There are many ways to find work as a freelancer; a sustainable career will involve using an ever-shifting combination of these methods. You don’t have to use them all, but finding several that work for you is a key element of success.
The methods I’ve already written about on this blog are:
Now it’s time to discuss everybody’s favorite way of work-finding: Networking. This is an absolutely essential task to engage in if you’re interested in designing a successful, sustainable freelance career.
What Is Networking Really?
It’s no secret that the word “networking” strikes terror into the heart of many, especially those who consider themselves shy or retiring.
But effective networking isn’t what people tend to think it is. It’s not about glad-handing, sleazy chit chat, or overt self-promotion. In fact those overwrought techniques are antithetical to good networking, which is more a matter or making authentic, positive, helpful connections with others. The very best networking, in fact, has no immediate agenda but a general sense of “let’s keep knowing each other and who knows!”
A professional network is not a list of people who might give you something or buy something from you; an effective, robust network is instead by nature amorphous, dynamic, and full of potential. You can’t control it or expect anything specific from it.
But you also can’t be passive about it and expect it to help you. All you can do is pour energy—positive, generous energy—into it, be proactive when you see opportunities, and be ready to engage when something comes your way.
Examples of Networking in Action
I was once invited on a PR trip to attend a high-profile awards ceremony for young entrepreneurs in Switzerland because of something I had written on HuffPo. While I was there I interviewed one of these enterprising awardees and wrote an article about him for his university alumni magazine (another example of how to find work: pitching).
During the process of writing the article I had a few contacts with him to ask follow-up questions, and then also had a personal interaction in which I asked to borrow a plug converter. I followed up with him after the event to thank him and let him know about the article, and then I emailed the article to him when it was published. Fast-forward to six years later, when I was trying to drum up new work. I was methodically going through all my contacts to see what they were up to and if there were any natural ways for me to reconnect with them or any opportunities their current positioning could present.
I hadn’t been in contact with the young entrepreneur in six years (which was an oversight—it’s best to make checking in with people in your network a regular part of your business). But I looked him up anyway and saw that he was now the chief marketing officer for a tech startup in the city in which I lived. I looked at the company’s website and noticed that they were looking for a writer. Incidentally, I had been moving increasingly into writing in the tech sector.
I immediately reached out to him, reminding him of how he knew me (including a link to the article I wrote about him). I gave him a brief background of what I’d been up to and told him I’d like to throw my hat in the ring to be the company’s writer. He immediately responded with enthusiasm, and a short time later I had his firm as a client. Four years later I still work for this company, despite my initial contact having left not long after I started.
Here’s another example: When I moved to a new city, I asked a well-connected friend of mine if he knew anyone I should talk to. It turned out that he did and he put me in touch with a former head of communications for a major organization who now runs her own communications firm.
I asked her to meet me for coffee for an informational interview. She kindly agreed, and I was able to ask her about how she had started her own firm and what advice she had for me. I asked her if there were particular ways I should look for work in the new city. She said she’d keep me in mind for any writing needs she had, and we kept in touch informally for a while before she ended up hiring me for multiple assignments over the next few years.
The Goal Is To Know People and Be Known
As these two examples illustrate, the best kind of networking is the type where you:
- Take action to seek connection so you don’t sit around waiting for people to contact you
- Do research to make sure you’re connecting effectively, such as seeing what position the contact is in or what is going on with their org or sector
- Connect in ways that only seek an immediate return for yourself when it’s appropriate, such as if there’s a job opening that you’d like to inquire about
- Continue to keep in touch with people over time so you develop a track record as a trusted and competent professional they might gain something from eventually
The goal of networking is, simply put, to know people. Because when you know people, they know you. That may be obvious, but think about the advantage of being a known entity in your field. Your name will be the one that pops to mind when they suddenly have a need for a freelancer who offers the service you provide.
Before you know it, work will be rolling in the door without you having to even ask for it. That’s why networking is probably the number-one most powerful tool in the success of a long-term freelance career.