How to build a pipeline of freelance leads — Part 1

The previous article was about how you need an avalanche of leads to give you the margin and confidence to be able to start making the kinds of positive changes that you know you should be making, but haven’t been able to pull off yet. Things like raising your rates, picking a niche, setting boundaries, etc.

“OK Ryan, I get it. That’s great. But where do those leads actually come from?

The Pyramid of Biz Dev

When I was looking at an empty pipeline and trying to figure out how I could get as many quality leads as possible, I broke down my “business development” into four buckets:

  • Prospecting (responding to ads and RFPs)
  • Promoting (posting about yourself around the web, running ads, etc)
  • Networking (emailing contacts, industry folks, attending events, etc)
  • Thought leadership (writing, speaking, hosting seminars, etc)

These roughly go in order of easiest to hardest, fastest to slowest, and least-lucrative to most-lucrative. You can think of it as a pyramid, with prospecting at the bottom and thought leadership at the top.

pyramid-of-biz-dev-graph

For example, prospecting is relatively easy work (mainly just sending emails) and it can result in getting clients really quickly, but it’s usually not the most lucrative work. You’re competing to be heard among a bunch of other providers and positioning yourself as a commodity.

At the top of the pyramid with “thought leadership”, it takes awhile to get ramped up, even longer to pay off, and there’s no easy charted course for you. You probably can’t start speaking and writing for large audiences tomorrow, and it’s pretty difficult work compared with sending responses to emails. But that’s where the best gigs can come from, once you build a reputation and brand as a thought leader in your space.

I want to break all these down further and give you more practical advice on what to do for each of them.

This article will focus on the first two: prospecting and promoting.

The next article will cover networking and thought leadership.

Prospecting

I call responding to freelance ads or RFPs “prospecting”. These are people who are out looking for someone of your talent, and you’re going to respond. That’s it. It’s not difficult or complicated.

The best thing about prospecting is that these people are already actively looking for you, and you essentially are just raising your hand and saying “Hi, I can do that for you.”

Of course, the flip side is that a lot of other people out there are raising their hands too 🙂

Going over all the ins and outs of how to get responses to the emails you send out responding to freelance job posts is outside of the scope of this guide, so I have a complete guide in the works.

In the meantime, I’ll give you some essential tips:

  • Keep your emails short, just a paragraph or two
  • As quickly as possible, include a credibility indicator if you have one [1]
  • Include 2-3 links to your best-looking work, ideally relevant to what they do [2]
  • Customize the first half of the email so it’s clear you read and understood their post
  • Don’t include any rate info to start (start including if you get too many lowball responses) [3]
  • Close with a couple specific suggested times for a followup call. Make it easy for them.
  • Don’t get discouraged, this is a numbers game.

Notes:

  1. Credibility indicators could be name brand clients you’ve worked for (or even that you were employed at), any stats about financials or growth you’ve helped your clients achieve, awards you’ve won, etc.
  2. Notice I said your best-looking work. If you built a website that is amazing under the hood but looks like crap due to factors beyond your control, DO NOT INCLUDE IT. Even technical people are very biased towards liking things with good design.
  3. Reasonable people can disagree, but the default for these emails you send out is going to be no response. I like to skip rate info if I’m not getting many responses to see if that’s what is preventing people from emailing me. Then if I’m getting too many responses from people who want to pay peanuts, I’ll start including again to weed those out.

Let me reiterate that last point again: don’t get discouraged. This is a numbers game, you have to put in the time to send out the emails. I think that probably only 1-2% of the emails I’ve sent out over the years while prospecting have turned into gigs. Your numbers might be better or worse, but don’t be surprised or discouraged if you have to send out a couple hundred emails before you land a gig from this.

Here’s an example email that I actually have sent out:

Hi there,

[I usually customize this paragraph for client]

I saw your post on Craigslist for an iOS developer with hardware integration experience and wanted to introduce myself, since I have experience integrating several hardware projects with iOS, via Bluetooth and custom hardware SDKs.

I'm a native iOS developer and I've done work for clients like Nike, Fannie Mae, Neutrogena, VMWare, Bayer, and dozens of startups. I’ve launched several dozen complex iOS apps for both App Store and enterprise, which have collectively grown to many millions of active users.

[This is a link to a page on my site with some projects, but you could link directly to projects here]

More here: http://mobilecto.io/intro

[You could skip this paragraph, it’s here to “pre-qualify” them]

Just to make sure I don’t waste your time, I am looking for remote contract iOS engagements, and I typically work on a flat project rate with a minimum of $xx,xxx, and most projects in the $xx,xxx - xx,xxx range. If the scope is undefined or the project is open-ended, I’m open to a weekly rate of $x,xxx as well.

[I find Calendly more convenient for me, but you could also suggest two specific times]

The next step would be to jump on a quick call to discuss the project and see if we’re a good fit; let me know if any of these times work for you: https://calendly.com/mycompany/calls

Thanks!

Ryan Waggoner
ryan@mobileCTO.io

I need to take a minute here to plug LetsMakeApps.io, which is the fastest and easiest way to cover the prospecting level. It’s a free service where we comb through thousands of freelance job postings every day and hand-pick the best ones. We focus on freelance remote jobs for web and mobile designers and developers, and we try to find the ones that have a good shot of paying off well. You get 50-60 leads in your email inbox every day, and you can quickly scan and reply to them. I would estimate that it takes about 5-10 mins per day, instead of an hour or two. You can sign up at the bottom of this post.

Promoting

The next level up the pyramid after prospecting is promoting. For me, this falls into two primary buckets:

  • Posting info about myself and my services at various places around the web
  • Running ads to promote my services

Let’s talk about each for a minute.

