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Finding Development Leads, and Niching Down: Reader Question

Recently I received these questions from a reader:

  1. What has been your best method for lead generation as a programmer? Please tell me a bit more about this in detail if possible because this is the most important question I wanted to ask you.
  2. Do you target only a specific niche?

My Answer:

How To Do Lead Generation As A Programmer


There are two ways you can generate leads: Inbound and outbound. I think of them as hunting and gardening.

Inbound leads are acquired through gardening. Gardening is consistent efforts to build trust and relationships with potential clients and colleagues. Examples include having conversations, writing, and speaking. Inbound leads tend to be of higher quality and an easier sell. When someone seeks you out specifically, you already have their interest, and they come with pre-existing knowledge of what it is that you sell.

However, gardening takes time. You cannot plant lettuce when you need to eat a salad for lunch. In those cases, you have to go out on the hunt. Looking for clients directly can get you work quicker, but it comes with a cost. When people are out looking for developers, you’ll be competing against the field. This means you may end up making less than you would from a higher quality lead, and end up in a position where you are treated strictly as a labor source, and not as a trusted advisor.

Gardening and Hunting Tactics

Some tactics are outlined here: A Guaranteed Strategy For Getting Your First Clients. These were intended for people just getting started, but can be put to work at any point in your freelancing career. In a moment I’ll outline my go-to hunting strategies, but first I’d like to show how the five tactics from that article can fit into this gardening/hunting paradigm:

  1. Talk to your current or previous employer. This is one of the more surefire ways to get work. If someone has paid for your services before, they are some of the most likely people to do so again. When hunting, reach out immediately. Otherwise, check in with them on a regular basis.
  2. Reach out to your current network. Same as #1 with a broader target audience. Reaching out to 3-5 people daily is a great gardening habit to get into.
  3. Reach out to other Agencies and Freelancers. Also the same as #1.
  4. Hang out with your peers. Definitely gardening and not hunting, as you can’t create experiences to network on the fly.
  5. Hang out with people in your target market. Ditto.

The Gardening Habit

Without getting into the weeds, I’d say one important takeaway here is that you need to find gardening habits and do them every day. Doesn’t matter if you are full on client work, or if you are in a slow period. ABG: Always be gardening.

But when you need work today, it is time to out on the hunt.

The Hunting Strategy

There are two tactics I’ve found the most useful for picking up work quickly. Direct Outreach and Prowling Slack Channels.

Ask any freelancer and they’ll tell you that one of their biggest sources of business is word of mouth. The problem with that is that it isn’t actionable. Sit on your butt and wait for work is not a long-term viable strategy. Instead, you need to make word of mouth proactive. Start reaching out to your network, and ask for referrals. “Do you know anyone who could use help with ${technology or business_domain}”? Asking to help others lets them know that you are looking without forcefully trying to sell them on your services, but does leave the door open if they have something for you.

Finding Work on Slack Channels

I have found prowling slack channels surprisingly effective. There are a number of public Slack and Discord channels for developers. These may be centered around a particular tech stack or geographic region. These often have a #jobs or #gigs channel. It’s easy to keep an eye on them if you are already using Slack for work. When someone posts a job, try to respond immediately. If you can catch someone at that particular moment, you have a good chance at landing the business.

Two things about using Slack to hunt for work: Don’t make posts saying you are looking for work, and try to get the conversation off of slack as soon as possible.

The first is because it rarely works and looks pathetic. The second is because it is too easy to get lost in the shuffle of a slack conversation. Bonus points if you can hop on call that minute. You instantly raise the fidelity of the conversation and show that you are eager to help them solve your problem.

As an added bonus, these public Slack channels can provide a place to practice habits 3,4 & 5 from above. They aren’t a replacement for in person, in depth conversation, but the ability to lightly network 24/7 from anywhere in the world does have some value.

Where Niching Fits In

I’ve experimented with niching/positioning quite a bit. I don’t think it needs to be an all-in commitment. but it can help you bring some focus to some of the strategies above. First, let’s think of some of the ways developers can niche down.

  • The most common one is based on technology choice. This could be focusing specifically on React, Ruby on Rails, or AWS for example.
  • The next most common example I’ve seen is niching down on a problem domain. This could be focusing on something like DevOps, accessibility, or performance.
  • Finally, there is niching down on a business domain. This could be trying to work exclusively with doctors, startups, or logistics business for example.

If you are looking for some inspiration, Philip Morgan has written extensively on the topic. His page of specialization examples is a great resource to help get you thinking of ideas.

In my personal experience, I’ve seen the least amount of success with the third. The reason for this is that as a developer, the problems you are being brought in to solve don’t often map well to the domain knowledge of that industry. If they do, they tend to manifest in either the problem domain or the technology choice. While I’ve worked with several companies that looked to build a marketplace and complex ecommerce solutions, it leads to people looking for people with experience with common technologies in that space, like Stripe and Shopify.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t niche on a business domain, but to have success with that you will find yourself moving farther and farther away from doing software development. For that reason, I’m not going to focus much on that avenue here. Instead, let us look at how we can put positioning into practice with some of the above tactics.

Apply Positioning With Small Bets

First, positioning does not have to be a permanent or all-encompassing decision. There’s merit it not chasing multiple rabbits, but there is also more risk in putting all of your eggs in one basket. Happy Easter everyone!

Instead, let’s focus on using positioning to give us more focus and direction while practicing the above tactics. We can then try one or more experiments. For this example, I’ll take a technology from my recent work: React Here are some ideas for things I could do to find some react work:

  • Write about React
  • Give talks about React
  • Update my portfolio, LinkedIn, etc. to be more focused on React and my work with it.
  • Reach out to people in my network, ask if they know anyone who needs React work.
  • Participate in React forums, Slacks, and Discords.
  • Look on Job Boards for React postings

The more you do these in tandem, the more they help each other out. Positioning can’t be a one-off strategy, and it can help you get unstuck when you don’t know what to write about, or who to approach. I never committed fully to one niche, however, if I found one of these strategies really started to pay off that may change one day.

If you have any questions of your own, feel free to reach out! Time allowing I’ll write a response like this one.

Why I’m Quitting Freelancing

After a second full-time stint, I’ve decided to seek full-time employment opportunities. I’ve had a few people ask me why I’ve made this switch, so here’s my reason why.

First, to clarify:  I don’t mean to put freelancing as a profession or those who make that career choice on blast. I have plenty of friends running a business where they are happy, profitable, and thriving. This is me thinking through a decision based on my personal context.

So let’s start with a question:

”What did I hope to get out of running a service business?”

It seems like the ceiling on earnings is higher…

A salaried senior level engineer can earn a salary of ~$100,000/year. Over 40 hours x 50 weeks, that’s $50/hour. Freelance rates of $75-$150 in some cases are standard. Therefore, the potential earnings are much higher. I know other consultants who say they pull in $250,000 per year. Sounds good to me!

However, there are a lot of other variables in this equation.

Jobs come with benefits such as paid leave, a 401k, and health insurance. And ugh,  is health insurance a big one in the US. The comparison between my plan and my wife (who works a full-time salaried position) is insane. Switching to her plan meant I was able to receive much more coverage at a much lower price.

There’s also the point that other financial institutions, such as banks, don’t think so highly of the self-employed. It’s more challenging to get a mortgage as a freelancer than as a “traditional” employee.

On top of that, for this math to make sense, you’d have to keep a steady pipeline of billable hours. Doing that requires sales and marketing work, so you’re now either working fewer billable hours or more hours than a comparable salary job.

Instead of the equation looking like this:

(effective hourly rate of $50/hour) vs. (effective hourly rate of $100+/hr) 

It looks more like this:

EHR of $50
better health insurance 
401k
paid leave
---------VS-----------
EHR of ~$100
worse health coverage
responsible for taxes/retirement
working more hustling to fill pipeline

And when it comes to filling the pipeline, that brings me to my next point:

You Can Diversify Your Risk By Working With Multiple Clients

Full-time employment is putting all of your eggs in one basket. One person can remove 100% of your income. By working with multiple clients, you can spread out that risk. If you rely on 4 – 10 people for your income, no one of them leaving is completely breaking for you.

