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Sundance film festival: Inspiring independent filmmaking…and independent workers
In its nearly 40 years, the Sundance Film Festival has grown into much more than the country's marquee event for independent filmmakers. It's evolved into a symbol of independence itself, and of the possibilities that a little pluck and determination can yield for creative freelancers. And, with 53 million Americans, more than one in three workers, currently freelance workers, contributing $715 billion to the economy, there's no shortage of that spirit today.
"People have always wanted more control over their lives," says Patrick Petitti, CEO and co-founder of Hourly Nerd, an online marketplace that connects companies with independent business consultants. "But in the past it was never easy to do."
Indeed, until the last decade or so, the term "freelancer" implied someone who couldn't hold a full time job. But a variety of factors, including the economic downturn and advances in technology that have made remote collaboration more reliable, have set into motion a profound recalibration of how many Americans think about work.
Ed Gandia, co-author of The Wealthy Freelancer and founder of High-Income Business Writing, sees the freelancer workforce maturing, as demonstrated by the wider adoption of industry standards. "Standards are at the core of the freelance lifestyle," he says. "Nowadays the freelancer has a greater say in what types of creative work they'll take on. They decide what kind of clients they'll work with, what they'll charge, when they'll work and not work, and when they'll budge or not budge."
Ashley Irving, a web designer and coder, establishes the tenor of the relationship with each client by not answering the phone every time it rings. If clients want to speak with her, they must book an appointment. "In order to be productive every day, it's important to set aside only one or two days a week where my clients know I'm available for calls," she says. "A 30 minute impromptu call can cause an hour or more of disruption. Having all day Tuesday for dedicated phone time is more productive than once a day, every day."
But after a freelancer sets standards — not working weekends, or requiring half payment before project work begins — how do they go about building and maintaining a client base?
Steve Slaunwhite, a marketing strategist and Gandia's co-author for The Wealthy Freelancer, recommends creating a profile of your ideal client and then approaching them through a warm email. "Don't focus on the sell," he says. "Your first step is always just an introduction. That's what smart self-marketing is all about: introducing yourself and your services to people who are likely to be interested in what you do."
One of the biggest untapped sources of income for freelancers? Existing clients, says Slaunwhite. "Would you want a plumber who fixes your leaking pipe? Or a plumber who fixes your leaking pipe and gives you advice on preventing that calamity from happening again? Most people will choose the latter," he says. "The same is true for freelance clients. Sure, they want great copywriting, content writing or a web designer, but they also want extra value. That's why I tell freelancers: Focus on providing solutions, not just services. When you do that, you'll start getting repeat business."
Many freelancers also see great benefit in creating sources of passive income — instructional eBooks and online learning courses, for example. That's why producer and director Poull Brien, who directed the documentary "Charles Bradley, Soul of America," is working hard to build a library of film and television shows that will generate revenue in the future. "The Charles doc is now break even," says Brien, "and this year, I'll begin to see passive income with it selling to foreign territories."
Aside from the flexibility, freelancing also holds the promise of opening doors and creating unanticipated sideline income opportunities. When Brien shot an adventure reality show, Catching Hell, for the Weather Channel, it inspired the launch of his upstart sustainable fish company, Wild Fish Direct. "By charting the lives of commercial spear-fishermen, I saw an opportunity to market their under-appreciated sustainable wild fish," he says. "It supplements my income and allows me the freedom to focus on my own original projects."
Ed Gandia describes this phenomenon as "surreal." "I've experienced many more serendipitous events since going freelance than I ever did as an employee," he says. "The key is to stay alert and open-minded to the different opportunities that will show up in your life. Because they will show up."
Thinking about breaking out on your own? Here are 5 tips to help grow your creative freelance business.
- Have a pitch. Develop a targeted and memorable statement that clearly describes your services. Your prospects need an unambiguous understanding of what you do. But don't merely describe what you do; instead, describe the benefits your services provide. Then post these descriptions to your website with a list or range of prices.
- Ask for introductions. After you've successfully completed a project and gained the trust of your client, ask for an introduction to other departments in the organization that might need your services.
- Suggest new projects. You can only do this if you've made a commitment to learning about and understanding your client's business, challenges, and mandates. If you do, you'll be better able to identify additional ways the client can benefit from your services.
- Befriend referral sources. If you're a copywriter, network with graphic designers; if you're a custom florist, get to know wedding gown designers. The way to grow your network is to cross-pollinate with them, and, ideally, send work their way — so it will flow back to you.
- Train clients to respect your time. If you send emails to clients during non-business hours, you're training them to expect round the clock response. Even worse, they'll think nothing of sending a request for a project on a Friday to be delivered by Monday. Establishing parameters is the key to not appearing like a starving freelancer.
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Brian O'Connor is a New York City-based editor and journalist and a columnist for Inc.com.