One of the first lessons most successful freelancers learn is how important it is to have a strong network.
Put this theory to the test: The next time you go to an event with other successful freelancers, ask a few of them where they get most of their business. It’s a pretty solid bet that several of them will say “referrals.”
Referrals don’t come exclusively from businesses you’ve worked with before. They can also come from people doing similar or complementary work to what you do. In other words, your fellow freelancers.
The benefits of having a freelance referral network
Getting out there and making connections with other professionals in your community is a good idea, period. But I’ve found that channeling some of those connections into a community of talented professionals committed to helping one another has taken it to another level.
A freelance referral network is exactly what it sounds like: a group of freelancers who are familiar with each other’s work and turn to one another for referrals.
I meet with my referral network in person, but that’s not strictly necessary. If you don’t live in a city with a vibrant freelance community, you could develop an online version of this kind of group.
A freelance referral network comes with a few key benefits:
1. You don’t have to say “no” to leads
Most freelancers see leads as unequivocally a good thing — right up until they’re swamped and the inquiries just seem to keep coming. Or when they get lead after lead that isn’t a good fit for their business. If you focus on website copy and a prospective client needs social media help, you probably won’t be the right person for the job.
Saying “no” to a lead probably means you’ll never hear from them again, because their first brush with you was negative. Instead of simply saying “no,” refer them to someone awesome at social media. How much better does it sound to say, “I can’t right now, but I may know somebody”?
By offering a referral even though it won’t benefit you directly, you help out another freelancer and you support the client to find what they need. Both of them are more likely to think of you when another opportunity comes along down the line.
2. You suffer less from the feast-or-famine cycle
The feast-or-famine cycle is real. All freelancers will experience it at some point, but not always at the same time.
If someone in your network is overwhelmed with work when things are slow for you, you can benefit from their leads. Then when the pendulum swings back your way but they’re suffering for work, you can pay them back with your leads.
Obviously, it’s not always going to work out that neatly, but every freelancer in your group will have their own network of contacts. If you’re all getting the benefits of each other’s network, you’ll help each other weather some of the whims of the freelance lifestyle.
3. You have people to talk to about the hard (or just annoying) stuff
I suspect that every single freelancer reading this has struggled at some point with what to charge.
Many of you have probably had a hard time figuring out the best way to handle scope creep. Or how to manage a client that always wants to have long phone calls when you didn’t factor that into your project rate. Or who wants six rewrites, when you didn’t put a clear limit into the contract. I could easily keep going, but you get the point.
As you focus on becoming an ever better writer for your clients, you’ll also want to build your business skills. Talking to other freelancers about your business and hearing their advice helps you feel empowered as an entrepreneur. Hearing comments like, “Whoa! You shouldn’t be doing that for free” will embolden you to raise your rates and draw clearer boundaries with your clients.
How to create a freelance referral network
Enough with the why, here’s the how. Ready to put together your own network of supportive freelancers?
Step 1: Network
Your referral community needs people, so you have to get out there and meet them. If you want to stick with a local referral group, look for local meetups, groups on LinkedIn and any groups in your town for writers, marketers and freelancers.
If you’re looking for people online, check article bylines on sites in your niche, keep an eye on the commenters on freelance sites, and use social media to find people who might be a good fit.
In both cases, be willing to be a little picky. You want these to be people whose quality of work you trust and who you can relate to. Ideally, they should be at about the same professional level as you. If you reach out to an Internet celebrity in your industry or someone with 30 years of experience when you’re in year one, you’ll have a harder time convincing that person you could provide any benefit.
Step 2: Invite people to join
Mention the group and its goals to the freelancers you’ve identified, and gauge their interest levels. If they’re keen, invite them to join the fun.
I use a shared Google spreadsheet to keep everyone connected. People can add their specialties, level of availability and contact information, and other group members can go back and check it out when they or a client have a need.
Step 3: Plan meetings to keep in touch
This part’s crucial. Names in a spreadsheet don’t mean much. People you’ve had conversations with and know personally are the ones you’re going to think of when an opportunity arises.
I try to invite everyone to a coffee shop or restaurant about once a month to reconnect and meet new group members. For an online group, a monthly Google Hangout would probably do the trick.
Step 4: Share the love
Have a client that needs some graphic design help? Check your spreadsheet for a graphic designer and make an introduction. Have a lead that seems promising, but you just don’t have the bandwidth to take on? Send it along to someone with similar skills in the group.
The freelance referral network only works if people use it and share the benefits. You can’t expect to get anything out of it unless you’re also making a point to help out the others in the group. But if everyone approaches it with a commitment to making it mutually beneficial for all involved, it can really pay off.
Have you tried joining a freelance referral network? Are you interested in being part of one? Leave your specialties in the comments to connect with other freelancers!