But here’s the rub: In my experience, finding this kind of work as a freelance developer has become damn near impossible.

Almost every opportunity I’ve come across was of a full-time nature. Clients wanted 40 billable hours per week, and commitments of months, not weeks. Sometimes as much as 12-18 months! Employee protection rights laws be damned.

Working with multiple clients was more akin to doing 2 – 5 full-time contract gigs per year. You get all the risk of working for a single company, with all the fun of getting zero benefits!

So why bother? There’s one other reason:

You’re running your own business though, right?

Am I though? Building a business is all about leverage. As a service business, there are two ways to go:

  • You can scale up as an agency, and get to a point where you are no longer fulfilling the work.
  • You could develop products that you sell.

I explored the agency route but ran into some issues. A lot of the opportunities I mentioned earlier explicitly wanted individuals, not agencies. Beyond that, I never cracked the code of balancing time & money, either hiring ahead of demand or getting a full enough pipeline to justify the work. Maybe with more time, more money, or more gumption, things would have been different. But 90% of business ideas fail, right? I try not to beat myself up about it.

Then there’s the second one. Creating assets. Running a service business requires designing services, and then marketing, selling, and fulfilling them. To build a product, you’ll also need to design, market, sell, and source that.

Building assets while freelancing is running two business at once. Also, working a job does not infringe on your ability to create products. My ultimate goal financially is to build assets that generate value and are worth something. It’s the only way to build wealth I know of that takes less than 40 years.

I never intended client services to be a permanent solution, but a bridge to something else. But after taking stock, I realize that freelancing is actually in direct conflict with that goal. It looks like my freelancing operation had left me:

  • No more money than a full-time position…
  • less security due to lack of benefits…
  • less time to work on products because I have to hustle to keep the pipeline full…
  • and less energy, because all of that is fucking stressful.

So I asked myself: “why am I doing this?”

I couldn’t come up with an answer.

So if you know anyone who is hiring, hit me up.

Win Clients With Robots: Marketing Automation for Consultants

A few weeks back a reader asked:  Where should consultants start with marketing automation? I wanted to take a second to answer this.

Here’s the challenge consultants face: working to relationships based business. You want to be efficient without being robotic. How can you put systems in place that make you more effective without turning clients off?

Most of the times, I find it beneficial. It shows you put thought into having systems in place. It makes you look professional. As long as you aren’t being spammy, putting automation systems in place is a pure win.

Here are a couple of projects that you could knock out on a slow day. Something that won’t take a lot of time but will give you a long-term benefit.

#1.  Build a post-engagement follow-up campaign.

Set up a campaign to send emails over the weeks and months after a successful engagement. That way you can automate asking the client for referrals, testimonials & case studies. If you want to be more personal, another option is to use a tool that sends reminders to you instead of them. That way, you could write a personalized one-off email instead of a canned response.

#2. Build a course to show off your expertise. 

This is something I’m working on right now. I aim to launch the Marketing Automation Crash Course soon. It will provide more lessons about using technical solutions to make your marketing more profitable. You can put together a set of 5 to 10 lessons based on your expertise to educate potential clients. Two options here or to go wide or go specific. You could write a crash course to give an overview of your expertise, or about one specific strategy. For example, I’ve also considered doing a course just on analytics or specific campaigns.

#3. Automate your onboarding process.

Write a brief document you can give clients at the beginning of projects. One that clarifies how you’ll work together. Then,  set up a system to email it to them. This could be an email automation tool like Drip, an email template tool like MixMax.

#4.  An evergreen newsletter.

Build a system to keep in touch with clients on a regular basis without repeated drudgery. Take some of your best work and set up an automation it sends it to new subscribers weekly. Everyone gets the same welcome experience, sees your best work. And you don’t have to put up new work each week.

 

If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below, I’d be more than happy to answer them!

What Did The Contractor Say to the Consultant?

There are three terms used for a technical service professional, often interchangeably: contractor, freelancer, and consultant. Let’s put a more specific point on it.

Contracting…

is the closest to employment. As a contractor, you are effectively an employee that doesn’t get benefits or pay payroll taxes. Engagements are often months in length, and 40 hours/week. A typical flavor is subcontracting, where you act as a resource for another agency. Your work is 100% production work. Billing is usually hourly, but sometimes it’s daily or weekly.

Freelancing…

involves you taking on more product & project management, in addition to providing a majority of the production work. Length and size of projects can vary greatly, from one-day one-offs to ongoing engagements. Freelancing opens you up to other options for completing projects, such as bringing in a subcontractor of your own or shopping for solutions off the shelf. Freelancing bills for time or fixed-fee basis, and can also be on a monthly retainer.

Consulting…
means you don’t do any production work, only strategic, such as training, workshops, coaching, management of internal resources, or research. Consulting is typically fixed-fee and not based on time. It can also be retainer-based, with a fixed recurring fee.

Which One Should You Do?

There’s a hierarchy here. At each level, you start doing less production & more strategic work and open up the potential for higher earnings. At the bottom of the ladder, you have subcontracting where you grind out to-do items in Basecamp for a low hourly rate, where at the top you have consultants who are respected enough to be paid $X0,000 per month just to be available for advice.

In my experience, you’ll probably end up doing all three. My career has primarily been the first two. While the bottom level work is less fulfilling, it is easier to find and often steady. I know many a contract software developer who can grind out five figures per month, and six figures per year with contracting. It’s not “entrepreneurship” in the purest sense, but as the pelican can-open from The Flintsontes says, “It’s a living.

The Key To Leveling Up

I’ve talked to people who can open pure consultancies and build client relationships quickly, while others struggle. From what I can tell, the primary factor is trust. The most proof you have that you can deliver results, combined with the personal trust you build with people one-on-one, leads to higher opportunities. Examples of trust signals:

  • Testimonials
  • Your portfolio/case studies (even if you don’t have client work yet)
  • Your history / CV
  • work samples (i.e., your Github profile)
  • work artifacts (i.e., books, courses, articles, interviews)

Defining The Different Work

While reading Alan Weiss’s Million Dollar Consulting, there was a passage that I think helps clarify this even further, which you can use to point your efforts towards more efficient, and higher paying means.

Alan Weiss divides work into three categories: strategy, methodology, & delivery. Delivery is the act of producing whatever needs to get done to create the deliverables for a project. A methodology is the practices and procedures used to manage delivery. The strategy is identifying new opportunities for growth. It determines if a project should happen at all and if so, how much we should invest in it.

The strategy drives the methodology. The methodology drives the delivery.

He uses the formula to decide the value of project work: 50% strategy, 30% methodology, and 20% delivery.

Dividing Up The Value

This model maps to our earlier definitions:

  • Contractors are responsible for delivery only.
  • Freelancers are responsible for methodology & delivery, maybe a bit of strategy.
  • Consultants are responsible for strategy, possibly some methodology.

Applying This To Your Work

In theory, if you can shift the kind of work you do up the ladder, you increase your value. How can you change the focus of your work such that you take more ownership of the strategy and methodology? I don’t think this applies just to professional services, but employment as well. I don’t think any boss would be upset with an employee that shared ideas on ways the company could cut costs or increase revenue.

Have ideas on how to shift your focus, or ideas you want to discuss further?  let me know in the comments or reach out via email.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this for my own business lately and would love to share notes with others.

Action Items

 

Who Do You Serve? Defining Positioning

The first problem any service business needs to solve is deciding who they are going to serve. Being a generalist makes marketing harder. If you’re talking to everyone, you’re talking to no one.

Other consultants Philip Morgan and Jonathan Stark advocate for what they call the fool-proof positioning statement:

I help $TargetCustomer solve $expensiveProblem. Unlike my competitors, I $uniqueDifference.

So when I decided to start building a new agency brand, I decided to start by tackling this problem.

Debunking the “Big Idea”

I’ve spent years floating around in startup circles, and there is still the pervasive myth that businesses start with a “big idea.” I can and has worked, but I don’t believe it’s a repeatable form of success.

