They’re always making people laugh. They’re known as team players and contributors. Everybody wants to be their friend.
That’s the kind of attitude that will open doors.
Now not everyone has that kind of a magical personality. We can’t all light up the room. But we can work to make a good impression.
- Be nice: Don’t whine or complain.
- Be personable: Ask about other people and don’t just talk about yourself.
- Listen: Don’t interrupt and don’t monopolize the conversation.
- Be confident: But you also need to speak up and contribute.
- Be polite: Never badmouth other people.
- Be positive and inspiring: Encourage other people’s ideas and inspire them to do more.
This is pretty basic stuff. But a bad attitude is going to lose you clients.
Serve Don’t Sell
Instead of always trying to sell people, find ways to do something for people. Find ways you can meet other people’s needs. Recommend other freelancers, suggest articles or books that might helpful, make an introduction to someone in their field.
Be of service to other people, not just another salesperson.
This approach will open lots of doors. People will be grateful for your help and they’ll remember it. They’ll be likely to return the favor.
If you want to build relationships, you need to help people out.
Want to be remembered? Meet someone’s need. They’ll remember how you helped long after they’ve tossed everyone else’s business cards.
When you meet new people, show some respect. Listen intently and ask questions. Try to remember their name. Don’t be disinterested or aloof.
When they hand you their business card, read it. Don’t just shove it in your pocket—write something on it and follow up later. That’s perhaps the biggest thing you can do—show the people you meet that you’re serious. Reach out to them later, even if it’s just to follow them on Twitter or say hello. You’ll make an impression and they’ll know you’re not just another random handshake.
How to Network
We’ve made the case that freelance relationships matter. We’ve talked about how you can develop those relationships by not being a jerk (among other things). Now how do you find some freelance friends?
You need to do some networking. Now some people shudder at the idea of networking. They get images of greasy people working a room with lots of bravado and zealous handshakes. But you don’t have to be slimy to network.
Really networking is just about meeting people and finding mutually beneficial connections. Help other people and they’ll help you. People want to do business with people they know and trust. So build that trust.
Quality vs. Quantity
As you’re networking with people remember that quality is better than quantity. This isn’t some numbers game. You don’t win by collecting the most business cards. Instead you want to walk away with a few names of people you really connected with. Those are the freelance relationships you want.
Take the time to invest in people. It will pay off.
That said, quantity still has its place. You can’t rely on just two or three freelance relationships to keep your business going. You need to develop a lot of relationships. Very few of those relationships are going to turn into paying gigs, so you need a lot of them.
Focus on developing quality freelance relationships every day and eventually you’ll have the quantity you need. Nobody said you can’t have both.
Learn how to go a step deeper with our free ebook, Turning Contacts Into Contracts.
Get Out of the Office
There are lots of ways to actually meet people and develop these relationships, but they all involve getting out of the office. You’re going to need to get out there.
Meetups & Events
One of the easiest ways to meet people is at local events. There are so many conferences, hangouts and meetups these days.
Find (or start) your local WordPress meetup or check out a WordCamp. Or find more general events like CreativeMornings. There are lots of these events around. Check out major sites like Eventbrite or Meetup to see what’s going on. You can also ask around for the best local events.
Don’t just look for good networking events. Look for events that will help you grow as a freelancer. Maybe it’s some kind of professional development or small business class. Or it could just be something that gets your creative juices flowing, whether it’s a photo group or an author reading.
When you do make it to these events, take the opportunity to meet people. Sometimes shy people have a hard time, but endure a few awkward moments and introduce yourself. That’s why everybody is there. Make some connections.
If you’re really nervous, go with a friend. Sometimes it’s easier to work the crowd as a duo.
For people with a 9-to-5 job many of their relationships come from their coworkers. Which puts freelancers at a disadvantage. Which is why you might want to get out of your office and work somewhere else.
Coworking spaces have sprung up in many cities across the country. These are shared locations for freelancers to gather and feel like they have coworkers again. You often need to pay a fee to “rent a desk,” but then you’ll have a steady supply of coworkers and potential clients, collaborators and referrals.
Having a coworking space was a big help for freelance WordPress developer Bill Erickson:
“That physical space where you could turn around and ask questions or pull together a team was huge. … You need a social community so you’re not on your own.”
Lunch or Coffee
Another way to connect with people and go deeper is to meet one-on-one. Ideally you’ve already met someone before you ask them to lunch or coffee. Once you have some form of contact established, then meeting one-on-one is a great way to develop that freelance relationship.
Ask lots of questions and find out how you can help them. Figure out exactly what they do and what type of contact they’ll be. Are they a potential client? A possible freelance collaborator? Are they someone you could send referrals to?
Remember not to be selfish. Don’t monopolize the conversation.
Be sure you pick up the tab and follow up after the meeting. Share a few connections or resources from your conversation. Make the meeting have value.
You Need Freelance Relationships
So get out there and start building those relationships. You want your contact list to be full. Building those freelance relationships will make all the difference.