The Freelance Institute: Matt Olpinski


Community Name: The Freelance Institute

Community Leader: Matt Olpinski

What is Enter Network: The community for freelance workers.

The story behind The Freelance Institute

I've always enjoyed helping people. I've run a freelance newsletter for the past six years and my whole personal website is dedicated completely to freelancers. Through my own freelancing journey I just started sharing what I knew with other people through my blog and newsletter. Then, two years ago I realized that I had been receiving a lot of replies to the newsletter with very specific questions - the type of things that you wouldn't really find an answer to on Google. I was spending a lot of time answering them.
And then it dawned on me that one, I'm spending a lot of time doing this and it'd be great to get paid for it, and two, it'd be great for other people to benefit from these conversations that I'm having. So that's when I got the idea: maybe I can start a community to bring freelancers together. I saw other freelance communities, but they were attached to a single person, so you paid for access to that person, or a course, but they weren't really independent communities.

His history with freelancing

I've been freelancing for 11 years now. I really started freelancing my freshman year of college, sort of by accident. I didn't really know that I was freelancing. But one of my friends was doing freelance projects and I buddied up with him to start building small marketing websites for people throughout college. I got a full time job after college for three years and was still freelancing on nights and weekends because I loved it so much. And it was extra money. And then in 2015, I quit my day job to freelance full time, because it was going so well. And then once I started doing that, I took the time to start the blog and newsletter and everything kind of came together from there.

The types of freelancers in the community

Most most of them are offering digital services: designers, developers, marketers. I have a feeling that we'll continue to focus on those types of freelancers, because there are a lot of differences when you start getting into other areas - the way that business is conducted is a little different.

Why members join and stay

There are two main categories: either they're looking to learn more and ask question or they're comfortable with freelancing, but they might be dealing with the isolation and loneliness that often comes with freelancing. One of the downsides of freelancing is that you're really on your own - you don't have co-workers, you don't have the watercooler conversations.
It's called The Freelance Institute, so I want it to be education focused, but the other part of building a community is that you have to get to know each other as people.

Launching as a paid community from the beginning

Part of it was just selfishly I wanted to get paid for my time. There was also a real part of me that thought: if I'm going to be spending the time answering questions and helping people and introducing people to each other, then there's value in that. But, I wasn't sure of how much value. So I just made it like pretty inexpensive: only $10 a month. As we move into Circle, I'm thinking of increasing prices and also offering a free area, which you can't really do in slack.

Growth tactics

My personal website gets a ton of traffic, probably 70 to 80,000 unique visits per year. So a lot of people are coming through the community page on the website I have a few people that are signed up for an affiliate program so they're drawing people in. We try to stay active on our Twitter account and I'm active on my own Twitter account, which I think helps.

The challenges of retention

The most challenging part of running the community has been member retention. Slack has made it more difficult than it's needed to be. People come in with this expectation of live chat, but most of the chat is asynchronous People will send a message and they'll expect that, because of the platform, they're going to get an immediate response and they don't. And then it ends up feeling quiet and empty.
We tried to do live chat hours where we'd have office hours or designated times where a bunch of people would be online to chat with us, but it all sort of felt forced.

On the long-term vision for The Freelance Institute

I want to create a destination for freelancers, a place where they can go meet other people. The more freelancers that can be a part of it, the better. From a career standpoint, it would be really nice to subsidize my client work a bit. If I can make money helping freelancers, that will be amazing, and will allow me to invest more into them. So I just want to be able to spend more time on this and make more money from this.
I love designing and building websites, and I love working with clients. I think that's one of the reasons why I've been so good at freelancing. I really enjoy the process of getting a client and doing the work. I love all of that, so I don't know if I'd ever really give that up.