I’ve been asked a lot about networking for freelancers recently.
I must be honest and say that it’s not something I’ve particularly relished writing about. The concept of “networking,” even as a thing, makes me cringe a bit.
I’m sure there must be people who enjoy teambuilding events, client lunches and conferences. I’m not one of those people.
I’ve certainly enjoyed some of these things in my life, but that’s usually been as a side effect of dealing with the horror and the social anxiety by drinking all the wine. Then I thoroughly enjoy myself, gain a reputation as a legend / liability (delete as applicable), and often end up DJing somewhere by the time the night is out.
Anyway, enough of the confession. The TL;DR is that I don’t much like networking. The fact I work from home means I can largely avoid it. However, it’s obviously necessary to get “out there,” meet clients, and establish relationships – even if that means doing so in the virtual world and not in a ghastly chain hotel near an airport.
So, with all that in mind, I present this article on networking for freelancers, containing five important tips. They’re equally valid whether you’re starting completely from scratch, or just looking to widen your circle of business contacts.
1. Remember that new contacts can come from ANYWHERE
If I think of all the clients I work with regularly, there are all kinds of ways I initially got to meet them. Some are friends of friends, some were referrals from other clients, some were ex-colleagues, and some I met by pitching to job ads on Upwork or being approached on LinkedIn.
Then you also end up with those real “small world” contacts, such as the “ex-client’s brother’s wife’s ex-business partner” – or something like that…
My point here is that networking for freelancers is a constant thing. Yes, there are specific networking events (which I discuss later), but you never know where that next client or exciting contact is going to come from.
It’s not only about clients; If I think about other people involved in HomeWorkingClub, for example, it’s all similarly mixed. The person who manages my Pinterest account is someone I approached after seeing her talk knowledgeably on the subject on a Facebook group; I get SEO help from an ex-employee of an ex-client; And the person who looks after my page speed was recommended to me by someone I worked with on a technical support desk back in 1999!
Over time, you do seem to end up with something of an “inner circle,” but it shifts and changes all the time. The key thing to remember is that an initial instant message conversation with a potential client could be the start of a decades-long relationship. You never know which of the people you encounter in business will turn out to be “keepers,” and which will be a pain or a waste of time.
And that brings us nicely onto the next point…
2. Develop your bullshit detector
It’s not always the case, but often it turns out that the people with the shiniest suits, the shiniest offices, the shiniest cars and the shiniest websites are the ones dishing out the shiniest bullshit.
I have so many examples of this I’m going to have to hold myself back a bit!
How about the client with the multi-million Pound apartment overlooking Central London? After knowing me for all of ten minutes and establishing I needed to fetch more parts to complete his computer work, he proffered the keys to a supercar in the underground garage, which was worth considerably more than I earned in a year.
But for all the flashiness and the pictures of him with celebs and supermodels, he turned out to be the only client I’ve EVER had to constantly threaten with legal action to get my invoices paid. A little bit of “deep Googling” revealed a shameful line of bankrupted companies and unpaid suppliers in his wake.
Or how about the one who took a large shared office near me? He was a “trader” with tall tales of how he spent half of his time in Monaco. He tasked me with pricing up all kinds of expensive equipment and consultancy work. When nobody could find him anywhere a few weeks later, I found out from the office landlord that he’d left without paying his rent.
Unfortunately, we live in very “showy” times. I won’t get too political – but just look at the current US President. Whatever your political leanings, you presumably wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the unpaid contractors working for any of the six companies Donald Trump bankrupted?
Some of the most reliable, honest and consistent clients I’ve had have come from humble beginnings. One of my wife’s main clients is someone I used to look after the IT for about 15 years ago, initially wiring up a couple of cheap computers in a tiny box-room in her business partner’s first floor flat.
I assume you’re getting my point by now? It’s never good to be too cynical, but it’s also unwise to be too trusting, As freelancers, we all want clients who will keep returning, keep paying on time and keep treating us fairly. Lofty promises of big things are meaningless until they come to fruition. As such, a client who’s paid me 50 bucks, as promised, two or three times, is held in higher esteem than one who wants to talk endlessly about enormous contracts with nothing concrete ever materialising.
