I like predictability and familiarity. So when I started my graphic design business, the number of unknown factors that could affect my success was overwhelming. I had a little bit of a plan, a mixture of fear and excitement, and a heck of a lot of hope.
However, I learned very quickly that my creative skills and portfolio would only get me so far. To be successful, I needed to run my business like a businessand use many of the soft skills I acquired working in an office. As I met creative entrepreneurs who had more experience and knowledge than me, I noticed they mastered these skills at some point. And if they hadn’t, then they hired people who had.
So here are five essential skills any freelancer can learn and practice to boost their career.
Professional, effective communication is one of the most important skills you can master as a freelancer. It’s critical to the success of a project and saves time and money for both you and the client.
Most people don’t put much effort into learning better communication, especially if they feel it’s not a natural strength. But it’s important to remember that your clients are usually in other industries which operate differently. Knowing how to communicate in these environments — and with different personalities — will help you build better relationships and further establish your value.
Cultivating great written and verbal communication also separates you from the stereotypical freelancer. You come across as a creative problem-solver and brand yourself as a strategic, collaborative partner.
This helps clients feel confident in your professionalism, expertise, and the value of their investment.
To improve your communication, try these tips:
Tip: Most people read online content at a 5th grade reading level. The Hemingway App helps me simplify my thoughts so they’re appropriate and engaging as emails, blogs, social media posts, etc.
Get a speech coach
Ask a friend to give you feedback on your speaking and/or count filler words you use
Record your sales conversations (with client’s permission) and play it back so you identify areas of improvement
As an introvert, I know the very real struggle of trying to build relationships even when it’s uncomfortable. But whether we like it or not, who you know matters.
The most successful creative entrepreneurs know how to build amazing relationships, and they don’t just focus on potentially valuable clients. They foster a solid foundation with existing clients and network with everyone, including colleagues. They see every touch point as an opportunity to make a new connection — connections that can lead to referrals, projects, collaborations, partnerships, mentoring, and friendships.
I know many people who find this part easy. The natural people-person enjoys and thrives off networking and collaborating. Yet even for those blessed with the gift of small talk, it’s still important to be intentional. You need to build rapport strategically and remember to stay professional.
Good word of mouth spreads. You never know when you’ll land a project because of an old relationship. But remember — bad word of mouth spreads faster. Burning bridges just isn’t worth it. Learning how to keep a relationship (even when you’re rejecting a project) and mastering the art of conflict resolution will take you a long way as a freelancer.
To improve your relationship-building skills, try these tips:
Practice making small connections with anyone you meet during the day
Write thank-you cards (business or personal)
Follow up with an old connection you had but never made time to contact
Go to a local networking event and talk to five new people
Regardless of what you do as a freelancer, learning how to think strategically will improve your business and client relationships tremendously.
This one practice will take you from being “just a freelancer” to a creative business owner. It will transform how you view yourself, your business, and your clients’ needs.
Strategic thinking means envisioning the future and planning accordingly — beyond the next few months or year. It includes anticipating trends, understanding the deeper mission, and asking thought-provoking questions about the future.
For example, I become more than “just a freelance graphic designer” when I take my clients through a brand strategy session that uncovers their core beliefs and casts a vision for implementing a new visual identity.
The same is true for myself. When I take a few hours per month to revisit my long term business goals, make adjustments, and decide what I’m going to do to reach my sales numbers six months from now, I’m thinking strategically and treating my business like the business it actually is.
To improve your strategic thinking, try these tips:
Spend 10 minutes each morning envisioning your future 5 years from now
Block off one hour each week for working on your business strategy
Listen to an inspiring podcast about business or leadership (my favorite is EntreLeadership)
How you manage your time can make or break your business.
With multiple projects, clients, and deadlines, your profitability literally depends on your ability to manage your time well. You have to intentionally balance your time spent on clients and in your own business.
And, not insignificantly, you also have to take care of yourself and keep your sanity.
This is nearly impossible to do if you have poor time management skills.
It really comes down to mastering your self — self-motivation, self-discipline, self-management, self-care.
Improving your time management will save you money, increase your profits, and skyrocket the value you give to clients as you solve their problems better, faster.
To improve your time management skills, try these tips:
Plan your day the afternoon/evening before
Do the most important task first (i.e. don’t check email or social media)
Use an online timer to help you focus for 30–60 minutes, then take a quick break and do it again
I love talking honestly about money because it’s one of the biggest causes of anxiety for freelancers. Usually I’m talking about sales, but this time I want to chat about the basics — budgeting.
Your habits in personal finance are going to become glaringly obvious when you’re looking at your money habits in your business.
How you budget and spend money affects every aspect of your business — knowing which clients to accept, staying profitable, paying yourself, pricing your products and services, making business decisions, investing in yourself, etc. Managing your money wisely is the only way to ensure you’re successful.
You can bring in tons of cash and still fail if you don’t know how to use money well.
If you’ve never been very good at budgeting, I recommend starting with these initial steps:
What other skills have you found to positively impact your career?