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Freelancing: A great strategy, but treat it like the business it is

Columnist Dean Swanson says being a freelancer can be a great life, but it's a business, and it needs to be taken seriously.

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Many of our SCORE clients start their business as a “freelancer.” That process is a great starter idea and has some real advantages. On the other hand, it has some pitfalls. My advice is to treat freelancing like the business that it is.

One of our content partners, Lori Martinek, owner and principal of ED/c Partners, recently completed a piece for us on this topic. Lori’s extensive experience on all sides of the marketing equation (agency, client and media) has made her a sought-after branding strategist in the economic and enterprise development arenas. I share some of her thoughts on this topic.

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Building a successful freelancing business is similar to running any small business: You need a plan to be competitive.

Freelancing opportunities abound in many industries, including project management, graphic design, social media management, content development, medical billing and administrative support. The shift to remote work has been a boon for freelancers, as was the pandemic. More than 45% of small businesses report using more freelancers now than they did pre-COVID.

At the same time, remote work has taken location out of the equation. Freelancers can work from anywhere or choose to move from city to city or country to country as digital nomads as long as there's reliable high-speed internet.

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However, these trends and perks have increased the demand and supply of freelancers, making it more critical to differentiate your offering. This is where branding comes in. Find an unfilled need in the marketplace and fill it. Create a specialty or niche. Make your offering a standout. Generalists are a dime a dozen. Like any product, it will be easier and less expensive to focus your efforts through targeted marketing. Be strategic in whom you choose to reach out to.

It takes time to build a reliable income stream. Start in a financially comfortable location. Most often, this will mean working from a home office. Keep your overhead as low as possible. This is especially important while you are building your business but good advice for any stage of the game. Freelancers who work remotely, primarily (or solely) interact with clients virtually and should not make significant investments in commercial office space or big city addresses. Where you are is far less important than what you have to offer.

Create a network or build on your existing contact base. Join business and civic groups and be active. Contact your base, tell them what you have to offer and ask them to spread the word or pass referrals your way.

Don’t fall into the trap of wanting too much too fast or of only bidding on high-value projects. Be willing to start small and build your business through satisfied client referrals. New businesses tend to use a lot of freelancers. Similarly, small businesses use a lot of freelancers to save on payroll. Having a larger number of smaller clients will also make you less dependent on any one account.

Online platforms like Upwork exist to match freelancers with potential clients but are very competitive. You are likely to be more successful building a personal network and leveraging it. Find local business groups such as chambers of commerce or professional associations in industries that you’d like to work in and join them. If money is tight, join LinkedIn and Facebook groups in target industries, engage with their members and make connections.

More importantly, get your first client. Be reliable. Do good work. Provide value. And then leverage it. Ask for referrals. Look for other potential clients in the same or similar industries. Make your clients your best source of new work, whether through new projects or referrals for new business.

A SCORE mentor in your area can help you develop a business plan that will give you a fast start. Your freelance career is a small business. Your SCORE mentor can help you think through the fundamentals, develop a plan to reach prospective clients, and provide access to online resources, webinars and networking opportunities.

Dean Swanson is a volunteer Certified SCORE Mentor and former SCORE chapter chairman, district director and regional vice president for the North West Region.

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