Project Picking: Five Tips to Grow Your Own Talent

John Chuang was linking freelancers with top-notch projects long before Fast Company introduced Free Agent Nation. Here are his five tips for finding that next perfect gig.

Aquent CEO John Chuang is a freelance matchmaker — a cupid who has been wedding talented guru designers with meaningful projects for more than 10 years.


He knows about building Brand You. He knows how to tend business relationships to yield constant demand. That knowledge pays off — Aquent places more project designers than any other agency, roughly 3,000 free agents every week.

In this competitive marketplace, Chuang also knows about attracting top talent — wooing independent designers to the Aquent camp and away from competitors like,, and eLance.

In an effort to lure talented free agents, Aquent offers insurance, collection services, and free training. But for all Chuang’s efforts to recruit the best talent, he remains true to the most basic free-agent tenet: Go forth and work for thyself. He encourages independent professionals to sniff out their own gigs and even offers them advice for picking the best projects.

Here are his tips for aspiring free agents.

Only take work that teaches you something new.

You don’t have the time to deal with a job that rehashes something you’ve done over and over. To enhance your portfolio, you’ve got to keep learning and expanding your repertoire.

Take work that will lead to more work.

Some employers simply generate more work than others. Look not only for big companies that may refer you internally, but for companies with wide networks of shops they could refer you to. And think twice before turning down a high-profile project, especially an interesting project with a prestigious firm. If the prestige attracted your attention, it will likely attract others’ too.


Fun is an important metric.

One important measure of any job is your enjoyment level. Get a sense of the kinds of projects you like most. Projects should feel fun. If you don’t want to do a job, don’t.

Time is you greatest asset — don’t waste it.

Fun, learning, prestige. If a project has none of the above, don’t take it. Your time is your most precious asset. You don’t have time to deal with projects that don’t pay well or don’t pay off in enjoyment, new knowledge, or more work. All independent professionals come to this conclusion eventually, usually after unpleasant experiences. The sooner you learn it — the sooner your time will be yours to leverage.

Turn sales into relationships.

A lot of free agents have specialized areas of expertise: design, programming, or some other technical faculty. Many need to attain a broader business perspective. I’m not talking about pay scales and project bids, though they are important. I’m talking about how to turn a sale into a relationship that could mean more work later.

Everyone should learn sales skills. A project proposal should never be a cut-and-dried transaction. Transactions are price-based relationships in which the lowest bid takes all. You don’t want that because you want to form long-term relationships with clients that transcend bids and projects. You want to build a brand that will distinguish you from other freelancers.

You need to understand the client’s problem or issue — the ultimate business goal. Question the client in a way that will take “sales” and transform it into “consultation” — show the client who you are and what you have to offer. You will inspire the client to think, Maybe this person can do a host of other work around here.

Some independent professionals don’t enjoy this, and some aren’t good at it. To some extent, that’s where talent agencies like Aquent come in. But if you want to be successful — with an agency or without — you have to learn to sell yourself.