Last year, my wife and I moved back to the major city we’d left four years before. In the intervening years, we’d lived in three separate dwellings in two smaller communities, moving an average of once per year.
During the second half of our time away, I left the restaurant management job I’d cultivated for the previous several years and began turning a longtime passion, writing, into a full-fledged career. In doing so, I learned a lot about working as an independent freelancer.
Once writing gigs became the cornerstone of my career, I in turn became part of a surprisingly large, highly dispersed cohort of creative professionals, technology experts, and other knowledge workers who can do their jobs from basically anywhere. Many of my clients were based thousands of miles away. Others were located right down the street.
This transition wasn’t painless. Although I’d kept up a side gig as a copywriter prior to embracing full-time independent work, I was by no means fully prepared for the switch. In particular, I lacked the self-promotion and relationship-building skills necessary to set myself apart from the many thousands of others who more or less did what I did, and to find and keep steady, rewarding work.
For the first several months of my new work life, I tried, tweaked, and occasionally discarded numerous marketing, self-promotion, and productivity strategies, relying on feedback from clients or prospects and the wisdom of more experienced independents as a guide. It was frustrating at times, a sentiment many other newly freed independents surely share.
Marketing & Success Tips for Independent Entrepreneurs
Eventually, I managed to narrow down a list of actionable strategies that made me more successful and productive, and can easily be applied to independent workers regardless of specialty or geographical location. If you’re also considering making the transition to independent work – or have recently made such a transition – these strategies can have a powerful positive influence on your career, no matter what you do. So whether you’re a newly independent web designer who lives in a big city or a “solopreneur” who sells Mary Kay accessories in a beautiful, slow-paced vacation town, use these marketing and success tips to stay happy, focused, and productive.
1. Set Annual, Weekly, and Daily Goals
In many traditional workplaces, workers are periodically instructed to share their professional goals with a multi-person team, freely sharing and receiving feedback with their colleagues. For many people, this is a highly productive exercise that focuses the mind around short-, medium-, and long-term visions for the future.
As a freelancer in a rural area or small town, you’re likely not in a position to share your professional goals with multiple people – perhaps just your spouse or creative/business partner, if anyone at all. This is especially true if you’ve recently relocated and don’t yet have a professional network in your area.
But it’s still critical to set goals, even if you don’t receive immediate feedback on them. According to Upwork, freelancers can separate professional goals into three temporal categories: annual, weekly, and daily. (On timescales longer than a year, individual goals merge into long-term visions, while goals set on hourly or minute-to-minute timescales are inseparable from discrete tasks.)
To set your annual goals, synthesize the successes and failures of the previous year and lay out realistic priorities achievable within a 12-month period – for example, “Establish relationships with six new clients,” or, “Increase billings by 15% over last year.” Weekly goals are likely to be project-based: “Complete 50% of project for Client X by Friday,” or, “Send out two statements of work by next Monday.” Daily goals can be little more than a series of priorities laid out in a schedule book: “8am to 9am: Schedule social media posts for next five days,” or, “12pm to 4pm: Edit five blog posts.”
2. Invest in a Great Website
A well-done website is a great self-promotion tool for new freelancers and independents, whose networks and prospective client rosters are likely to be limited in size and scope relative to longer-established peers. A great website tells your professional story in a clear, linear fashion. It includes your CV and samples of past work. It either explicitly lists or indirectly alludes to (depending on your preferences and your niche’s best practices) past and current clients. It offers other ways for clients to connect with you, such as a contact form, email address, or links to your social media properties.
Your website should also tell your personal story in a humanizing and even personal fashion, without ever straying too far from the professional straight and narrow. For instance, when my web designer friend left his old job and moved halfway across the country, he set up a new animated website that succinctly and powerfully told the story of his relocation, with references to his professional acumen deftly sprinkled in.
If you’re not an expert web designer or developer, seek out a nearby professional who offers these services. Since web designers and developers typically work on projects with a wide range of other freelancers and have client relationships with a cross-section of local businesses, they can also serve as a useful addition to your professional network, regardless of your specialty.
3. Promote Yourself
Build on a great website with consistent, effective self-promotion. Start with social media marketing, fleshing out your professional profiles with versions of the information contained on your personal website. If you have a business name, create separate profiles for it and keep your personal profiles (those under your given name) separate – no personal posts or updates on your business profiles, and vice versa.
LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are appropriate for most freelancers. Depending on your specialty, others may be appropriate as well – Instagram for photographers, for example. To reduce time spent managing and posting to your social media profiles, use a scheduling tool like Hootsuite or Sprout Social.
Also, create accounts with any popular job-posting platforms or portfolio sites that serve your niche, and regularly update your portfolios. Dice is great for programmers and developers, while Contently is popular with writers.
