Freelancing is gaining momentum. More companies than ever before are willing to hire freelancers and also more professionals are considering to switch what used to be called a “steady 9 to 5” to a freelancing venture. Still, freelancing is often associated with a few specific braches which seem to be made for that kind of employment type. And so, in the minds of many, freelancing is a viable option only for journalists, graphic designers, architects, programmers of photographers. Perhaps also for a few others. But what if you’re not experienced in any typical “freelance” career? Are you stuck or can you still consider starting your own little business and taking responsibility for your professional life?
I have been a freelancer for about 5 years now. My primary field of expertise is the airworthiness of commercial aircraft. How’s that for a freelance gig? First of all – can you be any more boring (actually, you can, planes are pretty exciting!) ? And second – aren’t airlines those huge corporations, with lots of worker’s unions, bureaucratic procedures, etc.? Is it possible to freelance in such an environment?
It is. And I’m confident that if it is possible in the airline industry, it will also be possible in whichever field you happen to be an expert in. Freelancing in a niche business – if you think about giving it a try but are unsure if it will be worth it and how to do it, please read on.
Why Freelancing is a Wise Choice for the Modern Expert
There are numerous reasons why, as a modern 21st century expert, you should consider freelancing. I will go over them in detail in several other blog posts but it seems like a good idea to give you a heads up on what’s to come:
You are obliged to provide value to the world.
I’m very strict on this. You are an expert. You know your stuff. You make good money using your knowledge. This is great. But, if you haven’t experienced it yet, you will one day find out that this is not enough. The world wants you to give back. To share. And as a freelancer you can do that. You help various clients (rather than just your employer) and you’re also free to blog, write books and share your experience with others. Freelancing allows you to do work for free, as well as for money. This may seem a strange “benefit” of freelancing, but sooner than later you will find out just how valuable this is.
You get to choose who you work for
Maybe not in the very first month. But eventually, you will be able to work for the people (yes, people, rather than companies) whom you trust, whom you appreciate and who deliver value to your business and experience. To me, this was always crucial. There is nothing more negative than working for people who drain your power and emotions. Choose wisely, and each project will be a great experience rather than just a nuisance.
You have more time
I have heard time and time again that once you on your own, time is gone. There is a myth that once you own a business, you work 24/7. Indeed, your total working time will certainly exceed the typical 8 hours a day known from typical employment. However, it is not about the amount of hours you have to put in, but about the flexibility. As a freelancer you can work in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. You can arrange your time in a way which suits you best. And when you work, you actually work (remember those coffee brakes and meaningless meetings in the office? None of that anymore). Time is crucial when you’re on your own. Therefore, you will have to make the most of it, while at the same time arranging for sufficient time with your family and friends. If this sounds scary – don’t be alarmed. It works out much better than during a nine-to-five.
You’re independent and responsible for your own actions
Every man’s (and, presumably, every woman’s) dream. Independence. You literally shape your life. Every success is yours to have. So is every failure. If you did something, then it is done. If you didn’t do it – you will suffer the consequences and there is no one else to blame. This is the taste of freedom and being your own boss. In reality, much more than just a boss – your whole life becomes interconnected with the work you do, and hence you need to become fully in charge of your life. If you ever felt that life is living you, rather than the other way around, be assured that this will not happen when you start to freelance. For better or worse, you are responsible for all your actions.
Great job security
Yes, you read that right. Times have changed significantly over the last twenty years, and this means that even if you’re fairly young, you were taught by people who lived in a completely different world. There is no such thing as a solid career for an entire life anymore. If you work in a “steady job” your job is indeed everything but steady. Companies fall, positions are being reduced, people are being replaced with younger (and cheaper) ones. Employees themselves often quit. There is absolutely zero job security in a “steady job”. None. To make matters worse, people with steady paychecks somehow seem to believe that they are safe. Which makes loosing employment even more difficult. As a freelancer you don’t have to worry about all that. As a matter of fact, you are continuously looking for work – that’s what freelancing is all about. You will end up having many customers and the disappearance of one of them, although unpleasant, is not the end of the world. As Warren Buffet said – don’t place your eggs in one basket. One steady employer – great risk of losing your only stream of income.
Is Freelancing in a Niche Business More Risky?
I believe that, as a freelancer, you should at least try to spread your wings in a niche business. In fact – the smaller, the better. This may sound counterintuitive, but I will try to give you examples and hints as to why it is better to be your own boss in a small niche rather than in a huge market.
That’s the easy one. In a niche market, competition will be very small. Meaning both the amount of competitors as well as their size. If you have a carefully chosen niche, you will likely not have to compete against huge consulting corporations. This also means that your potential clients are not used to work with those international firms and are more likely to accept you as who you are – a person with the right experience to help them out.
It is (Relatively) Easy to Brand Yourself as an Expert
I have already written a post about the importance of personal branding, and I will certainly write many more in due course. Whether you like it or not, you are a brand. You need to use that brand to get customers just as you need to use your brand to find a future spouse. That’s how it works.
Personal branding is a very complex subject, but part of it is digital personal branding. This involves all the actions you perform online to create a virtual image of yourself. This may include a personal website, blog, several social media accounts, participation in specialist forums, etc. Again, the size of the competition is of crucial importance. In a niche business, it will be much easier to occupy the first page of Google search results. Therefore, it would be much more difficult to brand yourself as a “fitness guru” than to brand yourself as an “expert in the use of thermography for detection of water ingress in composite materials”. Of course, the market for the former is probably millions of searches per day, whereas for the latter it may be a few hundred per month. But they will be your few hundred potential customers. Those millions for the “fitness guru” will go to companies which have occupied the market several years ago.
