Last night, I gave a keynote talk at Nottingham Trent University on behalf of the society for freelancers and the self-employed - IPSE. The Freelancing for Students event is part of a new series and is designed to give students across all disciplines top tips and advice on how to successfully launch a career as a freelancer.
A terrifying number of people turned up, but it wasn't that scary at all. I was joined by Di Tunney from The Creative Quarter Company and there was a great panel discussion with three fellow freelancers, all addressing the challenges of finding work as a freelancer.
The advice we all gave was, rather spookily, very similar (and without seeing the other talks prior to the event, I promise). So, here are the highlights for anyone eager to kick off a freelance career:
Find a specialism
You may assume that if you generalise then you'll have a larger selection of work to choose from and get more work. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the opposite is true.
When I set up as a freelance writer, I didn't push my science and technology skills to the front of my work. I was pitching for generic work and against a pool of generic writers. As a result, I didn't stand out from the crowd and, if I did manage to win some work, it wasn't very well paid.
Then, I set up as "the freelancer who gets tech". Yes, it's a cheesy tagline but it succinctly tells you what I do. Wrapped up in that personal branding is my USP: I've worked in the science and technology sectors I write about, giving me a unique level of experience that other writers cannot offer.
So, what's the message here? Find out what makes you unique. Push it to the front of everything you do.
If you can identify and shout your specialism from the rooftops, more work and more pay will come your way.
You'll become an expert in your field and the go-to person for that specialism. People know what you offer, and you'll be their first port of call as a result.
Be open to different ways of working
Once you have your specialism, make sure you don't take a blinkered approach to your work. If an unusual job offer comes in and it's outside of your comfort zone, go for it.
Speaking in the panel discussion, Chantal Duarte, sports psychologist and project management specialist freelancer, echoed this sentiment and told the students to have confidence in their skill set.
You're not "just" a student.
An example from my experience is when I was approached to do a spot of ghostwriting work for a prominent CIO. Initially, I hesitated as I hadn't considered working as a ghostwriter. But, I accepted the contract.
Now, that CIO has become one of my best clients. He's recommended me to his colleagues and he's probably responsible for 20% of the clients on my books.
And I nearly turned him down because I "wasn't sure" if I wanted to ghostwrite.
The thought of the opportunities I would have lost if I hadn't accepted his offer still makes me shudder.
Practice, practice, practice
When you're starting out, it's vital to try and practice your craft on a daily basis. This will help you to build your skills, find your voice and create a signature style that will (again) make you stand out from the crowd.
It's important to take inspiration from others in your industry, but be original in that work. Create something that you love and is fun to work on.
For example, my Sunday Science blog (where I explain science with Lego) started off as a fun way to keep me blogging on a weekly basis. It's now snowballed and I have hundreds of subscribers to the weekly newsletter. It's also been another way for me to find work as I regularly get emails from readers of the blog who want me to write for them.
Work experience counts
Work experience is a great way to build your portfolio of work. Don't be put off if a company or individual doesn't advertise that they offer work experience - send them a cheeky pitch for work anyway (more on pitching later).
You may want to approach companies from different industries too. Again, it's about throwing the net as wide as possible and seeing if you can catch a break.
When you're at university, you could also volunteer for a student society. For example, if you want to be a freelance web designer - find a society with a lousy website and ask if you can redesign it for them.
And every time you do a chunk of work experience, put it in your portfolio. Write down what you did, the skills you gained and the people you met.
Work experience is, essentially, an extended job interview where you'll meet people working in the industry. So, make a good impression and start forging connections.
Finding work as a freelancer often comes down to whom you know. Which leads me to my next point...
Be a networking ninja
Go to industry events and talks. Check out the IPSE events page and come along to a talk. Get out there.
I'll be honest, I've been networking for 15 years now and I still find it a bit scary. But, try to get involved and have a chat with the other attendees. Sometimes opportunities will come your way from the most random conversations and connections you make.
Online networking is another necessity when you're building your pool of resources. So, identify a social network (or networks) that matches your work and go for it. Connect with thought leaders and comment on their posts.
LinkedIn is a must-have for most industries. Make sure you have an account and that it's up to date with all your latest projects. And put your specialism at the very top of your profile.
Get a website. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, just a page telling people who you are, what you do and your portfolio of work (with some contact details) is all it takes.
Pitch like a pro
When you pitch to companies or individuals for work, be smart.
I always start with a short introductory email. It helps if you have a personal contact but, if you don't, I'd recommend a sneaky little tool called ahrefs. This provides a small button in your browser that you can click when you're on a company website and it'll give you the email addresses of people at that company.
Make sure every pitch is tailored to that company.
DO NOT send the same generic email to 100 companies. It will be deleted.
Tell people who you are, what you do and how you can help them.
Do that in 2-3 sentences and provide a link to find out more.
Dear [insert contact's name],
My name's Gemma Church and I'm the freelance writer who gets tech.
I noticed [insert company name] hasn't updated its blog in a while.
As a specialist science and technology writer, I believe I could create some compelling content for your site. [Give examples here]
You can find out more about my work here. And, if you fancy a chat, my number is 01223 926205.
If you don't hear anything back, you could give them a quick phone call and ask to speak to someone in the marketing department. Or you could fire out another email.
The main thing is to be personal and proactive when pitching.
Experiment with job searches and freelance websites
There are a lot of freelance job finding websites out there. Just do a quick Google search.
While they are a great way to find people and (most) offer payment protection so you aren't left chasing a client over an invoice, there are some disadvantages.
For example, the website will take a cut from your fee and these jobs can be poorly paid compared to the industry average. After all, you'll be pitching for work with people around the world. It can be difficult to compete in this space.
Also, a handy tip is to search for jobs that aren't necessarily advertised as a freelance position. In particular, if you notice a post has been around for a while, the company in question is clearly struggling to fill that post.
So, give the HR department a call and ask if you could help them fill that skills gap?
Don't give up!
This was probably the overriding advice from all the freelancers at the IPSE event.
Finding work as a freelancer is tough. You have to continually pitch and promote yourself across multiple platforms and to multiple people to get the work in.
Then, sometimes, you'll get an avalanche of work and wish you had that 9-5 job.
Other times, you're twiddling your thumbs and panicking about the lack of work.
But it's totally worth it.
Because freelancing gives you the opportunity to do something you truly love. It gives you the freedom to set your own goals and fulfill your ambitions.
Some days, you'll work 5-9.
And you won't care.
Because you'll love it.
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I'm the freelance writer who gets tech. So, I blog on three core topics:
Science and Technology