The most successful freelance creatives I know aren’t the coolest cats on the block, the snappiest dressers, or the ones who attract the most social media hits. They’re people who make a point of doing business in an exemplary way even when it might seem like they don’t have to.
This is good news for all of us, because it means true success comes primarily from the inside out, not the other way around. It’s the product of basic, fundamental principles that any business owner can develop and master.
While there are many facets to a strong freelance character, I’m zeroing in on seven that I plan to focus on during the coming year. Whether you’re just starting out or have been a solo professional for decades, I think we can all thrive in 2014 — and beyond — by making or renewing our commitment to these seven freelance virtues:
When you work for yourself, you’re driving the bus. There’s no one else who will get you up and working in the morning, make you do your self-promotion tasks, keep you on schedule or within your budget. Freelancing gives you the freedom to choose how you get the job done, but ultimately there’s no one else to point the finger at if you don’t develop some level of professional discipline. In the immortal words of Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
It’s popular to say that we live in a cynical world that doesn’t take values seriously, but frankly I don’t hear that opinion much among truly successful people, in the creative industry or any other. I’ve also found that many business owners take the plunge so they can make a stronger commitment to their principles. Whatever your values are, know them cold and stick to them.
This ties in with integrity, but it’s important enough to be highlighted on its own. Be professional, but don’t try to be someone you’re not or play the pseudofirm game. And as soon as you’re able, stick to doing work you love for people you care about. You may have to turn a few clients away, but you’ll be a much happier and healthier person.
Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. It might surprise you to learn just how many freelancers don’t. Make this a priority, and good clients will notice.
Remember too that reliability doesn’t mean burning yourself out when circumstances beyond your control interfere. If a loved one dies, a family emergency crops up, or a hurricane is barreling toward your town, let clients who will be impacted know as quickly as possible. Good clients will understand and appreciate having as much time as possible to adjust.
Success in any business takes time, so keep your expectations realistic. Clients can take a while to make the initial buying decision. The self-promotion work you do today may not yield tangible results for 6-12 months or more. Unexpected revisions are an industry reality. All of these things are part of the freelance game, and getting angry or hysterical about them only wastes your time and energy.
You can do a lot to minimize the impact of frustrations and anxieties like these—including renegotiation when scope creep looms and other forms of healthy boundary-setting. But there are few things more beneficial to your success than the ability to keep your cool and not take common setbacks personally.
Be patient with yourself too, especially when you fail. Most people who are thriving in this business didn’t nail it on their first try either. When winners encounter obstacles, they say: “oh well,” pick themselves up, and try something else.
Make an ongoing practice of upgrading your talents, and build that exercise into your schedule. Whether it’s taking workshops or classes to improve or learn new skills, attending industry events like the Creative Freelancer Business Conference each year (next one is in Boston, May 12-16), or reading up on the latest business trends, make a regular investment in yourself.
A great place to start is any aspect of your business that you really hate. If there’s something you dread doing, like bookkeeping or marketing, don’t fantasize about outsourcing it to an assistant when you become more successful. Defeat it forever by learning how it works and mastering the art. (If nothing else, you’ll become prosperous enough to hire that assistant much faster. And you’ll know enough to tell if they’re doing the job right.)
You need to have at least a little audacity to make it as a freelancer. So be bold. Take a few risks. Poke the world in your own cheeky way and see what gets a reaction. Above all, don’t work just to make a living. The freelance dream requires courage, tenacity, and effort. Have fun with it.