How to build a pipeline of freelance leads — Part 2

In the last article I talked about the first two levels on the “pyramid of biz dev” activities, which are prospecting and promoting.

Now I’d like to talk about the top two levels, which are networking and thought leadership.

Both of these deserve (and will get) full guides of their own, but this is some broad overview stuff to think about.

Networking

Now, I know networking is a dirty word in many circles. For me, it conjures up images of schmoozy people at events who are clearly just running around collecting business cards.

That’s not what I mean by networking.

When I say networking, I mean two different things:

  1. Building connections with others in industry and with networks of potential clients who may hire you in the future, or who may refer clients to you.
  2. Reaching out regularly to your existing contacts, especially former clients, potential clients, etc, to see how they’re doing, share useful info, ask if they or anyone they know needs your services, etc.

Just think of networking as intentionally building and maintaining professional relationships for mutual benefit.

The “maintaining” part is important, as is the “mutual benefit” part.

Also, #2 is really a mix of networking, promoting, and prospecting, but I put it here 🙂

While #1 is very valuable and can catapult you into a new level of freelance success, it’s something that takes time, is uncertain, and is hard to quantify.

But #2 is much quicker and easier and something you should start doing today, if you’re not already. It’s probably the best, most reliable way for you to get good work quickly.

The real value here isn’t in the contacts you make, it’s in the relationships you build over time.

And to do that effectively, you need a follow-up system.

You need a follow-up system

If you’ve been freelancing for awhile, you’ve probably swapped emails, phone calls, and in-person meetings with dozens of people in your industry. Whether it’s fellow freelancers, past clients, potential clients, or just general business contacts, these are the easiest place for you to get work fast.

The hardest thing about landing a new client isn’t closing the deal, it’s getting any response at all. How many random emails from “internet strangers” do you reply to?

But if you’ve already talked to someone in the past, you’re not a random person anymore.

I used to think that there was no point in reaching out to past contacts to see if they needed my services.

“They know I’m here; if they need me, they’ll reach out.”

WRONG!

Think of it like this: I have worked with dozens of other developers and designers over the years on various projects. But if you asked me to name three designers right now, I’d really struggle to think of three names without checking old emails, etc.

I just have too much going on to maintain detailed lists of all the different professionals I know and what their status is.

But I need designers all the time! If any one of those designers I’ve worked with emailed me every few months to just check in, share some value, see how things are going, do you think I’d remember their name next time I need a designer? Hell yes.

Also, don’t restrict yourself to professional contacts. I’ve gotten great referrals because friends and family know what I do, and then bumped into someone who had a friend with a cousin starting an app startup, and my name wound its way to them. It’s ridiculously unpredictable how these kinds of intros are made, so just try and make sure your name is out there floating around 🙂

So, this doesn’t have to be complicated, but it’s definitely valuable.

Keep it simple, just follow these tips:

  • If you’re not sure they’ll recognize your name, but you you’ve conversed before via email, reply on the last email thread so they have context for who the hell you are
  • Be warm and personal, but don’t be smarmy and pretend like you’re randomly popping up for no reason at all. Be honest about why you’re reaching out.
  • Keep it short
  • Try to avoid open-ended questions that the person might feel obligated to take a bunch of time to answer
  • Don’t sound desperate! That said, there’s nothing wrong with asking people if they know of anyone who might need you! Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed; this is a business, you’re here to help people with your services.

Here’s an example of the type of email I send out all the time. In fact, I sent one like this a week or two ago to a fellow freelance developer, and we have a follow up call scheduled to talk more:


Hi Mike,

Haven’t chatted in awhile, how’s NYC? I recently moved to Nashville, actually…pretty crazy change :)

Just wanted to touch base and see how business is for you. I’m planning out the next 3-6 months and wondering if you know anyone who might need mobile app dev services? Would appreciate any referrals you might have :)

Let’s grab coffee again next time I’m in NYC!

Ryan

Or let’s say that I put in a bid for a job, but they decided to go with someone else. I might say something like this:


Hi Jason,

It’s been a few months since we chatted, just wanted to touch base and see how the project is going. I’m building out my schedule for Q4 and I still have some availability if you have any mobile app dev coming up. Thanks!

Ryan

Most of these will go nowhere at first, but that’s OK. You just want to get on people’s radar and then stay there. Over time, when anyone thinks of [SERVICE YOU OFFER], your name will be the first that pops into their head.

