On Making Connections And Finding Work

I’ve been asking folks what they’d like to hear or learn about in this series, and something I already get asked about is making connections and finding work, especially when transitioning from a full time agency/office job to freelance. I’m not an expert, but I can offer my experience from one of my biggest connections in the hope that it’s beneficial.

When I was thinking about going freelance, I heard a lot of phrases like “hustling” and “cold-emailing” to acquire work. I was fairly nervous about the fact that I would need to drum up lots of work to be able to provide for my family. I didn’t like the idea of pestering people I just met for jobs and connections. It painted a picture of a needy and annoying designer, someone I probably wouldn’t like if I met them. Fortunately, in my experience thus far, that hasn’t been the way I’ve needed to behave to fill my schedule.

One of my biggest clients thus far has been Microsoft, and I’ve been working with a great team there on a few big projects. It’s been rewarding, but it didn’t start with me reaching out to Microsoft for work or getting the connection via a staffing agency. The events leading up to these projects actually go back a year and a half.

In the fall of 2012, I connected with a small app studio called Hidden Pineapple after I downloaded a twitter app they released. We had a back and forth discussion about design and their app, and I became friends with the founders, Erik and Nathan. They liked my work, and after a few months asked me if I’d be interested in designing their new website. I agreed, and had a great time working with them.

Later, I had the opportunity to do some design consulting and QA on a few apps they were working on for Windows Phone, which eventually led to me designing an app alongside them for Microsoft. A few of these projects came and went, and were great side projects for my nights and weekends freelance schedule.

Last fall, Erik grabbed lunch with a team at Microsoft and heard that they were trying to do a responsive re-design of their homepage. The problem was that they didn’t have the time to do it internally, and the few design resources they asked gave them incredibly pricey estimates. Erik suggested that he might know someone who could help, and asked me if I’d be interested. I agreed, and sent over an estimated timeline and budget for the project. They agreed, and I ended up completing the project for them, which led to the projects that helped kick off my freelance career. Erik and I are now good friends, and talk on a daily basis.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: If I approached any of my freelance contacts as a “job” or potential “freelance contact,” I’m not sure things would have ended up this way. I’ve made it a personal goal to make friends and learn from others in the design community, and that’s been rewarding in and of itself. More importantly, I’ve tried to genuinely be interested in the work that other people are doing. I reach out and ask what their experience has been like and what they’ve learned along the way.

Once I’ve made those connections, I generally find that I become friends with these folks. Occasionally, these friends can lead to work. In fact, the two full-time jobs I’ve had in Portland were due to Twitter connections. Think about it: who would you rather hire? A friend who’s been a legitimately positive presence in your life, or some random guy who just emailed you about getting some work?

Sure, connections and networking can be beneficial, but community is so much more rewarding and life-giving than handing out business cards and hoping for a “lead.” There are so many talented and brilliant people in our industry, and you’re doing yourself a disservice by not making new friends. If you’re thinking about freelancing, and you’ve been the loner that hasn’t shown interest in other people’s lives or work, it may be difficult for you. Start by making some new friends, and see where it takes you.

If this sounds overly simple: I’m sorry. I didn’t bill this as a “five easy steps to acquiring new freelance clients,” did I? As always, if you have questions or would like to chat, hit me up.