A friend Diana writes:

“Please understand that I am going through a dry spell here, so I may be overstating this.

“But I’m beginning to feel hopeless, as if I’m just one more designer/illustrator bobbing in a sea of 8 jillion other designer/illustrators who are all smart and talented and more famous than me. Worse yet, there is a whole underworld of others who will do a logo for like four dollars.

“When I recently contacted a half-dozen new clients, the typical response was, ‘We’re happy with the freelancers we have now. But stay in touch.’

“I also learned that one of my most stalwart clients also uses three other freelancers and that she evaluates more all the time. I didn’t know that. 

“Oh, and like a dope, I started cruising the websites of other designers and illustrators to learn more about the landscape. It only made me more discouraged. They all seem so together and are so busy and are all doing such great work and I instantly hated most of them.

“How am I supposed to survive with so many competitors out there?”


First thing:  

You have no competitors. Not really.

That happens to be the ideal mindset for folks like us. More about that in a minute.

Second thing:  Right now and from this day forward, abstain completely from checking out other freelancers online, or on Dribbble or Instagram or wherever. 

No good will come of that. Especially when you’re pushing through a bad patch. I know this from painful experience.

For one, you don’t want to be comparing yourself to other designers and illustrators — negatively or positively. That will not make you feel better and it will not make you more skilled at what you do. So quit it.

(Which means you must never, ever look at Wendy MacNaughton’s website. She isn’t even a writer, officially, yet she writes better than me. So I try to not to look at her work myself.)

Besides, those freelancers on Instagram who look oh so together and breezily busy? They probably aren’t.

And the ones who look like clueless, ham-fisted hacks? They may in fact be booked solid with high-paying work. You can’t tell anything by looking.

Even more important: The more you stalk other freelancers, the more it will seem that the world is jammed with them. It will warp your world view.

(Go ahead, Google “Designer & Illustrator.” Three million, six hundred thousand hits.)

You will begin to see other freelancers everywhere. And all of them will be ahead of you in that line outside the client’s offices.

Here’s a better idea.

Immerse yourself in world of clients:  Marketing agencies, publications, ad agencies, whatever.

Google them, cruise their sites. Live there instead.

That way, the world will seem like it’s chock full of nothing but clients. You will be seeing nothing but fat opportunities on every corner, and the only freelancer out there is you.

Best of all, you will become much savvier about what they need, how they think, what they are wrestling with. You will be an expert in them.

Realize too, that no client has a hundred thousand designers or translators or coders to choose from. Facing 100K choices is the same as having no choice at all.

I guarantee you, the client you are approaching works with maybe a handful of freelancers. They are people referred to her by colleagues. People who sent her interesting things. People she worked with in her last job. People whose work she saw somewhere. People she has talked to a few times before.

That’s how we should think about doing business. Around a very small table, one on one, face to face. Or via Skype and email.

The client will see in you — in your email, in your work, in your attitude — something she needs, something that will make her look good, or something that will relieve some pain. Or she won’t. 

Worrying about six thousand other designers won’t change that. Trying to copy or outdo another freelancer won’t change that either.

Instead, worry about getting better at your craft. Worry about what your clients are worrying about.

It will also help to be a specialist who is the best in the world at what you do.

And think smaller and closer.

You and me, we have to think in terms of ten true fans. Most careers are built on a revolving roster of ten clients or so. Or even fewer.

We don’t have to be famous. We don’t have to elbow aside 3,000,764 other freelancers to make a happy living and do great work.

Your client who said “We’re happy with the freelancers we have”, she is worth pursuing. She is a buyer. She has work. She is loyal. She knows (maybe) what she wants and what she’s doing. 

Do as she said: Stay in touch. Drop a bright cherry into her inbox every couple of weeks. Then find seven more just like her.

Everyone else, forget them.