Five Ways to Build Your Skills Through Freelancing

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ml_t4What motivates you to find new jobs and clients? For most of us, the key motivation is paying the bills. That’s fine as far as it goes. But as a freelancer without a cushy company education or training allowance, I like to think of new clients and projects as opportunities to build my skills. What does this mean in practice?

1. I’m constantly assessing what I’ve done, and where it can take me next.

My most recent project tends to be a springboard for the next. I’ll have a good idea of what I just did, and what I’d have liked to have done if I had more time or a different brief. This provides motivation and direction for my search for new projects.

As an example, I just ran an educational workshop for a local company. Workshop participants raised a number of issues about aspects of their production process that directly affect content quality. These issues arose from areas in which I’m keen to develop and hone my skills, and gain valuable industry experience. So now I’m working on strategies by which I can sell these skills into that organization.

2. In the search for clients, I look for new opportunities.

I get bored fairly easily so when I look for work, I seek opportunities that provide a different context or framework in which I can use my skills. those opportunities allow me to extend my skillset, experience and capabilities in a low-risk way that delivers good results for clients.

The workshop I mentioned a moment ago is one example. I’m not an experienced public speaker and the way I explain concepts can be rambling. This is something I’ve been keen to address for a while, so I jumped at the chance to present a workshop to a group of ten participants. As a writer, presentations aren’t my key focus, but since I knew the presentation topic like the back of my hand, this was a great opportunity to develop skills and further my thinking and experience on a range of related topics, all while being paid for my expertise.

3. When I pitch, I try to offer services that’ll build my skills.

There’s a lot to be said for pitching the same established, efficient process to as many clients as possible and reaping the rewards of your vast experience with that process. But do this too regularly, and life can get pretty monotonous. If I’m going to learn anything or expand my capabilities, I need to factor those experiences into the projects I take on.

Recently I was asked to help create copy for a company’s multiple website redevelopment. Sure, I can write the copy. But as I spoke with the client I realized that I had an opportunity to apply a process I’d created for developing content and communications strategy repeatedly across the company’s various website projects. Not only would this allow me to test and refine my process intensively, and see how it stacked up in different applications, but with more than a dozen websites on their hands, my clients were in desperate need of strategy. I pitched this service to them, along with wireframing and other information design services that I’m keen to hone.

4. As I work with a client, I look for ways to gain exposure to new challenges.

We all know that the experience of working for a client is rarely as you’d imagined. They say they’re in a hurry, then don’t sign anything off for weeks. Or they tell you they have five mini-projects, then that number expands overnight (though the deadlines don’t!). But those on-the-job changes can throw up valuable new opportunities that you’d be crazy to pass by.

One client I worked for — a large corporate organization — needed some copy written. Then they didn’t have time to source the information or have it approved, so I got the chance to conduct interviews with information sources and manage the approvals process. Next, the Board moved the project deadline forward and my client needed all hands on deck for entering the content into a proprietary — and popular — CMS I’d never used before. Each step in the evolution of this project gave me new opportunities to hone existing skills and learn entirely new ones.

5. If I have no experience and want to get some, I’ll happily do a freebie.

There is always a limit to how much work any of us can do for no pay. But if I’m invited to contribute a manageable amount to a project that will give me a grounding in a given area — one that intrigues or excites me, and will provide skills I  can adapt for sale to future clients — I’ll usually take it. Why wouldn’t I? Usually the projects are fun and non-commercial, which means there’s scope to try more than I would in a traditional client environment.

Through freebies, I’ve gained valuable experience in content sourcing, information design, project management and negotiation; I’ve written copy for everything from games to calendars to greeting cards; and I’ve learned from some great colleagues. Through freebies, I had my first advertisement, article, review and creative copy print published. Through freebies, I gained some great professional folio pieces and excellent exposure, as well as fun experiences and valuable, saleable skills.

What techniques do you use to develop your professional skills through your freelance work?

Photo by danoz08.

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  • claudescali

    I’m still at the beginning of my freelance experience as a web developer, so that everything is still new enough not to get me bored.
    Everything I do gives me a chance to learn something new, while the basics (of, say, HTML and CSS) are becoming more and more a “natural” process.

    I definitely share your views on your fifth point: I am still doing stuff for free (mostly for friends and their businesses). In the situation of a beginner like me that’s the best way to get your hands on some experience, build a portfolio, and learn

  • http://thecybertramp.com stikkybubble

    I’m with you, but I’m just getting started and it would be nice to get jobs using skills I already have, never mind persuading people to let me take on projects which expand or develop my skills! :(

  • Scott Petrovic

    Great article! I have a very similar mindset as you do. You should always be paranoid about your skill set and be developing them – even if it means doing work for free sometimes. I have done quite a bit of underpaid or free work to develop skills. It has helped me immensely in different areas of my life. If you don’t have much experience, there isn’t much of an alternative in my opinion. Doing any type of work in a non-classroom setting is “experience” by a lot of people’s standards. It shows real passion and drive that clients and employers look for.

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    What a great resource!