If anyone was to write a guidebook on how to become a successful freelancer - we think Monica Shepherd from Mark My Words would be a pretty good choice! Not only is she a superstar wordsmith, but she has also managed to nail the process of having clients come to her.
So we decided it was time to put a few questions to Monica and uncover more about her journey to building a profitable freelance business.
Why did you decide to become a freelancer? Where were you prior to going out on your own?
I actually became a freelancer out of necessity! It was 2010, NZ was still coming out of the recession and businesses were still really restricted with their hiring (and if there were openings, there were a lot of applicants). I realised that while businesses couldn’t hire in-house, they still needed help, so they were more inclined to make use of freelancers. It felt like a big risk at the time but it didn’t take long to build up some regular clients. Before that I had been travelling the globe, then spent some time working for a large corporate law firm.
How did you get your very first freelance client?
I think my very first client was my sister-in-law, who probably felt obliged to give me work, haha! Other than that I don’t remember exactly but I’m pretty sure it was from a connection made at a networking event! I probably hugely undercharged but I was stoked! At the time I was really focused around SEO copywriting, which many people still didn’t know much about, so I managed to create a bit of a name for myself locally with that knowledge. One of the (in-house) jobs that I had applied for but missed out on actually ended up offering me an on-going contract instead of a full-time job, so that kept me afloat early on, too.
How have you built your client portfolio from there - was it very organic, or have you approached organisations you were keen to work with?
I took a ‘channel marketing’ approach and put a lot of time into creating connections with other people who could help me grow by essentially being my salespeople out there on my behalf. People like website designers, graphic designers, branding agencies, marketing strategists, business coaches - basically anyone who was already connected with people who could do with my help too. The majority of my work comes from referrals - either from these industry connections or from clients who pass on my name.
What do you think are the most important freelance 'tools' to have in order to build a solid client list?
Relationships! Is that a ‘tool’?! No matter how digital our world gets, it’s still all about relationships. Create real connections with people, make an effort to provide value and stay in touch. So I guess you could say a good CRM is an important tool for keeping that up! Having a professional online presence is important; keep your portfolio up to date so people can get a good gauge on your work without having to ask for it. Providing a good experience is also about making things easy for people to work with you, so set up good systems, processes and automation of admin from the start - no matter how small you think you are. Perception is important; get professional with your proposals, your terms and conditions, your communications - basically every touchpoint - it all helps to give clients confidence.
What changes have you seen over your time as a freelancer - the way you may have got clients when you first started, to the much more connected world of today.
Social media has definitely evolved in that time and become a much better tool for connecting with businesses and other creatives in the community. I really value a lot of the amazing connections I’ve made through social media, both locally and globally. It’s opened up lots of opportunities! I also think people are now really open to working with remote workers (I remember having to do a lot of in-person meetings early and now barely have to leave the house!). I work with a couple of ‘satellite’ marketing teams - essentially we are all freelancers but together we act as a marketing team for brands who otherwise don’t need, or can’t afford, in-house resource full time. People are much more open to different ways of working, and a lot more trusting and appreciative of the talents of freelancers. This way they can access really specialist skills, without having to pay a salary with that same level of expertise in-house.
Anything else you'd like to say for those freelancers looking to grow their business with more projects/clients?
I remember a sales coach saying: ‘Be a resource, not a sales pitch’ and that is advice I recommend keeping in mind! Go into every meeting or conversation with the intention to be helpful, and use your marketing touchpoints to demonstrate the real value of the work you do. Telling isn’t selling. Ask questions so you really understand how your service can support what they need right now. People want to feel understood, so be empathetic to problems and then offer solutions that demonstrate tangible outcomes from working with you that actually address these needs and motivations. Also, get clear on the type of clients you want to work with. This doesn’t necessarily mean having to niche into a particular industry (although that can be a good way to focus your efforts too), but you’ll see that when you get clear on what’s important to you, your messaging is more likely to attract the right kind of people.
Thanks so much for your time Monica! And thank you for being a supporter of The Freelance Village since day one.