No doubt you've stumbled across a competitor at some point and thought "how is this person even in business?" Their credentials aren't as solid as yours. Their samples are terrible (or they don't seem to have any to speak of). Their professional site is so dated that it needed to retire a decade ago.
Given those things, why are they ranking #1 in the search engines in your niche? Why are they apparently getting more work (which they may or may not even deserve)? It probably has at least something to do with dumb luck.
Luck shouldn't be something you rely on in business. It won't make most freelancers' careers. But it can play a role. Sometimes people are simply in the right place at the right time with the right connections.
That isn't only true in freelance writing. Look at blogging. The earliest folks in a niche will usually rank well whether or not the blog is better than newer entrants into the game (it's also why older static sites can rank better than newer, better, regularly-updated blogs in the niche). When it comes to online rankings (and the attention they bring), age matters.
Now look at the traditional job market. No matter how qualified you are for a job if someone else has an "in" with a higher-up in the office they've got an edge on you. Connections matter too. It happens online. It happens offline. That's life.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to create a bit of "dumb luck" of your own. Here are a few ideas:
1. Look for a new niche or market.
It might feel like everything's pretty well tapped, but that's not the case. Give things a different spin. Let's say you write Web marketing copy. Your first instinct might be to focus on any business looking for an online copywriter.Why not narrow it down a bit more and really carve a place in a niche though?
For example, maybe you have some medical-related background that other copywriters don't. If so, you might opt to focus on writing Web marketing copy for family physicians or dentists.
You could narrow it down even further and focus on those in your region -- making yourself the go to guy (or gal) in the area within that niche.
2. Create a new niche or market.
This is what I did with press release writing among online business owners. At the time there was nothing more than a hint of interest from one or two people every now and then.
PR folks weren't really paying attention to the market at the time either. There was a huge potential market (and a swiftly-growing one at that) for a particular service that I was highly qualified to offer.
What I did I do? I started working to educate those folks about what releases were, how they could help them, and how not to get sucked into SEO-style spammy releases that would do more damage than good.
Do you know what happened? A new niche opened up, and I was on top of the game in that particular market. I even had several SEO firms coming to me specifically to teach them how to offer releases to their clients that were good for SEO but not the typical spam-style SEO releases.
Obviously as soon as that started to grow, new competition flooded in. But it didn't matter. I was there in the beginning. I laid a foundation. I still get referrals from those old clients and those old posts, articles, and other things I used to open the doors.
It isn't really "luck," but it'll sure feel that way when you can stop worrying about how you're going to compete because your status as one of the first in the niche is enough to keep work flowing in.
3. Build that network!
You won't ever get to know the "right" people by waiting for them to come to you. Is there a colleague you'd love to have in your corner? Reach out to them!
These days it's not difficult to introduce yourself. Shoot them a quick email. Comment on their blog. Link to them from your own blog. Ask to interview them (a great way to get to pick their brain while giving them something back -- any professional in their right mind loves to be interviewed from time to time).
Want to get to know an exec with a company you'd eventually like to work for? It's not much different. My policy is simple -- never be intimidated by who somebody is. In the end, they're just another person (and you might be surprised at how refreshing some of them find it when you talk to them like one instead of feeling like you need to kiss their ass constantly).
Again a simple email, comment, interview request, or other way of reaching out is enough. Just do it already. The worst that can happen is that they won't have time for you. Then they probably aren't that "right" person you need to be connected to in the first place.
Oh, and don't expect anything from them. The fact that they've had a conversation with you isn't enough for that connection to matter when it comes to our pseudo "dumb luck." It's up to you to take that connection and turn it into a relationship.
4. Step aside.
If you find that you're always following the pack in your niche, please stop. Take a step back. Take a step forward. I don't care where you step, but get away from the group mentality.
If everyone is marketing themselves in a particular way, you should be doing something else. If everyone is looking for gigs in the same place, you should go elsewhere. If everyone is so concerned with being warm and fuzzy and making sure everyone in the world loves them to the point where they're not willing to really tackle the tough issues, tackle them.
Let your voice be heard. Let your presence be felt. It's okay to be close with some of your colleagues and to follow the fundamentals that truly do work. But don't get caught up in fads or being so desperate to "belong" in your niche that you forget to make yourself stand out. When you do that, you might just be amazed at how your luck changes.
The next time you come across some competition who clearly hit a lucky streak early on, don't let it phase you. While you can't make yourself stumble into the same lucky timing or connections they had, you can still overcome it. Hard work and making your own "luck" will ultimately get you ahead. Otherwise, you might just spend your career waiting for a break that never comes.