Three Things Every Freelancer Needs by 2020

By Gregg Eiler | Blog

Welcome to the freelance economy. A job market where hustle and talent collide. The world is your competition and the field is absolutely packed. Now more than ever you need to talk about your small business a lot if you want to be heard. Portfolio sites, email chains, and referrals will do less every day to help you stand out amongst the millions of qualified, hungry freelancers. If you’re good with those odds, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, you’re going to need a better system. And it’s going to take more than the 20 best business apps for small business owners.

I’ve recruited and hired freelancers for more than 20 years. Websites like Fiverr have been little help and staffing firms bury me with resumes that all smell the same. Neither were great at giving me the information I needed to hire the right person. I’ve hired writers and editors, producers and project managers, coders and designers. Some lasted one job and others made a lot of money getting repeat contracts from me. Every freelancer I hired (and didn’t) had great portfolios or pedigrees and promised to do great work. But a great portfolio is not enough. And it’s going to be less effective over the next 5 years as we all use the same platforms to share our work.  

Hiring a freelancer is a guessing game and a growing problem because there are a lot more freelancers to hire than ever before. Most freelancers are pretty lousy at telling their story. They talk about their resumes and their projects, and can’t wait to show people their portfolio or book. Clients have already seen your work, that’s why you’re in the conversation. Now you’ve got 10 minutes to tell your story before we make our decision. We’ll stick around another 20 just to be polite. But stop telling us about your work and start telling me your story.

Recently I hired two freelancers (let’s call them Kevin and Kate). They labeled themselves the same way (Label: Freelance Graphic Designer) but are two completely different people with vastly different skills. Kevin is a pixel jockey fueled by graffiti and tattoos. He works quietly and gives you his full attention when getting feedback. He doesn’t need to hear things twice and asks great questions. He’s fast and always delivers something beautifully unexpected.

Kate loves mixing with those around her before getting to work. She doesn’t catch on as quickly as Kevin, but she’ll beg, borrow and steal to get the job done. She designs everything with pencil and paper and finalizes her ideas before powering up the computer. She’s not fast, but I get exactly what I need from her every time. Nothing more and nothing less.

I’ll remind you that both of these freelancers applied for the same job and promised me they could do the same work. It wasn’t until I got to see HOW they work that I discovered what makes them unique. Kevin’s the guy for the big jobs. He’s fast, great with people, and comes up with big ideas. Kate’s the illustrator. She gets anything that needs a unique and personal touch. They both work because I know exactly how to use them.

Kevin said he could do the work, but we had no idea we’d get something unique from him. Kate said she could do the exact same job, but said nothing about her illustration skills. That’s exactly why I’ve learned to toss the interview aside and find out HOW they work as quickly as possible. Show me HOW you work and I’ll help find the right work. Tell me why you should get the work and I’ll pass every time. I don’t want to figure out how and when you do your best work. That’s your job. The easier you make it for me see your true talent, the sooner I’ll be able to use it.

I’ve worked with freelancers in some form or shape for more than 20 years. Here are the 3 things you can do right now if you are going to get the best clients and gigs. Let’s be clear, I’m sure you can find work if you’ve got some solid skills or good connections. But getting the best freelance projects is going to require something a bit different.

1. SPECIALIZE

I went on a camping trip last month with two great photographers - Mike and Eric. Mike shoots from the hip, searching far and deep for the perfect scene and lets his camera do most of the work. People credit his memorable shots to his ability to go places others won’t go. He captures life as it happens in some of the tightest corners on the planet. It’s why he gets the shot that the rest of us can’t get.

Eric is a much different photographer. He is very technical and can turn any scene into a great photograph. He sees light in ways others don’t. He doesn’t need to put himself into interesting situations to find something worth shooting. He creates them. He always has the right equipment and knows exactly how to use it. By the time he presses his shutter release, he already knows what the final image is going to look like. Eric and Mike are both great photographers and work well together because they know what makes them different. They are masters of their craft and know whose story works best for their list of clients.

Both decided years ago what kind of photographer they wanted to be. They learned a lot from each other and applied it to their own way of shooting. They’ve never tried to shoot like each other and have found their niche. They have a different set of clients who continually hire them because of their unique skills and style.

Half of the working population in the US will soon be freelancers all going after the same clients. It’s not going to be enough to tell people you’re a photographer. Anyone with a phone is now a photographer. You’re going to have to tell them what you can do better than the thousands of other photographers in town. Eric can shoot any format in any situation. He has a number of examples showing how he turns drab scenes into something worthy of 500px. Mike turns down those jobs. Instead, he goes after the clients looking for a location shooter willing to put himself in tough situations. Neither of them market themselves as photographers. Eric is an Architectural and Studio photographer. Mike is an Outdoor and Adventure photographer.