Instead, I believe in finding the perfect group. Marketing buzzword types call this “community marketing” Once you have a group of people you want to build a solution for, you can ask them questions, you can research their problems.

You don’t have to come up with a big idea from scratch. You can let the market point you in the right direction.

Don’t Be a Buridan’s Ass

One problem with choosing a target market is that there are so many options available. If you don’t feel the same, you’re just not looking at it hard enough. Look up. Look sideways. Look down.

To put in another way:

  • Who have you served or worked for previously?
  • Who are your peers?
  • Who are similar to you, but at a lower skill level?

Answering these questions (which I’ve taken from Amy Hoy & Alix Hillman’s 30×500 course) lead to a litany of options:

  • Tech startups
  • Software-as-a-service business
  • Online Marketplaces
  • Hosting Companies
  • eCommerce store owners
  • Amazon Sellers
  • Freelancers
  • JavaScript Developers
  • Agencies
  • Ruby Developers

The word decision means “to cut.” Choosing to focus on one of these markets ignoring the other nine. It makes the decision difficult. This analysis paralysis can lead to the Buridan’s ass problem: A donkey standing between two equally appetizing piles of hay chooses neither and starves to death.

The reason decisions can be hard is because of the cutting. Choosing one of these audiences means that I’m also choosing not to work with any of the others.  It’s scary. I firmly believe that positioning increases marketing opportunities, but to our lizard brains, it feels like the opposite. How can I overcome this fear?

De-Fang The Fear 1: Any Positioning Is Better Than No Positioning

Not moving is death in this case. I needed to pick one market. Without choosing a market, talking to people in that market, doing research, and crafting targeting marketing messages is impossible. If that’s not enough, there were a few other realizations I came to that helped me get over the fear.

De-Fang The Fear 2: Positioning Isn’t Permanent

If I choose a market, do some research, and can’t make any sales, then I can always change. The internet has a short-term memory. Remember when I used to try to make money doing Warrior Forum affiliate marketing bullshit? Yeah, me neither.

De-Fang The Fear 3: Positioning In Public, Payment in Private

What if an excellent opportunity comes along that doesn’t fit my ideal customer?

I’m going to work with them anyway.

I have pride, but I also have a mortgage.

Positioning is a marketing play. It is focusing effort in a single direction. Just because I am trying to land Shopify owners as clients doesn’t mean I will turn a SaaS client away if I need to make some additional income that month.

Setting Some Criteria

Now it’s time to make a decision. Which means it’s time to cut some of our potential audiences reality show style.

Criteria 1: The Buyer Needs to Hire Consultants

To get this business off the ground, I need people who typically hire outside help.

  • Freelancers
  • Ruby developers
  • Javascript developers

These are all great markets to serve with products, but I think building a service business around them would be difficult.

Criteria 2: These Companies Need What I Have

  • Amazon sellers
  • Software-as-a-service-industries

While I’ve working in marketing departments, I’m a developer at heart. I’m looking for companies that I help with code skill, even if I am not selling myself as a programmer. In my experience, SaaS companies look to hire full-time for these kinds of roles. Amazon sellers don’t own their platform, so there isn’t much need for custom development.

Criteria 3: There are Large Companies With Large Budgets

  • Tech Startups

I’ve built several MVPs for startups, but there are a couple of issues with this market: They tend to operate on a shoestring budget, and 90% of them fail so it doesn’t make for a repeatable client base.

The Final Four

  • Hosting companies
  • Online Marketplaces
  • eCommerce store owners
  • Agencies

Of the four, I settled on eCommerce stores. I’ve always been interested in ways code can be leveraged to directly impact the bottom line, so an industry with the sole focus of selling things seems like fun.

Time to dive in!

From eCommerce —> Shopify

Looking around at the eCommerce space, Shopify in particular seemed attractive for a number of reasons:

  • The Shopify partners program, an ecosystem of support for people who support shopify store owners.
  • The Shopify Experts program, where Pokemon-evolved partners with street cred get featured as a Shopify value proposition.
  • An App store and Theme store, which means there is opportunity to build cash-generating assets.
  • Several experts in the space have mentioned that it’s a growing marketing with plenty of opportunity for developers in the future.

So there you have it, now I can say that:

I help Shopify Store Owners solve $expensiveProblem. Unlike my competitors, I $uniqueDifference.

And I can start researching to determine an expensive problem to solve, and a unique difference I can use in my marketing.

 

How To Use Pipedrive to Close More Sales

Many sales conversations go nowhere. It’s frustrating and like it’s a waste of time. How often do you start a conversation with a potential client, only to have them ghost you after two emails? Having a process to follow up and start new discussions helps alleviate this problem. I use Pipedrive to keep track of this, and here’s exactly how:

But First, A Trade Secret

Most consultants don’t follow-up. Most don’t have a process at all. Getting something, anything in place puts you ahead of 80% of the competition. This is the process that works for me. Your mileage may vary. If you aren’t sure where to get started, I hope this gives you some ideas.

The Standard Pipeline

The standard pipeline has seven stages:

  1. Outreach — Include people I’ve reached out to, or that I intend to reach out to.  This is the “before a conversation has started” phase. Once I get a response, they move on to:
  2. Following-Up — Here we are having a conversation, or I may be following up if the other person has gone quiet.
  3. Warm Leads — When people express interest in working together, they graduate to this phase.
  4. Discovery — Usually a consultation call, here we are trying to figure out the details of working together so I can send them a proposal.
  5. The proposal — A proposal has been sent, and I’m waiting for a yes or no.
  6. Finalizing Details —  The client has agreed to the proposal, and we are working on the final details to get started. i.e., contracts, initial payment, and credentials.
  7. The Pen — For clients who say “may a few months down the line.” Hat tip to Kai Davis for this idea.

The Happy Client Pipeline

Once a project is complete and handed off, I add people to the Happy Client pipeline. This ensures that I can stay in touch with clients, and make sure the work I do for them continues to provide value months down the line.

  1. Needs First Followup — Reach out to people after a project to make sure everything is still ok.
  2. Referral Request — Asking the client if they know anyone similar that I can serve.
  3. 30-day followup/testimonial request —  Checking in that the project is going well, plus seeing what kinds of results the client has seen.
  4. 90-day followup — following up again three months out, to see how the client is doing. After this, they go to the completed projects section of the garden.

The Garden

This pipeline is for regular outreach. I try to stay in touch with people at least once per quarter. This one isn’t a “pipeline,” it’s more of a hack.

  • Active clients — Clients with ongoing projects. A place for periodic reminders to reach out during inactivity.
  • Completed Projects — Clients from more than three months out.
  • Lost Deals — Conversations where I ended up not landing the deal. Especially if I lose to a developer offering to do it for $5/hour. Those clients often end up needing help further down the line.
  • Colleagues — Other consultants or people in the industry. I like to keep in touch and see what they are up to and stay top of mind.

 

Every morning, I get up, I pour a cup of coffee and work through the pipeline. One of Pipedrive‘s best features is that every time you complete a task, you are prompted to enter the next task. Sales are never allowed to linger. You either move towards a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ This helps ensure I always have new business advancing in my pipeline.

 

Process Documentation: The First Step to Eliminating Tedious Work

Looking for ways to spend less time doing parts of your job that you hate? You have three options:

  • Eliminate.
  • Delegate.
  • Automate.

I’m a minimalist. I like to take a Marie Kondo approach in business and life. Tasks get on out plate more quickly than they get off, and we don’t always stop to reflect and ask: “Does this work provide value? should we do it at all?”

Let’s assume for this article that the task has passed the sniff test. You can’t eliminate it. Then move on to the next two options: If a computer can do it automate, else we delegate the task to someone else.

There’s an important step before you can productively do either: document your process. Documenting your processes is something that you should be doing at any stage of your business, for a company of any size. I was documenting new processes on day 1 of my one-man shop.