By the way, I use Contactually to keep track of all my contacts and when I should follow up with them. So I have some folks that I try and touch base with every month, and others that are every 3 months or every 6 months. Just depends on the relationship.

Your follow up system is a key part of long-term success as a freelancer. Having relationships in business doesn’t just mean people that you see for coffee every week. You can get tremendous value from the long-tail of a very broad and shallow network. Those “weak ties” that you touch base with once or twice a year are still very valuable in aggregate.

Oh, one more thing: don’t be a taker. Spend a lot of time thinking about who you know and how you can connect people in your network that might be helpful to each other. I frequently ask people that I meet with “how can I help you?” and then I really do try and listen to what they say. Frequently, what they need most is not something I can provide, but I know someone who can.

Building your local network

As a freelancer, you’re part of a global pool of talent. There are a ton of advantages from this: you can work for clients anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world, there’s a huge number of interesting clients and projects available out there, etc.

But it also comes with a significant downside: you’re competing with the rest of that global pool of talent, and that can be tricky to do well, without seeing your rates plummet.

So don’t compete globally! The world is packed with people who don’t want to hire someone they can’t meet with face-to-face. I don’t think that’s usually justified, but whatever, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of it.

It can often be much easier to land good contracts by meeting the right people in your own backyard. But you can’t do this from behind your computer, you need to get out there and meet people. Go to local tech meetups, startup events, etc. Even trade shows and events put on by industry groups, your local Chamber of Commerce, etc. can be a great way to meet potential clients. Yes, some of the local businesses will want to pay peanuts, but you might be surprised what some local businesses spend on freelance dev, design, writing, etc these days.

I would concentrate your networking efforts for the first week on the follow up stuff I talked about above, but for the next few weeks after that, try and get out to a local event every week. Start with meetups of people like you if possible, because you’ll feel more comfortable.

Social networking and cold outreach

The other two things I would mention for networking are social media and cold outreach. Both can be extremely effective for the right person, but if they’re not you, that’s fine.

Personally, I’ve really had mixed results with both. I’ve found a few things that work that I don’t hate doing, but I’m not going to detail them out here, because this post is already long enough.

As with all of the biz dev activities, you’re going to have to try some different things before you find the mix of strategies that work for your industry, your experience, and your personality.

Thought leadership

I want to spend a little extra time here on the concept of thought leadership, because the idea of “thought leadership” is a mindset that you need to start infusing your entire career with.

Let’s back up a bit and think of the different kinds of freelancers out there.

The lowest-value form of freelancing is where you’re just labor. Someone needs a task performed that they could do themselves or easily find someone to do, but instead they hire you. You can make a living this way, but it’s not easy, fun, or glamorous. Examples might be housecleaning or basic administrative work. Please note that I’m not denigrating these types of freelancers, just pointing out that it’s hard to make a lucrative career out of it.

Moving up the ladder a bit, you have freelancing where you have a specialized skill (like web development) that your client lacks, and you perform that skill for them. Most of the people reading this are probably in this bucket. By and large, you’re doing things that your clients probably couldn’t do for themselves, unless they’re also specialists with similar knowledge and skills.

Most of us spend a lot of time and energy trying to move up within this category of “specialist freelancer”, trying to pick a more narrow niche to specialize in to differentiate ourselves, developing deeper and deeper skillsets within those niches, building our network and brands around that, etc. Ideally, this allows us to charge more as we add more value. This is objectively a good thing, and a big part of why I’ve been able to grow my business to a sustained level of high success.

However, thought leadership is another level above that of having an in-demand skill that you perform for clients. If you’re a thought leader, you have a brand and reputation around teaching and advising about that skill to others, as well as performing it.

For example, I’m an iOS developer, and my clients are typically startups who hire me to help them build and launch their MVP. I’m a specialist within that niche, and I’ve built up a lot of knowledge, experience, connections, and wisdom around how to do that best.

But until recently, I’ve done a poor job at teaching other people to do those things, why they matter, etc.

This is terrible for me, because when I approach a new client, they think “oh, here’s an experienced iOS developer”.

That’s nice, but the ideal would be for them to approach me, because “holy $&@%, it’s Ryan Waggoner, and he literally wrote the book on building mobile MVPs!”

That’s a bit extreme, but you get my drift. If I was a thought leader in my current niche, I would own the space of “iOS developer for mobile-focused startups who need an MVP”. When people thought of that, they’d think of me, or they’d find me quickly if they were looking for that. And then they would approach me.

