Growing up as an only child, I spent a considerable amount of time by myself, playing alone.
Now, I don’t say that to get sympathy…
That experience gave me the wonderful ability to never be bored (even before smartphones came to occupy even the briefest moments of vacant time).
But looking back it’s really no wonder I was so quick to leave the traditional workforce and jump head first into freelancing!
Most of my adult life has mirrored my childhood… My days typically consist of sitting at home, alone, working away. With no boss to tell me what to do or when to do it, I’m forced to rely on my own internal sense of direction.
Which is great! But only to a point…
Even with my years of practice becoming comfortable being alone with myself and my better-than-average skills in setting my own priorities and goals, this lifestyle can be very hard.
When I would join friends at the bar in the evenings they would often bring a work friend or two. Their stories of terrible customers and incompetent managers would dissolve in the libations and I could sense the solidarity and camaraderie they had with each other.
When I had a bad day, a nasty client, or some victory there was often no one to share that experience with — or let’s be real — vent to about it!
I didn’t have other coworkers who could understand exactly what I was going through. (As a frontend engineer, it’s hard to lament a technical challenge when you have to explain how the whole darn internet works for anyone else to understand!)
While I can never imagine myself going back to a 9 to 5 job, there are things I miss about company life.
Beyond the friends there are also immensely supportive professional relationships…
In tech, where nearly everyone is self taught, it can be really difficult to know where you stand. Through my 20’s I would constantly question my skills, how much I charged, and even how I described myself. (Even calling myself a frontend engineer still feels a tad bit disingenuous!)
I have no one to compare myself to… no senior level engineer to bring my questions to… no one to review my code… no one to test my assumptions against….
Feedback is key to growth and it’s challenging to get that feedback outside of a team.
Then there are all the hats. As freelancers we have to wear them all. We are the bookkeeper, marketer, support staff, clerk, and secretary. We have to do everything.
It took me a long time to release the notion that because I was a freelancer I also was an island. The belief that because I worked alone, I had to be alone.
So I began to search for community
When I started my search I didn’t know what I was looking for or even where to look!
I would go to networking events and meetups with no purpose and I would leave many of these events feeling like I wasted my time.
That happened because I wasn’t looking for anything, so that’s what I found — nothing.
But I don’t want that to happen to you…
So today, I want to share 3 ways to deliberately jump into communities that exist all around you — online and offline — so you can get the most out of the connections you make (rather than being listless and lost like I was for so many years!).
Lead with a “give”
Experienced freelancers may be at capacity and focus on a niche. Their clients may ask for more work or may ask them to do something they don’t specialize in.
If your fellow freelancers know that you would be the perfect person for the job they will send that work your way.
This is why it’s so important to know what you do and to always be telling others in the community. Better yet, you can show them what you do.
Give your skills freely to others in the community and they will remember you for what you do.
When I get someone’s business card the first thing I do is go on their website and find some way that they can improve it. I click links, use my skills to debug the site, check it on mobile to make sure it works as expected.
That way when I follow up with them I can add a little “p.s. your instagram link in the footer isn’t working.” Not only am I helping (which feels great in its own right) but I am showing off my value!
Ask for help
Whether it’s improving your elevator pitch, narrowing your niche, or increasing your prices, local communities can help you develop skills needed to be a successful freelancer.
Knowing other people in your field can give you a sounding board for feedback on your work. The people who aren’t in your field might be available to help you in places where you are weak.
For instance, I struggle with spelling and grammar but find that the copywriters in my community are quick to help look over something and give me feedback (thanks!).
Try this: Invite a few people together for a video call where each person asks a question to the group. I guarantee that any group will have the collective intelligence to answer almost any question.
Get comfortable being vulnerable
Community can be a support system to help you grow. Is your client asking you to provide on RFP on a project basis vs. an hourly rate? Is your client asking you to do work that is out of scope?
A local community provides a support system of people who have been there, done that and can help make sure you’re getting paid for the work you are doing and providing quotes.
This is where being vulnerable is a major asset. Talk about your problems, your struggles, and your confusion. Reach out to people you meet with questions. Everyone likes to help, especially if you have shown a willingness to help others.
Furthermore, as you show up and participate in the community, you will find opportunities to make friends. Invite people to hang out after events, invite folks you know out for coffee.
Do things that aren’t transactional — really care about what people are going through, and you’ll find that people really care what you are going through.
Freelancing can be so lonely, and loneliness is one of the most damaging things that can happen to us.
Just last month I found myself totally overwhelmed and in a dark depressed place. Because I feel comfortable in my community here in Denver, I found myself answering the common question “How are you?” honestly with my freelancing peers. Simply feeling safe enough to say “I feel depressed” was medicine.
Just being acknowledged by my peers with a “yeah, that’s hard — I’ve been there too” was helpful.
Relationships > Transactions
I want to stress that community starts with relationships, not transactions. What you get out of community is also what you put into the community.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m alone and depressed and feel like trash, I’m not exactly the most productive.
Having good mental health is good for my bottom line. Having healthy relationships is a fundamental part of being healthy and thus being able to make money.
I believe that the most worthwhile investment you can make is in community.
Find your local community and participate, show up, and put the effort in.
Support those who are organizing…
Give freely and without expectation of getting anything back in return…
Focus on relationships and prosperity will surely follow!
And if you want to know the BEST (and quickest!) tactic for getting involved in an incredibly engaged and supportive freelance community…
Join me (and hundreds of like minded peers, industry leaders and experts) at #FREECON19!
The Freelance Conference is the only one of its kind — made by freelancers, for freelancers.
It’s an incredible opportunity to meet face-to-face with like minded people who “get” you because — guess what — they’ve been there too!
#FREECON19 is happening October 27th-29th in sunny Austin, Texas this year! Click here to find out more!
Once you attend The Freelance Conference, you’ll never wonder “Who should I ask about this?” again because the answer is always just a click away!
What do you have to lose?
Join the safe and supportive community of fellow freelancers who are ready and waiting to guide, support and celebrate you along every step of your single-owner business journey!
Drew Hornbein is a freelance consultant who is building the Better Together Association of Freelancers in Colorado. He also loves community and has a knack for helping teams have shorter more productive meetings. He’s always down for a chat, just head over to dhornbein.com!