Freelancing Success – A List to Live By (and a few thoughts on Global Microbrands)

I like freelancers. In some ways, I am one. Freelancers tend to value the kinds of ideas I put forth in my book Free From Corporate America. They tend to put a premium on creative autonomy and avoiding the heel of stifling corporate bosses. But there are problems with freelancing also – too often, the freelancers I know move from assignment to assignment, without much thought about the core expertise they are developing or, as per the themes in my book, the assets (and/or brand) they are building.

Despite some of my concerns about the freelancing ethic, I do have an affinity for the lifestyle, which is why I agreed to do an interview recently with I thought the interview had a lot of good topics in it, so I suggest you check out the entire piece on their site.

As part of the interview, writer Kristen Fischer asked me for some bullet points on freelancing success. (Which reminds me, since she referred to me as a “knowledge goldmine,” a rather unprecedented compliment, I need to work Kristen into my holiday shopping plans). As I looked through the list, I realized they made a pretty good list of my recommended business philosophies. In no particular order:

  • Remain lean in operating costs but don’t be afraid to invest in tools or assets that will give you a competitive advantage.
  • Aspire to world-class excellence in a specialized area that larger companies can’t easily fill; and
  • Outsource everything beyond that specialty to trusted business partners.
  • Don’t just chase lucrative markets; focus on “monetizing” an area you are passionate about, as this will be your life.
  • Don’t be content to be a billable expert – productize your knowledge and create income-generating assets.
  • Use the Internet whenever possible to market test ideas prior to major business launches.
  • Become a thought leader in your field and create visibility via web presence and trade shows.
  • Stay on the cutting edge of emerging trends and ruthlessly refine your focus as needed.
  • Provide a level of personalized customer service and interaction larger companies can’t typically match.
  • Continually invest in your own self-education.

There’s one big one I left off the list that really is a whopper though:

Don’t just think about what the market wants – start with a creative contribution to a community project or cause you care about.

Huge life-altering blunder: people who see business and personal values as “at odds with each other” – only if you concede the point, which is less likely to happen if you build a strategy around something you care about. That way, by the time you start creating content, setting up LinkedIn groups, Tweeting, or blogging, you won’t just be broadcasting for the sake of it or cynically building a niche. You’ll be raising the tide on an issue you care about.

If you have any doubt that this can work, look at how a commitment to sustainability has raised the industry profile of GreenMonk, the sustainability practice of RedMonk, featuring Lead Analyst Tom Raftery and RedMonk’s inimitable James Governor. These guys have turned sustainability commentary into visiblity, and that in turn leads them to worthy client projects – and it all started by giving away content on issues that mattered to them, or as James might say, that they cared a fuckload about.

Anyhow, after that interview was published, I got a reader comment on the site which talked about the importance of finding a niche market. This is something I get into quite a bit my own book, but there’s more to say. Since I published my own book, I’ve been thinking even more about the success of some of the “microbrands” in the IT industry, such as my friends in the aforementioned open source analyst firm RedMonk. In fact, Hugh MacLeod, author of a recommended book on creativity and business, Ignore Everybody, is undertaking a new book on the impact of building a “global microbrand.”

This was reflected in my comment to the reader:

I’m glad you like the interview. I totally agree with what you are saying about finding a niche market. I’ve been toying with a phrase called “verticalize your skills,” which is a fancy way of saying that focused niches have value. One person who has done a lot of thinking in this area is Hugh MacLeod, author of the book Ignore Everybody – @gapingvoid on Twitter. He talks about building a global microbrand as a lasting means of achieving success on your own terms. Hugh talks about how blogging is a great starting point for launching a global microbrand. I believe freelancers of all stripes can utilize those approaches to be more effective. Too many aspire to be an Internet celebrity in a generalized area, such as: “I’m an SEO expert” or “I’m a social media guru.”

Problem is, there is only room for a handful of those bigtime celebrities with tens of thousands of Twitter devotees, then there is a pretty steep dropoff. However, taking that expertise and applying it to a niche market can really help you to create your own path that is very effiective. Without being a social media celebrity, I’ve had very good success helping companies in my particular niche (SAP software market) with social networking projects. It’s the combination of the broader skill (social media) and the narrower industry focus (SAP) that gives me more value to my clients than a so-called “social media guru” would. I think you can apply this formula to many areas.

So these are key topics in my book, and Hugh MacLeod is defining this in a more vivid way than occured to me with his global microbrand strategy. I do have some differences with this model also, which I can get into further if readers would like me to. In brief, a couple concerns I have around the goal of building such a brand: yes, it does beat the corporate treadmill to have your own brand and monetize it yourself, but I find that as someone who is building such a brand in the SAP world, that in some ways, it’s just a new treadmill. Yes, it’s way better than filing TPS reports, but I’m still feeding that meter every day. Blogging, while a nice way of developing recognition and generating consulting business, is also a feed the meter scenario – you are then “feeding your blog” constantly.

Those who love to blog have no issue with this, but the business models I like best are a bit more passive. Passive income is superior because it requires less life energy to generate, and insulates you better from the obstacles life can throw in the way, such as a health problem or a marital crisis or anything that takes away from our ability to keep pushing our brand. Even the causes we care about most can consume us. That’s why even if we believe in what we are doing, generating web traffic based on resource-based materials can be vastly more profitable and “energy efficient” than constant blogging. See my “Defiant Guide to SEO” for more on that.

I’ll return to these themes in future posts, but for now, I wanted to share some emerging trends and offer a quick take.

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