How to Get a Freelance Gig: Tips From Someone Who Hires Freelancers
by Jane Twain
Freelancing: It’s an art, it’s a hustle. It’s also a tough (but rewarding!) way of making a living. Know what else is tough (and rewarding)? Being the person who hires and manages freelancers. Here’s how you, dear freelancer, can help me transfer money from our budget to your pocket.
First things first. Who am I? Let’s just say I work at a large company that does a variety of multimedia stuff. I hire freelancers occasionally or often, depending on the year. I work with managers in other departments who hire them, too.
And what do I mean by freelancing? For the purposes of this series, I mean freelancing that’s project-based, or involves X hours per week, either working remotely or in one of our offices. Think: graphic/web design, image production/retouching, copyediting, copywriting, event support — that sort of thing. I don’t mean pitching stories to magazines (sorry, I’m not a magazine editor, just a reader).
Finding the Freelance Gig
Many job sites charge employers to post listings. Sometimes my budget is tight, and I don’t want to spend $200 on a freelance listing. Craigslist comes in handy in these cases, because it’s easy and cheap and can be targeted at regional offices’ job markets. Freelance gigs can also be posted on company career sites; I’ve seen this at our competitors’ sites, though it isn’t always apparent from the listing title that the position is freelance, so read carefully.
An informal poll of my colleagues reveals that other search methods involve asking current or past freelancers for recommendations; posting on social media; and emailing friends and industry peers. You know the value of networking, but it’s worth remembering that a good network includes other freelancers, not just potential employers. Think beyond your field, too: If you’re a copywriter, befriend some graphic designers, because there’s always a chance one of those designers will end up on a project that needs copy. And if you hear about a gig that’s perfect for a fellow freelancer, even one you don’t know well, pass it along! Karma is real.
Applying for the Freelance Gig
When I’m looking for a freelancer, it’s almost always because I have a specific, immediate need. Like: “This project has to be done in three months, so we need someone to jump in and retouch X widgets.” Or: “We have an ongoing need for someone to perform New Task X, which is more than a current staffer can do, but not enough to require a full-time position.” Or: “Platform Y requires X widgets per week, and one of our freelance widgeteers just decided to go on a walkabout in Europe, which is awesome, but means I need a replacement ASAP, because otherwise I have to make widgets on top of my actual job.”
The number one thing you can do to stand out among a pool of freelance applicants, whether you’re responding to an ad or a word-of-mouth report, is to prove that you can fill the need at hand. That means you should not open your email with:
• Why the part-time hours or flexible schedule appeals to you.
• A plea for pity because you’re tired of your current gig.
• Any suggestion that this gig is beneath you, but maybe it could be a stepping stone to something worthy of your time (yes, people do this).
I want you to be happy and fulfilled, I really do. But also, and mostly, I want someone to deal with these widgets. Maybe you are, in fact, capable of developing innovative new strategies for my entire company. If what I need is someone to retouch X widgets in the next three months, that doesn’t matter. I just want a reliable widget retoucher who’s available for the next three months.
So here’s what you should open your email with:
• Details about your widget experience and how that relates to the need at hand.
• An indication that you understand the time and location requirements, if they were explicit: “I’m available to work on-site in your Los Angeles office for the next three months.”
• If time and location requirements aren’t known, it’s fine — wonderful, even — to outline your availability and ask for more details: “I’m based in Los Angeles and freelance full-time, so I can work on-site in L.A. if needed. I also have experience working remotely. Please let me know what you have in mind for this position.”
Further Notes on Time and Location
Whenever I post freelance-wanted listings, I try to be specific about hours, flexibility (or lack thereof) and location. When I do, it’s frustrating to get replies from people who sound perfect for an on-site gig in L.A., except they close with “I’m based in Nashville, but I’m confident I can do this job remotely.” Please don’t make assumptions about the structure of the job, or inform me how you think it could/should be structured. The tasks may sound like they can be done from anywhere at any time, but freelancers get plugged into bigger workflows and teams, so there may be reasons why we need you to be available from 12 to 4 PST.
Bottom line, always be up-front about your availability. If you freelance nights and weekends around your day job, let me know. If you are awesome and honest and the schedule just doesn’t work out because I need someone I can reach in the mornings, I’ll save your resume for future projects that might be more flexible.
If you are not honest about this stuff, your resume goes in the trash.
A Word on “Foot-in-the-Door” Syndrome
It’s true that freelancing can lead to full-time positions — I’ve seen it happen. If that’s your ultimate goal, that’s great, but when you’re applying to the freelance gig, stay focused on that. Otherwise, I wonder if you’ll be reliable and committed to the job at hand.
True story: I posted an ad for a freelancer with two years’ experience to work on a short-term project. The role was fairly specific — what the heck, let’s call it widgeteering. Here are some of the responses I got:
“I’m not a widgeteer, but I think my experience as a gallery assistant qualifies me to fix those widgets for you. Also I am looking to get started in Industry…”
“I was thrilled to see that Company has an opening. I’ve never worked with widgets, but I admire Company’s projects…”
What these responses told me (aside from the fact that these people couldn’t prove how they’d fill the need at hand) was that they cared more about a vague sense of getting a foot in the door than they did about getting the job done. Trust me on this: The real way to get your foot in the door is to be the person who will get the job done, this one job, this one thing we need right now.
Up next: How to get the job done, or, how to make yourself indispensible once you get the gig.
Jane Twain works at a large company that does a variety of multimedia stuff.
Photo: University of Saford