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Think back to your early days as a freelancer. Likely, there were a few events that helped you ge on your feet. Perhaps that was a referral from a friend or an online job board. Maybe it was a community you’re a part of that helped you get off your feet.

Every freelancer has to start somewhere, but no matter what got you going originally, the most important aspect of your long-term success is networking.

Seriously. Networking is your best friend because it combines all aspects of growing a business and lets you balloon them into clients, like a repetitive lead generator that’s powered by your ability and willingness to put yourself out there. At its core, networking is about relationships. Building and maintaining a freelance career is all about taking your relationships and finding practical situations to pitch yourself. Let’s look at how to do that.

Build a base of contacts

The growth of remote work has birthed a number of freelancer-oriented networking events, giving you a great chance to identify and pursue local opportunities to get out and network. A quick way to do this is to find local and online meetups, forums, and events that will put you in contact with or available to business owners, digital nomads and other freelancers, as well as influencers in your niche.

How? Step one is to get out of the house.

Consider joining a coworking space. You might make some friends and enjoy a nice change of scenery, sure, but the investment can also pay off big time when it comes to increasing your network.

The entrepreneurs, digital nomads, and freelancers that work there are likely to hire those around them frequently when they need a service that they can’t source from in-house. There’s certainly something to be said for being in the right place at the right time.

Look for a space that hosts regular events, speakers, and development sessions in the evening. You also want a vibrant community of remote workers onsite during the day to chat with and get to know. Introduce yourself to people and shake their hand.

Additionally, find networking events and meetups in your town as well as online. Look for freelancer-oriented networking events, Facebook groups or other online communities, and also find events where entrepreneurs and influencers in your niche will be present. Think beyond a local chamber of commerce–there’s a wide world of business owners who have problems that you can solve, and the majority of them don’t live in your community. Use the power of the internet to expand your reach and client base.

Above all, always remember to keep in mind the impression you’re leaving on people.

Maintain those contacts

There’s no point in introducing yourself to someone if your relationship ends right there. Follow up with an email and ask the person to grab a coffee, or touch base on the points of your original discussion. This isn’t a post on email etiquette, but I’ve found it useful to employ a "professionally friendly" demeanor in these situations.

Keep the emails quick and to the point, and emphasize your ability to be on the same level as the contact. You’re trying to land a client, not a job–you want the person to view you as professional to work with, but also don’t want to come across as "sales-y" or desperate. Whenever applicable, include links to your work.

Keep in touch. Connect with people you meet on the social channels they are most active on. You can often smooth over your sales or pitch process simply by being engaged.

The beautiful thing about networking is that the opportunities that arise often benefit in more ways than one. With time and consistent effort, you’ll start to see opportunities arise that otherwise wouldn’t have–all because of networking.

One contact leads into another, and as they say, it’s all about who you know.

Put a plan into action

The first step is to identify what a potential client's problem is, how you may be able to help them, and the best way to proceed.

Next, listen. Everyone loves to talk about themselves, and all you need to do is get a person to expand on what they need. When the time is right, note your expertise and ability to help them. If that moment doesn’t materialize, the old "Let’s grab a coffee and talk" line is always a strong fallback.

When chatting with a potential client, ask yourself this: what problem do they have that I can solve?

I went to a conference in Austin last year and listened to a talk from Ray Blakney, the founder of online language school Live Lingua. During his talk, he was asked about the next steps for his business and expressed a desire to grow and launch a new blog and update the content on his website. After his session, I approached him and introduced myself. After chatting for a few minutes, we ended up having dinner that night. Cha-ching!

Take one opportunity into the next one

Marketing and selling yourself is a lot of work. There’s no getting around that–building a roster of clients, getting the word out, and replacing old contracts with new ones is a never-ending battle. Relationship building is the key to making this process happen smoothly.

The perk of one successful networking session, like the one I described above, is that you can typically employ a "rinse and repeat" strategy. Note what works as it happens, and employ those strategies in future situations.

If something was awkward or you found a long email chain didn’t go anywhere, try to identify where it went sour and re-approach the next time.

Overview

As freelancers, we're fortunate to have the ability to incorporate our passions and talents into our work. There are outlets for just about any niche, and the truth is that they need people to come in and fill voids.

The goal of networking is to leverage your past experience or expertise into a bigger and better gig, filling that void and giving yourself a new opportunity. Once this becomes natural, the looming prospect of an ending contract becomes much less terrifying.

In the freelance world, that might just be the best form of job security we have.

Tim Wenger is a Denver-based freelance journalist. After taking a BA from Fort Lewis College, Tim jumped into a Ford Econoline with a punk rock band and fell in love with travel. He's been unable to rest his pen (or his feet) ever since. Check out his work in USAToday, Matador Network, and Fodor's.