Being a freelancer means you are not beholden to any one employer. It also means you don’t get the perks of regular employment, including time to settle into a job and a network of support as you learn your job.
So how does a freelancers deal with the extensive learning curve associated with launching a new business? Who can a freelancer lean on when they need some guidance, some assurance, some context?
One option worth exploring is to seek out a freelancing mentor.
What is a Freelancing Mentor?
Freelancing mentors come in all shapes and sizes – providing a variety of services and specializing in a variety of skills. What a mentor does will depend on what you need. But putting it simply, a freelancing mentor is someone who understands what success as a freelancer requires, and is willing to share their tips, suggestions, insight, stories and lessons with you.
Some mentors charge a flat rate for their services. Other mentors ask for a portion of whatever you earn while you are under their guidance. If you are lucky, you might find a mentor who is willing to assist you for free, acting out of altruistic reasons.
Do I Need a Mentor?
You may not. Many freelancers thrive when they operate alone. Many also find freelancing a challenge, with some quite specific barriers to long term success. In a broad sense, a mentor can help new freelancers who feel like a fish out of water. This is especially true for those of us who have moved from regular employment to freelancing. Striking out on your own – all on your own – can be tough. Mentors can also help established freelancers who aren’t operating at the level of success they desire.
Specifically, mentors can provide the following:
Despite all the online and offline resources that are available, despite social media that allows a freelancer to feel connected, despite any amount of self-belief, there are times when you can just barely manage to support yourself. There are times when you need to talk about your situation as opposed to anyone else’s.
While online resources are great, they aren’t personal. A blog or forum will never be able to address the individual issues of each reader.
A mentor, on the other hand, can answer your specific questions, monitor your progress, analyze your efficiency and guide you on how to interact with your clients. They know you, and you know them – and that brings a level of personal attention that may not be available any other way.
You might be a stellar web designer/web developer/content writer/insert-chosen-profession-here, but you might not be a stellar business person. While there’s no shame in that (you can’t be good at everything), the lack of knowledge could really hinder your success.
A well-matched mentor has been there, done that. He or she will be able to help you build and manage your business.
What Not to Do
There is certainly value in learning from your mistakes. That doesn’t mean you have to keep on making the same mistakes, nor does it mean you have to make every mistake. Instead of learning everything the hard way, let a mentor tell you what not to do. Learn from their mistakes.
Mentors have been in the game longer than you. They know more people and they have better connections. Let a mentor put you in touch with even more professionals who can enhance your career.
As a freelancer, you can often find yourself working solo: at a home office or in a cafe. There is rarely the opportunity to ask, “Does this sound right?” There isn’t someone sitting in the next cubicle to bounce ideas off. While freelancing can be a lonely path to follow, it can at the same time bring a high level of responsibility. If you are the sole decision maker, the pressure can sometimes seem overwhelming.
Your mentor is a sounding board, a test audience, an honest response. That’s why it’s important for a mentor to be someone who at least understands your line of work. You won’t feel nearly as stressed and self-conscious if you know there is someone else who thinks your idea is sound.
A Boost of Self-Confidence
Your mentor is on your side. While you will always have your mother and various others cheering you on, it makes a difference to know that you have the support of someone who chooses to be on your side. It means a lot to have the validation of someone who understands what you’ve accomplished. A mentor will help you acknowledge your successes and recognize your failings – and help you find ways to build on both.
What Should a Mentor Be?
Above all, a mentor should be well-matched to you. If you’re unable to engage with your mentor then the relationship won’t work. You definitely want someone with whom you “click”, personality-wise, but that doesn’t mean you should take on the person who laughs at your jokes and likes the same sports team.
Look for a person who has these qualities:
If you can’t trust the person who is mentoring you, there’s no point. You will be discussing sensitive subjects – your ambitions and aspirations, your weaknesses, your finances, client concerns, many personal and professional confidentialities. Honesty and trustworthiness are a must.
Experience and Success
If you’re serious about your work, and see freelancing as a career move, you’ll already know that your business decisions have to be based on more than speculation. You could get speculative advice anywhere, from your mother if you really wanted to. There’s an abundance of websites out there, willing to tell you whatever you want to hear.
