When I decided to take the business side of freelancing more seriously, I went to the business section of the bookstore. It was enormous. After lots of reading and applying the advice given, I realized there hardly any of it had any real impact. It was bewildering and left me feeling like business is enormously complex.
The business section of the bookstore is an example of strategies and tactics with little context. There is lots of helpful advice that sometimes applies and mostly does not (especially if you're a freelancer.)
After doing this for over eight years though, it turns out to be much simpler than all those authors make it seem to be. You just have to know what matters and what to focus on.
In this chapter we're going to look at the principles of getting new clients. These are the underpinnings of any successful strategy and though they're not sexy, they have the most impact on your success.
Be client focused.
Everything in your freelancing business must revolve around your ideal client. This may seem obvious, but many freelancers focus on other things. For example, for most the time I've been in business, I focused on a technology: Joomla. Other freelance developers focus on languages, frameworks, or other platforms. This can make marketing an enormous pain in the ass. Additionally, it ties your ship to the market share of the technology (Joomla has steadily decreased in market share.)
More generally, this approach is problem focused. You are oriented on the problem you most value and not the one that clients most value. This introduces a host of issues where you get the work that you want, but not always at the price or frequency you need.
Instead, identify the needs of the people who write the checks: clients. Then identify the kinds of work and projects that make you happy out of those needs.
To illustrate this, for several months I focused solely on programming extensions for Joomla. I landed very little work – one or two projects because few clients had the need or budget for that kind of work. I have a friend named Anish who focused on serving homebuilders and contractors. She participated in the local construction industry meetings and networked primarily within that group. She had an ongoing stream of projects and referrals that would make most freelancers green with envy. Be client focused.
To get clients to approach you for work you need two things: their attention and trust. 95% of freelancers I've met fail one or both tests.
If you can't get a client's attention, you're dead in the water. It doesn't matter how great you are at code, what sort of design skills you have, or how professionally you manage projects. Prince Charming is not waiting in the wings.
Even if you can get their attention, if they don't trust that you can deliver a solution to them they will not contact you for work.
In business speak, how you get attention is called a channel. I like to think of it in the geographical sense, as in a narrow body of water used for transportation. In my minds eye, once I have a channel set up, I see it delivering little boats of customers to me.
The channel that I used to gain our clients with my guide was search engine optimization. I was getting prospects out of the search results to visit my site by performing on-site SEO and doing some very basic outreach.
SEO was the channel through which leads floated into my website.
Imagine there is a technology conference in your city. You print out 5,000 business cards and stand at the entrance to the building handing them out to everyone walking through the doors. Chances are that you will hand a card to a potential client who needs someone like you and yet they still will not contact you. Why? You might have momentarily had their attention, but did nothing to build their trust in you as a freelancer.
There are plenty of ways to develop trust:
Regardless of how you do it, if you can't build client trust, leads will not approach you. You have to understand that in their mind, they are at an enormous disadvantage. They don't understand the problem domain and don't know someone who can help them. The perceived risk is huge.
Proving that you're trustworthy by educating them about their problem is a highly effective hack to building trust.
How effective? I didn't have a portfolio up and we still don't have a portfolio. We don't have case studies or Coke and IBM logos showing them as clients on our home page. Beyond saying that we can perform the services we perform, we offer no proof other than a few testimonials in the sidebar of a couple pages on our site. To be honest, and I'm not proud of this, we have done a very half-assed job of selling our services. And yet, we have been continually approached for work by clients with a strong desire to work with us. Why?
In the guide I wrote, I shared my experiences hiring other Joomla developers. In doing this:
All of this simply by offering education about a subject that I was familiar with.
Consider your approach to getting new clients. If you measured your efforts on a scale of 1 to 10:
There are at least 3 other Super Dongs out there.
My sense of humor stopped evolving when I was 13. I'm just beyond thinking that farts are funny and not quite to the point where sexual references have stopped making me giggle. Which is why when I found out that the national currency of Vietnam is named "Dong", I knew that I would have weeks of bad jokes. This comedy hit a low point when I saw that the ferry we would be taking between the island of Phú Quốc and the mainland was called, "The Super Dong."
In more economically developed countries trips end politely by signaling a waiting cab. However, in countries that are still developing, like Vietnam, you often have comparatively wealthy tourists that emerge from a travel hub and are looking to spend money on transportation and accommodations. In order to capitalize on this, "touts," will wait outside the travel hub and try to direct you to businesses they represent for a cut.
So when we climbed off The Super Dong (channel) it was no surprise that we were assaulted by touts trying to get us to either hop into a taxi or buy a ticket on a bus to Cần Thơ,the major city of the region.
After 15 minutes of trying to get any relevant information from the continual barrage of offers, I looked at the map in our guidebook (channel), and saw a bus station a half a mile away. Thirty minutes later we had purchased tickets on the last bus to Cần Thơ from a ticket agent there.
The touts had our attention through a guaranteed channel in The Super Dong arrival dock. However, we navigated a city we weren't familiar with in order to purchase from someone we trusted. The bus station had very little of our attention in comparison to the shouting touts and was just a symbol on a map with some basic information, but because the touts failed the trust test it got our business.
In case you're wondering, my lack of faith was justified when we found out the next day that some of our fellow travelers who had taken the touts up on their offer had been dumped off in the middle of nowhere 40 minutes shy of Cần Thơ.