3 Reasons Why Creative Freelancers Should Go Bold Or Go Home

A long time ago in a faraway place called Pasadena, CA, I sat in a classroom and heard my instructor say, “You can’t sit around waiting for someone to hire you. The phone’s not going to ring simply because you’re an amazing artist or designer. It’s not going to ring just because you graduated from Art Center and have a stunning portfolio.”

The difficult truth is that he was right. No one will call you. No one will “discover” you. No one will find you. And no one will just show up on your website and hire you just like that. Well, maybe occasionally that one will happen. But really, no one is looking for you.

Whenever I express my frustration with not getting enough clients (it happens, freelancers!) someone always says “You should be on Behance.” or “Are you on Creative Hotlist?” or “You should advertise in the Workbook” or something similar. The thing with that is, I’m already on those platforms. And despite what their sales reps say, they are not all that effective on an on-going basis for luring clients to you.

You can post your work on Behance, Tumblr and Instagram. You can build your website. You can use the latest platforms and marketing channels. But the reality is, no one’s going to find you. Unless you…

Do the work of being found

The key to being found is not in the platform you use. It is in identifying and engaging with people who can use what you offer. In order to bring people “home” to your web site you have to go out and grab them and bring them in. You need to introduce yourself and invite them in, and give them a reason to accept. In short, you need to go looking for them.

Go ahead and set yourself up on various platforms. But don’t rely alone on being there. No platform is going to promote your work for you. That’s your job.

From my own experience, we need to move beyond our doubts and fears and take the risk of exposing ourselves in the marketplace. We need to do this frequently. We must be willing to make a few phone calls. We must be willing to network and walk up to total strangers. We must be willing to send a personalized email. We must be courageous to ask for referrals. We need to boldly request appointments, advice and testimonials. We must be determined to ask for the sale.  We need to make a plan and follow through.

If you want to work with a certain organization, how will they know you exist unless you reach out and introduce yourself? And when you reach out, you need to know who in the organization to connect with. That requires some sleuthing.

Once you know who that person is, how do you craft your introduction so that they will want to know more, recognize that you’re a good fit and are compelled to “hire” you? This also takes some research. It also requires some deep introspection on your part, because you need to have more than just wanting to work with the organization as your reason. You need to understand why you want to work with them, and why they should pick you.

Take action: Find a networking event or meet-up in your area that hosts the kinds of clients you want to work with. For example, if your aim is to help women business owners succeed, look for a NAWBO event. If you want to design packaging for independent craft breweries, look up the Brewers Association.  Take business cards, ask questions, share how you can help and follow up with people after the event.

Create relevant work

What you do needs to matter to the people you want to work with. They have their own best interests mind, and will not give any thought to yours, unless you join their journey. Relevancy is concerned with creating a web site that is targeted to the client’s audience, is easy to navigate and contains the content that audience is looking for, structured in a way that makes sense to them. Creating relevant work requires inquiry and empathy — understanding what that audience is looking for and how they want to discover the information.

It’s easy to create work that no one wants. It’s a challenge to create work that makes a difference for your clients and the people they serve.

It’s also helpful to work with people who are on the same road with you. This means that you make the investment in the vision and mission of your clients. Long-term relationships are more likely when you create a mutuality with clients and demonstrate that you share their concerns and speak their language. Their purpose needs to be meaningful to you, and you need to let them know why. In short, your heart has to be in it. When you work for the money only, your work will suffer, and you will lose heart.

It’s easy to create work that no one wants. It’s a challenge to create work that makes a difference for your clients and the people they serve.

Take action: Review your portfolio and resume from a client’s point of view. Reframe information and refresh your portfolio to showcase the kind of work you want to do that your ideal client types will care about. Create self-determined projects that you will use to promote to your ideal client. There are several pieces on my website that were done for promotional purposes only. But I show them as if they were created for clients.

Elevate your unique approach

I’m not the only designer/illustrator in town. There are thousands of creative pros who do what I do, but no one does it the way I do it. The same is true for you. Your story, personality, life experience, approach, and style make your work unique and worthy of consideration. But you have to promote it that way.

How do you do that? Be descriptive on your web site. Treat each portfolio item as a case study that includes the client, their need, and how you met their need. Share how you did your research, what you discovered, and what inspired you. Then share how your design decisions support the message of the project. When you can, share the results. “My work helped attract over 15,000 visitors to the 4-day event.”

I require my design students to “defend” their choices, to observe themselves in their processes, and to develop an approach to creating art and design. Why? Because clients will challenge their choices and approach. We each, as creative pros, should do this. Why this choice and not that one? Why this approach? What’s the story? What is the basis for this decision or the choice to include that element? And why do we do this at all? There are easier career paths.

So don’t focus on your work, skills, and talent. Instead, promote your story, and how you arrived at this particular photographic style or that type of design. Talk about how your work flows from your story, and how your story is relevant to your clients. Promote your approach in a way that prospective clients can take hold: “I took this approach, and it caught on in the marketplace, and the client reports increasing their sales by over 200%”. Without a relevance connection, you won’t gain the client.

Take action: Go to your about page on your website and read it as if you were a prospective client. What will make prospects want to become your clients? If there’s nothing there, re-write the copy. Ask a colleague to critique your site. Ask a current or past client for what they think. Take their insight and use it to rework and refresh your site.

If you haven’t noticed, the landscape for professional creatives has changed. It’s been commoditized, and clients have the power of choice. You can play with the mediocre by competing on price, running up against untrained technicians who will create a low-end design for $5. Or, you can play up your deep expertise and relevant story in helping clients meet their business challenges with effective creative solutions. I am taking my own advice and am in the process of auditing my own website and promotional materials as the starting point in upgrading and shifting gears to attract a new genre of ideal client.

You cannot just sit around wondering what to do. Get up, get out on the road. Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. Now, more than ever, you need to boldly go in order to stand out and rise above.