When you first go freelance, you’re likely going to build your business on your existing skill set and knowledge. Whether you’re a freelance photographer, web designer or writer, you will have built up the confidence to go freelance as you know you are good – no, excellent – in a particular field.
But after a few years of freelancing, you’ll find that the skills and knowledge demanded by clients (and so needed by you) will change. You’ll also find that new and younger freelancers, with knowledge of the latest techniques and technologies, will come through, adding further pressure in an already competitive market.
This is where professional development comes in.
As a freelancer, you’ll need to update your skills every so often, in line with client demands and the market in general, to make sure that you can keeping getting new freelance work.
But there’s more to professional development as a freelancer than getting new work as keeping competitive.
Phill Chambers, a freelance web designer, contacted me about his own interest in professional development:
"I’m really interested in learning, so finding the right resources, practices and making time to develop new skills is something I strive to do and really enjoy. It also makes work more fun when you start on a new project and you can put new skills to use. "
Yes, you can enjoy learning new skills and enjoy the fruits of our labour when you see a new project using your new abilities come to life.
In this article:
What have I done to develop my freelance skills?
I like to walk the talk when giving out freelance advice, so here’s what I’ve done recently to further my freelance career:
- Built on my WordPress skills to launch our digital agency website at www.montfort.io
- Combined my personal blogging with learning how to optimise a WordPress site for SEO purposes
- Learnt Ruby on Rails to build a series of MVPs of web projects ("scratching my itches") – see Why I Learned To Code for more on this
- Learnt the basics of email marketing and marketing automation to launch a 30-day course on how to go freelance
WordPress development, SEO, Web development, email marketing – all useful, practical skills that will stand me in good stead for years to come.
And some of those new skills have been out to use in client projects already, giving me extra opportunists to earn on top of existing skill sets and freelance offerings.
How can you develop your freelance skills?
Here’s a few ideas on how you can develop your skills as a freelancer and start to broaden what you can offer to clients.
Identify new skills to learn or areas where you need to improve
Your personal development as a freelancer starts with identifying exactly what areas you need to specialise in.
As your time is precious, any time out from producing client work needs to be valuable. It’s wise to find what you areas need to know more about or skills you need to learn, before you waste time that would otherwise be billable to clients.
Here’s a few questions to ask yourself to discover what skills and knowledge you need to develop:
- Has a client mentioned that they are looking into a related area to yours?
- Have you seen competitors or other freelancers move into new areas that you could too?
- Have you seen more articles in the media or online about an area that you want to know more about?
- If you don’t develop in a new area, will your clients move elsewhere?
- Will you start to lose new business if you don’t brush up your skills in a new area?
Once you’ve answered those questions yourself, you cancome up with a shortlist of identified area, knowledge or skill set that you want to learn or find out more about.
For example, Econsultancy has published the Digital Skills Index, a digital marketing quiz they allows you to see what areas you are strong in and which areas you need to develop in.
Many professional membership bodies run training programmes relevant to your profession. Take a look at what training is on offer, either to find areas that you could learn about or to take the training courses themselves. Have a look around online to see if there’s a similar professional development plan for your freelance career path.
Make time to learn new skills
Once you’ve identified a subject you want to learn, it’s recommended that you create a learning plan. This means that your time wi be used most effectively when you’re learning and keeps you on track to where you want to be.
Learning small amounts on consecutive days has been proven as much more effective than learning large amounts sporadically. Try to set aside time to learn every day – however little.
Repeat “focus bursts,” where you give your best effort for a short period, then take fulfilling and refreshing breaks.
It can be as little as 15 minutes, but as long as you are practising or studying little and often, you’ll start to make big gains within a few weeks.
Learn about ways you can speed up the learning process.
Take an online course
There are a whole load of online education sites now available covering just about everything you could want to learn as a freelancer.
Here are a few I my favourites that I’ve used before and a brief description of the subjects they cover:
- Codecademy: Interactive courses on how to program. Courses are created by the community and cover CSS, Java, HTML and more.
- Code School: Teaches web technologies in the comfort of your browser with video lessons, coding challenges, and screencasts. Slightly wider range of courses than Codecademy.
- Tuts+: More geared towards design, there over 5 million people using Tuts+ each month to learn skills including code, illustration, photography, web design, and more.
- Futurelearn: A coalition of British universities offering free courses on a range of topics; from Science & Technology to Arts & Humanities, from Body & Mind to Business & Management.
- Khan Academy: With over 17 million people using this free site, Khan Academy is probably the original (and best?) free online learning site. Take a look at their "You Can Learn Anything" hub for inspiring stories of how people are using the platform.
There are lots more sites out there, many with a free trail period, so take a look around and try out a course in a skill that appeals to you.
Attend a training day or course
There are plenty of training courses out there for all areas of interests, running from a few hours to several weeks.
While a day course will only be able to cover the basics of whatever subject you’re learning, it will give you a good idea if that area is worth pursuing for you, how steep the learning curve is, and what kind of opportunities that subject will open up for you.
Longer courses that run over several weeks will give you a deeper understanding of a subject and means that you’ll be more dedicated to learning in that new area. If they offer a recognised certificate or professional qualification at the end of the course, even better, as you can use this to prove to future clients your credentials in that new area.
Training courses are also a great place to meet other professionals and freelancers, strengthening your network while you learn at the same time.
If you don’t want to take a course, perhaps you can look to teaching one instead. While looking for training courses that might be of interest to you, you might spot a gap in a training provider’s offering where you can line yourself up to teach a course on an existing skill set you have.
If yore strapped for cash, you could even offer to teach a class in return for getting a different course for free (although it’ll likely be more valuable to teach a class of 15 students and not take a class as an individual student!)
Test your new skills on your own freelance business
Before testing out your new skills on your clients, it will be easier and safer to practise those skills on your own business.
Have you learnt web design? Try updating or improving your freelance website.
Learnt email marketing? Start your own email newsletter to keep clients and colleagues updated on your freelance business.
Learn social media marketing? Start up your own Twitter / Facebook / Google+ profiles and boost your own presence on the main social networks.
Not only will you be able to put your newly acquired skills to use, but you’ll be able to learn more I n the fly about what works and what doesn’t work in this new area.
An alternative option is to offer consultancy at no cost to charities or new business in your new area. A small, well-defined project will help you create a case study or piece for your portfolio, while helping out a new business or startup that might not normally have access to someone with your skills.
Stretch yourself with existing clients
Rather than try out your new skills on new clients, it makes more sense to work with existing clients.
You’ll already have earned your client’s trust through other competed work and can be a better judge of how running a project in this new area will work for them.
Just make sure you more confident that you can deliver excellent work for them, otherwise you risk losing your existing work as well as the new area you’re trying.
Time to win new business and clients!
There is lots more to professional development for freelancers, but once you are armed with a new skill set, confident that you can deliver on the project and that it armed with case studies proving you can do the work – and do it well – it’s time to get out there and win some clients in your new skill area.
What professional development have you undertaken as a freelancer? What has been the most effective method of learning? Has learning a new skill or subject opened up more opportunities for you?
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