What’s the most difficult part of being a freelance creative professional? For many, the obvious answer is establishing yourself during that first year on the job. From finding clients to escaping the 9-to-5 grind, you have your work cut out for you. It’s a perilous road, but I’d contend there’s an even dicier obstacle along the freelancer’s path.
Imagine you’re four or five years into the game. You’re unsure if your current level of success is adequate. You feel like you’re in a creative rut. A few deadbeats have stiffed you on expensive jobs. To top it off, some of your long-term clients have become scarce.
If that scenario sounds familiar, don’t fret. I found myself in that same place not that long ago, and it’s a story many a freelancer can echo. Figuring out what to do once you’ve hit that second phase of your business is harrowing. With a few adjustments, though, you can tackle the problem with confidence.
Making Sense of the Challenge
“What in the world happened?” I uttered something to that effect once the gravity of my situation hit me. It seemed like a sudden change. One moment, there’s a steady stream of work and accolades. But the next, there was a dearth of jobs, and more importantly, inspiration. How is it that my budding freelance career became stagnant from out of the blue?
After ruling out nebulous “external forces” as a factor, what remained was a sobering answer — complacency. It’s the kiss of death for any creative mind. I let initial success make me lazy, and I fell into a rut without a clue. As legendary Intel CEO Andy Grove once put it: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
I was still marketing, but I hadn’t changed my approach. The traditional, outbound techniques I was using (like commercials and general advertisements) were too impersonal and didn’t take into account how the thinking of my potential clients had evolved. As a result, I started to see my success rate in attracting prospects plummet.
To top it off, I was hitting walls in other areas as well. My work was still good, but I neglected to push boundaries. I was using the same technology to complete my work. I hadn’t even bothered to change the way I balanced my workload.
I could go on, but to make a long story short, almost everything about my business had changed while I was stuck in the past. Common wisdom dictates “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you wait until it’s “broke” to change, though, you might find yourself up a particular creek without a paddle in sight. I had to change course.
Putting Yourself Back on Track
There are two ways to make sweeping change in your business endeavors. One is to make a series of small adjustments in the hopes they snowball into something bigger. When it comes to jump-starting a flailing freelance career, adopting a “top-down” approach, concentrating on large changes that alter the particulars of how you operate, brings more profound results.
In my case, three areas needed growth:
- How I was promoting myself
- How I was engaging with clients
- How I was finding inspiration
Not an exhaustive list, to be sure. Concentrating on these factors, however, brought the results I sought. If you’re in a similar situation, start here and the future benefits will be noticeable.
Seizing New Marketing Opportunities
When I first started, shortly after an unceremonious departure from the State Department, my marketing consisted of a decent website and an elevator pitch. Word of mouth and a strong portfolio took care of the rest.
Social media hadn’t grown into behemoth of self-promotion it was to become, but there were clear indicators that it would become an indispensable tool for marketing. I was afraid to jump into the social media waters initially, writing them off as a gimmick. Now I was stuck playing “catch up.”
Watch your competition and familiarize yourself with current trends and how they might affect your business in the future. Try new marketing techniques and see what works for you. If you notice the winds shifting, seize the opportunity, then pivot with haste.
Improving Client Relations
Though I took my work seriously, I had a tendency to let the conversation between myself and my clients cool after I completed a job. This was a mistake. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t cut it when it comes to freelancing. Keeping the lines of communication open is key to avoiding a slump.
All it takes is a follow-up email to keep your services fresh in a client’s mind. When they know you’re active and thinking about them, they’re more likely to think about you in return. Maintain an active dialogue with your contacts. Upsell your previous services. Keep it light and friendly, and your efforts will bear fruit in time.
Finding New Sources of Creativity
Creative blocks can hit different people for different reasons. In my case, a lack of new experiences caused my imagination to wither. You must challenge yourself to grow — both creatively and otherwise. Here are some ways to get inspired:
Look to leaders from other fields. Chances are, you already have an eye on the greats from within the world of art and design. A superstar, however, is a superstar no matter their focus. Scour insights from scientists, musicians, athletes, and more to expand your horizons.
Try to upskill. Like a hero leveling up in a video game, you can improve tangential skills that will benefit your core proficiency. You’re a great web designer? Now, learn how to code and watch your worth multiply. You’re formidable at print layouts? Get some photography under your belt and become unmatched in your field.
Pick up a new hobby. In a similar vein, you should also try doing something outside your comfort zone. I started taking judo classes and learning how to restore old furniture, then marveled at how it altered my perspective in other areas of life.
Let someone coach you. By nature, freelancers tend to be independent personalities. Don’t let that stop you from accepting a mentor, though. They’ll open your eyes to new points of view, which is often all you need to get the creative juices flowing again.
Preparing for the Future
I’ll say it again because it bears repeating: complacency can kill your freelance business. You should develop the habits that will keep you from falling in a rut early so that you don’t end up in a perilous situation five years down the road. Going forward, remember that continued evolution fuels continued success. Adapt, learn, and let your newfound respect for change light your path to growth.
(Header image: Source: Blackstock)