Each of them learned the best way to pick up clients is to be very specific about what they do and market directly to the clients interested in those kind of photographs. Their clients don’t have the time or resources to shuffle through numerous photos from numerous photographers. Clients want a go-to-person. They want to be able to make one call to hire someone they trust can do the job. Are you that person?

One of the things I ask freelancers is, “When should I call you?”, and “Can you describe to me when you do your best work?” It takes some prodding to get them to answer because a lot of freelancers are afraid to talk themselves out of the job. But the sooner I can get them there, the sooner I can give them the right work. Don’t ever make someone guess at what you can do. Be clear. Be specific. Let your client know what you do best.

Can you finish this statement? If not, you need to work on your story.
I am a _______________ who can _______________ better than most. These are the things that come easy to me _______________ . Call me when you need someone to _______________ .

2. SHOW (Don’t Tell) PEOPLE WHAT YOU CAN DO

Years ago I watched a 5-minute documentary made by a young designer coming out of school. He knew if he could show people something unique, he’d have a better chance at getting one of the few great gigs in town. He volunteered to help a local company redesign their entire brand, and got permission to film everything. The film begins with an over-the-shoulder shot of him sketching out a few new logos while talking about the things that inspire him. We watch him land on a few concepts, turn a piece of paper into a logo, and a logo into a brand. We see him present his ideas to his client, get their feedback, make revisions and deliver a few great options. He posted his documentary on YouTube and his own website. Within months, he was picked up by one of the largest design firms in New York.

Why did it work so well? How did he land the gig of his life without making a single call or hustling for an interview? Simple. He SHOWED people what he can do. Think about it… how much time do we spend telling others what we can do? Our resumes tell people what we’ve done. We tell people at parties and in interviews what we can do. But so few of us SHOW people what we can do.  

I get 20 emails a week from people telling me what they can do to help my company. I NEVER call them back. EVER. Why would I? The only thing I can tell from an email is how good a person (or their marketing team) can write an email. It tells me ZERO about the way they work. Jobs and projects change and I need to hire people who change along with them. I can’t figure that stuff out by reading a resume or looking at a portfolio. I can’t tell if you are really good at your craft or really good at presenting your craft. I don’t want to see your work. I want to see HOW you work.

I’m a coursebuilder. Give me your time and I’ll show you things about my craft you’ve never considered. I’ll  show you how to put learners first, how to design and build memorable learning experiences, and how I get them to stick. I need to find ways to show you these things because I can’t find the right words to sum up my passion or methods to my madness. I know if you watch me work, you’d feel good about hiring me for just about anything. You’d be in good hands. That’s the person I want to hire. That’s the freelancer you need to be.

There are a number of things you can do to SHOW people how you work. You can,

Stop hiding behind your email, resumes and portfolios. It’s never been easier to show people what you can do and how you do it. What are you doing to show people how you work?

3. GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT

Clients forget your work as soon as the project’s over. But they never forget a good story. I’ve worked with countless people who’ve faded away together with a project. But I remember the videographer who left the corporate life to make his own feature film. I remember the graphic designer who worked at a trucking company to pay for design school. I know my home-improvement guy makes massive, metal sculptures for festivals. I remember them because I remember their stories.

Our brains are wired to remember stories. The work you did in the past means little to us now. We kick it out of our heads to make room for things we need to do today. To change that, you need to be memorable. You need to get out from behind your email and tell your story. There are too many talented people connected to each other for you to rely upon your skills and good looks. It’s hard to be a quiet person in a noisy world. But that’s the world you play in and you’re going to need to make some noise. And there’s never been a better time to be noisy.

[Download this tool if you need help building your own story]

This isn’t a lecture on how to market yourself. It’s a call to action. It’s time to start giving the world more than what you take from it. I’ve studied a lot of successful online entrepreneurs and they all have one thing in common - a stellar brand. They are out there using social platforms and websites to share their work. They look at every connection as an opportunity to add value and tell their story - stories that stick. Stories that matter.

Storytelling is one of the most popular classes I’ve offered in my entire career. It makes sense when you think about the best known freelancers or brands. They all have a great story and they tell it every chance they get. We remember storytellers and their stories. That’s what makes it so easy to call them when it’s time to hire.

The last two people I hired weren’t the most talented. They didn’t have the best resumes or portfolios. They were even a bit awkward in the interview. But I hired them because they showed me what they could do and had a story to tell. They told me about horrible bosses and failed projects. They told me how they spend their free time and the kind of people they get along with. They were thoughtful and clear. Hiring them was easy because I knew exactly what I was getting. I knew them because I had heard their story.

What’s your story?

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Gregg Eiler is a Master Course Builder helping creatives take over the world one course at a time.

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