3. Remember the importance of first impressions
Apparently, people take seven seconds to form their first impression of someone new. While networking for freelancers doesn’t always involve face to face contact, I’m inclined to think this is still very much the case.
For example, I certainly form an impression very quickly if I get a writing pitch from someone who fails to use any capital letters or punctuation. (And yes – incredibly – this happens). I also form an impression if a stranger, as happened the other day, endorses me for something randomly on LinkedIn and then asks me to do the same – that’s just weird.
The point here is, once again, to keep in mind that every new contact is the potential beginning of a long-term partnership. As such, you need to always be “on your game” when you’re first in touch with people – whether the contact takes the form of a video call, an instant message or a face-to-face meeting.
I’ve personally got this wrong plenty of times. A recent highlight was setting up a press pitch as an autocomplete macro, then sending it out repeatedly before noticing a glaring spelling mistake! I’ve also misjudged dress codes quite badly on a couple of occasions in my determination to be an honest “take me as I am” freelancer.
You don’t (and won’t) always get it right, and as I discuss below it’s hugely important to be authentic. But sometimes, when it comes to freelance networking, you simply have to play the game to get the first impressions right.
4. Consider the cult of networking events
Networking events are my idea of hell.
Worst of all are the “networking breakfasts” that you’ll find in most towns or cities. Sitting around a table pitching business ideas at 7am feels so uncomfortably forced that it makes me shudder.
That said, people do undoubtedly make contacts and do business at these events. You may, therefore, want to at least check one out. However, don’t be surprised if what you encounter is more of a clique than an open forum for doing business.
Conferences and expos are obviously more global, and plenty of freelancers do see them as a way of learning new skills alongside gaining some networking opportunities. I must admit I am more amenable to events like these, because if nothing else you head home with a notepad full of ideas. However, the social events and icebreakers on the fringes of these events are the kind of thing that will either appeal to your personality type or make you want to run for the hills.
It is worth considering an industry conference if you’re working freelance, especially if – like me – you do miss the occasional business trip. You get yourself a few days away courtesy of your business account, and hopefully return with some new ideas and contacts.
All in all, it’s down to you as an individual how much these events will appeal. Personally, I find the forced-amiability of a business lunch or a cocktail reception utterly ghastly most of the time. However, if you can enjoy (or at least cope with) such events, you could give your contact list a useful kickstart.
5. Remember that networking for freelancers is about authenticity above all else
One of the main benefits of working for yourself is the ability to BE yourself.
You don’t need to fit a corporate mould, comply with a dress code, or even suffer the worst of the fools – and that is incredibly liberating.
As I mentioned above, you can take this too far; I once turned up to a very glitzy press event in Portugal in shorts and flip-flops – to find everyone else in suits and cocktail dresses. While I excelled in authenticity, I suspect I precluded myself from future invitations!
On the other hand, I have long-term IT consultancy clients who know that my tendency to dress casually has no reflection on my professionalism and reliability. I can be myself with these clients, and be far more comfortable – both literally and figuratively – when I’m working with them.
The point here is that there’s no real benefit to playing too much of a role when you’re getting out there and doing some freelance networking. Self-employment means that you don’t have to play that game anymore. You’re better off meeting, bonding and working with people who appreciate you for what you are and how you do things.
Obviously, it’s crucial to keep yourself in check and ensure this sense of freedom doesn’t tip you into arrogance. However, over the years I’ve become far less inclined to obsess about how I present myself, and far less fixated on whether I need to filter my approach and attitude on a case-by-case basis. Admittedly you do have to be more flexible in the early days, but a general principle of maintaining authenticity should see you not just gaining clients and contacts, but gaining the right clients and contacts.
Freelance networking is something you can do anytime and anywhere. Right now, you could head for LinkedIn or a business Facebook group, start emailing some old business associates, or book yourself a place at the next industry seminar. Which one are you going to do?