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Building a Trusted Network of Contacts and Support as a Freelancer

At our recent #WiredBrekkie on how to manage the feast and famine of freelancing, freelance web developer Paul Silver shared his top tips on building a trusted network of contacts and support to catapult you into freelancing success and help you win more projects. In this guest blog post, he goes into more detail...

I started networking a little while before being made redundant from my last full-time job sixteen years ago. I can confidently say without the people I've met through networking I wouldn't have made it as a freelancer. I know this because the first time I tried being freelance, I didn't make it. I royally stuffed it up and luckily found a full-time job that let me pay off the debt I'd got into.

The second time, with more experience under my belt and an excellent group of contacts built up from several local networking groups, I got past all the problems with starting up a small business, and have been happily freelance since, with a lot of help from my friends.

Why build up your network of contacts?

The main reasons I've found for building up a big network of friends and contacts are:

  • Social contact - especially when working from home and single, I really missed working around other people.
  • Contact with people who understand what you're going through - my friends who are in full-time work are great but don't understand the problems I have as well as my self employed friends.
  • Finding help - weird questions about tax, how to spot a dodgy client, what to put in my terms and conditions, and myriad other things have been patiently answered by the people I've met through networking.
  • A salesforce - I get a lot of leads from my network, 50% of my work comes from it, and I know if I lose a client or a project finishes, I just have to tell people I'm available and I'll get a burst of offers through from people looking out for me. That's not only great for business, it's a great stress reliever too.

When you have a good network, you will receive a steady drip-feed of work opportunities all the time - leads and offers to collaborate on projects. Should you run out of work or have some cancelled, you have a group of people you can tell who will go out of their way to help you find work to fill in the gap.

A lot of freelancers experience a "feast and famine" cycle where they have lots of work and then no work. I have had a base level of work that is enough - covering all my bills and living costs at the very least - every month for the last 14 years. A good chunk of how I achieved that is having a good network. It is worth putting in the effort to build your own network, in your own way.

Where to find people?

Places to build up your network:

  • Networking groups - The Farm meets weekly, First Friday run friendly lunchtime networking groups all over Sussex, and there's a wide range of meetups for different programming languages and every sort of technical job out there. Look on the Wired Sussex Events page and for groups near you.
  • Coworking spaces and shared desk offices - where you work can quickly build up your network of useful contacts. Brighton, Worthing and Eastbourne all have good coworking spaces, have a look at The Skiff, Platform 9, The Werks and Freedom Works for some of your options. Most of the advice in this post is as applicable to people you meet coworking as it is to events.
  • Online - mailing lists, forums, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn groups are all a good supplement to your network. Personally, I've found they work best when you've already met the person you're in contact with in real life, so as a way of keeping up contact rather than finding and only knowing someone online.

Goals when networking

Don't expect to get work instantly from networking, it can happen, but it's not normal. Your goal should be to meet interesting, professional people and get to know them so they understand you are a professional person who can do what you claim you do. They will then refer leads for work to you, or be interested in collaborating on a project that takes both your and their combination of skills.

Top tips on building up your network

1. Meet the same people regularly and talk to them

Classic opening lines are "What do you do?" and "Are you working on anything interesting at the moment."

Concentrate on what they are telling you, don't just look for your chance to speak. Don't try and give someone a card before you've talked to them. Go into every conversation expecting to be talking to a professional in whatever they do, then adjust your opinion as you get to know them.

2. Remember who they are and what they do

Remembering what someone has told you last time you met them immediately makes them like you more than just knowing they have met you in the past.

You don't need to remember the person's whole life story, but something about what they do or a situation they were in lets you start the conversation easily - "How's your design work going?", "Did that copywriting job you were going for come off?" - and will let a person know you cared about what they said last time you met, and they will want to reciprocate.

Don't worry if you forget people's names. It's best just to admit it, and they will probably be relieved and admit to having forgotten your name too. Some networking events provide name badges to get past this embarrassment, but you can't always read them.

3. Go networking/coworking consistently

Just hitting up a networking event once is unlikely to get you really useful contacts. You need to meet the same people over time to get to know them to the point that they're confident enough in you that they'll send you over a lead or want to work with you on a project.

So, find some networking events or a coworking space that feels like the right fit for what you like, go there regularly and get to know everyone.

4. Don't be scared of people who do the same thing you do

People who have the same skills as you will often be your best source of work. When they are busy, it is easier for them to give someone enquiring for their services your contact details than just saying they're not interested. I get lots of work from people who do the same thing I do, and I've referred on tons of leads to people who some would see as my competition. I've also subcontracted work out to people who do the same thing as I do when I'm too busy to do all of the work that lands on my plate from my current clients.

5. Send leads to people you've met

If you get offered a bit of work that you can't do because you're too busy, or because it's not quite what you actually do, or you see a lead somewhere like the Commissions & Briefs page, send it to other members you know with the right skills in case they are interested. As you get better at finding work, the bits you offer around will be better, and people will pick up on that and be happy to refer work your way too.

If you become known as someone who knows other people in your industry, you will receive all sorts of referrals along the line of "Do you know someone who does this?" and for the bits you can do, your instant reply can be "Why yes, I do..."

6. Talk to at least a few people at every event/day coworking

If you are a nervous networker, it's easy to latch on to the one person who will talk to you and only talk to them the whole time. Try to resist this urge. Talking to 3-4 people will be much better for everyone - you get to start making more contacts and practise talking, and you're not annoying one person by dominating their time.

If there are a lot of people at the event, don't worry about talking to all of them. Concentrate on talking to a few and actually making some sort of connection.

7. Don't be afraid of moving to the next conversation

When you're talking to someone who has completely different skills and experience to you, and there's no overlap between your worlds (e.g. you're a developer and they handle noise compliance for church bells) don't feel bad about moving on to meet someone else at the same event. Just be polite - do listen to some of their background and thoughts, then say you need to meet a few more people during the event, don't cut them dead.

Also, try not to fall into the trap of only talking to the people you know at the event. Mix it up. Catch up with your friends, and also meet some of the new folk. You can be the seasoned networker they get to talk to who gets them out of the conversation about the harmonic resonance of clappers they've somehow fallen into.

Supporting materials

Get some business cards if you don't already have them. Make sure there is a line on the card that makes it obvious what you do, e.g. "I design logos and websites for small businesses"

Some people have the LinkedIn app on their phone so they can find and add people straight away. That's quite useful, but can be a faff when you're near the end of a conversation on the swapping details part, so you don't have to use this when a simple card can do.

Don't bother having leaflets, cards that are big or weird (i.e. lots of folding), a book, a whole portfolio (or have it but leave it in your bag.) All of these are either annoying or the sort of thing you bring out when meeting someone for a specific reason. They are not for use in a first contact situation.


Try to have fun. Networking can be daunting when you're first doing it, but if you find the right events, it quickly becomes seeing a bunch of your friends. At that point, you're having fun as well as seeing lots of people you swap work with, and that makes the whole thing much more enjoyable.

Paul Silver has been freelancing since November 2003, writing code and carrying out search engine promotion work for a range of small and medium-sized companies, mainly in Sussex and London. Prior to his freelance career, he was a senior web developer for a Brighton-based web company for two years, and before that a web developer for an international recruitment company and several smaller clients. Paul is also the organiser of The Farm, a networking group for freelancers in the digital sector.

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