The Right Way to Find Your Freelance Sensei
Photo by Vincent®.
I know everyone hates the term “pay your dues,” but sometimes that’s exactly what you’ve got to do.
Case in point: I got a cold-call from an aspiring copywriter a few days back, asking for advice. I put it on my list of people to respond to, but not very high. After all, I’ve got to cover my own butt, first, and I’ve been positively swamped with work. I planned to give her a buzz back within a few days. But later that night as I am cooking dinner, she calls back. Twice in the same day. (Not to mention, after hours.)
I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not a good mentor. Not because I don’t have the expertise, but I don’t have the patience to offer one-on-one support to others. I do better writing about it for the masses. I’ve learned not to feel bad about this, because everyone has their talents and mine will probably never be mentoring. I help in other ways, by offering you witty posts with some valuable advice. And my incessant blabbing on Freelance Radio, which I am told is useful to many.
That said, I don’t mind giving advice to new freelancers. I think it helps all freelancers as part of this great big circle we’re in. Take advice from others, give back… that sort of thing. But I do think there’s a difference between getting pointed in the right direction, and just being lazy while expecting others to do the legwork for you.
Here are some ways you can get advice — without pushing the bar.
Consider someone’s time. For me the fact that this woman called twice in one day, and once after hours (we’re in the same time zone, too!) had me a little annoyed. How was I supposed to get in the mood to help her when she couldn’t respect my time and give me time to respond to her? It’s enough for many freelancers that their clients call at all times of day… it’s more upsetting when someone won’t leave you alone because they want advice on how to start their career.
It’s vital to contact someone at a good time and ask which type of contact method they prefer. If you do call, ask if it’s a convenient time to chat before starting to talk. If it’s not, ask what time is better to call back, or if the person prefers another method of communication.
Ask if they’ll help. I know that I may seem a little harsh, but I also know there are plenty of busy freelancers out there whose time is valuable. That’s why it’s so important to see if a potential mentor is even interested in helping you. Try not to get upset if they’re not—this doesn’t make them a bad person, it just means that he or she is not the right resource for you at this time. Plus, relationships take time—no one should expect to call someone in their industry and immediately get every tip they need for success. Maybe the potential mentor will help you in the future, so try not to burn bridges.
I think this is an important step because if you get their OK, it’s more feasible to bombard him or her with questions. When you do that in an unwanted way, you assume he or she is there to help you, which is another no-no for me.
Don’t blatantly ask for their contacts. I didn’t think this aspiring copywriter would be so bold as to ask for my contacts. In a roundabout way, I think that’s what she was doing. Regardless of my situation, you should never ask for someone else’s contacts. It’s OK to ask what types of companies or organizations to look for, but to ask for exact names can be simply rude.
You shouldn’t expect to get a mentor’s contacts, anyway; only some insight into how you can develop your career. If you’re looking for someone to guide you, keep in mind that a mentor focuses more on helping you with your craft. I may have been more receptive to give this woman tips on how to build her business, but if she thinks I’m giving away my semi-golden Rolodex of contacts I’ve worked hard to make, she would be wrong.
Forge a relationship. It’s can be tough to cold call someone, or even to send an email to someone you’ve never met. But you should also consider how the potential mentor feels about being put on the spot. In my case, being called and asked if I could help this woman with her career wasn’t the problem. When she offered her services it was great. But when she wanted industry contacts and organizations to help herself, I wondered if she had considered why I should give up my knowledge to her. I had no idea who she was, or what her capabilities were.
A better idea probably would have been to call and introduce herself and let me know she’d follow up via email with her resume and contact details. I’m also not much of a phone person unless I know someone, so for me being put on the spot was undesirable, and led me to look at her in an unwelcome light as well. I would have preferred if she’d contacted me and followed up so I could get to know her in my own time—not while my chicken was about to burn.
Offer your services. One thing the aspiring copywriter did do that I appreciated was offer her services. That I don’t mind, because having the contact information to get in touch with someone in a pinch is quite valuable. But again, the relationship must be formed, at least for me, before I would give anyone my work.
If you’re looking to offer your services to a mentor or another person in your industry, you’ve got to tell them why they can trust you with their name. For example, if a client of mine needed help and I was too busy and chose to outsource to this aspiring writer, how would I know she’d come through? Would I want my name put on her work? Many mentors feel this way, so when you approach them it’s good to give your information and include some samples so they can get a feel for you. Maybe follow up in a month and try to forge some sort of friendship or working arrangement, but again: stick to the rules. Stick to their preferred method of communication, approach them at a convenient time and limit what you ask for.
In my case, this call was not a positive experience. Had the aspiring copywriter first asked if I was interested in talking, that would have set a whole separate tone. In addition, it’s OK to ask for advice in general, but remember not to expect someone else to do everything for you. Part of the fun in building your freelance business is paying your own dues and having the experience of learning things by trial and error. Freelancers have to be able to pull off all aspects of business in order to succeed, and that includes boring and painful things like getting clients and managing your accounting.
I try to use every experience to help potential and existing freelancers succeed. So hopefully my semi-sour experience will help you have a better one, no matter which end of the call you’re on. So that’s why I’m writing away with more tough-love advice. It may not be what many would-be freelancers want to hear, but it’s probably just what’s needed to finally find a mentor you can count on.
(Note: Thankfully, my caller got the hint and let me go before my chicken dinner went up in flames, so it wasn’t all so bad.)