Freelancers can have career development plans just like employed people do. Because we have less structure built into our work life, we need them more. It’s something we should think about early in our freelance journey.
Since they aren’t ready made for you like they would be under an employer, they take more focus and planning (which we’ll get into later, sign up for the BF newsletter for a heads up.) But they all start from the same place–understanding what your options are.
Once you know where you can go, it gets a lot easier to make strategic choices in decisions like the projects you select, services you offer, and even your lifestyle design. Always remember that you have more options than you think.
So, let’s talk about some of the paths you have in front of you in shaping your freelance career.
If you haven’t run across the career lattice vs. ladder conversation, spend some time reading up on it. This is a good place to start, and remember, you’re reading this as both employer and employee.
A career lattice is the maturation of the traditional ladder–instead of moving just upward, you can move vertically, horizontally, and diagonally as you shape your career. As a freelancer, you can even jump into new planes of career growth. It’s a lot of options! And that’s what makes it so interesting and attractive.
As freelancers, we don’t really have ladders. (We’re already executives of our own businesses.) Sure, we can simply copy employment ladders as a guideline for our progression, and that’s great! Some freelancers want to get really good at what they do. But that’s just one option. There are many more ways to take advantage of the flexibility of career independence.
Career options for freelancers
These eight profiles are a high-level look at the paths I’ve seen freelancers take (with examples). Remember, you don’t have to choose one and stick with it for all eternity. Most of us move through a few over time as we gain experience and explore and refine our abilities as freelancers. It’s also smart to be open to more than one, since your needs can change because of market shifts, economic downturns, and even changes in your own goals and abilities.
- The Sage Specialist
- The Professional Polymath
- The Consultant Changemaker
- The Outsourcer Entrepreneur
- The Exclusive Agency
- The Product Pioneer
- The Experienced Educator
- The Enlightened Employee
Use them to shape your own freelance career aspirations and even adjust over the course of your life.
The Sage Specialist
This path is all about getting ridiculously good at what you do.
It hinges on not just refining a skill, but doing so in a way that aligns with results that demonstrate clear value to your market. The Sage Specialist knows what they do, who they do it for, and why it’s valuable–using their insight and experience to guide their clients in the best use of their work.
Gordon Graham, “The White Paper Guy”, is probably one of the most well-known examples in B2B freelancing. His entire career is a really fascinating blend of this and a few of the paths below, winding through employment, freelancing, and entrepreneurship.
The Professional Polymath
This path lives in one niche but has deep experience in a mix of related freelance skill sets. They understand the context of their wide range of abilities and can provide a controlled menu of services to get the results their clients are happy to pay for. (This is the direction I lean as a freelancer.)
Check out Anthony Sills at Professional Pen, who’s a copywriter, but integrates that work with content marketing and SEO in the B2B SaaS space.
The Consultant Changemaker
Since we’re outside an organization, freelancers have an opportunity to get a broad view of multiple organizations, seeing the diverse ways people address challenges. Some take advantage of this and use it to graduate from being an extra resource to helping organizations create change.
I’m struggling to come up with a good real-life example of this one, so I’m turning to media. (If you know of any Black freelancers who fit, drop them in the comments!) One of my favorite illustrations is from the anime, Shokugeki no Soma/Food Wars. In the Stagiaire arc, Soma learns that he has to change the processes of the restaurant, not just contribute to their productivity.
The Outsourcer Entrepreneur
Some freelancers get so good at marketing and sales that they end up with more work than they can handle on their own. Instead of turning down the excess, they pass it on–outsourcing to other freelancers. They might still work on production, but now they are focusing more of their efforts on project management, business development, and marketing. Eventually, some have enough work to even begin employing people.
I’m not positive they come from a freelance background, but the proofreading service, Bulletproof follows this model of extending one service to multiple workers.
The Exclusive Agency
This path is pretty organic for freelancers–you find your niche, and bring on more partners and eventually employees to offer a broader range of services to your clients. I’ve personally been the “content marketing arm” in a couple of arrangements where we offered full marketing services, including market research, design, PR, strategy, etc.
You’ll find this model in a lot of creative agencies, but this B2B video production agency is a good example of specializing in a few industries to offer productized storytelling that’s aligned with business goals.
The Product Pioneer
The freelance career lattice is really about taking the lessons you learn and turning them into something fresh and innovative.
For a lot of us, that means creating new products in the world of digital entrepreneurs. That’s because the freelance journey itself is an exposure the challenges and potential of a massive, growing market of independent workers. The result can be something like a productivity platform (like my favorite Focuster). But Moxie is probably one of the best examples specifically for freelancers.
Darryl Kelly has a deep background in freelancing and it clearly informs the app-formerly-known-as-Hectic–a product that centralizes business management functions for freelancers, including accounting, client management, time tracking, and contracts.
The Experienced Educator
Give yourself a few years at this freelance thing and you’ll be amazed at what you’ve learned.
From self-discovery, to business management, and mental health tactics, you’ll grow in ways you never could have imagined. Some of us decide to turn those lessons into a business.
That’s where this platform falls for me as a freelancer, but there are countless other examples. One of my favorites is the place where I learned content marketing.
The Enlightened Employee
I’ve gotten more offers for employment than I ever did as an employee–everything from writer positions to CMO at a startup. (I never entertained any, but that’s only because they didn’t fit my lifestyle design plans.)
Historically, I think freelancers have generally seen “going back to employment” with the same misplaced derision as “moving back home”. Thankfully, things are changing (on both fronts), and people are realizing that returning to employment isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It can be part of strategic lifestyle design, even providing benefits far beyond a predictable paycheck and group health plans.
Employment can give you insight you wouldn’t get as a freelancer into the inner workings of specific business types. For example, let’s say you specialize in startups as a freelancer but don’t have any experience working with one (or maybe your experience isn’t recent or is in an industry that’s too distant from your aspirations). Taking a position for a while can inform choices you make in your freelance strategy, so that when you do return to indie work, you have a better-informed perspective.
I hope this conversation has helped you shake off some of the limiting beliefs you might have as a freelancer. Never forget that the decision to freelance isn’t a dead end–it’s a doorway into a new way of life and career options that fit the complex world we live in in a way employment hasn’t kept up with–that is, if you go about it with intention.