Networking is the process of interacting with others to allow you to exchange information or develop contacts, whether professional or social. Perhaps the most common use of the term is in the context of job-hunting, but it is equally important for freelancers.
As a freelancer, your network is perhaps your most important tool for obtaining work because it allows you to create and validate a reputation.
There are a number of ways to network effectively, including online and offline. You can draw on your existing network, or you can extend it by setting out to meet new people. This page explores some of these ways, and discusses their benefits and drawbacks.
Fundamentally, you need a network. Most people prefer to work with someone they know, or who has been recommended by an organisation or a person that they trust: that is, someone from within their network.
It therefore makes sense that a large amount of your work is likely to come from within your network, either from your existing contacts, or as you expand it actively through work and networking activities.
Your existing network consists of your friends, family, acquaintances, and probably a large number of people who have worked with you over the years. They all know you, and many of them are familiar with your work. They might well be prepared to recommend you to other people.
One of the quickest ways to network early on in your freelance career is to drop all your contacts an email explaining that you have gone freelance, and setting out what you do.
Include your contact details and end with something like ‘Please feel free to mention my name to anyone you know who is looking for someone to do this kind of work'.
Your future network might well include some or all of:
- Other freelancers, whom you have met at freelancing events, co-working spaces, or on freelancer forums;
- Potential and actual clients, who are prepared to both use your services and recommend you to others; and
- Providers of freelance work and networking opportunities, such as design centres, editing services, or freelance pools.
All these can potentially be useful and build your reputation and/or provide you with work. They may also be invaluable in providing information. It is therefore a good idea to make sure that you know people's names, and a little bit about them, and preferably have some contact information, so that you can follow up an initial contact.
Remember, too, that you may have information or skills that they will value: networking is a two-way process.
Business or Pleasure?
Networking does not only happen at formal business networking events. You could easily find yourself chatting to someone at a party who turns out to need a writer, or a designer.
Fortunately, the rules of networking are very similar to those for meeting new people and striking up conversations more generally: build rapport, show interest, and listen to them.
Fundamentally, networking is all about building relationships.
Social relationships are just as important as business ones. In fact, as a homeworker, they could be even more important, because we all need to get out and chat to someone from time to time. Do not feel embarrassed about getting out your phone and asking to have someone's number or email address if you feel that you could help each other in some way. If you are at all worried about sounding creepy, try saying something like:
It sounds like we may be able to help each other in business. Would you be interested in exchanging details, and perhaps meeting up for a coffee another time to discuss this?”
After all, the worst that can happen is that they say no.
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to network is online. LinkedIn is probably the professional network of choice for a large number of people. You can use the site as a way to keep in touch with people that you would not describe as friends, exactly, but who you have worked with, and where you would like to remain in professional contact.
LinkedIn has a number of useful features that can help with networking and getting work. These include:
- The ability to search for jobs, many of which may be flexible or freelance, or may show you other possible openings;
- Being able to post articles that you have written or may be of interest to others in your field and/or potential clients. This can raise your profile and bring you to the attention of more people; and
- Groups and discussion forums, many of which are industry- or profession-related, and can therefore allow you to make contact with other freelancers or potential clients in your area of expertise. This can enable you to ask questions such as how to handle a difficult client, what to charge, or how to manage billing, within a relatively safe environment.
Freelance websites may also have discussion forums, where you can ask similar questions of other freelancers. Be aware, however, that potential clients may be able to see these forums: be careful what you ask, and how much information you disclose about clients.
You may also want to write your own blog, or contribute guest posts to other blogs. Be aware, however, that while you are writing for free, you are not earning money. This route should only be used if it is genuinely going to mean that more people send you work—and remember that once you start, you will need to keep it up, even when you are very busy.
You may also find it helpful to meet people face-to-face. It is, after all, much easier to build relationships that way. Ways to network in person include:
- Business conferences and trade shows in your local area.
- Local business networking events, such as those run by the local Chamber of Commerce.You can find out about these using search engines. There is obviously a trade-off between cost (including your time) and benefits, so it is worth choosing your events carefully. Try to attend free and local events if possible, to keep your costs low.
- Alumni networking events run by your old school or university, to which you are probably routinely invited; and
- Meet-Ups, which are social events set up online, but held in person. Use www.meetup.com to identify events in your local area that you would find interesting. You can choose from business-related to social events such as book groups or other special interest groups.
A Trade-Off in Cost and Benefit
There is a trade-off to networking, between cost and benefit.
Your costs include any actual expenses, such as travelling to events, or possibly buying business clothes to wear, but remember that as a freelancer, your time is also money. If all you do is travel to events, meet people, and chat, you are not working and therefore not earning. On the other hand, if you have no work to do, you might as well be networking as playing games or reading social media posts about cats.
Over time, you will develop a feel for which networking events and/or opportunities are worth your time. This will enable you to maximise both work and network time, and get the most out of both.