Freelancing can be a lonely business, especially if you work from home all the time. It can also be isolating. It’s tempting to give in to the hustler’s mentality—the assumption that anyone who does what you do is gunning for your job. But as more creatives pursue freelance recalibrate for long-term careers, hustling and hoarding gigs lose their value as business practices.
Relationships and networking will always be critical, and some of the most important relationships are the ones freelancers form with each other.
Competition is fine, but collaboration is better
It starts with knowing who else is on your beat. “You can’t effectively promote yourself if you don’t know who your competition is and how you stack up against them. It’s Marketing 101,” said freelance business writer and author Jenn Mattern, who runs All Freelance Writing.
That doesn’t mean you have to trample on others to be successful. “A mentor from my corporate days said if you market your product by slamming the competition, it implies your product cannot stand on its own merits,” said business writer and consultant Cathy Miller. “I think the same is true about freelancing. If you think the way to succeed is by slamming the competition, maybe you need to ask why.”
Fact is, as brands continue to invest in content marketing, there’s enough work being generated for everyone—and then some. “I often refer projects to other colleagues if I feel it’s a better fit for their expertise, or if my schedule is booked,” Miller said. “In return, they refer clients to me.”
Cross-skill collaboration can also be a big benefit for freelancers. “I’m stealing an idea from Peter Bowerman here,” Miller said, “but a writer collaborating with a graphic artist is a match made in heaven. Each brings a unique set of skills and their own client base. When you get the right combination, everyone wins—the writer, the graphic artist, and the client.”
Writers’ groups can be a great way to collaborate with other writers and build your network. One place where these writers network is Anne Wayman’s About Writing Squared forum. “It’s a great place to whine without letting the whole world know [who you’re whining about],” Wayman said. “Celebration is also encouraged, which is great to experience and share.”
However, a network isn’t just a place to blow off steam. “When I have a question about writing—yes, I still have questions about writing—I know I can count on the members there because over time we’ve gotten to know each other,” she added. “It’s great to have a gang, a bunch who’ve got my back, day in and day out.”
Mattern, who has mentored writers for over a decade, agreed. “A few fellow freelancers have been lifesavers over the years,” she said. “When I need input on a new idea or big project, I know I can go to them and trust them for honest feedback. Several of my own projects never would have launched, or would have floundered, without their help. I couldn’t be more grateful for them.”
There’s a common misconception that networking is about getting people to do you favors. It’s actually the opposite.
“Make yourself useful to [others],” Mattern said. “Have a genuine interest in them. If you’re focused entirely on you and what you can get out of the relationship, that doesn’t make you a worthwhile connection. It makes you a leech.”
It’s also tempting to surround yourself solely with the top players because they can provide the most value, right? Well, that may be true, but they probably don’t need you as much, and they may be less open to your ideas.
“Too many forums and online groups are loaded with naysayers, and it’s easy for freelancers to feel they’re never going to get anywhere,” said Lori Widmer, who runs Words on the Page, a blog about freelance writing. “Better to find a group of friends who have varying levels of experience and bounce ideas off each other.”
When you do find a place to network with other freelancers, be cautious about whose advice you take. According to Widmer, “Any time a writer is doling out advice while selling products, you should take a hard look at who that advice is benefiting most, you or the blogger.”
All things considered, though, these writers value the networks they’ve cultivated and the opportunities to share and collaborate. “Some of my closest friends are people I’ve never met,” Widmer said. “I think it’s essential. We writers need that support system that only other writers can give because they, too, understand the job and the unique stresses.”