I’ve been hesitant to write about this part of the freelance experience, mostly because I’m not yet bringing in enough to pay a lot of rent and other bills on a consistent basis. So consider this a work in progress, or advice from where I am right now. If and when I learn more, I’ll keep you posted.
As with any business, I think, you start with “friends and family.” Lacking family contacts with potential work in Orlando, Florida, I quickly reached out to friends, several of whom did have a need for tech writers. With three good leads, I figured I could get off to a sputtering start. Two leads didn’t work out–one because there was no work, one because I was unable to work with the customer (that’s a story for another day). The third lead continues to send work my way. Not full-time, and not at the volume I’d hoped (yet), but it’s still there, and it’s opened the door to other potential work in the future.
Realizing pretty quickly that my original plans weren’t going to work, I reached out to other friends and even some strangers. Again, the work has been sporadic because not everyone needs my services at the time I need work. If this business has taught me anything, it’s patience in the presence of situations beyond my control. However, it is within my control to continue pursuing work that might lead to other things. This is how I ended up doing volunteer work for the Space Frontier Foundation and Powering Imagination, both of which are organizations advocating activities I’m passionate about–particularly aerospace and high technology.
For example, Space Frontier needs grant-writing help supporting its various projects, one of which teaches would-be entrepreneurs how to develop business plans and presentations that get money from venture capitalists–think there might be a use for that in my future? Meanwhile, Powering Imagination is working on a crowdsourced project to fund a quiet powered aircraft capable of flying over the Grand Canyon without environmental disturbances. The school that would develop the aircraft is Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in nearby Daytona Beach. At the very least, I might get out to the campus and meet some interesting people.
But do you see what I just did there? I’m taking the time to stay in touch with the work I love to do even if it doesn’t result in direct benefit because it’s something I love to do. (And, as an extra side-effect, I put in a plug for my customers in a forum they wouldn’t reach otherwise.) I cannot guarantee a positive outcome with either exercise, but I get to stay in touch with people who have similar interests and maybe, somewhere along the line, someone will pick up some bit of my writing for one of those groups and find a use for my talents elsewhere. I would argue that that is akin the actor who waits tables in a restaurant where agents or directors hang out in the hope of being “discovered,” but with a more satisfying return on investment.
And yes, I’m aware there are professional writers who have a very low opinion of “giving it away.” To which I would say this:
- My experience in the volunteering/advocacy community helped boost my credibility when I was applying for other jobs.
- My advocacy work has helped me build a network and has put me in contact with people who have had paying work for me.
- I am helping to advance causes in which I believe. How much advocacy is paid? Why do people advocate for one cause or another, anyway? Because they believe in the intrinsic value of the effort.
This is not to say I will do a whole lot of writing for free. I have, in fact, cut back on the amount of non-paying (not to be confused with nonprofit) work I do. However, if I start supporting a cause, it’s because I see some personal satisfaction or value in it.
I won’t kid you: at least two customers found me. How did that happen? In one occasion I’d put in a resume with the organization months ago and then one day I was called out of the blue, interviewed, and asked to submit samples, all sight unseen; in another case, a small businessman and fellow space advocate found me via LinkedIn and hired me–again, remotely. So it can be done. Success might not always happen the way I want or on the timeline I expect, but I keep trying new things.
The big thing I’m learning through a combination of reading and coaching is that it’s important to specialize rather than generalize my potential customer base. I know, that sounds counterintuitive. However, as Sally Hogshead points out in How the World Sees You, it’s better to be different than “better.” If you can identify your own specialized skills, interests, and value-added clearly, you also can clearly target your potential clients/audiences and most satisfying work. That’s a lot better than trying to be all things to all people.
I’ve got a few months before this house-sitting gig ends. Hopefully by that time I’ll have more steady work in fields that I like. However, as I’ve heard it said, “Hope is not a strategy.” As usual, I have work to do. Best of luck to those of you pursuing the freelance life as well!
I like this, especially the part about “giving it away.” To the reasons you listed I’d add this one: your volunteer work gives you material that you can put into your portfolio — so that when a potential client says “have you ever done this?” you can show them that you have. (Perhaps that’s what you were getting at in the first bullet point.)
Besides, if the choice is between working (even for free) and being idle, isn’t it better to work?