the accidental professional: how to network your way through freelancing
hey, it's that word we all know. I know it, you know it. but what does it mean?? every time I heard it during undergrad I would shiver and tune out because I suffered greatly from social anxiety, especially when it had to do with the elusive career I was supposed to have after graduating (I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, by the way). instead of facing it head on I just avoided the subject. and when a networking opportunity came up, I fumbled through my words to describe what I wanted to do in terms of career. I sucked at confidently discussing my hopes, dreams, ideas, aspirations because I was embarrassed by earnestness and lacked direction.
for a minute after college, I was a PA on several reality shows and a particular netflix show and every time a superior would inquire about what I wanted to do with my film degree I would change my answer. it ranged from production designer, to writer, to editor (which I did for a while), to "I'm still figuring it out." I was annoyed by the question and would get even more annoyed when said superior would then ask, "then what are you doing here?"
thing is, it's really fucking tricky to navigate life after college, or life during any sort of career change. I can't say for sure what changed (hence the title of this segment including the word "accidental") but I do believe it had to do with stumbling into the world of networking without realizing what I was doing was, in fact, networking.
I want to share what I've learned over the past few years about the subject in a non-scary, approachable kind of way. and how to do it with results because the whole point of networking is getting jobs right? yesssssss
1. go to as many networking events as you can!
bleh events! bleh socializing! bleh explaining my career life to strangers! but seriously, I'm going to use a phrase usually reserved for the dating world...you have to put yourself out there. if you're a photographer/content creator you can't just post to instagram and send emails all day and expect results. there are a million other instagram accounts just like yours and what is going to make you stand out amongst the lot of them is meeting you in person.
there was a time in my life where I went to a networking event once, even twice a week. after a while it can start to feel a little bit redundant and sometimes I didn't meet anyone new at an event. and that's ok! face to face time is the key reason networking is so effective. the more people see you in person, the more of a lasting impression you will make.
eventually, you will figure out which networking events are worth your time and money and which ones you can probably skip.
2. don't just mingle with other photographers (or whatever your field is)
being friends or constantly connecting with other people in your field is really valuable. actually, sometimes when I'm hanging out with friends, I look around and think "hey we are ALL photographers, isn't that neat!?" I believe in a culture of community over competition (there is a blog post coming about this) and me hanging out with a food photographer, a wedding photographer, a journalist, or hell even another fashion photographer isn't doing damage to my career. in fact, it's helping it grow because I am friends with people who I believe in and would refer them in a heartbeat if a business opportunity in their niche came up (and they would do the same for me).
however, when you are at a networking event that is crawling with potential clients, it's time to just wave hello or say a quick whats up to your photo buddies. this isn't about competition, this is about meeting new people which is what a networking event (that you probably paid for, or at least bought a drink at) is all about.
for a long time, networking was a lot scarier than dating. I can go on first dates and not be one bit nervous but the idea of just inserting myself into conversations while trying to network?? yikes! I met my boyfriend by walking up to him at ottobar and asking him if he liked beer. it was extremely effective and left an impression because he texted me the next night asking if I wanted to hang out. using this same method and putting myself in a personable mindset as opposed to a business mindset really helped. remember, networking is pretty low stakes--arguably lower stakes than dating--so if you're a little awkward in the beginning it's ok!
3. have an elevator pitch ready
an elevator pitch is a pithy way to explain a project you're working on, or in this case the kind of work you make. an artist's statement if you will. this is a shortened version of what you have written in your bio on your website and when someone looks at your portfolio after you've given the pitch they should be able to see it in your work.
while I was photography freelancing I usually said something along the lines of, "I make (fashion) portraiture that feels romantic and intimate yet is slightly esoteric." it's broad enough that it was easy for potential clients to feel connected to it and when they would scroll through my instagram in front of me, they would see my pitch reflected in the photography...which brings me to my next point:
4. ditch the business cards
I'm 100% serious. so you're at the networking event (or met randomly) and you're chatting with someone who you can see yourself doing business for. they are exactly the kind of client you want and they seem to be into your elevator pitch. someone else grabs their attention and the conversation seems close to done. you panic and give them a business card and say "let's keep in touch."
