Guest blog by Ben Lawton.
Even in a time where “The Social Network” glorified the young, geeky tech billionaire, striking out on your own at 19 years old still raises a few eyebrows.
I should know. I did exactly that.
At a time when most of my friends were either settling down into full time jobs or were drinking themselves into oblivion at university, I decided to start my own business.
I didn't – and still don't – plan on creating the next Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Google. Or whatever the hot thing is when you're reading this article.
Instead, I planned on freelancing. I'd be able to net a nice amount cash for someone my age, and have enough time left over to lead a generally interesting life.
To a certain extent, things have gone to plan...
...Apart from a few major speed bumps, that is. I'll discuss those speed bumps – and what I did to get past them – below.
It's easier to build up street-cred online
Before the days of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, when you struck out on your own your rolodex was your biggest asset. It's where you'd find your first few projects.
For the most part, that's still the case today.
People who know and trust you are your most likely sources of work. And if they're well-connected, they won't hesitate to refer you.
But as I quickly found out, young people don't really know enough people to make a dent. Our rolodexes – now known as LinkedIn accounts – are almost empty. We don't really know anyone worth knowing.
The worst thing, however, is that no-one trusts young people with important work.
In most professionals' minds, young people are best off making coffee for the big boys. And then slowly, over the years, their know-how might rub off on us.
Getting past this mindset is the biggest challenge I faced as a young entrepreneur. Until you've got some chops to your name, your fresh face is a sign of incompetence and inexperience.
That makes networking even harder. If you don't have much experience, a networking event that should – in theory – net you a referral or two leads to this awkward conversation:
Friendly professional: “So, what do you do for a living?”
You: “I'm a freelance copywriter”
Friendly professional: “Oh, cool! Who have you done work for?”
You: “Well, erm, I'm pretty new to the game, so I haven't taken on any major projects yet.”
Friendly professional: “Ah. Well, good luck!”
Now there's nothing particularly wrong with being inexperienced. Even if you're a freelancer. Everyone has to start somewhere, and no experience doesn't mean no talent.
But when you're young and inexperienced, it's an uphill battle from the start. The friendly professional above might wish you well, and even swap business cards, but you'll never hear from him/her again.
They won't send work your way because, you know, you're young and inexperienced. To them, at least, it's a double-threat.
Luckily for me, however, there's another way to grow your network when you're young and starting out. It's called online networking.
I'll discuss exactly what I did to grow my business – and fill up that rolodex, one by one – below, but here are a few reasons it's easier for young people to build credibility online than in-person:
· You've got more time to carefully craft your image than you do in-person;
· Online, you speak by writing – the written word doesn't have a baby face and it doesn't look awkward in a suit;
· It takes people a little longer to judge you online than it does in-person.
Sharing your knowledge makes up for a lack of experience
Like I mentioned above, it's pretty hard to get people to take you seriously when you're young and inexperienced. People are quick to form opinions, after all, so if you don't come across the right way the first time round, they'll be less likely to listen to what you have to say.
And yet one of the best ways to win new business is to share what you know with anyone who's asking. That way, you get a chance to prove yourself even if you don't have a long list of testimonials.
So my advice to any young freelancers is this: join a few popular LinkedIn groups where your target clients spend their time. Have a look at the groups a few times a day. When you someone posts a relevant question, answer it to the best of your ability. Go above and beyond.
Over time, you'll gain a bit of mind share with your target market. What's more, you'll start to be known as the guy who writes in-depth, detailed answers – and more importantly, knows his stuff. So when the members of the group need services that you offer, you'll be the first person they think of.
At that point, your young age won't matter. You've already had a chance to prove yourself, and you've passed with flying colours.
My example is specific to freelancing for young millennials, but the concepts can be applied to any kind of business...
...If you're new and trying to get the word out, the best way to get people to listen is to get them to trust you. And the best way to do that is to help them out before you ask for anything in return.