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I've mentioned how the biggest asset you have from past jobs as your network of professional connection, but that's a use it or lose it kind of thing. You have to take steps to turn it from a bunch of folks I used to know to a network of colleagues who'll help me build my freelance career. I break those steps into three parts: collect, contact, and grow. Before going into detail, I want to point out that the purpose isn't to ask these people for work. You'll do that later. Work might come out of it naturally but forming bonds is more important right now.
The first step is to take a walk down memory lane. Remember and gather the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of former colleagues who know and like your work. You can collect these contacts in any system you like, your computer's address book, a database system, or just a plain text file. Whatever you use, make it a sole, central, and convenient place for such information because you're going to use it a lot throughout your freelance career. I hope you've been saving all your e- mails too, because they are prime place to mine for old contacts.
As you copy the information over, it's also a good idea to make notes about who those contacts are and how you work together. You'll need that when you contact them. Beyond your list of previous contacts, I found the website LinkedIn.com to be a great help. I recommend you join it, fill out your information and use it to research old colleagues. However, I suggest that you not use its automated tools to contact everyone from your address book, because that could irritate people. Once you have all the information gathered, pick out a few people to contact.
Don't just send them a form letter. Nobody likes that. Instead, write personal e-mails to those who you think will be most relevant to your freelance career. If they're from awhile back, remind them who you are and how you know each other. Later on, you'll broadcast your availability more widely. But for now, your point is to start building relationships with the top tier contacts. Be sure to let them know that you'll be freelancing. This alone might lead to work but don't be pushy. If it's been awhile since you've talked, ask them what they're doing and make sure they have your contact information and you have theirs.
Finally, ask them if they have any advice or if they know anyone you should contact. This last step can be amazingly productive. It was one of these referrals that basically got my writing career started. That leads us to the last step. Grow your network. Besides your existing contacts, there's also a world of colleagues out there you simply haven't met yet. The best way to meet them is to take part in communities that'll bring you together, such as mailing lists, conventions, and volunteer projects.
I'd urged you to think broadly. If you're a musician, talk to writers, directors, and graphic artists, as well as other musicians. That's how the real collaborations get started. I have to stress again that you should do all of this with a light touch. First, be sure to respect past contracts when you connect with old colleagues. A lot of companies have non-compete agreements that say you can't take their clients or employees when you leave. If you have any questions about past agreements that you've signed, talk to an attorney. Also, some marketers will recommend that you just hit them all hard and repeatedly with your message.
But for freelancing that's the wrong approach. You're not selling cheap trinkets to the masses; you're building relationships to provide highly personalized services. Approach your network with respect and you're sure to get the same in return.
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