Marketing yourself can seem like an insurmountable task, but it is part of making your career as a freelancer work. Digital Marketing master Fi Shailes writes on her experience becoming a freelancer and how to build a public profile.
I probably procrastinated about becoming a freelancer for about two years before I actually became one.
On the face of it, I was doing pretty well at my full-time job, but I was also feeling a little unfulfilled. I felt as though my confidence at work had taken a few knocks that year. Maybe I’d hit that ceiling and felt like I’d done everything I was empowered to do, and I was now stuck in a bit of a plateau. I found myself wondering if more freedom and opportunity to professionally develop lay in setting up my own freelancing side-line. I was also saving for a deposit on a place of my own, and the extra cash would come in handy.
That wondering went on for nigh on 20-or-so months.
Being one of those classic introvert types, digital marketing suits me just fine. I get to sit behind a computer and do very nerdy, technical things, write, and talk to other people via email and social media platforms. I have always been the person pulling and dropping the stage curtains, but not the person actually standing on the stage.
So, the thought of managing client relationships and having to ‘sell’ myself was a little bit terrifying. I’d be putting myself right out of my comfort zone, and I dreaded to think of things going wrong and it all being a failure. But I think I’m just the kind of person who is always striving for something more – whatever ‘more’ is. Reflecting on it now, some of it is probably down to craving more freedom and control over what I was doing – rather than being bound by possible bureaucratic and political constraints.
Then, in early January 2016, just after New Year, I finally grasped the nettle. I’d recently started writing digital marketing blogs and publishing them on LinkedIn, but I had nowhere to house them ‘officially’.
One Sunday, I was sat at my dining room table and found myself signing up for a Squarespace trial (it was like I’d gone into some weird robotic trance). I built the first iteration of my site, Digital Drum, that day. I just got on and did it.
Then, I added a ‘Freelancing’ page to my site.
That was literally the thing that made me a real freelancer. From that point onwards, I became visible and ‘findable’ through search engines. My name was really out there in the ether. The shop window now said: ‘OPEN FOR BUSINESS!’.
Oh right. I’m actually a freelancer now.
Whilst that sounds a bit flippant, as I’ve already said, it took me ages to set up as a freelancer. And, to be honest, I didn’t know when or how my first client would turn up. Sure enough, a few months later they did. A training company based down south reached out to me via LinkedIn, and before I knew it, I was hired. Suddenly, I was prompted into action – researching invoicing apps, paperwork templates, and writing proposal emails.
The next few months were a real learning curve for me. I guess I already had the ‘delivery’ part nailed because of my pre-existing experience as a digital and content marketer, and I was an experienced marketer already, so that was handy. But maintaining client relationships was all new to me. As I said before, my personality type didn’t naturally lend itself to being very client-facing.
Whilst my first client was enjoyable to work with, there was some classic ‘armchair marketing’ going on, where they basically didn’t always agree with my approaches to complete the work (which were both ‘tried and tested’ and conventional practices).
On top of this, there were regular phone conversations where I’d be instructed to do something at the beginning of the call, but something very different (to achieve the same objective) by the end of it.
I would say that was my first and main hurdle to get over really – managing mis-instruction (or lack of instruction) without creating ripples with the client. It’s a challenge that I’m sure many of my freelancing peers have also faced.
The reality is that you don’t know what you can do until you try. A few months on, I took on another couple of clients (one of whom is still with me currently), and during that first year of freelancing part-time, I really became much better at managing customer relationships. I got briefs confirmed in writing. I was more communicative about how tasks were going.
In the background, I’d become more self-confident about what I did. I could now not only deliver, but I was getting better at handling the whole thing, end-to-end. What’s more, I was doing it alongside quite a busy full-time role.
It’s coming up to three years of working as a freelancer, and I am so glad I started this venture. My professional confidence has hit an all-time high.
I have six clients with me at the moment, and the experience I’ve gained from completing work for people in different industries has been invaluable.
If you’re thinking of freelancing, here’s my advice:
Accept that you will need to build a public profile and market yourself.
I am still working on my abysmal schmoozing skills at networking events, as I’m like one of those sea creatures that freezes and pretends to be a rock when you put me in that kind of environment. But online, I’m in my element, and the vast majority of the promotion I do for my business is through digital channels; mainly social media.
Have a think about whether:
- You have the time (and skills) to set up, manage, and maintain social media profiles for your freelancing business?
- You have time to write/be videoed talking about your field, and basically be your own little PR machine?
- You have the confidence to promote your own content and website to others (including your freelancing peers, who may sometimes challenge you?)
Then get to work on:
- Your website: This is the most important digital platform for your freelance business. Why? Because it’s yours. It represents you and what you’re offering. How your site looks, reads and behaves to a user can make the difference between someone making an enquiry and someone who clicks straight off onto another site to continue their search.
You probably won’t get your website ‘perfect’ first time, but don’t worry because it’s a website and you can make tweaks to it and shift things around whenever you want!
Your LinkedIn account:
Optimise your profile, connect to as many relevant people as you can; both prospective customers and your peers. Also, get involved in conversations on there, and use it mindfully to post links to the original content that you create for your website.
Your other social media accounts:
The bare minimum you should set up (beyond a LinkedIn account) is a Facebook and Twitter presence for your business. And if your service is one which lends itself perfectly to being photographed, consider setting up Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr profiles too.
You should invest time in setting up a presence for your business on as many relevant social platforms as possible.
For example, my website is full of written content about all things digital marketing, so I use all of the above platforms – plus, I can also be found on Apple News, Medium, and Flipboard. They all send traffic to the Digital Drum website.
What I’m basically saying is…
I don’t regret freelancing, and I’m kind of proud of where I’ve got to with it all. I wouldn’t say it’s been an easy path to take, and you do have to feel your way on some things, but for me personally, it’s brought new opportunities and it’s been satisfying and validating at a time when I couldn’t have felt further from that at my (then) full-time job. I’ve learned so much.
So, if you’ve been thinking about it and the risk of you trying it out is fairly low, I’d say go for it and see how you find it. Don’t be afraid to talk to other freelancing peers either – most of us are pretty helpful and, depending on what line of work you’re in, probably won’t be a direct competitor.
You might just find that you’re actually quite good at being a freelancer.