two weeks go by, nothing. you're beginning to wonder if all the magic you felt was all in your head. this is like dating, no worse than dating. you should have been proactive and gotten their information! but it's the 21st century and the internet is a thing so you look them up, slightly mispelling their name so it takes a few minutes to find. you get their email and draft out a nice newsy letter and hit send.
another week goes by. OH FINALLY! "Sorry I'm responding so late!" the email opens with before their response, probably not with the same enthusiasm that you remember seeing when you two first met. probably because your business card has been sitting on their desk for three weeks, or loose in their purse and every time they have to dig for pocket change or use their computer they see your dumb waste of paper business card and feel a pang of guilt for not reaching out sooner. the pangs of guilt build up and eventually they see your name in their inbox and they are so ridden with it they don't know what to do! so it takes them a week to write a response email.
a better solution: exchange social medias. if you two aren't already connected on social media. CONNECT. you'll get the proper spelling of their name, and you will be able to remain in their consciousness in a positive, productive way (ie you'll be posting new material all the time that will remind them of why they loved you so much to begin with).
spend a week or two interacting with them on social media, responding with relavent comments on their content and leaving a "it was so great meeting you!" message a couple days after. wait a week or so, let them catch their breath and your internet presence seep into their subconscious, THEN write the email.
save the business cards for raffles and people you are already in business with.
5. write a friendly email with an assumptive close
this is the big and final step and usually the one I get stuck at. I want to write a separate blog post about a more in depth look at emails, but for now I will share this step by step guide for those who have trouble with email:
usually, I open with the obvious: "Hi Martha it was so great chatting with you at the Barrel of Laughs event the other night."
then I give them a quick reminder of who I am, not because I think they forgot me because honestly who could forget such a pretty face. this serves as a refresher for our conversation, "I really connected with our conversation about powerful femininity and I hope we can have another one soon.”
I make sure to let them know I have done my research on them and that I care about THEIR brand and not just promoting myself. bonus points if I ask them a direct question about their process; people love talking about themselves. “I took a look at your website and I’m loving the floral prints you had last season. What was the process of printing those? Where did you draw your inspiration from? They remind me of a bedspread my grandmother had in her house. So lovely!”
and finally, I make an assumptive close. instead of asking for a meeting, I go ahead and assume they want the meeting that way we’ve already skipped a mental step and made it easier on them to answer. “When is a good time for you to meet to talk about working together? I am free Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.”
I sign my name, check the spelling and press send. easy.
if they haven’t replied in a few days, send them a follow up email with your phone number.
6. have a good personality
can't really help you with this one, but if you suck as a person eventually people will figure it out. get a therapist or ask close friends to help you out. I bet your friends will be able to give you a list of reasons for why they like you, and they would be happy to help you work on making those qualities shine through.
7. consistently make work with others
this is yet another topic that deserves its own blog post but if you are consistently networking chances are you have made friends. as I wrote in point number 2, friends are great networking tools. if you are open about your career related desires and continue to collaboratively grow with your friends, your name and work is getting out there by association. real life: I have gotten work because someone changed their facebook profile picture to a photo I took.
how you choose to go about working with friends or local creatives is up to you. a lot of people like using that word, "collaboration" meaning you two work together to create something you both like. sometimes you can trade services. or, even best (because people will love you and you will feel good about not taking advantage of people's time) you can hire friends or talent to work for you (ie modeling, makeup, etc). this means you would need a budget which I know not everyone has.
8. don't put all of your eggs in one basket
my number one rule for anything freelance, "it ain't done till it's done." sometimes that means even if you have this one really sweet potential client meeting coming up and you can see it going places, don't let that deter you from continuing your hustle. sometimes that dream client isn't ready for you yet, that doesn't mean you shouldn't pursue them, it just means that you have to continue making work while you "court them" so you still have a steady flow of income and are growing as a creator. always always always keep several irons on the fire at one time because you never know when one of those irons will be ready to hammer :)