And if you have a decent-sized promotional budget and really want to put yourself out there, look into more aggressive forms of self-promotion, such as paid search ads and promoted social media posts. As these ads are typically sold through a bidding process, costs vary widely depending on competition in your market. For instance, Facebook requires you to spend at least $1 per day on sponsored ads, but competitive spots can cost many times more.
4. Utilize Online Freelance Work Platforms
You have no reason to limit your work opportunities to prospective clients in your geographical backyard. There’s a bevy of legitimate places to find freelance jobs online, regardless of your specialty.
If you’re new to the world of online gig-hunting, start with a popular general platform like Elance or Upwork (formerly ODesk), both of which cater to writers, designers, developers, marketing professionals, virtual assistants, accountants, business consultants, and other professionals. Others, such as Accountemps (accounting and financial services), LivePerson (customer service professionals), and 99designs (designers), cater to specific professional niches. Some platforms, such as Field Nation, help many different types of professionals find work while providing additional services for freelancers, such as accounting and tax help.
5. Join Local Professional Organizations and Support Groups
To deepen your local client and collaborator network, join relevant professional organizations and support groups in your area. Depending on where you live and what you do, these groups might pertain to your professional niche (for instance, a local programming or developing group) or professionals more broadly.
Formally joining an organization or support group often requires some financial commitment, which varies depending on the group’s level of activity and the services it provides. Lower-key organizations, such as developer groups that get together once or twice per month, might not even charge dues, asking only for donations or in-kind contributions (such as food or beverages) at get-togethers.
More active, formal organizations typically require monthly or annual dues. For instance, 40 Below, the young professionals group overseen by LSCP, charges $50 for an individual annual membership and $175 for a corporate membership (up to four people). But if a networking event produces even one new client relationship or collaborative opportunity, that investment becomes financially worthwhile.
6. Cultivate Relationships With Local Development Agencies
Many freelancers make a full-time living through online gig-finding platforms, but it’s not possible or ideal for everyone. Because they’re sealed by handshakes and smiles rather than e-signed contracts and emails, local business relationships tend to be warmer and longer-lived than virtual, long-distance relationships.
Regardless of where you’re based, one of the most cost-effective ways to develop business relationships is to get in touch with local economic development agencies, which serve as major attractors for talented workers, budding entrepreneurs, and established companies looking to invest in new markets. These organizations genuinely want to hear from creatives, independents, and budding entrepreneurs – no matter how modest their ambition – in the areas they serve.
Lake Superior Community Partnership, my old hometown’s economic development agency, essentially serves as a matchmaker between business owners, freelance professionals, property owners, and other economic agents in a sparsely populated swathe of Upper Michigan.
“We’re very much in the business of building relationships between businesses [and entrepreneurial people],” says Caralee Swanberg, who’s responsible for business development at LSCP. Swanberg spends much of her time fielding inquiries from business owners and independents across LSCP’s service area and connecting those who stand to benefit from working together. LSCP also maintains a searchable, up-to-date local business database that’s great for self-serve client-finding.
7. Respect and Align With Your Local Culture
As an independent who relies on personal and professional networks to advance your career, find new clients, and develop new opportunities, you’re immersed in your unique regional culture on a daily basis. You need to respect and align with that culture, even if you don’t completely conform to it.
Understanding and integrating with the local culture increases your chances of securing new clients and establishing mutually beneficial relationships with other professionals (including other freelancers, independents, and creatives) in the area. Professionals who fail to integrate risk alienating prospective clients or pigeonholing themselves as outsiders who don’t understand “how things work around here.”
The best way to boost your local business culture IQ is to seek out a local mentor – perhaps a relative, friend, or business development professional – who can give you advice about doing business with clients in your area. Questions to ask include:
- Do local clients value contractors who speak their mind, or does it pay to be deferential and consensus-oriented?
- Is it considered brash to actively solicit new business at events or venues not organized for that purpose?
- How ingrained is the local freelance culture? Does good work generally result in an offer of full-time employment, or do employers prefer to keep contractors at arm’s length?
8. Create New Professional Networks
“Be the change you that you wish to see in the world,” one of Mahatma Gandhi’s best-known sayings, is as true as ever. But perhaps a more realistic, worldly formulation would be: “If you want something done, do it yourself.”
Even if you live in a bigger city, your community might lack viable professional networks or support groups, especially if you’re looking to cultivate connections in a specific niche. But that doesn’t mean you need to resign yourself to a lifetime of online gig-seeking. No matter where you live, there are surely freelancers, independents, and entrepreneurial types in your midst. Why not band together with them to create a professional community in your own backyard?
