Around the world, trends point to an increasing shift towards freelance work. More people are either abandoning the 9-to-5 in order to work as independent contractors, or adding a side hustle to the traditional employment model.
Yet even though the gig economy is relatively young, we’re already seeing a tale of two halves. The on-call, temp workers doing rideshares and moonlighting are really like employees without benefits. The true upside of gig work can be found in online freelancing, which offers work-life flexibility and greater autonomy.
Here’s the catch: as a freelancer, you may find no shortage of available work, but building a career with direction and purpose can be a lot more difficult.
Casting a wide net
With millennials and Gen Zers having grown up as digital natives, it’s not out of the question for a young graduate to immediately pursue freelancing and find success. But doing so requires amazing aptitude, a killer resume, and a well-defined, optimized skillset. In that sense, it’s no different than what you’d need to land a good traditional job straight out of school.
Rest assured, though, such early freelance success stories are the 1% of the industry. Don’t feel bad if you’re among the have-nots when you’re starting out. There will be plenty of work to go around.
However, this is where the typical freelancer’s career problem first takes root. When you possess entry-level skills, a conflict usually arises between development and income. Do you take on projects for the money, or do you work on less lucrative contracts that give you a chance to diversify or specialize your skillset?
If you aren’t deliberate and consistent in your choices, over time, your body of freelance work becomes a scattershot. It comes to reflect the fact that you’ve been casting a wide net in search of a project or client that pays well while also affording professional development.
At this level, such opportunities don’t really exist. You have to do additional work to find them.
Listening to the market
That extra work doesn’t mean pursuing yet another hustle. It means you have to start paying attention to the market.
Gallup’s survey is telling in this regard. It might seem surprising that baby boomers, as of 2018, had higher participation in the gig economy than millennials or Gen Xers. But the older generations are more secure in their careers. Their considerable skills, experience, and connections allow them to dictate their freelance work.
For younger generations with little career capital, the gig economy resembles more of an experiment. You’re largely at the mercy of market forces. This is where many freelancers can lose their way. They insist on pushing their career in directions where there’s too much competition, or where the skills required are changing dynamically.
Pay attention to supply, demand, and competition. Don’t force your way as a storyboard artist, for instance, when there are already 2D animation outsourcing companies that can handle every aspect of production at greater overall cost-effectiveness. But maybe you can add value to that equation from a marketing angle.
Companies commissioning a video or digital short would probably need it for a website or social media campaign. Adding SEO and social media management to your development plan can help you redefine your role. It simultaneously makes you more valuable while narrowing down the sort of projects you consider taking on.
This process of learning from the market and identifying where you can bring extra value to your clients won’t be easy. It takes a lot of trial and error. But you can facilitate things by adopting an “MVP” (minimum viable product) approach to your freelance career.
Think about your value proposition as a freelancer by trying to answer the question “why me?” What’s the rare skill, or combination of qualities, that makes you uniquely positioned to solve problems and address the needs of a specific client?
Try getting into challenging projects, even if it means rejection or failure. Get feedback from clients on what works, what doesn’t, and what their real needs are. Each freelance contract shouldn’t be seen as just a paycheck, a character reference, or an addition to your resume. It should be an active means of testing your MVP in the market, using that information to further refine what you do and trim away what’s not necessary.
You don’t just find a niche, you actively adapt yourself to fit it perfectly. And in most cases, that’s a never-ending process. But if you stick with it, you’ll find that your freelance career is making progress and taking shape. From there, potential clients will find it easier to grasp how you might fit into their projects. And ultimately, you’ll become more like the boomers with their well-established career security.