The first project I ever sold was for $500 to do custom website design for a musician that hired me off of Craigslist. I was walking around a bookstore with a friend and got off the phone with my new client and looked at him and told him, "I just sold a $500 project!" It was electrifying. Of course, it turned into a huge project that I ended up working at an abysmal hourly rate, but I got it done and collected $500.
I took a few months break from freelancing to work on my pop's farm over the summer and returned to my desk that fall. Okay, back to Craigslist.
I spent three weeks unsuccessfully trying to get another project. Rent was closing in and I knew that if I couldn't drum up some work I would have to start looking for a job. I put on my nicest clothes, bought some Starbucks gift cards, and begin to canvas a local neighborhood by going from business to business and trying to get the owner to talk to me about their website or lack thereof. I was able to talk to one person who told me that a website wasn't valuable and had several other owners do everything short of physically tossing me out of their store. I came away from the experience sick to my stomach, but determined to try again.
Fortunately, I didn't have to because one of the prospects I had previously approached on Craigslist contacted me. I was relieved and was able to make Craigslist work well enough for the next several months. However, I quickly realized that it was one of the worst ways to get clients. Their expectations were high and their budgets low. So I began to network.
I signed up for a LinkedIn-clone called Biznik and begin to reach out to people in Portland (my town.) I connected with freelance designers and marketers and helped them with their website projects.
I also joined a business networking group called, "I Take the Lead," and spent a Tuesday every other week swapping business cards with insurance salespeople, network marketing folks, and small business owners.
Doing this I was gradually able to bring in more and more work and level up my clients to more profitable ones.
This is the story of the first 2 years I was in business, channel by channel... Craigslist, cold in-person outreach, social media, networking groups, and networking with other solo professionals.
I've categorized channels into two groups: common and uncommon. You'll recognize my efforts in both groups.
As illustrated above, there are lots of channels that you could use to gain the attention of potential clients. The question is, which one should you focus on?
There are two main questions you have to answer when selecting a channel:
At the most basic level, a channel has to have enough members of your target client in order for you to pull work from it. Freelancing is typically is sold at a higher unit price point than products and because of that you can successfully target channels that have fewer members. Additionally, there are benefits to targeting small channels in that you can more easily dominate them. There's still a floor to the size of a channel though and it is something that you should consider when weighing a possible approach.
For example, if your target client is a general contractor and you decide to try to network as one of your main channels, your local Home Builders Association may only have 30 members, but that's likely more than enough to pick up a few clients and generate connections and referrals to add more in the future.
Next, it's worth considering how well-suited is the channel for your offer. Freelance photographers are well-suited to Pinterest, but freelance developers will likely find it to be a more difficult channel to market through.
For the guide I wrote, I was able to verify in advance using keyword research that there were plenty of potential clients in the search results. Additionally, they were using Google in a way that was compatible with my offer: they were looking for Joomla developers and I was a Joomla developer.
Just because there are clients in a channel doesn't mean that it is necessarily a good idea to focus on it.
The first thing you have to verify is that you can compete in the channel. If you think you are going to target clients looking for web design using SEO in a major city like New York you probably won't be able to compete.
Competition is not necessarily a bad thing, because it indicates that there are clients in the channel, but you should be able to have a good chance of beating that competition.
Beating the competition is important because of something called the Pareto Principle (sometimes called the 80/20 principle). I won't go into an in depth explanation of the principle because it's covered well elsewhere, but what it boils down to is an observation that a minority of the inputs creates a majority of the outputs. For example, in the Google search results, the first three positions capture over half of all the traffic for a search. Similarly, in other channels, the leaders will capture the lion's share of attention from potential clients. You don't have to be number one in a channel, but because of Pareto's Principle it's important to be a leader.
If the channel is too competitive, like the earlier web design New York City SEO example, that doesn't mean you have to throw it out. You can still compete if you make yourself a leader from a different angle. For example, the New York market may be large enough that you can target boroughs, technologies, or verticals using SEO: "brooklyn web design", "WordPress web design New York", "restaurant web design New York."
Next, it's worth considering the level of skill required to communicate to that channel. Typically, the more competition in a channel, the higher the level skill needed to make it work. The question ask yourself is whether you can attain the level skill needed and how long it will take you?
Finally, how much effort is it going to take to reach clients in the channel? If you plan to publish a book in order to generate leads, you may be looking at six months worth of work on the subject matter and several months in publishing it. Blogs require continual investment. Podcasting or reaching clients through YouTube requires considerable production work on top of the content creation. Are you willing to put in the work if you choose this approach?
Both uncommon and common channels are viable. However, freelancers typically feel:
In actuality, this is only true some of the time. For example, my content guide was a blend of content marketing and SEO. It took only a day to write— much easier than all the networking that I did or the hours of lunches I attended over the course of nine months that ended up landing me one small project.
One of the main reasons my guide was successful was because few developers were effectively targeting keywords in my market for SEO. Meanwhile, there were hundreds of people searching for those keywords every month. This was a big opportunity. These kinds of opportunities do not exist in common channels.
Additionally, I'm not an SEO expert. I have a basic understanding that developers in my market either don't have or don't apply. This is the other benefit of developing an uncommon channel: the minimum viable skill level is often low because you're competing with other freelancers who are poor marketers.
These are the main points to consider, however, just because a channel doesn't seem like it is a good fit for your offer on the surface doesn't mean that you should eliminate it.
The fundamental question is will the channel enable you to connect with your target clients?
Consider this example which is counter to the above points:
You are a WordPress developer. It may seem like a dumb idea to attend Joomla user group meetings, but it will likely lead to several additional clients a year. Your target audience of small business owners may not be there, the group may be small, and the offer not a good fit for what you deliver. However, Joomla developers regularly are approached by small business owners with WordPress projects and if you are their best resource for WordPress development you're going to get those referrals.
Figure 1: A couple of rubes and a small Vietnamese girl.
Cần Thơ is a city in southern Vietnam that sits on the Mekong Delta. It has a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh near the river and is one of the cities that was purged of pro-democracy citizens when the North won the war (many of the famous boat people came from this area.)
My wife and I were there to visit the Mekong Delta and see something called a "floating market." The river acts as a center for commerce and at several points on the Delta near Cần Thơ skiffs, canoes, and small boats create a drifting mass of businesses that sell produce, meat, and food to other people in the area. We booked a tour to visit two of the markets and explore some of the local farms with a woman who piloted what was essentially a large canoe with an outboard motor attached.
After visiting the markets, our pilot left the river and navigated us into narrower and narrower canals. On either side of us, the banks rose into rice patties and farmland. Eventually, we came to a tiny "dock" that stuck into the site of one of the canal walls and she told us to follow the canal and she would meet us further ahead for lunch at a restaurant nearby.
Near the dock we encountered a small open house with hammocks attached to the porch. I noticed some movement inside and a little girl came running out of the house. She was curious and friendly and kept tugging on my wife's pant leg like she wanted her to squat down. Finally, my wife gave in and squatted down next to her. The little girl looked at me and smiled.
"Wow," I thought to myself as I noticed the rice paddy behind the two of them, "What a great picture!" I pulled out our camera and had a friend take a shot of the three of us.
Then, the little girl promptly demanded payment from us. Too late, I realized that we had been set up.
The girl had a reliable channel delivering boats of "customers" to her every day.