By the way, there’s an aspect of this that seems unfair to me. I know people who are “thought leaders” within their particular niche or space who are definitely not the most skilled or experienced practitioners of their craft. Even they would agree. But they’re still far more in-demand than the best in their field, and they command ultra-premium rates as a result. I know good programmers who literally charge 10x more than great programmers far more skilled, primarily because they’ve been very good about building a reputation for themselves.

That’s not fair. If you’re the best in the world at some task, you should get paid the most in the world.

But the problem is that there’s no directory where you can go look up who the best in the world is at any particular task. If you want to assess someone’s quality and you’re not a specialist of the same type, you often have to rely on a bunch of really crummy signals.

A huge signal for most people is how popular and successful and knowledgable someone seems. If you see someone on stage at a conference talking about mobile UX, and they’ve had big name clients hire them, and they’re constantly being published and sought after as a speaker around that topic, you probably are going to assume they’re at the top of their field. Unless you’re a specialist in the same field, it’s hard to evaluate their skill level directly.

One way to look at this is that it’s not fair. But another way is to realize that these people are giving away a lot of value every day through the knowledge and experience that they’re sharing and teaching. That generosity comes back to them in the form of ever-more-lucrative engagements, which lets them learn more that they can share and teach to others. It’s a virtuous cycle.

So please don’t take any of this as advice to be crummy at your craft. You should always be striving to do excellent work and be great at what you do. But if you’re like most freelancers I know, you’re already good enough to be making much more than you are. What’s holding you back is your lack of reputation, because you’re not sharing and teaching what you’ve learned.

By the way, you’re reading this right now because in the last year, I realized that I’ve learned a tremendous amount about building a successful freelance business, but I’ve done a poor job sharing that knowledge. I’m not the most successful freelancer in the world, far from it. But I’ve done pretty well, learned a lot of things along the way, and there’s a lot of value in me sharing that and building an audience around that.

So that’s why you need to strive for thought leadership.

But how do you do it?

To teach well, you need to learn to communicate effectively. Writing and speaking are the two most important ways of doing that, and likely where you should focus your efforts.

How to become a great writer and / or a great speaker are well beyond the scope of this guide, but I would urge you to try and get better at both.

It doesn’t have to be a huge thing in the beginning, either. You could start just by teaching some people one-on-one what you’ve learned. At first, you should just start teaching the things that you’ve learned in your craft. Here are some ideas for easy ways to do that:

  • Make some screencasts showing what you do and why, and put them on Youtube
  • Write a blog post every week answering a question that clients frequently ask
  • Reach out to smaller blogs and podcasts in your niche and ask about being interviewed about your craft
  • Give a short talk or demo at a local tech event or meetup
  • Send out a tweet every day with something you’ve learned that day
  • Post frequently on a forum related to your niche, getting comfortable with sharing your knowledge
  • Write a 3-5 part guide over the course of a month on how to accomplish a larger task, and post on your site or something like Medium

Just pick one or two and do them for a few weeks. See what kind of reaction you get. And notice that it might be harder than you expect; I’ve found that teaching the concepts I know inside and out to a new audience can sometimes be difficult, but it forces me to better organize my thoughts.

But beyond the direct ways that you can apply thought leadership, you should try and infuse all of your sales and marketing activities with the same principle of teaching your skill, adding value from the very beginning, and demonstrating expertise.

Even when you’re prospecting and replying to a freelance job post, you should be positioning yourself as a thought leader. Include a link to relevant blog posts or screencasts that you’ve produced, or suggest tools or resources that the poster might find relevant to the project they’re hiring for.

Conclusion

I’ve really only scratched the surface here of the different activities that make up the biz dev pyramid, but I hope it’s given you some ideas and things to think about.

How should you divide up your time between prospecting, promoting, networking, and thought leadership?

That depends on your pipeline and your preferences.

If you’re booked up and don’t anticipate having trouble getting work in the next six months, I’d focus most of my time on networking and thought leadership. They take longer to get right and see results from, but they’re key to catapulting you to the next level of freelance success.

On the other hand, if you need more work, better paying work, or just better clients, I’d focus on prospecting and promoting to start, because they’re easier to get working, and having a lot of leads gives you a better shot at finding some good ones in there.

I’m putting together a full guide on building a biz dev system as a freelancer, along with step-by-step directions on the tactics that have worked for me and other freelancers I know.

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