Everyone has systems in their heads, whether they realize it or not. Do you have a morning routine? A strategy for handling your inbox? These are almost a process. However, I’m a firm believer that:

If Your Process Isn’t Written Down, It Doesn’t Exist

Ideas in your head are fuzzy and abstract. Getting a system out of your head and out into the real world has several benefits:

  • It forces your mind to bring clarity to ambiguity. Sometimes the simple act of writing a process can help you improve it.
  • It frees up mental RAM. You don’t have to remember every step of the process.
  • It improves reliability. A process means you do the job the same way every time.
  • You can iterate on the process. Once something is created it can be improved.
  • You can attack the work with greater confidence.
  • You can share your process with other people (the first step toward delegation)
  • You can find ways to streamline, eliminate, or automate parts of the process (the first step toward automation.)

So How Do You Write a Process?

Many people get hung up here.  Don’t. It can be anything that lays out how the job gets done. Some common examples:

  1. A numbered list of steps that you follow.
  2. A flowchart of if-then logic.
  3. A checklist that you go through.
  4. A rubric or heuristic you use to evaluate something.
  5. A template or swipe file you can use to kickstart a creative process.

You don’t have to pick one, choose the one that makes the most sense for the process at hand. Don’t try to force too much uniformity or rigidity. It also doesn’t have to be just one of these; it can be a mix.

Tools For Documenting Processes

  1. Google Docs— It’s used by most organizations so getting others on board is simple. You can share documents as read-only. You can easily link between docs or link to a doc from another tool.
  2. Screenflow — Screenflow makes it easy to record your screen and your voice simultaneously. I use this to record processes instead of writing them out. You can use the video as documentation, as a supplemental aid, or you can hand it off and have someone else for transcription. The free version of this is using screen recordings with Quicktime
  3. Trello — Trello is great for keeping track of processes that have multiple steps that take place over time. You also get checklists and links to Google Docs within a Trello card. The order of columns acts as a high-level documentation of the steps of the process. I’m also a fan of keeping a resources column on the far left, with cards linking to other processes and resources.
  4. Things —  Things is my de-facto to-do list. My ur-checklist. Every project, both personal and professional, is in there. I also find the scheduled and recurring tasks useful for turning processes into habits.
  5. Context-Specific Tools Every process doesn’t have to live in one place. You’ll see in the next example.

Case Study: Outreach

Recently I had to consider the following facts:

  1. Outreach, when done correctly, is an effective strategy for generating new business.
  2. I’m not a big fan of doing outreach.
  3. I am a big fan of building systems.

So the conclusion was obvious. I shouldn’t be doing outreach; I should be building the outreach system. So I decided to tackle the problem in that way. The process is broken down into three parts.

  1. Email Templates I created a Google Drive file with templates for reaching out. There are a couple of different ones depending on the context. Also worth noting that I’m not advocating for sending the same, impersonal, boring email to everyone; each template is still manually customized depending on the situation. In a way, it’s a mini-automation of the process.
  2. Recurring Task in Things Outreach is something I’ve made part of my daily routine. I keep two recurring tasks on my to-do list every day: One to do new outreach and one to do follow up.
  3. Track Progress in Pipedrive Pipedrive is my CRM of choice. It’s Trello + A Rolodex. I have a pipeline for keeping track of who I need to follow-up with and when.

By creating a process, I  turned outreach into something fun instead of being a chore. Now I’m not just sending emails; I’m testing and iterating on parts of the process. I was able to shrink down the amount of time I spend doing the outreach so that I can spend more time doing work I enjoy.

Getting Started

Try documenting one of your systems today. It shouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes. Pop open a Google Doc, and write down the steps or create a template for just one task. See how much easier that task feels the next time you go to tackle it. How much more confidence you have. See how many minutes you save. Once you get over the hump and get started working on processes and see the benefits, it’s almost addicting.

How to Constructively Handle Clients Who Want Quotes Yesterday

Asking “how much will a website cost?” is like asking “how long is a rope?” or “how much is a house?”. But the client might not know that. They’ll want a quote in the first 5 minutes of talking to you.

How do you respond to these requests?

Definitely not with a price. Setting a price before fully understanding the requirements puts you at risk of underbidding, and potentially working a ton of cheap hours.

You can try to ask follow up questions to suss out the client’s budget. But what about when those don’t work? By the end of reading this article, you’ll have a set of tools you can use to move forward from these situations without binding your self to a price or work order that’s worth your time to fulfill.

First Think About The Client’s Perspective

Why are they pushing for a price at the beginning of the conversation? There are a few different possibilities:

  • The client doesn’t know any better. They don’t need to have a consultation to how much it costs to buy a sandwich or fix their car. Why should a website be different?
  • They’re kicking tires. They have no idea how much a website will cost and are trying to get some idea.
  • They have a budget. If you’re talking to someone who is a business owner, or especially a manager, they may have a fixed number in their head they are looking for. If you cross over that figure, then you may be out as a vendor.

Asking for budget numbers outright can be a turn off for some clients. They are concerned that if they say $10,000, you’ll say “here’s a $9,900” proposal. You’ll have to get there by more indirect means.

You’ll have to use your intuition to judge your potential next client’s situation of awareness. For this reason, I encourage getting the fidelity of communication as high as possible as early as possible. If you’ve only been speaking via email, pick up the phone or get the client on Skype. Meeting in person is preferable when possible. It will help you decide which tactic to use.

The One Line That Can Diffuse The Situation Quickly.

“Like a Doctor, I have to diagnose before I prescribe.”

 

Explain that you need to know more before you can fully answer their question. If you use this line, have a next step ready to go. Here are some ideas, in ascending order of difficulty to pull off:

  • A set of questions you ask each client before an engagement.
  • A questionnaire you ask clients to fill out themselves.
  • A paid consultation or roadmapping session.

This way, you can try to steer towards a continued conversation. From there, you can learn more about the project and come up with a fair price.

A Choice of Zeroes: The Phrase That Tricks Clients Into Revealing Budgets

”Does this feel more like a $500, $5,000, or $50,000 project to you?”

 

I’m gobsmacked by the number of times I’ve asked the question, and a client blurts out their budget. “We have a budget of $15,000.”

This question can help you filter out clients with unreasonable expectations. You can’t accurately price a project based on a 3-sentence description, but you can at least tell a $500 project from a $50k project.

If your client thinks that a complete eCommerce solution costs the same a nice dinner and a bottle of wine, then you know that you don’t want to work with them, and can go ahead and end the conversation.

Give Your Client A Measuring Stick

”My client engagements range from $1,000 to $25,000. At the $1k mark, I give clients a basic foundation and tools to move forward themselves. At the higher end, I deliver a complete solution with support. Where do feel you fall on that scale?”

You show them a bit of the dark art of how you price your services, and in exchange, you have both educated them about market rates and give them perspective on where they may fall. Like the previous question, you have a similar effect of pushing for alignment: If what you offer at a particular price is wildly different than what the client expects, you can end the call.

Don’t Write a Check Your Code Can’t Cash

The worst thing you can do is blurt out a way-too-low price because you didn’t understand the scope of what is being asked of you. Try the techniques above, and learn more about the project and the client before you make any commitments. And if you want to improve dramatically at the art and science of pitching & pricing software projects, I’d recommend Dependable

How do You Create a Portfolio Before You Have Clients?

Clients buy based not on what you can potentially do, but what you have already done. A portfolio showcases previous accomplishments, but if you’ve been doing work for a company, you may have an NDA or non-compete clause in your contract preventing you from showing off your work. Having a portfolio reduces the risk of hiring you for your client, but how can you put one together if you don’t have projects you can display?

Sometimes, You can show off employment work

Check your contract and talk to your employer before putting any work you did on their time in your portfolio. Sometimes it’s a no-go, other times your boss will let you include your work as long as you don’t claim sole credit and provide a link back to them.

Create a Side Project

Build something fun, that’s just for you. In addition to being a way to start building your portfolio, it can potentially be an asset to your business later. It doesn’t have to be large. A weekend hackathon project you shipped is better than a large scale dream project sitting on your hard drive.

Create Studies

Dribbble is a popular site among designers. They can share small samples and of their work. These brief glimpses are smaller and easier to finish than an entire project, and they don’t have to be part of a complete project. If you have an idea for a contact page design, then make just that. It can work as an example of what you can do.

