Being a Great Freelancer Isn't Enough

John climbing up a karst

Getting new clients is challenging.

There are plenty of freelancing sites like Upwork or Freelancer.com where you can bid on projects, but it’s impossible to compete with Asia developers who drive prices down so low you’d make more money jockeying a register at McDonald’s.

You can post ads on Craigslist, but it’s still tough to get work and the projects you do get aren’t any better than the ones you find on freelancing directories.

Cindarella Syndrome

I used to think that it was enough to be an excellent developer; that by being highly skilled and doing great work, new clients would somehow find me.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a very efficient approach. You get some referrals, but not as many as you need and for people who aren’t always great clients. You have little control and are at the mercy of luck.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to be more proactive about getting new projects. Hoping that Prince Charming would notice that I was the prettiest girl at the ball wasn’t going to cut it.

Marketing… Ugh

I decided that I was going to take the business side of freelancing more seriously. That meant that I needed to learn how to market my services better.

If you’re anything like I used to be, marketing seems like a dark art where people are conned using pop-ups and sleezy long form salesletter nonsense…. so I wasn’t excited about it.

However, I knew that unless I could generate better leads more reliably, I was going to have to deal with lots of peaks and valleys in income and crappy clients who I would be forced work with in order to keep paying the bills. So I applied myself to studying business with the same seriousness that I had used to hone my craft as a freelance developer.

The Experiment

Then, one day while traveling in Vietnam, I made a breakthrough. I completed a small experiment based upon what I learned about marketing. It changed my trajectory for the next three years.

The work that I completed that day has resulted in:

4,628 prospects visiting my site (*prospect* as in someone looking to buy and separate from our normal traffic.)

Google analytics showing increase in traffic

~250 project inquiries despite warnings that I was likely out of budget

List of email inquries from clients

It’s pretty wild.

Very few things I’ve done for my business have had as large of an impact as that one day.

In the three years afterwards, we received so many leads that we grew to a team of 5 with little additional marketing (you don’t have to expand, I could’ve stayed small and simply raised prices and cherry picked the big budgets.)

John's wife starting her climb from the boat.

The Painful Road to Vietnam

To set the scene… I had been living in Nagoya, Japan for the past year. My wife and I were vacationing for two weeks in northern Vietnam before leaving the region to come back to the States.

It’s easy to think that I was flush with cash, but the opposite is actually true. Right after we moved to Japan, I developed tendinitis in my arms and wasn’t able to work. I was on the verge of breaking through to 6 figure income with two valuable clients and had to refer them to another developer (who did instead.) What little savings I had vanished and instead I spent the next year struggling to earn enough money to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world without setting my arms on fire by typing.

It was like I had started over again. Like the 4 years I took to get there just vanished. It was soul crushing.

We were only traveling in Vietnam was because I had promised my wife and knew that we wouldn’t be back in the region for years. Even with that, I was only able to justify it to myself because the plane ticket back was actually cheaper flying through Ho Chi Minh than directly back to the US.

At the end of our trip, we were on Cat Ba island where we had been “deep water soloing”— climbing big rocks out in the ocean and falling into the water instead of rappelling down (incidentally, not great for tendinitis.) We were heading back to the mainland and had a train to catch in Hanoi that night. However, my wife didn’t want to wait at the train station, so we spent the day in a café instead. I set at my laptop sipping ca phe sua nong and working away at my marketing experiment.

We ended up missing our train, but it was worth it.

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