Networking: A complete Guide for Freelancers
Networking is defined as “the activity of trying to meet people who might be useful to know, especially in your job”. In practical terms, this means building relationships with people that help you achieve your goals.
Like any other type of relationship, it’s strongest and most authentic when based upon shared values and interests, so forget about the ‘rules for networking’. Focus on being yourself, have a succinct story to tell about your work as a freelancer and practice being a good listener.
Why Should Freelancers Network?
As a freelancer, networking has several benefits. The most obvious of these is finding new clients. Personally, I met 60% of my clients at social events, meetups and hackathons. Most likely, this is true for you too, even if you haven’t realised it yet.
However, without even attending events, a strong network can bring you work and interesting opportunities through referrals. For example, I co-founded my startup with someone who was referred to me by a mutual connection. Always remember, networking should be a two-way street, so If you know two people who should meet each other, make sure to introduce them. You never know what could come out of it!
Meeting other Freelancers
Clients aren’t the only reason freelancers should network. Meeting other freelancers can bring several benefits:
- Gain knowledge of trends shaping your industry
- Discover what the competition is doing
- Find future collaborators with complementary skills
I’ve found that the freelance community is extremely supportive and always willing to help you with your own career development. For example, a few months back I was introduced to a really talented freelance illustrator. Before long, she was teaching me how to make the transition from traditional paper drawing to digital.
Meeting other freelancers can also be an indirect way to meet new clients. The flexibility of each project and the fact that clients often have multiple needs means that someone else’s client can easily become yours too. A client might be building a website, and so they need not just a developer but a designer and a copywriter too. I’ve had first-hand experience of this and it was a really collaborative feeling.
Set Some Networking Goals
Even though we might know that networking is important for building up a reputation, finding clients and growing as a freelancer, the whole process can often seem rather daunting. With so many options available these days, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Here’s my suggestion: start by setting some goals.
Understanding the Importance of Goals
Most companies seem to understand that setting goals and, crucially, monitoring their progress is incredibly important for producing consistent results. But in my experience, freelancers tend not to place the same emphasis on setting goals. Yes, we might have lofty ideas about the heights we want to reach in our career or the quality of service we want to provide, but we never properly map out the specific steps required to get there.
This usually stems from a belief that the reason companies set goals is to provide a common framework to help coordinate multiple employees and provide the best outcome for the customer. But freelancers are different right? You’re just one person — you know what you want to achieve without having to write it down for someone else to read. This way of thinking is completely wrong!
As freelancers, we may not have employees, but we still have customers to whom we want to provide the best possible service. Setting formal goals helps you do just this. It helps you focus, grow and keeps you accountable to yourself, to name but a few.
Setting Effective Goals
In my opinion, the most important thing is to ‘know your priorities’. Priorities are not the same as goals: while goals are specific, targeted objectives, priorities are a set of broader desires. I’ve found that the best way to identify what your priorities are is to step into the shoes of your future self. In one year, five years or 10 years time, what do you want your life to look like. Think not just about your career aspirations but also your friends, family, other interests and personal growth.
Once you know your priorities, you can focus on the specifics. The idea is to work backwards. Start by addressing the long-term goals, and once they’ve been established, progress to the short-term (present-day) ones. When establishing these goals, it is important to consider the acronym SMART, ensuring that your goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
Remember, there are many tools out there to help you set and track your goals. Some of these include Trello, Google Drive, JIRA and Confluence. Or even a simple whiteboard!
Use Your Existing Network
Mapping Your Network
Harry Freedman – career coach, founder of the Career Advice Centre and author of “How To Get a Job In A Recession” – explains that the key thing to remember is that networking is a two-way process:
It’s not about you asking for favours from someone else: it’s about creating mutually beneficial relationships. And every contact you meet should lead you to new contacts, just like how every connection on a physical net leads off in two or more directions.
An individual’s contacts fall into two categories: those you know will be able to help you and those who you assume won’t. Make sure you pay attention to both and don’t discount anyone at first. Although you might assume your gran’s best friend isn’t worth talking to, her son might be exactly the person you’ve been looking for.