When you haven’t done paying work yet, you can fake it until you make it. You don’t build trust by lying, so when you do design studies like these, label them as such.

Contribute To Open Source Projects

If you are a developer, clients will often ask you for a link to your Github profile. You can fill this by finding open source projects where you can contribute.

Do SELECTIVE Free Work

When I first started freelancing, I always said I wouldn’t work for free. The fields of programming, design, and copywriting are young and ethereal. People don’t understand the work, can’t touch it, and don’t always know what it’s worth. I usually wouldn’t advocate for free work because when you work for free, you don’t only devalue your work, but the work of your peers.

There are times when free work can be beneficial to your business, but these are dwarfed by the number of times it’s a bad idea. If you are ever unsure, the answer is “No.”

It is never okay to work for free on other’s people’s terms. It is ok to work for free, every once in a while, on your terms.

Here is my go-to script when offering to do something free for someone:

“Hi, I’m getting started in offering $SERVICES. I’ve looked at your business and thought I could help. I’d like to provide $DEFINED-DELIVERABLE for no cost. All I ask is a testimonial and referrals if you are happy and honest, constructive criticism if you are not.

I’ll work for free, but I won’t work for nothing.

Let’s take a look at some of the key points of this script.

  • It includes a defined deliverable. When working for free, it’s important to determine up front what the scope of the work will be. This should be something defined by you, not the recipient. Being clear about what is not included can be helpful here. You want to avoid supporting a free project for an unknown amount of time here.
  • You ask for something in return. Just offering for work for free can leave people asking “what’s the catch?”. I tell them the catch-up front: I want either testimonials which have marketing value, referrals which have sales value, or criticism which will help me find quality value.

Should I Do Free Work For Non-Profits?

Non-profits are a sticky situation. I have a no non-profits rule, but that is mostly because working with them is a chore. Non-profits have fewer incentives for efficiency and greater incentives for making people feel good about themselves. It all adds up to a lot of decisions by committee.

Many people also think that “non-profit” equates to “non-money” which is not the case. Non-profits are businesses just like any store, manufacturer, or service provider. The difference is that they give excess money to the benefit of others (if they are honest). This also means they have the same budgets for web design, marketing, and outreach as they do for office supplies.

I’ll admit I felt a little seedy the first time I put a non-profit on a $1,000/month retainer, but helping them raise $15,000 in donations they wouldn’t have otherwise in 4 months assuaged my guilt a little bit. (I eventually fired this client because I got sick of every decision requiring a half-dozen sign-offs before getting completed. It could have been $25,000).

If you work for a non-profit, they should pay like a regular client, and you should treat them with the professionalism that warrants.

There is an exception to this rule if you believe in the cause and want to do it for your benefit. Just don’t try to spin your labor as a tax write-off, it’s more headache than it’s worth and won’t save or make you money.

If you work for free because you believe in the cause, the above rule about defined scope still applies: The project needs to be finite, and defined by you. Asking for referrals doesn’t hurt.

What About Friends and Family?

Mixing business with friends and family is a murky swamp filled with relationship-ending gators. If you do, the same rules still apply: pre-defined scope & a request for referrals, testimonials, and feedback.

One exception here is your mom. She gave birth to you, just make her a website on Squarespace already.

Teach What You Know

The most popular thing I’ve published online to date is an essay titled How I Used Writing To Double My Freelancing Rate as a Programmer. In it I talk about the value, you add to your business and your clients by being able to write professionally. Instead of retreading that ground, I want to focus on two ways writing, and publishing can help you bootstrap your freelance business: Writing can help you display knowledge, or it can help you gain experience.

Write to Display Knowledge

I wrote an article called “AngularJS: An Overview.” I wrote this after working on my first AngularJS project for about a month. I went over the basics and created a “for dummies” guide to getting started. I didn’t intend to publish that article, but it got some traction, and even though it is a “just the basics” article, it got me the attention of some potential clients.

Writing about solving problems you have encountered in the past. It has led to some dry articles like “How to test controllers in Rails 4”, or “How to write a command line tool in CodeIgniter.” But such items have generated traffic. They are also an excellent way to “upcycle” your work. I figured out how to set up command line tools in CodeIgniter because a project necessitated it. I could have completed that work and helped one person. But by writing about it, I helped 1,000.

If a client ever asks about something like that, I can point them to that article. It is every bit as valuable and in some cases more than a portfolio piece.

Portfolios are about proving you can get the job done. Writing about the tools and techniques you use is another way you can do that.

Write to Gain Knowledge

Programmers, like kittens, are easily distracted by shiny things. The reason there are so many languages, tools, and frameworks is because of the combined force of the fun of creating something new and the disdain of technology once you are comfortable with it.

At one point my shiny thing was NodeJS: A way to use the knowledge I had of JavaScript on the back-end as well as the front-end. I had about reading two blog articles worth of knowledge about it, but that was enough to wet my appetite.

I was sitting in a local developer’s meetup where once a month, two people would give a talk on a tool, language, or technique they found interesting. Afterward, they were asking for volunteers to give a presentation the next month.

I volunteered to give a talk on NodeJS.

It may seem crazy to volunteer to give a talk on something you know nothing about, but it isn’t. What did I do? 

  • I researched. 
  • I wrote code examples. 
  • I built small sample projects.

The act of writing was a learning experience for both my audience and myself.

You don’t have to be an expert in a subject to write about it. In fact, quite the opposite. Writing is refined thinking. It makes your spastic monkey mind slow down, and put your thoughts in a straight line. When there are gaps, you read, and you fill them. Writing is a learning experience as much as it is a teaching experience.

If there is a skill or market you are interested in, start writing about it.

How to Raise Your Rates with Existing Clients

Every Freelancer I Know(Myself Included) Made The Same Mistake Starting Out: Charging Too Little

Maybe it’s because they didn’t have experience. Maybe it’s because they thought the formula was rate = salary rate / 2000. They didn’t consider all the overhead and liability of being an independent business owner.

The Good Ones Wise up.

They start to charge their new clients more. $50/hour becomes $60 becomes $75, maybe even $100. But then, you have a conundrum. You still have old clients. Loyal, long-term ones that pay your old rates. These old dogs are paying $50/hour while the shiny new ones are paying $100 for the same work.

On the one hand, the long-term clients have changed from stable income to liability. You could replace them with someone that pays double. Keeping them around is bad business.

On the other hand, they bet on you when few would. They hung around through some tough times while you were learning the ropes. Raising prices on them or worse, kicking them to curb feels unfair. Not keeping them around is bad business.

So what are you supposed to do?

You should raise your rates, but do it the right way. There’s a way to respect both your relationship with the client and your own business. Here’s how to approach it:

Pick a Date At Least 30 days Away.

I always did my rate increases on January 1st. The benefit was two-fold. First, clients are more likely to make buying decisions for the next year at the end of the previous one; it lets them get a big tax write-off at years end and pursue new initiatives in the coming year. It also made it clear that this was a planned business move, nothing personal. Lots of companies make changes in the new year. Your clients, as business people, should understand, and respect that.

If you can’t wait until then, the starts of fiscal quarters work well: April, July, or October 1st. Any date so long as it doesn’t look arbitrary.

Don’t spring a rate increase on your clients.Your invoice should never surprise. Give them 30 days notice minimum. 60 is better.

Pick a Reasonable Increase: No More Than 50%

Rate increases are more likely to be accepted if they sound reasonable. If you try to jump from $20/hour to $10,000/week, you are going to raise a few eyebrows and get more than one boot on your ass. Don’t raise your rates more than 50%. Even if you are charging the old client $50/hour and charging new clients $100, consider increasing their rate to $75. You could tell them you charge others $100, but since they have been a long-time customer, you are cutting them a break.

Draw a Line in the Sand Between New and Old Work

Tell them that the deadline is the deadline for new work booked, and does not affect the rate of previous agreements. If you agreed to a 50-hour project at your lower rate, you need to do that work at your lower rate, no matter what. Letting people know that there is a rate increase coming gives you a sense of urgency. Use it.

