Some questions have a way of keeping you up at night. For example: Given the combination of artificial intelligence, competition from laid-off workers, and continued subpar pricing from newbies or those in other countries, are there, and will there be in the future, opportunities for people who want to create successful freelance businesses?
That’s the question I posed to Ed Gandia, a business-building coach who focuses on helping writers and copywriters. He also happens to be a wildly successful podcaster, author, and instructor. As his focus is helping freelancers earn more in less time doing work they love for better clients (it’s his slogan!), he is the perfect person to weigh in on the business of freelancing.
The short answer to my question, he said, is yes. And then, he provided a roadmap on how to make that happen.
3 ways to future-proof your freelance business
Gandia used this roadmap in his own freelance journey. As a full-time salesperson, he didn’t have the “sales enablement materials” he needed to get more sales. So he created them. He enjoyed the work and began taking courses and landing copywriting clients.
When he had gained enough work to equal what he made in his corporate position, he quit his job and began freelancing full-time. By following the tips below, he was able to grow his freelance writing business and ultimately shift his focus from writing to only coaching and teaching beginning in 2017. Here’s how you can grow your freelance business now and in the future.
1. Market your services and follow up consistently.
“The most frequent comment I get from clients is that they are too busy with client work to market themselves,” said Gandia. “But if you only market when you need it the most, you’re probably going to make poor decisions because you’re desperate, needy, and fearful. So you bring in the wrong kinds of opportunities. And that creates an endless feast-or-famine cycle.”
To make time for marketing and follow-up, Gandia recommends allocating 10% of your working hours to those activities.
Gandia acknowledges that there are a variety of marketing activities that could take up that time. If he had to pick the one that would be most impactful to gaining new clients, it’s what he calls a “well-crafted prospecting email.”
A key to the success of sending these out is to reach out to prospects in an industry or sector where you already have job experience, knowledge of a specific topic, and/or several clients.
“Most clients don’t care as much about writing chops as they do about how much you know about their industry and the markets they’re going after,” said Gandia. “They would rather have a good writer who knows their world instead of an amazing writer who needs to learn the nuances of their industry and its business drivers from scratch.”
He suggests including the following information in your prospecting email:
- Explain your experience in the industry in one or two sentences, including writing for competitors and trade publications.
- Research the company (no more than 5 minutes, said Gandia) and find some way to personalize your email. It might be congratulations on a recent industry award, a new product launch, or a particularly effective content marketing piece.
- Provide a link to your portfolio and/or website.
- Ask what it would take to be considered for a future writing project.
In addition to marketing, Gandia said that following up is an area where many freelancers leave opportunities on the table.
Here are some ideas:
- Send one or two follow-up emails to every prospecting email.
- Restart the outreach and follow-up process two months later if you don’t get a reply to your first batch of emails (especially if it’s a company you’d really love to work with).
- Find other potential marketing contacts inside the organization and repeat the process with them.
- Touch base every two months for anyone who responds positively but is not in a position to hire you. Send them a link to something useful or relevant—no pitch, just something useful or interesting. Then, in every third “staying in touch” email, include a question such as, “Would you like some help with some of your content?”
2. Move up the value ladder.
The more value you provide to clients, the more likely your freelance business will survive and thrive in the future, said Gandia.
“AI is going to eradicate the low-value, content mill, SEO-driven fodder you see out there,” he said. “If that’s your business today, your business won’t survive. You’ll need to be higher up on the value ladder.”
Gandia suggests moving as high up on the value ladder as possible based on these levels:
- Vendor—You provide acceptable content or copy. You may not be the least expensive vendor, but the price is a big factor as the client does not see much more added value you bring to the table. You are at a higher risk for your client switching to a lower-cost vendor.
- Trusted Advisor—This should be the aim of most freelancers, according to Gandia. In addition to your writing, clients “value your perspective, your experience, your knowledge of the industry and the markets that clients are going after,” he said. “They also like and value your ideas, your critical thinking, and the fact that you are easy to work with.”
- Rock Star—This is where your client sees you as an “indispensable resource,” said Gandia. How do you become a rock star? “Helping clients get clarity about what they need to create, which leads to them feeling more confident and able to make better decisions,” he said. “And giving them perspective and insights that help them create the right content that’s going to resonate the right way with the right people.”
Moving up the value ladder will often require freelancers to charge for things other than writing. “Many freelancers love coming up with ideas and brainstorming, which is extremely valuable to clients,” said Gandia. “However, when companies have to make tough decisions, and if you’re not charging for those ‘thought partner’ activities (hat tip to my colleague Austin L. Church), they’ll often forget that you were their thought partner, not just their writer.”
If you want to start offering these types of services, Gandia suggests it’s easiest to offer them to new clients. That way, you can present these advisory services to clients as part of your process. For example, if a client wants you to brainstorm ideas and topics for blog posts, you could build in a separate ideation engagement that provides topics or a content calendar for that quarter.
“One effective way I’ve seen this work is by offering a workshop, either in person or online,” said Gandia. “Even if it’s just gathering people together to provide input on topic ideation or what should be inside the content calendar, it seems more tangible to clients and is something they are more likely to consider purchasing.”
Freelancers who provide white papers and other types of complex, long-form writing may want to take a page from the business playbook of Gandia’s colleague, Gordon Graham. About 10 years ago, Gandia shared, Graham was getting frustrated with the time-consuming process of getting started writing a white paper—managing multiple decision-makers, getting agreement on the topic, angle, and audience, and how the white paper should flow.
Graham eventually came up with an idea that worked to reduce frustration and also created an additional valuable service. His idea was to offer a white paper plan for $975. Ultimately, Graham would not even take on a white paper project without the client purchasing this first.
“He called it ‘the project’s Constitution,’ and it was a very clear blueprint of the project, kind of a high-level outline, with everyone on the same page in terms of audience and topic, angle, the flow of the piece, who were the decision-makers, what research was needed, where the background information was, etc. Then Graham told the client that once the Constitution was completed, they could hire him to write it, it could be done in-house, or they could find somebody else to write it.”
Gandia decided to try it out with his own white paper clients. “Sure enough, it took these projects from a huge nightmare to a fun engagement because you got all the nasty stuff out of the way.”
3. Don’t take all the hype at face value.
“We’re kind of in the messy middle with AI right now,” said Gandia. “There’s a lot of hype, and eventually, the dust will settle.”
Gandia cautioned that it’s easy to get stuck in a negative mindset and that freelancers need to protect themselves. He compared AI to a great flood. “To survive that flood, you need to move to higher ground. You need to move up the value ladder. And one practical way to do that is to start selling your expertise, advice, ideas, insights, and perspectives as a separate service rather than including them for free as part of a writing project.”
Freelancer, business owner
Ultimately, Gandia said, we can’t forget that we’re running a business. And running a successful business requires that we take a more proactive stance.
“That means taking charge of your marketing rather than hoping new prospects will always land on your lap as they have before. It also requires that we recognize where and how we add value, and we start charging for that value. We also need to learn how to use AI to help us be more productive and effective. And we need to manage our mindset. There are plenty of things to worry about. If we’re not careful, we’ll sabotage ourselves and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.”