Struggling To Find Clients ?
I've spent two months with a client going back and forth on a project. It doesn't seem like we are anywhere close to a finalization.
I'm eating Ramen, stressed about finding work. "Can we please finalize the contract this week ?"
Potential client: "Let's reconvene next week, weed out more details before we formalize it into a contract."
It's been two months since we've been doing this. Why can't we finalize this, I think to my myself.
"Sure" is what I say, obviously because I need to care about what the client thinks.
The feast famine cycle with freelancers is a REAL problem. Being a beginner freelancer I never know how to balance between too much work and too little work. It's also hard to find work that I enjoy. I'm always laggard on my marketing skills as a freelancer. And finally but not least, the process is so stressful and uncertain if you have minimal experience.
To figure out how other pros solve this problem, I went and asked some pros about how to find clients online. Who is a pro ? Well, people who have more than 5 years of experience and get clients with a breeze.
Here's What We Learned From Them
Find Your Best Work Through Existing Relationships And Word of Mouth
One obvious-in-hindsight but surprising learning was that almost every single one of them found their best work through existing relationships and word of mouth.
Generally, its through friends and old clients. There is impressive second-order reasoning to this that Paul mentioned. The people you know well, know the type of person you are. They know what kind of work you do. So when they hear of an opportunity that suits your profile, they make the match happen.
It's a meta filtering system that your network plays. The challenge with job sites is that such a filtering process doesn't exist. You are competing with 100's of other freelancers. The recruiter has to go through all these CV's to pick one that stands out.
The one that usually stands out isn't the practical one but the shiny and glittery one. So it's generally a bad match for both the client and the consultant.
Many of the people I spoke to had years of experience, and a vast project portfolio to back them.
So you may ask, how do I get clients if I'm just starting out ?
People very frequently underestimate the power of their network. But its one of the best assets you have to find the right clients. Its a better filtering system than any other system we have currently.
If you are a recent graduate you can tap into your personal network of friends from high school and college. It takes a little more work, but it helps you get better work than gig economy sites, that commoditize work and creativity.
Though they land clients very easily, all of the people we spoke to say they got lucky. But it seemed like they had done all the pre requisite work for "luck" to be on their side.
The only challenge with getting projects from your network is that it is an uncertain and stressful process that can take weeks because you are never sure whether a conversation will lead to a project. On a freelance gig site, you know that there is an immediate need for someone.
Some people may just be exploring the idea and only using you as a sounding board. This process may take a very long time and is generally not paid. At least, it doesn't keep occupied for a lot of time.
As Sebastien said it's very frustrating to not know if a conversation with a client will lead to a contract or not, he once had to spend two months with a client before he drew a line and said, I need to stop this process. He gently told the client, he can't continue with the brainstorming process anymore. But this was after he spent two months brainstorming with the client, so it was stressful.
A solution to this specific problem, is invoicing the client for every interaction even in the brainstorming process. Many freelancers told us that clients valued time more when this was done, and it solved their problem of clients going back and forth too many times.
Here is an interesting excerpt when I spoke to Paul. " When I was in South America, it was really difficuly for me to get new contracts because of the language barrier and lack of a network. When I went back to Sydney, in a week, I caught up with two people and two oppurtunities had appeared. Neither were suitable for remote, but it was just amazing how much easier it was to even start those conversations"
For Josh, over time he's realised that all his jobs have come through his network. His challenge though was that he spent the least amount of time on building these relationships, and spent most of his time on wasteful actitvities like filling forms and bidding on upwork.
Here's what Josh had to say, "The bread and butter was maintaining contact with the people I knew. I want a system that formalises it, and gives me a clear path towards achieving this. I used pipedrive, which is built for sales team. It's not something I like because its not built for me. Pipeline, deals, leads are words I dont like. These are personal relationships, not a pipeline. But I still want to have a better process for maintaining relationships, so I'm building a tool that will show freelancers and independent consultants how to get more clients."
All 10 people told us word of mouth was the single best way to get good clients and work that you'd like to do.
One of the other things that stood out was that they most of them specialised in one skillset. There seemed to be a higher demand of people who specialised in specific skillsets, because there is a very low supply.
By niching down to kubernetes, Felix gets gig all the time. Companies pay top dollar to make sure that their systems have 100% uptime, and Felix being a pro kubernetes engineer, always has high quality gigs waiting for him.
When you haven’t specialised to a sufficient degree, you have to deal with very amateur clients, that haven’t found product market fit, don’t know enough about marketing, and most probably don't have their shit together.
Tayler, a very experienced VA, said that she likes being a generalist but knows that niching down would get her better opportunities and more stability. She has been looking to niche down in a specific zone so that she can get more stable clients. As a VA, the challenge is that clients are transient and there's always a problem with finding the right amount of clients. She is trying to solve this through retainers.
