Freelancers: 7 steps to prepare for the future

The freelance community are all too aware of how jobs come and go. After all many freelancers were once employed in full-time jobs in old media. It can be scary when what you trained for is no longer in demand and jobs that you thought secure start to disappear. But the chances are good that we will see more and more of this kind of change. As a freelancer, you need to keep your skills relevant and keep an eye on the changes that are coming in order to make sure that you continue to have something to sell that people will actually pay for.

Big companies are not immune to changes in markets. There are many examples of companies that have lost their markets and had to either close or reinvent themselves. As a result, more cautious companies put time and effort into watching out for change and working out how to respond to it. You can learn from what companies do and do the same for your freelance business.

Step 1: Face Facts

You can’t wish away change. Shedding the odd tear for days gone by over a beer on Friday is fine, but during the working week, don’t look back. It’s better to expend energy on making a plan for the future than on wishing the world were different. Support each other by redirecting the conversation to the future when fellow freelancers want to dwell in the past.

If a line of work is no longer valued by the market it is no reflection on your worth as a human being. Don’t take it personally. They rules of the game have changed, but you are smart and you can figure out how to win with the new rules. (Or you can always become an anarchist and bring down the system.)

Step 2: Set Aside Time to Future-Proof Your Business

Around 20% of your time as a freelancer should be spent on development – that includes improving your business processes, collecting information, strategizing, learning new skills, watching what your competitors are doing, experimenting, trying new things, dreaming up new potential paths. That means one day a week.

Any time spent on future-proofing your business is legitimate work time. Companies pay consultants to predict the future, employ futurists and set up whole strategic planning departments. You should do the same, on a freelance scale.

Step 3: Scan the Horizon

Your best (possibly only) protection against the future is to be well informed. For this you need to set up systems for collecting appropriate information. Don’t leave this to chance. Here are some ways that you can find information relevant to your situation.

  1. Subscribe to relevant publications, blogs and newsfeeds.
  2. Create filters to stay on top of current and relevant information.
  3. Take the time to read the information, say 2 hours every Friday. Reading is legitimate work.
  4. Use social media like LinkedIn to learn what is happening in your area of work.
  5. Join a professional organisation or network, attend their events and talk to people.
  6. Create your own support group of like-minded people in related fields and meet regularly to talk.
  7. Watch your competitors closely to see what they are offering. Be on the lookout for new products or services.
  8. Take time just to follow interesting links, search for stuff of interest, and indulge your curiosity.

Keep your own notes of trends that you want to learn more about, comments you want to follow up on, web sites that seem interesting. Use a tool like Evernote to capture your thoughts and ideas.

Step 4: Embrace Technology

Whether you like it or not, the future is technological. Identify technologies relevant for your business and embrace them. Learn to use your existing tools better; take an advanced course. Investigate tools that will make you more efficient, more competitive and learn to use them. Make use of your support group to learn new technologies together. Technology is easier if you can get excited about the possibilities.

Step 5: Understand what Change Means for your Customers

One of the best ways to stay relevant is to understand how your customer’s needs are changing and adapt your offering to meet those changing needs.

  1. Talk to your customers about change.
  2. What is confusing, frustrating or disappointing to your clients?
  3. What about the future do they fear?
  4. What is exciting for your clients? What changes are they looking forward to?
  5. What will your clients need in 5 years’ time?
  6. Discuss customer needs with your business network and support group. Test out ideas on them and explore how they are seeing customer needs changing.

Step 6: Re-engineer Your Business

When big companies see threatening change up ahead, one of the responses is to re-engineer their business to enable them to offer new or different products or services and to do that in new or different ways. The process of business re-engineering may seem too complex to apply to a freelance business, but the same principles can give interesting insights into how you can change. There are four steps to re-engineering: deconstruct, evaluate, innovate and reassemble. To explain the process, here is an example of the business of a freelance writer of magazine articles.

Step one, deconstruct, would be to break down what you do into small self-contained steps. For our writer, these might be:

  1. Identify a publication
  2. Go through past issues and your news feeds to identify a topic of interest
  3. Research the subject online
  4. Write a story
  5. Source pictures from your archive or online sources
  6. Sell the story
  7. Invoice and collect

These steps might not be linear – you might identify the publication first, but each one of them has to happen.

Now that you have your steps, you evaluate each one and ask yourself: Is this step being done well? Can it be done better? What does this step cost? Can it be done cheaper? Can it be automated or outsourced? Is this a step that you are good at? Is it something you really want to be doing?

Now take those steps that you think could be done better and investigate your options for improving them. Here is where you want to be innovative. Look for ways to do them faster or cheaper, ways to automate or outsource them. For example, you might want to use Google search terms to identify topics to write about, contract someone to do the research for you or get some software running to speed up the task of invoicing. There may be an online tool that identifies potential publications for you, like this one for academic research articles or this one that identifies what different publications pay.

The last step is to reassemble your steps in a more efficient way, more geared to what your customers want. You could, for example end up with the following improved steps:

  1. Use Google Trends to find several topics of interest
  2. Get a freelancer to research the topics and source pictures
  3. Write stories
  4. Use an online tool to identify a publications
  5. Use a virtual assistant to contact publications and sell the stories
  6. Use a virtual assistant to invoice and collect

In this new model you are now doing steps a, c and d and have outsourced the rest. In addition, you are doing steps and d more efficiently, leaving you more time to spend on other things. You may of course decide that your business should be to offer a service to writers, identifying publications for their articles, in which case the steps in your re-engineered business would look quite different.

You may want to do this with a business coach or use your support group for new perspectives during this exercise. Fresh eyes see things that are too obvious for you.

Step 7: Reengineer Yourself

People who work in fast-changing industries, like software developers, know how important it is to keep upgrading your skills. This is going to become the norm for freelancers too. Here are some things you can do to keep improving yourself.

  1. Work out what sets you apart from everyone else doing this work, and how you can capitalise on this.
  2. Re-skill relentlessly – try to learn a new skill every year.
  3. Attend seminars and workshops related to the future of your profession.
  4. Attend seminars and workshops to develop broader business skills.
  5. Use online learning resources – webinars and MOOCs.
  6. Take classes, courses and formal training if it seems relevant.
  7. Develop a list of “tacks” or changes in direction that you might be able to do in the next year or two. This way if current opportunities dry up suddenly, you have already thought about where you can go next. Revisit your list regularly.
  8. Develop an open mind – think of the one thing that you “would never do” and go and investigate that as an option for your business. You don’t have to do it, but thinking it through might expose you to new ideas and it may not be as awful as you think.

In conclusion

No job is immune, if you have a good gig for now take advantage of it, stash money for a rainy day, keep watching the horizon for signs of change, and make plans for dealing with that change. You should try and be developing two future options at any one time, but not more than that. If your income is under immediate threat you need to move more quickly, so spend a bit more time on the process.

A large part of being future-proof is just staying upbeat. Don’t fret too much. Fear shuts down the creative process and makes it harder to see new opportunities. Positive people see possibilities. The best you can do is to get excited about the future and look forward to it.


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