It’s not enough to be nice in life. You’ve got to have nerve.Georgia O’Keeffe
Freelance success is as much about how you deal with people as it is any artistic talent you possess.
You’ve built an exceptional business and you want people to know about it. You want to command larger amounts of money, you want to diffuse conflict, you want to calm people, you want them to trust you. Not all clients (or potential clients) are going to be easy to talk to. But you can win them over anyway, with thoughtfulness, as well as your voice and your body language.
Entire books have been written about voice and body language, and I’m no expert. But I know a hack: have fun.
Self-awareness creates awkwardness. The more fun you’re having, the less self aware you are, and the more favorably you come across.
I used to be afraid of dealing with new people. I only dealt with people who made it easy for me to deal with them. People who dressed like I did, liked the cars I liked, or made the first conversational move.
Later, I learned that relating to un-relatable people is a fun skill to master. I started to challenge myself to make friends with the most unlikely person in the room. When I was a dirtbag BMX rider I made friends with a doctor, and then a Senior VP at a fashion brand. When I was a hip fashion dude I made friends with real estate developers and food and wine experts. Later, entrepreneurs and CEOs. I focused on people outside of my comfort zone and demographic.
I started to notice a pattern of great consulting work coming my way approximately six months after I made a new friend.
Networking is important, but that’s not why you should do it. Do it because it’s fun.
One reason many creative people despise networking is because they place a strong delineation between friends and clients. They view friends as the people they want to spend time with, while clients are a necessary evil, existing far away from your sphere; strange aliens with money that you want to extract without getting too close.
I know a graphic designer who hangs out exclusively with people who make art, wear all black and look exactly like him. It’s a wonderful group of creative people with big hearts, a strong sense of loyalty to each other, and very low incomes. By existing in such an isolated space, they have no idea how to relate to their clients (except for when their clients are hip dive bars in need of new signage). That communication gap leads to some pretty frustrating—or in the best case, unsatisfying—projects. Add up the hours of each day that people like this spend working for clients that they can’t relate to, complaining about them while at the same time needing more of them—that’s a big chunk of life that is unenjoyable.
I nominate you to not be that way.
This is the mindset adjustment that needs to happen: view making friends and getting clients as virtually the same thing.
As a successful small business, your first customers are usually your friends, and that’s not awkward unless you make it so. When you care enough to deliver excellence to your friends, your friends tell other people and pretty soon your client list extends far beyond that circle. This is a much better approach than waiting for a client who has never heard of you to notice your work.
For quieter people like me, matters of taste are a great way to create new relationships. Compliment someone’s shoes, call out something specific about their photography on Instagram, ask about their obscure vintage handbag. A question that only a person of a particular taste would know how to ask.
A personal example: I’m obsessed with cars. I used to spend my free time researching them, shopping for them, driving them, talking about them—never imagining that the large group of acquaintances that I was inadvertently amassing would grow to become a big portion of my social group. It just happened.
Some of us organized an annual vintage car rally together. Soon 40 people were in attendance. They became friends too. Then some of those friends became business partners, some became clients, some became trusted contacts who referred me to clients without me asking them to.
Think about this in your specific context. Maybe you’re a UX designer. If you were to build a group of 40–80 new acquaintances with the same hobby as you, there’s a good chance that a large percentage of them (or their friends) will need a UX designer in their life. And when that need arises, they’re not going to do a LinkedIn search—they’re going to call the person they know and like (that’s you).
Once you have developed the muscle for amassing friends with shared hobbies, you can then easily and confidently approach (or be approached by) other professionals who have the ability to hire you, whether they share your hobby or not.
In summary, friends are people who enjoy you, believe in you, and trust you. Substitute the word “clients” for “friends” and that sentence is still just as true. So don’t be afraid to mix it up. Here’s a quick set of guidelines to get you started:
Pay money for a seminar or networking events
Reach out to people of similar tastes and values
Make a mental list of the top three things you do that your friends love about you
Do those things for more people