Networking is a Breeze
If you’re already working in a niche business, or perhaps have a very niche hobby, you know the problem well – continuous lack of resources online. We got used to believing that everything can be found on the Internet. This is simply not true. In many cases, it’s impossible to find a resourceful authority site or a good forum with active members if you are highly specialized.
But guess what? There are more people like you, who are looking for the exact same thing. Therefore, as soon as you become active in any way (be it through a website, blog or just simple LinkedIn posts) you will get the attention of likeminded individuals.
And as soon as you get a like or a follow from any of them, it should be very easy to get in touch and say hello. You will have gained their natural trust just be being an expert in a field which they also like and profit from. People really like reading about what they do, and about experiences similar to their own. Give it a try, and you will not be disappointed.
Main Challenges in Starting Your Freelancing Career
Self-Motivation and Persistence
I think this is a problem that every freelancer (or self-employed person) will have encountered at one point or another. Self-motivation and persistence. You have no boss. No one to tell you what to do. You can work, or you can relax. You can write or you can watch your favorite YouTube account. It is only up to you.
Once you have motivated yourself and did some work, you will quickly realize that at the very beginning that work may not bring you anything. Your blog may have zero visitors, the phone may not ring for the second week in a row. It’s easy to give up. To tell yourself that either the idea or, worse, the idea holder is not good. Persistence is key – do not give up until you have very clear signs that your method is not efficient. And even if that happens revise the method, not the goal.
This word haunts me. It seems that nowadays everyone must be creative. No job description even calls for a non-creative person. Even accountants are expected to have some level of creativity, although whether this is fully legal I can’t be sure.
As a freelancer you will be no exception. You will need to be creative, and I mean really creative – this time you don’t have to prove your creativity to yet another HR assistant, you actually need to do creative things to get out there and get some work coming in.
With limited resources, as starting freelancers often are, you will need to figure out how to promote yourself, how to get the tools you need to do your work, and last but not least – what to eat while you wait for your first customer. Creativity!
If there would be only one thing which I’m not it would be this – patient. Most of people my age and younger seems to have the same problem. We have been raised in a society which expects immediate gratification for their actions. I knew people who, as soon as they got a raise (i.e. as soon as they were told that their next paycheck would be greater than the previous one) ran to a computer store and bought a new TV set. Of course in monthly installments. The additional money was spent before they even had a chance to physically see it.
As a freelancer, patience is your new best friend. Every branding and marketing technique, every piece of work you put into anything that you do, will generate benefits in due course. But this due course may take months, and sometimes years to be fully seen. You always work for the future, which is very different from being employed – employees work for now. For the next paycheck. What happens after that is a mystery, which they cannot influence. Once you’re a freelancer this changes – you work today in order to get enhanced compensation later. Sometimes much later.
I think most people fail due to impatience rather than anything else.
Another crucial factor in making it as a freelancer, especially in a niche business. You will be on your own. This means that your self-confidence is crucial – no one else will be confident that you can get the job done unless you are.
It takes a lot of self-confidence to go out there and start convincing people that you will be the right choice for their needs. There are still people out there, sometimes even international experts in a narrow field, who cannot make themselves upload a photo to their LinkedIn account thereby limiting significantly the number of connections they could make. If you are not self-confident enough to even show your face on social media, you should really consider working on this a bit. You need to be visible in order to be reachable.
Care must be taken though, because self-confidence is often confused with arrogance. The key here is that you must be self-confident within yourself. You don’t need to go telling people how good you are (show them how good you are, instead). Nobody will work with an arrogant freelancer. Even in a niche business they will be able to find someone nicer.
Getting Your First Customers
There are several methods of finding your first customers and they may depend on the niche business you are specifically dealing with. However, there are a few techniques which I believe should work for every freelancer out there.
I keep going back to personal branding, as I think this is very often overlooked and not treated with the respect it deserves. You are a brand. At the end of the day, people will hire you. Not your skills, not your CV, not even your blog but you. Who you are and how you do the things you do will often determine between success and failure. Leaving your personal brand to chance seems irresponsible.
There are two main factors in a personal brand. One is what I would call the “actual personal brand”, which is a set of traits that make us up as people. It’s a mix of things like integrity, honesty, ability to work hard, a feel for good style, extrovertist or introvertist, etc. All character traits, believes, values, even looks – they make up a brand. They are what people see and feel when they meet you.
The second factor is your digital personal brand. This is before people meet you. In many cases, before the meeting takes place you will be thoroughly checked out online. Digital branding is a must. You can read more about it in “Is Digital Branding a Must?”. You have a digital brand whether you like it or not.
For a freelancer, networking is a perfect way to get clients. As an expert in your niche business, you can network with other individuals who are in a similar position, in which case they can share their business contacts and perhaps work with you on a joint venture basis, or you can choose to connect with people who are deeply connected with your niche but on a managerial or less technical level. This way, you can suggest to them your assistance in problems they may be experiencing.
Did I already mention that as a freelancer you will need to develop your digital personal brand? Part of this will be publishing. Online presence is accomplished mainly through inline publishing and it may be difficult to get away from writing at least once in a while. You don’t have to be an expert writer, but it would be good to release an article once in a while. If you really don’t want to have your own blog, you ca try any of the available publishing platforms, such as LinkedIn Pulse, which is my favorite as it gives you automatically a possibility to connect with those readers who have liked or shared your article.
As an article writer you assure people that you know your subject matter. In a niche business, this is particularly useful, as the people within the niche don’t get to read about their favorite topics all that often (which is why we call it a niche). They will gladly ready everything you are willing to write and they will offer insightful comments and lead to nice, meaningful discussions. At the same time, you will be on their mind if they ever look for someone like you to do a job.
I hope I managed to get up your appetite for a freelancing job at least to some level. I intend to write several more articles on the matter, each being more specific but focusing one issue at a time. Consider this article as a starting guide, and if you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or send me a message!