Writers Worth: Eliminating Freelance Competition

Competition. It’s something I’ve said doesn’t exist in freelance writing. We have colleagues, some of whom actually share the same specialty or niche, but since there is a seemingly limitless supply of work for the actively marketing/networking freelancer, that shouldn’t matter. It hasn’t in my orbit, and I know at least three other writers who specialize in one of my niche areas.

So competition? Bah.

Then this post came in from Jake Poinier. Jake, a.k.a. Doctor Freelance, is a long-time writing chum and a veteran editor and media relations wonk who knows what he’s talking about. And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of talking shop with him over coffee (I have), he’s just a damn nice guy who understands his profession.

He’s also a guy who just changed this writer’s mind about competition. Jake’s perspective has uncovered, at least for me, the real reason why job posters state such awful rates.

Writer’s Worth: What’s Wrong with Competition?

By Jake Poinier

What’s the negative trait that all four of these freelance business development strategies have in common?

  1. Job lists/job boards
  2. Freelance bidding sites (e.g., Upwork)
  3. Classified ads (e.g., Craigslist)
  4. LinkedIn ProFinder

If you guessed “low rates,” you’re close. But that’s actually an effect, not a cause. The more accurate answer is this: You’re competing directly against other freelancers and the prospective client holds all of the cards.

You have no way to know who else is seeking those same jobs or what their skills are. The end result is that competition effectively drives prices down. Your skills and experience, and the value you provide, simply aren’t as important as the rate you propose based on scant and perhaps misleading information about the project.

Beyond that, there are potential red flags, too. Think about who might be using these methods to hire freelancers: 1) a lazy client who can’t be bothered to find a professional freelancer through their business networks; 2) an inexperienced client who hasn’t worked with freelancers before and is going to require lots of handholding; or 3) a bottom-feeding client who’s purely interested in getting the lowest price rather than quality. (LinkedIn ProFinder is arguably a higher-quality audience, but the same hazards still apply.)

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. It’s A-OK to have those audiences as a slice of your freelance business strategy pie. If they’re the primary or only targets of your energy, however, youÕre going to suffer frequent freelance famine syndrome and substandard pay.

Go Where the Competition Ain’t

Make no mistake, I’m as competitive as they come. But I want to compete on my terms, not someone else’s. Contrast the list at the top of the page with this one:

  • Letters of introduction
  • Cold-calling
  • Email campaigns/direct mail
  • Networking (peers, local business associations/chambers of commerce)

The common theme here is obvious: There’s time, energy, research, follow-up, and maybe some light schmoozing involved. You need to be targeted about whom you approach and how you do it. You’re not just throwing strings of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.

But the benefits are huge: YouÕre almost certainly competing in a category of one. That increases your ability to stand out as a unique business. It shows a prospective client you know how to hustle as well as how to write. With a conversation initiated, you can get a sense of the client’s needs and style, which is impossible in a blind response to a job posting. Add it all up, and you have far more leverage to define the pricing and terms of an eventual deal.

Jake Poinier blogs on a wide range of freelance topics at DoctorFreelance.com and is the author of The Science, Art and Voodoo of Freelance Pricing and Getting Paid. HeÕll follow you back on Twitter at @DrFreelance

Writers, how worried are you about competition from other freelancers?
What advice can you give writers who are stuck in the job board, passive approach to finding clients?

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  • Cathy Miller May 24, 2017 at 8:45 am

    Frequent freelance famine syndrome Wonder if that will be a pre-existing condition under health care reform. 😀

    Great perspective, Jake. I would venture to say many freelancers who use the first set of resources as their sole source of work do so because they think they can’t compete on their terms. Yet, as you point out, they have actually contributed to that state by throwing themselves into a situation that invites a depressed market. Love this post, Jake.

    • Jake Poinier May 24, 2017 at 10:20 am

      Thank you, Cathy. I always wonder *why* that’s the mindset that people get stuck in. There are so many resources, readily found, that allow an escape–yet I suspect it’s easier to just blame the market than accepting that success is far more about business and hustle than writing/editing talent. Frankly, that’s why Peter Bowerman’s “Well-Fed Writer” psychological positioning has always rung so true to me.

      And as far as FFFS, nope, there’s no coverage, pill, surgery, or app for that! 🙂

    • lwidmer May 24, 2017 at 12:01 pm

      It’s pre-existing, Cathy. Anything that exists before whatever replaces ACA is pre-existing. Forget that hangnail surgery. 😉

      Thanks once again, Jake. I really love this post. It’s a good primer for writers looking for a better way.

  • Mary Schneider May 24, 2017 at 10:18 am

    Interesting to me, as a freelancer who has long relied on Upwork et al to find work. It takes hard work to dig the gems out of the pile of trash on those types of sites, but I’ve found some excellent clients that way.
    It’s more difficult for those of us who come to this from *only* a writing background (years of conferences and writing novels) and no business experience. It takes time to learn things like how to do cold calling and letters of introduction, and who to target.

    I’m learning a lot from this blog already. 🙂

    • Jake Poinier May 24, 2017 at 10:28 am

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. I totally understand the difficulty involved. By my reckoning, it was a solid five years (see: Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule) as a freelancer before I truly knew what I was doing. If you’ve got a solid base of writing, your business investments in cold calling, LOIs, etc., will ultimately pay off–as will reading blogs like this one. Best of luck as you make that shift–you can do it!

      • lwidmer May 24, 2017 at 12:03 pm

        See, Mary? You’re more than ready. The only thing stopping you, I suspect, is fear.

        Refer to this particular quote of yours: ” It takes hard work to dig the gems out of the pile of trash on those types of sites…”

        So why not redirect that hard work toward something with better-paying odds?

  • Joy Drohan May 24, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    These are exactly the marketing methods that work for me!

    • lwidmer May 24, 2017 at 5:24 pm

      And just look at how your business has grown this past year, Joy. It’s inspiring!

    • Jake Poinier May 24, 2017 at 6:15 pm

      Yay, Joy!!