Elance Blog

5 Ways to Use Professional Development to Keep on Top of Your Game

Building a freelance business requires more than marketing to new clients and completing assignments for them; it’s also essential to keep your skills and industry knowledge current. Recent studies have found that the average company spends more than $1,000 per employee per year on professional development. In order to keep up with the companies you’re working with—and your fellow freelancers—it’s important to spend money on your own development, too. As an entrepreneur, training and ongoing education can give you a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Here are five strategies for freelancers who want to stay at the top of their game.

1. Read about your industry.

Paying attention to industry trends can help you demonstrate expertise in your subject area when dealing with prospects and clients. Writing blog posts and bylined articles about industry-related trends and topics in the news can help you to market your services to a wider audience and build your client base.

Industry-related books and magazines fit into most small-business budgets and are generally tax-deductible, and, of course, blogs and websites are mostly free. Spending as little as 30 minutes a day reading the latest news and opinions broadens your perspective and knowledge in your field.

2. Participate in online or offline training sessions.
If you’re in a technology field such as web development, in which best practices change on a nearly constant basis, it’s imperative to keep your skills up to date—and industry standards. Even if your industry’s tools and methods don’t change too frequently, taking professional development courses can help you bolster your skill set and improve your earning potential.

Many organizations offer free or premium webinars and online or offline courses dedicated to improving your skill set in a particular field. For example, if you’re a web developer, consider signing up for a lesson in PHP coding; if you’re a copywriter, consider taking a course on a more niche topic, such as writing white papers. The website Lynda.com offers access to thousands of online tutorials focused around software products and specific skill sets for an annual $250 membership fee. For writers, free online training sessions through the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism and premium multi-week online courses through MediaBistro can help you develop your research, reporting, and marketing skills.

3. Stay up-to-date on software product updates.
Keeping up with software updates and new versions—and knowing how to use them effectively—will help you improve your efficiency and marketability as a freelancer. If you’re familiar with changes to the application’s features, you’ll be able to offer innovative solutions to clients that your competitors may be unaware of.

If you use a software product, research upcoming product releases, and download or purchase them in a timely manner. Sometimes being an early adopter comes with a price, however: If you’re aware that there are bugs in a particular new product or an upgrade, you may want to wait until issues have been resolved before upgrading your application(s). Software companies often offer free seminars and educational materials to help you learn about their product upgrades; take advantage of these resources. Make sure to brush up on the tools that your clients are using, too, even if they’re not yet taking advantage of the latest versions.

4. Attend industry conferences.

Although you’re likely to spend a thousand dollars or more on attending a single conference away from home, industry events are often well worth attending: You’ll have an opportunity to participate in educational sessions led by many of the top experts in your industry, network with influential people, and may have the opportunity to show your expertise by speaking or moderating a panel. Trade shows can also be worthwhile, as they’ll help you learn about new products and tools that may help you perform your job better and more efficiently.

Each quarter, research which industry-specific conferences or trade shows are in the works, and determine how many relevant events you can comfortably fit into your marketing budget. If you haven’t previously attended an event and aren’t sure whether it makes sense from a business perspective, read reviews of the previous year’s conference, check out speakers’ bios, and contact past participants to get a sense of whether a particular conference agenda suits your needs.

5. Get certified.

Formal recognition for passing a skills test or completing a program in your industry gives you additional credibility with prospective clients—and is likely to give you a competitive edge over other contractors who haven’t made the effort to complete certification programs, enabling you to charge more for your services.

Elance offers more than 300 skill tests in a wide variety of subject areas, including software, language translation, and web programming. Freelancers who take these free tests can list their scores on their Elance profiles, which can go a long way in showcasing expertise in front of potential clients. Many software programs (such as Microsoft Excel) and online tools (such as Google AdWords) also offer rigorous formal certification programs. By meeting the criteria, you’ll be eligible to promote your certification and get listed in a company’s database of certified contractors. In fact, Elance also offers expert Groups for those who belong to professional affiliations and have verified expertise.

For entrepreneurs, professional development is an essential means to a lucrative end: driving business growth and innovation. Best of all, every dollar you spend on self-education and training is entirely tax-deductible. Seek out opportunities to learn and invest time and money into expanding your skill set, and you’re likely to see significant dividends over time in the form of increased work opportunities, more credibility, and most importantly, higher pay.

About the Author
Kathryn Hawkins, a Null Media author, is a Maine-based freelance writer specializing in small business and entrepreneurship. She writes for publications including BNET, Intuit Small Business Blog, Portfolio.com, GOOD Magazine, OPEN Forum, and Family Business Magazine when not chasing after her two-year-old daughter. She also co-owns and operates Gimundo.com, a site dedicated to positive news.