How to Make Yourself Indispensable as a Freelancer
It’s no surprise that the gig economy is skyrocketing. More than one-third of the American workforce turned to freelancing during the pandemic, and not necessarily because they lost their full-time jobs—some workers are simply filling extra time by making extra money, or supplementing their incomes to bridge the gap between stagnant wages and a nationwide rising cost of living. Others are willingly turning to freelancing for flexible hours and less stress.
The rise of the gig economy dispels the long-held idea that an army of full-time, salaried employees are essential to running a business. In fact, the opposite is true—slim core teams with a wide network of freelancers will likely be the standard business model of the future.
This world has become possible because technology has democratized what companies can achieve with fewer resources. Affordable SaaS solutions have replaced major infrastructure investments; lightning-fast 5G and fiber internet speeds allows remote teams to work from anywhere. Elon Musk’s Starlink project, for example, will connect users in remote areas around the world. All this underscores the shift toward individual talent without physical barriers. It’s a golden age for freelancing.
Yet there is a significant trade-off that comes with the relatively lax work-from-anywhere lifestyle: job security.
Having spent more than two decades as an entrepreneur in the creative industry, I’ve worked with dozens of high-profile clients and hundreds of freelancers. The gold standard, for freelancers and their clients, should be to establish long-term, rewarding, mutually beneficial relationships. For freelancers, steady work means reliable income and easier workflows; for clients, it means less stress, a knowledgeable resource and a motivated ally on your side.
Transforming gigs from one-offs into recurring work is possible—but only if freelancers make themselves indispensable. Here are a few tips to help do that.
Always be “on”
While employees can clock in and out of a workday without always putting in 100%, freelancers don’t have that luxury. Freelancers must be their own marketing department, accountant, creative director and client manager—as a one-person business, the stakes are higher, because you don’t have anyone else to blame if business dries up.
When you’re dependable and your work is good, this pays off. Clients will throw more work your way. You should take it on whenever possible. You want to be there whenever they need someone; when your calendar opens up, drum up new projects. You can’t afford to slow down, especially when building new relationships—and your clients will take notice.
Understand your client
Freelancers don’t just succeed by doing a job well—the best ones understand their clients’ industries and positions. Know your clients’ market trends and best practices. If you’re new to their field, spend hours researching it; once you’re done with the project, use it in your portfolio to pitch other companies in the same field, or to encourage recurring work with the same client.
Over time, your relationship with the client may outlast their actual employees. You’ll retain institutional and industrial memory that can be invaluable in your collaboration. Offer your clients more than they ask for. Find ways to save them money. Essentially, you want to act like a model full-time employee, delivering results their own staff couldn’t achieve in-house.
Market yourself as a collaborative partner
The best freelancers are creative partners and expert consultants. Freelancers should focus on building their own personal brands, which means maintaining a modern website and social media presence, while being experts in their field to back up their claims.
Personally, in the creative industry, after I’d collaborated with agencies for years, some wound up hiring me as a consultant. This gave me deeper insight into their business, which allowed me to collaborate on new projects and understand their workflow more intimately.
Be the only one who can get the job done
The most definitive interpretation of “indispensable” is being able to do things no one else can do. What can you, the outsider, offer your client that no one else can?
The standard answer would be to create work they can’t do themselves.
You’ll have to excel in your field and understand their industry deeply. But on a more ambitious level, this also means pitching bold, unsolicited ideas. Leverage your own industry knowledge to find trends you can apply to your clients. Tell them something they don’t already know. Be proactive. Lead with ideas. They won’t always take you up on your offers, but any worthwhile client will notice your personal investment in their company’s success.
Be honest with your client
Clients will ask freelancers to handle all sorts of things. If you’re a freelance attorney, they might ask you for advice outside your specialty field. If you’re a photographer, they might assume you also shoot video. If you do shoot video, they could assume you also edit—and so it goes, with clients asking for more, often because you have a great working relationship and they don’t understand your industry as well as you do.
Sometimes, you will be easily able to manage this extra work. Be flexible at first. (I once hired a camera operator to shoot a project; when he finished, he refused to upload the footage to send to me, because that “wasn’t his job.” Needless to say, I never worked with him again.)
But sometimes, the client will ask for things beyond your capabilities or their budget. Be truthful with them. If you don’t have experience doing what they want, tell them. You can always offer to tackle it regardless, but they should know it’s new to you, so they can set their expectations accordingly.
Other times, honesty means giving feedback on their assignments for you. Remember: you’re the expert. They’re coming to you for help. Make recommendations based on your industry experience—just because they have an assignment for you, doesn’t mean it’s a worthwhile assignment. Even if they’re hesitant, your honesty and knowledge can be more valuable than the work itself.
Know the right tools
I work in the digital media space, where gig workers comprise the bedrock of every project. A major stumbling block for them is having access to all the same tools. Companies have different workflows, cloud storage platforms, collaborative software and preferred file formats. This is unavoidable—it’s up to the freelancer to understand their clients’ preferences.
There are two ways around this. One is simply to understand their workflow; the other is to pitch them something else. My company’s field research has shown that, in determining which software to use, slightly fewer than half of all clients prefer to listen to the freelancer—this might surprise freelancers who, by default, follow the client’s lead. In reality, many small and mid-sized businesses are not aware of the best tools in your industry. If you see problems in their workflows, suggest better alternatives. After all, they’re coming to you—and you’re the expert.