Side Hustle Stories: The skill every freelancer needs

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Neil Tortorella

Neil has mastered many freelancing jobs.

This article is part of the Side Hustle Stories.

There are no hard and fast rules for freelancing.

You set your own goals, your own schedule, and your own pace.

You can choose to go full time or run a project on the side.

But there is one thing you can’t choose.

The one skill that every freelancer needs is the ability to build a network.

You must be willing to go after new business. You must be willing to adapt and to seize opportunity when it presents itself.

That means networking, referrals, and testimonials.

This is the story of Neil Tortorella, a long-time freelancer who has built a succesful career thanks to his ability to reach out, network, and pursue new business.

Here is Neil’s story in his own words.

What he does

I started out as a freelance photographer. That was circa two days before dirt was invented. I’ve been a this a while.

Later on, I was a traditional graphic designer, focusing on print. These service offerings evolved over the years and now I provide my clients with a singular voice for their marketing efforts.

These days, I provide my clients with three things – graphic and web design, writing, and marketing consulting.

What he gets paid

For the majority of projects, I base my fee on my current rate of $85 per hour.

That’s based on my target salary, overhead and profit margin. My new book, Starting Your Career As A Freelance Web Designer, contains a detailed formula for calculating a realistic hourly rate that every freelancer should know.

His story and how it can help you

My very first freelance client was a cosmetics company. I had just gotten out of art school and needed some work.

Trying to land an assistant gig was pretty much impossible. But, I was young, bold and reasonably stupid. I’d call anybody.

One afternoon, I picked up the phone and called the photography buyer at J. Walter Thompson in New York.

I was living in Florida at the time. I was stunned, and delighted, that she granted me a meeting. I drove up there, showed my book and looked around her office.

There were portfolios from the floor to the ceiling. Tons of them. She was wonderfully polite and said my stuff was nice … but to give her a call in a few years.

After that, I approached a cosmetics company in a similar fashion. I called them out of the blue and was connected with their marketing manager.

At the time, I didn’t know jack about sales call protocol. I said something to the effect of, “Can I show you my book? I’m really good.”


But, hey. It worked.

I shot their ads, catalog sheets, annual report and such.

Then, their in-house art director left the company. The marketing manager asked me if I wanted the job. I was about to get married and thought the idea of a steady pay was a brilliant thought.

So, I moved from photography into graphic design.

I saw my work in the pages of major magazines, on billboards, in slick brochures and became really full of myself. Subsequent years have returned me to my senses though. Nonetheless, it was amazingly fun.

The lesson you should take from all this nonsense, is to not be afraid. Make the call.

The worst thing that going to happen is the prospect will say, “Eh … no.”

But they just might say yes.

And, when you’re just starting out, there’s really not a lot of other stuff to do, other than play solitaire and look at cool designer websites.

It’s all about networking and building relationships

After twelve years of learning on the job, I started Tortorella Design.

In the very beginning, it was just my former wife and me. Fortunately, she’s a brilliant salesperson.

We made loads and loads of calls. However, my first decent client came from being an Ad Club member. It was a bank who needed somebody to handle the impossible project.

And so, we did. One thing lead to another. People talk. We got more work.

The lesson here is to network and get visible. Then, when you land a gig, under promise and over deliver. Way over.

There are times when a new freelancer finds themself in the position of needing to turn a paycheck quickly.

In my experience, the best way to find a client and have them sign on the dotted line is networking and making phone calls.

What to say when you start networking

Meeting someone at an event and saying, “Hi. I’m really good. How about hiring me?” usually won’t work.

Most people you meet will already have a supplier or no immediate need … likely both. That means something has to change before you have an opportunity to get a foot in the door. There needs to be some sort of falling out, the impossible project their current supplier isn’t in a position to handle, a change in personnel, and so on.

In addition, most folks won’t simply buy from just anybody. There needs to be a relationship and trust. People buy from people and, usually, people they like.

The goal is to become a valued resource that your prospect finds they can’t live without. Here are some strategies that have worked for me:

  • When attending networking opportunities, seek out low-stress venues. Rather than an event that’s billed as a networking gathering, consider an educational opportunity such as a seminar or workshop. It’s often easier to make connections when people aren’t on their guard about being bombarded by people shoving business cards in their face. Low-stress environments allow you the opportunity to strike up a conversation much easier.
  • With workshops, seminars, business club or association meetings, it’s important to make yourself visible. That can mean asking a speaker a well thought-out question, wearing something memorable, but not over the top, or working on a committee or project. For example, working on a committee, or better yet, chairing one, gives people an opportunity to see how you work and get a taste of your leadership and organizational skills.
  • The quickest way to find a client is by picking up the phone and calling pretty much everybody you’ve met in your entire life. Prospecting for new business is no time to be bashful. Calling business contacts is obviously important, but personal ones can also yield results. These people know other people. People who just might need what you’re selling.
  • If you’re a one-man freelancing show, then say so. Sometimes, my cohorts and I put together project teams so the client got the benefit of a larger firm, but without all the waste. I don’t believe in telling a prospect you’re something that you’re not. It can often come back to bite you. They all knew we were individual freelancers.

Making first contact

Once you find someone that may be interested in your services, it’s important to reach out and get the communication flowing.

Here is an example of an email that I used to make the first contact awhile back.

Dear ___,

What’s important to you? Odds are, is not a slick new typeface or flashy presentation. That cool paper the mill is pushing probably isn’t at the top of your list either. Neither is a lot of design and marketing jargon that says little and tends to just cloud the real issues.

I’ll bet it’s a successful project – one that exceeds its goals and makes you look good – that’s really important. I’ll bet you’re much more interested in smooth workflow, easy access to your team and a marketing communications project that’s completed on-time and, preferably under your budget.

