I frequently get asked how I ramped up my freelance business. In this post, I’m sharing my tips and lessons learned.
First, What Not To Do
When I started over a year ago, I followed typical “Start Your Own Business” steps. I created an LLC, made a website, determined my target market (entrepreneurs and small business owners), and implemented an outreach plan using content marketing and prospecting via cold calling/emailing. I even literally knocked on doors of local businesses!
I also networked weekly and distributed many business cards. I met lots of interesting people this way, and even made new friends, but ultimately did not generate any leads.
After several months, I had closed only 2 deals. Both were for family friends and one was completely pro-bono. In hindsight, I should have spent more time deliberate where and how to build awareness and prospect as I’m now convinced that I never actually interacted with any qualified buyers.
Tip #1: Start on a Freelancing Platform like Upwork.com
As I debated whether to return to a traditional job, I stumbled across the freelancing site Upwork.com. Within days of sending 8-10 proposals, I landed my first deal. It was a small website build for $100, but it was a victory!
I kept at it, perusing Upwork’s job postings several times a day. I focused my search on software development, web and mobile design. By reading job descriptions, I felt I was getting a better handle on the market that I wanted to target. In addition, Upwork jobs often have budgets listed, and I quickly realized I needed to further differentiate against low cost resources if I stayed in web development.
Tip #2: Find and Test Differentiators that Your Market Values
I had been doing Arduino and Raspberry Pi development for fun, so I decided to search for Upwork jobs for those less common skills. On Upwork.com, I found a client in California looking for these exact skills to develop a prototype for a next-gen product line. I worked with this client to define a functional/tech spec and then implemented it into the prototype. After we completed the prototype, we began the next phase of the project, and then the next phase.
I’ve learned many lessons through working with this fabulous client, which brings me to...
Tip #3: Invest in Your Communication and Relationship Building Skills
In freelancing, good clients become your lifeblood. They not only sustain your business financially and reduce your cost of sales - they can also enrich your professional life and be supporters for your growing business.
I’ve heard clients lament about other contractors who didn’t take the time or effort to truly understand their business, who billed hourly no matter the outcome, or at worst, went AWOL and became completely unreachable. As a professional coach, I’d like to think these folks are technically competent, but just didn’t have the relationship and communication skills to avoid these problems. Fortunately, almost anyone can develop these skills!
In addition, a lot of freelance jobs are 100% remote. The flexibility is amazing, but it means you need to be aware of your client’s needs for updates and information. Usually this means multiple updates per week with “detailed-enough” notes on your current status and next steps.
As a developer, I’m not a fan of conference calls and try to handle most communications via email. However, there are times when a call is better - so don’t be shy to pick up the phone!
Tip #4: Charge what you think is right, but be a flexible negotiator
It’s common for freelancers to struggle with what to charge, especially when starting out. Upwork.com is helpful in that job postings are targeted for “Entry Level”, “Intermediate”, and “Expert”, with a general expectation of rates aligning accordingly.
I charge an “Expert” hourly rate and narrow my job search accordingly. In addition, I rarely send proposals for jobs less than $1000. This disqualifies me for *a lot* of jobs. However, I continuously remind myself that those are not the jobs that value my differentiators and expertise.
In addition, I price job-to-job based on fixed rates and fixed scope. I prefer this because my #1 priority on a job is having a satisfied (and hopefully return) client, and I don’t want to be restricted by hours if I hit a learning curve on a particular item. This is how I choose to invest in my clients and future business. In addition, I know that if I price too low on one job, I can likely make some of it up on a future job with repeat clients. It balances out in the long run.
In the future, I’d like to move off Upwork.com and do more lead generation independently. However, if I consider ad fees from Facebook and Google, the fees I pay to Upwork.com are still reasonable, and have the benefit of coming with signed deals.
I hope these tips are helpful. Please let me know if you have additional tips to share with aspiring freelancers in the comments!