Creating a Community for Creative Professionals

When I got laid off the first time in 2000, it was devastating. The next three times (in less than three years) were even worse.

Self-employment sounds like an exciting adventure until you’re faced with it all on your own – in an economy that’s in a tailspin. Thankfully, I happened upon a small group of intrepid creative professionals who had banded together to share the ride.

As members of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), these freelancers had created a special-interest group called Self-Employed Creative Professionals (SECP) that consisted of writers, designers, photographers, programmers, and others.

Under the umbrella of IABC, SECP members met each month to share experiences, knowledge, and lend support to each other. We started a monthly email newsletter to share ideas, and our group grew by leaps and bounds. Then we developed a simple website where we could list our services.

Our alliance had two very powerful results. First, businesses began to call for referrals. And second, we could collaborate with each other and get work on bigger projects.

By 2003, we were too large for IABC to handle, so we launched out on our own with three goals:

  1. To be a community: This is our main priority. We instituted an annual trade show where we display our work. By getting to know each other’s skills, we have been able to form collaborative partnerships within the group.

  2. Business building: Our monthly meetings focus on business growth.

  3. Promotion: We work to educate the business community on how to outsource work to independent contractors, and let them know that we’re a great resource. Word of mouth has been good, but we’ve also invited trade groups and businesses to our trade shows and events.

SECP is heading into our tenth year with almost 500 members and a new set of goals. We’re now working on adding tangible benefits for our members:

  1. Back office support: Over the years, we’ve had tax pros, marketing experts, attorneys, and others talk about how to grow our businesses. They know our needs. So we’ve developed a program were they offer special discounts and do private workshops for our members. For a small annual subscription fee, our members have access to affordable support services, as well as other business discounts around town.

  2. A political voice: By organizing as a large group of creative professionals, we’ve gotten both our city and state governments to start paying attention to us.

    Self-employed people tend to go under the radar and aren’t counted when policies are made. So we’ve begun lobbying efforts to make our voices heard. We’ve made some headway in revising the city’s RFP (Request for Proposal) process for self-employed creatives, and we’re confronting the state in the affordable health care issue.

  3. Raise visibility: With some funds coming in through member subscriptions and our workshop fees, we can put more of an effort into raising the visibility of the group through PR and marketing outreach instead of word of mouth. We’re also actively working on educating the business community on what a deal it is to work with members of our group: We deliver agency services without agency overhead.

So how do you create your own local group of self-employed creative professionals? Here are a few tips:

  1. Start where you are. A few people meeting regularly is a good beginning. Invite some established (or retired) self-employed creative professionals to join you to share their experiences. They’ll be flattered that you asked.

  2. Find a place. Many libraries offer free meeting space, and some coffee shops and cafes have small meeting rooms that you can use as long as you make a minimum order. We charge $5 per meeting to cover some light refreshments.

  3. Reach out. As businesspeople, there are many things we need to know to run our businesses. You might start by calling tax professionals who specialize in small businesses and inviting them to talk.

    Over the years, we’ve had organizing experts talk about home office organizing, marketing coaches talk about presenting ourselves better, financial planners talk about options for the self-employed, and a Blue Cross representative talking about health care options.

  4. Get the word out. Get your event listed in the local papers. About three weeks before our events, we send a note to all of the local papers’ business editors and ask to be listed in their upcoming events section. It’s free and starts getting your group exposure.

  5. Capture information. When people come in, ask them to sign up for your email mailings so they’ll know about future events. Begin a regular email alert. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

    Ours began with just a notice of the upcoming event. Then we added a listing of opportunities that members had sent in. We eventually added monthly Freelancer’s Tip, Member News, and Local Events columns. (Check out a copy of our newsletter here.)

  6. Put up a website. One of the best ways to reach other self-employed creatives is to have a place for them to reach you. A website is inexpensive and is a great way to establish your presence. Have a sign-up form for visitors to get your monthly emails.

  7. Put competition on the back burner. Our motto has become “A rising tide lifts all the boats.” This is a place to share, not compete. We all have different niches, so there is enough work to go around.

[Ed. Note: Barbara Saunders is a graphic designer and owner of Newsletter Associates, and a principal member of Self-Employed Creative Professionals, based in Portland, Oregon. She is currently completing AWAI’s Graphic Design program for direct mail.]

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Published: July 26, 2007

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