What a mentor brings is actual experience. Ideally, your mentor will have been successful in their field, however that success is measured. This doesn’t mean you need to find someone who is a million years old; it just means your kid brother may not be the right choice.
Someone who specializes in the same tasks you perform is going to understand your situation better, be more likely to have experienced something similar and be able to offer specific advice.
A Positive Outlook
You may think touchy-feely emotions are for the birds, that they have no place in the business world. You may be right. Nevertheless, the psychology of freelancing is as real and as significant a factor in long term success as your skill or remuneration.
A mentor will inspire you, encourage you, and focus on the positive things you are accomplishing.
One of the reasons to go with a formal mentoring structure, such as provided by an agency, is that you are more likely to be mentored by someone who is doing it for the right reasons. Otherwise, you have to judge for yourself whether someone calling themselves a mentor really wants to help people and share their knowledge, or is just trying to make a quick buck.
Sound Business Sense
You want a mentor who is responsible, who will encourage you to make sound decisions. Pushing you to work hard and do your best (“accept one more client this month”) is one thing; encouraging you to make poor business decisions (“go ahead and buy that new, expensive computer even though you haven’t reached your earning goals”) is another.
Your mentoring relationship will likely be based around regular, planned contact with your mentor. Not only should your mentor be as committed to this contact as you must be, they should also be flexible enough to be available when specific needs apply.
Open to New Ideas
Mentoring is about opening up, not closing down. A good mentor will encourage you to look forwards, to extend your capabilities, to embrace new challenges. The last thing you need is someone intent on holding you back.
Where Do I Find a Mentor?
Are you ready to take the plunge? If so, you’ll want to know how to go about hiring a mentor.
- Consult a mentoring agency. Mentoring is a recognized service in the corporate world, and there are professional agencies that select mentors from a portfolio of consultants and match them to your needs. The costs tend to be commensurate with the level of professionalism.
- Talk to organizations that provide paid coaching. Coaching isn’t the same as mentoring, being focused more on skills enhancement than personal support. However, you may find someone who can also act as a mentor. This can also be expensive.
- Check with professional associations and business networking groups. You may well find that have a referral structure in place, linking older and wiser industry players with younger ones.
- If you are a graduate, talk to your college. Academics are often industry types who have moved into teaching, and may be willing to act as a mentor.
- Some of your past employers or colleagues might be willing to take on a mentoring role.
- If you are already a member of an industry-focused online forum, make your mentoring needs known.
- Don’t be shy, use social media. LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook are all good places to get word-of-mouth advice and recommendations.
Should I Become a Mentor?
Eventually, you will come to a place and time where you feel comfortable in your freelancing shoes. If you have been mentored yourself, it will occur to you to be a mentor to someone else. This will be true, even if you are not ever ready to give up your own mentor. Being mentored doesn’t stop you being a mentor.
Why should you give your time to mentor a fellow freelancer? Mentoring can bring a whole new outlook to your career.
Mentoring is not the same as teaching. It’s more of a two way street. Mentors learn as much about themselves and their work as do the people they are mentoring.
You Feel Good
Mentoring brings both a satisfaction that you are actively helping someone, and challenges to your own preconceptions. Mentoring forces you to keep on top of what’s happening in your industry, and find ways to be supportive to someone who might be struggling. By guiding a newbie, you’ll add some spice and perspective to your own career. You’ll remember why you love what you do.
You Gain Authority
In any industry, being recognized as a mentor brings it with a sense of increased authority. If the people you mentor become successful, you are seen to have had a part in that success. If you already have standing in the industry, you’ll find that providing formal mentoring stops you being called on in an ad hoc way.
Mentoring has been shown to be highly effective in helping individuals pursue and find success in many industries. Web industry freelancers are prime candidates to benefit from mentoring, offering a chance to develop a professional support relationship that is not built into the way they work. For many freelancers, mentoring may be just what they need.
After graduating from Iowa State University, Jessica used her writing skills to help various clients with their online content needs. She worked as a freelance writer for several years before joining Subtle Network in 2011, where she is a content writer, editor and manager.