Last year, more than 57 million people worked freelance in the US and short term talent is in high demand. Jobs for life have become a thing of the past and freelancing, whether remotely or on site, is now pretty normal. We live in a gig economy, which according to WhatIs.com is, “an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.”
However, working from contract to contract isn’t easy, and freelance web designers and small agencies face many challenges.
A lot of design is moving in-house, which is making it harder for freelancers and agency professionals to find work. A lot of independent agencies have been bought up, and there are various freelance bidding sites and marketplaces like Gigster, Fiverr, Toptal, Working Not Working, and Upwork to name but a few. They give potential clients a lot of choice, and some of them sell services at very competitive prices.
How do you find new business in such a harsh climate?
We talked to a few designers to discover how to make yourself stand out and succeed in the gig economy. Here’s what they suggest.
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Help small businesses
Tools like Shopify and Squarespace have had a big effect on small businesses.
“No longer do they need to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to get their business online,” Andy Budd, CEO of strategic design consultancy Clearleft, explained. “Instead they can sign up for one of these services, pick a template, and with a bit of customization, be on their way. However, despite this seeming simplicity, many business owners still find this a challenge.”
Andy believes there is a huge opportunity for freelance designers and small design agencies to act as guides and pathfinders.
“The best way to help small businesses is to learn as much about the industry as possible,” Andy suggested. “Don’t only focus on HTML and CSS, or Shopify and Squarespace. Understand what other tools small business owners would benefit from, whether that’s mailing list services, or accountancy packages. The more advice you can give your clients, the more valuable you’ll be.”
Jenny Shen, a UX and product designer who specializes in the travel industry, agreed. Show your clients that you’re investing in their success.
“Solve real problems, step up to be an advisor and strategist rather than someone who just pushes pixels, words, or code,” she recommended. “Have you done enough discovery to learn why the project exists in the first place? Perhaps the client actually needs marketing strategy and user research, not just a landing page to promote their product. Understand the underlying problem the client wants to solve.”
Andy Budd advised to spend time talking to small business owners and understand their needs and frustrations.
“Go to local small business meetings and chamber of commerce events,” he said. “Build that reputation as the go-to person in your local areas that helps small businesses get online, make money online, and take their technical frustrations away.”
“One of the best ways to do business development is to keep a constant eye out for opportunities. If you see a local store with an ancient website, reach out and let them know that you can help. Tell them that you can get their store working on a mobile phone, so their customers can buy their products or services from anywhere. It may be simple to us, but things like this can make all the difference to small business owners.”
Become the go-to person for local store owners
Mobile and web designer/developer Jenifer Hanen does exactly that. She gives her business card out frequently when she’s in a small business that she’s been a repeat customer at and has built some rapport with the owner.
“Before I hand out my card, I ask the proprietor how they are faring in a world of small, local businesses versus Amazon,” she explained. “I listen to what they have to say and what their pain points are, and then I ask them if they are satisfied with their current approach to online sales, social media, and how they want to grow their customer base.”
Jenifer even gives out free advice. “I back it up with a suggestion that the first place they should start at is to set up a test Shopify account with a minimum of 10 of their products and then publish the link on social media. Is the existing customer base happy with the current way of shopping, or are they excited that it was so very easy to reach the new shop and products on their mobile phones? Can the business owner reach a larger demographic with the extensibility of Shopify Plus plugins?”
By talking to the business owner, Jen might then discover that they spread themselves to thin and have no idea where to start, never mind the tight budget. “This is where I suggest that we identify what they do have time and budget for and what can we do this month or next to get them started,” Jen explained. “Then I hand my card to them. Even if they don't call me to set up the online store for them, they will eventually call to ask for help with templating, social media integration, and other ways to increase their online and mobile presence—wherein the client relationship is developed.”
6 other ways to succeedThere are some practical tips and tricks to ensure you find success in the gig economy. Here at six of them.
1. Network, network, network
It goes without saying but one of the best ways to run a profitable business is to put yourself out there and network.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned about how to succeed in the gig economy, it’s that you live and die by the strength of the people you know,” explained Dan Mall, founder and director of design collaborative SuperFriendly, and co-founder and CEO of SuperBooked, a service that helps you find work through people you trust.
“Make an effort to keep in touch with friends and colleagues and offer to help them where they need some assistance, and they’ll be sure to return the favor when you’re in need.”
You might also like: The Power of Community: How Business Networking Can Nurture Your Growth.
2. Never stop marketing
“You may be flush with work right now, but that can change tomorrow,” cautioned Brad Weaver, partner at The Banner Years, a product design studio for lifestyle brands, and author of The Creative Truth, a book on starting and building a profitable design business.
“No matter what, find at least a couple of hours each week to keep asking for more work,” he recommended. “Worst case, you get to pick your projects. If you’re a contractor in a full-time role, then you are welcome to market yourself—that’s why you’re a contractor, not an employee—and always keep your options open.”
You might also like: Like Moths to a Flame: How to Attract (and Keep) Your Dream Clients.
3. Build a personal brand
Product designer Jenny Shen argued that the best way to succeed as a freelancer is by creating your personal brand.
“Seek to understand why past clients chose you, what sets you apart from others and your unique selling points,” she advised. “Perhaps you have lots of experience in a particular industry, or you specialize in designing one part of the user journey, or your writing has a unique style.”
Jenny suggested asking yourself what you can do to be more memorable when a potential client has to choose among dozens of candidates.
You might also like: What is Personal Branding? A Freelancer’s Guide.
4. Don’t focus on one client alone
You’ve found your ideal client. You have a great relationship with them. They pay well and send a ton of work your way. It’s tempting to just focus on that one client, but it’s also a risky undertaking.
“Never put all of your eggs in one basket, unless you own the basket,” Brad Weaver warned. “That means never rely on one client for all of your revenue. Even if you’re in a full-time contract role, find a few extra hours to work on other ideas or other parts of your network. Always have the backup plan ready to go.
You might also like: 4 Crucial Steps to Building Strong Client Relationships.
5. Find a passive income stream
Who wouldn’t want to receive cash on a regular basis without having to make a lot of effort? As a designer, you can choose from various ways to find a passive income stream.
“Do whatever you can to build some small passive income that can at least buy groceries and pay the utilities,” Brad Weaver suggested. “Sell unused assets on sites like Creative Market, make stock illustrations or themes and sell them online, or generate products that you can sell in online stores. Diversify your income whenever possible.”
Often side projects turn into a source of passive income., You can also offer on- and offline training or join revenue-share initiatives like the Shopify Partner program. The options are limitless, and you can decide how much time to invest into earning passive income.
You might also like: How to Earn Passive Income: The Insider’s Guide.
6. Save for taxes
Again, this goes without saying but when you make $1,000 for a freelance gig, you don’t get to spend the whole $1,000—however tempting it may be.
“Wherever in the world you are, you owe taxes, and you need to pull them aside immediately,” Brad Weaver recommended. “It’s so hard to resist keeping it all to pay bills when you’re living hand to mouth, but this is a discipline that will save you come tax time or when you’re paying back that massive tax debt you’ve racked up.”
You might also like: 8 Steps to Prepare Your Online Business for Tax Time.
Reputation is critical
Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to run a profitable business in the gig economy. Hone in on your niche, the thing you’re really good at, so that you’ll become known for it. The competition is growing and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to rise above the noise, which means you also need to keep widening your skillset and understand the basics of marketing, branding, and how to sell yourself. As UX and product designer Jenny Shen pointed out, be memorable and trustworthy, but above all, do good work because reputation is critical.
What tips do you have to succeed in the gig economy? Share your experience in the comments below!