Stagnation is like death for creative professionals. Unfortunately, for many of us, the need to pay the bills and establish expertise keeps us in mind-numbing, repetitive types of work. We get really good at the work, and can, perhaps, command a higher rate, but we also get bored and burn-out.
Nobody has time for that.
We need to increase our potential earnings and expertise while also maintaining our freelance foundation. Here's how to go about it.
The Two Basic Approaches to Skill Expansion
Skills refer to any specific ability you use in your business, and include both hard skills (defined, measurable, often tangible or technical skills) and soft skills (more general and broadly applied, such as interpersonal or communication skills).
There are two primary approaches to expanding your work offerings and opportunities. The first is to apply a current skill to a new area or in a new way; for example, a photographer who specializes in weddings might branch out into family portraits. The second approach is to add a new but related skill to your service offerings; for example, an illustrator might start teaching courses about creating comics.
1. Define Your Established Skills and Specialty
If you've been freelancing for a while, you probably know what makes the money for you. Check your income sources for the last six months or so; is there one particular type of work that brings in the bulk of your income?
You might not have intended to build the particular specialty you have, but that's what you have, and it's not a bad thing: moving from skilled to specialized can give you more authority and more reach. Know what your bread-and-butter specialty is, and make note of the skills that help you to gain and keep clients, so you can move logically from where you are to more expanded territory.
2. List Your Potential New Skills
Your current specialty (or specialties; you may have more than one) is your foundation. You're going to build on it. Following a common-sense progression will make expanding easier. You don't want to jump from the foundation to the fifteenth floor. You want to build it, one level at a time. Progression through logical stages lets you bring in regular income while steadily opening up new opportunities.
In order to figure out what the next level is for you, first list the new skills you want to gain or new areas in which you'd like to work. If you're short on ideas, look vertically and horizontally from your foundation: which skills are up one level from the skills you possess? What areas are right next door, closely related but separate from the areas in which you currently work?
Take time to work through the list, noting the skills that directly relate to or grow from the skills you've already established. The stronger the connection between an old skill and a new one, the easier it is to gain. Likewise, the more closely related two areas are, the easier it will be for you to jump from one to the other. Adding app development, for example, to your web design and development business is a step next door; adding ebook formatting, however, is the kind of big leap most creative pros can't make, as it's well outside your current skill set.
3. Narrow Down Your Options
You might have more than one directly related option for expansion, so the next step is to decide which of these options to pursue. You want to choose the expansion that offers the best pay off.
Pay off doesn't refer merely to income potential, though that's an important factor; your own personal interest and enthusiasm, your network, and ease of entry also deserve to be factored into your decision. I use the following list of criteria to figure out which options make the most sense for me as I look for ways to expand (a pro/con list could work well, also, for a simpler decision-making process).
Is there growth in this area? A large demand and growing customer base?
Do I like this area/skill? Does this sound appealing? Does it line up with what I know of my preferences and work style?
Do I know of multiple opportunities at a pay rate that is worthwhile? Where do I find out about more work opportunities?
Who do I know already working in this area or using this skill? Do I have direct connections that could help me gain skills or start working in this area?
Ease of Entry
What minimum requirements do I need to show that I am qualified in this skill/area? How much work will it take before I can market myself in this skill/area?
What is a realistic estimate of what I could earn from this new skill/area? Are there limiting factors that would keep me from getting to top income levels?
4. Gain the Needed Qualifications
Once you've decided on the best option for expansion, determine what's needed to build it into your work life.
A strong network can make this step much simpler: if you know someone already working in this area, ask for advice. In some cases, you'll be applying a current skill to a new area; you don't need additional education or skill-building help as much as you need experience in your new area.
In other situations, you're actually adding a new skill to your repertoire. What's the shortest and best route to gaining that skill? Look into your options, from online classes to virtual apprenticeship to simply putting in the hours necessary to gain the skill. You'll also want to note any new materials, resources, or tools you need to have for your expansion.
5. Gain the Essential Experience
It's a mistake to put your old, boring, bread-and-butter work on hold while you focus on your new, exciting skill. It's also unnecessary. If you start small in your expansion, you can gain experience without neglecting your established services.
Gaining a new skill or area of expertise brings more than you might predict in terms of a learning curve; not only do you need to understand and master the basic skills, you also need to set up a productive workflow, arrange the required space, gain the needed resources, connect with the right clients, and learn whether you like this expansion in practice as much as you did in theory.
Save yourself stress by dipping your toes in the water instead of jumping all the way in. Look for small gigs. Ask friends to let you help with (or observe) their projects. Volunteer. Yes: work for free. This is right time to "work for exposure" with that startup that is just getting off the ground but will definitely be really, really big. Go ahead and get in on the ground floor (before it's too late); those questionable types of gigs are ideal for trying out your new skill and gaining finished work to put in the new section of your portfolio.
6. Add Your Expansion to Your Public Offers
After you've completed a few of these small projects, you'll be ready to go public with your new offer. Gather your proof, in terms of finished work and testimonials, and add a new section to your website.
At this point, end your work-for-exposure commitments. You've established a new but legitimate service. You're a professional. Charge accordingly. Keep asking for references and referrals, and let your loyal customers know that you're offering this new service in addition to the services they already know.
It's Worth the Effort
It can seem like a lot of work to expand into new areas of work, or to add new skills to your stable. But it really is worth the effort; creating multiple income streams can save you during an economic hit, a personal crisis, or a series of unfortunate clients.
The more skills and areas of expertise you have, the more options you have for creating the income you need. Regular expansion is the key to creating a freelancing business that is stable enough to support you, and varied enough to keep you excited about your work.