Breaking Freelance Rule #2: You Must Network

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Back when I was unemployed and trying to find a job and/or freelance work, I was told to start attending a certain high tech happy hour in my town. I would dutifully attend that happy hour each month, make small talk about how I was looking for work, collect and distribute business cards, and then go home and await my job-related emails and/or phone calls. To my surprise, no emails and/or phone calls ever materialized.

I’d go back to that happy hour and try even harder to socialize and collect names. Again, I’d wait for an email and/or phone call.

On a few occasions, an email would appear. Yes! I’d brush up my resume, put on my best professional duds and go see the interested party for a follow-up networking meet.

What confused me about the meet was that, instead of us talking business, I’d be asked about my home life, what I liked to do for fun, and where I traveled while on vacation. No mention would be made of my professional skills or job search.

Huh?

Finally, it hit me- I was being viewed as dating material, not a networking professional. How could I have been so stupid!

I eventually quit attending that “professional” happy hour (it was hard to say no to free microbrewed beer and munchables) and started attending a different one. Here, no one tried to hit on me. But, the interested parties that I encountered were interested in me only because they too were seeking work. In the midst of the Great Recession, I had happened upon a job seekers group that all but reeked of desperation. I quit going to that networking event as well.

Eventually, I found a third networking group that seemed decent and actually employed. Yet, the more I talked with those professionals and read or listened to their follow-up emails/phone calls, the more I found myself refusing mortgage refi requests, lawn care offers, physical fitness assessments and the like. Apparently, this group was seriously infested with POPs (professional opportunistic parasites), not networkers. No thanks- and no- I don’t need to sell my house right now.

Networking = serious time drain

Networking can be a real waste of your time if you’re not careful. So-called professional happy hours are usually infested with people who a) are just looking to let off steam and get drunk b) consider networking akin to speed dating c) use the event to peddle their (usually unrelated) business services and/or d) have been unemployed for months if not years and are glomming onto anyone that smells of work/employment. The anonymity of the environment, plus the presence of free booze, plus the fact that most attendees come with their friends for fun, makes true networking a real challenge for the few serious folks who are actually trying to increase their professional contacts.

Not to mention the fact that true networking is usually more difficult than just blindly hitting on people you don’t know.

Instead of attending the traditional networking (i.e., dating) circuits, here are some alternative methods for scoring contacts, clients and work. These methods all stem from the idea that people are more likely to truly know and respect each other in a work-like situation where there is a real goal to focus on instead of just trying to get sloshed. This is a segment I like to call:

How to not network

1. Become involved in one or two professional organizations/clubs.

If you a bookkeeper or accountant by trade, get involved in a non-profit club of some sort and offer to help maintain its books. If you are a  freelance writer/graphic designer/programmer, get involved in a freelancers club and be sure to show up with some snacks in tow. Basically, do something other than your day job/freelance work for a change. Show an interest in a worthwhile cause, even if that cause is a bit -though not too much- out of your professional range. By doing so, you’ll meet other professionals who are passionate about furthering a cause and who will appreciate your efforts on its behalf. And of course, your name and occupation will be first in their minds should a potential job or client pop up who is looking for just your type of services.

2. Volunteer and/or help people out.

Over the course of your day, you probably encounter a range of individuals including store clerks, caregivers, postal/government workers, coworkers, restaurant owners, etc. While it’s not going to happen every time, you might wish to engage some of these folks in casual conversation and see what they are up to. Maybe that restaurant owner needs help with his website and you just happen to know WordPress. Alternately, maybe your kids’ babysitter is having trouble with her English homework and you offer tutoring.

In short, get involved in people’s lives and consider how you can do at least one small favor for those individuals who are in your life. Such volunteerism can be viewed as light networking and is often the basis for securing paid work. Even if all else fails, at least you have helped someone out with your expertise.

3. Take on work tasks that are a bit out of your league.

Let’s say you’re a freelance writer with niche specialty in biotechnology (cough, cough) but are offered the opportunity to write e-commerce articles instead. Rather than refuse such a work offer, view this subject matter as both a challenge and an opportunity to delve into a new field. You just never know where your “unrelated” work experience might take you- such as into the marketing department of a major biotech (more coughing).

The caveat to this advice is that your work tasks need to maintain some similarity with what you are currently doing; for example, if your desired niche specialty is mechanical engineering, then being a train engineer does not count as a similar job and will not get you any closer towards being a mechanical engineer.

4. Conduct informational interviews.

Informational interviews, unlike job interviews, introduce you to networking contacts in a low pressure and more collegial environment, allowing you to gain a deeper understanding of what these people do on a daily basis in their jobs. What is so great about conducting informational interviews is that they almost always get you into the good graces and memory of your interviewers. As a result, you are one of the first persons to be thought of and contacted should a job or work opportunity come up.

Ryan Raver’s three part blog post series on informational interviewing provides a great synopsis of the topic, albeit from the viewpoint of a biology graduate student; however, the process is applicable to virtually any profession.

5. Take advantage of LinkedIn.

If you have not yet set up your LinkedIn profile, do so. If you’ve set up your LinkedIn profile but haven’t yet added your work summary and history, your affiliations, degrees and even hobbies, then do so. Once your profile is set up, use LinkedIn to network with and help your contacts. If they’re in town, try to meet with a few of them and conduct those informational interviews that I mentioned in part #4. In short, don’t let your LinkedIn profile languish; instead, use LinkedIn as a resource to gain potential clients and work.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to making quality contacts and gaining prospective clients or work, traditional networking just doesn’t cut it anymore. Your efforts must stick in the memories of your contacts- and that’s just not going to happen while you’re downing your sixth beer and slurring your words at a professional happy hour.

I’m not saying you should never attend a social event for professionals, but do realize that these events are limited and are best used for follow-up meetings with clients that you’ve already established while quite sober.

Oh, and it’s probably best if you stop at beer #2 no matter what you do.

Photo credit by Nan Palmero

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