Golden Key to Freelancing

Leverage Content Mills to Build Portfolio and References.

Getting started in freelancing is difficult and scary.

There, I said it.

Some may disagree, but unless you happened to fall into it on accident, I think most freelance writers will understand my feeling about it. We were all there once, even those of us with 20 years in the trenches.

writingprocessSMALLMy first real job, other than the Marines and ghostwriting in a few tech books in the very early 90s, was PR & marketing. The agency was a startup tech-focused PR agency in the Silicon Valley, desperate for warm bodies in the dot-com boom of the mid to late ‘90s. They took a chance on me and I thankfully had a knack for getting my clients’ news covered in a big way.

The problem, in terms of moving into freelancing, stemmed from the fact that, while some of my clients were consumer tech, the majority were for enterprise-level B2B products and services.

When I went freelance, my first two clients were boutique PR agencies because they were all I knew how to pitch. I spoke their language. But while agencies pay top dollar (if you’re good at writing and editing), the chaos and office politics they play follow you home. Getting away from that crap was the reason I left agency life in the first place.

The story of how I successfully moved from that to freelancing for people and businesses directly, rather than through an agency, is too long to go into detail, but in this article, I’m going to give you one of the key points I learned along the way.

This is golden advice, and most freelancers hoard their “secret sauce” jealously. I’d rather share it because the positive energy I put out truly does come back to me. I believe in abundance, not scarcity.

So what is this golden key to independent freelance writing success?

Portfolio and people.

It is precisely that simple, and that difficult. You cannot succeed without a solid portfolio, nor can you succeed without connecting to real people. You can’t do one without the other.

Portfolio alone won’t do it. You can create mockup press releases and white papers all day long to showcase your talents, but by themselves, they will not result in new clients (new biz).

People skills alone won’t do it, either. Once you get a business’s interest in working with you for their content creation needs, the rubber meets the road and they ask for samples of your work (see: Portfolio alone won’t do it, above).

Without real human beings to act as references and third-party validation, the prettiest case study in the world won’t convince a business to risk wasting time and money on you. Especially time, because I promise you that matters more to most businesses than a few hundred (or a few dozen hundred) dollars.

Without a quality portfolio full of real-world examples, it doesn’t matter if you’re the life of the party and on everyone’s email discussions–you won’t get the contract.

The Chicken or the Egg?

That’s the age-old question. How do you get a portfolio (a real one) without connections? How do you make new connections without a portfolio in place already?

Sad Fact #1724: Every client cares more about that unpaid intern, getting fired next Tuesday than they do about you.

And don’t even get me started on the average customer’s inherent skepticism about a new freelancer’s ability to write under deadline, mesh with their existing internal workflow processes, and integrate seamlessly with their staff. Ultimately, this is what you’re selling when you pitch a newbiz prospect, and without both the chicken and the egg already in place, you’ll lose that bid to some other freelancer.

One-Stop Shop for Portfolio and People

You want to start working in some environment where you’ll simultaneously build a portfolio, develop connections, and make a lot of money. Through the magic of “content mills,” you can!

Well, two out of three ain’t bad…

By starting out at a content mill such as UpWork or PeoplePerHour (two of the best ones around), you can quickly build your portfolio and get the all-important testimonial that represents a personal relationship with a real person who liked the work you did for them on a professional level.


Where to go for a portfolio?

Until you develop a list of stable clients and a solid portfolio of real work examples, the content mill is absolutely your best market. It is true that the vast majority of contracts available on sites like UpWork pay far below market rates for writing. Consider, however, that “market rates” assume you have a competitive experience level, references, and portfolio.

I suppose the best way to look at content mills is the freelancer equivalent of an “entry-level job.”

As you grow your list of long-term clients who provide you with ongoing work, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to turn down the chance to submit a proposal somewhere because your “pipeline” is full. Then, taking on a new and unknown client would mean cutting off an old, reliable one.

There are worse problems to have, but this is actually an opportunity, not a problem. You can:

  • Cut ties with that one difficult client you hate working with, or
  • Begin to turn down additional one-time gigs from new clients, in favor of repeat customers and/or ongoing projects, or
  • Raise your rates.

All three steps have their place, and the order you take them depends on your personal priorities. I’d rather cut a terrible client than raise my rates, for example. But eventually, you will find yourself with a full pipeline and decide that raising your rates is the best option.

When you do raise rates, some clients will fall away. This makes room for new, higher-paying clients that you couldn’t have landed with your previous portfolio and testimonials/references. Then the cycle repeats itself.

You’ll eventually find that content mills no longer make sense as a primary work environment. You’ll have relationships and connections you didn’t have before, after all. I still have my UpWork profile and even accept new work from time to time, if my pipeline isn’t full, but it’s just not my main source of income.

If you’re serious about launching a freelance writing career or sideline, don’t be afraid of content mills, and just remember that the low prices you may see in the beginning aren’t representative of what you’ll get later in your career. It’s just a point of entry. Take advantage of what they have to offer, and you’ll soon find yourself filtering out the low-paying gigs and landing your proposals for higher-paying projects.

Good luck!

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