OTA, a professional development and networking organization that serves the Dakotas and rural areas of Minnesota, is a great example of a sui generis professional network. When founder Hugh Weber returned home to rural northeastern South Dakota after a stint as a political consultant in Washington, D.C., he realized that his home region had no “concentrating force” for its tremendous wealth of talent and human capital.
“The independent photographer in [my hometown, population 3,500] produced truly stunning work,” he says, “but no one knew she existed.”
Weber initially founded OTA to organize networking events in cities and towns throughout its service area. It’s now much more diverse, with a filmmaking division (Spotlight Films) dedicated to showcasing “inspiring stories” from around OTA’s service area, a long-form journalism arm (Intersections) that talks up ambitious professionals, and an annual convention that’s best described as a cross between an old-school variety show and a TED Conference.
The Epicenter, a nonprofit based in Green River, Utah, takes a different – but no less persuasive – approach to network-building. Part traditional professional network and part business development agency, The Epicenter is a “passionate, multidisciplinary team of young professionals” that builds and renovates housing, puts on community-building events, provides consulting services for local small business owners, and leverages a surprisingly deep roster of talented designers and marketing professionals to raise Green River’s profile and promote its homegrown businesses nationally.
OTA and The Epicenter vividly illustrate the connective promise of a local or regional professional network – whether it currently exists or has yet to be forged. As you build your professional network, take a few pages from their playbooks. Approach a local video artist about producing YouTube or website videos highlighting the achievements of creative professionals in your area. Tap a writer, journalist, or corporate communications expert to build in-depth profiles for ambitious entrepreneurs. Hold smaller-scale networking events at local businesses, or raise funds from sympathetic companies (or successful, deep-pocketed independent professionals) to execute an OTA-style annual convention.
There are dozens of other directions you can go, and your network’s constituencies and long-term goals are apt to inform its evolution. But as these sui generis networks’ experiences show, simply getting started is the most important step. After that, things tend to take on a life of their own.
9. Use the Sharing Economy to Your Advantage
There’s no shame in having a backup plan if your independent professional career hits a rough patch. The sharing economy offers a bevy of opportunities to put your skills and assets to use in a non-career-oriented way.
If you have a car that’s not being used most of the time, why not drive for a ridesharing app like Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar? If you have a spacious, well-kept home, it could be a great candidate for house-sharing via Airbnb, Vrbo, or another vacation rental platform. If you meet certain financial criteria, you can explore peer-to-peer lending options through Prosper or Lending Club.
Task platforms like Handy and TaskRabbit let you put your physical and mental skills to use. And goods marketplaces like eBay and Etsy provide lucrative side income opportunities, particularly if you’re a crafty type. There’s almost certainly an asset or skill that you can monetize for extra income during professional droughts or economic downturns.
10. Take Advantage of Local Amenities
Independent professionals tend to have more flexible schedules than their office-bound, employer-tied peers. Then again, the independent life can be quite lonely, even if you spend lots of your time in coffee shops or other public places.
To stay focused, keep your energy up, and interact with your fellow citizens outside the confines of the worker-client relationship, break out of your work routine from time to time and take advantage of the amenities near your home or office. Maybe that means treating yourself to lunch at a food truck or neighborhood restaurant, heading to the park for a jog, or sitting for a spell at the edge of the closest body of water.
You don’t have to enjoy your local amenities alone, of course. When we moved for the second time, my wife and I both immediately embraced its incredible wealth of amenities and cultural opportunities: dozens of miles of mountain biking and Nordic skiing trails accessible without getting into a car, miles of rugged and virtually uninhabited coastline, a vibrant local food movement, and an incredibly rich homebrewing culture that produced two of the best breweries we’ve ever been to.
Though they didn’t directly earn me new clients or income, taking advantage of these amenities and opportunities dramatically improved my quality of life and professional productivity, and indirectly improved my relationship with my wife as well. Whenever I felt my motivation slipping, it was great to be able to get out of the house and into the woods or down to the lake. No matter where you live, surely you can find a favorite place or two to recharge.
Now that my wife and I are back in the city where we started, I’m happy to report that these tips continue to serve me well. But even though my professional horizons have steadily broadened since the move back, we might not be in the city forever. In my wife’s professional field, rural positions actually pay better than urban ones, so there’s a powerful economic argument to embrace those wide open spaces. Plus, we’d love to have enough property to grow and raise much of what we eat, rather than rely on a CSA as we currently do.
If and when we move back to the sticks, I’m confident I’ll be able to keep my professional priorities in order. And if you’re an independent professional or solopreneur, I’m confident you’ll benefit from these tips – wherever you choose to put down roots.
Are you a new freelancer, independent professional, or solopreneur? What other tips can you provide?