Freelancing has its perks: be your own boss, enjoy work flexibility, work in a private space with everything from the tilt of your desk to the room temperature and lighting exactly how you like it. What we can often overlook are the immense challenges that come with going it alone, especially as a freelance project manager.
Finding work is only the beginning. There are numerous different types of project managers. How much do project managers make? How much does an IT project manager make? Or, for a more specific role, how much does a construction project manager make? There are so many other factors to consider: the ebb and flow of your income, managing multiple deadlines that don’t inform each other, and making a mistake means fully owning your actions. You alone are accountable. It can be both scary and liberating!
If you’re thinking of stepping into the life of a freelance project manager, here are 6 things you need to know to succeed.
1. Keep Your Skills Sharp
Even if you’ve been in the industry for years, you are now looking to re-enter on your own terms. The problem is, rapid advancements in technology, changes in company structure, and new management approaches make keeping up-to-date a constant battle.
Staying attuned to new ideas (and ways of thinking) is absolutely crucial. This doesn’t mean you have to read a pile of academic journals every morning; it can be as simple as reading project management blogs or enrolling in a leadership and management course. Ongoing learning (and up-to-date certifications) is what will set you apart as a forward-thinking, innovative professional — the exact traits that companies look for in project management consultancy.
2. Get Your Name Out There
A freelance professional with minimal experience and limited connections is unlikely to be a front-runner candidate in the eyes of an employer. This doesn’t mean your case is hopeless! Although it is always better to begin freelancing as an established professional, there are other ways to set yourself apart from the crowd.
Expand your network by attending conferences, connecting with industry leaders on social media, and joining established online project management communities. Promote your name and work online, and most importantly, always take a confident stance — even if you don’t feel that way. Chances are someone will repost your social content, your LinkedIn request will be accepted, and that phone call could put you on the right track to a job.
3. Build Your Portfolio
That being said, if you don’t have the work to back up your statements then you may not be taken seriously as a project management consultant. It is imperative in this field that you have proven experience in: leading both short- and long-term projects, risk and crisis points, team management, and effective communication skills.
This is where case studies, personal references, and hard data are your best friends. Whether you’ve been in the industry for a year or a decade, you should be adding to your personal portfolio from the moment you’re hired on a new job, and should continue until you walk out the door.
4. Set Remote Work Hours
Freelancers inevitably spend long periods of time working remotely; it is part and parcel of the job, and remote work has its own challenges. Set clear, consistent working hours from the get-go to save yourself from stressful, late-night sessions.
Any experienced project manager will tell you that delays are probable, problems likely, and mistakes inevitable. Running yourself ragged by working long hours will not only make these roadblocks more likely, but diminish your ability to handle a situation deftly when the time comes. Be sure to keep track of the hours you are working, and compare them to the average billable hours for consultants in your field — and when the project becomes too large, communicate this to your contact.
5. Keep Communications Clear
Good communication is the best tool a freelance project manager has. Making the effort to maintain an open dialogue with stakeholders across all aspects of a project is a must. Anything from a daily wrap-up email to a weekly status update meeting will save you headaches later on, and demonstrate your confidence and reliability as a freelancing professional.
An extra tip; be upfront in sharing your challenges and setbacks. It will make your successes all the greater in the eyes of your stakeholders.
6. Understand Who You’re Working With
The only way to understand what a project needs to deliver is to have a clear grasp of the organization's goals and principles. (It's also crucial in knowing whether the project is a good fit for your skills and freelance portfolio.) This means being able to identify whether their needs align with your own professional ambitions and values. A good working relationship is based on mutual trust and understanding, and freelancing is no different. If you don’t thoroughly understand your client, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage before you even start.
Set Yourself Up for Freelance Project Management Success
It can be easy for freelance project managers to buckle under the pressure of working remotely, especially when the role is so closely tied to teamwork and communication. But with these steps on how to become a project manager and how to start a project management business, you can equip yourself to hit the ground running and build a successful consulting career that will take you places you never thought you'd go.
Helen Sabell works for the College for Adult Learning, and is passionate about lifelong learning. She has designed, developed, and authored many workplace leadership and training programs, both in Australia and overseas.