AJ Adams, a designer from SF, who specialises in information architecture has been overloaded. "I had to turn stuff down a lot of times or pass it down to friends because I have always been overloaded". Though he attributes it to lucks, we thinks its a mix of niching down, luck and doing great work.
Writing And Distributing Good Quality Content (blogs/books/newsletter)
Blogs help freelancers get work faster but require a lot of time and discipline. The challenge with blogging isn't writing the content itself. It's about distributing it to the right audience. And also making sure there is consistency. Without consistency, people will forget you exist.
Toli, a Scala compiler engineer, spent a lot of time on blogs, and he distributed it within the right community. This helped him get the best out of it.
For him what worked best was writing a book. Once a person writes a book in a space, he's seen as an expert, especially if it comes from a good publisher. So basically this allowed him to get a lot of leverage. He got a bunch of inbound requests because of the book and also landed a job of his liking.
It took him 6 months and a lot of discipline so may not be the easiest path to get work. But it is an option, if you want to never worry about finding work again.
Though he's taken up a full-time project now, he said it was one of those high leverage things that any freelancer could do. Writing a book makes you an expert in the field you write it in, so a lot of people trust that you'll do an excellent job and are ready to pay large sums to work with you.
Josh and Paul, used their newsletter to update people on different subjects that interest them, and work that they're doing. For Josh, it has also been an effective way to let people know that he's free and open to work with people. Though he does regret not being consistent with the newsletter, it is a great asset to have.
Giving talks at events and coworking spaces
Another interesting activity that converted very well was giving talks at events and coworking spaces, at whatever you specialized in. Two freelancers told me this worked out very well for them. Toli, Paul and AJ said that this helped them meet a lot of interesting folk and get new clients.
Just heading to the local coworking space, and giving a talk about spaces you're interested in helps you meet people of common interest. This allows you to network with a very niche audience, which generally can lead to work.
For two freelancers I spoke to, Toptal solved a lot fo their problems. They didn't have to filter between a million clients. They had a platform that curated good clients for them. Toptal also ensured payments were made on time. So some freelancers prefer using toptal. It basically abstracted the sales and proposal process, so it saved time and hassle for consultants.
Jamal loved that he could come in, have a contract in a week for two months, and leave when he gets bored with a project. This gave him a balance between flexiblity and certainty.
Obviously all of those services come at a cost. Most people after a few years of experience, decided to go out by themselves because they outgrew Toptal. So Toptal is a great place for intermediate freelancers. Not so much if you have 10 years of experience.
Josh elaborated on this, saying that the dangers of not owning the relationships with your clients is serious:
- Toptal can take them away or offer them a better deal at any point
- they can force you to lower your rate
- They can lock you out of the system
- You cant upsell services to your clients
- Your clients don't value and trust you, they just build a relationship with Toptal
Some Freelancers Disliked Marketing But Had To Do It
One of the things some of them complained about was that learning marketing to get work will take a lot of your time, and that may not be the ideal way to spend your time anyways.
Some people may have an interest in it, and there is nothing against learning marketing. But if you are a web developer who isn't very interested in marketing, you'll have to be good at marketing to land the good clients that you'd like to work for.
Sure, you can get around with bad marketing skills, but it will most probably lead you to shitty clients, and work you don't like. The whole operation is pretty demanding mentally.
Paul adds to this by saying something that stuck with me. As a freelancer, you have to be good at marketing, at copywriting, at content, at networking and last but not the least your core skillset that you're selling.
Using Social Networks Like Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook
A lot of them had a fair success on finding work through their social networks. But they Thought they wouldn't recommend this. A better way is to DM people you'd like to work with instead. This generally works better than just pushing out posts looking for work.
Again this works only if you have an established relationship with people, so it connects back to word of mouth.
Sometimes there are small communities on facebook and slack for specific types of skills. These groups if moderated well, have great opportunities.
Like codecontrol for coders is one such palce that someone recommended to find work.
Job Sites Like Upwork Suck
It is always challenging to find good work that you like. The problem lies in the way work gets filtered. If you are applying on sites like up work and freelancer, your CV becomes the first level of the filter.
The challenge here is you may be competing with a lot of people who'd lie to get the gig. The second problem with this approach is that recruiters have to parse through 100's of CV's to know who's the right fit.
Its okay to depend on these sites when you start off, but you should quickly move away once you start finding a lot of work.
A lot of times you may end up competing with people who may bid under the fixed price just because they can afford to. You're competing with ruthless people who would compete on price rather than the quality of work. That's always a shitty race to be in, and it's better if you get out of it.
In summary, as a amateur freelancer the best thing you can do to get better clients is niche down to a very specific skillset, demonstrate your expertise, cherish your network, and maintain the relationships in them and you'll end up finding work that you'll enjoy doing.