Don’t Say The “I” Word

Don’t call this a rate increase; it’s just a price change. Be direct and professional. Don’t apologize and don’t sugar coat. You are a business person making a business decision and communicating that decision in a professional manner. Act like it. Own it.

Explain Your Value

Higher prices typically mean a higher quality of service. In what ways has the value of your service increased, or will increase, for your clients moving forward? Here are some examples:

● You’ve become better and faster at what you do. Your work is worth more now than when you started.
● Raising your rates means that you have to take on fewer clients so that each client will get more of your focus and attention.
● You’ve added or will add new parts to your service, increasing the value.

Bring these to your client’s attention when you bring up the rate increase. Don’t assume the justification is obvious, politely bring it to their attention.

Putting it All Together: An Example Email:

Hi Client,

I want to let you know I am changing my billing for the for next year. I'm changing my business, so I can take on fewer clients, and give more specialized attention to clients like you. All work booked after January 1st will be billed at the rate of $100/hour. All worked booked before then will remain at the old price.

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Regards,
Glenn

What If They Object?

Your clients won’t always greet your rate increases with welcoming arms and open checkbooks. Here are some common objections, and how to respond to them.

“I should get to keep my old rate.”

reiterate your earlier message: They can keep the old rate for work they book now, but new work will have to be at the new rate.

“Why Should I pay more for the same service?”

Point out your value add from before, and also that you know their business more intimately than literally anyone else on the market. Your client knows you, and you know them better than anyone. That makes you worth more. You have the ultimate unique selling proposition. Now is the time to use it.

“ The new price puts you out of my budget.”

Then tell them you are sorry your services are no longer a good fit, and if you can, point them in the direction of someone who can help them.

So Pick Your Date

Do you have some older clients paying less than your new ones? Time to fix that. Choose a date, and put your plan in motion. Draft the email you are going to send.

Are all of your clients paying you the same, i.e. your top rate? Capital! Think about whether it’s time to put a rate raise on the schedule.

And Remember All Client Relationships End.

Either you outgrow your clients, or they outgrow you. Or one of you gets pissed and fires the other. Not every client relationship will survive this process, and that’s perfectly ok. You gave people every opportunity and reason in the world:

● You gave them notice of the increase.
● You gave them one last chance to get work at the old price.
● You gave them reasons justifying the rate jump.
● You gave them options if it didn’t work out.

If you follow the steps above, no reason for hard feelings on either side. And once you’re done, consider the outcomes:

● Your old clients are paying your new (or close to your new) rate. You are making more money for the same amount of work.
● Your old clients leave, and you replace them. You are now making more money for the same amount of work.
● Your old clients leave, and you don’t replace them. You are now making the same amount of money for less work.

There is no bad outcome here. So what’s stopping you? Time to fix this inefficiency in your service business.

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Increase Retainer Profitability Using Assets

One way of selling retainers to clients is what I call the “cell phone plan retainer”: A client pays you $X,XXX dollars a month, and you work for up to XX hours that month. In effect, you are pre-selling a bank of hours. This approach comes with tradeoffs: You get recurring revenue, and your client gets a fixed expense.

 However, clients have a habit of making sure they use every single minute less they feel screwed, and you haven’t truly escaped the trappings of hourly billing.

One way you can transition out of this is to start offering “hours plus” retainers.  For a price,  you deliver XX hours, plus something else of value.

Example: Stock Photos

Let’s say your clients occasionally need stock photography.  Good photography isn’t cheap. These wolves cost $249. Your client might look at you like that if you put that on a retainer invoice. And that’s a big cost that you shouldn’t just eat yourself.

Adobe offers a more reasonable option: subscriptions starting at $29.99.  This expense raises another problem:

How Do You Spread The Expense Across Multiple Clients?

Let’s say that your clients need around five images a month, and the 40 images/month plan will always meet your needs.  It’d be unethical to bill one client the expense, and let the rest gain from it. It’d also be unethical to charge the subscription as an expense to multiple clients:

Solution: Make it Part of Your Offering, Increasing Your Value and Profitability

Here’s your new retainer pitch:

“For $X,XXX dollars a month you get up to XX hours of my time plus unlimited stock photos.”

Your price should be higher for the type of engagement. Offering something unlimited may scare you, but in our example, you can upgrade to the $199 plan for 750, which is 150x your normal volume, and it’s only $0.99/image after that you have a good fail safe.

The unlimited offering means you aren’t just selling stock photos anymore, you’re selling freedom from ever worrying about how many photos to use or how much they cost.

That’s worth at least $100 to any discerning buyer. And it’s more than the subscription. And it gives you an opportunity to make a small step away from hourly billing and increase your profitability.

Photo credit: danxoneil via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Why You Should Charge Flat Project Rates

There are two modes of billing you have probably used or considered using as a freelancer: Billing by the hour, or billing with flat project rates. There are other options, such as billing by the day, the week, or setting up recurring monthly retainer arrangements.

It’s my opinion that you should most definitely not be billing for your time, and instead, focus on outcomes, not inputs. Here’s why:

Hourly Billing Is Harmful To You And Your Clients

When you set up a relationship based on hourly billing, you set up conflicting financial incentives between you and the client. The way to maximize your revenue is to work as many hours as possible. The way for the client to reduce their costs is for you to work as few hours as possible. Every step in planning out work for the project is going to be combative.

I was asked to speak on a panel to aspiring freelancers at the University of Georgia’s School of Journalism. With me on the panel was a young writer who had recently graduated was asked what her unique competitive advantage was. She said that in addition to having a great skill at simplifying complex topics, she was able to deliver her work quickly. By doing so, she was able to do work at a higher quality and a lower price, which clients loved.

At first blush, this might not seem like a problem. Clients love her, and she can get plenty of work. So what’s the problem?

This business model is fundamentally flawed and unsustainable; that’s what.

Of course, clients like higher quality at a lower price. A client’s ideal would be to get the best quality in the world for free. However, when you provide more value, you should be getting paid more, not less. All things being equal, which is more valuable: A piece of software delivered two weeks from the day, or a piece of software delivered tomorrow?

To be successful, you need to put yourself in a position where you and the client can find win-win situations. Hourly billing takes away your ability to do so.

Hourly Billing Leads to Lower Quality Work

I’m going to borrow a story from my friend Jonathan Stark, a mobile strategy consultant:

Hourly billing discourages you from becoming more efficient. On one of my first value based projects, I found myself shopping around for plug-ins that might help me complete the project faster. I found one that did just what I needed. It was $700 – which was more than I had even spent on a piece of software – but it saved weeks of development time which directly benefited both my client and me. Had I been billing by the hour, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to look for a plug-in solution.

When you charge by the hour, you have zero incentive to look for more efficient solutions. In fact, it could even harm your bottom line. Let’s say in this example the alternative was to bill $5,000 worth of time instead of buying the $700 plugin. Let’s examine your options:

  • Buy the $700 plugin, charge the client for materials, make no profit sans hours billed for implementation and integration of the plugin, and the client gets the work delivered more quickly.
  • Buy the $700 plugin, mark up the materials for $1400, small profit for you, and the client gets the work more quickly.
  • Buy the $700 plugin, charge your client $5,000 and say it was implementation time. Best profit for you, but involves being less than honest with your client.
  • Don’t buy the $700 plugin, and implement your custom solution for $5,000. Money in your pocket, but the overall worst outcome for your client.

Every single one of these options is harmful to your business, harmful to your client’s business, or both.

In addition to this, hourly billing will lead you to default to a “yes man” attitude when it comes to the client. If a client requests a feature or a set of revisions, it means more work for you, which means more revenue. You are inclined to take on the work even if it is not going to be helpful to the project. There is plenty of additions to software that only add bloat and complexity, with zero value. Writing more code could end up being a case where you provide negative value to the client.

If you are in a situation where you cost the client twice, both in the outcome and your bill, then the client would be smart to fire you, regardless of the quality of your work or customer service. You’ve created a lose-lose situation.

