Coming from someone who’s moved nine times in her 28 years of life: moving sucks. Especially when you’re a freelance writer moving to a town where you know nobody—and when the place you’re moving to doesn’t have a lot of options to support your career. (Read: there are few to zero other freelancers around.)
I get it. My teenage hometown has a population of less than 4,000, and when I go back to visit, I have to drive 30 minutes to get to a coffee shop that has wifi and predictable opening hours. You don’t have anywhere to go, you don’t have anyone to vent to about your frustrations, and everyone gives you the stink eye when you try to explain the work you do.
If you’re reading this from your rural hometown, know that you’re not alone in what you do. Penelope Trunk, author of three books and founder of Quistic, talks about the frustrations she faces after starting a successful company and then moving to rural Wisconsin to work remotely because she married a farmer.
It’s lonely without a network, and that loneliness is not pretty. At some point, the need for human companionship—from both an emotional and a professional standpoint—becomes drastic. You can feel like your career is stagnating, you have no new client leads, and the last person you chatted with was your pizza delivery girl.
Just because you’re a freelancer in a rural area doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely. Sure, you might not have a coworking space you can join, but there are methods of coping with that. I live in the small city of Asheville now (the 11th largest North Carolina has to offer), but I built the first stages of my business from overseas, and dealt almost exclusively with US-based clients. And even then, none of those clients were even from my state—most were in Silicon Valley, a place in which I’ve still never set foot.
So I’ve got some tips for you on succeeding as a freelance writer and building a better business despite not having any local accountability buddies to meet over coffee and brainstorm with.
When you don’t have a local target audience to speak to, you’ve got to rely on internet-based communications to amplify your voice. That might mean a couple more hours per week behind your computer screen, but it’s what it takes to build rapport with the kind of people you need for clients.
When it comes to building relationships over the internet, engagement is key. So have conversations with people on Twitter, comment on blog posts you really like, and make sure you’re prompt to answer emails. The reality is, when you’re not in a physical location that puts you in high demand, you’re the one that’s in demand of others’ attention—so you’ve got to do what you can to get it and keep it.
And when you’re prompt with email responses and on your toes with online interactions, people remember. (Oh, and one other thing: you also have to be insanely friendly or people won’t want to have conversations with you.)
My world changed when I bit the bullet and fronted the money to do this.
One of the first paid online communities I joined was a blog improvement program, and being a part of that group of people was revolutionary. Even in my own city, I sometimes find it hard to find like-minded people to hang out and talk business with, so being able to communicate in closed Facebook groups and forums with people who are just as invested in their freelance success as I am was a huge game-changer.
No, it’s not quite like being able to meet up with someone in person, but it was great being able to find accountability buddies and ask for feedback from the group. What’s more, I felt way less lonely and I got great insight on growing my freelance business.
If you’re living in the suburbs or a rural area, you’re in really good company: according to this study by Upwork, 47 percent of freelancers live in the suburbs, compared to 35 percent living in the cities. A solid 18 percent live in rural areas. So if you’re living in the suburbs or a rural area, you’re in really good company—you just might have to turn to the internet to find it.
This is a small hack, but it helped me a lot when I was overseas and wanted potential clients to feel like I could be taken seriously as a local freelance writer.
When you sign up for Google Voice, you can choose a phone number from a list of the different ones available. Since Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina, I chose a Charlotte area code, even though I’d never lived in Charlotte and was actually living abroad.
This might be unnecessary, and not many people will notice it, but by associating yourself with the closest, most feasible larger city you grant yourself some heft and can allow yourself to feel like you belong in that professional environment, even if you don’t live there.
This tip isn’t crucial if it feels inauthentic to you. For me, however, it was the step that helped anchor me near my ideal clients when I was far from home.
In a small town, the best local business owner buddies you’ll often find are people who own small mom-and-pop shops and service businesses (think yard work or home improvement)—not exactly the kind of people who’ll be sending lots of referrals your way.
At least, that’s my experience.
Sure, these people have great business sense, and some are even technically freelancers, but since their businesses don’t rely on the internet, the models are totally different and you realize quickly that your operations really don’t have that much in common.
While I was moving from one international city to another (while trying to build a US-based freelance business), I never bothered to go to any sort of local business networking events. I knew my efforts would be better-spent networking online. Because any time I did go, no one really understood my work or the value of it, and I almost always regretted the time I’d wasted.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to find valuable connections close by in small towns, but the odds aren’t really in your favor—so instead, use the internet.
I’d suggest investing a little money in a basic CRM service and setting reminders to get in touch with important people on a monthly or bimonthly basis. This way, you still get to create a quality network, but it’s a network of people you’ve specifically handpicked who will help you advance your career, rather than gambling on the local lottery.
Up until this point, I’ve advised you to spend a lot of time on the internet. But as much as I love the internet, I can’t take it every moment of every day. I have to disconnect from it to keep my sanity.
Likewise, I have to disconnect from thinking about my business, just so I can keep my mind open and fresh for new ideas.
To do this, I have to make sure I schedule time in my calendar, usually on nights and weekends, to invest in hobbies—things I like to do that don’t involve the internet, a computer, or a screen of any sort. For me, it’s things like yoga classes, watching a sunset over the mountains, or going to an open mic night. Sometimes it’s as simple as going to a park downtown and people watching. (It’s a great form of inspiration—don’t judge me.)
But when you’re in a rural area, your choices of activities are pretty limited. One way to work with this is to generate an interest in things other people around you are interested in too. In my hometown, that means hunting, joining church groups, going to a wine and paint class, or attending knitting club meetings. The activity doesn’t necessarily have to be your favorite thing in the world to do, but if you can get past the activity, you can reach your true objective: making offline friendships.
It is absolutely possible to build a lively, thriving freelance business in a rural area, even if it seems like you can’t because you don’t have the business demand of a city. And the trick to doing it and keeping your sanity is this: make business communications online, but develop friendships and hobbies offline.
Because even if you can’t even use MeetUp to find two other like-minded people within driving distance, you can find them all over the place on the internet.
Are you a freelancer living in a rural area or small town? What are some things you’ve done to keep your freelance business alive? Share your tips in the comments.