Freelance Success Stories: Jennifer Harshman

In this interview series, we ask Jennifer Harshman a few questions about freelancing, landing new clients and using freelance platforms.

Tell us about yourself.

As a disabled chronic illness sufferer with special-needs children, I had to find something I could do at home and at odd hours because I never knew when one of my kids or I would be sick.

I had done plenty of writing and editing all through school and in various jobs through the years but had not considered freelancing until a friend from an online discussion board asked me if she could subcontract to me an editing project she’d been assigned at her job.

After making sure she had permission from her boss, I accepted the gig. I do freelance writing, editing, formatting, and keyword research for blogs and books. I also manage a few clients’ blogs (ghostwriting or editing, SEOing, and scheduling the posts).

Check out Jennifer Harshman’s site at www.harshmanservices.com

How long have you been freelancing?

I started in 2003, and I went full-time in 2009. I don’t know how many words I’ve written (either as a ghostwriter or under my own name) over the years, but I’ve edited more than 30,000,000 (thirty million) words, and I add about 5,000,000 (five million) more each year.

How did you land your first client?

A friend from an online discussion board approached me about a two-book project her boss had handed her. The set needed to be edited and put into British style because it was going to be published in London.

She knew I had editing experience and that in just a couple of hours, I had taught myself how to catalog books, whereas she had gone to school for a master’s degree to learn to do that, so she was confident that I could learn the differences between American and British publication styles and do a great job on her project.

What would you tell yourself starting out as a freelancer if you knew what you knew today?

You just served the Nelson Atkins Museum as your first client. Relish it, and know this: your client list is also going to include Dan Miller and several names you don’t know yet who are on par with him, and you’ll edit NYT and USA Today bestsellers. You are going to change the world one sentence at a time, so go after it confidently.

What is your biggest struggle with freelancing?

My biggest struggle with freelancing is having more work than I could ever do by myself. That’s why I built a small agency to handle the overflow.

What do you enjoy the most about freelance work?

The time, money, and location freedom that freelancing affords me are what I love about freelancing. I set my own schedule, work when and where I want—and on what I want. I started this business because my children and I have disabilities and chronic illnesses, so that flexibility was an absolute requirement. A decade later, our health has improved to an extent, and the flexibility feels more like a reward. What I love most about the work I do is making a difference, one sentence at a time.

What’s the best way for other freelancers to grow their business?

Focus on the things you can control. Focus on your inputs, also known as your leading indicators. While there are many different things you could do in your business, there are probably just a few that make the most difference: the number of contacts you make daily, the number of words you write or widgets you make, for example. Set a goal that is so small it seems like it won’t move your business forward, and then make sure you hit that goal every single day. Examples are contacting five people per day, or writing 50 words. Those don’t seem like they will do much, but they will. Daren Hardy talks about The Compound Effect, and my friend James Clear teaches on Atomic Habits, habits that are so small they seem useless but are powerful.

How do you deal with tough clients?

If a client is tough in the sense that they want excellent work, I smile and gladly deliver. If a client doesn’t respect boundaries, I refer them to the contract. If a client gets abusive with me or especially if they get abusive with my team, I fire them as a client. Everyone is going to have a certain percentage of bad (or bad fit) clients, and that percentage is tied to a few things: how clear your ideal-client messaging is, how tight your contract and other boundaries are, and the type of people you attract (people who have been victimized attract more abusers until they overcome that, for example). At first, I put up with a lot. Now, a decade later, when it looks like someone might become a headache, I remind them of the boundaries. If they push, they are just pushing themselves out the door. Please respect yourself at least as much as you want your clients to respect you.

Do you use freelance platforms (i.e., Upwork, Freelancer, etc.) to land clients?

Back in the day, I considered using platforms and tried a few. Wanting to give them a fair shot, I invested about a hundred hours filling out bids and vying for gigs. It became clear that it was a waste of time for me. Every prospect I interacted with there wanted thousands of dollars in value for a fistful of dollar bills. One worked out to a penny per hour! People told me to take the gigs and hope that in the future, I’d get higher-paying clients there. While I know that some are quite successful on freelance platforms, I decided that wasn’t the path I wanted to walk, so I don’t use any of those platforms.

How do you find new business?

From day one, my business has been built on referrals and word of mouth. From time to time, the topic of running an ad has come up, but I never have run any ads because I didn’t need to. I’ve had all the business I can handle just from doing excellent work. People love it, and they talk about it, and that’s all it takes. I also go on podcasts, write blog posts and books, and lead group-coaching programs for writers and people who provide services to authors. All of those activities serve as lead generation, but the reason I do those things is because I derive pure joy from doing them. If a client comes from them, that’s just a bonus.

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