Your network will include both those you know well, like friends and family, and those you haven’t been in contact with for a while, like former colleagues or friends from school. For the latter, it’s worth checking out social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn to find mutual friends and connections. Make sure not to contact anyone yet. At this stage, the aim is just to identify your network.
Reaching out to someone should never feel too forced or come across like you’re just aggressively pursuing a job. It should be natural and authentic — converse with people in a genuine way and you will soon understand how you may be able to solve the issues they’re facing.
Networking works best when you form connections that are mutually beneficial or have the potential to be in the future. Be confident about what you have to offer — you shouldn’t feel like you’re approaching your contacts for assistance or are in some way obligated to them.
You can approach contacts in a variety of ways: telephone, email, letter or even through social media. Each approach has its own pros and cons, so use whichever one you feel most comfortable with.
Attend Networking Events
Finding Relevant Events
Even in the age of social media, traditional forms of networking are still the most popular. For some, these events can be an opportunity to meet other like-minded people and share ideas, tips, and professional strategies. For others they may be more business-driven, with a sole focus on gaining new clients or professional partnerships.
You should do some research online, focusing primarily on the event description and discussion topics. You can read testimonials and firsthand accounts of networking functions to learn which one seems like the right fit. Platforms such as Eventbrite or Meetup are great for this. If you’re a London-based Freelancer, this weekly event on eventbrite is a great way to meet other freelancers and enjoy a free day at a co-working space at the same time.
Personally, I’ve found hackathons to be a surprisingly good way to network. You can widen your circle and develop new skills at the same time! Don’t worry if you’re not a geek, hackathons aren’t just for techies. You’d be surprised how diverse these events are! Again, sites like Eventbrite are great for finding events of this kind — there’s a bunch of them happening every month.
If you find in-person networking sessions slightly intimidating, there are many other options online. For example, there are various facebook groups, general networking channels, freelancer exchange networks, and resume hosting websites for an assortment of industries. A significant number of these digital hubs are free to use, and some offer the chance to get contracted immediately.
Key pieces of advice for attending events:
- Come prepared: Some events let you see who else is going. Research them online, using social media or a simple google search with their name and city, and make a list of everyone who would be interesting to chat to.
- Pay attention to your appearance: First impressions are often lasting impressions, so make sure it’s positive. Dress appropriately for the occasion but avoid being too casual or too formal. You want to come across as both professional and welcoming before anyone actually speaks to you.
- Practice what to say: If you get nervous speaking to new people, practice in advance what you want to say when others ask what you do. There’s nothing worse than getting tongue-tied.
- Try not to be too shy: If no one approaches you, you’ll have to be proactive. Introduce yourself and ask a few questions. Your earlier research will help you start conversations.
- Learn to listen: People often love to talk about themselves, so let them. Learn about what they do and the problems they face, ask relevant questions, and soon you’ll be able to figure out how their needs intersect with your skills. Listening is an art. As Hemingway said, “Most people never listen”. And it’s true — I’m often guilty of it myself.
- Offer something of value: Exchanging business cards is the norm for keeping in touch with new contacts, but offering something of more value is a great way be remembered. For example, mention another relevant event and use it as an excuse to send them an email later. Someone once opted me into their email newsletter for freelancers on the spot which I thought was a great trick. Email marketing services like Mailchimp have features that let you key in email addresses from your phone.
- Drop a follow-up message: After meeting someone at an event, it’s a good idea to send them an email or linkedIn message to acknowledge the connection. Simply saying that it was nice to meet them will help cement the connection.
In any line of work, networking is important, but it’s especially important for freelancers. It’s a great way to find clients, improve in your area of expertise and just generally meet other like-minded people.
It may be daunting, but if you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and put in a little preparation, it will be a lot easier. You can attend events, contact people you already know or take advantage of many online forums such as specialist facebook groups.
Just always remember: be yourself, practice how to promote yourself and your skills and listen to what other have to say. Afterall, networking should be a two-way street and when you listen to others, you never know what you might learn.