In December 2008, the double whammy of an apocalyptic flood that wiped out my town and the effects of the recession left me unemployed and in Iowa, where opportunities don’t always grow as high as the corn does.
I applied for jobs everywhere: clothing stores, telemarketing companies, and babysitting, to name a few. I even considered hiring myself out to liven up cocktail parties, but no one in my area has any of those. Plus, I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of offering that kind of service to strangers online.
In the end, it seemed like no one was interested in hiring an over-qualified English major. So, I went into business for myself. Using my years of blogging experience (I started when I was 18), writing skills, and social media finesse, I started Lyz Ink. In a year, I was making what I made working full-time at my old company, while working part-time for myself.
I started without any investors, equipment, or safety net. Did I mention I was in the middle of Iowa, too? I bought a used scanner off Craigslist and my dad gave me his old laptop. I didn’t even shell out cash for business cards until last year, when a company offered them to me for free.
Consequently, when it came to marketing, I did things the old school way. And by “old school,” I mean like a frugal Midwesterner who washes plastic bags and reuses them — I’m not made of money!
I built my business from the ground up without putting any money into it and I want to share what I learned. Here are three ways I marketed my business for free:
In the first two months after I decided to start working for myself, I spent every day applying for freelance positions, interviewing, following up, and polishing my resume, which got me precisely nowhere.
And then, in a moment of frustration, I tweeted these words: “Over-educated English major. Will work for booze.” A friend sent me a direct message saying she knew someone who needed writers for their site. And then, like that, I got a blogging job.
Inspired, I spent the next few weeks writing people I knew, had met, or really liked. I asked them about themselves, their projects, told them I loved their work and also included a little about me. And yes, I bragged — shamelessly. I linked to one or two of my articles and asked if they knew of anyone who had work. I got two replies and two more jobs.
I know a proofreader who got a freelance job by sending an email to the Webmaster of a site she loved, offering to help with some spelling errors she noticed. She was polite and kind and made sure they knew she loved the site. Within 5 hours, she was hired.
Sometimes it really is that easy. People don’t know you’re looking for work until you tell them. And no one wants to hire someone who is whiny and apologetic, so you need to brag. Announce your successes and wins, reach out to the people around you, and offer to do the same in return.
Think outside the ad
Recently, a friend of mine and I were both asked to write for a local “mommy blog.” The work was big and the pay was small, but we both said, “Yes.” Why? Because we knew that the people running the site had a bigger marketing budget than we did.
Within months, my friend and I were on mailers, billboards, newspapers and radio interviews. We each have completely separate companies (she runs a purse and accessories store and I am a writer and social media consultant), but we’ve both managed to turn this little job into a marketing opportunity for our businesses. And it doesn’t cost us any money. In fact, we’re earning money.
People don’t connect to companies — they connect to people. So, look for opportunities to put yourself (not just your business) in front of an audience. Apply for speaking opportunities. Position yourself as an expert and pitch yourself to local news and radio programs. Find your angle. What makes you and your company relevant?
Got it? Now, jump in.
Start a challenge
In 2010, Cassie Boorn decided to ask the women in her life to write letters to their 20-year-old selves. The project exploded and Cassie was mentioned on Forbes and The New York Times and then she got a book agent. Boom.
In 2011, Cassie advised me to start a project of my own: a challenge, something that might get people excited. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll get right on that.” I didn’t. It seemed so artificial and I was busy — I was working and I had a new baby. I didn’t have time to challenge myself.
A few months, later, my husband and I had our annual budgeting conference — the one where I usually cry about how we can’t afford things and he rubs his temples while we talk about my “clothing budget.”
This year, we are trying to pay down college debt and start saving for our 15-month-old daughter’s education. After the requisite tears and barely polite discussion, I decided that my spending was holding us back. So, in addition to cutting back in big areas (entertainment, to name one), I vowed not to buy clothing for six months. Thus, the “No Pants 2012” challenge was born.
Four months into the challenge, we paid off a loan two months early and I was also on Forbes (although, not the New York Times, but if you’re reading — call me!) and I vowed to go another six months. (I know, it gives me panic too, but we’ve saved a lot of money.)
If you don’t want to give up shopping, I don’t blame you. Try something else. A company I freelance for holds an annual challenge where they ask people to unfriend their exes on Facebook. Challenges like that? Well, they market themselves.
The point is: start your own challenge. What have you been putting off? What do you want to accomplish? Make it authentic, fun, and relevant and remember to stick to it. Becoming a better person is always great marketing.
How have you found freelance success?
Lyz Lenz is a writer, social media ninja, and blogger. She will be speaking at BlogHer 2012 on the topic “When to Spend Money to Market Your Work.” She mostly writes about not wearing pants over on her blog.