How to Get References: A Comprehensive Guide for the Self-Employed

There’s no denying that the quest for well-paying work can be a stressful one. Not enough experience in one niche, too much competition in another – it’s enough to make even the most seasoned of self-employed individuals fret.

In addition to the standard cover letters and resumés/portfolios, many of the best freelancing opportunities out there require references. This would seem a reasonable request, except it isn’t if you’ve taken approaches such as these to being your own boss:

  • Online platforms (crowdsource or otherwise) where there’s often a high degree of anonymity.
  • Contracting with companies who are now out of business.
    • Or, your points of contact no longer work for these companies and you only had their work email/phone number.

Whether you’ve been self-employed for a moment or (seemingly) a millennia, the path to obtaining references is always paved with networking, resourcefulness, and perseverance.

One foot in the future…

Since you’re quite literally the captain of your own employment ship, you need to be prepared for any eventuality – the most pressing of which is, of course, keeping a steady income. Jobs come and go, much like the wind and the waves.

It’s not enough just to keep a resumé current and have a template of sorts for a cover letter. You need to have samples at the ready relative to your preferred niche, as well as second and third choices for backups. This process is no different when it comes to gathering references – gain the advantage by thinking ahead.

  • Your goal is to have sets of files on standby so that as you search for jobs, it’s a matter of simply choosing which ones fit best with each application; quite the time saver!

Are you presently collaborating on a project, and feel as if everything’s going exceptionally well? There’s no better time to ask for a reference from person/people you’re working with! About to start a new gig? Focus on cultivating a sincere rapport with your main point of contact in preparation for an eventual ask. Continue in this way until you’ve got 5-6 references at the ready.

  • By the way, “references” can mean a written letter (more likely email) with follow-up contact information included, or just a phone number – you’d do well to have a mix of both available.

Character, or creative?

Some opportunities can be maddeningly vague when it comes to the sorts of references they want. A safe assumption is a preference for strictly professional. However (and this is especially true if you’re doing in-person work) character references can mean a lot when they come from the right people – established professionals in your chosen niche immediately come to mind – as they vouch for your trustworthy traits.

  • Recognize that the means for creative references flourish within community involvement.
    • Volunteer, serve on a committee – be an authentic source of support to good causes.
      • Such worthy endeavors can gain you references, networking opportunities, and even enduring friendships.
    • Some online platforms encourage camaraderie amongst their contractors via message boards.
      • Thoughtfully contribute to discussions, answer questions, etc.
      • As you build an authoritative reputation (all the while adhering to any respective board etiquette guidelines), the reference potential can increase.

Thoughts on timeliness…  

Once you’ve amassed your cadre of references, you might wonder if there’s a sort of expiration date on their relevancy. It all depends on their origin, of course.

  • Take, for example, the LinkedIn recommendations section – you’ll notice that people often have academic recommendations on there, too, be it from professors or fellow students.
    • That’s an evergreen category for character references, though less so for professional references as the years continue on and institutions restructure/discontinue.

As for all other professional references, the better the name recognition, they longer you can keep them in your realm of possibility. For all others, 5 years or less, and ideally within the last 2-3 years.

Keep that confidence.

There’s no denying that you’re opening yourself up to a certain level of vulnerability each and every time you ask for a reference. It’s almost like that old-school “Do you like me? Check yes or no” sort of thing. Never doubt how confident, kind, and capable you are. Carry this positive energy with you, and you might just be surprised by the professional possibilities that come your way.

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