If you do a lot of freelance creative work, you might wonder what set you on the freelance path in the first place. In the old jobs-a-plenty economy, the answer might have been creative freedom, or indecision about how you wanted to spend your future and who you wanted to spend it with — the old failure-to-commit problem. Or perhaps you were just using the freelance life as a way of getting your foot in the door when you were just out of school or in the midst of a career change.
Every one of these motives is legitimate and justifiable, but in a declining economy, a fourth motive needs to be added to the list — freelance positions are the only ones available, and then only after considerable begging and pleading. Where jobs are still available, an increasing number fall into this last category, and if you are a supplicant freelancer, your life is going to be more difficult. So how do you avoid becoming an accidental beggar?
In a distressed economy, as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. If a job comes up, you generally will not have the luxury of thumbing your nose at it. Failing to apply for a gig on the grounds that it doesn’t perfectly suit your needs won’t get the rent paid or get you out of your parents' basement. Worse, word in any industry quickly gets around that you have been leaving money on the table, and potential employers aren’t thrilled when that happens. Failing to apply for one job might mean that the next opportunity never materializes. Whenever you hear about a gig or someone tells you that their company might have something available, jump on it. You might not get the work, but at least potential employers will know that you are in the hunt.
That’s the obvious part of being more efficient in a down economy. The real opportunity, though, comes from your ability to gin up your own work. There is no website, advertising campaign, business plan, or organization that cannot be improved in some substantive way, and companies will be open to the idea of change if you will only take the time to convince them that a) you have the means to make their business better, and that b) because it’s your idea you can execute it better than anyone else, and finally, c) that they ought to hire you to do it if they want to remain competitive.
This sounds nervy, but attitude isn’t just something you put on to get past the velvet rope. If you are really better than the room, show it by being willing to generate your own jobs instead of waiting for work to come to you. Where do you begin? Back about fifteen years ago, I worked as the head of new business for a small but well-regarded advertising agency. I used to write letters to CEOs, explaining why their advertising was rotten, backing up my claim with sales figures taken from publicly available data. Five times out of ten I was able to get a meeting, and three times out of ten I was able to turn that meeting into new business. The letters were tightly focused and asked for nothing more than the right to sit down and talk a bit more.
Generating new business is no more difficult than the willingness to ask for the right to pitch. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t get a reply to every letter. But as my friend Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision, is fond of saying, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” If you are going to be a successful freelancer, cultivate the art of asking.
Stephen Kindel is the Chief Operating Officer of The Bronx Project, a startup pharmaceutical company. He has had many jobs, written many books and hired many people over his career. His latest book, Skill Sets, is available by contacting him at
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