At the tender age of 22, one of my friend editors gave me the most important piece of freelance advice I’ve ever heard:
You are the product.
Because being successful as a freelancer or creative entrepreneur requires a lot of things: Hard work, a few very supportive friends, and probably at least one credit card that you’re comfortable putting some serious spending on until the work starts to pick up. But beyond the logistics, freelancing also requires some elements that aren’t physical or business-related. They’re intrinsic. They’re a part of you. You are the worker, you are the boss — but you are also the product. Your work needs to be appealing, but you need to be the kind of person who can deliver.
Successful freelancers have many things in common, but more than almost anything else, they share these three traits. And if you’re going to make it, you should, too.
You need to be professional: A professional-looking website. Business cards. An email address that is your name at a reputable mail delivery system or at your website. These are basically necessities — and somehow, they seem to be overlooked. Ditto with professional attire, and professional courtesies; working in a non-traditional setting doesn’t mean you can show up late, appear unkept, or skip preparedness. If you’re going to meet a client (or even a potential client), dress for the occasion, come prepared with questions and research, be punctual, and make sure you make it worth their time.
You need to be reliable: Reliability is a matter of professionalism, but it’s more than that. Meeting deadlines, being responsive to emails, and over-delivering are paramount. Your clients need to be able to trust you fully — trust that you’ll come through, trust that they’ll get what they’re paying for, and trust that you have their best interests in mind. The best, most successful freelancers leave clients feeling like they got the best deal in the trade — and when they do mess up, miss a deadline, or otherwise fall short, they offer apologies, extra work, and no excuses.
You need to be a hustler: Self-promotion is rough business, especially for those of us who are involved in creative pursuits. We’re not salespeople, and we’re often uncomfortably touting our own work. But to truly make it as a freelancer, you need to go to sometimes-uncomfortable lengths to inform people of who you are and what your services are. You also need to not take “no” for an answer, need to be aggressively good at what you do, and never stop coming up with new ways to get noticed and get work. Colloquially, this confluence of things is referred to as “hustling.” But basically, what it means is you need to be prepared to work. A lot. And hard.
“Hard work and hustle are grossly underestimated,” says CreativeLive CEO Chase Jarvis, who has often spoken about the need to put in work. And if you’re not sure how to get noticed? Check out his interview with social media marketer Gary Vaynerchuk, wherein Gary offers all kinds of hustle pro-tips for would-be creative entrepreneurs.
In the end, other traits — like being personable, being kind, being helpful, and being a generally informed person — all help in the self-employment economy. But if you can’t run a personal business, deliver, and get the word out, your freelance business is going to look a lot like underemployment.