Hourly Billing Harms Your Bottom Line

Here’s a short example of how removing time from the equation allowed me to increase revenue. When I was still billing hourly.

At the time, I was charging clients $100/hour for work. I had purchased an annual license from WooThemes, which gave me a set of WordPress themes I could use on unlimited sites for the year, so I came up with a service offering to put this work:

I offered to set up a web host, install the domain, and import any content they had into a fresh WordPress install. The fee was $799, and I would knock the site out in 1 business day. Additional packages included SSL + Stripe integration for $199.

I sold a few of these offerings and realized that once I had a process in place, I could knock out a site in an average of 4 hours. My effective hourly rate was around $200 – $250 / hour.

Do you think “basic WordPress setup services: $200/hour” would sell?

Ultimately, billing by the hour limits the amount of revenue you can generate. It reduces the number of higher margin opportunities you can take on, as there are only so many hours in the day.

By fixing the price, you are taking on an additional risk; by reading this book, you are significantly reducing that risk. You’re the technician, and probably should be taking on the risk.

”But I Promise I’ll Be Good!”

At it’s worst, hourly billing gives you a financial incentive to take your time, and even sandbag on your work. Maybe something could get done in 2 hours, but you end up taking 3 or 4.

Of course, you wouldn’t do that, or any of the other bad behavior mentioned above, would you? If you sandbag on clients, build useless features, and choose inefficient, ineffective solutions, why would people continue to work with you? It would be career suicide. You are a professional, and you’ll always act in good faith with your clients, right?

That may be true, but as a freelancer, you are building your own business. Why would you build a business that makes you choose between doing the right thing and making money? Why build a business that fundamentally encourages bad behavior, contentious relationships, and lower quality products?

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A Guaranteed Strategy to Get Your First Clients

Getting clients as a freelancer is like a catch-22 problem. If you ask other freelancers how they find clients, they typically say “word of mouth” or “referrals.” How are you supposed to get referrals without previous work? Getting started seems impossible.

If you are thinking about starting a freelance business, you need to be proactive when it comes to getting your first clients. Building your business will get easier with time, but when it comes to your first customers, you have to hustle.

These are the five steps I took when I started my career. I recommend starting this process at least 30 days before you plan on leaving a current position / starting your freelance career, and continuing these habits until you have built a steady pipeline of client work, and doing them in the order presented.

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How to Survive Feast or Famine Cash Flow

One part of the freelancing puzzle I haven’t solved yet is keeping cash flow stable. Here’s a lifetime graph of my revenue, month, by month:

lifetime_revenue

There’s a lot of peaks and valleys. Good clients, bad clients, late payments, upfront payments. Sales slumps. Family emergencies. It’s all there.

About a year after I became a freelancer, I started another exciting venture in my life: marriage. Once we got back from our honeymoon, we had to start dealing with one of the mundane parts of marriage: Money. Merging finances and budgeting for the future.

Budgeting is hard when you have a reliable salary. Planning on variable income seemed impossible. The first year I was married I brought home $0 – $10k+ per month. How could I decide how much I could dedicate towards groceries?

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What I Learned at the Double Your Freelancing Conference

I just got back from the first annual Double Your Freelancing Conference, and I haven’t felt this exhausted and excited in some time. I met so many great people and listened to informative talks by some brilliant speakers. Instead of getting into individual tactics and strategies, I thought it’d be more beneficial to you to share the big picture of how I’m planning on reshaping my business moving forward.

The keys to creating a successful business are simple, difficult, and patently unsexy:

  • Set a goal.
  • Make a plan.
  • Stay focused.
  • Show up every day and put in the work.

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A 9-Step Content Process That Will Grow Your Business

People have probably told you that two things every business should be doing is generating content and building a list. The problem with this advice is that it usually comes wit no “how” or a “why”. Writing content as a marketing strategy is a slow burn with abstract benefits. But a solid strategy can bring in more customers, help you build relationships, and help you position yourself as an expert to others. And writing content that does this is not as hard as it looks.

One of the scary factors of creating a content strategy is that publishing consistently is valuable, but that requires a commitment. When you don’t knowwhat to write about, how to write about it, or how to get readers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Here’s my 9-step process I use to generate content; A Roadmap you can use to start mapping out your content strategy.

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2014 Post Mortem

Every Year I take a look back at my business, and do the same exercise I do with every client project: a postmortem. I ask myself 3 questions:

  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What steps should I take in the future?

This is a valuable writing exercise, and I’d strongly encourage you to do the same. This is my postmortem of 2014, as well as a review of how I did on my goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year.

Did I Hit My 2013 Goals?

I was listening to Episode 214 of Startups For The Rest Of Us, where the hosts Rob Walling and Mike Taber look back at their goals they set for the year, and give themselves between 0 and 1 points based on wether or not they felt they achieved that goal. Before I get into my postmortem, I wanted to go through the exact same exercise.

Goal: Generate a Stream of Product Based Income

Verdict: 0 points

It seems like every year I have a vague goal of launching a product, and I tend not to do it. While I did launch a Productized Service, I didn’t create any kind of profitable project this year.

Goal: Better Time Management

Verdict: 0.5 points

I’ll give myself half a point here. While I made some improvements in managing my time, I still feel like there is a lot of room for improvement. Some good steps forward I have made has been more diligent about scheduling my time, and eliminating tasks that kept me busy, but weren’t productive.

Goal: Keeping an Eye on Business Metrics

Verdict: 1 point

This was mostly in regards to sales and marketing. I started using PipeDrive to both systemize and keep track of the numbers on my sales funnel. PipeDrive also allows you to add custom fields to your leads, so I have started tracking 4 data points on each lead that I come into contact with:

  • Size of the company
  • Company vertical
  • Project type
  • Source of lead

This way I don’t only see how many leads I am getting, but I can drill down on which leads are the most profitable, which convert the best, and what are the best sources of leads that convert.

Goal: A More Defined Sales and Marketing Process

Verdict: 1 point

See PipeDrive above. Now I have a defined sales process, email templates that I use for communicating to leads and prospects at various points in the conversation. This has allowed me to spend less time selling and more time creating value. I also feel that I have a strong framework for writing proposals.

Since I’ve implemented these practices, the number of leads I get have increased, and my conversion rate as more than doubled.

Goal: Have a Better Pricing Structure

Verdict: 1 point

In addition to raising my rates last year, I have eliminated work billed by the hour with the exception of some legacy clients. I finally implemented this towards the end of the year, and so far the results have been tremendous. I feel happier working not having to punch a time clock, client relationships are better, and I feel I am providing more valuable work.

I did experiment with daily and weekly billing, and that for the most part was a bust in my experience. Some people swear by weekly billing, however I found that many prospects didn’t “get” it, and it was just causing more friction in the sales process.

Total Score: 3.5 / 5

What Went Well in 2014

Putting Myself on a Salary to Eliminate Feast and Famine

In 2013, I would divide up the bounty of each paid invoice into a few different buckets: a percentage for the company coffers, a percentage for Uncle Sam, and a percentage in my pocket. Now, I pay myself a monthly stipend regardless of income. This makes personal budgeting and financial planning easier, reduces stress during the lean months. This also means that I have more cash on hand in my company account that I can invest back into the business.

Diligent Practice of Inbox Zero & GTD

Email used to be one of those tasks that was a large time sink for me. Then I started practicing inbox zero. Now I check email twice a day, and each time I am able to get though my inbox quickly. Mailbox is a great app if you’d like to start practicing it.

On that same note, I started implementing the principles of Getting Things Done, which is essentially the principles of inbox zero applied to your to do list. I now have one task management system, and everything I need to do goes into an inbox. The inbox is processed daily, and then tasks are knocked off. Since doing this I’ve had almost nothing fall through the cracks, and I feel less stressed and more on top of things. I use the Mac/iOS app Things to manage my to do lists.

An Online Presence I’m Happy About

I’ve gone through multiple redesigns of this site, and my company site, Concordant Solutions. I finally decided to only manage one site, and give it a facelift. It’s an ongoing process, but right now I feel like my site is the best it has ever been.

