Growing from Gig to Gig

Freelance Project Manager

A surging demand for talent has put project professionals in the driver’s seat—making it more possible than ever to be your own boss.

By 2027, 22 million new jobs will be created in project-oriented sectors around the world, according to PMI’s 2017 Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap report. Freelance project managers will be needed to help fill this gap as more organizations seek out specialized skills and lower costs. Three out of four organizations now use freelance project managers, according to a 2017 Arras People global survey in which the majority of respondents were from the United Kingdom.

“Even companies that were once resistant to hiring contractors or freelancers are becoming more flexible,” says Blaze Goraj, PMP, a freelance project manager in Poznan, Poland. “There’s a greater need for talented people, and companies that might not be able to find or afford a full-time hires are going to look to freelancers.”

While the appeal of hanging your own shingle might seem obvious—the chance to diversify your skill set, create a flexible schedule and work on a variety of projects—managing a freelance career is a project in and of itself. Experienced freelance project professionals share the inside scoop on how to get your solo career off the ground—and keep it up and running.

Blast Your Availability

Finding work means building a network. Yes, freelance positions get posted on the usual job boards, but recruiters and hiring managers more often fill spots with candidates they already know. That means spreading your name far and wide to land those first few gigs (and all the ones that come after).

“I was able to get started largely by word of mouth, telling all of my colleagues and friends that I was interested in freelancing,” says Kierstin Gray, PMI-ACP, PMP, a freelance project manager in New York, New York, USA. She also reached out to recruiting agencies, and maintains those relationships with periodic check-ins to let them know when a project assignment is coming to an end.

Not every interaction needs to feel like a sales push either. Mr. Goraj says industry conferences, PMI chapter events and local mixers are a great way to connect without making an explicit elevator pitch. Eight years ago, he worked as a guest lecturer in the graduate program at a university, and over time even those student connections have led to freelance project work.

“For me, face-to-face interactions have always taken precedence over social media,” he says. “It pays to get out there.”

Build Your Brand

Resist the urge to pitch yourself as a jack-of-all-trades. While it might seem like a smart way to create a broad market, many organizations are seeking freelancers with specialized skill sets. You’re more likely to find a viable fit if you highlight specialties in your LinkedIn profile, résumé or CV and in-person networking.

“I have a reputation for being a ‘triage’ project manager, so that means I can operate well in highly stressful and chaotic situations,” Ms. Gray says. That makes her a life-saver for companies that need to salve an off-the-rails initiative or right the course of a flagging project. “My name simply travels around, through many back channels between people from different companies, so I’m always hearing about or being contacted by prospective clients.”

When Sandra Arps, Sydney, Australia, made the leap to freelance, she leveraged her previous experience with project management offices (PMOs)—now branding herself as the PMO guru. While the first few months of freelancing were lean, she eventually built brand momentum by showing her value. “I’m now busy, specializing in agile PMOs and helping project teams perform better in their day-to-day work,” she says.

Be the Boss

Freelancing is more than jumping from gig to gig—it’s approaching your work as a business and a lifestyle. It might mean navigating more complicated tax and benefits issues, proactively mapping out a retirement savings plan or even rethinking how you approach life and disability insurance.

A more immediate concern—how much should you get paid—takes just a bit of sleuthing. Ask your industry contacts to keep you abreast of market rates and check out PMI’s Earning Power Project Management Salary Survey to compare your pay expectations with location-specific averages.

But don’t sell yourself short by simply translating your prior staff salary into an hourly rate. While contract work for project professionals might pay higher than staff positions, it doesn't come with benefits such as healthcare coverage and paid vacation. So, do the math to determine a fair rate. And if the project requires specialized skills or experience, you might be able to charge a premium.

“Whether your niche is a certain industry or coding language, companies see your deep experience as a huge advantage,” Mr. Goraj says, “and they’re willing to pay a bit more for it.”

Ease the Transitions

Full-time project managers are a known quantity to their organizations. But freelancers must build trust and rapport from scratch with each new client. To ensure a strong relationship from the start, Mr. Goraj makes face-to-face contact a priority during the project kick-off and early meetings. “Once we have that relationship-building underway, I can start relying more on virtual communication and remote tools, but in those early days a lot is gained just from spending time together.”

Client anxieties can also rise again as the project reaches its close. That’s a problem if the freelance project manager has moved on to another gig at that phase, because team members won’t necessarily be able to ask easy follow-ups. To mitigate that unique risk, Ms. Gray has developed a transition document that catalogs her actions, time and insight with the company that can be accessed after she moves on. “That extra time and thought helps maintain relationships,” she says. And it can turn a one-off gig into a repeat client.

Having the right strategy and a healthy dose of hustle can help you achieve success as a freelance project manager. But it also requires a bit of courage. For those on the fence, Ms. Arps encourages them to try it for a set timeframe—say, six or 12 months.

“If it doesn’t work, it’s not a failure—you’ll gain new experience and skills that you might never get at a full-time job,” she says. “And the last thing you want is to spend your retirement years wondering ‘what if…’”