Tortorella Design is small group that’s nimble and effective. Our group has worked with both Fortune 500 and mid-size companies to develop pragmatic solutions to their communication challenges. We’d like to work with [company name] as well.

I would like the opportunity to talk with you about your goals for the remainder of [year]. Perhaps there’s a good fit. I will call later this week to arrange a brief (15-20 minute) meeting at your convenience.

I’ve adapted this format for some of my clients over the years and it has worked pretty well.

Generating referrals

A large part of your referral system should be educating your clients and colleagues as to what you’re looking for when it comes to referrals.

How do you qualify prospects?

That’s the information you need to communicate to potential referrers. Your list might include the type of project, industry, size of the prospect, whether they can pay your fees, location and similar information.

Some folks fear that by getting too specific, they run the risk of closing the door on referrals. Not so. In fact, the better you can define what you’re seeking, the easier it is for folks to refer you to the right contacts. If you’re too vague or broad in describing what you’re seeking, your contacts will struggle to match you with their contacts.

Also, it will erode your positioning. If you say, “Any small to mid-size company is a prospect for us!”

Your contact hears, “We’re plain vanilla. There’s really no good reason to hire us over the other guy.”

This is especially important to consider for associates who haven’t worked with you directly.

Asking for testimonials

A first cousin to the mighty referral is the tantalizing testimonial. Like referrals, they don’t usually happen on their own.

A client may think you’re the next best thing to sliced bread at the end of a project, but your impression on their memory fades quickly until they need you again.

As such, a bit of gentle prodding is in order to generate a great testimonial or referral.

Consider making it a practice to send off an email at the close of a successful project. A handwritten note can be even better since they’re a rarity in these days of email, texting and instant messaging.

Here’s an example of what I usually send:

Good day Jack,

I had a great time working on ____ and was more than delighted to learn it produced a 35% increase in sales for you.

As you’re likely aware, referrals and testimonials are the life blood of my business. I’d appreciate it if you would take a few spare minutes to email me some of your thoughts about the project and its results, along with your experience of working with me.

I use client testimonials in my promotional efforts, such as on my site, e-newsletter and print materials. With your permission, I’ll add your comments, name and company, along with a link to your site. Rest assured that whenever I have the opportunity to talk up your company or make a referral, I will.

Speaking of referrals, I would appreciate it if you could pass along the name of a colleague who you believe would benefit from a similar email campaign. Like your company, my primary niche is medium-sized companies with seventy-five or more employees that offer products and service which complement, but not compete with, your business.

Thanks for your help. It’s clients like you who make my job truly rewarding. I look forward to working with you again! We need to get together for lunch when you have a chance. On me, of course.

All the best,


P.S. I know your schedule is hectic, to say the least. If it would be easier for me to write a testimonial and email it to you for any changes and your approval, consider it done.

Putting it all together

Make the quest for referrals and testimonials a part of your marketing mix.

Add these tasks to your calendar and set up reminders. Scour LinkedIn and other social media sites for connections. Whenever possible and appropriate, educate your clients, colleagues and contacts as to what you’re looking for in prospects and referrals.

It may take some time to get your system up and running like a well-oiled machine, but phone calls, making appointments, generating referrals and networking are still the fastest ways to generate new business.

It sure beats sitting at your desk playing solitaire while waiting for the phone to ring.

Want more?

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7 Responses to Side Hustle Stories: The skill every freelancer needs

  1. Shaleen Shah says:

    It’s great that freelancing works for Neil, but reality is, there’s just too much pain for those who are trying to break into the freelance market. When the world is competing against you, you might be tempted to drive rates low so you can compete – BUT, I highly suggest that you don’t, even if you’re new.

  2. Tom Owens says:

    Thanks to Neil for sharing his courage. ASKING is one of the hardest parts of freelancing. Shaleen makes a great point, too. Too many editors have asked me to write articles and even books for minimal payment. They’ll always say, “You’re new here” or “You’ve never done this exact job before.” They’ll insist you’ll be rewarded LATER. Be strong. Make your later NOW!

  3. Mikelah says:

    That’s great advice Tom. I’m past working for free or minimal payment. I’ve actually started turning down jobs and I think it’s the first step toward branding myself as a quality freelancer. I think it will pay off.

  4. Hi Shaleen,
    Sure, it’s tough breaking into the market and you’re right, many freelancers are tempted to drop their rates to a ridiculous point. They may end up getting the work, but they lose money on every project. That’s a recipe for disaster.

    I think a better idea is to work toward getting on prospects’ radar screens, building relationships and demonstrating [authentic] value. When a freelancer does that, they can position themselves as an indispensable resource. People are willing to pay for that.

  5. Tom – A lot of freelancers wrestle with the “going rate.” That’s especially true for writers and designers. When you think about it, these editors are dictating how to run your business. They’re setting your rates and that’s just wrong.

    Knowing your bottomline hourly rate is critical, whether you charge by the hour or by the project. When an editor says they’ll pay thus and so, you’ll know if you need to walk away or accept the gig.

    And you’re right. Make your later now. Stand strong.

  6. Hi Mikelah – The trick, if there is one, is correctly qualifying prospects. You’re right in that you shouldn’t take on what ever walks in the door or jingles the inbox. There are all sorts of ways to qualify prospects and knowing who your best type of client is an important step toward success.

  7. Lucy Spencer says:

    And there’s another point. You can network online and have requests for proposals come to your inbox. Get on a couple of the freelancing forums and join a LinkedIn group. Meet other freelancers, and soak up all the advice they give to people who are new at freelancing. You don’t have to go it alone when you’re wondering what you need to do in order to stand out from the crowd. And when you get to know people, you may just get some referrals as well!

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