Writing and Publishing More Content

I invested a lot more in writing content this year. I’ve had some articles gain some traction, including making the Medium.com top 100 one month. I also published a free eBook that has been downloaded over 1,000 times. Both of them have helped me reach more people, and have started many a great conversation. Here are my most popular posts in 2014:

Building an Audience

While I had good intentions as far as releasing products went, I wanted to start building an audience of people beforehand. While the product idea never came to fruition, I’m glad that I started this. I have had some fantastic conversations, Got invites to be a speaker on a webinar, and get to keep in touch and build relationships with people at scale.

Building an audience also gives everything else I do more purpose. Now writing articles isn’t just about sharing content, it’s an entryway to building relationships.

Joining a Mastermind

Being self employed is lonely work. If there is one thing I miss from the employed world (in fact, I think this is the only thing), It is having people to relate to what you are doing, and being able to reach out for help.

This year I joined a mastermind with three other freelancers. Each week we hop on a Google Hangout, and discuss what is going on in our business. It gives each of a chance to get a few extra pairs of eyes on anything we’re working on, and a forum to even about frustrations we wouldn’t otherwise. I’ve learned just as much, if not more from the conversations I’ve had in these mastermind meetings than I have all the books and podcasts I’ve consumed this year.

What Went Wrong in 2014

A Sabbatical That Went Unintentionally Long

After a couple of large projects and heavy workload, I became burned out towards the middle of the year. I had some money in the bank, and decided to schedule some time off to rest and invest some time in my business. This turned out to be the worst decision I made all year.

Firstly, trying to take time off and invest in my business was a poor plan. It really should have been one or the other. Secondly, It just enough small jobs rolled in that I didn’t really get to relax or make very money, leaving me dealing with the worst of both worlds. Finally, it’s hard to build up momentum after stopping. What was going to be a break of a few weeks ended up being more like a break of a few months, which really put pressure on both my cash flow and sanity.

On the bright side, this was also the moment that led me to do a lot of introspection and make some decisions about what my business was going to look like in the future.

A Company Brand That Was Dead In The Water

Last year I formed an LLC and formed a company site called “Concordant Solutions”. Both the site and the brand was a failure in every metric I can think to measure it in. Managing two sites was more time consuming than managing one. Any content I wrote for my company site tended to fall flat, and did not generate leads of any sort. Explaining to people in person that I was “company” that was just one person, and what the hell “Concordant” means became exhausting and distracting.

For now, I’m back to being plain old me. The name Concordant Solutions now only exists in the world of contracts and invoices.

The 30 Day Publishing Challenge

In September, I decided to join Colin Devroe in taking a challenge to publish something every weekday for 30 days. While I did finish the challenge, (and wrote a postmortem about that too), I don’t think it was that valuable of an exercise. It led me to publishing a lot of content that wasn’t all that good, and took up a lot of my time.

I think that if you were tempted to do something similar, writing every 30 days would be a much better goal.

I Didn’t Launch a Product

This is something that has been on my goal list for a few years, and one I haven’t been able to capitalize on. I started work on a few, but I was usually stopped by the fear that I was launching a product for product’s sake, and not because I was unsure that It would be valuable. This is a fear I need to get over, so I can at least try to launch something to generate a more passive revenue stream.

Problems With Client Communication and Expectations

I had some client relationships this year that didn’t go as well as either one of us would have liked.I did a poor job of managing the client relationship and their expectations. Since these experiences I’ve worked hard at streamlining my communication and pricing structure to support a better relationship.

At the end of the day, the relationship between a consultant and their client should be a partnership. However, I think we all do things that tend to frame it instead as an adversarial relationship.

My shift away from hourly billing was based on these principles. When billing based on time, the client has a financial incentive to decrease your contribution to a product, while it gives you a financial incentive to increase it. Right off the bat, this is the kind of adversarial relationship I was unknowingly fostering.

Steps Moving Forward

A More Systemized Business

This is my primary goal for 2015. This year I learned about standard operating procedures, and how to separate yourself from your business. While I have written some procedures, My coverage is far from complete. The ones I have written have been valuable, and I really want to double down on this.

Standard operating procedures are just step one in building a more scalable, effective business. Even just by themselves, they reduce the mental overhead of making decisions, much like wearing the same clothes everyday. But beyond that, they enable you to hand work off or automate. Once you have a defined process, you can hand that work off to a virtual assistant, a subcontractor, or a python script. (Standard operating procedures are basically Python scripts for human beings).

Strategic Outsourcing

When I started this business two years ago, if you asked me which parts of my job would be the first to be outsourced, I would not have guessed the actual production work. After all, writing code is what I do. Or at least that is how I used to look at it.

Now, I see that I have much more interest and provide more value in dealing with the “big picture” issues of both my own company and of my clients. Neither one of those requires me to write code.

I don’t plan on removing myself from writing code completely, nor do I plan to be a middle man that farms out work to the lowest bidder on the other side of the world. What I do plan on doing is sending well defined parts of projects off to other implementers, and relying more on people that have stronger skills than I do, such as graphic design.

I fully expect this to enable to provide more value to every one of my clients than I have in the past two years.

Better Positioning

This year, I made some good steps moving from “guy who writes code” to “guy who solves problems”. This year, I want to hammer out exactly what kinds of problems those are. There is more than enough work available in the world, and being a generalist does more harm than good. In the coming year I hope to have a more clear positioning statement and brand. That might a new job title, it might mean a new company brand. What it definitely means is a marketing strategy that is laser focused on a particular set of problems that a particular set of people have.

Investing In My Business

I invested significantly more in my education and in networking than I did last year, and both paid off in spades. Many books I’ve read, groups I’ve joined, and services I’ve used have paid for themselves many times over. This year I’m excited to find more opportunities where I believe I can make my money work for me.

25% Revenue Growth

Self-explanitory.

The Only 3 Numbers That Matter to a Freelancer’s Bottom Line

And 5 Tips to Improve Each One

The end of the year will be here soon. It’s a time to reflect on how the past year went, and plan for the next year. Three numbers determine your bottom line. By understanding these numbers, you will know what metrics you need to move to get the business results you want. By doubling just one of three numbers, you’ll double your revenue, without increasing your workload. So instead of saying, “I want to make more money next year”, by the end of this email I want you to say how you plan to make more money next year.

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5 Ways to Build a $200,000 Consultancy

I recently read an article entitled five ways to build a $100 million dollar business. It discusses different business models that vary in the number and size of your customer base. Some businesses work with a few enterprise scale clients while others work with a larger number of smaller customers. Patrick Mackenzie mentioned on Twitter that “The math here is equally applicable if you are trying to build, say, a $200k a year business”.A $200k/yr consultancy is a goal that seems both attractive and attainable, so I decided to try and answer the question “How can you build a $200,000 consultancy?”

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Why Multiple Packages in Your Proposals Instantly Increase Conversions

The 3 Tiered Approach That Closes More Sales

When a freelancer submits a proposal, they will often only include one offer. They will set the deliverable, and the price, and throw their proposal over the wall. When you do this, you give the client a binary option: Hire you or don’t.

By giving the client a few different options, you are changing the conversation into one that is more likely to end with the client hiring you.

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How I Used Writing to Double My Freelancing Rate As a Programmer

 

When I left my job to become a freelance programmer, I was charging $50/hr in the beginning. I met other freelancers, consultants, and agencies in town, and a few of them charged $150/hr. Even the agency that I had worked at previously billed my time at $120/hr, which means that my level of programming skill was not the deciding factor. If they could charge that much for my services, why couldn’t I? There was a broken record in my head asking me the same question:

“what’s the difference between a $50 freelancer and a $150 freelancer?”

So I decided to start spending time learning about pricing, value, and all that “business stuff” programmers and designers love to avoid.

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10 Resources That Shaped My Career

There is amazing amount of resource available on the internet if you know where to look. I’ve realized that over the past year, there are some articles, pod casts, books, or videos that have had a huge impact on my view and approach to my business. I’ve had several people ask me how I came to conclusions I have about how I run my business, and how I execute on them. I wanted to share 10 links that are all free, and have all provided me with exceptional value.
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