Posting about myself and my services around the web

There are various places around the web where you have the opportunity to post that you’re a freelancer looking for work. I’ll give you four right now that I have personally gotten quality leads from.

  • Craigslist resume section
  • Hacker News “Seeking Freelance” monthly posts
  • TheyMakeApps directory
  • /r/forhire subreddit

I’ve gotten five-figure engagements from all but Reddit, which I just started posting at recently. But I’ve gotten several quality leads from there already.

This is a tiny, tiny fraction of the potential places around the web where you’re invited to post about yourself and the services you offer. Here’s why you should take advantage of that:

  • It works
  • The leads are higher quality, in my experience
  • You’re competing with fewer people if they actually email you (they probably didn’t email 60 people) so they’re more likely to convert
  • It takes a few minutes, but can pay dividends for a long time

That last point is worth reiterating. I posted to TheyMakeApps probably five years ago, when I first started doing iOS development, and then completely forgot about it. Last year, I got a $20k project from someone who found me there.

Some of these places are things where you post once and that’s it, and some of them are recurring every week or month. If it’s recurring, just setup a repeating item on your calendar and repost when appropriate. It literally takes 2 mins.

Your goal here is to show up everywhere that someone looking for someone like you might think to search. I constantly have people email me randomly saying they “stumbled across” my work. I literally sent an email to one of those leads five minutes ago, and I have no idea where it came from (of course I asked). It’s a nice feeling.

Running ads to promote me and my services

This is a huge topic, and we’re not going to do it justice here, so I’ll probably write a full guide to cover it later. Sign up below and you’ll be notified when I do.

The basic idea is to run paid ads on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as any niche advertising channels that make sense for your market. You’ll drive traffic to your site and try to develop that traffic into leads.

Now, this is not easy, and it’s not free. It also takes awhile to setup, takes awhile to get dialed in, and takes awhile to pay off. You probably need at least a few hundred dollars a month to dedicate to this before you’re going to start seeing results, though that might be on the high side. And if you do it wrong, you probably won’t get any return for that money at all.

So this might not be the best fit for you right now if you’re in an emergency situation. I’m including it here partly for completeness, because it can be an important part of an overall promotion strategy.

If you’d like to experiment with this, the main takeaway I’d like you to have is that you shouldn’t just drive ad traffic to your homepage and hope that they look around and then use your contact form to see if you’d like to work on their project. That’s a recipe for wasting ad dollars.

Instead, you need to run targeted ads that have a very specific message and value proposition, give away something of value (lead magnet) in order to get them on a mailing list, and then continue to provide value (lead nurturing) until they decide that they trust you enough to reach out.

For example, I’m a mobile developer and product consultant, and my target clients are funded, mobile-focused startups who are building out their MVP and iterating on it while they gain traction and raise their next round.

So I might have an ad strategy that runs ads on places where founders of mobile-focused startups would congregate, like certain blogs, or perhaps Facebook and Twitter if I can get the targeting right. I send them to a specific landing page promoting a downloadable guide on planning the right MVP for getting traction fast, or maybe a 7-day email course on building a mobile MVP for $50k in 10 weeks, etc.

Then over the next few months, I’d send additional emails that provide valuable information about various topics related to mobile MVP design and development, with the occasional email (max of 20%) promoting my services.

If someone on that list reaches out to me, they already have a good idea of what I do, how I work, how much it will cost, etc. They’re pre-qualified and highly likely to convert.

So…yeah, that takes a long time, and that’s not something you can easily setup unless you already have all that content. It can work very well, but it’s not for the faint of heart so I usually recommend waiting to tackle it.

However, it does go very well with the thought leadership stuff that we’ll talk about later, since writing the content and then using it as lead magnets and lead nurturing material works well.

Next steps

These methods work.

They’ve formed the backbone of my journey from struggling to get by, to consistently making more than $250k / year in net profit as a freelancer, while working less and having more control over the projects I select.

So where should you start?

In my experience, it’s much easier to get leads flowing in quickly via the above two methods than the ones we’ll cover next week: networking and thought leadership.

However, the leads are likely to be lower quality, and you’re going to close fewer of them.

I recommend that the earlier in your career you are and/or the more desperate for work you are, the more time you dedicate over the next few weeks or months to the above two items.

The one exception is a particular kind of networking where we’ll follow up with people you already know, but we’ll cover that in more detail next article.

Regardless of where you start and how long you spend there, the point is that most freelancers should be trying to push up the pyramid over time. The best freelance jobs are definitely to be found via the networking and thought leadership levels, but again, those can take time.

That said, if you’re blessed with an abundance of time, money, patience, etc, then it probably makes sense to accelerate the shift up the pyramid towards networking and thought leadership activities.

Let me close by saying again that if you’re a designer or developer, there is no easier or faster way to handle the prospecting piece than the LetsMakeApps.io service. You’ll get the best freelance leads from around the web in your inbox, turning a 2-hour daily chore into a 10-minute breeze. Just signup below 🙂

Get Leads In Your Inbox

First, I have a little guide I’ve put together on the ten or so lessons that I learned (and re-learned) on the way to my first million dollars from freelance. It’s a quick read, no more than 30 mins or so, but I hope it’ll give you some things to think about.

Second, you’ll also get the daily LetsMakeApps.io lead service for developers and designers. Every day, we comb through thousands of freelance gigs across 100+ sites and channels, and hand-pick the best ones to email to you. I use this myself, and it’ll save you hours every week.

This is the easiest way to get started with dramatically increasing your lead volume right now.