Building a Freelancing Business: Try the Patchwork Method

Early Career Building a Freelancing Business: Try the Patchwork Method

When I was first curious about freelancing, I felt a bit overwhelmed. I wasn’t quite sure how to get started, and feared I didn’t have what it took to be a successful solopreneur. But here’s what I learned: The beauty of freelancing is that you don’t need to have a fancy degree, or even have “paid your dues.”

You really just need to deliver quality work. And that boils down to putting the time and energy into developing the necessary chops.

When I transitioned into full-time freelance writing in 2015, it wasn’t so much a leap, but just more of what I was already doing. That’s because I had gradually been prepping for that big day by building my portfolio, experience, and know-how in the years prior.

To accomplish this, consider the patchwork method. In other words, piece together skills you’ve learned from different realms of your life to land that first client.

To build my freelancing business, I leveraged my existing skills and experience to make the switch. Here’s how I did it, and how you can, too:

Use a Mix of Skills Learned on the Job

While I never did much writing — let alone writing about money — at my day job, I did learn a handful of useful skills that helped me along in my freelancing career.

Case in point: When I worked in the communications department at an entertainment labor union, I copyedited magazines and was the production coordinator for all the print-related projects — directories, magazines, and print collateral for screenings and special events. I learned the importance of creating a workflow and how to juggle different deadlines, which would later be essential for my freelance gigs.

And later, when I worked at a small publishing company, I wrote marketing copy for our licensed accounts. Being exposed to a lot of branding guidelines helped me better understand the nuances and details that go into a brand experience. That know-how helped me learn how to really pay attention to style, voice, and tone — integral pieces of creating content for brands in the financial space.

If you’re working a day job, think about what it is you enjoy doing the most, then try to find opportunities to do more of it. Annual reviews and private meetings with your boss are good times to let them know what opportunities you’d like more of. If you want to be a freelance graphic designer, see if you can take small design projects, or be a production artist to a head designer in the creative department.

Invest in a Passion Project

Besides enriching your life, your personal projects could help you land work as a freelancer. For instance, my blog on frugality, Cheapsters, helped me meet some cool hardcore frugalistas. More importantly, I gained experience writing blog posts about money.

And before I had any professional writing clips, potential clients checked out my blog to get a sense of my writing style. I was placed on my first editorial team for a content platform after a talent manager checked out my work on my blog.

I also used my time outside of work to learn to write fiction. Whereas running a blog helped me grow my network of money nerds and get some personal finance under my belt, writing fiction helped me become a stronger writer. By spending hours in writing classes, weekend workshops, and being part of a few literary groups, I learned the importance of syntax, word choice, lyricism, and telling a good story.

Because I didn’t do much writing at my day job, I used my passion projects to make up for the lack of opportunities. Not only did my personal projects help me become a stronger writer,  they also were a way to show the world what I’m most interested in, and what direction I wanted my career to head toward.

Think about how your passion projects can help do the same for you. What opportunities would you like to create for yourself in the world, and how can a passion project help polish your skills and showcase what you’re capable of?

Invest in Continuing Education

Coursework has been a solid way to fill in any knowledge gaps. During my time at the entertainment labor union, my boss was generous enough to subsidize evening courses I took for a copyediting certification. Getting my head around style guides and and checking copy for repetition and awkward phrasing helped me land my first freelancing gigs. I proofed novels for independent authors and copyedited an arts magazine.

When you freelance, there’s no one waving the promise of a promotion, or paying your way to a work conference. As a master of your own destiny, you’ll have to carve out opportunities and invest in yourself. Over the course of the last 15 years I’ve taken online courses and extension courses at local universities and community colleges.

I picked courses that killed two birds with one stone — that could add bolster my value at my current job, and also that best served future me. Because I spent a lot of time on my blog, I took graphic design courses to understand the basics of composition and web design. This also came in handy when I had to do basic layout on the publications at my then job. And I took copyediting because it helped me bolster my overall editorial skills.

Investing in yourself will be an ongoing endeavor. And as I’m doing more speaking engagements on financial literacy and freelancing, I’ve joined a local Toastmasters chapter. I’ve also registered for an independent study to become a financial coach, and am taking a community counselor course to work with underserved, traditionally marginalized populations.

If you don’t have time to devote to formal coursework, learn in dribs and drabs. That way you can spend smaller chunks of time on what’s most relevant to your current career path. Online education platforms such as Lynda, Skillshare, and Coursera could help you learn at your own pace.

Acquiring the skills and experience necessary to build a freelancing business certainly isn’t an overnight process, but that doesn’t mean you need to leave the workforce and go back to school. You can achieve your goals with  the patchwork method, using whatever combination of skills learned at your day job, passion projects, and continuing education suits you best.

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