No two freelancers find work the same way. For this piece, we got the scoop from three successful freelancers who work with visual mediums. When we asked them how they find work, we noticed a few common themes: They all have eye-catching portfolios, and they all emphasize the importance of building healthy relationships. Remember: You’re only as good as your last happy client. Abe Zieleniec, a brand designer, shares that “Maintaining and building relationships is number one. That’s what has allowed me to stay consistent and continually get work.” 

Are there places to find work for freelancers who don’t have those strong relationships (yet)? Zieleniec says that sites like Behance have worked for him, but he’s never truly marketed himself, “outside of making a website and posting to Instagram. 90% of my work is referrals and word of mouth.” In fact, one of Zieleniec’s recent projects is with his first creative director from when his career began 7 years ago. “I’ve done a good job of not burning any bridges,” he says. 

Case in point: He became Wingspan’s brand designer through a referral from a former colleague. He chose every visual aspect of the brand, from the flat photography treatment in the Wingspan ads to the “W” logo. Zieleniec’s advice to freelancers who want to stay consistent is painfully simple: “Just be good. Be good at your job. People will tell everyone else – you’re a good person to hire.” Then, “work comes to you, and you don’t have to worry so much about Instagram.” 

Instagram and building a following

Meanwhile, a lot of us worry about Instagram. In fact, graphic designer Heather Franzman says she’s found freelance graphic design work through Instagram ads. When she sees a brand she likes, she sends them her portfolio, and reports that “maybe 50 percent of the time they get back to me,” and that after seeing her work “they usually want to work together.” Once a potential client expresses interest, Franzman puts together a PDF proposal that includes inspiration images, an outline of the work, and her proposed price. 

Instagram isn’t just about finding work. It also gives clients the chance to find you. Traditionally, illustrators work with agents, but at the outset of her career, illustrator Amber Vittoria couldn’t get an agency to take a chance with her. In the end, she didn’t need one: “The rise of social media democratizes that process,” she says. Once she started getting more of a following on Instagram, clients felt comfortable assigning her work. With more clients under her belt, suddenly agencies took notice. But it was too little, too late – Vittoria no longer felt the need for an agent, and no longer wanted to have to share her profit. 

Vittoria avers that chasing an Instagram following isn’t for everyone, adding that the “jury is out on whether it’s good for the psyche.”And besides, she’s found that she enjoys reaching out to people: “In the beginning, I reached out to every blog that I could. These interviews really put my work in front of people who may not have found me on social media. If you put it out there, people will find you.” 

Your first big client

Zieleniec says that top end designers almost “always are going to have a couple big brands on their client list, and it’s good for clients to notice you can handle that size.” How do you go about reeling in your first big client? Sometimes, it takes a little old-fashioned detective work. 

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© 2020 by Amber Vittoria

Vittoria knew she wanted to work with Gucci. Most big brands use a standard format for their email addresses, making them easy to guess. But Gucci proved trickier. At long last, an artist Vittoria knew posted an Instagram picture with Gucci’s art directors, tagging each one. “Goldmine,” Vittoria thought, and sent each one a direct message. One got back to her – they had a project in mind. And a few months later, she had illustrations for Gucci’s perfume and knitwear collections to add to her portfolio. 

Of course, bigger doesn’t always mean better.  Zieleniec says, “I don’t like working with big brands. They’re usually a pain.” He says the majority of big clients suck the excitement out of their projects with revisions and requests to start from scratch. 

Don’t be shy 

Busy freelancers aren’t afraid to make the first move. Zieleniec says that if a potential client reaches out to him, “I’ll do max two follow ups.” This may sound familiar to anyone with a Tinder profile: Show interest, but also know how to take a hint. 

Freelancers who want consistent work typically have more than one plate in the air. Vittoria has a running list of art directors who told her they might have work for her at some point, which she keeps track of in an email folder called “follow up.” (She’s ok with it if you steal her idea.) 

Are you an artistic introvert? No worries – you don’t have to be a smooth-talking networker to foster productive work relationships. In fact, Zieleniec says he hates traditional networking events, and Vittoria says she feels she’s “not suave enough to insert myself into a conversation.” Instead, she prefers “one-on-one chats. If I know someone is in New York, I’ll ask them to grab coffee.” 

In fact, Vittoria’s fondness for one-on-one chats extends to newbie freelancers. “I always tell people to email me, she says – unlike anyone at Gucci, she makes no secret of her email address (amber.vittoria@gmail.com). “Blanket advice is great,” she adds, “but sometimes it’s nice to talk to someone.” Freelancing can feel overwhelming, but you’ll also find that some of the most successful freelancers are more than happy to pay it forward