As I’ve already mentioned, my entry into contracting wasn’t exactly deliberate, so I didn’t give much thought to ‘networking’. I took it to be an exhausting and slightly creepy thing other people did. Real business people. In badly lit convention rooms. Which was pretty stupid, considering my own ‘network’ could have comfortably fit inside a modest family car.
I was much more concerned about my writing portfolio, which was a far more tangible problem. But the issues with both were very much the same. How do you get one if you don’t know anyone who might give you work?
I eventually ended up employing the rather pathetic technique of complaining to lots of acquaintances about not having enough work – ‘Whinge-working’ if you will – which led to them referring me just to shut me up.
Efficient? No. Effective? Yes. Essentially the result is the same – talking to people leads to work.
Over time my network has gradually grown organically. I’ve developed a lot of strong relationships and a reputation that leads to enough recommendations to keep me busy. (I sort of cheated by having a full-time job in the middle, but that’s true of most contractors.) I do have a website, and LinkedIn is absolutely essential, but I don’t go out of my way to drum up business online. Most of my network is still cultivated through person-to-person contact. Sometimes it’s just a case of making a brew round in an office I’m working in and getting chatting.
There will be plenty of amazing contractors who work completely differently. Who have business cards and logos and proactive marketing. But my approach is the one that I feel is most appropriate for the kind of person and writer I am. I would say it’s ‘on-brand’, except that would completely disprove my point. I don’t see myself or my business as a brand. I’m a craftsperson who works directly with people who need my craft.
There are certain rules I have to follow to make this stick. Never leave a client less than delighted. Always bend over backwards to ensure the best possible work. Offer additional work with a light touch – don’t give off even the slightest whiff of grabby upsell. Make sure emails are appropriately typo-free / witty / erudite, without overdoing it.
Which are all pretty obvious on the face of it, but harder to deliver in the midst of a chaotic week. If someone lets me down at the last minute, I never bat an eyelid, even if it’s incredibly frustrating. I pay into the bank of goodwill and it pays me back.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of great people who I’ve generally gotten on with really well. Over time many have left their jobs and joined new teams. When they call me up I get a whole new opportunity to work with different people inside different organisations. If I get the chance to speak to a client higher up the food chain, I’m always conscious that they may – one day – have need to call me up directly. Some opportunities have taken years to bear fruit, but – when they have they’ve been fantastic.
These days I actually would have the confidence to go out and ‘network’ at an event, I’d love to in fact. But I have young children. I can’t easily go for beers with agency creatives, or attend industry workshops after hours. Hobnobbing is off the table. So my network never gets catalysed in that way. But the organic approach is still effective. I (generally) treat everyone I work for as my most important client, and they (generally) come back to me and recommend me when they can.
The secret – and it’s not really a secret – is to give off supremely positive vibes at all times. Enthusiasm and cheer are all part of the service, even if someone is telling me they think the first draft sucks, or that my invoice will be paid late.
Because if you put good vibes out into the world that’s exactly what you get back.